A Time to Reap


Tree and Flower Awards, Post-Lord of the Rings, First Place
Tree and Flower Awards Nominee


A Time to Reap

 
 
 

 

 

 

feat04_10.jpg picture by lindahoyland

The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate

With grateful thanks to Raksha

When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” Hosea 1.1

Out of Egypt have I called my son.” – Mathew 2.15b – The Bible

August 2FA

Chapter One

Arwen sat alone in her chamber, a letter clasped in her hand. Damrod had personally handed it to her that morning with the whispered request that she give it her most urgent attention. For at least the fifth time, since it had been delivered to her, she scanned the parchment and read, in Éowyn’s skittering hand:

“Dearest Arwen,

I trust all is well with you, Aragorn and Eldarion. We are preparing for the harvest here in Ithilien. Elestelle seems to grow fairer with each passing day, if that is possible. She now has four teeth, which I only discovered when she bit me while I was suckling her; they came through with so little fuss.

Elbeth is still proving rather high-spirited, but she is a good child and I have grown fond of her. She has a kind hand with horses and is a fearless rider. She is also a diligent pupil in reading and writing, and has her uncle's head for languages. She often asks about her ‘Strider’.

I am letting the stallions run with the mares this summer, now that our home is established here. With luck, we will have several fine foals by this time next year. I hope to send you one as a gift for your stables, especially as Éomer sent me a proven broodmare, Snowflower, sired by Snowmane, who should produce swift and beautiful offspring fit for a queen! (Snowflower is Hasufel's half-sister, and carried Erkenbrand to the Pelennor, after which he retired her; you noticed her on your first journey to Meduseld. She has already produced a worthy daughter who inherited her silver-white colour, which I know you would like)

I wanted to tell you what good tidings we had before I come to the main reason for writing to you now. I am very worried about Faramir. I can see all too well that he is pining for Aragorn. Given the strength of the bond between them, I fear he will fade if this rift between them is not healed. He is a most devoted husband and father; but without Aragorn, he is like a plant bereft of sunlight. Even the sturdiest of trees cannot survive too long in the shade.

My friend, I implore you to use your influence with the King to soften him towards my husband. Faramir bitterly regrets the hurt his seeming betrayal caused Aragorn, but never was he faithless in his heart. I know you believe in his innocence, from our conversation before we departed Minas Tirith.

Faramir does not, and must not know, that I have asked you to intercede on his behalf. If I question him, he says only that his lord has been magnanimous beyond all measure in letting him keep his lands and titles and he is filled with gratitude. I know, though how his heart aches. He prized Aragorn’s affection and friendship far above all lands and titles.

I too am heart sore to see my husband thus afflicted. I miss your companionship too, my friend. I hope circumstances will soon permit you to visit us.

Your most loyal subject, and loving friend, Éowyn.

The Queen finally cast aside the letter and sighed deeply, reflecting on her own husband’s plight. Truth to tell, she had been about to pen a near identical missive to Éowyn.

Despite all her loving care and the healing ministrations of her brothers whom she had urgently summoned to Minas Tirith, Aragorn was still a shadow of his former self. Even the company of Legolas and Gimli, who had cut short a sojourn in Eryn Lasgalen to hasten to his side, had failed to raise her Estel's spirits.

The once vigorous man had become morose and withdrawn. It seemed as if his spirit had lost some vital spark. Arwen feared that Aragorn's soul had been even more deeply scarred than his body. He attended to the duties of kingship, but struggled to get though each day. He repeatedly crumbled athelas into a bowl of hot water, claiming the air needed freshening. Arwen knew better; it was an attempt to ease his heavy heart. Yet the herb's effects would last only an hour or two then Aragorn would relapse into sorrow and restlessly pace his chambers.

Elladan and Elrohir were baffled at Aragorn’s failure to recover. Apart from the brand, which disfigured his shoulder, their foster-brother's body appeared sound enough. They were equally bewildered why the repeated mud baths he was taking, seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the painful and ugly scar.

Aragorn became increasingly impatient at his Elven brethren’s unsuccessful efforts to heal him.  Helpless to aid their foster brother, the twins departed to visit to the Elven colony Legolas had founded in Ithilien, to hear the sounds of Elvish while still staying within a day's summons from the sorrowing King. Arwen had begged her husband to accompany Elladan and Elrohir, believing that the trip to Legolas' fair woodland might soothe him, but he had refused. Arwen sadly understood that it was not a lack of interest in the Elven haven that caused Aragorn's almost angry refusal. The King could not journey through Ithilien to visit his Elven friends without stopping to see Ithilien's Prince on the way; to do otherwise would be a grave breach of courtesy as well as protocol. The King could still not bear the sight of his Steward.

The twins had left the City two weeks ago, and yet tarried with the Tawarwaith. writing to Arwen frequently to ask how Aragorn fared. She still had no good answer for them.

Taking a deep breath, Arwen folded Éowyn’s parchment and thrust it inside her gown. Aragorn tried hard to be gentle in his wife’s company and she knew she would never have cause to fear his temper. However, she was not looking forward to confronting him over Faramir, for whenever she raised the question of the Steward’s unofficial exile, Aragorn would hastily change the subject.

The Queen found her husband in his study, hunched over a pile of paperwork. He rose to his feet to embrace her when she entered, a flicker of joy in his weary eyes.

How fares the Realm of Gondor this day?” she asked.

“It barely survives. If the rains do not come soon, I fear we shall be faced with the prospect of drought and famine,” he replied morosely, returning to his desk. ”I have no head for this paperwork. I need to estimate what water supplies we have in the City. Imrahil will have to assist me again.”

“You need Faramir to help you.” Arwen came straight to the point.

“His loyalty is still suspect. How could I ever trust him again, after what he did to me? I cannot!” Aragorn said curtly, refusing to meet her eyes.

“How can he regain your trust while he stays in exile?” Arwen persisted gently.

“He is better off away from wagging tongues in Ithilien, “ Aragorn countered. “I do allow him to return when he is needed.”

“I think you should recall him or tongues will wag more than ever,” said Arwen. ”While it is the season for harvest, the City is quiet. Now would be the perfect time to send for him. After all, he is still your Steward. Remember that he saved your life and throne!”

“I know,” said Aragorn his voice almost a whisper. “For that, I owe him everything. Yet always this gets in the way!” His tone became bitter. Pressing his hand to his shoulder, he grimaced at the stab of pain, which suddenly pierced him.

“Please, my love, let him return for longer than a Council Meeting or official function, if not for yourself, for the good of Gondor, and to please me! The longer you leave it the harder it will be. I beg of you, Estel!”

Aragorn finally looked into the depths of her beautiful grey eyes and saw only love and concern reflected therein. He could deny her nothing. “Very well,” he sighed. “The Steward may return.”

Arwen threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Estel, “ she said kissing him tenderly. “I am sure you will feel better when you are reunited.”

“We shall see, but I very much doubt it,” Aragorn replied without enthusiasm.

***

“It is late, you should come to bed now, Faramir!” Éowyn pleaded. Clad in her nightgown and clutching a candle in her hand, she stood in the open doorway of her husband’s study. He sat at his desk, surrounded by a mountain of papers.

“I will come soon. I must finish this draft of the treaty with the Easterlings, so I can work solely on my recommendations for the King's new appointments to Council.”

“Surely you can finish the treaty tomorrow before you leave,” Éowyn questioned.

“I dislike going to bed with the kingdom's work unfinished,” Faramir protested. ”Since it is the one duty my lord seems to still trust me to do, I must do it properly. Then, I need to have a bath.”

“I thought you had one this morning?” Éowyn frowned. “Is your back paining you again? How I wish Aragorn were treating you! Shall I try to ease it for you when you come to bed?”

“No, my love, I am well,” Faramir inwardly cursed himself for revealing his weakness. “I have only had the occasional twinge these past months. It is the heat, it makes me feel sticky.”

“Well, why do you insist on always wearing such a thick, heavy nightshirt to bed then?” Éowyn demanded.

“You know it was always my custom my love,” Faramir replied. ”But you are right. I will have the tailors send for some lighter cloth.”

“You should wear silk instead of linen in summer,” Éowyn urged.

“You look fair in silk, my lady but I do not!” Faramir said; smiling at the vision his beautiful wife presented in her almost transparent white silk nightgown, her golden hair tumbling around her shoulders, shining in the candle's glow. ”I will join you just as soon as I have read through the provisions on trade once more.”

“You are merely trying to delay coming to bed until you are too exhausted to dream,” Éowyn retorted. “I can see through you easily, husband! What troubles you so?” She went over to his desk and added her candle to those already burning on the table. She then came to stand behind her lord, resting her hands on his tense shoulders.

“Almost every time I close my eyes, I see the King crying out in pain while I stand there with my hand raised against him. I see Gondor aflame and falling to ruin through my weakness!” Faramir answered, finally turning to face her. "Despite my good intentions, I still betrayed my King and the oath I swore to him. I have forfeited my honour forever in his eyes.”

“Aragorn will forgive you one day.” Éowyn said soothingly. “All will be as it was before, if only you allow it! I am certain that he still loves you as one of his own kin.”

“I see the hurt and bewilderment in his eyes still. Even my uncle believes me devoid of honour, and has cut me off from all his house, save the revenues from my mother's dower lands.” Faramir replied. “I was not vigilant enough to secure the realm that I steward. I must see it never happens again. And if I am still dear to the King, why will he not let me come to him?”

“I believe Aragorn thought it would be better for you to stay in your own domain until the rebellion faded from the people's memory,” Éowyn soothed.

“The people will always remember me as the treacherous Steward who was lucky not to hang!” Faramir exclaimed bitterly. He rubbed his eyes as he spoke.

“You should not fret so,” Éowyn chided. “You saved the King at great risk to yourself. What would have happened if you had not gone to that cursed lodge and pretended to join in those fiends' treachery? They would have tortured Aragorn to death! Eldarion would have been left fatherless, and all of Gondor would have suffered."

“How can you ever understand the full horror of my deeds?” Faramir asked sadly.

“I do understand that you are so weary that you will no doubt draft a law transferring power to your hounds if you work any longer tonight!” Éowyn said firmly. “Come to bed now. I promise I will wake you if you have another nightmare. I am sure you will find Aragorn in a better mood when you see him again.”

“I wish I could stay here with you, rather than return to the City tomorrow,” Faramir said gloomily.

Éowyn raised her eyebrows; “You honour me, but I thought your heart lay in the City of your birth. Then what of Aragorn? He has need of you.”

“I see in my people’s eyes that they consider me a traitor!” Faramir said sadly. “I have lost what I held most dear, my reputation, and the love of a man who is the greatest of our age!”

Éowyn grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, not noticing how he flinched. “You should not heed idle gossip!” she chided. “They will soon find better occupation for their loose, spiteful tongues! I do not think Aragorn bears a grudge against you; he is too great a man. If he seems remote at times, he is still recovering from his ordeal. Come to bed, my love, you ride out early tomorrow at noon and must rise early.”

“Very well but I must bathe first!” Faramir rose to his feet sighing and blew out the candles, then allowed his wife to lead him unresisting to their chambers. “How can Aragorn ever trust me again?"

“You are weary and overwrought. Put such dark thoughts aside and rejoice that soon you will see the King again,” said Éowyn. ”Tomorrow you will see him and the City you love once more.”

Chapter Two _ A Dinner of herbs

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. – Proverbs 15.17 – The Bible.

An uncomfortable silence reigned in the King’s private dining room that felt almost as oppressive as the heat of the waning day. At the head of the table sat Aragorn with Arwen to his right. Faramir sat beside the Queen, who could not decide whether the Steward or her husband looked the more ill at ease. Despite the excellent food, finely crafted tableware, and comfortable furnishings, it seemed that the lowliest peasant would tonight dine with more ease than Gondor’s King and Steward.

“Did you have a pleasant journey from Ithilien this afternoon?” Arwen enquired of Faramir, in a desperate bid to break the silence.

“Yes, my lady, I thank you for enquiring. It was most pleasant,” Faramir replied, crumbling the bread in his hand so hard that it disintegrated before he could dip it in to the bowl of tomato soup set before him.

“How fares Éowyn?” Arwen asked, determined to make further conversation. She looked pointedly at her husband, silently willing him to say something.

“She is well, thank you, my lady,” Faramir said without looking up from his meal.

Arwen nudged her husband with her elbow, almost causing him to drop his spoon.

Aragorn glared at her, then cleared his throat noisily. “And how is your daughter, Lord Faramir?” he queried.

“She is well too, thank you. I trust Eldarion is also in good health.” Faramir replied without meeting Aragorn’s eyes.

“He is very well and growing by the day.” Aragorn replied, briefly regarding his Steward with an unreadable expression, before returning his attention to the soup. “How is Elbeth faring?” he enquired.

“She is well, thank you, sire. She did ask me to convey her greetings to her dear Strider and tell you that she now has a ginger kitten of her own.”

Aragorn managed a faint smile at these tidings. “You must convey my greetings to her on your return,” he said.

Silence ensued.

“Is Elestelle not cutting her teeth yet?” asked Arwen sweetly; hoping another question concerning their beloved children might draw forth more of a dialogue between the two men. ”Eldarion already has eight teeth and I think my poor babe has another coming, for he is fretting a good deal at present.”

“I believe my daughter has four teeth. Éowyn informed me that she had bitten her while she was feeding and that they were very sharp!” Faramir suddenly flushed scarlet at the realisation of having revealed such delicate information.

Arwen winced involuntarily at the memory of a similar incident. She smiled reassuringly at the Steward. “I believe all babies try out their teeth on their mothers at least once!” she said.

“Éowyn said that too, my lady,” Faramir replied.

A further and increasingly uncomfortable silence ensued.

“How are your horses?” Arwen enquired desperately, wondering if she would be forced to enquire after the mice in the barn to keep the conversation flowing. “I heard that you rode Zachus today rather than your mare.”

“Éowyn suggested that Iavas should mate with one of the stallions this summer in the hope that she will produce a foal,” Faramir replied, again looking uncomfortable.

“It is good to have you back in Minas Tirith, Faramir. We have missed you, have we not, Estel?” Arwen said, after several more minutes of silence and again digging Aragorn with her elbow.

“Many matters needing your attention have arisen while you were away from the City,” the King said, deliberately evading her question.

“I assure you, my lord, that I have been working hard during my time in Emyn Arnen.” Faramir sounded a trifle hurt. ”Have you heard aught of Anborn and my other men, sire? Surely they did not disappear without a trace?”

“Nothing has been heard,” Aragorn said curtly. “A message would have been sent to you, were there any tidings of their whereabouts. You would do best to presume them dead and see that their families are provided for.”

“I already have,” the Steward replied. “I just hoped that their loved ones could at least have their bodies to bury. I wish that…” His voice trailed away.

“Such are the fortunes of war,” Aragorn said curtly. “I enquired of Fontos of Lossarnach ere he left to go into exile, and Dervorin of Ringlo Vale prior to his execution, but they could tell me nothing. I have done all I can concerning your men.”

“And you accepted those traitors' words?" Faramir protested. “My lord, Anborn and his company were good men!”

“Indeed they were, good men under your command, “ Aragorn retorted. “I shall have their names recorded as having died for Gondor.” He pushed his still half full dish away and lapsed into silence again.

Arwen gave her husband a look, warning him that if he failed to make conversation, he would hear about it from her later.

“We must discuss the new structure for the Council, that you have been working on,” said Aragorn. “I have studied the documents you have been sending to me. I think we should offer more seats to the merchants, though.”

“Indeed, my lord, “ Faramir replied, sounding a little more animated. “I believe they could share an equal number of seats with the Captains of my Rangers and your Tower Guard but we should not forget the craftsmen either.”

“The healers should be included, “ said Aragorn. “I must also decide whether I may appoint folk who are not born in Gondor or Arnor but now dwell within our borders.”

Usually, Arwen would have frowned at the notion of discussing matters of state over dinner. Today, she heaved a sigh of relief.

As the final course was brought to the table, her husband and Faramir were still discussing whether or not anyone born in born in Rohan could be invited to serve on the Council. At least the men were speaking to each other, though in a way better suited to a meeting than a quiet dinner for supposed friends. Arwen surreptitiously studied both men as they picked at their food, eating little. She noticed sadly how their handsome carven features, a sign of the shared blood of her uncle's race, seemed far more careworn. They were, nay, are; she corrected herself firmly, deeply attached to each other. But the horrors of the past months, when Aragorn had been imprisoned and tortured, while Faramir had pretended to join his tormentors in order to rescue his lord, still lay heavily upon them.

Aragorn had issued a proclamation to clear Faramir of all wrongdoing and retained him as his Steward. Still, there had been a high price to pay. Aragorn no longer trusted Faramir, his friend's seeming betrayal and actual cruelty weighing heavily on his scarred soul.

Faramir fared little better. Rumour abounded that the King had only cleared his Steward's name in order to secure his own position. The Southern Kingdom had been ruled by Faramir’s long fathers for nigh on a thousand years. Faramir was wed to the King of Rohan's sister, a union that strengthened the alliance of Rohan and Gondor originally woven by their ancestors. The execution or exile of Faramir could not help but tear the threads in that alliance, or so the gossips thought. And though they were malicious, they were not wholly wrong. Éomer had sworn to support whatever decision Aragorn made on Faramir's fate, but the young Horse-lord would have surely been at the very least saddened to have his sister and niece shamed, and the proud House of Eorl sullied, by kinship to a named traitor.

The Steward looked wretched and Arwen realised all too clearly that Éowyn’s fear of her husband fading seemed all too real. She knew Faramir loved Aragorn; not only as his liege lord, but also as a close friend and the kindly father Denethor had never been to his younger son. She had never met the late Steward, yet Denethor's demeanour could hardly have been colder was Aragorn's mien tonight.

Once the meal ended, Arwen excused herself briefly to feed her son. The men left the dining room when she stood up and withdrew to their private sitting room. She left them and went to the nursery. When she returned some time later, having settled Eldarion to sleep in the care of his nurse, Arwen found Aragorn seated on the couch sipping a goblet of wine. Faramir sat stiffly on the chair opposite, doing likewise. The tension could hardly have been sharper had Thranduil Oropherion and Thorin Oakenshield themselves sat before her discussing the rights to Smaug's treasure. Both men rose to their feet when she entered. She settled herself on the couch beside Aragorn. The men both sat down again.

“We are having pleasant weather, are we not?” Faramir said turning to his hostess.

“I find the heat wearisome,” said Aragorn. “We badly need rain.”

“I am fortunate as the clime does not trouble me,” said Arwen. “I can only hope that Eldarion will grow up to be the same.”

”Is he sleeping yet?” Aragorn enquired.

“He was sound asleep when I left the nursery,” she replied. “His tooth does not seem to be troubling him tonight.”

“That gladdens my heart,” said Aragorn, sounding relieved.

Silence again ensued.

Faramir rose to his feet. “I will take my leave now, if you will permit me, my lord, my lady?” he said.

“Of course, Faramir, I expect you are weary from your journey, I bid you a restful night,” Arwen said, smiling at him kindly and rising from the couch. He took her extended hand and bowed.

Aragorn rose a moment after his wife. He took a step towards Faramir and made as if to extend his hand then froze. “Goodnight,” he said curtly.

Faramir, his eyes unable to conceal his pain, bowed stiffly to his lord and swiftly took his leave.

Aragorn slumped in his chair and buried his face in his hands once the door shut behind his Steward.

“You were a poor host tonight, Estel! You showed our guest but meagre courtesy,” Arwen chided.

Aragorn sighed; “I am sorry,” he said, “I am so tired, it must be the heat. Bid a servant bring hot water that I may inhale some athelas.”

The Queen sighed, but summoned a maid without further comment. By now, the servants were accustomed to this request and the boiling water arrived almost at once. The girl placed it on the table, curtsied and left.

Aragorn feverishly reached inside his tunic and almost threw the leaves in the bowl, then inhaled deeply of the refreshing odour. Arwen could see that he was trembling slightly. The Queen moved behind him to wrap her arms around her husband and kissed him lovingly. He relaxed slightly at her touch. “What is wrong, beloved?” she asked. “I know that your heart is troubled.”

“I have you and our son. The land is at peace and my throne restored. What more could I need?” Aragorn turned his head to meet her gaze, the deep sorrow in his eyes belying his words.

“You need Faramir’s friendship too,” she said simply.

“He has my goodwill,” Aragorn said curtly. “He should be content that I allowed him to keep both lands and titles.”

“He looks neither well nor happy.” Arwen insisted. “Lands and titles do little to ease an aching heart.”

“He should see a healer while he is in the City then,” said Aragorn, careful to avoid looking at his wife.

”I thought you were his healer,” Arwen reproached him.

“I am no longer a healer. That gift brought me nothing but sorrow,” Aragorn retorted. “Am I to spend my days draining my strength and laying my hands upon those that seek to overthrow me?”

“I do not recall the Lords of Lamedon, Lebennin, and Ringlo Vale ever having sought your skills, “ Arwen said dryly. “Yet there are hundreds in this City alone who owe their lives to you, and love you the more as result. Surely you do not regret all the children you saved from the fever?”

“Of course not, but as I cannot save everyone, it is better that concentrate on being King. I am so weary!”

Arwen looked at him intently, wondering if he feared he lacked the ability to heal, rather than the desire to use it. Healing was so great a part of her husband that he hardly seemed the same man when he was not enthusing about herbs or Elven techniques and then rejoicing over those he had cured.

“Come to bed, my love!” she coaxed. “You should rest now it is cooler.”

“I will only dream!” Aragorn protested, a haunted look in his eyes.

“I will be beside you, there is nothing to fear,” Arwen reassured him. Taking his hand, she led him from the room.

 

Chapter Three - Air! Air! My heart is suffocating!

Luft! Luft!
Mir erstickt das Herz!
Öffne! Öffne dort weit!

(Air! Air! My heart is suffocating! Open! Open wide there!) - Wagner – Tristan und Isolde. Act 1,scene 1.

“No, Faramir, no!” Aragorn cried, his hands flailing wildly at empty air.

“Estel, wake up!” In what had become an all too familiar ritual, Arwen rolled over to her husband’s side of the bed and attempted to rouse him. First she tried calling his name. Then she shook him, though gently. Only when it was apparent that neither of these methods would work, did she dip her fingers in the glass of water on the bedside table and sprinkle a few drops on her husband’s face.

“Whuh? Arwen? ” Aragorn awoke with a start and sat bolt upright, breathing heavily as if he had come straight from battle. The candle, which was now always kept burning throughout the night, starkly illuminated his haggard features.

“You were having a bad dream,” the Queen said quietly, gently stroking his sweat-drenched brow to soothe him.

“I am stifling, I need air!” Aragorn cried.

Arwen quickly moved off the bed and pattered over to the windows. Sighing, she pulled back the curtains and flung open the shutters. A faint, soft breeze wafted into the stuffy room.

Eldarion, roused by his father’s cries and sensing both parents’ distress, started to scream. Arwen lifted the sobbing child from his cradle, and then returned to the bed. With one arm she held her son against her, and wrapped the other around her husband. She could feel Aragorn’s slender body shaking slightly beneath the thin nightshirt he wore. “Hush now!” she soothed, not quite certain whether her husband or child were most in need of comfort.

“I am sorry, vanimelda,” Aragorn said contritely. He reached for the glass of water and drained it.

“Was it that dream again?” Arwen asked.

Aragorn nodded. ”It is always the same; one of the rebel lords is advancing towards me with either a knife or a branding iron; and then they turn into Faramir! I lie bound and helpless, powerless to resist. Somehow I break my bonds. I then draw Andúril; but instead of choosing to spare Faramir, I drive it through his heart! I then stand on the edge of a chasm, and you are holding my hand, keeping me from falling, but I stumble. Faramir, still impaled by my sword, crawls towards me and reaches out a ghostly hand. I cannot grasp it. I plunge into the abyss.” The King shuddered, the horror of the dream still lying heavily upon him.” I think I will change my nightshirt,” he sighed, sliding from her grasp. “I will send for some hot water to steep athelas.”

“You rely too much on the herb,” Arwen cautioned.

“It helps ease me,” Aragorn replied a trifle petulantly. “Maybe then I will get some sleep.”

“The servants need their rest too,” the Queen replied, offering the still howling Eldarion her breast. He had ceased to need feeding during the night several months ago, but she hoped the warm milk might soothe him back to sleep.

“Eldarion will have roused half the household by now!” Aragorn retorted, pulling on his robe and calling for hot water to be brought.

Arwen withheld her reply, then began singing a low, sweet lullaby to their son.

Moments later, Aragorn emerged from his bathing chamber, clad in a fresh nightshirt, and wiping his face with a towel. He took the steaming water from the sleepy-eyed servant at the door, then placed the bowl on the bedside table and steeped the leaves within it. The King’s tense features slowly relaxed as the sweet scent of the herb filled the chamber. He climbed back in bed beside his wife and son.

“It will take time for the nightmares to fade,” Arwen soothed, placing her free arm around him again. “Does your shoulder still pain you?”

“A little,” he answered tersely.

“Let me see; maybe I can ease it for you?” Arwen suggested.

“There is no need, it is not that painful tonight!”

“Why do you still dream about it, if that is so? Come, I would see it!” Releasing her grip on her husband, while still holding a now drowsy Eldarion, Arwen reached to light more candles, flooding the room with light.

Aragorn shook his head. ”No, I will not let my son see me thus! I am too ashamed. I would not give an innocent babe nightmares too!”

“Nonsense!” chided Arwen. “Eldarion is far too young to notice the scar and even if he did, it would scarce trouble him.” Nevertheless, she slid from the bed and carefully put the now sleeping Eldarion back into his cradle.” Your son should grow up familiar with your body; he needs to know whom he will grow up to resemble.”

“He must never see this scar!” Aragorn said adamantly. “It makes me less than a man! When the twins return, I shall ask them to either cut it out or brand something more fitting over the cursed mark, such as the winged crown or the White Tree!”

“Estel!” Arwen exclaimed in horror. ”You cannot! You must not! Why undergo such needless pain? Have you not suffered enough already?"

“I cannot go through life like this!” Aragorn retorted grimly. “Yes, I am weary of pain, but the brand is a humiliation past all endurance.”

"Then let me see it, Estel, please,” Arwen persisted in a quiet, firm voice he could not contradict.

Hesitantly, Aragorn unlaced his nightshirt, reluctant to allow his beautiful, flawless bride to look again upon such ugliness.

Arwen, determined to wait no longer, slid the garment from his shoulders, revealing the scar that so troubled her husband. It was some time since she had seen him thus. It had always been his custom to disrobe in his dressing room, and since his ordeal, he had been more eager than ever to conceal his body from her eyes. She bit back an involuntary cry of dismay at the sight of Aragorn's near naked body. His handsome form was still sadly wasted while the scar appeared angry and inflamed.

“Look!” he exclaimed bitterly, “This is the man you are now wed to, branded like a bullock ready for market! You were dealt a bad bargain indeed, when you renounced your immortality for such a poor stick of a man! If your brothers cannot heal me, there are none that can. How they must pity their sister, bound eternally to a maimed king!”

“Estel!” she chided, “I care nothing for outward appearances.” She traced slender fingers across his shoulders and down his chest, observing that the scar was cool to the touch despite its appearance. “I see only the shoulders that bravely bear the heaviest burden on Arda and the noblest heart that ever beat!” Sadly, she noted that he remained impassive to her touch, when once he would have quivered with desire. She bent to tenderly kiss the disfigurement.

“No!” Aragorn commanded, hastily pulling his nightshirt up to cover himself once more. “You must not sully your lips by letting them touch this mark of evil!”

“Are you sure it is evil?” Arwen queried. ”Might it not be a mark of love?”

“Love?” Aragorn snorted. “A strange kind of love indeed! More like hatred, betrayal, or cowardice!”

“You should not blame Faramir,” Arwen rebuked gently. “Had he not done this, you would never have escaped. I would, by far, rather have you scarred than dead. It was I who told him to do anything to save you, whatever the cost!”

“How can I not blame Faramir, when every day I have to live with the consequences of his actions?” Aragorn responded bitterly. “I have let him return to the City as you begged. I have even allowed him to eat at my table! He knows by my actions that he has my forgiveness. How much more I am expected to do for the man? Must I invite him to sleep beside me, share my thoughts, or perhaps lavish more Elven treatments upon him?”

“That might do you both good,” Arwen said calmly.

“I think not!” Aragorn snapped.

“Time will bring peace to you both; yet, only when you allow it to, shall this wound be healed,” Arwen pronounced cryptically.

“I do not understand you.” Aragorn sounded bewildered.

“You forgive Faramir with your lips, but not with your heart!” Arwen replied.

Aragorn opened his mouth to protest but his wife silenced him.

“If your nightmares did not reveal it, it was all too plain to see at dinner tonight and afterwards. If you truly have forgiven him, why do you deny him your kiss?”

“He does not want it!” Aragorn protested. “He shuns my touch.”

“As you shun his. You fear to touch lest you see in each other’s hearts,” she replied. “You are both hurting too much.”

“There is much that he did he refuses to explain. My memory was clouded during those dark days. I do not even know all that happened to me at his hands!” Aragorn said vehemently. “I do know, though, it was Faramir who branded me and caused me pain!”

“And at what cost to Faramir's own soul? A terrible cost, I fear. I wish I could have spared so bright and pure a soul the darkness to which I doomed him. But there was no other who could have gone willingly into that treasonous web and brought you out alive. But none could have foreseen: just how dark Faramir's path would be.” Arwen blew out all but one of the candles, then lay down and lovingly drew Aragorn into her arms.

“Does Gondor even want a king?“ Aragorn mused. “They survived under the rule of the Stewards for almost a thousand years. Faramir's own father thought me unworthy of my ancestors’ throne. Imrahil told me about the celebration the Steward’s heir threw upon Thorongil’s leaving. Denethor had never before appeared so overjoyed, not even at his wedding feast. It was the talk of the Court for weeks on end: the lavish refreshments and skilled musicians. Denethor was laughing and telling his guests to rejoice! Officially, he was celebrating the defeat of the Corsairs, but he made little attempt to disguise the true reason for his joy.”

“Yet, I heard that everyone, save Denethor alone, were grieved by Thorongil’s departure. Faramir eagerly awaited your coming, and he is wiser by far than his father ever was,” Arwen reminded him. “Your people love you, far more than they ever loved Denethor.”

Aragorn nuzzled against her hair. "I used to dream of becoming king. I even dreamed of Faramir handing the White Rod to me. At first, I only wanted the throne to win your hand. As the long years passed, I wanted it for myself, to give my people a better life by reuniting Arnor and Gondor. I expected years of resistance from the South and East. Never did I believe that my own people would strike against me, and not only once, but twice within one year! Was I too harsh a lord or too lenient a one? I have had to disband half my council! If only Gandalf, or your father, were still here to advise me! The crown is indeed a heavy weight to bear!”

“You will find your own way, Estel and become the greatest of kings!” Arwen reassured him, kissing him tenderly.

“I love you, so much, my Evenstar. Whatever would I do without you?” Aragorn whispered. Relaxing into her tender embrace, his head buried in her silken hair, Aragorn was finally granted a few hours of the restful sleep he desperately needed.

However, he awoke again just before dawn, finding the air in the chamber oppressive. Taking care not to disturb his wife or son, he slid from the bed and putting on his robe, went out on the balcony, where brooding, he paced until the sun rose and he heard Arwen calling him.

While her husband was bathing, Arwen gave Eldarion into the care of his nurse, then made what had become a familiar visit to the Royal Library to consult her father’s books. The Queen had frequently consulted the volumes on healing, ever since their return to Minas Tirith, reading the same passages over and over, as she sought some knowledge that might help her husband. They gave her little solace. And some of the old writings stabbed fear into her heart.

When two who were Thought Bonded become estranged through sorrowful misunderstanding, the souls can sometimes suffer so much damage that both might fade.’ The passage applied to Elves rather than Men, but looking at both Aragorn and Faramir now, especially after last night, she feared greatly that it indeed applied to both.

Turning the page, she perused the suggested remedies. ’Three nights confined together, sealed in a cave might promote a reconciliation,’ she read. That was certainly not a suitable treatment for anyone as fearful of enclosed spaces as Estel had become. ’Wrestling together, preferably naked, will overcome most rifts, ’ the book continued. Arwen hardly knew whether to laugh or cry, at the unlikelihood of two extremely shy Men ever agreeing to such a thing. She turned the page again. ’ The Elven Healing Touch promotes reconciliation and soothes both mind and body,’ the book advised. Foolish advice indeed for two who seemed unable to even clasp hands!

Arwen had to restrain herself from hurling the fragile old text across the room.

Sighing, she picked up another book, a history of the Kings of the Edain, from Elros Tar-Minyatur of Númenor, her father’s beloved brother, to Eärnur, the last King of Gondor. She flicked through it idly, wondering why she had grasped a history instead of another text about healing. She was about to close it and return it to its place, when a passage caught her eye. ’In days past,’ she read with mounting excitement, ‘it was the tradition for the King to go alone to the Hallow upon the Mountain and offer thanks and praise to the One on behalf of his people and seek renewal of his own strength by so doing. Long has this tradition fallen into abeyance but it is foretold that the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Fair was a foremother) will be restored and the worship of the One renewed.’

Eyes aglow, Arwen closed the book. At last, she had an idea.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my
help. - Bible: Psalm 121.1

With grateful thanks to Raksha for all her help with this chapter.

The next morning, when Arwen knew her husband was safely occupied meeting the Ambassador from Khand, she summoned Faramir to her sitting room. Within moments of receiving the message, he presented himself to his Queen.

“My lady,” the Steward bowed low to greet her.

“Do sit down, Faramir. Would you like some iced apple juice?” Arwen gestured to a chair directly opposite hers.

“Thank you, my lady.” Faramir sat down on the edge of the chair, looking ill at ease.

After sending the servants away, Arwen herself poured two goblets of the refreshing liquid from the ewer laid ready on the table. She handed one to the Steward, and then sat studying him for a few moments while he drank. “How are you feeling, Faramir?” she asked after a short silence. “Do not tell me you are well, for I can plainly see that you are not!”

Faramir sighed deeply. His sad grey eyes tried to evade her gaze while he sought a suitable reply.

“Maybe, a better question would be to ask about how you feel concerning Estel’s treatment of you?” she asked shrewdly.

“The King has been most gracious and merciful to me,” Faramir replied steadfastly.

“You do not resent your exile these past months?” the Queen demanded more forcefully.

“No, my lady. Had my father ruled here, it would have gone very differently for me.”

“Would it?” Arwen asked sharply, putting down her glass.

“Indeed, my lady. I would have been executed as a traitor, whatever the reasons for my actions.”

“Are you a traitor? Can Estel truly trust you?” Arwen asked relentlessly, rising to her feet and towering over the Steward.

“My lady, I was ever true in my heart!” Faramir protested, momentarily forgetting that etiquette demanded that he rise too. “Forgive me, my lady,” he said, jumping up and almost knocking over the glass in his agitation. He stood and met her eyes. ”You have the power to read my thoughts, my lady,” he said. “If you doubt my loyalty, I beg of you to sift my heart .You will find no disloyalty there to my lord! Bitterly do I regret causing him pain, but never was I false in my heart! His welfare, and that of Gondor was and is, ever my chief concern.”

Arwen suddenly smiled and took the Steward’s hands between her own. “I believe you, Faramir,” she said gently. “I just needed to be certain before I ask a favour of you. You are a brave man indeed, to be willing to endure my intrusion in your mind despite the pain it caused you before.”

“I would endure any pain to convince you and the King of my faith!” Faramir said fervently. “Ask of me what you will, my lady!”

Arwen refilled their glasses with the now cool, rather than iced juice. She gestured for Faramir to sit as she settled down on her chair again. “You must have noticed that Estel does not look well,” she confided.

Faramir nodded, fear apparent in his eyes.

“My brothers, the finest healers now on Arda, cannot aid him,” she continued. “But I believe that you can.”

“Alas, I am no healer, my lady as Aragorn, um the King well knows.” Faramir looked bewildered.

“Estel is healed in body, but not in soul,” Arwen explained. ”I believe he needs time away from this stone city to restore his spirits. I have been studying the lore of old and believe he needs to seek the guidance of the One by visiting the Hallow on the Mountain, followed by some time of reflection in the wilderness. I would not have him go alone. I believe you are the best person to accompany him. I know you would guard him with your life.”

“Indeed, I would, my lady, and most gladly, but he would not wish for my company.” Faramir said sadly.

“You are the only one who could go with him. Only those of Elendil’s line may visit the Hallow of the Kings.”

“But I am not of royal lineage, “ Faramir protested. “Were the House of Húrin of Elendil’s Line, I believe my longfathers would have claimed the throne of Gondor centuries ago.”

“Maybe those of your Line are not be heirs of Elendil under the law of Gondor, but you would be counted as such in Númenor,” said Arwen. “Anárion had a daughter who was the ancestress of your House. Your lineage may not be as pure as Estel’s, but your family was ultimately of Kingly origin. I have been studying the history of the Húrinionath.”

“Even if I do bear the blood of Elendil in my veins, the King can hardly stand to have me in his sight!” said Faramir somewhat bitterly. “I would follow him to the farthest reaches of Arda, but he would bid me stay in Ithilien!”

“I believe he needs you at his side in order to heal his soul,” the Queen said. “You are Thought Bonded, therefore you require each other in order to be whole. Estel knew that full well, when he offered you that Gift. It is not the natural order of things that those thus bonded should not be in harmony, enjoying each other’s close companionship. That is the main reason why my brothers have lingered here, so that their Bond with me would remain unbroken while I live.

“The King gave me that precious Gift, and yet I could not use it to aid him,” Faramir said sorrowfully. “Maybe it was wasted on me, as my father always said it would be!”

Arwen leaned across and again gripped Faramir’s hand. “Indeed no, mellon nín!” she exclaimed. “Quite the contrary! You have already used the Thought Bond. With further use and practise, you will learn how to use it even better. Remember, Estel has had over seventy years to hone his mental skills. It was quite remarkable that he reached you as he did, after so few months of communicating by thought alone.”

Faramir flushed with pleasure at such praise.

“After you have made your pilgrimage, I would like Estel to ride out into the countryside and travel as a Ranger again for a time, far from the strictures of court life. Alone in the wilds, you will have to depend on each other again. When one has to hunt for one’s food, and constantly search for water, there is little time to brood! As a former Ranger yourself, you will make the ideal companion for him!”

“I will try to be,” Faramir promised, still looking doubtful. “I still do not think he would wish for such a trip in my company!”

“I will persuade him of its importance,” said the Queen. “He cannot plead his duties as excuse not to go. As you well know, after this afternoon’s meeting, the Council will not be held again for several weeks when the remade Council will meet for the first time. Your uncle and I can deal with the daily responsibilities of running the country; both your staff and Estel's have eased the process along the lines you both requested. So he has no reason to refuse my suggestion. You can leave either tomorrow or the day after. You have a good horse with you, have you not?”

“Yes, my lady. Zachus is a fine mount, though not much to look upon.”

Arwen smiled, remembering how invaluable the supposed carthorse had been in rescuing her husband.

“One final thing, Faramir, as yet, I would rather Estel did not know of this conversation. It would be wise to feign some reluctance when he asks you to accompany you.”

“Yes, my lady,” Faramir replied, wondering how many more deceptions the Queen would demand of him for Aragorn’s good. But the shaft had already flown from the bow on that matter. At least, this time, the deception was a mild one and would aid in Aragorn's healing, rather than cause any injury.

The Queen rose to her feet. So too, did Faramir, flinching slightly as he moved.

Arwen wondered if she should insist the Steward see a healer before departing. She decided it perhaps it would be better to leave Faramir as he was. She had trodden on Faramir's pride enough for one day, and he was strong enough to walk and ride, which was all that would be required of him.

“May the Stars light your way! ” Arwen again grasped Faramir’s hand as she blessed him.

Taking leave of the troubled Steward, the Queen returned to the nursery where she had left Eldarion in his nursemaid's charge. It had been a gamble to first tell Faramir of her plan, but now there could be no turning back.  Already she wondered however she could persuade her husband to go.

She knew she would miss him greatly and worry about his safety. However, she was wise enough to know that this might be the only way that the vigorous man she married could be restored to her.

How could she sit idly by, watching her Estel fade as his confidence ebbed and his suspicions rose with each long day and restless night? The accursed traitors had not only weakened his bond with Faramir, but had sucked out Estel's ability to trust both himself and his people.

She thought sadly of her mother, now healed and happy in Elvenhome, but forever lost to her. Of late, Arwen's troubled thoughts had focussed more and more on Celebrian's suffering, raising her own unvoiced fears. She knew only too well that a damaged body could be healed far more easily than a tortured mind. To send Aragorn into the wilds with only Faramir to companion him would incur a certain risk. Yet to do nothing, would surely expose her beloved husband to even greater peril.

***

Aragorn paced the living room relentlessly. He then strode over to the window and leaned out, for perhaps the twelfth time that day. He gazed morosely towards the mountains, their peaks rising above the haze shrouded City. Having spent most of his life in the North, he found the heat in Minas Tirith well nigh unbearable, but never more so than at present.

Arwen, much better able to endure extremes of temperature, sat calmly fanning her baby son. “What do you seek?” she enquired.

“To see if there be any sign of rain; but there is none.”

”The rain will surely come soon.”

“I cannot even go and swim in the river, lest any man see me as I am now!” Aragorn complained, then sighed. “These walls are crushing me!”

Arwen realised he was giving her the perfect opportunity to put her plan into action.

The King paced the room again, then, frustrated; pounded the table with his fist, causing a pearl-inlaid silver vase to wobble precariously. Arwen grabbed the vase and steadied it. The vase, now filled with fresh flowers, was a family heirloom, made in Menegroth for the wedding of Celeborn and Galadriel, and later passed lovingly to their daughter, and finally to their grand-daughter. She took a deep breath. “I have read that when the Kings of old were troubled, they would go to the Hallows in the mountains and seek the blessing of the One,” said Arwen. “Why do you not take Faramir to the place where our new Tree was born, and seek peace together?”

“I can never find peace! “ Aragorn snapped. “Too much has happened. Faramir has changed and so have I. Why speak of Faramir? Only those of the line of Elendil should visit that sacred place!”

”Gandalf walked there with you, so why not your Steward?” Arwen replied. “He too bears the blood of Westernesse in generous measure. His descent through Anárion’s daughter makes him the scion of Kings, and thus permitted to set foot in the Holy Places! Now go and play at being Rangers again with Faramir for awhile, before you drive me to distraction!” the Queen commanded.

Aragorn stopped pacing, surprised at her words. “There is nothing I would like better than walk alone in the wilds. Alas, I no longer have that freedom!” he sighed. "I will breathe some athelas vapour. The herb always lightens  my spirits.”

“You have done little else but inhale athelas these past months; yet still your heart is heavy,” Arwen retorted. “You can be spared from the daily responsibilities of kingship while everyone is occupied with the harvest. Faramir's staff and your own have worked together well in the past. And I assure you that after almost five hundred years as the Lady of Rivendell, I am quite capable of hosting the visiting ambassadors and trade delegations. Imrahil has been a diplomat and negotiator for most of his life, and he will stay by my side. It is not as if you would accomplish much work in your present state, for you are too restless! Go and ask Faramir to ascend the mountain with you! You will at least be cooler there!”

“I will go to the Hallow if you think that might aid me,” Aragorn conceded. “However, I would rather make the journey alone; since I was accustomed to solitude for many a long year.”

“You were not King then. You must not go alone lest some further ill befall you, ”Arwen sternly reminded him. "Faramir will guard you well."

“Faramir was working hard when I last looked in on him; he would not wish to stop work to roam in the wilds,” the King declared, trying a different tactic to dissuade Arwen from her purpose.

“Well then, either send Faramir home to Ithilien, which seems unreasonable since he has only just returned to the City, or take him to the Hallow,” Arwen insisted. "It is easy to see that you are trying to avoid him. I have watched you treat Easterlings who once fought against us with more courtesy. And then there are the nightmares."

Aragorn flushed slightly.

“If it troubles you that he is no longer the man he was when you first met; remember that he sacrificed that innocence for you,” Arwen said quietly. “And from what I know of Faramir, he is still wracked with guilt over what he had to do to save you! He deserves your love, not your disapproval!”

“But I do love him,” Aragorn whispered more to himself than to Arwen. “I pardoned him, even though he betrayed me. I know I owe him my life!”

“Maybe that is what troubles you?” Arwen observed shrewdly.

“He had to care for me as if I were a babe in arms,” Aragorn said, not looking at his wife. “Then when he found me... “ His voice trailed away. “No one should have had to see me like that! “ He shuddered at the memory.

“Someone had to care for you, Estel, if not Faramir, would you have preferred little Elbeth to attend you?” Arwen replied. “Do not let your pride destroy your friendship; you have cared for Faramir through as bad or worse.”

“But how can I trust him again after what he did?”

“You are making excuses!” Arwen accused, though the sudden touch of her soft hand on his face, lessened the harshness of her words. “You need to be reconciled with Faramir, if not for your own sake, for the good of Gondor. Only then will your soul heal. Go now, find your Steward, and go out with him into the wilds until you can settle what lies between you! Take him to your heart again as a son!

***

Faramir’s eyes briefly lit up when the King told him they were to leave the next morning before resuming their now habitual haunted expression. “I would be glad to accompany you, my lord,” he replied dutifully before throwing a guilty glance at the heap of documents on his desk. “However, I really cannot leave the paperwork before tomorrow, though. There are the details of the new law concerning trade tariffs to finish, and the treaty with the Easterlings and the restoration of the gate on the third level and …”

“Your King commands you to forget them all for a while!” Aragorn interrupted harshly. ”Imrahil can oversee such routine matters, and you have picked the new clerks on your staff most wisely. I need you to come. The Queen will fret if I go alone.

“I will gladly honour your lady’s wishes,” Faramir replied, not certain if he was glad or sorry that the Queen’s plan had obviously worked. He hardly knew how he should act in the King’s presence any longer.

Faramir turned to glare at the stack of papers, then gathered them up and thrust them into an already overstuffed drawer in his desk.

“Who am I to dispute an order from my King?” he said. “I will accompany you, sire, though I do not know how I will ever catch up with the tasks that await me!”

Aragorn clapped him awkwardly on the shoulder. Faramir flinched as if struck.

The King sighed. The journey would feel endless in this man’s company. Why would Arwen not let him go alone? Faramir was nearly the last one, dwarf, elf, hobbit or man, on Arda that he would choose to accompany him. “We leave at first light tomorrow, Aragorn said gruffly. “You had better go and prepare.”

 

 

Chapter Five – I am no longer worthy to be called your son

I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘- Bible: New Testament, Luke 15:17-19.

Arwen was delighted at the result of her plan to send Estel and Faramir forth together. To avoid alerting the servants to the King’s imminent departure, she herself helped pack what few processions her husband would need; clean linens, his sword and a hunting knife, a few cooking utensils, and healing supplies. Apart from what seemed an excessive amount of athelas, Aragorn was loth to pack the latter, insisting he was a healer no longer. He relented only when Arwen pointed out he might well need healing herbs and other sundries for himself, especially such items as salves. It had been so long since Aragorn had ridden more than a short distance, saddle soreness was a distinct possibility.

Aragorn and Faramir decided to leave at sunrise when most people were still abed. They would hopefully slip out of the City unnoticed. Faramir had suggested they use the secret tunnels but Aragorn had curtly refused. He had already endured enough of dank enclosed spaces to last a lifetime when imprisoned in Dervorin's dungeon. The King had ordered that Lamrung, a Guard he could trust, be posted at the gates at the time they intended to depart.

“I have changed my mind about visiting the Mountain, I would rather abide here with you,” Aragorn announced after another restless night.

“It will do you good to leave the City,” Arwen said calmly. ”You will feel better when you can feel the cool mountain wind in your hair.”

“I shall miss you too much, and I like not the thought of being alone in the wilds with Faramir,” Aragorn protested.

“I shall miss you as well, but I still think you should go,” Arwen replied firmly. “Once you would have rejoiced at the opportunity to ride out into the countryside with Faramir. Now go, and do not return until your heart is eased! I love you too much, Estel, to see you suffering thus day after day.”

“Very well,” Aragorn sighed. “I shall return before Eldarion’s birthday.” Thus saying, he tenderly kissed the still sleeping child and then did likewise to his wife, clasping her as tightly as one might a tree to avoid being blown away by a storm.

Arwen stood watching at the window while Aragorn made his way across the almost deserted Court of the Fountain. Faramir awaited him beside the White the King. The Steward was plainly dressed in Ranger garb and carrying his pack. The King nodded curtly to his Steward and they disappeared from view, Faramir keeping a respectful few paces behind his lord.

The Queen brushed away a few tears as her husband and his Steward disappeared from her sight. She could only hope and pray that she had made the right choice in sending them away together like this. A wave of cold fear suddenly assailed her. What if Estel were waylaid again? Or what if he and Faramir ended up gravely wounding or killing each other? How would the realm fare, much less herself and Eldarion?

She firmly pushed such unwholesome thoughts aside. The mental bond she shared with her husband had shown her that Aragorn still loved Faramir. She was also certain that Faramir’s devotion to Aragorn had never wavered. The same bond that allowed her to sense how her husband was faring would alert her immediately should any danger threaten him. Much as she would miss Estel and fret over him, this separation was necessary. She knew all too well that only when, or if, his bond with Faramir were mended, would he be whole once more.

Arwen decided she would write to Éowyn and invite her to visit while their men folk were away, but first she would sleep. She could not remember when she had last enjoyed a full night of untroubled slumber. It drained her energy, for even of one of her kind could not go without peaceful sleep for months on end without becoming weary. Much as Arwen adored her husband, it had taken her time to become accustomed to him sleeping at her side. He had been in the habit too, of sometimes sleeping in his own room. Gondorian custom encouraged a wife of high status to sleep alone when troubled by women’s courses or crying babies. A husband would do likewise if he needed to rise early, or simply craved solitude.

These past months, however, Estel had been at her side constantly, both day and night. At times he became even more demanding than her child. The sight of her proud, self-reliant husband clinging to her as tightly as a babe had torn at her heart even more than Eldarion's occasional and easily soothed tears.

Surmising that Eldarion would not awaken for at least another hour, the Queen climbed back into bed and fell into a deep slumber.

***

Silently, Aragorn and Faramir made their way down to the stables on the Sixth level. A bleary-eyed groom asked if he could assist them. The King curtly bade him to return to his interrupted rest. There was still barely enough light in the stables to see clearly, but eventually Roheryn and Zachus were saddled. The King and Steward mounted and rode towards the City gates.

The few people up and about in the performance of their early morning business ignored the two plainly dressed horsemen riding down the City circles. They were accustomed to seeing their King and Steward richly clad and accompanied by guards, so they would never have taken these two hooded and cloaked figures for Gondor's lords.

Lamrung, assisted by two young recruits, opened the Great Gate at their approach and wished them a pleasant journey without betraying he knew who they were. The young man had become a worthy Guard, and Aragorn had never regretted his decision to offer him a better post than that of a prison warder.

Aragorn's spirits rose as they cantered along the Pelennor. They had shed their cloaks and stuffed them into their saddlebags the moment the gates closed behind them. Now Faramir and Aragorn sighed with relief and gave the horses their heads.

“To be free at last!” exclaimed the lord of the Reunited Kingdom, “I felt I would suffocate if I spent another moment caged by those stone walls! The Valar be praised we managed to escape undetected! Arwen has promised to tell the Council and the Guards that we have gone hunting for a time.”

Faramir pondered whether he should speak deferentially or proceed in a less formal fashion now that they had left the Citadel. “Thus speaks the Ranger from the Northern wilds!” he countered, trying the latter choice. “Our walls are a protection, not a prison, built to guard the fairest place in Middle-earth!”

“Thus says a Man of the South, who knows not of what he speaks! It is apparent that you have never seen Rivendell or the fair mountains of the North!” Aragorn retorted sourly. “There is true beauty there, hard-won but free, of a sort you could not imagine.”

“You know I cannot argue, since I have never seen the Northlands,” Faramir replied mildly. “We of Gondor should be thankful that you have so well concealed your aversion for the City that the sons of Elendil founded.”

“It is hard to share your love for Minas Tirith, especially in the summer months.” Aragorn said coldly. “I am too accustomed to the wild beauty of Northern climes.”

“You have seen many lands,” Faramir said simply, for lack of a better reply.

“That is because I have lived long years without a home for a wife and family.” Aragorn replied. “I may not love the confines of stone walls, but it is now my doom to make that home in Minas Tirith.”

Faramir bit back the retort on his lips and concentrated on swatting at the insects that circled Zachus’ head, tormenting the placid gelding. “I cannot say that I love the flies in summer! The cattle must attract them.” He bit his lip, wishing he had not spoken that word to the man he had burned with a cattle brand.

“The heat of the City more likely!” Aragorn glared at him, but said no more.

“Where exactly are we going?” Faramir asked, eager to change the subject. It would only make things worse to quarrel now. He and Aragorn tended to be equally stubborn about the climate of Minas Tirith. Once he would have been horrified at the very thought of disagreeing with his King. But their friendship had grown so strong that they had argued as easily as he and Boromir had done, spending hours in sometimes heated, but always friendly bantering. Now, such arguments were as fraught with tension as all matters between them had recently become.

“You will see,” Aragorn replied curtly. “Let us remove our tunics and at least be cooler.”

Faramir looked taken aback at the suggestion. “It is discourteous to for a lord of Gondor be less than fully clad in the presence of others.” He looked across at the fields surrounding the road, where the peasants toiled. Most of the men were bare to the waist, while some of the women wore only loose linen shifts. It seemed that the country folk had little regard for Court etiquette, especially during a time of such severe heat. Faramir sighed softly, and continued: "But as none here know who we are, and the people are too busy working in the fields to notice our apparel, I suppose that we could.”

Aragorn had not waited for Faramir’s verdict and was already in his shirtsleeves. He stuffed the tunic in his saddlebag before Faramir had finished speaking. The Steward hesitated for a moment, thinking how his father would have disapproved of such casual dress. Deciding that he no longer cared, Faramir consigned his own tunic to rest beside his clean underwear.

“Is that not more comfortable?” the King asked.

Faramir nodded reluctantly. Secretly, he agreed with Aragorn that it was far too hot for comfort, though he was in no mood to openly disparage his beloved White City.

“To reach Mount Mindolluin, we will double back along the Rammas Echor and approach it from the South,” Aragorn informed his Steward. ”We are taking a more roundabout path than did Mithrandir and I, so that we can ride in the shade.”

The lower slopes of the Mountain were densely wooded, providing a welcome respite from the heat. The City already seemed far away here under the canopy of trees. The air was heavy with the refreshing scent of larch and juniper intermingled with sweet honeysuckle blossom, which grew profusely in the clearings and attracted industrious bees and colourful butterflies to its scented blossoms. The birds chirruped in the treetops and a lone thrush sang melodiously from one of the highest branches.

A crystal stream ran down the hillside. Seeing the welcome rivulet, the King and Steward swiftly dismounted to let their horses drink. Then they eagerly refreshed themselves with the cool sweet water, splashing it freely over their hands and faces.

“Is this place not fair?” Aragorn exclaimed, a faint smile lighting up his grim features. He sat down, sprawling lazily across a moss-encrusted boulder.

“Indeed it is, my lord,” Faramir replied, pleased Aragorn seemed to finally appreciate something about Gondor. He settled himself a few feet away and they sat in silence for a time, listening to the birdsong.

“I think it best we make camp here for the night,” Aragorn said after a while, clambering to his feet. “Take your bow and catch us something for supper!”

Faramir meekly did as he was bidden. Fortunately he managed to shoot a buck rabbit quickly and cleanly. He swiftly prepared it for supper; Aragorn built the fire but otherwise did nothing to help, making it very clear that he expected Faramir to act as his servant.

Steward and King then settled down for the night, laying out their bedrolls on opposite sides of their campfire. Their weapons lay within easy reach and a fire burned to deter any wild animals that might approach. They spoke little while they prepared to sleep, each man lost in his own thoughts. It occurred to both that this time should have been happier, since they had long wished to ride out into the countryside together and relive their days as Rangers.

Aragorn found it much easier to fall asleep under the night sky than within his own room in the Citadel. He was soothed by the stars overhead, and slept soundly, mercifully free from the nightmares that had tormented his sleep for months now.

Faramir was less fortunate. When sleep finally claimed him, he was transported back to Dervorin’s Hunting Lodge, again preparing to brand his King. This time, Aragorn remained conscious as Faramir pressed the brand to his shoulder, and cursed Faramir to find no peace until the world’s ending. He cried out; “No! No! I must do it! Forgive me, lord!”

Faramir's screams woke the King. Aragorn watched the son of Denethor uneasily for a few moments. He finally moved to Faramir's side, fearful that the Steward would writhe too close to the fire and harm himself. The bright moonlight shone clearly on the younger man's anguished features.

“No! I have to do this!” Faramir’s hands lashed out at some unseen horror.

“Peace! All is well now,” Feeling a sudden surge of pity, Aragorn grabbed the thrashing hands, instinctively noting how rapid the pulse was.

Faramir did not awaken, although he seemed to be calmed somewhat by Aragorn's words.

The King remembered that these hands had driven a brand into his own skin and released them with a shudder of revulsion. Still, he could not utterly abandon the other man. Aragorn reluctantly moved his bedroll alongside that of Faramir. It seemed as if it were going to be a long and sleepless night.

To his surprise, Faramir’s restless head found his shoulder and settled there. The Steward sighed contentedly. Then, almost immediately, he relaxed and fell into an apparently dreamless sleep.

Aragorn’s immediate reaction was a desire to push him away. However, if he did so, he would be unlikely to get any further sleep that night and he was already exhausted. Yet, how could he allow the one who had branded him to curl up against him as innocently as a kitten nestled among its littermates?

Faramir moaned in his sleep, almost as if he sensed Aragorn's thoughts. A wave of compassion overwhelmed the King. Maybe Faramir was not a heartless, calculating traitor. Could it be that the Steward’s sleep was troubled by memories of the actions that had, however painfully, saved his King’s life? Maybe Arwen was right, as she so often was. What if he had wronged Faramir? These thoughts were too painful to dwell upon. He resolutely pushed them to the back of his mind. Wearied by the day’s events, Aragorn slipped back into slumber.

When the King opened his eyes again, it was already dawn. The pink tinged clouds heralded another fine day. Already feeling too warm, Aragorn threw off his blanket.

The sudden movement disturbed Faramir, who awoke with a start. Shamefaced, he immediately pulled away from Aragorn's shoulder.

“I am sorry,” he mumbled.

“Someday we will bring Eldarion along, and I can have one of you on each side of me,“ Aragorn said with forced cheer. To his dismay, he could sense the pain emanating from Faramir’s thoughts and found given his own troubled state of mind, it was more than he could endure.

“I am no longer worthy to be treated as your son!” Faramir declared miserably.

Aragorn neither replied nor made any move to draw Faramir to his side again.

Faramir rolled over on his side and pretended to sleep, hoping Aragorn would not notice the silent tears that trickled down his cheeks.

Chapter six – The naked truth of it.

I am ashamed
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus,
That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them. -- William Shakespeare King Lear, act 1, sc. 4, l. 296-9.

The naked truth of it is, I have no shirt; I go woolward for penance. -William Shakespeare (1564-1616),

Neither Aragorn nor Faramir felt greatly refreshed when they arose the next morning. To make matters worse, the air now felt more oppressive than ever, as if a storm were imminent. Yet not even a distant rumble of thunder could be heard, while the sky remained cloudless and sullen.

In uneasy silence, brooding over the events of the night before, King and Steward folded their bedrolls. Aragorn’s shoulder throbbed painfully and his heart was heavy. The fire had gone out, or he would have prepared an athelas infusion to try to ease his spirits.

“We should bathe before we breakfast. We must prepare to approach the Hallow,” Aragorn announced. He sat down by the stream and started to unlace his boots.

“Is that necessary?” Faramir asked, uneasily kicking at a fir cone in his path.

“I must be cleansed before we approach the presence of the One,” Aragorn said firmly.“Though I do not intend you to actually set foot in the holy place, you must also be purified. Surely you have studied the old rituals sufficiently to understand why?”

“I have faced West before eating throughout my life, and have studied the rites of the holy places," the Steward replied, a certain stubbornness in his tone. "I never read that bathing was required, either on the Hill of Awe or even on the very summit of Meneltarma itself in Númenor. I thought rather that prayer and reflection were needed. Surely, if I am not to enter this Hallow, it hardly matters whether I have bathed or not?”

“I would not risk offending the One by bringing an unclean man into even the vicinity of a holy place, “ Aragorn said sternly. “If I say you must bathe, then you will obey!”

Faramir looked at his King for a long moment, wondering what had become of the kindly and gracious liege-lord he had once known. He hesitated, then started to unlace his boots. “Very well, lord, I admit that I should cleanse myself,” he acceded quietly.

Aragorn studied him thoughtfully, wondering why his Steward was resisting his authority. Did Faramir not understand that he, more than most men, needed purification before he even neared the Hallow? What insolence! Why, he was favouring him by bringing him so close to the holy place after what Faramir had done to him, yet Faramir acted as if he thought he was the ruling Steward of Gondor, not Arandur, the King's Servant. Aragorn wondered if he had been right to relent towards the Steward last night. It had probably had been a grave error on his part to allow him to sleep alongside him. It was just too painful, to even consider restoring the Thought Bond with the one who had so badly hurt him. In the future, Aragorn would take more care to maintain a distance from Faramir. Whatever the man's true motives had been, his Steward had betrayed and injured him. He had been foolish to think that it all could be forgiven, much less forgotten. But for now, Aragorn was more concerned in retaining his own privacy than wondering how to deal with Faramir.

“I shall bathe here,” he declared. "You can swim further downstream. Please keep your back turned.”

“Of course, my lord,” Faramir said sounding strangely relieved, “I will fetch the towels and fresh underwear for us to don after we bathe.” He swiftly turned away and walked over to where they had left their packs.

Aragorn strode some distance upstream before unlacing his tunic and pulling it over his head. He then removed his breeches and threw them to one side. He stood there for a moment, clad in shirt and drawers, anxiously looking around him. He wondered if he could bathe in his shirt but reluctantly decided the material was too heavy and cumbersome.

Once he was certain Faramir was nowhere in sight, he hesitantly pulled the garment over his head. Rather to his surprise, it felt blissful to feel fresh air against his bare skin. He had almost forgotten the sensation. Leaving his drawers on, as was his custom when swimming, he waded into the stream and sighed blissfully at its coolness. Even the burning and throbbing in his shoulder felt slightly eased.

When Faramir returned he found the King was immersed further upstream.

“You may bathe now!” Aragorn called, ”the water is very refreshing!”

“I will return later,” Faramir replied, placing the towels on the bank. He then disappeared behind the trees. When he did not reappear within a few minutes, Aragorn frowned. It was unlike Faramir to so openly defy his wishes. In the past Faramir had been very shy about undressing in front of anyone, more so than was usual, even for a man of Gondor. Since Aragorn had healed his scars, though, he had been much less ill at ease. The closeness of the bond they had once shared, and the circumstances of their recent ordeal, when they had stayed together in cramped quarters, had long since banished most of Faramir’s shyness. The Steward should no longer need to conceal anything, unlike the King he had branded.

Aragorn climbed out of the water, patted his wet body hastily with a towel and then dressed. He moved briskly in the direction where he had seen Faramir wander a quarter-hour past.

It did not take him long to find his quarry. His errant Steward sat on a fallen tree trunk at their campsite, fully clothed and quite dry.

“What is this?” Aragorn asked, his ire rising. He was impatient to reach the Hallow, and had not expected Faramir to dawdle. “I thought I told you to bathe.”

“I decided that it was too cold,” Faramir replied without rising or looking him in the eye. “I will wait here while you offer your prayers at the Hallow.”

“Cold?” Aragorn sounded incredulous. “You were a Ranger for half of your life, bathing in rivers and streams in all weathers to keep yourself clean, and now you are too pampered a prince to immerse your delicate skin on a hot day? It is hard to believe!”

“I did not wish to bathe,” Faramir replied evasively.

“Why not?” Aragorn demanded. “I promised my Queen that you should accompany me to the Hallow and I am a man of my word. So prepare yourself!”

“I cannot, sire. I am sorry.” Faramir said quietly, his eyes downcast.

“I gave you an order and you would disobey me?” Aragorn’s tone was one of cold fury. “What are you hiding? Look at me!”

Faramir finally lifted his eyes and looked at him. ”The Queen told me I should accompany you on this journey, before you asked me to come,” he said at last.

“So you conspired with my wife behind my back?” Aragorn’s eyes blazed with wrath and not a little pain.

Faramir looked away, unable to endure his gaze.

Suddenly unable to contain his fury any longer, Aragorn grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him hard.

Faramir gave an involuntary yelp of pain.

“Whatever is the matter?” Aragorn asked; his fury now tempered with anxiety.

Faramir remained silent.

Aragorn said firmly, “Something ails you. Remove your shirt and let me see!”

“I would rather not,” Faramir replied with equal firmness. ”I have a right to cover myself. Even you cannot deny me that!”

Fighting back the impulse to strike the disobedient Steward, Aragorn instead gripped Faramir’s hands, instinctively noting how the palms were moist with sweat and the man's pulse raced. For a moment, he wondered if Faramir had branded himself in a strange attempt to win back his favour. “Your King orders you to remove your shirt,” he demanded. ”Would you risk the full weight of my wrath by your disobedience?”

Slowly and reluctantly, Faramir unlaced the shirt and drew it over his head.

Aragorn found himself biting back a cry as his Steward’s upper body was bared; Faramir’s chest and arms were covered with raw, reddened patches. Aragorn walked round the log, dismayed to find that Faramir’s back was almost equally disfigured. He was forced to assume that were his legs uncovered they would look just the same.

“Whatever have you done?” Despite his anger, Aragorn could not but feel pity for the man who had once been his friend.

“I was trying to scrub myself clean.” Faramir said, crossing his arms defensively, before he could demand an explanation.

“But why scour yourself raw like this?”

“It hurts less inside when I do,” Faramir replied simply. “Yet however much I wash myself, I still feel tainted by my treason. I knew not what else to do!”

“Why did you not tell me or the Queen?” Aragorn sat down on the log and took Faramir’s hands again. “I would not have brought you here, had I known you were thus mutilated.”

“I desired to come,” Faramir said simply. “It is nothing; the hurts are but slight. Sometimes I have used linen bandaging to shield them from heavier clothing, but Éowyn has grown suspicious of the loss of her supplies.”

Aragorn sighed and inwardly cursed himself. ”You should have told your wife!” he said, wishing to evade the deeper implications of Faramir’s strange behaviour.

“There are some things she cannot, nor would I desire her to, understand, “ Faramir answered quietly. “Only your forgiveness has helped me to remain living with this stain upon my soul!”

Abruptly Aragorn released his Steward’s hands. ”You had better bathe then, since you are so obsessed with cleanliness! I will prepare some breakfast for us.”

The King strode off towards the campsite, his heart troubled. He realised now Faramir needed to be reassured of his pardon, and the only way to accomplish such a thing would be to renew their Thought Bond. Yet, how could he take Faramir into his heart once more when he harboured such resentment towards him?

Deeply hurt, Faramir finished undressing and strode into the water, which painfully stung his raw skin. He had not wanted Aragorn to see how he was marked, and yet felt oddly relieved that he had finally revealed the damage. Yet, the King’s reaction had sharply differed from the response he had hoped for in his heart. In the past, Aragorn would have at the very least offered him a healing salve, and words of comfort. Now the man he had grown to love as a father had turned as cold to him as Denethor had been.

Instead of preparing breakfast, Aragorn sat down heavily upon the log, trying to control his inner turmoil. Elrond had taught him long ago that excessive washing was a symptom either of a disturbed mind or a troubled conscience. Faramir was not mad; therefore he must be deeply troubled. Was his estrangement from his Steward somehow to blame? Or did Faramir’s guilt go even deeper that he had admitted?

After a few minutes had passed, he could not bear to sit still any longer. Aragorn rose and went in search of his troubled Steward.

He found Faramir standing on the grass by the side of the stream, shaking the water from his sodden hair. At his feet, lay the discarded drawers he had worn in the stream; he had folded his clothing and clean drawers neatly beside him on the bank. The Steward had wrapped a towel around his waist and was drying his back with another by the time Aragorn appeared at the water’s edge.

“Have you been scrubbing yourself raw anywhere else?” the King enquired, noting that Faramir’s skin looked even more inflamed now. And his ribs were more visible too; clearly the Steward had not been eating well of late.

“No,” said Faramir tersely, rubbing his back hard and wincing at the pain.

“Are you certain?” Aragorn persisted.

“I do not lie,” Faramir replied; then looked away, realising the significance of his words.

“Are you certain of that? You lied very easily at Dervorin's lodge,” Aragorn replied. “And you have admitted to another deception but a few moments ago! Do you even know what truth is?”

Goaded at last into fury, Faramir flung away his towels and stood proud and defiant; naked before his King. “ There!” he pronounced, “See, there is no other mark upon me! I have nothing to hide! I am sworn to you body and soul and have withheld nothing from you!”

Aragorn slowly circled the angry man, viewing him with the carefully unreadable expression he had learned to observe when Elrond first trained him as a healer. It was better than standing there with his mouth wide open in shock at Faramir's behaviour, which had been his first impulse

Suddenly aware of his nakedness, Faramir fought back the urge to cover himself with his hands. He shook slightly with a mixture of rage and embarrassment.

“You told the truth,” said Aragorn, his voice devoid of emotion. “Get dressed!”

“As is my custom, save when I had to lie and cheat and destroy my very soul to save you!” Faramir retorted, pulling on his drawers and breeches with great speed, ignoring the throbbing in his upper body. His humiliation was complete. “How can you understand? I gave you my all and you cannot trust me in anything? You seek only to humiliate me!” He felt utterly shamed, viewed like a beast at market. Faramir flushed scarlet, for never had he expected that Aragorn would subject him to such indignity.

Faramir could barely stand to meet his King's disdainful eyes. The most shameful moment of his youth burned in his memory. He had been a reed-thin, gawky stripling of fourteen on that day when his father had learned of Faramir's recent conversations with the visiting Mithrandir, their talk of heroes of old and the deeds of the legendary Captain Thorongil. Denethor had stormed into his bathing chamber while Faramir was drying his naked body. The Steward had surveyed his son with contempt, told him he would not see the Grey Pilgrim again until he had proved his loyalty by serving in Boromir's company at Cair Andros. Then Denethor had said he hoped the worthy soldiers would not laugh at him, that Faramir was such a puny little boy no one would believe he shared Boromir's blood. And now, a man who looked enough like Denethor to be his father's close kin gazed upon Faramir with scorn.

"You forget to whom you speak, Faramir. Calm yourself!" Aragorn ordered. Picking up the Steward's shirt from the ground, he lightly prodded Faramir's shoulder, meaning to grasp the furious younger man and forcefully steady him.

Faramir could take no more. He had hazarded both life and honour to save this man; lost his reputation and nearly his life, from the love he had borne him. Now he was treated with callous indifference, like an errant, worthless servant. Better that Aragorn had executed him! Past caring what he did any longer, Faramir blindly lashed out, pushing aside the King's arm in sudden rage.

“You would dare raise your hand against me again?” Aragorn's anger rose like a burning flame. That this wretch could try to attack him made him furious! He had raised Denethor's son to rank and the privilege of his close friendship, and this was how his charity was repaid! Aragorn grabbed Faramir's wrists, fully intending to either shake or strike him.

 

Chapter Seven – All Men are equal before Fish

All men are equal before fish. - Herbert Hoover

Aragorn could feel Faramir's pulse increase rapidly as he tightened his hold. The ugly reddened patches extended from the Steward’s shoulders down his right arm. Aragorn was hit by a wave of sharp, unexpected self-loathing. He had not faced Faramir as King and friend, but as a judge condemning the lowest of miscreants. He had never subjected even enemy warriors to such humiliation! Rather than strike back, Aragorn drew the angry Steward into a fatherly embrace, knowing full well that the contact might enable Faramir to sense all his thoughts and the darkness therein. Better though, that all should be revealed than that they should come to blows, which they would forever regret.

Faramir tried to break free. He was restrained by his King's firm yet gentle grip. Aragorn held him tightly, guiding Faramir's head against his uninjured shoulder.

“What have I become?” Faramir whispered, blinking back the tears as he continued to struggle.

“What you always were, you still are,” Aragorn whispered. Despite his reluctance, he was sensing Faramir’s thoughts. The heart of the man he had loved as a son was unchanged. Faramir's mind held no hint of treachery, only sorrow at his own deeds and intense pain and frustration at Aragorn's coldness.

“I was about to strike you, my King!” Faramir said brokenly. The urge to resist left him as suddenly as it had come, and he went limp in Aragorn’s arms.

“You did not, though,” Aragorn said, releasing him. Much as he realised they needed to lay bare their souls to one another, still he sought to delay what was bound to be a trial for them both.

The Steward turned to stare at the water, its silver clarity seeming to mock his own confusion. “You do not understand! Why did you come looking for me?” he asked. “Do you expect me to run away?” he asked bitterly.

“You would never run from anything, I know you too well.” Aragorn replied ignoring his tone. “I came to tell you not to dress before your hurts were treated. What is there to understand? You know that I have forgiven you.”

“You forgave me because you loved me once, not because you understand why!” Faramir protested.

“You are talking in riddles! This conversation is foolish!” Aragorn said sharply, remembering Arwen’s words with a pang of guilt.

“I am sorry,” Faramir’s tone was contrite now. How could he expect Aragorn to understand?

“Come then back to the camp site so your hurts can be tended! There is no point in finishing dressing now.” The King said, forcing himself to sound cheerful. Still clutching Faramir’s shirt, he marched ahead leaving Faramir to follow.

Once he reached the clearing, Aragorn sat down heavily upon the ground and buried his face in his hands. He had gone too far. What had he become to treat his Steward so poorly? He had directed his warriors to treat Easterling enemy prisoners more gently, and yet he had humiliated the man who had saved his life...the man he loved as dearly as his own child.

Arwen had been right. He had badly failed Faramir. It was vital that they both come to accept what had happened, however painful.

Faramir donned his stockings and boots and picked up his tunic. He desired to wear it to cover himself, but his skin felt far too sore. He made his way back to the campsite, his footfalls heavy and his entire body feeling loathsome and uncomfortable, as if it belonged to a stranger. Faramir could not understand what he had done. Did some evil spirit possess him, or had he always harboured such treacherous rage? Whatever had caused his attack on his lord; he was deeply shamed by his furious outburst.

He found the lord of the Reunited Kingdom sitting against a great log, his face dejected and his eyes shadowed.

“I fear I have neglected to cook our breakfast,” the King said in an expressionless tone. “Porridge will have to suffice, this morning.” As he spoke, he placed a pan of water on the fire to boil.

 “I have no objection to porridge,” Faramir said in an equally emotionless tone. It almost hurt to talk, but he had to ask: “Please may I have my shirt back?”

Aragorn hesitated for a moment. Athelas would be the best remedy for Faramir’s raw skin. Yet how could he spare any of his precious leaves? He had brought a supply sufficient only for his own needs. However, at present, he felt a need to inhale some to calm his agitation. The infusion could be used to treat his Steward at the same time. “Let me see how you might be eased first,” he said, reaching a decision and taking a few leaves from his pouch; “I think this will lighten both our hearts.”

They moved to the log, and sat upon it in silence while waiting for the water to heat. Faramir sat with his arms crossed defensively across his chest, while Aragorn stared fixedly at the fire. The silence was uncomfortable, the air heavy with thunder seeming to crackle with the tension between them.

Once the water was hot, Aragorn lifted the pot from the fire and placed it on the ground between them. He crumbled two athelas leaves in his hands and breathed on them. At once, a living freshness filled the air and both their hearts were somewhat lightened. Aragorn swallowed hard and finally looked at his Steward. “I am truly sorry,” he said suddenly finding the words easy to speak, ”I did not mean to insult or humiliate you like that. Can you forgive me?”

“I humiliated myself and bear you no reproach,” Faramir replied, eyes and voice dulled with sorrow. “You did not tell me to cast my towel aside and stand naked before you. I did so of my own will, forgetting myself in my anger.” He remembered how Aragorn had tended his hurts many times before and had always tried to preserve his dignity.

“I do not deny that like all men you look far better clothed!” Aragorn observed wryly.

“Obviously the One reserved beauty for females!” Faramir replied, thinking longingly of how Éowyn looked in the white silk nightgown that outlined her every curve in a most appealing manner. The nightdress was a favourite of his, so soft and light and almost transparent.

“I think the mixture is ready now ” Aragorn remarked, breaking into his Steward’s reverie.

“Very well, “ Faramir uncrossed his arms and reluctantly submitted himself to the King’s gaze.

“You must stop this scouring, it does no good!” Aragorn chided. He knelt beside his Steward and handed him the bowl of steaming water and a cloth with which to bathe the raw patches in the athelas infused water. “Your King orders you to cease hurting yourself from this day forward! Bathe your hurts with this; it should ease them. I am no longer a Healer but I will give you my advice.” Although his tone was stern, his eyes showed compassion.

“I will try to obey,” Faramir answered bleakly. He felt desolate that Aragorn would no longer tend him. He knew from Sam that a patient could effectively bathe himself with the athelas infusion if the King had crumbled the leaves and prepared them. But to Faramir, it was Aragorn's own hands that had conveyed the King's healing power, with a special touch of grace that no other hands could ever give.

Aragorn mutely handed Faramir a towel and turned away while the Steward bathed his hurts.

Faramir patted himself dry, then reached for his shirt.

“Wait!” Aragorn commanded, “Your shirt might irritate your skin unless you apply a salve. The wounds are fortunately not deep enough to require bandaging, but if you keep on scrubbing like this, you could develop a dangerous infection.”

“I understand.” Faramir tensed slightly as he watched the King rummage in his saddlebag and retrieve a jar.

“Give it me back when you have finished,” he said abruptly, handing Faramir the jar of marigold ointment.

Faramir rubbed a liberal amount of the soothing cream on his chest and arms, but try as he might could not reach all over his back and shoulders.

“Give me the jar, I will do it,” Aragorn said curtly, steeling himself to suppress his revulsion at again touching his Steward.

Faramir tensed as the salve applied. Aragorn’s hands were quite gentle. However, his touch, although skilful, was completely impersonal. Somehow, that hurt far more than the damage to his skin. How could he expect it to be otherwise, though?

The Steward reached for his shirt and pulled it carefully over his head. “Thank you,” he said quietly. Once he would have embraced him, but the gulf between them now made such a gesture impossible.

Aragorn sat down beside him again on the log, shuffling his feet uneasily.

Faramir glanced towards his King, noticing that Aragorn seemed to have aged over the last months. Faramir was suddenly gripped by fear. Aragorn was now ninety-one years of age. The Northern Dúnedain were usually very long lived, and the King would still be considered to be in the prime of life. But could his ordeal in the traitors' clutches, including Faramir's own hands that had branded him, have withered the very life within Aragorn? What if the King's torment had shortened his natural span, and allowed the years to mark him? Faramir had seen his own father age before his time. Having lost one father, he was not ready to lose another.

“What troubles you? Are you still in pain?” Aragorn queried.

“I was concerned for you, my lord,” Faramir replied, “You look careworn. And you have borne the pain of your captivity, not I!”

“You shared it with me,” Aragorn admitted rather to his surprise. Perhaps the right moment was approaching to also share his troubled thoughts?

“Shall we have breakfast now?” Faramir asked, anxious to change the subject.

Aragorn sighed. Again, the moment had come and gone.

Within the next hour, it became hot even in the forest, as the sun climbed higher in the sky.

Faramir tidied away the breakfast things. ”I am ready to leave now,” he announced.

“I deem it wise to postpone my pilgrimage to the Hallow until the morrow, “ the King replied. He knew his thoughts were too troubled to approach the One this day. As for Faramir, he was in no fit condition to make the strenuous ascent. “Would you like to spend the day fishing?” he asked.

“Yes, I should enjoy that.” Faramir sighed with relief at postponing the climb.

***

“Where did you learn to fish?” Aragorn enquired some four hours later. They sat on the banks of the stream, a few feet apart.

“Boromir used to take me to the Anduin when I was but a small child,” Faramir replied, “We also fished in the Bay of Belfalas with Uncle Imrahil. Boromir would get a good catch while I rarely caught anything. It seems I have better luck against you!” He gestured to his two fat trout and the one rather malnourished specimen that Aragorn had caught.

“I would have caught those had I been upstream of you!” Aragorn retorted grumpily, “ I learned to fish at Rivendell during my childhood as well. Elrohir taught me, he had more patience than his brother. The best lesson he gave was to never take more than you need and to kill quickly and humanely. The Elves respect Yavanna's gifts too much to ever take her bounty for granted.”

“A wise precept,” Faramir agreed, drawing in his rod as he felt another fish bite. “I think we have enough for today!”

“So it seems!” Aragorn conceded as he watched Faramir expertly despatch another plump trout.

After a hearty supper of fried fish, apples, and wild raspberries, they bedded down for the night once again. The air had grown almost unbearably humid; the storm was surely imminent.

“We should remain fairly sheltered here under the forest canopy if it rains,” Aragorn commented. He drew his blanket around him and settled down for he night. “I hope it will rain and end the drought.”

“The rain usually falls in the City rather than up here,” Faramir told him.

“Given the extent of the greenery on the mountainside, I doubt it!” With that, Aragorn snorted, and turned his back on Faramir as a signal he was ready to sleep.

***

Faramir was awakened several hours later, not by the expected downpour but by piercing screams. He leapt swiftly to his feet and drew his sword, trying to get his bearings in the darkness. The moon and stars were overcast.  Only the dying embers of the fire provided a very faint illumination. To his alarm, he recognised Aragorn’s voice crying his name. Hastily, he kindled a torch and hastened to the King’s side, fearing he was under attack. Only then did he realise that Aragorn was dreaming.

“How could you Faramir? Do not mark me!” Aragorn cried as he thrashed around wildly.

Faramir realized in horror that Aragorn was reliving the moment he had branded him. Remembering the King’s aversion to the dark, he swiftly threw more logs on the fire. Then Faramir knelt at Aragorn’s side. Capturing Aragon's arms in as gentle a grip as possible, Faramir said: “Wake up, my King, it is I, Faramir!”

Wild eyed and still half asleep, Aragorn tried to push him away. ”No, not you, no!” he cried, with a terror that tore at the Steward’s heart.

“Peace, dear lord, never did I willingly harm you!” The Steward was now near to tears, seeing his King so distressed. Months had passed since that dreadful night, but time had obviously not lessened Aragorn’s pain.

Aragorn opened his eyes abruptly, blinking in confusion. He quieted, and came fully awake. "Ah, Faramir,” he said softly. "I am sorry. It was a nightmare, nothing more."

Faramir, still gripping the King's arms, could feel him tremble, even through several layers of clothing.

Not sure whether or not it was the right thing to do or whether he would be pushed away, Faramir released his hold, helped Aragorn to a sitting position, and put his arms around his friend. He impulsively desired to comfort the one who had been both father and brother to him these past years. Tenderly, he smoothed the sweat stained hair away from Aragorn's pale face.

Without thinking, Aragorn, soothed by the touch, leaned his aching head against his Steward's brow. In that brief moment, their thoughts, long sundered, began to join together once more.

Chapter Eight – Climb every Mountain

Climb every mountain, search high and low
Follow every byway, every path you know.
Climb every mountain, ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, 'til you find your dream!
- The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Psalm 51:17

And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. Genesis 22. 7-8

Aragorn made a half-hearted move as if to break away.

“Can we no longer share thoughts?” Faramir asked sadly. “Will we never again be in sufficient accord?”

“I believe we still have the ability, but fear it would wound our souls too deeply!” Aragorn replied.

“Can we cause each other any more pain than we have already?” Faramir replied, trying to control his emotions. Already he sensed Aragorn’s feelings of pain and betrayal.

“Let it be then!” Aragorn conceded. ”I would have more light first, though.”

Faramir threw several more logs on the waning fire, coaxing the waning flames to flare up brightly with new hunger. He then settled again beside his King, sitting close enough for their heads to touch. A flood of powerful emotions assailed both men as their troubled souls opened to each other.

Each man found the other's pain nigh unbearable to experience. Aragorn became aware how Faramir felt befouled for all time by his deeds. At times, his Steward had even questioned whether it was worth it to sacrifice his honour and beliefs; all that had made him the man he had been, in order to save his King. Cursed as a traitor he was, sullied by word and deed! This idea filled Faramir with revulsion, that he should even think such a thing. Yet it was not remorse for his actions that caused Faramir's deepest anguish, but rather the loss of his bond with Aragorn, which had meant everything to him. It made him feel as if he had once more lost both father and brother.

Aragorn still seethed with anger at Faramir’s seeming betrayal. Whatever the reason, he had been scarred for life by Faramir’s hand. That terrible moment continued to haunt him. When he could think calmly about the matter, Aragorn knew his anger was both ungrateful and unreasoning. Had Faramir not come to the lodge and found him under the pretence of joining his tormentors, the conspirators would have undoubtedly subjected Aragorn to further, even worse tortures, and then a humiliating death. They would have eventually slain Arwen to lay bloodstained hands on Eldarion, and most likely killed the child too in time, or raised him to be as perfidious as they were. Recalling the pain of that time, together with his fears for his lady and their beloved son, scored his heart, throbbing like an infected wound. And Faramir had saved them all. Yet Aragorn could not cease from blaming Faramir, believing that his Steward could have found another, better way, a clear and good path to the rescue of his King. Could not Faramir have summoned hundreds of Rangers to hide in the hills beyond the lodge, and then have signalled them to storm the rebels' den to free him? Could Faramir not have located him more quickly by using the palantír to observe the suspected rebels comings and goings, instead of playing the traitor for all those weeks while he lay in the dungeon under torment?

“I am sorry!” Aragorn and Faramir spoke at the same time.

They broke the bond quickly, unable to further endure each other’s mingled grief, pain and anger.

In his heart, Aragorn wanted to comfort Faramir with a fatherly embrace. Yet, his mind recoiled, for it seemed that Faramir regretted the loss of his love rather than his actions.

At the same time, Faramir wanted to comfort his King, but the hurtful knowledge that Aragorn could not wholly forgive him, made him fear to try. Faramir knew from the sad experience of Denethor's last years that it was better to keep a respectful distance than to be pushed away.

Just then, the storm broke, blasting the sky with flashes and forks of lightening. The thunder crashed overhead, so the very mountain seemed to be shaking.

Unable to think of any suitable words to console one another, Aragorn and Faramir could only watch nature vent its fury. The rain poured down at last, but only for a short time. The droplets splashed the ground until the storm ended and left a clear moonlit sky in its wake.

“At least we have finally had some rain,” said Faramir, trying to sound cheerful.

“Thunder rain does little good,” Aragorn said glumly. “It does not last long enough to nourish the thirsty earth. The air does feel fresher, though. We should try to rest now.”

He settled on his bedroll and rolled on his side, away from the Steward.

Emotionally exhausted, they slept, untroubled by further nightmares.

***

Aragorn and Faramir woke early the next morning and breakfasted on the remainder of the fish they had caught the day before.

Although the two men were still somewhat subdued and. ill at ease with each other, they both realized that they felt better in each other's company. The Sharing of Thoughts had eased the tension between them, at least to a certain extent. It had felt like bathing a raw wound with salted water, causing much pain, but thereby cleansing it and giving it a chance of healing without festering.

The air felt fresh and clean, but it promised to be another very hot day.

“Are you well enough to climb the mountain today?” Aragorn enquired of his Steward while they scoured the cooking pots in the stream. Already, the sun was hot and they had discarded their tunics.

Faramir nodded, silently hoping that Aragorn would neither suggest that they went swimming first, nor suggest another humiliating inspection of his skin.

“Good, we will begin our ascent as soon as we have finished tidying up here.” He shook the water out of the pan and put it on a boulder to dry in the sun. “We bathed yesterday, so there is no need to do so again.”

Faramir heaved a deep sigh of relief. Much as he yearned to scrub himself clean, even the thought of baring his body horrified him, after the experience suffered yesterday. He contented himself by scouring his plate clean, then placed it beside the other dishes and leaned back against a tree. ” Should I not remain at our campsite?” Faramir asked. “Since I am not worthy to enter the Hallow, I can await you here.”

“You are coming with me,” Aragorn sternly replied. ”We had this argument yesterday and I am not prepared to repeat it! The path there is steep and I promised my wife I would not attempt it alone.”

“Very well, my lord,” Faramir said without enthusiasm. “What do you intend to do when you reach the Hallow, sire?”

“I shall give thanks to the One and offer the first fruits as a sacrifice, as did my sires in Númenor,” Aragorn explained.

“ I cannot see anything to offer as a sacrifice,” Faramir looked puzzled. “We brought only the bare necessities with us.”

“An offering will be provided,” Aragorn said without offering to explain further. “Come! You had better bring your tunic with you. The higher we go, the cooler the air will become; and there will be a fresh, strong wind at the peak.” He was already rummaging for his own as he spoke. “We must leave the horses here; it will be too steep for them to climb the slope.”

Faramir did as he was bidden, shaking his head slightly. Much as he admired Aragorn, he found him highly unconventional at times. Sighing, he followed his lord as the King started to ascend the southern flank of Mount Mindolluin.

“Are you certain this is the right path?” Faramir groaned when the trail became noticeably steeper, forcing him to struggle to keep his foothold. He almost tripped and dislodged a shower of pebbles, which sent a startled mountain goat fleeing in panic.

“Yes, I have taken this way before with Gandalf,” Aragorn replied. “I remember it well, although we made far swifter progress!”

Faramir bit back a retort, as he grazed his palm on a particularly sharp rock.

Ignoring his Steward’s complaints, Aragorn continued to climb, looking for the point where the path turned aside.

Faramir could only follow, cursing under his breath at the King's sudden fondness for pilgrimages in such inhospitable places. He had to admit that Aragorn was right though about the weather. It had turned noticeably cooler and he was glad of his woollen tunic. Eventually even his hardy northern companion started to shiver in his shirtsleeves and conceded defeat. They climbed higher and higher until they had to stop to catch their breath.

“Come on!” Aragorn urged his Steward.

Faramir had by now developed a stitch in his side and was bent almost in half as he strove to breathe and climb while it seemed as if a dagger were stabbing him.

Aragorn doubled back and went to his aid. “Breathe slowly and deeply!” he told him, as the Steward tried to massage the right side of his ribcage. “Is that better?” he asked.

“’It would be if we were not climbing up this steep slope!” Faramir grumbled, still unable to straighten up.

Aragorn’s only reply was to sharply prod him in the ribs.

Faramir yelped but straightened up immediately. “Another of your Elven remedies?” he asked, still gingerly rubbing his side, though the pain had now gone.

“One that Elrond himself taught me,” Aragorn replied. “It has proved very useful on many occasions!”

“So you often climbed mountains for pleasure then?” Faramir asked incredulously, hoping for a little time to regain his breath.

“Not for pleasure, no, but I have climbed a great many mountains in my time, which you most obviously have not! Anyone would think you had lived twice my years, rather than not yet half of them! Let us go just a little farther, and then we shall rest.”

His mood sinking even further, Faramir followed his King as Aragorn beckoned him across a high field. His thoughts wandered to a tale that his father had been fond of telling his sons; how the Kings of old would lead political rivals up Mindolluin by dark and secret paths, never to be seen again. Faramir had always thought the story an old wives’ tale meant to scare children from trying to climb the mountain, or perhaps a distant memory of Castamir's tyranny. Today the old tale made him shudder. Surely Aragorn would never consider such a thing!

And yet… Faramir knew little of the worship of the One. Even the Creator's true name, was rarely used by the descendants of the land that Eru had destroyed. And what was the planned sacrifice? The rite was practised by the King alone and shrouded in mystery; its lore long lost in the mists of time. Eru Ilúvatar was the maker of all, whose will was law to the Valar themselves. Yet Ilúvatar had created Morgoth and Sauron, allowed them to wreak terrible evil for years beyond count. The One had required the sacrifice of all who remained in the Land of Gift after the Faithful had fled, even the children, to atone for the pride of Ar-Pharazôn, the last King. And Ar-Pharazôn had made sacrifices to Morgoth at Sauron's urging, sacrifices not of fruits but of the Faithful, his own ancestors. Kings making sacrifices. Sacrifices to pride: as Denethor had chosen him to be. Sacrifices made to punish pride and rebellion against the Creator's law: the dead of fallen Númenor. Could the One now require his life in sacrifice? Faramir sighed. If the King that he had wronged took his life, would his treason be expiated? He resolutely trudged onwards.

When they had neared the snowline, Aragorn stopped. “You may come no further, ” he commanded. “I must go on alone from here to offer the first fruits that Arwen chose for me.” He took a somewhat battered apple and pear from his pockets as he spoke. “Wait for me until I return!”

“Yes, my lord,” Faramir answered meekly, chiding himself for his dire fancies. He settled upon a fairly flat rock, glad for a chance to rest. Aragorn’s coldness had left him weary and heart sore.

Aragorn entered the Hallow and stood for a moment looking at the view across his kingdom. Last time he had stood in this place, its beauty had immensely moved him. Today he felt only sorrow and weariness. He placed the fruit on the ground and hesitated, unsure just exactly how to approach the One who had commanded the Valar to make music and bring Arda into being. The Wise had taught him, that he too was a child of the One, but he knew even less of him than he did of Arathorn.

Aragorn stood, lifted his eyes heavenwards and solemnly intoned; “Almighty One, I, Elessar Telcontar, Lord of the Reunited Kingdom, come here this day to offer you these first fruits, with my thanks and praise.

The King did not know what to expect but found himself feeling slightly disappointed when nothing happened. It was so quiet up here away from the noise and bustle of the City. A skylark soared overhead, filling the air with its rapturous song. Then all was silent once more. Aragorn suddenly felt very alone. Solitude had long been his custom; but here on this peak, it seemed as if nothing existed in the world save him and this mysterious One who created it.

He sank to his knees in awe. Suddenly, Aragorn was weeping and pouring out his heart to his Creator. “Help me!” he pleaded. “I have lost my way. Help me!”

He had no idea how long he remained there sobbing painfully. At last, he had no more tears left to shed. He sank back exhausted on the ground. A feeling of peace filled him. Sudden unbidden thoughts flooded his mind. It was as if some unseen presence was telling him,’ Lay down your burdens. Let go, simply follow your heart’!

With sudden resolve, Aragorn wiped his eyes and rose to his feet. He made his way back down the path to where he had left Faramir.

The Steward sat hunched and dejected. The reddened eyes he raised suggested that he might have been weeping too.

“Close your eyes and come with me!” Aragorn ordered.

“But why?” Faramir asked, his apprehension returning at this new turn of events.

“As far as I know, none of my sires ever threw anyone off this mountain and I do not intend to be the first!” Aragorn said dryly, reading Faramir’s mind.

“My lord, I did not mean to imply...” Faramir protested.

“I too have heard that old wives’ tale,” Aragorn interrupted. “You fear, yet still you follow me without protest!”

”It is my duty to follow where you lead, sire. I know you to be a man of honour.”

“I am glad to hear that you still think so. Come! It will be worth it, it, you will see,” Aragorn assured him, seizing Faramir by the wrist and leading him across the grass. Mercifully, it was much flatter here. Anxious though he was, Faramir still trusted his lord in his heart. 

 

These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.

The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
and he is mine for ever.

Where streams of living water flow,
my ransomed soul he leadeth,
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
but yet in love He sought me,
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

- Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877),

With grateful thanks to Raksha 

Faramir stumbled slightly but managed to keep his eyes closed. ”Where are you leading me?” he asked, his voice sounding unusually lost and vulnerable.

“I have hold of you, we are almost there,” Aragorn reassured him, gripping his wrist more tightly. “I want to show you the City.”

“If we wanted to look at the City, we could have stayed there!” Faramir replied, now feeling more bemused than ever.

“All will be clear in a moment. You can look now!” Aragorn told his Steward.

Faramir opened his eyes and gasped. Spread out beneath him was the fairest view of the White City that he had ever seen. The August sunshine gilded The Tower of Ecthelion in light, the gleaming white circles of the City spreading out below. The city's splendour made Faramir’s heart leap in wonder, for it was like a vision of Gondolin of old. For a moment he was dumbstruck with awe.

“I thought the view from near Duilin of Morthond’s Hunting Lodge was spectacular, but this is better by far!” Faramir exclaimed, squeezing Aragorn’s fingers in gratitude before releasing the guiding hand.

“If you look to the east you can see Mordor, no longer veiled in darkness. Towards the west is the Vale of Anduin and beyond that the sea,” Aragorn told him, pointing out the places as he spoke. “I thought tomorrow we might follow the river for a while and perhaps swim again if the weather remains warm.”

“Whatever you wish,” Faramir said absently. He was still gazing awestruck at the clear sight of his home, so distant to his eyes yet so beloved to his heart.

“However did you learn of this place? I thought Boromir had shown me all the best places to view our home; yet he never brought me up here!

”I thought one as loyal to Gondor as you would treasure this sight!” Aragorn said quietly.

Faramir tensed slightly at the words and then felt a sudden thrill that Aragorn would speak of him as ‘loyal’ again.

The Steward contemplated his beloved City in silence for a few moments and blinked away a tear. ”Shall we go now?” he asked somewhat abruptly. Faramir was baffled by Aragorn’s change of mood. He desired to leave while the King remained in a cordial humour.

“I hoped we could stay a while and talk,” Aragorn replied. He had moved away from the edge and now was now sprawled on the grass a few feet away. “Come, sit here beside me!”

Faramir rather reluctantly sat down. “We shared our thoughts last night. It seems we only cause each other pain. I do not understand why you have brought here. I thought you wanted to be alone.”

“I felt you would like to see the view,” Aragorn said simply. “What do you fear, Faramir? I would not harm you.”

Faramir stared at the ground. “You have never harmed me,” he replied somewhat evasively. “I believe I fear myself. Sometimes, I feel I that I have indeed lost my soul, just as you warned me,” he continued almost inaudibly.

“If your soul was lost indeed, your heart would not be so troubled,” the King replied.

“I committed deeds that I did not believe that I was capable of contemplating! I tortured you, killed in cold blood and even contemplated murdering an innocent child! I am shamed now, when you say that I am loyal to Gondor. I hardly know, even, why I acted as I did. Sometimes, I fear it was neither for you, nor even to the land I was born to serve. I know only that I had lost one father to a dreadful fate. I could not bear to lose another one who had become dearer to me by far.”

Aragorn reached out and fleetingly placed a hand on the troubled younger man’s shoulder. ”I hope we can use this time to seek healing,” he said gently. "We saw the pain in each other’s hearts last night. Our bodies have healed but our souls have not. Arwen saw it all too clearly.”

“Your lady has great wisdom,” Faramir replied. He turned his attention back to the view. “Did you discover this place when you served my grandfather as Captain Thorongil?” he asked.

Aragorn shook his head. “No, the first I knew of it was when Mithrandir led me here just over three years ago.”

“When you discovered the White Tree?” Faramir’s eyes were wide with wonder.

“That very day! You remember it too?”

“How could I ever forget? I made such a fool of myself barging into your rooms and accusing you of destroying Gondor’s heritage!”

Aragorn laughed. ”I was delighted to see you show some spirit! It showed just how much you loved this land. I think that was the first day I felt truly happy since I became King. The tree's existence was a sign that my beloved Arwen was coming, also that was the first day our minds touched. I would not lose what I gained then.” His tone became wistful as he stared at the gleaming towers and the sunlit Anduin Vale.

“Nor would I. “ Faramir’s tone was equally wistful. “Can I really see the sea over there?” he asked, changing the subject. The Steward craned his neck for a better look before getting to his feet and moving nearer to the edge.

“It is. Then, to the North, you can see Rauros. And if you look to the South, you see the river making its way to Pelagir.”

“If only my mother could have come up here, maybe she would have not pined so much for the sea!” Faramir said wistfully.

“Your father could not have known of this place. We are standing in a Hallow known only to the Kings of Old,” Aragorn said quietly.

“The Kings? You mean this is the Hallow, where you actually found the White Tree?” Faramir asked in awe. “I have no right to be here! You said I was not allowed to enter this place!” By now, he was utterly bewildered at Aragorn’s abrupt change of mind.

“Cannot the King decide who may or may not come here?” Aragorn replied in a tone both incalculable and remote. Reaching a decision, he then relaxed and smiled at his Steward. ”While I was praying, I had the feeling that you were meant to see this place,” he confided.

“You do me great honour, my lord.” Faramir almost unconsciously dipped his head as a mark of respect.

Aragorn suddenly grasped Faramir’s arm and slowly turned him to face the stony slope behind them. “The sapling stood up there, just below the snowline,” he said. “Would you like to climb up to see the exact spot?”

“Please!” With his deep love of his heritage, Faramir was determined to seize this unique opportunity to actually stand where the seedling of Nimloth had taken root and grown.

“We might have to help each other up the slope,” Aragorn warned, “It is very steep!”  Despite his words, he started the incline with the agility of a deer, dislodging stones in his wake. Faramir followed more cautiously, needing a helping hand from his lord where the footing was at its most precarious.

“It was just there; you can still see the disturbed earth where I uprooted it,” the King said once they had finally reached the spot. “I have returned to give thanks, as once did my forefathers in this hallowed place.” He solemnly knelt on the ground and bowed his head before saying; “I give thanks to the One and to the Valar for delivering me from my captivity and restoring me to my family and to my throne.” He hesitated for a moment and then added, “I give thanks too, for the one who delivered me.” He turned and abruptly placed a hand on Faramir’s head, murmuring, “Be thou blessed!”

Faramir fell to his knees, overwhelmed. He reverently touched the soil and then looked upward to where the snow lay unmelted, sparkling in the sunlight.  “It seems fitting somehow that it should be found here,” he said at last. “The White Tree, white as the snow. I will remember this day to tell of it to Elestelle. The tale will make a good bedtime story.”

“Maybe we will bring our children when they are old enough to understand,” Aragorn replied.

The Steward had spotted something out of the corner of his eye and started to climb up towards it.

“Faramir whatever are you doing?” Aragorn cried, “You are not a mountain goat!”

“I can hear water,” Faramir called, “Listen!” He climbed higher, disappearing behind a rocky crag.

“I can hear it now!” the King exclaimed and started to climb after him, his curiosity kindled.

“I have found it!” Faramir called joyously, “Look, a mountain stream, it must have nourished the seedling of Nimloth!”

For a moment, Aragorn was taken aback. Surely, he should have made this discovery, not his Steward? Then the voice came to him again in his head. ‘ Beware of pride! This was meant to be, remember to follow your heart!’ it counselled him.

“You must be the first person to discover its source! How strange that it is not frozen!” Aragorn exclaimed, allowing himself to be caught up in his Steward’s excitement. He patted Faramir’s shoulder, somewhat surprised at just how pleased he now felt on the younger man’s behalf. The King knelt beside the stream and cupped his hands. He scooped up the pure sparkling water, and drank deeply of it. “It tastes fresh and sweet,” he told Faramir. ”Drink, it will refresh you!”

“I am not worthy,” Faramir said doubtfully. "I am no king, nor would I be. My line has been tainted!”

“All the more reason you should drink deeply then,” Aragorn replied.

Faramir hesitated for a moment and then drank. “ How pure and clean it feels!” he exclaimed. ”It reminds me of the water in the Fountain. See how it sparkles in the sunlight!”

“The tree must feel at home in the City then,” Aragorn smiled.

“Like the tree, the spring lay hidden here; even as your people lay hidden in the North!” Faramir exclaimed. 

“Shall we follow it to find its source?” Aragorn suggested, now as excited as his Steward.” I think we can climb higher if we help each other again.”

Faramir eagerly concurred.

The path ever more unsteady as King and Steward painstakingly followed the stream uphill, certain its source could not be far off.

The way became almost impassable. In places they were forced to climb over boulders and maintain a precarious foothold on near vertical slopes made slippery by the snow. Aragorn placed his foot on seemingly solid ground only to suddenly stumble and then slide forward on a thick stretch of ice hidden beneath the snow.  Faramir caught his king just in time to stop Aragorn from falling. 

“I thought I was about to fall over the edge there!” Aragorn exclaimed, gasping for breath. He had been mere inches from tumbling to almost certain death on the rocks below.

“I have you now. I would not let you go!” Faramir reassured him. The Steward’s face was white with fear. “Maybe we should go back?”

“No, not after we have come this far. You may think me fanciful, but I feel I am meant to find the source now,” Aragorn replied, gradually regaining his breath.

Fearful that Aragorn might stumble again, Faramir kept a tight grip on the older man’s arm. When they rounded the next bend, they both stopped in their tracks, astounded at the sight before them. They had reached a small but incredibly beautiful lake concealed between two high rocky ridges.  Blue and white mountain blooms were scattered over the lush velvety grass carpeting the banks. The sun sparkled on the clear blue water, reflected from the overhead blue of the near cloudless sky. Awestruck, Aragorn sank to his knees on the verdant shores. Faramir sank down beside him. For a moment, they concentrated on regaining their breath.

Feeling oddly compelled, Aragorn then cupped his hands and drank the water. It tasted fresh and sweet, but unlike the stream, was not icy cold. The King swallowed deeply, feeling some mysterious force was renewing him. He realised the One had directed him to this place. “You should drink too,” he told Faramir.

“Maybe this lake is sacred to your line?” Faramir said doubtfully. “I have never seen anything quite like it before! Perhaps I should not touch it?”

Aragorn smiled at him. “If indeed it is sacred to Isildur’s line, then I may bid you drink!” He splashed his Steward playfully with the water. “There you have touched it, so you may drink!”

Faramir sipped the water. It tasted no different to him that that in the stream.

Aragorn suddenly pulled off his boots and was starting to unlace his tunic. “I feel I must bathe here! I feel the One calling to me!”

“But why? I thought you said I was washing too much! It is too cold up here!” Faramir protested.

“I have bathed in far colder waters in the North,” Aragorn said calmly throwing his tunic to one side and starting to unlace his shirt.

“You know nothing about this lake, it could conceal hidden dangers!” Faramir protested.

“This lake is hallowed, Faramir; nothing here could harm me. Eru has directed my footsteps to this place” Aragorn replied adding his shirt to the discarded tunic.

“You do not even have a towel to dry yourself with!” Faramir pointed out, alarmed at the goose flesh that was already forming on Aragorn’s bare back and arms. He was baffled that after yesterday’s insistence that Faramir grant the King privacy to bathe, Aragorn now seemed untroubled by his presence. Feeling uncomfortable, Faramir started to back away.

Chapter Ten - Tat Avam Asi

Tat Avam Asi - That Thou Art - Chandogya Upanishad

Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked I shall return there.- The Bible. Job 1.21

Aragorn stole a sideways glance towards Faramir who was retreating some way back towards the path. It seemed the Steward was determined to keep his distance. There was more to Faramir's recalcitrance than his Steward's insistence on modesty. He knew what troubled the younger man.

“Faramir, look upon me!”

“You are undressing, my lord," Faramir protested, “You need your privacy."

“I have been foolish. I think it is high time that you looked at my shoulder. Come!”

Faramir walked back up the bank towards the King then partially turned his head and fixed his eyes on a point somewhere on Aragorn’s brow.

The King grabbed Faramir’s hand and placed it against his shoulder, forcing him to feel the oblong of raised and puckered flesh where the brand had disfigured the once smooth skin. “Now look at me!” he said with an unmistakeable tone of command. “We must face what was done to both of us!”

Faramir studied the King’s shoulder for a moment then looked away, as if stung. Aragorn touched Faramir's face, and then gently but inexorably turned his Steward's head back so that he had no choice but to see where his own hand rested.

“I know you carry the scar as much in your heart as I carry the brand above mine.” Aragorn stated. He moved his hand and rested it over Faramir's heart, which beat wildly, like the wings of a terrified bird. "The grief and guilt of the deed has festered within your loyal soul,” the King continued, releasing him. ”Do not let this brand be burned into your heart forever!”

“I will try,” Faramir replied doubtfully, amazed that the King should again speak of loyalty in connection with him. ”Whatever has happened to you, my lord?”

“The One told me to follow my heart,” Aragorn replied. “I see now that I was blinded by my pain and my pride.”

“I beg you to have a care about bathing here,” Faramir pleaded, more unsure than ever about the mysterious One. “It is not so long since you were close to death; you could take a chill. There could be hidden currents or other dangers lurking for the unwary! You do not even have a towel with you!”

“Fear not, I have swum in lakes and rivers far colder than this and been dried only by the sun's rays many times in my travels." Aragorn laughingly brushed aside Faramir's objections. It seemed almost a sacrilege to disturb the lake's still blue surface, yet he felt compelled to bathe here. The Creator had told him to let go of his burdens and then guided him to this place. Maybe, if he surrendered himself wholly, he might wash away the cares that lay heavy on his soul. A sudden breeze stirred up ripples, almost as if inviting Aragorn to come and immerse himself in the waters.

“As your Steward, it is my duty to protect you, you cannot swim in there alone!” Faramir protested. “There could be hidden currents or jagged stones poised to harm the unwary!"

“Then come with me!”

“I am not worthy,” Faramir replied. “I beg of you, my lord, do not take the chance of endangering yourself.”

“I have no authority to order you to join me, but I invite you to do so, Faramir. If you come, you must come freely and offer yourself completely!” Aragorn entreated him.

“No, thank you,” Faramir said firmly. Despite his longing to take his place once more at his King's side, he feared to offer himself to the unknown. Had his father not tried to offer them both up in fire, as if in some heathen rite?

Aragorn paused while unfastening his belt, and knelt on the ground. He gestured towards the delicate white flowers, which grew profusely along the banks. “Do you know what these are?” he asked Faramir.

“No, I have never seen flowers quite like them before,” Faramir frowned. “I know that the blue ones are sage, yet I have never before seen these fair white blooms. I am surprised, since thought I knew all the flowers of Gondor.

“They are niphredil!” Aragorn’s tone was filled with awe, “No evil can lurk here. This is the flower of the Elven kingdoms, which bloomed to greet my foremother Lúthien at her birth. It also blooms in Lothlórien. When I plighted my troth to Arwen, niphredil blossomed beneath our feet at Cerin Amroth. I never thought to see it in bloom elsewhere! I must try to preserve a few blooms to show to my lady. There is athelas here too, so my ancestors have visited this place before.”

Awestruck, Faramir reached out to gently caress the delicate white niphredil petals. He had read the old stories. He knew and loved the legends, especially that of Lúthien the Fair. It seemed today that the Quenta Silmarillion had come to life before his very eyes. He knew now that no harm would could to his King if Aragorn entered the lake. The very presence of anything connected to the Eldar conveyed a blessing.

Aragorn’s breeches were added to the scattered pile of clothing. Then, somewhat to Faramir’s surprise, Aragorn started to unlace his drawers. This lack of decorum was unusual, for the King always retained his undergarments when bathing anywhere save in his private chambers.

Aragorn noted his Steward’s shocked expression and said; “I must offer myself to the waters as I came from my mother’s womb, devoid of outward trappings.” He removed the leather ties he used to keep the hair out of his eyes and then took off his rings. He stowed them carefully within his clothing.

Shaking his head, Faramir retreated behind the ridge, pleading a call of nature, and desiring to leave Aragorn alone if he were so determined to take off all his clothes. The previous day's events still were painfully fresh in his memory and he had no desire to repeat them by joining his lord.

Aragorn felt almost in a trance as he undressed. The cool breeze, instead of biting at his exposed flesh, seemed rather to be caressing his skin. He felt no chill, even when the sun ducked behind a cloud. There was only ease in this hallowed place, and a sense of belonging, of welcome. Here he was more than a lord; he was a son of Arda, part of the trees and the wind and water and open skies. Gone was all trace of his usual shyness at being unclothed in front of others. Faramir’s presence did not perturb him. Nor did he feel troubled by the mark he bore upon his shoulder.

He waded confidently into the lake, his feet stepping on cool sand. The water met him, warm and inviting; drawing Aragorn into what seemed like a close embrace. When he launched himself outward in a steady stroke, the water burned like fire when it touched his shoulder, as if he were being branded anew. Yet, he cared not, as he swam towards the centre of the lake.

Aragorn laughed in mid-stroke, raising his head, but not stopping. He had always enjoyed a good swim, for in the water, he was almost as graceful as most Elves. But this; this was even better. He had rarely felt such utter joy in simply being alive. And for the first time since his ordeal in captivity, Aragorn knew peace of mind. The burden lifted from his heart. The pain, humiliation, and fear were leaving him, washing away, falling far into the deep or wafting up into the clouds, shot up by his kicking feet, he really did not care where. This place had magic, like the Elven realms before Beleriand's fall, or Rivendell under the protection of Vilya and Elrond.

He yearned to share this unfettered bliss and use it to ease Faramir’s tortured soul. Aragorn reversed course and started back to the shore.

When Faramir returned, he saw that the King had waded into the lake and now stood in the shallows, immersed up to his waist. Aragorn turned and beckoned to him.

Just then, the sun emerged from behind a cloud to bathe Aragorn’s body in its bright golden rays. Never had he looked so kingly, not even on the day of his coronation. The King’s eyes shone like stars, and the sun crowned him with glory.

A great eagle flew from a nearby peak and circled above his head. Aragorn stretched out his arms and stood rapt as its mighty form hovered dark against the sun. Tall and kingly Aragorn stood, a lord of the waters like his forefather Elendil, carrying his majesty in his own unadorned form.

Faramir fell on his knees, seeing Aragorn Elessar for truly what he was, as much a living legend as the White Tree, the wind lord, and the niphredil surrounding him. He sensed the presence of the Valar, perhaps even the mysterious One, conferring blessings upon his lord.

Although Faramir could still see the brand upon Aragorn’s shoulder, the flesh scarred by his hand no longer seemed capable of disfiguring so great a man. He knew then that whatever the cost to his own soul; he would hazard it again for Aragorn.

“Come!” the King called, his voice kindly and compelling. He beckoned towards his Steward, as he stepped backwards, deeper and deeper, until he was treading water some fifty feet from the shore.

Faramir could no more resist his call than he could have in that fateful hour in the Houses of Healing when they first met.

As if in a dream, he started to remove first his tunic, followed by his shirt, then the rings from his fingers. He placed the rings in his pocket and neatly folded his clothing into a tidy pile.

The icy wind seemed to bite the Steward’s exposed and still tender flesh. His boots and breeches consigned to the bank, he stood shivering in his drawers, wondering what madness was this for the Steward of Gondor to contemplate stripping to his skin on Mindolluin's heights. Yet this place must be hidden completely from the City, since not even a rumour about it had ever reached his ears.

“Come,” Aragorn called again, lifting one arm to wave. “Join me, Faramir!”

Faramir stared for a moment at the lake, and realised, as Aragorn had; that he need not conceal anything here. Before so pure and beauteous a lake, the idea of wearing drawers, indeed any clothes, to bathe in therein, felt almost like sacrilege. He shed his final garment and tentatively stepped into the lake.

His mind made up, Faramir waded out swiftly. He felt the skin of his upper body sting painfully for a few moments. His incessant scrubbing now seemed very foolish. It was not his body that needed cleansing, but his soul; and that was for the grace of the Valar alone to achieve when they chose.

The pain subsided and the water seemed to rise up to caress him, as natural as a soft breeze on his face, as he swam out towards his King.

Suddenly the guilt and misery that had plagued Faramir for months retreated, replaced by a wellspring of happiness that surged strongly within him, invigorating his weary soul. He laughed out loud, caring not that he took in mouthfuls of water and then sputtered it back out like a fountain. Aragorn swam forward to meet him and clasped Faramir's hand in greeting, a warm smile lightening his carven features.

They swam for what could either have been minutes or hours. Time seemed to have no meaning in this enchanted place.

Splashing and diving like the dolphins of Belfalas, their bodies felt as light as their hearts. The sunlight that sparkled on the surface of the water seemed to reflect their joy. Their arguments, even their rank, seemed petty now. All that mattered was this moment, and the great good fortune that they were both alive to share it. They were part of something greater now, their own limbs flowing into the water that enfolded them, and the skies that embraced land and lake: One world, one great source of water, and one exultant heart beating in two bodies. They were at one with each other, at one with air and water, earth and sky: at one with all of creation and its Creator.

Both men knew when it was time at last to return to shore, though no word was spoken between them.

Faramir and Aragorn clambered together from the water, their earlier unease forgotten and washed away. They shook their hair like wet dogs to help dry it, and then hastened into their sun-warmed garments.

Aragorn found tears coursing down his cheeks, though whether from joy or sorrow, he could not say.

He turned to look at Faramir, who was just finishing lacing his shirt, and saw that he was weeping too.

Then they were embracing each other, clinging together as easily and naturally as a beloved parent and child, the bitterness of the past months washed away with their tears.

“We are blessed indeed, ion nîn!” exclaimed Aragorn. Then he kissed Faramir on the brow for the first time in many long months. He gazed out once more across the lake. It had been so long since he was truly glad to be alive, but now he could have sung for the joy he had lived to see this day. “I think you were meant to discover this place!” he murmured, his arm still around Faramir's shoulders.

Aragorn and Faramir lingered on the shore, damp heads touching and sensing each other’s thoughts. This time, they sought no explanations but only reached out to sense the depth of love they felt for one another; a love, which like grass had been trampled and bruised, yet grew back all the stronger. They knew their full recovery would take time. They had, however taken the crucial first step towards healing.

 

Chapter eleven – Singing in the Wilderness

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Omar Khayyám (d. 1123), Persian poet. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr (l. 45–48). . .

The wind had grown stronger and whipped through the men’s damp hair, blowing it across their faces. “It grows chill. I think we should return to our camp site.” Aragorn said, noticing the cooler air as he finally released Faramir.

“I thought you liked the cold,” Faramir teased. “You must be getting old!” He felt somewhat unsure exactly how to proceed after the recent exchange of strong emotion. Yet the habit of banter with his liege lord felt easy and natural once more, like stepping into a comfortable pair of boots after wearing stiff, tight new ones.

“I do not feel the cold like you do!” Aragorn retorted with welcome good humour. “A brisk walk down the mountain will soon warm you up!”

King and Steward started down the mountainside at a brisk pace, helping each other over the most difficult terrain.

They paused to catch their breath at the Hallow where they had admired the view earlier, sprawling beside each other on the grass.

“Thank you for bringing me to this sacred place, after all that has happened,” Faramir said quietly. ”I admit that I did not want to come, but now I will always remember this day with joy. I cannot wait to tell Éowyn about it!” His eyes searched the horizon until they rested upon Ithilien. He shut his eyes trying to picture Éowyn sitting in her herb garden with their daughter and niece.

Aragorn placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I am sorry!” he murmured. “I should never have blamed you; you gave everything for me; far more than I could ever have demanded or expected of you.”

“I would do it again,” said Faramir with total sincerity, leaning his head against Aragorn’s hand. “There will always be dark hours of the night when I will be troubled by my actions. Yet in my heart I know I would hazard all again to save you; even my very soul or what remains of it!”

Aragorn turned to look at him directly. “Your soul is as intact as it was on the day I first knew you, mellon nîn,” he said firmly. “You lost your innocence mixing with traitors, but never your soul! I have met many on my travels, who did indeed lose their souls to the Dark Lord. The loss of light is easy to see in their eyes, where there is nothing save emptiness. You can only lose yourself when you seek to gain, not when you risk all for another.”

“I perceive it all differently now,” Faramir mused. “I wonder what really happened to us at the lake?”

“The One bestowed a blessing by allowing you to find it. That is all we need to know,” Aragorn replied. ”Arwen would probably understand better. I know only, that never before had I felt so at peace. It was like being born anew.”

“I felt I could somehow understand clearly,” Faramir said. He gestured into the distance. “I knew that you and the land are one. Yet, I cannot find the right words to explain how I knew.”

Aragorn laughed. “Maybe, we should not try to. I felt as one with all creation and yet I am just one man! Come on; let us get something to eat. I am suddenly very hungry!”

“Then let your friend provide you with supper!” Faramir promised. He then swallowed hard as this was the first time in months that he had called himself his lord's friend. Since Aragorn did not contradict him, Faramir did not correct himself.

000

Faramir was as good as his word and shot two conies with his bow. He was about to prepare them for supper on his own, but tonight Aragorn insisted on helping him. They ate in companionable silence, then washed the dishes and prepared to lay out their bedrolls as the shadows lengthened.

Aragorn started to hum softly to himself.

“What is that tune?” Faramir asked, ”It is vaguely familiar and yet I cannot place it.”

”You know the words I am certain. It is ‘The Lay of Lúthien’” Aragorn told him, smiling.

“Will you sing it to me please?” Faramir entreated with an almost childlike eagerness.

“I thought you were a little old for bedtime stories!” Aragorn teased.

“I know, but this is the first I have been on a camping trip like this,” Faramir told him.” When I was a child, I yearned for my father to take me with my brother when they went camping together. I was never allowed to go with them. My brother was after all, the heir. The years passed until I joined the army and all thoughts of camping out for pleasure were banished from my mind. Yet, always I dreamed of sitting around the campfire, singing the old songs.”

His friend’s calm recitation wrung Aragorn’s heart. He had spent many happy hours in his youth camping out in Rivendell with his foster brothers. Together with Lord Elrond, they had tried very hard to make up to him that he was fatherless. More than ever, he wanted to make it up to Faramir for all the bleak years his Steward had known. It might have been better for Faramir to be fatherless than to have had a living but unloving father. Aragorn moved closer to Faramir, patted him on the shoulder, and then began to sing the familiar words in a deep resonant voice.

The Steward listened rapt at the power of his King's voice. He had heard the Lay of Lúthien before, at his uncle's court in Dol Amroth, and, very rarely, in Minas Tirith. Sometimes it seemed to him that he had also heard the Lay sung by a woman, in a voice distant yet familiar. But he had never heard it sung so movingly. “That was wondrous!” he exclaimed.

“I sang it to the Hobbits when I took them to Rivendell, but only Frodo understood the words,” Aragorn told him. “This song is very special to me. I have only to sing it to be reminded of my fair Arwen. I was a mere lad of twenty, and had just learned of my true name and lineage, when I first beheld her, as I walked through the birches in Imladris, singing the Lay of Lúthien. I thought she was Lúthien herself, reborn even more beautiful than her legend!” The King stared dreamily in front of him for a few moments, lost in memories.

“I can believe the Queen is as beautiful as Lúthien the Fair,” said Faramir.

Aragorn chuckled. “I certainly think so, but do not let Éowyn hear you praise another lady thus!”

“Éowyn is the fairest of all mortal women,” Faramir said firmly. “Your lady is of the Eldar. Éowyn would be the first to admire her beauty.”

“Lúthien was unique as a child of Eldar and Maiar,” said Aragorn. ”Yet, somehow I cannot imagine Arwen as being any less fair than her foremother. Strange to think we are both children of Lúthien, though Arwen is far closer in kinship than I.”

Faramir wondered if his ancestry was why Aragorn could appear in such glory and majesty as he had done earlier that day, or whether it was simply a quality of the man himself. To look at him now, there appeared nothing very remarkable about him. He was privileged to know that the glory and majesty was always there however veiled. “You have restored the glory of the line of kings!” he exclaimed.

Aragorn chuckled again. “Only history will relate whether or not that is so!” he said.” I can only try my best. You know the words of the Lay of Lúthien. Shall we sing it together? The tune is a northern one but I would think it well within your range.”

“My voice would not do justice to the song!” Faramir protested.

“What does it matter if you sing like a frog? Singing should be for the pleasure of it and what better place than here in the wilds.” The King replied.

“But surely not the Lay of Lúthien?” Faramir said uneasily.

Aragorn said naught, merely threw him a gentle question in his grey gaze. Faramir spoke again, quietly: "My father told me not to sing it before him; that the Lay was too important to our people to be sung by anyone less than a trained bard."

"Ah." Aragorn looked sad. "Faramir, would it surprise you to know that I heard your father sing the Lay of Lúthien to your mother, and once heard her sing it to Boromir when he was but a babe? He had a fair voice, your father, and I could see the love in his eyes as he sang the verses and looked upon your mother. Perhaps when Denethor heard you sing the Lay, your voice reminded him of her, and he could not endure such a reminder of her loss."

"Perhaps..." The woman's voice in the deep places of his own memory; was it that of his mother, wondered Faramir. He would have to ask Imrahil. How strange to think of his father singing!

Aragorn began to sing again and this time Faramir joined in; at first tentatively and then with increasing confidence.

The Steward was gifted with an expressive baritone voice, which blended well with Aragorn’s rich bass. The two voices were well matched as they mingled in the clear evening air, singing the greatest story of love and courage in all the Ages of the Sun.

As their voices died away, Anar sank low over the horizon, her dying rays shooting glorious shades of pink and crimson into the western sky. Faramir and Aragorn savoured the Sun's beauty as she faded in the West, sinking over the horizon, even as Númenor had disappeared from sight.

Aragorn thought of his lady. Did the Evenstar's thoughts travel with the setting sun to her kin in Valinor and the immortality she had relinquished? Often he wondered what it must be like to watch the sun set for so many hundreds of years? Surely the swiftness of mortal life made each magnificent sunset like the one they had seen this eve seem all the more fair, all the more wonderful.

They banked up the fire and prepared for sleep. “The air is growing chill, let us place our bedrolls alongside each other,” said Aragorn. ”I would have you at my side. We should both sleep more soundly thus.”

Joyfully Faramir complied.

Despite their weariness, the two men lay awake side by side awhile looking up at the stars and pondering the day’s events. It felt as if a great weight was slowly lifting from their hearts and being replaced with an inner peace.

000

During the night by the rain pattering down on their faces roused them from slumber. Luckily, the fire was sheltered and had not gone out.

Aragorn blinked in surprise. After such a clear and brilliant sunset, rain was unusual. Unlike the storm of the previous night, this was a gentle refreshing rain, which was soaking and reviving the earth. Aragorn licked the drops from his lips. It tasted sweet and refreshing.

They quickly moved their bedrolls under thicker cover to provide more shelter, and then promptly fell asleep again.

***

The sun was already high in the sky when Zachus’ neigh rudely awakened them.

“He wants a fresh place to graze,” Faramir groaned. “He truly has the appetite of a carthorse!”

“Well, he does look rather like one. A worthy steed though!” Aragorn conceded, as he sat up and threw off his now sun dried blanket.

Faramir tried to do likewise but to his dismay found he could hardly move. He grimaced in pain, and then quickly tried to disguise his discomfort.

“What is wrong?” Aragorn enquired anxiously.

“It hurts to move a little, I must be stiff,” Faramir replied, trying to ignore the spasms in his side, back and shoulders.

“You probably pulled a muscle when you prevented me from stumbling yesterday, “ Aragorn replied. He hesitated for a moment wondering what he should do. Healing had brought great sorrow upon him and he had inwardly vowed never again to try to heal anyone. Yet, here was Faramir, the man who had saved his life, the friend he loved, in obvious pain. How could he just ignore it? He could use his abilities again, just this once then suggest that Faramir see Tarostar or Aedred once they returned to Minas Tirith. He took a deep breath.” I will see if I can aid you after we have had breakfast, if you will permit me.” He rose to his feet and held out his hand to help Faramir to his feet. His own shoulder was burning and itching again. He determined to look at it as soon as he was alone.

“Thank you,” Faramir replied somewhat doubtfully, both dreading and desiring the King’s ministrations.

Aragorn built up the fire, put some porridge on to cook, and then wandered off amongst the trees to answer nature’s call. Before he returned, he pulled aside his shirt and inspected the brand. It looked rather angry and inflamed and in need of a surreptitious application of salve when Faramir was not looking or his friend would be distressed by it. Would he ever be free of this constant pain?

He went to the stream and splashed water on his hands and face before joining Faramir at the campfire. The Steward was rather awkwardly stirring the cooking pot, trying valiantly to hide his discomfort.

While he was distracted, Aragorn hastily applied some calendula salve to his shoulder, which eased it.

“What shall we do today?” Aragorn enquired while they sat side by side on the upturned log eating their porridge. “I am sure you know of more places to visit than I do.”

“I am loth to leave this mountain,” said Faramir. “But I know it will be lovely in Lossarnach at this time of year. We could make our way there by following the river if you wish. The fields will be ablaze with poppies and cornflowers.”

“That sounds a pleasant destination,” Aragorn replied. “A pity I have no drawing materials or I could sketch the flowers for Arwen.”

“You can draw as well? Is there no limit to your talents? Faramir exclaimed.

“Being raised by Elves, I was expected to learn drawing, poetry and music as well as the arts of warfare, government and diplomacy,” the King replied.

“I cannot help but envy you,” Faramir said with a sigh. "My father was furious when I wanted to study music and lore beyond the minimal standards of a lord's son,” Faramir sighed. “I learned to understand, when I was older; that the Steward of Gondor could not allow his son to lose himself in the gentler arts while other men's sons trained for war under the threat of Shadow. I intend Elestelle to have a more divers education, but I will try to allow her to focus on what most pleases her to learn.”

“She might most enjoy swordplay!” Aragorn laughed. ”I am sure Éowyn would like that!”

“And she shall teach her if she so wishes, though I hope she prefers poetry!” Faramir replied. “Naturally, I hope she will prove a good horsewoman or Éowyn will be heartbroken, especially as she has Snowdrop waiting for her!”

“A Mearh will be a horse fit for a Queen! Eldarion will envy her!”

“I shall ask Éowyn to persuade her brother to save the next Mearh foal for your son. It would only be fitting.” Faramir looked troubled.

“Peace, I was only teasing you, mellon nîn!” Aragorn replied, placing a placating hand on Faramir’s shoulder and noting how he flinched with pain at the light touch. ”Eldarion is not a child of the House of Éorl, whereas your daughter is, which entitles her to such a horse. Éomer has already promised me the pick of his herds for Eldarion when he is old enough.” He rose to his feet and picked up the empty dishes. “I will wash these and then see what I can do about your aches and pains.”

Faramir also rose, though very awkwardly. “No, sire, the King of Gondor should not wash dishes! I will wash them!”

“I have washed dishes in streams since before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye!” the King answered, grinning. "You can hardly move this morning and at the moment I do not think you will get up again if you bend! Besides, the kingship does not render me quite helpless neither does my age!”

Faramir was left sitting on the log musing over the unfairness of the fact that a man more than twice his age seemed far more capable of climbing a mountain without pulling a muscle than he was. Perhaps the purer lineage of the Northern Dúnedain was responsible for Aragorn’s stamina.

Aragorn returned a few moments later, stowed the clean dishes in his saddlebag. He took out a blanket and spread it on the grass.

“Come!” he said, “we will sit here, while I tend you. The grass is still damp which will worsen the stiffness.”

“I am sure I will stop hurting once I move around more,” Faramir protested. It had been so good; to bask in the flow of Aragorn's renewed warmth. He feared the possibility his King might still treat him with the cold touch he had used since the dreadful day Faramir had branded him.

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

Book Of Common Prayer, “General Confession,” (1662).

These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.

With grateful thanks to Raksha for all her help

“You can hardly walk,” Aragorn retorted matter of factly. He gripped Faramir’s hands and helped him move from the log onto the spread out blanket. The King then moved to sit beside his Steward. “Now where are you hurting?” he enquired.

“Um, several places, mostly here, and here” Faramir replied, pulling up his tunic and shirt a few inches and indicating a spot on his side and another on his back. ”And my arm and shoulder ache too.”

Aragorn tentatively prodded the spot, noting the amount of tension in his Steward’s muscles. He then checked Faramir’s pulse, which was far too rapid for his liking. “I think I should examine you properly,” he said after a brief pause.

Faramir sighed before nodding his reluctant agreement.

Whether Healer or patient were more unwilling to proceed, neither would have been able to say.

Faramir loosened his belt, and then unlaced his tunic and shirt only to find he was so stiff that he could hardly lift his arms over his head. Realising the problem, Aragorn helped him remove the garments, all the while wondering just how he should proceed. He decided that it would be best if he treated his Steward in the simplest way possible and did not try to use the Elvish techniques which took so much out of him. Aragorn was unsure if he could even make the attempt anymore. Even if he could still do it, the Elven healing skills brought back far too many memories of the time when Aragorn had been whole and his friendship with Faramir still unmarred. Despite the warmth of the day, Faramir shivered. “Do you want a blanket round you?” Aragorn enquired. Though he could not treat Faramir like old times, he could at least try to make him comfortable.

“Thank you, but there is no need. We should be comfortable with each other by now, you and I,” Faramir replied, feeling unable to voice the true reasons for his unease. He determinedly tried to relax. He stiffened when Aragorn began to prod his sore muscles in a very businesslike fashion. The King's every touch, however gentle, pained him.

“It is a simple strain, not a tear, a salve should ease it for you,” the King announced, expertly feeling along Faramir’s side, arm and shoulder. “You have a weakness from both your war wound and when Éomer attacked you, which never fully healed as your treatments were interrupted.”

Faramir's discomfort increased as he now realised that Aragorn was deliberately withholding the Elven techniques he had used in the past. The Steward had almost been sorry in the past when his various hurts had been pronounced cured, so pleasant and relaxing were the treatments that Aragorn had given him. However, that was before he had raised his hand against his liege lord.

Well aware of the younger man’s reaction, Aragorn still could not bring himself to touch Faramir other than in his most detached fashion. After all, this same arm had wielded the brand that scarred him for life! It had been easy enough to embrace him yesterday over layers of clothing. But he was not ready to use the healing technique reserved for trusted friends and kin on Faramir.

“You need to relax; I am not going to hurt you,” Aragorn said as much to reassure himself as Faramir.

Faramir nodded mutely. He could hardly say that this studied detachment hurt as much as a blow. As Healers went, Aragorn was both gentle and skilled, but this kindly detachment stung Faramir’s heart like a whip. He bowed his head, trying to hide his inner pain.

Aragorn turned his attention to Faramir’s back and to his dismay detected considerable weakness and damage, not only to the muscles but also to the discs along his spine. It was small wonder that Faramir had been so loth to climb the mountain, as he must have been in considerable discomfort. “Do your legs hurt you?” he asked, fearing some injury to the nerves.

“No, my lord,” Faramir said promptly.

Although relieved that his Steward’s injuries might not be as grave as he had feared, the formality of the reply unsettled the King. “Turn sideways! Does that movement pain you?” Aragorn instructed; determined to discover just how severe the damage was.

Faramir nodded reluctantly, grimacing with pain.

Aragorn rose to his feet and stepped back a few paces to better see the alignment of his Steward’s spine.

Remembering the humiliating inspection of two days ago, Faramir tensed even more.

“Easy now,” Aragorn said in a tone more appropriate for calming an edgy horse. He faced Faramir again and patted him on the shoulder in an awkward gesture of reassurance. The King suddenly found himself focussing on the red marks, which still disfigured his Steward’s skin. They were almost healed, apart from several patches, which he now realised with a start, were located at the exact sites where his own wounds had been inflicted. “Why did you rub so hard where I was wounded?” Aragorn asked in bewilderment. “At least your skin seems to be healing nicely now.”

“I could feel your hurts, but I could not help you,” Faramir replied miserably. “After I first slandered you before the Council, I hoped it would make my deeds easier to bear if I tried to wash the guilt away,” Faramir explained. “Not that it ever did!”

Aragorn sank to the ground, utterly shocked by this revelation. ”You felt my pain then?” he asked, unable to conceal his shock.

“I thought the Queen had told you,” Faramir replied. He backed away and crossed his arms defensively, trying to cover the red patches and the terrible memories they evoked.

“She said you had endured bad dreams and felt pain, but I had no idea that you felt the pain in the very same places where they inflicted it on my body.”

“I suppose that the Queen would not have known everything. I had only felt those pains twice when I spoke to her; and we never mentioned it again,” Faramir explained. “It does not matter, though. It was nothing compared to your suffering.”

“I never meant that to happen!” Aragorn exclaimed contritely, momentarily burying his face in his hands. He was overwhelmed by the image of his Steward forced to live a lie, alone in the Citadel, vainly trying to wash himself clean and tormented by the pain of the torture inflicted on his lord.

“I could hear you calling to me when I felt the pain. I wanted so badly to answer you, to at least let you know that I heard you, that you were not alone, but I did not know how,” Faramir said sadly.

“You have had little experience of using a Thought Bond.” Even as he said the words aloud, Aragorn realised that the answer to a question that had plagued him for months was simple. Bitterly he now rued his coldness and suspicion.

He looked at Faramir then, really looked at him, and saw not only the skin scrubbed raw, the scar left by the arrow he had taken for his lord; but also the painful hunched posture and the noticeably thin body, with each rib plainly visible through the skin, suggesting that long months of worry and heartache had been eating him away. Lifting his lord when he was too weak and helpless to walk had caused Faramir’s constant pain. His Steward had even carried him outside to look at the sky, making no complaint. Faramir had suffered all these months for the sake of one who had cared nothing for his well being in return. Aragorn found himself blinking back the tears, overwhelmed at the realisation of all Faramir’s suffering on his behalf, and his own shameful lack of gratitude ever since he had awakened in the cave.

“Do you have some salve? If not, may I put my shirt on again?” Faramir asked, feeling dejected and uncomfortable.

“I have not even started to do what I should have done months ago. I am sorry, mellon nîn, so very sorry! I have neglected you shamefully for too long.” Aragorn took a deep breath. Then he held his hands over Faramir’s damaged muscles and poured his healing energies into the younger man. It was so long since Aragorn had used his healing powers that he was surprised at just how strong they were today, and how strong he felt today! It was as if his ordeal had never happened. He had feared his full strength would never return and had felt less of a King, or even a man as result.

Faramir gave an audible sigh as the ease and warmth flowed into his aching body. Suddenly he laughed with pure joy.

“What amuses you so?” Aragorn enquired.

“It is wondrous to feel your strength has returned!” Faramir exclaimed. “I am so happy. You had some warmth in your hands the day you tended my wound when you regained your crown. That gladdened my heart indeed, but your power is far stronger now.”

Aragorn’s feelings of guilt intensified. How could he have misjudged his Steward so badly? Impulsively, he shed his outer tunic and reached out and drew Faramir to lean against him. “Come here that I may ease you further,” his said, his tone both gentle and commanding.

A traditional Elven massage technique used for both healing and bonding was to draw the patient to lean against the Healer. In that wise, the Healer was constantly aware of the patient’s heartbeat and how much they were relaxing as the treatment progressed.

Faramir’s heartbeat was still far too rapid. Aragorn felt a stab of fear. Had his Steward not properly recovered from the appalling beating he had suffered not even a full year ago? Or was Faramir so ill at ease with his lord and friend that his heart sped faster than it should? He could think of only one remedy.

Tentatively, Aragorn reached out and began to massage the back of Faramir’s neck. At first, he still found himself remaining aloof. The King’s memories came flooding back of the first time he had used the Elven massage on his friend. How uneasy he had been that first time! It had taken all his coaxing combined with Éowyn’s to persuade Faramir to accept his help. This was the same man he was tending. He had repeatedly had proved his loyalty. The King had initially wondered if a child of his might look like Faramir. Eventually, he had come to love him, as the grown son most men would have by this stage of their lives, but he had been denied until now. It was time to forgive with more than words. He had told Faramir so often to put the past behind him. Yet, when he most needed it, he had failed to follow his own advice! He had denied the younger man the help he so badly needed. His Steward had been almost fading before his eyes and he had chosen not to see! He was deeply ashamed now of allowing hurt pride and suspicion to almost destroy this honourable man.

Aragorn’s sensitive fingertips then sought out the damaged muscles and gradually and almost without realising, he found he was again using the same Elven technique he had used in the past. It was easy now for Aragorn to treat his Steward’s hurts, Faramir was reaching out with his spirit to accept the healing and soaking it up like a sponge, which made it easy for the King to offer.

Faramir could feel that something was different now and that again he was experiencing the touch he had feared was denied him forever. Silent tears trickled down his cheeks.

Aragorn realised he was happy. He had never wanted to heal again. Only now did he realise just how much he had missed using the gift of his forefathers. It gave him a satisfaction like no other; to see a pain-racked body become limp, relaxed and contented as the hurts vanished beneath his healing touch. Faramir was now as limp and comfortable as a contented cat on the verge of falling asleep. “Perhaps we should return to the City?” fretted Aragorn. ”You should be in bed to rest your back. It amazes me you can even walk!”

“Please no, “ Faramir protested. “I am enjoying this trip, and the pain is now easier that it has been in months.”

Aragorn hesitated; again torn between his head and his heart. Common sense and his Healer’s training dictated that Faramir should not be riding around in his frail state of health. Yet, would he be any better hunched over paperwork in Minas Tirith? He could at least here give him his full attention. Truth to tell, although he missed Arwen, he was loth to return just yet to the confinement of the stone walls. He was only now beginning to feel at peace with himself again. Faramir did indeed seem to be responding well to his healing, and his heartbeat was now slow and steady. “Very well,” the King conceded.” But you must tell me at once if you are in pain and let me keep treating your hurts.”

Faramir smiled and contentedly nodded his agreement.

“I think then we should stay here another day,” Aragorn announced. “Give your body time to heal together with your soul, Lossarnach will still be there tomorrow.”

“I feel much better already, I can ride, “ Faramir protested. “If anyone should be resting, it is you! I know how healing drains you!”

“Sometimes healing can heal the Healer,” Aragorn replied enigmatically, “There, I think I have done all I can for today. You can put your shirt back on.” He reached for the garment and handed it to his Steward.

Faramir slid his shirt over his head then impulsively kissed his friend on the brow. “Thank you, Aragorn; I feel better than I have done in months!” he exclaimed.

“So do I!” Aragorn replied, delighted again to hear Faramir use his given name so easily. He returned the gesture and sensed a new peace in the one he had come to love as his son.

Faramir yawned. He was finding he could hardly keep his eyes open.

“Let us find a comfortable place to sit awhile until we need to catch something for our midday meal,” said Aragorn.

They stretched out on the grass beside the stream in companionable silence, drowsing in the sun, both lulled by the sound of the water tricking over the stones. Eventually Aragorn reluctantly stirred. “I will see if I can catch a rabbit for our lunch,” he said.

“I will do it,” Faramir replied preparing to get up as he spoke.

“Rest. My treatment has made you drowsy today, “ Aragorn informed him, tucking the blanket round him. “You have done more than your fair share of catching our food.”

The Steward almost immediately fell asleep and Aragorn sat watching him for a few minutes. He slept soundly, his carven features relaxed in repose. The past could not be undone, but there was a new tranquillity about him now.

***

About an hour later, Faramir awoke feeling thoroughly refreshed. There was no sign either of the King or of the dinner. He was just about to go in search of his friend when Aragorn appeared with his kill.

Faramir could not repress a chuckle that it had taken the King so long to find them something to eat. It seemed that he was somewhat out of practise, but the Steward had to admit that it was an especially plump rabbit and tasted delicious when cooked.

That afternoon they fished in the stream and again Faramir’s catch exceeded the King’s. This time Aragorn made no complaint and complimented him on his fishing skills.

The baked trout they had for their supper that night was the best they had ever tasted.

“Tell me of your days as a Ranger!” Faramir begged impulsively, once the dishes were cleaned and stowed away. “I know so little of that time in your life!”

Chapter Thirteen – For the Beauty of the Earth

For the beauty of the earth,
for the beauty of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies,
Refrain:
Gracious God, to thee we raise
this our sacrifice of praise.

For the beauty of each hour
of the day and of the night,
hill and vale, and tree and flower,
sun and moon, and stars of light,
Refrain

Folliot Sandford Pierpoint, 1864

With grateful thanks to Raksha who wrote a considerable portion of this chapter.

“I know very little of your Ranger days either,” Aragorn replied.

“You must have far more adventures to relate,” said Faramir. “I spent most of my time at Henneth Annûn chasing Orcs and Southrons. Between the skirmishes, we had naught but endless patrols, with hours of tedium watching and waiting for the next attack.”

Sensing that the younger man yearned to hear a story, Aragorn relented. “I was a Ranger for more years than the span of your life,” he said. “All my stories would take many nights to relate; so tell me what you especially want to know.”

“About the very first time you joined your people,” Faramir requested.

Our people,” Aragorn gently corrected him. ”I think I was but sixteen years old when my foster brothers asked if I would like to go on patrol with them. I knew I was no Elf, but one of the Dúnedain. My mother had told me something of our people without revealing my true identity. I was eager to meet them and see how they lived. Sometimes there were Dúnedain women and children sheltered at Rivendell, but I saw little of them. My days were filled with lessons in history, art, music, literature, healing, diplomacy and endless practising with the sword and bow.”

“You were lucky to be tutored in so many subjects and for so long,” Faramir said with a touch of envy.

“I realise that now, but at the time I yearned to be old enough to hunt down the Orcs that harassed our people and drove them to shelter at Rivendell,” Aragorn replied, inwardly vowing to share more of his Elven acquired knowledge with his Steward. “I was so excited when Master Elrond gave his consent to my going out on patrol. My poor mother was horrified. I think she feared I would fall like my father. We set out and rode until we came to a Dúnedain village. I can still remember how shocked I was at how poor and lowly the village seemed, especially when we were invited into a home to partake of refreshments. There it was that I first met Halbarad, who was my elder by fifteen years. He looked at me suspiciously, as if he knew who I was. I was introduced only as a stray orphan, Lord Elrond's fosterling. I later learned I was very like Arathorn in appearance; and that Halbarad had known and remembered him. We spent the night there and then rode out on patrol early the next morning, joined by some of the men from the village.”

“How many of you would ride out together?” Faramir asked.

“There were usually twelve men in each patrol, and about sixty altogether who patrolled the Northern Borders at that time.”

“And how does the land differ from Gondor?" Faramir enquired.

"The North has a more rugged and untamed beauty, with high rolling hills covered in heather; great forests and vast swathes of wild moor land. I hope to take you there one day.”

“I would like that very much!” Faramir’s eyes were shining as he spoke.

"The country that borders the Shire, though, is quite cultivated, green and lush. That first patrol seemed like a great adventure until I saw an Orc for the first time. I had never before seen such a creature, and the sight of him was worse than all the stories I had been told. And never before had I been so afraid!”

You, afraid!” Faramir looked at him wide eyed.

“Very much so, I fear,” Aragorn confessed ruefully. “The Orc was hideous, a monster with a man's cunning. You could smell its hideous stench from two leagues away. Elrohir sent me to warn the village we had just left. When I arrived, I found the main troupe of Orcs was already attacking. One was chasing a little girl. I forgot my fear and plunged into battle, thrusting my sword through the ugly brute, then another and another. The Elves had trained me well; though after the battle was over, I was violently sick and my legs felt like jelly.”

Faramir nodded sympathetically. “I felt much the same after my first battle,” he said. “The first time you thrust your sword into living flesh…I remember it all too well. In time I became accustomed to it, but never could I take pleasure in the act of slaying.”

“If you ever delight in killing, the enemy has stolen your humanity and emerged the victor,” Aragorn said sombrely.

“Did anything else happen on that first patrol?” Faramir enquired, not wanting to dwell on the last time he had taken human life.

Aragorn sensed that his friend was remembering all he had been forced to do to save him from the traitors. Eager to distract Faramir, he said: “There is a much better way to share our stories! Come, lean your head against mine.”

”We could use Thought Sharing to tell stories?” Faramir sounded surprised.

“It is a much better way of sharing old memories than trying to describe them in words,” the King explained. “Our people can use the Thought Bond for far more than overcoming misunderstandings, summoning aid, and reassuring one other. You have barely touched yet, upon the many joys it can give. We should be able to actually relive each other’s adventures! Come, let us try it!”

Faramir leaned his head against Aragorn’s and found he could see the countryside; the village and its people that his King was trying to describe to him, and in turn share his own memories. It was much easier to share thoughts of the distant past than of recent events. They could still sense the lingering pain of the past in each other’s hearts and Aragorn sensed Faramir was still too disturbed by some memories to yet be ready to fully open his heart and did not seek to pry. However, their bond of companionship had become far stronger as had their mutual love and loyalty.

The twilight birdsong died away until only the occasional hooting of an owl and chirruping of crickets broke the night stillness.

Still Aragorn and Faramir sat shoulder-to-shoulder sharing their past adventures while they watched the moon rise over the forest.

At last Aragorn yawned. “Shall we sleep now?” he suggested. “I sense your thoughts are of curling up under your blanket! It looks as if it will be another fine day tomorrow.”

“It is sad a wonderful day like this must end, but I am weary too,” Faramir replied. “Can we continue sharing our memories tomorrow night?”

“Of course!” Aragorn smiled, ” I want to know more about the time Damrod pushed you in the river!”

“He said I needed a bath!” Faramir replied sheepishly, ”I was standing in the wrong place when a horse …”

“I think words will suffice in this case!” Aragorn chortled, getting to his feet.

They placed their bedrolls so that they could sleep side by side, and as it grew chill, huddled together in their sleep. No dark dreams troubled the sleepers, who slumbered soundly throughout the night.

It was dawn when Aragorn was awakened by the sound of falling rain. Little of it touched them under the thick canopy of trees. Faramir remained sound asleep with his head curled against his lord’s shoulder. This time, Aragorn felt no revulsion at their closeness, but rather pleasure that his Steward was again so at ease in his company. He did not have much in the way of family, or even close friends. Halbarad was dead, as were many other Northern Dúnedain friends and kinsmen. Elrond had sailed; and the twins made their home far away. Éomer was a worthy comrade and brother-king; but he also lived too far away for Aragorn to see him more than once or twice a year. As much as he enjoyed Legolas’ friendship, they could not spend much time together; the demands of their domains usually took them on different paths. But Faramir he loved in a different way than those others. As his Steward had worked alongside him to set Gondor to rights, he had become as much a son to Aragorn as a friend. Aragorn felt blessed that the Valar had seen fit to grant him this companionship. As much as he loved Eldarion, his fair little son was still an infant, far too young to serve as a companion to his doting father. It would be many years yet before they could go camping and hunting and share the other simple pleasures that a father and son should enjoy.

It was Faramir's age, perhaps, that had sparked the paternal affinity Aragorn knew he could never lose for him. Faramir had been born only three years after Aragorn and Arwen had finally plighted their troth; as might their own son have been if they had been allowed to carry out their hope of an early wedding. And Faramir resembled Aragorn, as had Denethor. The folk of Minas Tirith used to call Thorongil and Denethor 'Ecthelion's twin eagles' when the two rode out together. Aragorn remembered how the bonds of affection could bind as tightly as those of blood. He had been deprived of the chance to sire a son until he was ninety years of age. Faramir had been deprived of a father's love in full measure. Aragorn would gladly give him what Denethor had so sadly withheld. He realised that he had been in danger of making Denethor's mistake in his treatment of Faramir. He shuddered at the thought, but in truth, he had nearly followed Denethor's example of casting this jewel aside. Aragorn sighed, and went back to sleep, his arm curled protectively around the younger man’s shoulders.

Faramir awoke early. The rain had passed and dawn was painting the sky in beautiful shades of pink and purple, promising another fine day.

He was just uncurling his head from the King’s shoulder when he realised that Aragorn was awake and watching the sunrise. “I am sorry!” he said self-consciously.

“You will have the stiff neck not I, ion nîn!” Aragorn replied smiling.

Faramir’s response was to playfully head-butt him, another proof that their old comfortable friendship was restored.

“You obviously envy my fine Númenorean nose, as you have tried to knock it off since the day of my coronation!” Aragorn teased.

Faramir flushed slightly at the memory and then joined in the older man’s laughter.

“Amazing, that after all our misadventures, our noses have still remained intact!” Aragorn mused as he threw off his blanket and rose to his feet. He stretched like a cat and then brushed the grass and twigs off his hair and garments.

“There is a spider on your tunic!” Faramir warned.

Aragorn calmly brushed it off, shedding more leaves from his clothing.

Faramir laughed.

“What is so funny?” Aragorn demanded.

“I was just wondering what our wives would say if they could see us now!” Faramir replied.

“That we were old enough to know better!” the King replied. “Are you planning to lie abed all day?” He made a grab for Faramir’s blanket but the Steward was too quick for him and clung on grimly.

“You promised to make breakfast!” he reminded his friend.

“I will once you get up!” Aragorn retorted.

Faramir slowly sat up and stretched. To his delight, his pain and stiffness had disappeared. He felt better than he had done in months.

Aragorn hovered in case Faramir needed a helping hand as he got to his feet. “You look much better today,” he commented.

“I feel well and strong, thanks to you,” Faramir replied, “I shall be ready to ride once we have eaten.”

“Allow me to treat your back again first,” Aragorn asked. "It is just a precaution, to ensure that the pain will not return.”

Faramir nodded his agreement before striding off into the trees.

They splashed cold water from the stream on their hands and faces prior to eating. After breakfast Aragorn examined Faramir’s hurts and gave him further treatments. He was delighted and surprised how well they were healing. He pronounced his Steward fit to ride.

Aragorn and Faramir broke camp, leaving the heights of Mount Mindolluin as they had found them, careful that little trace of their visit remained to sully its wild beauty. It seemed likely to be another hot day. They were eager to set off ere the sun rose too high in the sky.

Despite the early hour, Anor blazed down upon them once they left the shelter of the woods. They were relieved when they found a shady lane heading towards Lossarnach.

After riding for about two hours through increasingly more settled countryside, Faramir and Aragorn saw the lands brighten into lush meadows and cornfields emblazoned with a riot of scarlet, blue and gold. Impudent poppies, cornflowers and buttercups reared their brilliant heads amidst the furrows of ripening corn. Faramir drew Zachus to a halt and sat drinking in the beauty of the fields before him. Butterflies and bees fluttered across the meadows while a scent of blossom hung on the summer air.

“Never did I dream, when I last passed this way that I would live to see these lands in the days of peace and plenty!” he exclaimed. “I had no time to stand and stare at the beauty around me, which makes it all the lovelier now! When Elestelle is older, I must bring her and Éowyn to show her just how fair and blessed our land is!”

“The rain will have brought all the flowers out, we are fortunate to see them at their best,” Aragorn said smiling at the younger man’s enthusiasm. He appreciated the loveliness himself, but having lived mostly in the North, which had been less touched by Sauron’s evil, he had seen many scenes of similar beauty.

They rode slowly, to better appreciate the view, by following a series of meandering pathways until the cornfields gave way to untilled land and the water meadows, which had been left fallow for hayfields in case of unseasonable flooding, the farmers not wanting to risk the precious wheat.

The path petered out before they reached the river. Aragorn and Faramir dismounted and tied their horses to a tree. By now, despite their best efforts to remain in the shade, they felt hot and sticky. By unspoken agreement they made their way down to the water’s edge to swim.

Aragorn looked around cautiously; “This seems a good place to bathe,” he said. “I think we are certain not to be disturbed. There are no buildings for miles around, and the grass is quite short which means the hay has been harvested.” He pulled off his shirt as he spoke.

Faramir looked around cautiously too and satisfied they were unobserved, added his own shirt to Aragorn’s on the grass.

Quickly, they undressed down to their drawers. They dived thankfully into the blissfully cool water and swam around contentedly, playfully splashing and ducking each other, more akin to schoolboys than the King of Gondor and Arnor and his Steward, the Prince of Ithilien.

Once they were sufficiently cooled, they reluctantly left the water before they began to tire.

“We forgot the towels!” Faramir lamented,” I will have to walk back to the horses and get them.”

“Why bother?” asked Aragorn, throwing himself down on the springy turf, made all the more lush by the recent storm. “We will dry soon enough in the sun.”

“But we cannot sit around wearing only our drawers!” Faramir protested, looking shocked.

“Why ever not?” Aragorn replied, “Who is there to see besides ourselves? We could wash our shirts now and hang them on a tree to dry at the same time.” He picked up the sweat soaked garment from where he had left it. Kneeling on the bank, he ducked it in the river, rubbing it vigorously.

Somewhat less enthusiastically, Faramir made to follow suit. He had become accustomed to removing his shirt for the King's treatments, but was used to donning it again immediately upon the completion of the treatment. It broke every rule of etiquette for a member of the Gondorian nobility to appear in public less than fully clothed. His father would have been outraged at such behaviour.

Seeing Faramir's hesitation, Aragorn snatched the garment from his hand and proceeded to wash it together with his own.

”When I was a child growing up in Rivendell,” Aragorn told him, “I was taught to enjoy the feel of nature’s gifts like the Eldar do. The sun, the wind, and the grass against my skin instead of only the feel of cloth.”

He wrung out the shirts and hung them on a tree to dry. Then he sprawled on the bank, luxuriating in the feel of the soft grass against his back and legs while the sun, cooled here by the river with a soft breeze, caressed the exposed skin on his chest and belly.

Faramir sat beside him, carefully positioned to be on the other side of the scar left by the brand, bolt upright with his arms crossed defensively. “This is the first time I have seen you do so,” Faramir replied, “I remember the occasion when the goats ate our clothes but we never intended to wander round wearing only our drawers. “

“When I left childhood, I lost my pleasure in the feel of the elements against my skin,” the King explained. “I developed the body of a man, imperfect and very different from an Elf's fair form, a body which I wished to conceal. Thus, I spent the next seventy years and more. Yet, when I lay in Dervorin’s dark cellar, there was nothing I desired more than to touch sweet grass beneath me, see the clear sky overhead and feel the sun and wind against my skin instead of stones against my back, coarse cloth and the blade of a knife! They had stripped me, so that I wore only my drawers, when they dragged me across the stone floor after they first captured me…” His voice faltered slightly as he recalled the dreadful memories. “Since you are hardly likely to tease me for being less perfect than an Elf, I thought I would indulge that wish today!” he concluded, smiling at Faramir.

“I am sorry, I did not think, …” Faramir flushed scarlet. “Would you rather I left to sunbathe in private?”

“How could you know? I only told you that you might understand,” Aragorn replied gently. ”I would much rather that you stayed to keep me company. We are comfortable together again now, I hope? Now, I know that you are no Elf, but could you not try to relax and experience the sun and the breeze like Elrond taught me to, while our linens dry? I will treat your back again later before you get dressed.”

Tentatively, Faramir uncrossed his arms and gingerly lay back on the grass as if he expected it to bite him.

Summertime,
And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high – Gershwin

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. – Walt Whitman

“Try to relax,” Aragorn said gently, “There is nothing to fear.”

“I know,” said Faramir, ”It just feels so strange sitting here wearing so little!” There was something more, a tingling of foreboding, that he could not understand. Probably he was just being foolish, it had been so very long since he had even thought of lying down half naked on the ground.

“Did you never sunbathe even with your brother, then?” Aragorn enquired.

Faramir shook his head, and answered: “When I was very young, and we visited Dol Amroth with our mother, Boromir and I would run all over the sands and through the grasses, by the sea, barefoot, clad only in our breeches. But later, after she died, Father forbade such disregard for the customs of our station. We would bathe in the Anduin sometimes, but were called out and made to dress and return home straight after our swim. Once we came of age, we could no longer swim for pleasure, except on rare visits to Dol Amroth. It was just too dangerous. As the days grew ever darker, my dreams that the King would one day come and restore our land, grew ever more fervent. But I imagined that a king would be more remote than my father - not someone who would encourage me to sunbathe with him!”

Despite his sympathy for Faramir’s shadowed youth, Aragorn was unable to stop himself from bursting out laughing. “I am sure you could never have imagined a wild Ranger from the North as your King,” he managed to say. ”I used to sit in the sun on rare occasions between pursuing Orcs in Arnor with Halbarad, but always we had to watch our backs. Just lie and take your ease in the grass, ion nîn, and hold yourself less stiffly, or your back will pain you again!”

Faramir obeyed and gradually became more comfortable. To his surprise, it did indeed feel good to lie there in the partial shade of a weeping willow and feel the dappled sunlight on his skin. “This is indeed quite pleasant,” he conceded.

“Poor Faramir, you never had much chance to be other than formal,” Aragorn said sympathetically. “Of course, we can only act thus with close friends or kin. I look forward to taking Eldarion swimming with us  once he is old enough,” said Aragorn, “ I would have my son respect but not fear me, he should be at ease with his own father.”

“My father often said I was so puny and scrawny compared to my brother that everyone would laugh if they saw me unclothed,” Faramir suddenly confided.

Aragorn raised his eyebrows. “ That was a cruel and unjust thing to say, “ he said, eying Faramir thoughtfully and then himself, “You bear a true Númenorean form; tall, lean and muscular, built for speed and stamina as well as strength. You are too thin at present, but then, so am I. When I look at you, I could almost be looking at myself. Even our faces have a likeness, both cast in the Númenorean mould as well, with carven features. I am slightly taller, but otherwise, we could almost be twins, for there is little difference between us. These bodies have served us well enough, I think. We have proven ourselves as warriors, wooed and won fair ladies and sired children with them.”

“You truly think we are so alike?”

“You cannot ignore the evidence of your own eyes. You closely resemble your father and myself. Boromir was like your father in face, but not in build. At least, you no longer have to carry numerous battle scars like your father did.” Aragorn looked Faramir in the eye with compassion.

“My father was always too swathed in robes and armour to notice much about him, other than that he was tall. How do you know so much about him?” Faramir asked.

“When I served your grandfather, I was sometimes called upon to serve as a healer,” Aragorn explained. “It was not easy, for I had to conceal both the abilities of my line and the Elvish skills I had learned from Master Elrond; at least as best I could. I tended your father once when we rode together on patrol and he was badly hurt. The company's usual healer had been killed, so it fell to me to stitch up Denethor when he took a sword slash down his side, from shoulder to hip. He had little enough love for me before; and he liked me even less after I had cut away his clothing and tended him. Denethor was too proud to be beholden to any man. It must have annoyed him all the more that I was the one to save him in such a humiliating fashion. And I often wondered if my healing skills made him guess my true identity.”

“The hands of the King are the hands of a Healer,” Faramir murmured. “My father was a very proud man, I fear.”

With a sudden flash of insight, Aragorn realised he had been in grave danger of allowing himself to become like Denethor, by letting his feelings of humiliation at being cared for like a baby by his Steward poison their friendship. Not that he and Denethor had ever been friends, the heir to the Stewardship having rebuffed all his attempts at camaraderie.

“It was not only old Ioreth who knew the saying. I realised then I had to leave. Had it been made widely known who I was, civil war could have broken out, which would have played into Sauron’s hands. I could not put Ecthelion, who by then was old and frail, in the position of choosing between his son and me. He was a good man and I grew to love him dearly. His greatest, and perhaps only folly was to sometimes favour me above your father. It was never true that Ecthelion had no love for Denethor; he did love his son too. Gandalf once cautioned Ecthelion not to show his favour so openly to the people of Gondor, for fear of hurting Denethor. I was beside him, in the room, we three were having a private council over dinner.”

"What did my grandsire say to that?" Faramir questioned eagerly. All his life he had heard hints of the tension between Denethor and Captain Thorongil, and the love that his grandfather had bestowed upon the northern stranger who became Gondor's hero. He had never dared to ask his father: Boromir had been too young to remember Thorongil at all, while his Uncle Imrahil, although he remembered the northern Captain with great affection, had most of the time been away from the Citadel. He had wondered how his grandfather could have scorned his own son in favour of another man, no matter how brave, until he had come to know Aragorn, who had been called Thorongil. Aragorn was very easy to love, far easier than had been his own father.

Aragorn smiled warmly. "He laughed, and said it would do his son good to see that there was more than one bright star in the heavens. I think what Ecthelion truly meant, was that it would do Denethor good not to be the only bright star in Gondor, but I said naught. Gandalf just smiled. They both looked at me approvingly, as if I were a child who was coming along well in his lessons."

"Ecthelion had not invited my father to that council? He was the heir to the Stewardship!" Faramir wondered aloud, remembering how often he too, had felt excluded.

"Actually, he had,” Aragorn replied. “There had been a number of such dinners over the years, when both Denethor and I were in the City at the same time. And on each occasion, your grandfather treated us both fondly, and more and more as time went on, he treated me as a son rather than a valued Captain. Your father was not pleased. He kept quiet, and would barely answer either his father or me. Your grandfather was hurt, in his heart, he had never forgotten that Denethor was his son and heir; and Denethor was pained also, he felt that his father was trying to displace him. Denethor stopped coming to dinner when I was present, unless ordered. It was your mother who finally intervened, after Boromir was born, and spurred Denethor and the Steward to reconcile. In deference to her wishes, Denethor and I managed to maintain civility when we were with your grandfather."

Aragorn took a deep breath. There was more he needed to tell Faramir. The tangled web woven by Ecthelion and Denethor and which had later ensnared Denethor's own sons, was not of Aragorn's making; looking back, though, he feared neither had he been a fly caught helplessly in its strands. " I never sought to supplant your father, Faramir," he admitted. "At first I held back, and played the soldier, the Captain invited to his lord's table. But I grew to love your grandfather. I was lonely, far from what kin I had left. In my heart, I would feel almost as if I were Ecthelion's son and Gandalf's grandson. Not that I loved Elrond less, but I had not ever known a mortal father who so resembled me, and I also loved the wizard."

"As did I,” Faramir remembered. "I too, used to dream of Gandalf as a kinsman, so great was my trust in him. We were always at ease together."

"That is not all, Faramir." Aragorn continued. "I would also wish, especially when we were on campaign together, that Denethor and I could be friends, true brothers in arms. I admired his learning and valour in battle greatly. But on a few occasions, when I found myself basking in your grandfather's love, your father and I would vie for his favour like foolish boys. I did not want to behave in such a fashion, but I would try to best him with a word or two, sometimes even before he had goaded me. And then I would catch myself, and stop my tongue, remembering that such strife would serve only to benefit the Dark Lord.”

“Do not fault yourself for wanting the love that my grandfather freely offered,” said Faramir. Aragorn noted that his friend's eyes were shining, a fey look in them, as if part of Faramir were far from this place. "Maybe my father had so little love for me as I resemble you, then?” Faramir mused.

“That is possible. On the other hand, maybe Denethor saw in you what he could have been, had he less pride and more humility! He knew how well you could read the hearts of men, and the love you inspired in all who knew you.” Aragorn replied. ”Maybe sometimes we have inadvertently hurt each other too, because we are so alike in soul as well as appearance. I hope as the years pass we will learn to search our hearts first before we speak or act rashly, or rather I need to learn to do so.”

“You have given me all that he denied. He would never have spent time with me like this, even had he been able to spare so many days!” Faramir said softly.

“I am enjoying myself in your company!” Aragorn briefly reached to pat Faramir’s shoulder, vowing inwardly, that never again would he treat Faramir as coldly as Denethor had done. He was bitterly ashamed of himself now. “Had I started to become like him?” he asked. “I am sorry.”

Faramir shook his head. “You were never so harsh towards me, and you had good reason to be angry.”

”You have inherited your mother’s forgiving and gentle nature,” Aragorn commented.

“I am glad to have something of her in me too.” Faramir replied rather wistfully.

“I see a good deal of Finduilas in you,” Aragorn told him, “She had beauty of spirit as well as that of the body. You take your form and powers of the mind from your father, but are very like her in other ways. When I look at you, I can see her gentle eyes and slender hands. She gave you her Elvish traits: her dreams of other places and times, her warm and kindly nature, her love of music, her imagination. That is why we can Thought Share especially well.” He deliberately failed to add that Faramir also shared his mother’s sensitivity, and with it the danger of fading were his spirit sufficiently wounded. Everyone admired your mother for her beauty and kindness; and your father loved her deeply.”

“Now I am married, I can understand better just how cruel her loss must have been to him,” Faramir said thoughtfully.

“Those in whom the blood of Númenor run true are like the Eldar,” said Aragorn. ”They usually fall in love but once. Their passion burns brightly until their child rearing is complete, after which they spend a companionable old age together. To lose a mate during those years is sorrowful indeed, as it is rare for our people to remarry. My mother never married again either. Your father also shunned close friendships, which would have greatly eased his burdens. Your grandfather was very different for he opened his heart far more freely to those he loved. He was a man of wisdom and great kindness.”

“It gladdens my heart to learn more of my kin,” said Faramir. “I never knew my grandfather, and can scarce recall my mother. I have a new family now, but I still think of those who went before me.”

They lay in comfortable silence for a few moments, staring up at the sky, a clear azure blue dotted with a few high fluffy clouds.

“My sweet girl’s eyes like azure skies!” Faramir began.

“If that line refers to Éowyn, she will not be pleased at your lack of observation. Her eyes seem green in some lights, in others grey!” Aragorn cautioned.

“I was thinking of Elestelle and wondering if she would resemble my mother!” Faramir retorted. “It surprises me that you are you so familiar with Éowyn’s eyes!”

“I never forgot how she looked at me when I first met her at Edoras, there is no need to be jealous!” Aragorn replied good naturedly,” I had never seen such sad eyes in one so young and fair. I noticed then how they change colour in the light. Surely, it would please Éowyn more than Elestelle to have a poem written for her? You daughter will only appreciate your skills when she is older, by which time her eyes will be as grey as yours!”

Faramir frowned, and then began again. “ Behold my lady’s wondrous eyes, fairer far than summer skies. Her sun-gold hair, beyond compare, her lips surpass the poppy’s hue, she wears a gown of cornflower blue, my Éowyn, wife so fair and true!”

“I am sure Éowyn will appreciate the rhymes,” Aragorn commented dryly. “It is the thought that counts.”

“It is too hot to think. Can you do better?” Faramir challenged, stretching himself lazily. Much to his surprise, he now felt reluctant to dress once his clothes were sufficiently dried. It was oddly freeing to be devoid of outward trappings and the wind and sun felt pleasant against his bare skin.

Aragorn too, lay stretched out as luxuriant and contented as a cat sunning itself. “Fairer than the sun by day; the star of evening’s glorious ray, bathing me in radiant light, making morn and evening bright! Arwen, fairest evening star, watching o’er me from afar. My love, my Queen, my lady fair, wondrous wife beyond compare!”

“Hmm, I see you know how to wax lyrical at a moment’s notice,” Faramir conceded, “You did have the advantage of being taught by Elves though, so you should be a better poet than I!” He rolled over on his belly to allow his back to dry properly and propped himself up by his elbows. The grass tickled the more sensitive skin and he bit back an impulse to giggle at sensations he had not known since he was a young child.

Regarding Faramir with a healer’s eye, Aragorn was pleased to see that he looked so much better. The last of the red marks had disappeared, leaving the scar from the arrow wound as the only mark still disfiguring his skin. The King found his hand moving again to his own scar; unable to repress the urge to scratch. It looked slightly less angry today, and was no longer painful. However, the pain had been replaced by an annoying itch. To his surprise, he no longer felt anger or bitterness about the disfigurement. Today was the first time he had spent any length of time without brooding over it. In fact, until it itched, he had quite forgotten that it was there.

Faramir rolled over on to his back again and stretched, curling his toes round the soft grass. He sighed contentedly, glancing across at the King as he did so. To his astonishment, a beautiful swallowtail butterfly had alighted on Aragorn's chest and remained there with wings open. He blinked hard, unable to believe his own eyes. Butterflies rested with their wings closed. Maybe there was something wrong with it?

Yet, when he put out his hand, it swiftly fluttered away, only to be replaced by an equally resplendent scarlet and black beauty, followed by one that appeared to have eyes all over its wings.

Aragorn lifted his head to contemplate the colourful creatures and smiled at them with an almost childish delight. More and more gathered until they fluttered around him like a bouquet of exotic blossoms.

Faramir watched enthralled.

“How Arwen and Eldarion would love to see those!” Aragorn sighed, settling his head back on the grass again.

“I have never seen the like!” Faramir exclaimed in awe, looking at the King almost as if he expected him to spout wings and join the butterflies in flight.

“They must be attracted to the warmth of my skin or the salt on it,” Aragorn suggested.

Faramir leaned across and placed a finger upon his friend's chest. “Your skin is no warmer than mine!” he announced, “They must somehow know who you are!”

Aragorn laughingly shook his head. “It must just be the taste of my skin. It felt rather pleasant when their feet tickled, though.”

Faramir realised that again, he had been privileged to witness something of the usually veiled majesty of this remarkable man. A quality that both set him apart, while at the same time drawing all who knew him to love him; including even butterflies so it seemed. He felt he should be on his knees before him rather than at his side.

“We are in the 'Vale of Flowers', ” Aragorn said reasonably, apparently having sensed Faramir's thoughts and not wanting anything to disturb this interlude of comfortable companionship. Just then a single butterfly landed on Faramir's shoulder and stayed for a brief instant before fluttering away.

“See, they like you after all!” Aragorn teased.

“We should bring our wives here when the children are older,” Faramir said, ”Éowyn loves flowers and Elestelle already appreciates bright colours.

“She will be as wise as she is fair, and win high renown!” Aragorn suddenly pronounced.

“As her father, I hope she will, but how can you be so certain?” Faramir asked.

“A flash of foresight,” the King told him. “One that I am certain is true!”

“It is too warm for seeing the future, though I hope you are right!” Faramir yawned.

“Am I not usually?” Aragorn retorted smugly, sitting up as he spoke. He was dry now and reluctantly reached for his breeches and pulled them on. A king always be mindful of his dignity, however unlikely it was that he might encounter anyone.

Faramir followed his example and then reached for his shirt and boots. “I suppose we should get dressed and leave soon,” he sighed. “A pity, I was enjoying lying in the clover.”

“Truly? I thought you disliked being unclothed,” Aragorn teased.

“I do. It is just that the sun feels pleasant on my skin. There are none save ourselves to see,” Faramir admitted rather hesitantly, echoing Aragorn’s words earlier.

“We can stay here a while longer if you feel at ease,” Aragorn said, “It still feels too hot to dress properly. We can always don our shirts quickly in the unlikely event of anyone approaching.”

Faramir made no protest and lay back on the grass again beside his friend in companionable silence. He found himself studying the various flowers that carpeted the water meadow, marsh marigolds, buttercups and daisies. He must have trampled over them many times during his time as a soldier but this was the first time since childhood that he had been able to enjoy their beauty.

He discovered a four-leaved clover and was about to call Aragorn’s attention to it when he realised the King had fallen asleep. He looked peaceful, and somehow much younger. The years seemed to have fallen from him over the past few days and Faramir rejoiced. There were times since Aragorn’s ordeal when he had looked as prematurely aged as Denethor.

For a moment Faramir felt saddened that he had never shared moments like this with this father, but that thought was quickly replaced with gratitude at how blessed he was in being granted a kinder lord and father by far. He loved Aragorn deeply, with all the devotion he tried to give Denethor. The lack of fatherly warmth had withered Faramir's childhood affection into little more than filial duty he owed unto his father and lord. He had always hoped that one day Denethor would look at him with the fond pride he bestowed so freely to Boromir, rather than the cool, measuring glances his father usually gave him. There had been times when Faramir could believe that his father loved him, a small smile would appear on the Steward's stern face; a word of approval would escape the Steward's lips almost grudgingly. But then his father would speak of Boromir or to Boromir; his grim face would soften and that look, which was for Boromir alone, would brighten the Steward's eyes.

Aragorn’s affection and companionship more than made up for his father’s coldness.It had almost broken Faramir's heart when he felt he had lost the King’s love. He was determined not to dwell on the past though, not on a day like today.

Faramir listened to the birdsong, which seemed to have grown more rapturous each year since Sauron’s defeat, then watched a family of swans glide lazily down the river. This idleness was strange to him, but he had to admit that he did not dislike the sensation of having nothing to do but drench his senses in the beauties of his land. He returned to his observation of the meadow, this time studying the grasses. At the water’s edge, some had escaped the haymaker's scythe and were quite long, the seed heads blowing gracefully in the breeze. These tall meadow grasses were so attractive that Éowyn often included them in the displays of flowers with which she adorned their home.

He plucked a tall strand of rough-stalked meadow grass and trailed it lazily across his skin, enjoying the tickling sensations as he ran it up one arm, down his chest and belly, then across the other arm. Aragorn was right. It was a pleasant sensation to feel something other than cloth against his skin. He then tried the feel of the silky fox-tailed variety against his bare skin. He thought back again to those blessed days of sunshine and sand and sea in Dol Amroth: romping with Boromir, playing in the waves, the faces of his uncle and grandfather. But he could not remember his mother's face; only the echo of her voice and the comfort of her hands. He did recall, faintly, the sound of her laughter. Those were joyous times. He and Boromir would tickle each other with the stalks of long grass, pelt each other with seaweed, and happily wrestle. Ah, Boromir, he thought; I miss you still.

Faramir lay back again, thinking perhaps he could follow Aragorn's example and sleep. He was somewhat wearied after their long ride. But for some unknown reason, he could not close his eyes here. Behind his tired eyes, Faramir kept seeing the image of the Haradrim's serpent banner falling to the ground in Ithilien during that last ambush he had led; the sinuous motion of it, a black snake on red, slithering in the grass as if alive. But there were no Haradrim here. Lossarnach, Gondor's vale of flowers, was as fair and free of danger as any Elven-wood. He just found it difficult to relinquish a Ranger's natural concern for hidden peril even in so lovely a place that was all. Aragorn would probably find such wariness amusing, and jest with him about his reluctance to relax and enjoy such rare time away from their duties.

He sat up and glanced across at his friend. The King was still lying with his eyes closed, snoozing in the afternoon sun. The regular rhythm of his breathing, the rise and fall of his chest, suggested that he was sound asleep, a fact confirmed a few moments later by the occasional snore.

Faramir could not resist. He plucked an even longer strand of grass and started to tickle his lord's chest with it.

Almost immediately, the King's eyes flickered open. Faramir dropped the grass and lay still, an expression of supreme innocence on his features.

Aragorn regarded him thoughtfully for a moment and then closed his eyes again.

By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes. - Shakespeare – Macbeth Act 4.1

Faramir waited, listening to the almost musical sound the breeze rippling through the tall grasses, all the while watching the King. The Steward continued idly playing with the grasses. He plucked some rye grass, fondly remembering tickling his sleeping brother's feet on the warm sands of Belfalas. Temptation reared its head again. This time, repressing the urge to laugh like an unruly child, Faramir tickled the King across his belly with a strand of meadow grass.

He was somewhat amazed at his own audacity. Not all that long ago, Faramir would have sooner poked a sleeping dragon than he would have dared to tickle the High King. Never in his wildest imaginings could he have thought to treat the Heir of Elendil with such familiarity.

This time, Aragorn did not open his eyes; but instead asked sleepily, ”Have the butterflies returned?”

“I have not seen any for a while,” Faramir replied truthfully, surprised that he had not been caught and laughingly rebuked for such childish behaviour. Unlike Denethor, the King was usually slow to anger and reserved the full force of his wrath for matters that deserved it.

Aragorn stretched his long limbs like a cat and then turned over, sprawling amongst the buttercups and clover.

Faramir plucked another stalk of fox-tailed grass and trawled it lazily between Aragorn's shoulder blades. Then, somewhat pleased with himself at having thrice bested his lord, he lay back satisfied. His eyelids grew heavy, too heavy for continued alertness. Even as he closed his eyes, Faramir felt again the sense of unease he had experienced earlier return. 'Twas hard to tell what there was to fear here, under the lovely warm sun by the bank of the placid river. He could hear the usual sounds of birdsong and insect, naught was amiss. He began to drowse, but became dimly aware of something tickling the back of his neck. When he put up his hand to investigate, there was nothing there. Aragorn still lay beside him with his eyes closed, obviously fast asleep. The Steward turned over, lying on his belly to shield his eyes from the sun. He soon fell fast asleep.

He awoke with a start to find himself being relentlessly tickled on the soles of his feet by a batch of cat-tails held in the firm hand of his sovereign.

“Why you...!” Faramir exclaimed, rolling over and pressing his feet against the ground to escape the merciless onslaught.

“This is most unjust!” the Steward complained, once he could catch his breath.

“I thought you wanted to play this game!” The King was thoroughly enjoying the absurdity of it all. Foolish and childish it might be, but he badly needed such light- hearted distraction and suspected Faramir did as well. The certainty that his courtiers would most likely faint with shock if they could but see their King and Steward frolicking like children, only served to add to his enjoyment.

With difficulty, Faramir broke free. He scrambled to his feet and snatched a handful of grass that he brandished with much menace as he advanced upon Aragorn.

“Then it is war?” Aragorn enquired with mock solemnity.

“Let battle commence. I give no quarter!” Faramir replied with equal feigned earnestness.

“The loser prepares our dinner tonight!” Aragorn retorted, snatching up a bunch of grasses.

Laughing they ducked and weaved and dodged in their mock dual.

Caught suddenly off balance, Aragorn flopped on the ground and lay on his back like a playful puppy, legs flaying in the air, his bunch of grass poised for a further onslaught.

When Faramir advanced, Aragorn involuntarily recoiled, remembering that terrible night in the cellar, when Faramir had wielded the brand upon his helpless flesh. He forced himself to relax, knowing that Faramir would never willingly harm him. That terrible night was long past now.

Faramir saw the King’s body tense. His eyes fastened on the livid scar disfiguring Aragorn’s shoulder and he froze. It was as if the Steward stood once more in Dervorin’s cellar, seeing the look of horror on his lord’s face when he had brought the brand down on his flesh.

Apart from the scar left by the brand, Aragorn's flesh was now healed. The features that had been contorted with agony were now crinkled with laughter.

It was too much for Faramir. He sank to his knees and broke down, sobbing wildly as if his heart would break.

The mock fight forgotten, Aragorn immediately came to his side. ”Faramir, whatever is the matter?” he asked, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Your scar!” Faramir sobbed brokenly, “What they did to you...what I did to you. To see you now… When I did it, I yearned to tell you the truth, but I could not! If I had let the traitor's mask slip, but for a moment, I could not have played that part again. I am sorry, so very sorry! I love you too much. I had to do it, even though it hurt you, or they would have slain me before I could free you. I could not lose you! I had to…I had to! ”

Aragorn finally understood. Everything Faramir had done was out of love and there had never been any thought of treason in his heart. “All is well now it is over!” Aragorn soothed, enfolding him in a comforting embrace. “Be at peace now, ion nîn. The traitors would have branded me with the mark of their hatred; Faramir, but you set it upon me out of love; a love so great and terrible it fills me with awe. I bless the hands that wounded me!” Impulsively, he grasped Faramir’s hands in his own, he raised them to his lips and reverently kissed them.

Faramir wept all the harder at this unexpected gesture.

“Only for love could you have dared hazard all, even your own soul, “ Aragorn continued, his own voice unsteady. “I see it all clearly now. I had allowed my pain and my pride to blind me. I never stopped loving you, but in my anguish I tried to push you away. I will not lose you again!” He crouched beside Faramir, trying to comfort him.

The King’s warm hands soothingly rubbed Faramir's back; reminding him how cold and maimed they had been but a few months since. These hands had only ever been used to give him comfort and healing. They had never struck a blow against him. His hands, the hands that Aragorn had just kissed, were a different matter altogether. He sobbed all the harder, the horror rising until he could hardly breathe.

Aragorn could feel his Steward's heart pounding against his ribs, frantic as a wild bird trapped in a cage. Wondering if it were the sight of the brand that had so upset Faramir, he released him for a moment to snatch up his shirt. He swiftly pulled it over his head.

The King was a great believer in the healing power of tears, having been taught thus by Mithrandir and Elrond. However, this measure of anguish could damage Faramir's health. He had not forgotten the damage to his Steward’s heart from the beatings Faramir had received in prison. Although Aragorn had believed him healed, he always feared that some lingering weakness could remain; ready to surface if his friend suffered too much distress. He pulled Faramir close, burying the younger man’s head against the soft fabric of his shirt and murmured soothing words in Sindarin. He gently massaged the back of the stricken man’s neck. “All is well,” he repeated over and over, “You are safe in my love, ion nîn, I will not let you go. All is well now. I am safe and alive, thanks to you.”

Faramir's hysterical sobs gave way to quieter weeping. He gradually calmed. Aragorn continued rubbing his neck with one hand, while keeping another arm around Faramir to support him and check his heartbeat. Aragorn frowned. That heartbeat was far too fast for his liking.

After some time had elapsed, Aragorn decided that words and gestures of comfort would not suffice. He needed some athelas to soothe Faramir’s spirit. He felt in his breeches pocket, where he usually carried some sprigs. To his dismay, he remembered that he had used the herb a few days ago and not replaced it. He had plenty left in his saddlebag, though. He had not even thought of using kingsfoil over the last few days. “Wait here,” he told Faramir, slowly rising to his feet, “I shall fetch some herbs to ease you.”

Left alone, Faramir felt dismayed at his own weakness. They had been so happy but a few moments before. Drained of strength by his outburst, he could hardly sit upright. He moved backwards to lean against the bank, which was hollowed out by the roots of the vast willow tree. Gradually he collected himself and his strength returned, though his heart still thumped wildly. Faramir glanced ruefully at his body: his breeches were covered in grass stains and dust, while his bare chest and arms looked even worse. He would need another swim just to get clean. Faramir stood up, shook his hair out to dislodge the bits of grass and dirt that clung to it, then kicked out his frustration against the riverbank. Little did he know that he was further annoying what lay behind the willow Slowly, he sat down again, and stretched out his legs.

Faramir felt a sudden sharp pain. He slumped forwards lifeless as a rag doll.

Just then, Aragorn reappeared clutching the kingsfoil. He wanted to use the athelas, which he had gathered, freshly at the lake. He had found it at the bottom of his healer’s bag, together with the niphredil flowers he was drying for Arwen.

A dark shape scuttled away in the undergrowth just as the King's cry of anguish rang out.

“Faramir, no!” he cried, rushing to his Steward's side and frantically feeling for a heartbeat. He found none, nor any other sign of life. This was too cruel! How could Faramir be snatched from him just as they were fully reconciled? His noble heart had cracked under the weight of his anguish. It was, as he had feared; Mahrod’s beating had finally claimed Faramir's life, by weakening his heart beyond repair.

Forcing himself to keep calm and remember his healer's training, Aragorn desperately fought to revive his Steward. All his efforts proved vain. Faramir remained lifeless, his skin a ghastly pallor while his eyes remained open and unseeing.

It was Aragorn’s turn now to weep, tears of such anguish that he felt his heart would most surely break under the weight of his loss. Through their Thought Bond, he had given Faramir part of his soul, which was about to be torn asunder as Faramir’s spirit drifted beyond the circles of the world. How could he return to tell Éowyn that her husband was no more, and that Elestelle was fatherless? Faramir had been as a beloved son to him. Not only that, but also a younger brother, wise counsellor and devoted friend. Why had he not appreciated it before and allowed bitterness to consume him? If they had been fully reconciled earlier, he would not have brought his most faithful of friends out here to die! He had thrown away the most priceless of jewels, never realising just how great his worth was until it was too late. This man had sacrificed everything for him, including his honour and reputation, the most priceless gifts he had to offer. He had given his all freely only to meet with his lord’s scorn and coldness.

Suddenly furious he shook the limp body and cried; “ Now you truly have betrayed me, Faramir! You, who should have lived a hundred years, not a mere forty! This hurts me far worse than any branding ever could!”

He stared upwards at the sky and shook his fist at the Powers that control human destiny. ”Why have you done this to me?” he demanded.” Why? Why must you take him to punish my pride and despair? If you desire a sacrifice, it is I you should take!”

Distraught with grief, yet finally accepting that he could not revive him, he lifted the Steward. He cradled him in his arms and placed a farewell kiss of blessing on his brow. His tears fell on Faramir’s face but could not wake him. Gently he closed the unseeing eyes.

Chapter Sixteen – Like Wheat that springs up Green

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green. John. M.C. Crum.

Comfort those who suffer,
watching late in pain;
those who plan some evil
from their sin restrain. - Sabine Baring-Gould

Aragorn knew not for how long he sat there, cradling Faramir’s lifeless body and weeping. Memories overwhelmed him. He recalled his first meeting with Faramir, when his Steward had opened his eyes and looked upon him, his gaze so full of love and trust, and hailed him as King, He recalled breaking down Faramir’s fear and reserve, and the many good times that had resulted, replete with convivial companionship. Memories of the darker times assailed him as well: how he had fought to save Faramir’s life, how the Steward had more than repaid the debt. Faramir had always trusted him. Yet Aragorn had shamefully doubted and betrayed that trust.

Whatever would Arwen say when she heard the dreadful tidings? He ached to feel her loving touch, and her comforting presence beside him. He realised now that she had suggested this pilgrimage so that he and Faramir might be reconciled. Instead, their journey had led to the Steward’s death. He could hardly bear to look upon the limp body; the keen eyes now closed forever, and the blue tinged lips, which had so recently laughed. Faramir had been the most loyal and loving friend that any man could ever desire. He had been truly blessed to know such a man.

Roheryn neighed impatiently and jolted Aragorn out of his anguished reverie. Realising he could not remain here indefinitely, he moved Faramir into an easier position for lifting, turning him sideways.

It was then that Aragorn noticed the small red mark between Faramir’s shoulder blades. Surely he would have observed the blemish had it been there earlier? It stood out lividly against the Steward’s pallid skin. The mark looked like some sort of insect bite, though it was too large to have been inflicted by one of the countless midges that plagued the riverbank. Somehow, it seemed oddly familiar. Aragorn tried to gather his thoughts as he struggled to recall where he had seen such an abrasion in the past.

Then Aragorn remembered: He had seen a similar mark most recently on Frodo's neck, the terrible legacy of Ungoliant's spawn! And when he guested in Thranduil's halls, after delivering Gollum into the Silvan lord's custody, he had seen other such marks on the bodies of Mirkwood Elves. Could it be that Faramir had suffered a spider bite rather that failure of the heart?

New hope flared within him. Carefully, he laid Faramir flat on the ground and bent over him, pressing his ear against his friend’s chest and waiting. After what seemed an eternity, but could not have been longer than one, or at the most two minutes, he was rewarded with a faint heartbeat.

Faramir was not dead! Perhaps Shelob's young still lingered and had migrated from the sunless caves of Cirith Ungol, to strike at Faramir and paralyse him. Again, Aragorn waited, this time counting .He found that Faramir’s heart was beating once about every hundred seconds. He knew that the slowed heart rate was an effect of this kind of spider bite, which sent the victim into a deathlike trance for several hours.

Weeping again, this time for joy mingled with relief, Aragorn gathered up Faramir’s discarded items of clothing. Then he carried his Steward to the top of the incline, and there laid him on a patch of scythed grass, where there was no cover for any evil creatures to lurk. He debated what he should do next and decided the best thing would be to take his friend and find a safe campsite where they could await Faramir's recovery. He put on his own tunic, and then with some difficulty eased Faramir's shirt and tunic over his head. Next, he pulled the socks and boots onto Faramir's lower legs under the breeches that his friend already wore, checking first to assure that no spiders, however small, hid in the footwear. He could spare no hands to carry loose garments. The tunic and shirt hung loosely from the thin body. The task accomplished, he whistled to Roheryn to come to him.

“Easy, now, I am taking you to where we will be safer until you wake up,” he told Faramir, wondering why he was talking to an unconscious man who probably could not hear him, much less answer.

Although a dead weight, Faramir was alarmingly light for a tall man. Aragorn soon had him across his stallion’s back, where he mounted behind him and held him tightly around the waist with one arm. He wished he had some idea of what kind of a spider it might be; for the effects of the creatures’ bites varied greatly once the paralysis wore off.

For now, Aragorn decided, he just needed to get away in case the spider or more like it were in the vicinity. He had to avoid being attacked himself at all costs, as who would care for Faramir if he were also laid low? Once his friend had recovered, there would be time enough to wipe the vile monster off the face of Arda.

With Zachus following obediently behind, he rode: clutching Faramir in his arms until they were well away from the riverbank. Eventually they reached the edge of a forest, which opened out into ripening fields of corn.

Aragorn laid Faramir carefully down on a hastily unpacked bedroll. After assuring himself that his friend still lived, Aragorn quickly made a fire for warmth and protection from further predators.

Once the fire was blazing, he placed Faramir in what he hoped was a comfortable position. Aragorn settled down beside him to keep vigil. He constantly reassured the stricken man; rubbing his back and chafing his hands, all the while talking or singing softly to him in Elvish.

Strangely, it seemed to Aragorn that it was of the utmost importance to assure Faramir that the venom would eventually wear off. It was almost as it as if he had experienced the same thing himself. Yet he had not tended spider bite victims other than Frodo, only seen them in the healing rooms at King Thranduil’s palace. They were Elves too, with superior strength, stamina and recuperative powers.

The King still feared for his friend's life. Faramir was still frail from his recent ordeals, while his heart had been so badly damaged less than a year before, that any wound could place a terrible strain upon it. If only he had cared for his friend as he should and not been blinded by his pride and sense of betrayal! He knew of many effective treatments for the Steward’s ills and had wilfully denied them to him. Aragorn wondered sadly if he had ever truly appreciated Faramir as he ought.

This was the man to whom he owed his throne, his beloved wife and son, even his very life. Faramir had never asked for anything, but had offered his love and loyalty without condition. Now he was reaping a bitter harvest. Aragorn now sat still; telling the younger man over and over just how much Faramir was loved and valued by his King.

The hours passed until the sun started to sink lower on the western horizon. Still Faramir lay there, devoid of any sign of life. Aragorn pulled his friend’s tunic and shirt aside to reassure himself that Faramir’s heart was still beating.

To his dismay, the Steward’s chest was now black and blue as a result of Aragorn's misguided attempts to revive him. Anxiously, Aragorn felt the ribs for any damage, fearing he may have inadvertently cracked or broken them. Mercifully, they were intact, though Faramir would have some very painful bruises, when and if he regained consciousness. Why was this poor man doomed to suffer so? He could still detect where Faramir's ribs had mended only the year before. Aragorn pressed his ear again to Faramir’s chest. He nearly wept with relief when he heard a faint heartbeat, now detectable about every ninety seconds. Rummaging in his pack, he selected a pot of comfrey and arnica salve and rubbed a liberal amount on the bruises, hoping they would ease the worse of the discomfort before his friend came round.

How foolish of one of the most highly trained healers on Middle- earth to have mistaken a spider bite for failure of the heart! Aragorn had only added to poor Faramir’s woes by his futile attempts to revive him. It was just as well his Steward had such a generous nature. He knew though, once Éowyn found out, he would get the scolding he richly deserved for leaving her husband black and blue.

As he worked, he told Faramir exactly what he was doing. Their situation seemed so very familiar to him and he wondered why. Then a sudden flash of insight struck him. He knew all too well what Faramir was feeling! Faramir had confessed to drugging him to rescue him from Dervorin's cellar, but had never revealed exactly what substance he had used, and seemed reluctant to discuss it. Since their reconciliation, Aragorn had not pressed the matter, sensing it was painful for the Steward to even speak of the terrible events.

The hours of immobility had been amongst the most terrifying of Aragorn’s life. He had been dragged along in a sack, unable to move or speak, and certain, during his brief flashes of awareness, that he would soon be buried alive. He realised now that Faramir must have used spider venom and feared to tell him. He was suddenly glad that he had experienced its effects; it would make him better able to help his friend.

“Easy, now, you will wake up in a few hours and then I will take you home to Éowyn,” Aragorn told the totally unresponsive Faramir. He settled beside him again and continued to talk to him. He also chafed his hands and feet and gently massaged his friend’s chest to improve the blood flow. The hours passed, and still he kept a lonely vigil at Faramir’s side. Gradually, Aragorn discerned a stronger and more frequent heartbeat while some slight colour returned to Faramir’s ashen features.

The sun vanished beneath the horizon. As Eärendil’s star rose overhead, Faramir’s heartbeat quickened. Aragorn dared hope the worse was over.

The night brought a chill to the air. Aragorn wrapped Faramir in both their blankets and folded his cloak under the Steward’s head as a pillow. Faramir appeared to sleep naturally now; his chest rose and fell beneath the blankets while his skin had almost regained its normal hue. Only his failure to awaken when Aragorn called his name, betrayed that he was still unconscious.

Companioned only by an insensible man for company in the near silence of the open countryside, Aragorn’s eyelids grew heavy. He struggled to keep awake, trying to concentrate on the sounds that broke the stillness: an owl hooting, the rustle of the breeze through the enshrouding forest and a stream running over a rocky bed. He felt so weary. The shock of Faramir's apparent death combined with the day’s exertions had taken their toll on his own, still weakened body.

000

The King awoke with a start. For a moment he lay back, feeling confused. The fire had burned low, but the moon brightly illuminated the forest clearing. Cursing himself for his weakness in falling asleep, Aragorn’s first thought was to see how Faramir fared. But the Steward had vanished, leaving his blankets scattered where he had been lying.

All drowsiness forgotten, Aragorn leapt to his feet in alarm. From what little he knew of spider bites, they left their victims disorientated and even dazed. Faramir would be in no fit state to wander around alone.

To his dismay, he swiftly espied several of Faramir’s garments strewn around the clearing; a boot, a sock, and more ominously, his breeches, formed a trail leading into the field. Trampled grain clearly showed in which direction Faramir had wandered.

Pausing only to snatch up a blanket, Aragorn leapt on to Roheryn’s back and urged the stallion into the cornfield at full gallop. Intent only on following the trail of the trampled ears of wheat and scattered clothing, he failed to notice how much more of the crop he was destroying. All that mattered was to find his Steward before Faramir came to further harm.

He could now see Faramir in the middle of the field. He stood stark naked, frantically scratching and rubbing his skin against the ears of ripened corn. Aragorn urged Roheryn foreword. Faramir would be ashamed if he remembered what had happened. Aragorn had to take Faramir back to their campsite and get him dressed before anyone saw him in this sorry state.

To his dismay, Aragorn suddenly heard shouting and saw torches approaching from the distance. He galloped towards his Steward, urging Roheryn to run like the wind. Faramir must have seen him approaching but paid him no heed. As soon as the great horse neared Faramir, Aragorn brought Roheryn to a halt and leapt from his back, the blanket in his hand. He raced towards Faramir and threw the blanket around the confused man's shoulders.

The Steward turned a bewildered and terrified gaze towards him. “They are crawling all over me!” he cried, trying to break free from Aragorn’s restraining grasp.

“You can tell me later, “Aragorn said firmly. “First you must cover yourself and come back to the fire with me.”

“My shame must no longer be hidden!” Faramir exclaimed. “I cannot wash away my guilt! They are in my tainted blood! They crawl over me to make me reveal my deeds!” He tried to pull off the blanket, but Aragorn was too quick for him and secured it from behind, pinioning his arms by his sides.

Faramir thrashed wildly, kicking and struggling. Suddenly he stopped, stood still, and announced, ”I feel sick!”

He had just begun to violently retch when a group of several men and women arrived on the scene. Some carried lanterns, while others were armed with tools of the harvest. They seemed to all be sturdy yeomen, with worn, suspicious faces. In truth, those faces were quite angry.

Aragorn wished fervently that he had had time to snatch up Andúril before coming after Faramir.

The men advanced upon them, their pitchforks and scythes raised and gleaming in the bright moonlight.

Chapter Seventeen- You are mine, O child: I am your Father

Do you be afraid, for I have redeemed you.

I have called you by your name: you are mine.

You are mine, O child: I am your Father,

And I love you with a perfect love. – Kevin Mayhew based on Isaiah 43

With grateful thanks to Raksha for all her help.

One of the angry farmers viciously lashed out at Faramir, brandishing a cudgel.

“Leave him alone!” Aragorn protested fiercely, throwing himself in front of his Steward.

“The pair of you deserve a good thrashing for what you’ve done to my crops!” retorted another of the men, who appeared to be the oldest and their leader. “Don’t you know that the King’s edicts protect crops from the likes of you? You are a disgrace trampling over an honest man’s livelihood, and your friend is offending public decency!”

The two women in the group tittered and came forward, as if eager for a closer look.

“The wretch should be ashamed of himself, letting our womenfolk see him thus!” raged the farmer’s leader, ignoring the fact that the ladies seemed interested rather than outraged at the spectacle in their midst. “Who are you?” he demanded.

Aragorn thoughts raced. They were in a great deal of trouble, but at least these country-folk had no idea of who they were. He dared not reveal their true identities, especially for Faramir’s sake. The Steward had been publicly reviled as a suspected traitor not so long ago and no doubt malicious tongues were still wagging. The perception of Faramir as a drunken, destructive sot could further damage his reputation. As if that were not enough of a problem, Faramir was keenly conscious of the dignity of his position as Steward and Prince. The public knowledge that he had been caught running naked through a cornfield would shame him beyond measure. “I am Morrandir and this is my son, Falborn,“ he replied. “My son is ill and needs my care. I rode after him because his fever has temporarily addled his wits and he ran away from me.”

“Drunk, more like!” the irate farmer snorted. “You both shall be placed in the pillories and taught the lesson you richly deserve! Do you know how long it takes to grow a good crop such as this? The rain only just came in time to save it and now it is trampled!”

“A good idea!” exclaimed one of the woman, “Put him in the pillory as he is, and let us get a good look at him!”

“Well spoken!” said the farmer, moving forward to grab hold of Faramir.

“No one touches my son!” Aragorn said fiercely, throwing a protecting arm around the helpless Faramir and positioning himself in front of him. “He needs rest and care. It could kill him to punish him as you suggest!” He swiftly debated possible tactics. These men would have fought in the War, but would be no match for him as a warrior even in a fistfight. Still, they had strength of numbers. But he had Roheryn, a trained warhorse who answered to him alone, and would menace, or trample, anyone who threatened him.

The notion of attacking the angered farmers or allowing Roheryn to hurt them was abhorrent to Aragorn, though. These people were his subjects, their lives under his protection. He had no right to risk harming them when they sought only to protect their livelihood, and insist on the upholding of his own laws. Yet he could not permit them to harm Faramir, whatever the cost to himself.

The men had stopped in their tracks, obviously impressed by the authority in his voice, for Aragorn had used the voice of Chieftain and King. He knew that his stance would only delay them for a moment, until the more hot-headed farmers decided to challenge that authority. Now was the time to placate, give the temper of these gathered men a release other than himself, and most importantly, Faramir.

“I will work to repair your crops and help you harvest them as soon as my son has recovered sufficiently for me to leave him unattended,” Aragorn announced with a sudden flash of inspiration. “You have my word that we will not try to evade our debt to you. And we shall pay for the damage.” He reached into the purse on his belt and from it offered a handful of coins to the enraged man.

The farmers muttered amongst themselves, unsure of what to make of this offer.

Aragorn pulled the blanket more tightly around Faramir and tried to comfort him. The younger man still moaned between retches and attempts to claw at his face and neck. He was a pitiful sight to behold.

“Maybe he is ill?” said the other woman, a small lady of mature years. “He looks fevered rather than drunk to me. It would be wise to accept the offer.”

“Very well,” said the oldest farmer at last, either moved by the obvious misery of the pair or placated by the by the coins and the woman’s words. “ We are short of men since the war, and I’ve just lost two of my strongest fellows. They dropped dead suddenly while they were working, so we'd welcome more hands along with the coin. Be certain, though that if you fail to honour your bargain I’ll have you reported to the King in the Citadel! Where do you come from, though?”

”My son and I dwell in the City. We are soldiers currently on leave,” Aragorn replied, “We are on a hunting trip together, and our campsite is at the far edge of your field by the woods. My son took ill and wandered off while I was sleeping.” The King deemed it best not to mention the spider for fear of frightening these simple people.

“Do you need help to tend your son?” asked the older woman.

“Thank you, mistress, but I have knowledge of how to teat the fever that ails him,” Aragorn replied courteously.

“Be off with you then until your son is sober,” the farmer snapped. “I expect you to come to work within the next few days, or it will be the worst for you. Get out of my field now, and be careful not cause any more damage!”

Aragorn whistled for Roheryn to follow, the horse having no rein to be led by. He half dragged, half carried Faramir from the scene, struggling with him all the while to keep the blanket decently draped around his friend’s body. He collected up the Steward’s remaining garments as he came across them.

Barely coherent now, Faramir muttered about creatures crawling on his skin. He was obviously delirious. Aragorn dared not examine him until they reached the safety of their campsite and he was certain that Faramir could not escape again.

As soon as they reached the campsite, Aragorn relaxed his iron grip. Faramir slumped down on the ground, flung aside the blanket and promptly started retching again. Aragorn knelt beside him and rubbed his back until the retching ceased. A hand on his friend’s forehead confirmed what he had suspected; the Steward was running a fever. Faramir was drenched in cold sweat, which was most likely the cause of his belief that something was crawling over him.

“Come, get dressed now!” Aragorn coaxed, holding out Faramir’s drawers. “You cannot sit here in nothing but your skin! You will catch cold. Come put your legs in!”

“Evil things, Morgoth-spawn, crawling on me, no, no coverings, t'would bind the creatures to me!” Faramir protested, pushing the garment aside. He lashed out wildly, trying to swat some imagined creature, and caught Aragorn a glancing blow on the cheek.

Aragorn grasped his wrists, seeking desperately for some way of soothing and settling Faramir before either of them met with further misadventures. Abandoning his efforts to make Faramir dress for the time being, he decided to try to ease his fears.

Luckily, he had a pan of water already filled in addition to the contents of their water bottles. Keeping a cautious eye on Faramir, Aragorn placed the pan on the fire to heat and threw more wood into the flames.

“I will wash away whatever it is that troubles you,” he said gently. “Just put this covering over you.” He draped the blanket round the fevered man, thinking this was a somewhat disconcerting experience for them both as Faramir usually hated being less than fully clothed. During his long years as a Healer, he had always tried to respect the patient’s dignity.

Faramir immediately threw the blanket aside and cried out, “I must not hide my disgrace!”

“There is no disgrace, Faramir,” the King said gently. ”Put this round you. You will feel better once you are warmer.”

“No!” Faramir protested, lashing out again. “Who are you? Release me! No more secrets, no more deceit. Look upon me and know my crime. I am an accursed traitor...Spurned by my father...Justly spurned by him I loved as father...I laid violent hands upon my liege lord! I brought shame upon my wife! Thrice a disgrace! I must walk naked and shamed before all the world!”

Aragorn was seriously alarmed by these uncharacteristic ravings from his modest and gentle natured Steward. He moved behind Faramir to re-examine the spider bite. The small circular red mark between Faramir's shoulder blades had now grown to quite alarming proportions and was hot to the touch. The circle now resembled an archery target, having a purplish blue centre and white outer ring, and was the obvious cause of Faramir’s fever and resultant deranged behaviour. The foul wound needed lancing and a poultice application to drain away the poisons.

Faramir started retching again, this time, a painful dry heaving. It was apparent that he had nothing left in his stomach. Aragorn rubbed his back again until Faramir collapsed, exhausted, in a pitiful heap of sprawled limbs. He moaned softly, his suffering painful for Aragorn to behold.

Keeping one eye on the distressed Steward, Aragorn reached for his healing supplies and rummaged through them. He retrieved a small, sharp, knife, which he held in the flame of the fire to cleanse it.

Just at that moment, Faramir looked up again. Aragorn expected him to panic at the sight of the blade. Instead the Steward said quietly. ”I must atone for my crimes, though I should die the hand of him I maimed. But it hurts, everywhere, it hurts!”

“No, Faramir, no,” Aragorn’s heart was breaking at his friend’s pain. ”I need to lance the bite, which will ease you. I just want you to keep still.” Securing Faramir with one hand, Aragorn used the other to swiftly make two small incisions that would drain the bite. Faramir hardly seemed aware of what he was doing, and only flinched slightly. Almost immediately, evil looking pus started to pour from the wound.

Aragorn decided to apply a poultice to help drain the poisons. He grabbed a few leaves of the plantain that grew around the campsite. Then he tipped out the contents of his pack. To Aragorn's delight, he found a few somewhat wilted cabbage leaves amongst the food supplies they had brought. He chopped and crushed the leaves with the plantain, boiled some water and mixed all together in a poultice. After washing the bite with cold water, he pressed the mixture against Faramir's inflamed skin. Finally, he covered the poulticed wound with a piece of clean bandage. The Steward lay huddled on the blanket, muttering and retching intermittently. Mercifully, he now seemed too worn out to fight any further or try to run away again.

Aragorn heated more water. This time he crumbled a leaf of athelas into the bowl. Gently coaxing Faramir into a sitting position, he began to bathe Faramir with the mixture. The scent seemed to calm the distressed Steward, allowing Aragorn to examine him thoroughly. He was grateful for the bright moonlight, which, combined with the fire, provided sufficient illumination.

Aragorn carefully checked Faramir for any sign of insects crawling or merely present on his body, as well as other bites, but found none. The Steward was soaked in cold sweat and had acquired a variety of small cuts and scratches. Fragments of straw and dirt clung to his body; and his heart raced wildly.

Now Faramir shivered as he looked at Aragorn with a confused expression. The Steward’s skin felt increasingly cold to the touch, increasing the necessity that he be clothed and warmed swiftly.

Faramir allowed himself to be bathed and dried without protest. He sat quietly, while Aragorn applied salve to his cuts and scratches.

But when Aragorn tried again to coax him to don his clothes, Faramir reverted to violent behaviour. He fought to push Aragorn away, struggling and even repeatedly striking the King. Faramir was still utterly convinced that his clothes concealed some crawling creatures, and was determined not to wear the garments.

Aragorn could only hope that his Steward would remember nothing of this time when he eventually regained his senses. Usually it took considerable persuasion to motivate Faramir to shed as much as his shirt to allow his hurts to be tended, rather than needing coaxing to be covered.

At last, Aragorn felt he could delay no longer clothing him, for the Steward was becoming increasingly chilled. He lightly brushed his friend’s eyelids. Faramir immediately went limp, collapsing back on the bedroll. He slept through the power of Aragorn’s will, but continued to moan and shiver violently.

Aragorn finally was able to get Faramir clothed against the cold, pulling drawers, socks, breeches and shirt onto to sick man's sleeping body. He was too exhausted to struggle with the tunic, or tie any laces. Faramir was now clothed decently enough to avoid offending any other country-folk they might encounter.

Aragorn felt his own eyelids grow exceedingly heavy. Unable to stay alert any longer, he spread out his bedroll beside that of Faramir, discarded his outer tunic, and settled down beside him. Although his friend should sleep for hours, Aragorn would take no further chances of Faramir's awakening and getting into further trouble. He untied one of the leather throngs he used to keep his hair out of his eyes, and then bound one end around his own wrist and the other around Faramir’s wrist. He would immediately be alerted should Faramir awaken and struggle to escape.

He drew the shivering man close, trying desperately to warm him with his own body. However, the cold sweat still poured from Faramir’s body and soaked through the King’s shirt. The Steward continued to toss restlessly. Aragorn murmured soothingly to him and guided his head against his shoulder. Faramir sighed, and then finally relaxed, much to his King’s relief. Aragorn hated to see the one he loved as a son in such distress. He knew that Faramir's symptoms were not likely to prove life threatening since he was now receiving proper care, but they were none the less harrowing to behold.

As Faramir grew warmer, Aragorn grew colder and increasingly uncomfortable. Buried memories started to resurface in his mind. He had been cold, so very cold; and warm arms were holding him. Faramir must have held him thus when he had wandered out in the snow. He could recall Arwen’s spirit reaching out to make him choose life, but someone must have warmed him then. That someone had been Faramir, enduring a far more uncomfortable ordeal that he was now experiencing. He owed so much to his loyal and loving friend. Until a few days ago he had done nothing save revile him.

Aragorn knew now that he held the most priceless jewel he had discovered in Gondor. He offered a silent prayer of thanks that Faramir still lived.

“I will somehow make it up to you, ion nîn, whatever it takes,” he murmured, tucking the blankets more snugly around them both, wishing fervently they were thicker and warmer.

Chapter Eighteen - Words of Kindness

 

Faramir sighed in his sleep and nestled his head more comfortably against his friend‘s shoulder.

Aragorn's thoughts turned towards the angry farmers. He was relieved to have reached an agreement with them, though he knew not what would happen when he returned to work in the fields. He had held many duties in his long life, but apart from enjoying watching the Elves bring in the harvest at Rivendell when he was a child, he had little experience of farm work. Surely it could not be too difficult, though? He had attempted and mastered many tasks in his long life, and this would be surely be easy compared with most of them. Then how long would it take for Faramir to recover? Would he be lucid or distressed when he awoke? Unable to answer any of these troubling questions, Aragorn finally dozed.

Despite his exhaustion, the King's slumber was fitful. Faramir shifted and shivered in his arms, occasionally moaning in his sleep. Aragorn was cold and uncomfortable. Only when Faramir stopped shivering, and the King could feel a strong and steady heartbeat vibrating against his own, did he finally dare to fall into a deep exhausted sleep.

When Aragorn awoke again, the sun was already high in the sky. Faramir was still sleeping peacefully. He carefully untied the thong that had he had bound from Faramir's wrist to his own, and arose. Anxiously, he felt Faramir’s forehead for signs of fever. He was relieved to find the fever had abated, though the younger man looked pale and drawn following his ordeal.

Aragorn had learned a bitter lesson in the terrible moments when he believed Faramir dead. He knew now that whatever happened, to lose Faramir would be akin to losing part of his own soul. Never again would he seek to send him from his side. He was fortunate indeed to have been granted another chance to treat Faramir as a beloved son. Aragorn shuddered to recall the months when he had he had treated Faramir so ignominiously, like a servant cast out of favour. Small wonder that he had failed to recover from his imprisonment! Exiling Faramir had hurt them both in equal measure.

Loth as he was to leave his friend, the King had to see to his own needs. He rummaged in his pack and took out a towel, clean shirt, socks, and drawers.

Careful to remain within earshot, though it was unlikely Faramir would awaken until he called him; Aragorn went into the shelter of the trees then hastened down to the river to bathe. He undressed down his drawers and had a very quick swim, washing away the dried sweat and traces of detritus from Faramir’s wound. He noted ruefully that a colourful array of bruises adorned his body from where Faramir had deliriously lashed out at him. Still dripping, he wrapped himself in his towel, gathered up his clothes and returned to Faramir’s side, where he dried himself and swiftly dressed.

Though it seemed a pity to disturb the younger man, Aragorn deemed it was time now to awaken him. The sooner that Faramir took refreshment and had his injuries were tended, the better. He hesitated, wondering whether he should use his abilities to try to erase the memories of Faramir's delirium of the previous night from his friend’s mind. No, Faramir was not a distressed Hobbit, but a warrior, a courageous and intelligent man who had braved the Nazgûl's attack; he would not shrink from such knowledge. Besides, it would probably cause Faramir more anguish to only guess at what had occurred. The gaps in Aragorn's own memories when he had been drugged or feverish were not a burden he would wish on another. Aragorn knelt beside Faramir and placed a hand on his brow. ”Wake up, ion nîn!” he commanded, gently but firmly.

The Steward stirred, blinked and opened his eyes, only to quickly shut them again against the light.

“How do you fare?” Aragorn asked quietly.

Faramir struggled to sit up then fell back again as waves of dizziness and nausea engulfed him.

“Easy now, tell me exactly how you feel and I will aid you.”

“Thank you,” Faramir said weakly, unable even to nod his head. ”I fear I fare ill.” He forced himself to focus his gaze upon the King. “My head aches,” he croaked. “My ribs feel as if a mûmak had stomped upon them, and my back smarts. What happened? I had such dark dreams!”

“You were bitten by a spider, one akin to Shelob, I think,” Aragorn explained.

Faramir groaned. “Is that why my head spins so much?” he enquired, sinking back on the bedroll. “I feel sick!”

“It will pass,” Aragorn soothed, trying to settle him more comfortably. “Just lie still for a few moments, and take my hands. I only wish I had some ginger for you.”

Faramir gripped Aragorn’s outstretched hands like a drowning mariner would clutch a scrap of driftwood, then shut his eyes again. Aragorn held Faramir's hands for a moment, suffusing him with a wave of warmth and energy. The King then pressed his thumbs hard on Faramir’s wrists, using a technique that Lord Elrond had taught him to ease nausea when no medicines were available. He pulled back the blankets and held his hands a few inches above Faramir’s ribs and stomach where he sensed Faramir was hurting the most. The Steward lay quietly content to let those wonderful healing hands work their magic. The worse of the pain and discomfort abated.

After a few minutes had passed, Faramir dared to open his eyes again, and met the concerned gaze of his King. “I will tend you further later,” Aragorn said. “Try to swallow a little water.” He uncorked his freshly filled water bottle.

Faramir attempted once more to sit up, and this time succeeded with Aragorn's aid. He managed to swallow a few sips of the proffered drink. His expression became increasingly bewildered. “Why am I only half dressed and my shirt unlaced?” he asked in bewilderment. “Oh no, I remember now! I thought it was but an evil dream!”

“What do you remember?” Aragorn asked gently.

“I was running through the field naked and a group of angry men and women were after me!” Faramir replied, flushing scarlet. "The shame of it! How shall I ever be able to live with the disgrace? I, the Steward of Gondor, to have been seen in so disgraceful a state! I am destroyed! How could I do such a thing? They must have thought I was a drunkard or a lunatic!” He buried his face in his hands, shaking with distress.

“Peace ion nîn!” Aragorn placed a comforting arm around him. “The corn was high enough to shield your body from their eyes until I reached you. I covered you with a blanket before the farmers arrived. You were feverish and had wandered off while I slept.”

“You are certain I was not naked before them?” Faramir persisted anxiously, burying his head against the King’s shoulder and seeking solace in the comfortingly familiar scent of athelas and fresh herbs, which seemed especially strong today.

“I was the only one to see you completely unclothed,” Aragorn reassured him. “Do trouble yourself over the matter. I dressed you as quickly as I could, though you resisted my efforts quite fiercely, hence your partial state of undress. I gave up as soon as you were decent enough to behold.”

“I did not wish to dress?” Faramir sounded incredulous. “But I hate being unclothed!”

“I know that well,” Aragorn said wryly. “After all, you do look far better with your clothes on than without them. The farmers would have agreed, though I am not sure about their wives. I think the women were disappointed that I had you decently covered before they could get a good look at you! The men were concerned more with the damage to their crops than your curious lack of attire.”

“We will never hear the last of it!” Faramir groaned. “The Steward of the Realm found rampaging through a field of crops wearing only a blanket! All of Gondor will take me for an immodest drunkard with no respect for property either, or worse, a madman like my father.” Aragorn felt the younger man shiver.

“Peace, Faramir, they know not who we are,” said Aragorn quickly. “I told them we were a father and son from the City on leave from the army, and enjoying a hunting trip together. They will never guess the truth.” He deemed it best to wait until Faramir was less distressed before telling him of the bargain he had made with the farmers. “You are not mad, it was merely the effects of the spider venom combined with your fever.”

“But Frodo did not act thus. I seem to have less resilience to the poison than a Hobbit!” Faramir fretted. “Samwise told me that Frodo was back on his feet within a few hours of being bitten by Shelob and he did not lose his wits as I did!”

“Your heart was beating very fast when you were attacked, so more of the venom would have circulated in your body,” Aragorn explained. “I did not pour Orc brew down your throat, so the poison’s effects are slower to wear off. It is better to let your body expel it naturally. It was appalling what they did to Frodo. They could have choked him. Then by interrupting the body’ natural healing processes, the potion permanently damaged Frodo’s heath. Hobbits usually recover far more swiftly than Men from injuries. Have no fear, mellon nîn, you will feel better in a few hours, and in a day or two be fully recovered. Now that Sauron is no more, his creatures’ power wanes quickly. Once the wound closes it will be as if it never happened.” Aragorn again grasped Faramir’s hands and looked him straight in the eye.

“If you say so...” Faramir managed a weak smile, but his eyes were troubled. He rubbed his aching head, trying to comprehend everything that had happened.

“Let me ease your head!” Aragorn held his hand above Faramir’s aching brow.

The Steward closed his eyes and sighed as the pain subsided. When he opened his eyes again, he felt much better. It was then he noticed the bruise on Aragorn’s face.

“What happened to you?” he enquired, hoping the horrible suspicion he felt would prove false.

“I um, knocked myself,” Aragorn replied evasively.

“Or was it not I who hit you?” Faramir asked dejectedly, his eyes on his King.

“You thought your raiment full of crawling creatures and objected to my insistence that you clothe yourself,” Aragorn informed him. “Do not trouble yourself about it. It is not painful. It was my own fault for not sending you sleep sooner.”

“So I laid violent hands upon you once more," Faramir said in a low, sad voice. “I struck my liege lord.”

“We are far from the court and at present I would be as a father and a Healer to you,” Aragorn replied. “All Healers occasionally receive a few blows from confused patients. You probably mistook me for a spider or an Orc, given the dark dreams such foul venom conjures up. Think no more of it. I am far more concerned about having a cup of tea! Do you feel you could drink some now?”

Faramir nodded mutely, then wished he had not as his head started to spin once more.

“Lie down again,” Aragorn advised, “It will pass as the day wears on.”

“But I need to get up!” Faramir protested.

“Come on then!” Aragorn knelt beside him. “Put your hands on my shoulders!” he instructed.

Thus supported, Faramir found he could stand up, albeit rather shakily. Aragorn led him to the cover of the trees. Faramir tried to hide his misery at the humiliation of needing assistance.

“There is no need to feel uncomfortable,” Aragorn assured him. “You had to do everything for me but a few months since. Sadly, I expressed no gratitude for my great good fortune at having a friend who treated me always with dignity and kindness. Do not see shame where there is none, as I foolishly did.”

“It is not easy to feel helpless as a babe when one is accustomed to independence,” said Faramir, sinking again on the bedroll when they returned to their campsite.

”I know that all too well,” Aragorn replied ruefully. He threw more logs on the fire as he spoke. “I need to leave you to fetch water. And please do not let any more spiders bite you while my back is turned! I do not wish for such a fright again, nor to have to dress one so reluctant twice. You struggled worse than Eldarion does when he does not wish to be put into clean clothing!”

The Steward managed a weak grin at what he knew was good-natured teasing.

While the King was gone, Faramir desperately tried to recollect his jumbled thoughts and remember exactly what had happened. He had been sitting by the riverbank and had felt a sharp pain between his shoulder blades. Then darkness had taken him, a thick and heavy darkness punctuated by terrifying flashes of clarity. Faramir had been aware of his surroundings, but unable to move or speak.

Aragorn had been there. The King had stayed constantly at his side, murmuring words of comfort and reassurance, chafing his hands and bathing his face as if aware of Faramir's confusion and fear. Horrified, Faramir then realised that Aragorn did know how Faramir had felt. Aragorn must have had the same awareness when he had been paralysed with the venom himself. Fore Aragorn, though, there had been none to offer comfort, and reassure him that he would not be buried alive!

Faramir remembered the certainty, as sensation had returned, that his skin was covered in crawling insects. He had torn off his clothes, heedless of decorum for the first time in his adult life, intent only on ridding himself of the vile creatures. He remembered angry raised voices shouting at him and a sea of strange faces. All he could remember after that was feeling increasingly unwell and someone at his side caring for him. Aragorn was a true friend indeed. But just how much damage had he caused when he had blundered naked into the field?

“You remembered it all.” Faramir stated when Aragorn return returned with the water.

“Remembered what, mellon nîn?” Aragorn asked puzzled.

“That I drugged you with spider venom,” Faramir confessed miserably.

“I realised that it was the spider venom that enabled you to convince the rebels that I was dead. Before last night, I could not understand how you extricated me from that den of torment. Why did you not tell me before?” Aragorn did not sound angry. He busied himself putting the water on to boil.

“I could not; I did not think you would understand. I saw to it that you were paralysed, taken for dead!”

“I should have been more understanding long ago,” Aragorn said apologetically. “Perhaps you would have felt able to confide in me if I had been? I suspect that a need to bare your soul, as well as a fear of crawling creatures, was behind what happened last night. You were very distressed before you were bitten. Maybe it would help if you told me about using the venom.”

“It pains me too much,” Faramir replied, refusing to meet Aragorn's eyes.

“I know,” Aragorn said gently. He knew it seemed cruel to press Faramir in his weakened condition, yet felt certain his recovery would be swifter were his heart unburdened.

Faramir hesitated. If he told any more, the newfound bond between them could shatter once more.

“You need to tell me all,” Aragorn’s voice was kindly, but its note of command was unmistakable.

Chapter Nineteen - Confession is good for the soul

Confession is good for the soul - Scottish Proverb

Sei heil - entsündigt und entsühnt! (Be whole, absolved and atoned!) – Parsifal - Wagner.

Faramir swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “The night I branded you, the rebels had boasted of their intention to humiliate you further, and then torture you to death on the very next day. Hanna had been goading the men; insisting that they had let you off too easily. She spoke of some especially cruel measures, and convinced the brutes to subject you to them. I feared that you would give in to your tormentors and sign their wretched paper, only to suffer a terrible, demeaning death." Faramir shuddered and paused, remembering Hanna's gleeful laughter as she urged the rebels to castrate Aragorn before killing him. They would have done it, curse them!

He pulled himself together, and continued in a near whisper: "I could not allow such a thing to come to pass. I tried and tried, but could think of no way to take you to safety. So I went to the cellar believing the only thing I could do for you was to spare you further torture by giving you a quick and painless death. I planned to later take our wives and children to safety in Rohan, and then die either by Éomer’s hand, or my own to atone for my crime.” The Steward’s voice was now scarcely audible. He paused to wipe his brow with the back of his hand.

“How did you come to use spider venom instead?” Aragorn asked calmly.

“I had it concealed inside my tunic. I had asked Tarostar to give me something that would swiftly end my life if my deception were uncovered. I was afraid that I might reveal the whereabouts of the Queen and your son under torture. The healer refused to give me what I asked for, but suggested I use the venom. He told me that Legolas had brought it, thinking it would make a useful weapon to render enemies senseless without killing them.”

“It would be most effective,” Aragorn remarked. “So you remembered you had the venom and…?

“I could not kill you without a kiss of farewell.” Faramir swallowed hard again, finding it torment to speak of those dreadful moments. “Your brow was burning and I realised you were running a fever caused by your infected wounds. I knew how they feared the epidemic in the City, and decided it offered a slim chance to rescue you. Again, I hardened my heart. I asked Elbeth to bring me an onion from the kitchens. She did, and I rubbed it into in your face to make your eyes and nose water to feign the fever symptoms. Finally I dipped a needle in the venom and pricked you with it! ” The Steward buried his face in his hands. “So now you know the full degree of my crimes, sire. Not only did I torture you, but I also poisoned you, and raised a weapon against you with the intent of taking your life!” Faramir was shaking now, so great was his distress.

Aragorn sat regarding him for a moment. So much that had puzzled him was now clear. He gently took Faramir’s hands in his own and bestowed a tender paternal kiss on the younger man's brow, a gesture more eloquent in its warmth than any words.

“You are not angry?” Faramir sounded both relieved and bewildered.

“No indeed, rather I marvel at your cleverness. I only wish you could have told me what you planned.”

”I was afraid if I let my guise slip I could not don it again,” Faramir said miserably. “I was weak.”

“Not weak, but very honourable! I am so very sorry for the way I treated you. I was cold and cruel, and bitterly I now regret it.”

“I merited your wrath,” Faramir said without rancour. “I became a traitor when I raised my hand against you and caused you grievous hurts. I well deserved your wrath even though it broke my heart to lose your love and trust.“

“Have I not sometimes had to hurt you in order to heal you?” Aragorn’s voice was slightly unsteady. “Only last night I had to cut you. I caused you great agony when I treated your hurts last year.”

“You were not trying to kill me, though!” Faramir protested.

“You forget that I raised my sword to your breast, but a few months past,” Aragorn replied sadly.

“My life was rightly forfeit to you,” said Faramir. “I expected death that morning, and had in readiness bid my beloved Éowyn farewell.

“You lost my trust, but never my love, though I was too angry to show it,” the King replied. “You could no more forfeit my love than Eldarion could. Can you ever forgive me for my harshness? I sought only to test your loyalty, but I wronged you most grievously, dear friend.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Faramir replied. “My natural father would most likely have had me executed without hesitation. You laid not a finger upon me. You were hurt and bewildered at my cruel actions, but all that matters is we are in harmony again! Be at peace, it is already forgotten,” Faramir said, finally looking Aragorn straight in the eye. He clasped the King’s hand, and then sank back exhausted on the bedroll.

”You are indeed the most priceless jewel I have found in Gondor! Now drink this, it will ease you, and you are in sore need of fluids,” Aragorn said, reverting to his healer’s manner before emotion could overcome him. He held the cup to his Steward’s lips. It contained some of the tea the Hobbits favoured, with which they kept the King well supplied. Faramir needed little urging to drain the refreshing brew. Only then did Aragorn mix some herbs.

“This tastes vile!” Faramir spluttered when he tasted the potion.

“It is only willow bark. Drink it up; it will ease pain. I will then treat your hurts as best I can. You need to be fit for your new office in a few days time.”

“New office?” Faramir asked in bewilderment. So much seemed to have happened that he knew little about.

“Yes, I have offered to become a farmhand to help repair the crops while you shall have light duties in the fields,” he said. “We start as soon as you have recovered.”

You, a farm worker?” Faramir sounded incredulous.

“It seemed reasonable enough to offer, given the damage we had caused,” the King retorted. “The harvesting of corn cannot be so hard. I thought it might be a pleasant way to conclude our time away from the City.”

“It is apparent that you have never worked on a farm!” Faramir said wryly. “And I thought you had tried your hand at everything.”

“I watched the Elves harvest when I was a young boy in Rivendell, and even helped with binding up the sheaves,” Aragorn replied with dignity. “You cannot know much about harvesting either!”

“But I do!” Faramir was unable to restrain his mirth; despite the twinges it caused his pain-wracked body. “Boromir and I were sent each summer to stay with our Uncle Imrahil. It might surprise you, as Imrahil is so mindful of court etiquette, but he loved to help with the harvest on his tenants’ lands, and we were expected to help too. He told us that a wise lord knows how his subjects live and wanted Boromir to be a good Steward. As a result, Boromir and I had to spent several days of our supposed holiday in hard, back-breaking labour.”

Aragorn grimaced but quickly collected himself. “I am accustomed to strenuous activities. I have fought so many battles that I have lost count and tirelessly wandered over the face of Arda!” he declared, trying to seem unperturbed.

”Admirable, of course; but nothing compared with harvesting wheat!” Faramir retorted, already feeling better as the herbal tea took effect. “You will probably be bent double the next day.”

“I must ensure then that I am not,” the King replied smugly. “Would you like some more tea?”

“Yes, please,” Faramir said. He still thirsted, though the thought of food revolted him. He was grateful that Aragorn seemed to have decided against cooking anything on their campfire. The smell would have turned his still delicate feeling stomach. To his relief, he could now hold the cup himself.

“Working on a farm should be a pleasing change,” the King said hopefully. “It will be good to have an excuse not to return to the City for a week or two more, though I long for Arwen and Eldarion. It is bliss to sometimes retreat from the formality of Court. And you and I must make amends for having spent so little time together of late. There are times, I must admit, when I miss my life as a Ranger, wandering freely in mountain and forest. Often I think that if I could only keep my family and friends around me still, I would happily return to the Wild tomorrow! Labouring in the open air will be a joy to one such as I!”

“When the horrors of your captivity fade from your memory, you will cease to yearn for solitary wandering,” Faramir replied. “Until then, if you feel tempted, remember the pains of camping out in the wilds in winter!”

“Wise advice indeed, mellon nîn,” Aragorn conceded. “I promise not to follow the lure of sleeping in trenches and half-frozen caves! I have had days so cold that there were icicles in my beard! Now if you have finished your tea, I will massage your feet.”

“What?” Faramir looked perplexed. “My feet are about the only part of me that does not ache!”

“It is an old Elven remedy that Lord Elrond taught me,” Aragorn explained. “By massaging the soles of the feet, the internal organs can be stimulated. It should help rid your body of the poisons from the spider bite.”

Faramir still looked unconvinced. Truth to tell, he disliked anyone touching his feet.

“I am certain you will benefit from it,” Aragorn coaxed.

Knowing that Aragorn’s strange remedies usually worked, Faramir decided he had better permit Aragorn to try the treatment. He reluctantly stretched out his feet, still too weak to remove his boots unaided.

Aragorn removed Faramir’s boots and stockings and clasped his Steward’s feet firmly in his hands.

Faramir had to repress an urge to laugh at the absurd spectacle. The soles of his feet were very ticklish and he expected to have to beg for mercy once they were touched, but instead of the familiar light touch of the Elven healing touch, Aragorn’s warm fingers pressed down very firmly, and in places surprisingly painfully, especially around the middle of his right foot. “Ouch!” he complained, “That hurts!”

“I am sorry, but your discomfort proves that the treatment is working,” Aragorn replied without easing the pressure he was applying. “There, I have almost finished. The spider venom should linger no more in your body.”

“Would the Ring-bearer have fared better if you had treated him like this at once?” Faramir asked curiously.

“Maybe, though I doubt it,” Aragorn replied, transferring his attention to the top of Faramir’s left foot. “Shelob ‘s venom was unique; since not only was she an ancient creature, but her power was enhanced by the Dark Lord. However, Frodo’s worse wound was that caused by the Morgul blade, compared to which Shelob’s venom counted for little. Now Sauron has fallen, his creatures have no further sorcerous power, only the abilities of animals and monsters of their individual sizes. You will suffer no lasting ill effects, if that is what concerns you. There, you can put your boots back on if you wish.”

“I much prefer the Elven healing massage,” Faramir said wryly.

“And you shall have that once you are less sore,” Aragorn promised. “I need to look at your hurts now.”

“Is it wise to take my shirt off here?” Faramir asked anxiously, looking around him. “What if the farming folk come back? I feel much better now!”

Aragorn chuckled softly, relieved to have the old Faramir back, his usual reserve manifesting once more.

“The farmer is hardly likely to trample his own cornfield and the trees screen us from the other side,” Aragorn reassured him. “You have a dressing on your back which I need to change, or the spider bite might become infected. I will put a blanket beside you, so in the unlikely event of anyone appearing, you can quickly drape in over you.” He placed a pan of water on the fire to heat as he spoke. “I think you will be more comfortable in clean clothes, too, you were sweating heavily last night.” He rummaged in Faramir’s pack and drew out a clean shirt, socks, and drawers for him.

Faramir nodded his head, this time without feeling dizzy as result. “It is just after last night that I do not wish to be thought immodest,” he said, still sounding worried.

“That is the last word I would ever use to describe you!” Aragorn grinned, helping Faramir ease his shirt over his head.

“Why am I black and blue!” the Steward exclaimed, catching sight of his bruised ribs for the first time. ”How could the spider do that to me?”

“I am to blame for the bruising, I fear,” Aragorn said contritely, “I thought you had suffered failure of the heart when I first found you, and tried to revive you. I fear I only added to your misery!”

“A healer of your knowledge and experience did not know the difference?” Faramir said incredulously. “Éowyn will never let you hear the last of it if she finds out!”

“You heart was beating so fast when I left to fetch the athelas; I feared the strain was just too much for it and panicked when I found you seemingly lifeless,” Aragorn said remorsefully. “Please forgive me, ion nîn, I never meant to cause you pain!”

“I know you did not,” Faramir replied sincerely. “Who would have thought that giant spiders lurked in so fair a place as this?”

“I do not think any ribs are broken, but need to make certain now that you are awake.” Aragorn carefully felt the bruised area using an Elven technique, which made the experience nearly painless for Faramir. After ensuring that his friend could cough and take deep breaths without too much discomfort, the King heaved a sigh of relief.

“I will tend the bite now,” he told Faramir, starting to unwrap the bandages.

“What does it look like?” the Steward enquired.

“Yesterday, the wound looked almost like an archery target with rings around it in interesting hues of purple,” Aragorn replied. “Today, it has almost drained, and is just a small red mark with a white centre. It will soon heal of its own accord.”

“It itches now!” Faramir complained.

“That shows it is healing as it should. Do not try to scratch it, though!” Aragorn fought the urge to scratch at his own itching shoulder as he spoke. The brand had recently stopped causing him pain where the flesh was scarred and puckered, but the itching almost drove him mad at times. He forced himself to concentrate on Faramir. He felt the tender area around his friend's belly, causing Faramir to grimace, despite the gentleness of his touch.

“You pulled the muscles in your stomach with retching so much,” Aragorn explained, “also your liver is slightly inflamed by the poison delivered in the bite. I will first bathe the bruises in water in which athelas has been steeped,” he said. “It should ease your pain and invigorate both our spirits at the same time. Fortunately, I still have some leaves with me. I will then give you an infusion of milk thistle and dandelion root to cleanse your blood of the poisons.” He took one of the slender athelas leaves and breathed on it, before crushing it and casting into the now steaming pan. At once, a living freshness filled the air.

Faramir heaved a contented sigh. “I have come to love this scent, ” he said. “I know all is well, and I am safe when I smell it, ever since the first time I met you in the Houses of Healing. I had lost almost everything and could no longer withstand the darkness. Then you came, and gave me back my life. You became a far better lord and father to me than I had could ever have dreamed of! I shall associate the scent with you forever; for a trace of it always lingers on your clothing.”

“The herb speaks differently to all who perceive it,” Aragorn said, smiling at the younger man’s words. “What does it smell like to you?”

“It is fresh and clean like a woodland in early morning with just a hint of the sea combined with healing herbs.” Faramir told him. “A pure and wholesome scent.”

“When I utilise it for you it has the scent of a dewy freshness of a spring morning, again with a hint of the sea, which I believe is present for all those in which the blood of Númenor runs true, “ Aragorn replied.

Faramir hesitated before asking a question that troubled him. “Have my deeds changed the scent of the herb?”

“When I used it a few days ago, the scent seemed darker and heavier, but now it is as it always was, as are you. Apart from having all those bruise, that is!" he added to lighten the mood.

“I could not smell athelas while your healing powers had waned,” Faramir confessed as Aragorn dipped a cloth in the bowl and gently bathed his Steward’s bruised ribs. “It frightened me. I think the Queen was distressed too.”

“I suppose that is why you dreamed up that ritual of renewal,” Aragorn said wryly. “Turn round, as I think this might be the best treatment for the spider bite.”

Almost at once, the burning and itching sensation eased from between Faramir’s shoulder blades. He sighed with relief.

“Athelas; the most potent weapon against the forces of darkness,” Aragorn spoke with reverence, taking a final deep breath of the sweet-scented steam and putting the bowl aside. He picked up a towel and gently dried the hurts, Faramir submitted meekly, knowing that the King’s hands alone could heal.

“I shall try to heal your bruises now that I am refreshed,” Aragorn said. “Reach out to me with your mind, as you would hold out your hands for a gift.”

The first time, Faramir had been given this advice, he found it near impossible to follow it, as he had not understood, but now the mental link they shared made it easy for him. Faramir closed his eyes and relaxed. Then he felt the King's healing power sweep over him, seeming to pour warmth and strength into every weary inch of his body, from forehead to feet. Aragorn sat beside Faramir, his own eyes closed, holding his hands a few inches above the bruising. The Steward could feel the pain leaving him, to be replaced by a comforting warm glow. He then felt the same sensation at his back where he had been troubled for months with pain.

Faramir opened his eyes and glanced down at his chest. To his amazement, the bruises were already starting to fade. “That feels so much better!” he sighed gratefully.

“I shall endeavour in future not to cause the injuries I need to heal!” Aragorn replied ruefully. He looked exhausted now after a disturbed night followed by a draining healing session.

“You should rest now.” Faramir reached for his shirt as he spoke.

“I promised you some Elven healing massage. Yes, I am weary, but it should ease us both.”

Faramir took little persuasion as he had greatly missed having this treatment to ease his pain during the past months. He understood now why the Elves, blessed with far fewer ills than mortals, used it for bonding with friends and family from earliest childhood.

He settled himself against Aragorn’s comfortingly broad shoulder, enjoying the feel of the warm fingertips easing away his cares both of mind and body.

Aragorn smiled in satisfaction, convinced now that Faramir had suffered no lasting harm. His bruises were already easing; his heart was strong and steady. A few more treatments would cure his back and the worst of the bite's effects should ease by the morrow.

Aragorn handed Faramir the towel and clean clothing. ”If you give me your drawers, I will wash our linens in the river now,” he said. “You can wash your legs while I do the laundry. Would you like me to help you don your clean shirt first?”

“Thank you,” This time Faramir could lift his arms more easily though he was wondering however he could balance to change his underwear.

Aragorn secured the towel around Faramir’s waist, supporting him while he removed his clothing beneath it. “There, he announced, “I will leave you to finish bathing. Call me if you need help.”

“I feel much stronger now,” Faramir assured him grateful for his tact, especially after his behaviour of the night before “Should the King really do my laundry?” he protested. “You look weary.”

“I was considered very skilled at laundry in my Ranger days; becoming King has in no way diminished my skills, I hope.” Aragorn assured him, grinning. “Just do not tell the washerwomen of the Citadel, lest they think I covet their jobs! I shall rest once my labours are completed.”

Tucking the bundle of dirty clothes under his arm, the King left his Steward to bathe. The cheerful welcome song of Rivendell came into Aragorn's mind; and he merrily sang “Come! Tra-la-la-lally! Come back to the valley! Tra-la-la-lally Fa-la-la-lally-la!" while washing their socks and linens in the river. He hung the now clean clothing on a tree to dry, convinced that his efforts were as good as any Citadel washerwoman could achieve.

He helped Faramir finish dressing, and then informed his friend he would catch some fish for lunch.

“Let me help you,” Faramir protested, before sinking back down, exhausted.

“You must rest. It is my turn to look after you,” Aragorn said firmly. Fortunately, he soon caught two plump trout. By the time they were baked, Faramir felt able to eat some of the light but nourishing meal.

After Aragorn had washed the dishes, he was finally able to stretch out on the grass beside his friend. “You had better practise calling me ‘Ada’,” he said. “I think we will be able to start work the day after tomorrow and we need to remember we are father and son.” He yawned and promptly fell asleep as weariness finally overcame him.

Faramir spoke the word softly under his breath: Ada, 'Papa' in the Common Speech. It sounded sweet to his ears. Truth to tell, he often thought of the King in such a way. Despite his lingering pain, he felt more content that he had been in a very long time. No father by birth could have cared for him more devotedly that Aragorn had done this day. Their bond was finally restored and Faramir felt happy and secure. He wondered, though whatever had possessed Aragorn to volunteer his services as a farm labourer. He was certain the King would find the work far from easy.

farm labourer. He was certain the King would find the work far from easy.

Chapter twenty - Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go - Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished: but he that gathereth by labour shall increase. The Bible – Proverbs 13.11

The first product of self-knowledge is humility - Flannery O’Connor

As the stars winked and danced in cloudless clarity far above them, Aragorn and Faramir slept the sound sleep of untroubled conscience. After another day of resting and Aragorn’s treatments, Faramir was almost recovered from the effects of the spider’s venom.

They awoke soon after sunrise and quickly breakfasted on a rather unappetising meal of porridge.

At the far side of the field adjoining their campsite, several men had already begun to work the furrows of corn.

“We had better join them,” said Aragorn as he helped Faramir fill their water bottles. ”We will just take our packs and our weapons with us. Our horses and camping equipment should be safe enough here, while we work.”

“Are you certain that this course of action is wise?” Faramir queried. “Could we not simply pay for the crops we ruined?”

“I gave my word,” the King replied. “In truth, I am quite looking forward to the new experience.”

The two friends crossed the field trying to appear more confident than they felt. All eyes were upon them as Aragorn spoke. “My son is now well on the road to recovery, so we have come to help you harvest your crops as I said we would.”

“So you have decided to turn up at last!” the farmer replied sceptically. “About time too! Half the morning has gone. You City-folk seem to think the day begins at noon. My name is Beleg and these are my sons Pelendur and Galador.”

Aragorn and Faramir inclined their heads and greeted the two young men courteously, introducing themselves as Morrandir and Falborn. ”What would you have us do to aid you?” Aragorn asked. He placed his pack and his sword at the edge of the field and slung his water bottle over his shoulder.

“You can help me with the reaping and clearing up all the damage you caused,” Beleg replied, “Your son can tie up the sheaves since you say his health is frail.” He handed Aragorn a sickle.

Aragorn eyed the sickle doubtfully. He would have discreetly asked Faramir what he should do with the thing, but his friend was already listening intently to Galador's instruction.

The King tried making a few swipes with the sickle, slicing the wheat with what he assumed was a proper cutting motion.

“No, you dolt; hold it like this with both hands!” Beleg exclaimed, showing him what to do. “It isn’t a sword!”

The King’s cheeks burned. How he yearned to put this impudent fellow in his place by revealing his true rank. But he could not let Faramir be shamed by revealing their true identities. If it were to be known that the Steward of Gondor had run naked through a cornfield, apparently drunk and damaging the livelihood of honest farmers, Faramir’s reputation would be ruined. Aragorn bit back a sharp retort. Taking up the sickle again as Beleg had shown him; he tried again to cut the wheat.

“No, no!” the farmer groaned, “You don’t cut wheat like you cut grass! You work around the field, not from side to side! Why must the Valar inflict such trials upon me as to take two of my best men and send me the likes of you in their place!”

Aragorn reminded himself that to the farmer, he was no more than an inexperienced farm hand. In his long life, he had veiled his true self many times to take orders, and even harsh words from lesser men. This was no worse than helping to sweep out Butterbur's stables when he was short of coin: even if the beer was unlikely to be as good as even the Prancing Pony's cheapest stock.

Under Beleg’s watchful eye, Aragorn gradually improved the performance of his task: Lift, bend and cut, lift bend and cut. The wheat was then left to be gathered and bound into sheaves. After a few hours, the King’s arms, back and shoulders throbbed painfully with the unaccustomed strain imposed by these particular exertions. Aragorn was thankful that Faramir was not reaping as he dreaded the damage this work could cause to his Steward's already weakened back.

The morning wore on and grew no cooler. As the sun rose higher the heat became well nigh unbearable. Aragorn took frequent draughts of water and shed his outer tunic, working only in his thin shirt and breeches. The farmer and his sons had soon shed both tunics and shirts to reveal bronzed, weather-beaten skin and gnarled muscles.

Aragorn paused for a moment to wipe his sweaty brow. He took a swig from his water bottle.

“You look hot,” said Beleg. “Why don’t you take your shirt off?”

“It is not the custom where I dwell,” Aragorn replied. “We never remove our shirts in public.”

“Fancy City ways don’t apply here,” Beleg snorted. “Take it off, and never mind your fine airs and graces. This is not Minas Tirith! What have you to hide?”

Aragorn shuddered inwardly, wishing the farmer would leave him alone. Even if he were inclined to remove his shirt, he dared not reveal the mark on his shoulder. They would all know that it was a cattle brand, rather than a slave mark borne by some former captives of Corsairs or Haradrim. He did not dare to even loosen the laces of his shirt, lest the scar be visible.

Pelendur joined them, obviously having overheard the conversation. “His son is just like him!” he chucked, gesturing towards Faramir. “It seems that they live very differently in the City!” The young man was obviously a veteran of many battles, his upper body being disfigured by a variety of long healed scars.

“Go and work in the shade, Morrandir!” Beleg said more kindly. “Even I feel the heat today.” The sweat plastered the farmer's grey hair to his forehead, and trickled in rivulets down his broad, bare chest. These yeomen of Lossarnach seemed more akin to the Rohirrim than to men of Númenorean lineage. They had shorter, stockier bodies, and more florid colouring, than the remaining sons of Westernesse.

After another hour or so passed, two women came into the field, one bearing a basket and the other carrying a tray with mugs of ale.

Beleg called a halt to the morning’s labour and the men convened in a shady corner of the field. “My wife, Tasariel, and daughter in law Emerwen,” Beleg said by way of introduction, while the mugs were handed round and the provisions in the basket shared out amongst the workers. The women had brought oven-fresh bread, cheese, cold meat and apples, a hearty repast for all the workers.

“These are our new hands, Morrandir and his son Falborn,” Beleg told his wife.

Aragorn and Faramir politely inclined their heads. Aragorn recognised Tasariel as one of the women he had seen the other night.

“So, I see you have returned, Master Morrandir, with your son,” Tasariel exclaimed, her dark eyes twinkling. “I hardly recognised him with his clothes on! A handsome young fellow, even when fully covered!"

Faramir blushed scarlet. Aragorn patted his shoulder reassuringly while Tasariel whispered in her daughter in law’s ear. Both women then studied them intently and giggled.

“I would know you were father and son without being told!” Emerwen exclaimed.

”You are even more alike than Beleg and my lads here,” Tasariel added.

Faramir flushed again, this time with pleasure. Nothing pleased him more that to be told he resembled the King, who had indeed become as a father to him.

“They speak very differently from one another, though,” said Galador somewhat suspiciously.

“That is because I was born in the North and spent many years there, while my son was born in Minas Tirith,” Aragorn answered truthfully between mouthfuls of the thick, crusty bread. He had not realized how hungry he was until the food was actually put before him. The strong goat's cheese was as tasty as he remembered from his travels through Gondor as Thorongil.

“What is it like in the North?” Emerwen asked, settling herself rather awkwardly on the grass. From the shape of her swollen belly, it was plain to Aragorn that she was about six months gone with child. Unlike the women of the City, no one seemed inclined to make allowances for her condition, nor did she seem in the least concerned by the company of three bare-chested men, only one of whom was her husband.

“It is beautiful; rugged in places and very lush and green in others, and the air is cooler than down here.” Aragorn told her.

“That sounds wonderful!” Emerwen exclaimed, stretching out languidly. Aragorn and Faramir did their best to avert their eyes, since the crumpled linen shift that was apparently her only garment, revealed far more of her ample curves than it concealed. The young woman was comely, dark-eyed with tanned cheeks and a freckled, pretty face, but could offer no temptation to the faithful husbands of the Evenstar and the White Lady.

“We cannot grow as many crops as you can plant here and the winters are much more severe. It is often so cold that the lakes and rivers freeze over.” Aragorn continued. “I should like to take my son there and teach him to skate one day.”

Faramir found himself grinning at the prospect.

“What is skating?” Beleg asked.

“It is a method of travelling across frozen water,” Aragorn struggled to find the right words to explain.

“Foolishness! You would fall in and drown!” Pelendur scoffed before biting loudly into an apple.

“Not if the ice is thick enough to bear your weight,” Aragorn replied. “We wear special boots with blades on them, which allows us to glide across the ice." His audience merely looked either sceptical or bewildered.

“Eat up quickly, we need to get back to work if the wheat is to be gathered in time for the harvest celebrations!” Beleg ordered.

They ate in silence for a few moments, Aragorn grateful not to have to try to explain further an activity, which he realised, must seem beyond reason to these people.

“How are you faring?” he quietly asked Faramir.

“Well enough. Binding the sheaves is somewhat tedious, but not especially hard labour, unlike what you are doing,” the Steward replied.

“What happened to the men you lost?” Aragorn enquired of Beleg.

“They were working over there by the river,” the farmer gestured towards it. “They were hale and strong when they ate their midday meal, but only an hour or so later we found them dead. Their hearts must have just stopped beating in the hot sun. 'Twas a grievous blow indeed. If the harvest is not brought in time, we go hungry.”

“You could always send to Minas Tirith for help,” said Faramir. ”The King would not let you starve.”

“I’ve heard the King is a good man,” said Beleg. “But what would he want to do with the likes of us?”

“You are his people,” said Aragorn trying to keep his features devoid of expression. “And the King cares for all the folk of his lands.”

“You've met the King?” Tasariel enquired.

“I have met him, as has my son,” Aragorn said solemnly.

“So what is he like?” the woman pressed.

“Tall, dark haired, and skilled with the sword, though he prefers words to warfare. He tries to rule his people justly,” Aragorn answered gravely.

“But is he handsome?” Emerwen asked.

“You would have to ask the Queen her opinion of such matters.” Aragorn was finding this conversation even harder than trying to explain ice-skating. He looked desperately at Faramir.

The Steward was trying to suppress his laughter and almost choked on the apple he was chewing. Aragorn slapped him on the back.

“I can just imagine what the King must be doing now,” declared Emmerwen. “He must be sitting on his golden throne relaxing on purple cushions, while his servants stand on either side fanning him to keep him cool; so he won’t get all hot and sweaty and spoil his royal robes!”

“I doubt he ever feels hot or sweaty,” said Pelendur. “The King probably bathes in a vast tub of cool water whenever he wants and has beautiful serving maids to scrub his back and provide for his every need!” He licked his lips as he spoke. “We should be so lucky after a long day's work!”

“Pelendur!” his young wife chided.

“The King would never behave in such a fashion!” said Aragorn indignantly.

Faramir buried his face in his hands, unable to contain his mirth any longer.

“How would you know?” Pelendur demanded.

“I um, know a serving maid at the Citadel and she has never been asked to scrub the King’s back,” Aragorn said firmly.

“The King and Queen uphold the highest standards of dignity and fidelity,” Faramir announced primly, blushing now that the full implications of Pelendur’s words had sunk in.

“Back to work now!” Beleg ordered. “Anyone would think you were born of the King's house yourselves, the way you sit around doing nothing!”

“The King works very hard!” Faramir protested indignantly, rising to his feet. “He has to rule two realms and care for all his people!”

“That sounds easy compared with harvesting!” Beleg retorted.

By now, Aragorn was so stiff and sore that he could hardly totter to his feet. “I think it may well be!” he said grimly.

They laboured hard all afternoon, taking only a further short break for refreshments, then continued working until the sun sank low on the horizon in a flaming red ball.

Just as Aragorn felt his back was breaking from being bent almost double and his arms would surely refuse to obey him any longer, Beleg finally called a halt for the night.

“The women will have prepared an evening meal for us in the village and you are welcome to come,” he told Aragorn and Faramir, though his sour expression indicated that he did not think they had earned a free repast.

 

 

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go - Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished: but he that gathereth by labour shall increase. The Bible – Proverbs 13.11

The first product of self-knowledge is humility - Flannery O’Connor

As the stars winked and danced in cloudless clarity far above them, Aragorn and Faramir slept the sound sleep of untroubled conscience. After another day of resting and Aragorn’s treatments, Faramir was almost recovered from the effects of the spider’s venom.

They awoke soon after sunrise and quickly breakfasted on a rather unappetising meal of porridge.

At the far side of the field adjoining their campsite, several men had already begun to work the furrows of corn.

“We had better join them,” said Aragorn as he helped Faramir fill their water bottles. ”We will just take our packs and our weapons with us. Our horses and camping equipment should be safe enough here, while we work.”

“Are you certain that this course of action is wise?” Faramir queried. “Could we not simply pay for the crops we ruined?”

“I gave my word,” the King replied. “In truth, I am quite looking forward to the new experience.”

The two friends crossed the field trying to appear more confident than they felt. All eyes were upon them as Aragorn spoke. “My son is now well on the road to recovery, so we have come to help you harvest your crops as I said we would.”

“So you have decided to turn up at last!” the farmer replied sceptically. “About time too! Half the morning has gone. You City-folk seem to think the day begins at noon. My name is Beleg and these are my sons Pelendur and Galador.”

Aragorn and Faramir inclined their heads and greeted the two young men courteously, introducing themselves as Morrandir and Falborn. ”What would you have us do to aid you?” Aragorn asked. He placed his pack and his sword at the edge of the field and slung his water bottle over his shoulder.

“You can help me with the reaping and clearing up all the damage you caused,” Beleg replied, “Your son can tie up the sheaves since you say his health is frail.” He handed Aragorn a sickle.

Aragorn eyed the sickle doubtfully. He would have discreetly asked Faramir what he should do with the thing, but his friend was already listening intently to Galador's instruction.

The King tried making a few swipes with the sickle, slicing the wheat with what he assumed was a proper cutting motion.

“No, you dolt; hold it like this with both hands!” Beleg exclaimed, showing him what to do. “It isn’t a sword!”

The King’s cheeks burned. How he yearned to put this impudent fellow in his place by revealing his true rank. But he could not let Faramir be shamed by revealing their true identities. If it were to be known that the Steward of Gondor had run naked through a cornfield, apparently drunk and damaging the livelihood of honest farmers, Faramir’s reputation would be ruined. Aragorn bit back a sharp retort. Taking up the sickle again as Beleg had shown him; he tried again to cut the wheat.

“No, no!” the farmer groaned, “You don’t cut wheat like you cut grass! You work around the field, not from side to side! Why must the Valar inflict such trials upon me as to take two of my best men and send me the likes of you in their place!”

Aragorn reminded himself that to the farmer, he was no more than an inexperienced farm hand. In his long life, he had veiled his true self many times to take orders, and even harsh words from lesser men. This was no worse than helping to sweep out Butterbur's stables when he was short of coin: even if the beer was unlikely to be as good as even the Prancing Pony's cheapest stock.

Under Beleg’s watchful eye, Aragorn gradually improved the performance of his task: Lift, bend and cut, lift bend and cut. The wheat was then left to be gathered and bound into sheaves. After a few hours, the King’s arms, back and shoulders throbbed painfully with the unaccustomed strain imposed by these particular exertions. Aragorn was thankful that Faramir was not reaping as he dreaded the damage this work could cause to his Steward's already weakened back.

The morning wore on and grew no cooler. As the sun rose higher the heat became well nigh unbearable. Aragorn took frequent draughts of water and shed his outer tunic, working only in his thin shirt and breeches. The farmer and his sons had soon shed both tunics and shirts to reveal bronzed, weather-beaten skin and gnarled muscles.

Aragorn paused for a moment to wipe his sweaty brow. He took a swig from his water bottle.

“You look hot,” said Beleg. “Why don’t you take your shirt off?”

“It is not the custom where I dwell,” Aragorn replied. “We never remove our shirts in public.”

“Fancy City ways don’t apply here,” Beleg snorted. “Take it off, and never mind your fine airs and graces. This is not Minas Tirith! What have you to hide?”

Aragorn shuddered inwardly, wishing the farmer would leave him alone. Even if he were inclined to remove his shirt, he dared not reveal the mark on his shoulder. They would all know that it was a cattle brand, rather than a slave mark borne by some former captives of Corsairs or Haradrim. He did not dare to even loosen the laces of his shirt, lest the scar be visible.

Pelendur joined them, obviously having overheard the conversation. “His son is just like him!” he chucked, gesturing towards Faramir. “It seems that they live very differently in the City!” The young man was obviously a veteran of many battles, his upper body being disfigured by a variety of long healed scars.

“Go and work in the shade, Morrandir!” Beleg said more kindly. “Even I feel the heat today.” The sweat plastered the farmer's grey hair to his forehead, and trickled in rivulets down his broad, bare chest. These yeomen of Lossarnach seemed more akin to the Rohirrim than to men of Númenorean lineage. They had shorter, stockier bodies, and more florid colouring, than the remaining sons of Westernesse.

After another hour or so passed, two women came into the field, one bearing a basket and the other carrying a tray with mugs of ale.

Beleg called a halt to the morning’s labour and the men convened in a shady corner of the field. “My wife, Tasariel, and daughter in law Emerwen,” Beleg said by way of introduction, while the mugs were handed round and the provisions in the basket shared out amongst the workers. The women had brought oven-fresh bread, cheese, cold meat and apples, a hearty repast for all the workers.

“These are our new hands, Morrandir and his son Falborn,” Beleg told his wife.

Aragorn and Faramir politely inclined their heads. Aragorn recognised Tasariel as one of the women he had seen the other night.

“So, I see you have returned, Master Morrandir, with your son,” Tasariel exclaimed, her dark eyes twinkling. “I hardly recognised him with his clothes on! A handsome young fellow, even when fully covered!"

Faramir blushed scarlet. Aragorn patted his shoulder reassuringly while Tasariel whispered in her daughter in law’s ear. Both women then studied them intently and giggled.

“I would know you were father and son without being told!” Emerwen exclaimed.

”You are even more alike than Beleg and my lads here,” Tasariel added.

Faramir flushed again, this time with pleasure. Nothing pleased him more that to be told he resembled the King, who had indeed become as a father to him.

“They speak very differently from one another, though,” said Galador somewhat suspiciously.

“That is because I was born in the North and spent many years there, while my son was born in Minas Tirith,” Aragorn answered truthfully between mouthfuls of the thick, crusty bread. He had not realized how hungry he was until the food was actually put before him. The strong goat's cheese was as tasty as he remembered from his travels through Gondor as Thorongil.

“What is it like in the North?” Emerwen asked, settling herself rather awkwardly on the grass. From the shape of her swollen belly, it was plain to Aragorn that she was about six months gone with child. Unlike the women of the City, no one seemed inclined to make allowances for her condition, nor did she seem in the least concerned by the company of three bare-chested men, only one of whom was her husband.

“It is beautiful; rugged in places and very lush and green in others, and the air is cooler than down here.” Aragorn told her.

“That sounds wonderful!” Emerwen exclaimed, stretching out languidly. Aragorn and Faramir did their best to avert their eyes, since the crumpled linen shift that was apparently her only garment, revealed far more of her ample curves than it concealed. The young woman was comely, dark-eyed with tanned cheeks and a freckled, pretty face, but could offer no temptation to the faithful husbands of the Evenstar and the White Lady.

“We cannot grow as many crops as you can plant here and the winters are much more severe. It is often so cold that the lakes and rivers freeze over.” Aragorn continued. “I should like to take my son there and teach him to skate one day.”

Faramir found himself grinning at the prospect.

“What is skating?” Beleg asked.

“It is a method of travelling across frozen water,” Aragorn struggled to find the right words to explain.

“Foolishness! You would fall in and drown!” Pelendur scoffed before biting loudly into an apple.

“Not if the ice is thick enough to bear your weight,” Aragorn replied. “We wear special boots with blades on them, which allows us to glide across the ice." His audience merely looked either sceptical or bewildered.

“Eat up quickly, we need to get back to work if the wheat is to be gathered in time for the harvest celebrations!” Beleg ordered.

They ate in silence for a few moments, Aragorn grateful not to have to try to explain further an activity, which he realised, must seem beyond reason to these people.

“How are you faring?” he quietly asked Faramir.

“Well enough. Binding the sheaves is somewhat tedious, but not especially hard labour, unlike what you are doing,” the Steward replied.

“What happened to the men you lost?” Aragorn enquired of Beleg.

“They were working over there by the river,” the farmer gestured towards it. “They were hale and strong when they ate their midday meal, but only an hour or so later we found them dead. Their hearts must have just stopped beating in the hot sun. 'Twas a grievous blow indeed. If the harvest is not brought in time, we go hungry.”

“You could always send to Minas Tirith for help,” said Faramir. ”The King would not let you starve.”

“I’ve heard the King is a good man,” said Beleg. “But what would he want to do with the likes of us?”

“You are his people,” said Aragorn trying to keep his features devoid of expression. “And the King cares for all the folk of his lands.”

“You've met the King?” Tasariel enquired.

“I have met him, as has my son,” Aragorn said solemnly.

“So what is he like?” the woman pressed.

“Tall, dark haired, and skilled with the sword, though he prefers words to warfare. He tries to rule his people justly,” Aragorn answered gravely.

“But is he handsome?” Emerwen asked.

“You would have to ask the Queen her opinion of such matters.” Aragorn was finding this conversation even harder than trying to explain ice-skating. He looked desperately at Faramir.

The Steward was trying to suppress his laughter and almost choked on the apple he was chewing. Aragorn slapped him on the back.

“I can just imagine what the King must be doing now,” declared Emmerwen. “He must be sitting on his golden throne relaxing on purple cushions, while his servants stand on either side fanning him to keep him cool; so he won’t get all hot and sweaty and spoil his royal robes!”

“I doubt he ever feels hot or sweaty,” said Pelendur. “The King probably bathes in a vast tub of cool water whenever he wants and has beautiful serving maids to scrub his back and provide for his every need!” He licked his lips as he spoke. “We should be so lucky after a long day's work!”

“Pelendur!” his young wife chided.

“The King would never behave in such a fashion!” said Aragorn indignantly.

Faramir buried his face in his hands, unable to contain his mirth any longer.

“How would you know?” Pelendur demanded.

“I um, know a serving maid at the Citadel and she has never been asked to scrub the King’s back,” Aragorn said firmly.

“The King and Queen uphold the highest standards of dignity and fidelity,” Faramir announced primly, blushing now that the full implications of Pelendur’s words had sunk in.

“Back to work now!” Beleg ordered. “Anyone would think you were born of the King's house yourselves, the way you sit around doing nothing!”

“The King works very hard!” Faramir protested indignantly, rising to his feet. “He has to rule two realms and care for all his people!”

“That sounds easy compared with harvesting!” Beleg retorted.

By now, Aragorn was so stiff and sore that he could hardly totter to his feet. “I think it may well be!” he said grimly.

They laboured hard all afternoon, taking only a further short break for refreshments, then continued working until the sun sank low on the horizon in a flaming red ball.

Just as Aragorn felt his back was breaking from being bent almost double and his arms would surely refuse to obey him any longer, Beleg finally called a halt for the night.

“The women will have prepared an evening meal for us in the village and you are welcome to come,” he told Aragorn and Faramir, though his sour expression indicated that he did not think they had earned a free repast.

 Chapter Twenty one - We are here to help each other.

We are pilgrims on a journey And companions on the road; We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load. - Brother, sister, let me serve you - Richard Gillard

Far too wearied to prepare something for their own supper, let alone catch it: the King and Steward gladly accepted the farmers' invitation.

The meal proved a surprisingly cheerful affair. Young and old country-folk gathered at rough tables set around a large fire, and spoke between hungry mouthfuls. There were far more women in the prime of life than men, a condition that was sadly prevalent over most of Middle-earth since the Ring War's end.

The women carried in platters heavily laden with food: tomato soup, a salad of cucumbers and beans, fire-grilled chicken, ample loaves of the thick bread they had served earlier in the day, and sweet, juicy pears. To Aragorn's amusement, Tasariel fussed over him and Faramir, piling their plates with food and refilling their cups with the strong red wine that had been made in Lossarnach since before the coming of the Sea-kings. She seemed to think they both needed looking after, and took special pleasure in watching them both eat. Aragorn had to admit that the plentiful food satisfied a raging hunger. Faramir also ate well, his pale cheeks reddening with the glow of good food and drink.

At first the talk centred on the harvesting, which was evidently proceeding well. Then, gradually, the farmers' conversations turned to Fontos, the Lord of Lossarnach.

“It was unfair of the King to send our lord into exile,” remarked a broad-shouldered youth who looked to be eighteen or nineteen, and quite proud of his newly adult status. “He only wanted what was best for us, a future king we could call our own, rather than one with only Northern roots and Elf blood.”

“Lord Fontos was very lucky that the King had mercy on him,” contradicted a greybeard with a sere countenance, who from the amount of respect afforded him, was probably the village headman. “Lord Denethor would have sentenced him to a traitor’s death without hesitation.”

“What’s a traitor’s death? Surely dead is dead?” a little girl of about nine enquired.

“That’s something you are fortunate not to know about,” a woman, whom Aragorn and Faramir guessed was the child’s mother, replied. ”King Elessar is a good and kindly man, who hasn't decreed such a punishment even when he had just cause.”

“I still think it ain't right that our lord was sent off like a beggar into exile, while the Steward got off free and clear!” the young man persisted.

“Thoron, take care what you say when strangers are present!” the old man cautioned, glancing anxiously in the direction of Aragorn and Faramir.

“The King does not mind what people say. He would only punish those who raise their hand in rebellion against him,” Aragorn said seriously, though he looked troubled.

Faramir, though furious at the boy Thoron's impertinence, felt a surge of joyous relief at further proof that the King he knew and loved was restored. Faramir remembered their dark days at the farmhouse, when he had heard Aragorn bitterly rail against all who might oppose him, and threaten dire punishments for even speaking against him.

“And how would you know that?” demanded the belligerent young man, before gulping down a cupful of wine in one noisy swig.

“We have heard him say so when he has spoken to his troops and instructed us how to treat people who speak ill of him,” Faramir replied, trying to keep a straight face.

“Well, he'd better tell his soldiers not to touch our crops or our women then!” the young man declared, ending the demand with a loud belch.

“What?” Aragorn’s indignation rose with such great haste that he almost let his disguise slip.

“The King has strictly forbidden such outrageous behaviour in his men-at-arms!” Faramir said angrily. “If anything like that were to happen, you should send a message telling the King what has happened. The King’s soldiers are under orders to pay for any food they need, and not to molest women.”

“Even if the King did give such orders, he could hardly watch every all his soldiers wherever they roamed,” Thoron replied scornfully. “Our Lord Fontos was our only shield; without him, we're defenceless!”

“The King cares for your welfare just as much as the Lord of Lossarnach,” Faramir said firmly, trying to control his anger.

The youth snorted. “And would he listen to poor people like us if we were oppressed? I don’t think so! Where was the King when Gondor faced the Enemy alone for all them long years? In the North, no doubt, tending to his own folk in Arnor, or hiding with the Elves.”

“He would listen and take action.” The people looked in surprise at the fervour in Aragorn’s tone. “I have severely punished looters during the war. Noticing that the farmers were looking at him curiously, he added, “I was a Captain of the Rangers.”

“I have heard Ar- um Ada deal most harshly with any soldiers who oppress the King’s folk,” Faramir added.

“Should we be impressed having a Captain in our midst?” sneered Thoron. “I suppose now you will tell the King everything I said?”

“The King will hear nothing from me,” said Aragorn, fervently wishing he could give this impudent lad the scolding he richly deserved.

“I have not yet properly welcomed you to our village, Captain Morrandir, and your son, Master Falborn,” the greybeard spoke up suddenly, eager to prevent a threatened argument. “Forgive my lack of courtesy. I am Borlach, headman of this village. We are grateful for your aid.” He nodded at the two strangers.

“My son and I are pleased to help repair the damage that we unwittingly caused,” Aragorn replied, nodding his head slightly to answer Borlach's greeting.

“You must find it very dull here compared with Minas Tirith,” said Borlach. ”Still, the air is fresh and sweet out here, I reckon, and 'twill help cure your son, Captain Morrandir.”

“The fool was drunk, not sick!” said the youth.

Aragorn now recognised the rude young man as one of the group who had confronted him and Faramir.

“Silence, Thoron!” Borlach chided. “Show some manners to our guests!”

“We find your village far from dull, Headman Borlach,” Aragorn replied truthfully. "As for my son, he was suffering from the effects of a kind of poison, and was certainly not drunk!” He placed a comforting hand on Faramir’s shoulder, seeing that the younger man had flushed uncomfortably at the mention of his nocturnal escapades. “I thank the Valar that my son is gradually regaining his health and strength.”

“It gladdens my heart to see a father and son so devoted to each other,” said Borlach. ”I lost my own younger son on the Pelennor with Lord Forlong, and my sister-son as well.” The greybeard quieted for a moment, his eyes distant. Then he struggled to stifle a yawn. “It grows late; we should seek our beds. Thoron, you will take the first watch tonight!”

The youth scowled at him but said nothing.

Plates were scraped and cups hastily drained as the villagers prepared for the hours of darkness ahead. A barefoot little boy who looked be about eighteen months old began to wail his weariness, and was swiftly taken up by a young woman with a gentle face and grey eyes.

“You can stay here for the night,” Borlach offered. “We have an empty hut which belonged to one of the men who died recently.”

Aragorn looked doubtful. “By the time we have crossed the field to get our bedrolls, we might as well stay at our campsite,” he said.

“We can lend you some bedding,” the old man replied, “There is no need for you to walk so far and further weary yourselves. More hard work awaits us all on the morrow.”

“Well, I am not certain if...” Aragorn tried to find a valid excuse but none came to mind. They had their packs with them and the horses were well provided for with fresh water and grazing.

“It grows cold at night, so at least you will be under cover,” Borlach persisted. “Then in the morning, you will hear the cock crow to rouse you.”

Reluctantly, the King consented. It seemed churlish to refuse because of his dislike of confined spaces. Also, he was so weary; he felt he could happily go to a roadside ditch, if only he could lie down there. He desperately needed to sleep and rest his aching back and shoulders. He nodded to Faramir that they should accept.

Aragorn rose, intending to follow the old man, only to find that his back was so stiff that he could hardly move. He stilled a groan as Faramir helped him to his feet.

“Are you in pain?” Tasariel enquired from the far side of the fire.

“A little,” Aragorn conceded, ruefully rubbing the small of his back.

“Wait a moment!” called the farmer’s wife, disappearing into her hut. She returned a moment later, clutching a jar, which she handed to Aragorn. ”We all use this balm on the first few days of the harvest,” she explained. “It works wonders for sore muscles. Get your son to give your back and shoulders a good rubbing with it.”

“My thanks, Mistress Tasariel,” said Aragorn.

“Assuming Master Falborn can get his father to remove his shirt!” Beleg said dryly.

Tasariel and her daughter in law tittered.

“Maybe I should help you?” Emerwen suggested. "I know well how to soothe a man's weary muscles.”

“I am sure my son and I can manage,” Aragorn said hastily.

The King and the Steward followed the farmer to a thatched hut at the far end of the village.

Seeing them approach, Galador fetched a lamp, which he set on a small table inside the dwelling. It seemed that nothing had been moved since the hut's former occupant had died so suddenly. A heap of fairly clean straw with a blanked folded atop it served as the sleeping area. A single rickety chair stood by the table as if the owner had just arisen from a meal. The ashes still lay untouched in the hearth.

“There you are!” said Borlach, “There is room enough for the two of you. Tasariel is bringing some water for you. We’ll see you in the morning. Rest well, and be careful not to fall asleep while the lamp is burning!”

He turned and left, followed by the young farmer. Tasariel brought a pitcher of water and a bowl. She placed it beside the lamp. “I wish you a peaceful night,” she said before taking her leave.

As soon as the villagers were out of earshot, Aragorn flopped on the straw and groaned. “Whoever thought that cutting corn would be so hard!” he exclaimed. “My shoulders, my back! I have discovered muscles that I had no idea existed! What a day!”

“I did warn you!” Faramir said a trifle smugly, eying the chair with a view to sitting on it, and then deciding the floor looked a safer and more comfortable option.

He rummaged in his pack for a clean shirt and a towel; them peeled off his sweat soaked garment and splashed some of the cold water over his face and upper body. His ablutions completed, he made to don his clean shirt. ”Nothing to beat cold water and a clean shirt!” he sighed. “One forgets how good simple things can feel.”

“Come here before you dress,” said Aragorn “Let me see how the bite is healing and tend your bruises. How do you feel?” He rummaged in his pack, which was beside him and took out a jar. Next, he unearthed his cloak and spread it over the straw as a precaution in case the bedding was less clean than it looked.

“Not too bad,” the Steward replied. “I am just a little tired.”

“You had better let me put some salve on your hurts before you sleep,” Aragorn said.

Obediently, Faramir sat down beside the King. Yawning, Aragorn applied the ointment to the now purple bruises. It seemed that the previous day’s healing had worked, though, as they were far less painful to the touch. The bite was also healing nicely.

“You will soon be fit for a hard day’s reaping!” Aragorn told him.

“I do not mind doing it tomorrow. It seems unfair you should be working so hard, when I am just tying up sheaves.” Faramir replied, donning his shirt as he spoke.

“I was but jesting. You need time to recover.”

“Are you not going to bathe?” enquired Faramir. ”I left you some water. We can wash our shirts in what is left to have something clean to put on tomorrow.”

“I will wash if I can get my shirt off,” lamented Aragorn. ”I can hardly lift my arms!”

“Let me help you.” With Faramir's deft assistance, the sweat-stiffened shirt was eased over Aragorn’s head between the groans the disguised king could not help emit. He had spent countless long years in the wild bereft of any luxuries, but never had he yearned for hot water and a proper bath in which to soak his sore muscles as much as he did tonight. Even the Undying Lands would not have seemed a fairer prospect to him than the giant tub in his own apartments, filled with steaming water and fragrant with Elven healing potions meant to soothe an aching body. He washed quickly, the icy water only serving to accentuate his pain, then rinsed his shirt in the remaining water.

Aragorn uncorked the pot of ointment that Tasariel had left and sniffed it. “Comfrey, arnica, and lavender mixed with goose fat,” he pronounced. “It might be better than comfrey alone. It would be more effective if I drank a tincture of horsetail as well, but I ache too much to go looking for some tonight. I will do as the good woman suggests, if you would be so kind as to rub the ointment on my back.” Handing the jar to Faramir, he stretched face downwards on the spread cloak.

Dutifully, the Steward took the ointment and quickly applied it to Aragorn’s broad shoulders and down the length of his back to the base of his spine, where he assumed his friend was hurting.

Aragorn sighed then settled more comfortably.

“I have put on a thick layer of salve,” Faramir informed him, seeing that his lord had made no move to don his shirt again.

“I was hoping you would massage it in for me, please.” Aragorn replied, remaining where he was.

“But I lack your skills! I know nothing of the Elven laying on of hands,” Faramir protested, sounding very taken aback. “I am no healer!”

“As I know full well,” Aragorn replied calmly, “But your hands are skilful, Faramir. If you can control a horse with your hands, or fire a longbow, you can assay this treatment. Just rubbing the ointment into my skin will ease the pain considerably. The warmth of your hands will heat the ointment and conduct its healing powers more effectively into my muscles. I would do it myself but I am too stiff to reach tonight!”

“I..um..er I do not know if..” Faramir stammered miserably.

Aragorn sat up stiffly and looked at him. “Does it remind you too much of when you had to care for me in the cave?” he asked gently.

“In a way,” Faramir replied. “I felt so helpless then.” He much regretted that such a simple task seemed beyond him, when Aragorn had spent hours giving him Elven treatments.

“And I was a most ungrateful patient, which cannot have helped, “ Aragorn said quietly. “I think you have learned to accept what healing is offered to you, but know not how to freely reach out yourself.”

Faramir nodded, suddenly all too acutely aware that even his baby daughter usually was the first to offer a chubby finger to entwine around his.

Aragorn suddenly remembered what Steward Ecthelion had told him of his son's coldness, how Denethor shunned most displays of affection. Aragorn had wondered at Denethor’s icy demeanour when he saw him amongst his family and friends, even when walking in public with Finduilas’ loving hand on his arm. Perhaps Denethor's insistence on bodily isolation might have influenced the greater admiration that the Guard and Rangers had developed for the Eagle of the Star. Aragorn had always been quick to lay a comforting hand on a scared young soldier’s shoulder or warmly grasp the hand of a comrade, with the same ease as his patron, Ecthelion.

“He would push me away if I tried to embrace him when I was a child,” Faramir said sadly, almost as if talking to himself. “He even forbade me to play with the hound-pups when I was small, saying that I was the Steward's son, not some farmer's son sharing a hearth with livestock. I am sorry.”

”The way you were raised is hardly your fault,” Aragorn’s tone was full of compassion. “I was fortunate, I had my mother all the time I was growing up. She was very affectionate, as was my Elven foster family. Then when I trained to be a healer, I had to use touch a good deal. You have been deprived of so much that should rightfully have been yours.” He thought sadly of how he had been denying that gift of late and that the hands of the King had almost ceased to be the hands of a healer until Faramir’s obvious pain had brought him to his senses. He reached for his clean shirt, not wanting to further distress his friend.

“Do not put it on yet!” Faramir said suddenly, “I will try to help you!”

“Are you certain?” Aragorn asked.

“I want to try,” Faramir said staunchly. “I cannot let my father’s coldness continue to blight my life, or even reach down unto the next generation to stiffen my hands when they should reach out to dry my daughter's tears."

“So you are practising on me!” Aragorn chuckled lying face downwards on his cloak again. “It does not matter that you are unskilled. Just use your fingertips and try to do the same as I do when I treat your injuries.”

Tentatively, Faramir started to rub Aragorn’s broad shoulders. Tactfully, the King ignored his lack of healing skills and concentrated on the well meant intentions behind Steward had a naturally comforting touch, which eased Aragorn's pain.

Faramir forced himself to concentrate on the fact that this was his dearest and best-loved friend, the man who had become the loving father that Denethor never was, the man who had told him to call him ada rather than the formal term of adar on which his own sire had insisted. This was the man whose shoulders were hurting because he was trying to pay the debt incurred by Faramir’s fevered madness.

He became so engrossed in his task that he was only aware that Aragorn had fallen asleep when he began to snore. Knowing he would become chilled if he slept without his tunic and shirt, he gently shook the King awake.

“My patients will soon be demanding your skills!” Aragorn teased as he pulled the garments over his head. “You are learning quickly!”

Faramir glowed at the praise. “I suppose I could always practise on Elbeth’s kitten or Éowyn’s favourite hound!” he said wryly as he wrapped himself in his cloak and settled beside the King. He yawned loudly.

“Is it not bliss not to have to remove ones boots before sleeping?” Aragorn commented, yawning even louder.

“Indeed!” Faramir agreed. ”Or get undressed. I cannot see the point of changing into a nightshirt when I only want to sleep!”

Aragorn was already snoring again and made no reply.

Faramir had feared his friend would be in too much pain to sleep and was vastly relieved that he had settled so easily. Almost as exhausted as the King, he quickly fell asleep, only to be awakened by Aragorn’s cries.

“No, No, I will not! Faramir! Help me!”

 Chapter Twenty Two - I have heard you calling in the night- Kevin Mayhew

Faramir was roused abruptly from a deep slumber by the King’s cries of distress. The lamp had gone out, leaving the hut was in almost complete darkness. A blow landed on his face. He yelped in pain, groping in the darkness for Aragorn’s hands in order to restrain him.

“Wake up, mellon nîn!” the Steward called urgently.

“No, no!” Aragorn cried. “Release me! No more!”

Faramir narrowly dodged another blow as Aragorn became increasingly agitated. Not only was he concerned for his friend’s distress, but also his dignity, fearing that he would be subjected to the curious stares of half the village if he continued to cry out.

“Faramir, no, no!” Aragorn screamed.

“Come, wake up!” Faramir placed his hand over Aragorn’s mouth, fearful the whole village would not only be roused, but soon know their true identities too. Aragorn’s shouts subsided to dull whimpers, but he continued to lash out wildly. Abandoning his attempts at grasping the flailing arms, Faramir braved the blows and aimed to grip his lord’s shoulders. Finally, he managed to shake him awake, sustaining a blow to the nose as he did so.

Aragorn woke with a start. Faramir could feel the King's thin body shaking beneath his hands, even through two layers of clothing. By now, his keen eyesight, honed from years as a Ranger, had made out a faint chink of light, which must be the doorway. “Come on!” he said. Throwing the blanket round him, he half dragged, half carried the King outside.

“What do you think you are doing?” Thoron asked suspiciously, emerging from the shadows.

“My father needs some air,” Faramir told him. To his relief, the countryside was bathed in bright moonlight. The air was chill and fresh after the stuffy confinement of the hut.

“You drunken city dwellers might think it well to rouse hard-working farmers from their beds, but that is not the way things are done here!” Thoron said angrily. “The pair of you deserve a beating! And who is Faramir, other than the Steward who got away with treason?”

Faramir struggled for an answer that was not a lie. "My father fought in the war, and saw many terrible things, including the dark things that hunted the Steward. He has evil dreams sometimes.”

“My father died in the war alongside our good Lord Forlong,” said Thoron sourly. “I do not spend my nights waking weary men from their sleep!”

“Peace Thoron!” Borlach arrived on the scene, carrying a lantern. “Go to bed now, I will take the next watch.”

“What are you going to do about these drunkards?” the young man demanded.

“That is for me to decide,” said the old man. “I do not think they consumed any more wine than the rest of us. I seem to recall that you drank far more than they did at supper. Now go; your mother and sisters might be alarmed by the shouting and have need of you.”

Thoron scowled and departed without another word.

“He is a troubled young man,” said Borlach. “Since his father died he has had to support his family, and has little time for the joyful celebrations shared by some of the other young fellows. I think he resents sons who have fathers to love and teach them.”

“I am sorry for the trouble we caused,” said Faramir looking anxiously at Aragorn. The King had not spoken and looked pale and drawn.

“So many of the men who fought against Sauron have nightmares that we are accustomed to it,” said Borlach. ”I suggest the pair of you try to get some rest, you will have another hard day’s work ahead of you.”

“We will stay outside,” said Faramir. ”My father needs air.”

“Please yourselves, at the least the rain clouds seem to have blown over. I will leave you now. Rest easy!” With those words, the old man turned to patrol the huts at the far side of the village.

Faramir shepherded Aragorn to a log near the embers of the fire they had sat round several hours before and tucked the blanket round him. He then settled himself beside him, with a comforting arm around Aragorn’s still trembling shoulders.

“Faramir?”

“You were dreaming. Peace, all is well now! The lamp went out, which I expect caused the nightmare.”

“You were there!” Aragorn shivered even more violently. “Pain, so much pain!”

Faramir shuddered inwardly, wondering if Aragorn were doomed to dream of that dreadful moment when he had branded him for the rest of his days. “I am sorry,” he said quietly, “You understand now, do you not, that I had no choice and it almost broke my heart?”

“Yes, I do, but that was not what I dreamed,” Aragorn replied. “You tried to save me and the rebels had captured you. I was beaten, then chained up forced to watch them torture you. It was horrible, I could not stop them!”

“It was but an evil dream,” Faramir soothed. “We are both safe and free. Just look at the stars, how beautiful and peaceful they are!” He tucked the blanket more closely round the distressed King, whose breath came in ragged gasps, and held him more tightly.

Aragorn looked up and sighed, suddenly coming fully to his senses. “You must think me very foolish,” he said, “I must still fear confinement in a strange, dark place, even among kindly people."

“There is nothing to feel ashamed about. It takes time to recover from an ordeal like you suffered, as a healer; you should know that, as you have told me many times! We should never have slept in that hut. It was far too like the cellar. Little wonder you were upset!” Faramir replied. “Let me rub your back again for you. Maybe I can ease it?”

Tasariel suddenly emerged from one of the nearby huts, clutching two mugs of steaming tea. “You both look in need of a drink,” she said matter of factly. “Drink up! I’ve added some horsetail and valerian to Master Morrandir’s drink to ease him.”

“Thank you; please forgive our having disturbed you,” Aragorn said contritely.

“Don’t worry about it!” replied Tasariel cheerfully. “My brother was just the same. A raiding party of Orcs captured him. He only survived to come home to us as a group of villagers saw him taken and pursued them. When the dark dreams came upon him, we could only sit and hold him, and give him some of my tea. He is much better now, though and the evil dreams rarely trouble him these days. Was your Ada captured?”

“Yes, Ara-um-Ada was captured by evil men,” Faramir said, gratefully sipping his drink.

“That is even worse!” Tasariel exclaimed. “Orcs now, they can’t help their foul ways, but Men should know better!”

“They should indeed,” Faramir replied sadly.

“I say we’ve nought to worry about now the King has returned,” the woman said confidently. “We can all sleep safe in our beds now! I had better go before my men folk miss me and cause a commotion. You can leave your mugs here by the log when you’ve finished your drink.” She turned and went back to her hut.

Faramir set his mug aside and started to gently rub Aragorn’s shoulders. The King sighed gratefully, but Faramir could still feel him shaking slightly. “Is the pain very bad?” the Steward asked sympathetically.

“I have known far worse,” Aragorn said.

“Your heart is sorely troubled, I can sense it,” Faramir said quietly.

Aragorn took a deep breath. “I had never been so afraid,” he said at last, somewhat hesitantly. “The dream brought it all back, the cellar, the torture, the pain, and worst of all, the fear I would not be strong enough to withstand them.”

“But you did,” Faramir said, continuing his ministrations. “You protected your wife and son. No man could have been braver.”

“I feared. I feared that… No, I cannot speak of it!”

“Maybe it would help if you did,” Faramir said gently. “I think I understand.”

Aragorn swallowed a mouthful of tea then swallowed hard. ”Yes, I believe you do, after what Mahrod would have subjected you to,” he said at last. “I feared that what they might do to me would cause me to have betrayed my vows to Arwen. I have kept myself for her, and her alone my life long. To break that vow, however unwillingly would destroy us both! I know all too well what Hanna wanted!”

“I know,” Faramir said grimly, shuddering at the memories. “I was prepared to take your life rather than let them subject you to further humiliation and worse pain.”

“And I thank you for that, ion nîn.”

“They would have had me betray my Éowyn too,” Faramir confided. “Two vows I hold sacred, my marriage vow, and my vow of fealty. Rather would I die than break either oath!” His voice trembled slightly. “I am at least faithful to my wife.”

“Never were you more faithful than when you seemed faithless!” said Aragorn firmly. He took another sip of tea and managed a faint smile at his Steward.

“Sleeping inside a darkened, strange place brings back too many painful memories for you,” said Faramir after a moment’s thought. He hesitated, and then reaching a decision, said firmly. “We should tell them who we are, and send some men from Minas Tirith to help them instead. I know you seek to protect me, but I will not have you risking your health on my behalf!”

“Nor would I have your reputation damaged!” Aragorn replied with equal firmness. “I have wronged you, and this is my chance to make amends. Do not deny it me. Do not forget that I made yet another vow, one to protect you. A vow I have shamefully neglected, and almost broken.”

Faramir knew that when his lord used that tone of voice he would not be dissuaded. “I would beg to differ,” he said resignedly.

They finished their tea in companionable silence, both comforted by the warm, soothing liquid. “We had better go back inside,” Aragorn said reluctantly, putting his empty mug on the ground. “I must face my fears.”

“What point is there in tormenting yourself?” Faramir asked. “Just how often do you sleep in a pitch black hovel? We are both likely to have nightmares for a time, but they will pass,” the Steward said firmly. “So let us sleep comfortably under that tree over there. I am not going back in that stuffy hut for what time is left before dawn! I will just fetch our cloaks.”

Aragorn raised no further objections. A sudden thought struck him: the dream had been different this time. Instead of trying to escape from Faramir, he had been trying to escape from torment with him. It seemed that he was healing and beginning to come to terms with his ordeal at last.

Faramir reappeared with their cloaks. They settled themselves under a large oak, huddled together under their cloaks and the blanket. Aragorn still found it hard to settle, as not only was he haunted by dark images, but also his stiff shoulders throbbed painfully. Faramir draped a protective arm around him, while his other hand rested on his sword hilt. “Sleep, ada nîn, I will not let any harm come to you. We are quite safe here,” he soothed. “Look up at the stars, Elbereth will grant us her protection from all dangers tonight.” He tucked the blanket snugly around the King and huddled closer to reassure him of his continued presence at his side.

The hot summer days in Gondor were often followed by chill nights and this was no exception, the hazy heat of the day having given way to a clear crisp night. Exhausted from the day’s labours and comforted by the presence of his friend beside him, Aragorn eventually fell asleep, soon followed by Faramir.

This time, they slept dreamlessly until awakened all too soon by the cock crowing to herald the dawn. Aragorn groaned as he tried to sit up. “My shoulders, my back!” he exclaimed. “I did not know that I had so many muscles!”

“I thought healers knew the name and location of every muscle?” Faramir teased, though he looked troubled.

“I know the names, but not that they could be so painful!” Aragorn retorted.

“Let us return to the hut so I can apply more of Tasariel’s salve, “ said Faramir, helping his King to his feet. “Come, I will assist you.”

“You are lucky to have such a devoted son!” Beleg said, approaching them. “The stiffness will pass once you start working. Everyone is like you to begin with, even the skilled labourers. My wife will provide breakfast for you.”

“This worse than fighting Orcs!” Aragorn lamented, as soon as they were in the privacy of the hut. “I was never this stiff the next day!”

“Let me see what I can do for you!” said Faramir, helping Aragorn remove his shirt before crouching beside him and starting to rub the salve into the King’s back and shoulders.”

”Ouch!” was the only reply he received.

“I warned you last night that I have neither skills nor experience!” Faramir retorted good-naturedly. “Just try to keep still!” He tried his uttermost to be gentle. Aragorn found his stiffness was much eased by the time he was finished.

“I will make a healer of you yet!” Aragorn informed him, turning his head to look at him and putting on his shirt. “I am sure Éowyn and Elestelle will appreciate your new found skills!” He was only just dressed in time as Tasariel poked her head around the door to announce that breakfast was served.

“Thank you, Mistress,” Faramir replied, rising to his feet. ”We are coming now.”

“You have not had your turn yet! I am not letting you escape so easily!” Aragorn said as soon as she had gone.

Faramir groaned, albeit half heartedly, as he made to remove his own shirt. “What a pair we make!” the Steward commented ruefully.

“We would frighten them if they saw us without our shirts!” Aragorn agreed.

“I grieve that I left you scarred for life,” Faramir said miserably. "I would cut off the hand that branded you if it could heal you, my lord."

“It matters not. Arwen is untroubled and so am I.” To his surprise, Aragorn realised he was not just saying the words to comfort his friend, but that he truly meant them. He thought for a moment and then said. “I have come to see the brand not as a mark of shame and pain, but rather a mark of love that I am privileged to bear.”

”You do?” Faramir was astonished.

“Yes, when I look upon the scar now, I see it as something to treasure as a symbol of your devotion to me. How many are so blessed to have a friend who will risk all that they hold most dear to save them?” He kissed Faramir on the brow as he spoke.

“I would do it again, but may the Valar protect me from seeing such a day once more!” Faramir said, almost too overwhelmed to speak.

Chapter twenty-three- Reapers,I pray you,make haste 

 

Reapers, I pray you, make haste;
Grain there is ready and waiting,
If not soon gathered, will waste; - DeArmond

The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: - Luke 10.2 - The Bible

“Sometimes we are led down dark paths;” Aragorn said quietly. “What matters is that we re-emerge into the light. Now let me look at your hurts before we are too late for breakfast!”

Faramir nodded mutely, blinking back unshed tears. He pulled his shirt over his head. Even within a few hours his bruises seemed to have faded further; and now the spider bite hardly hurt at all when the salve was applied.

“I think the wound has finished draining,” Aragorn told Faramir after gently medicating the bite. “We can allow the wound to close safely now the infection has gone.”

“What does it look like?” Faramir vainly craned his neck to try to see behind him. “I saw Frodo's bite. Even after weeks had passed, it looked a grievous hurt.” There was a hint of fear in his voice.

“Your wound is nothing like his,” Aragorn reassured him. “When Sauron perished, so did the power of his creatures. You just have a small mark now, which will disappear within a few days with no lasting ill effects.” He looked round for something to wipe the salve from his hands with. “What would I not give for a hot bath now!” he lamented.

“You need a bath, as do we both,” Faramir agreed wryly. He pulled his shirt back over his head and fastened its lacings.

“I meant to ease my aching joints!” Aragorn retorted. “A swim in the river might get us clean but would only make me ache all the worse!”

“We had better get some breakfast before that is in as short supply as hot water,” Faramir reminded him.

Outside the hut, the villagers were already gathered around a cooking fire, on which several rabbits were slowly roasting for later in the day. Breakfast consisted of bowls of porridge with generous hunks of bread and cheese, washed down with mugs of steaming tea.

The morning was still fresh, as the sun had not yet fully risen

The villagers were preoccupied with discussing the day’s work. Most of the women and children were assigned to work in the cooler fields nearest the river.

An old man, gnarled with many seasons, announced that he would add an extra hand to Beleg’s harvesting that day, his own crops already being safely gathered. “You need to hurry,” said the greybeard, “the fine weather will break soon.”

”Thank you,” said Beleg. ”I need all the help I can get.”

“I thought you had these newcomers assisting you to make up for the men you lost?” asked another villager.

“And a fine lot of use these fellows are!” Beleg retorted. “One unfit to work properly and the other the most ham-handed worker I’ve ever seen. I'm amazed that either can keep their britches tied without help!” Aragorn bit his lip, resolved to control his rising fury.

“My father is a great man, greater than you know!” Faramir protested hotly, only just stopping himself from announcing Aragorn's true identity.

“Great with a sword he may be, but the man's a clumsy bear with the sickle!” Beleg retorted.

Faramir sprang to his feet in fury.

“Remember, we had need of great swordsmen during the War,” Tasariel said, placing herself between her husband and the Steward.

“Peace, ion nîn; come and sit down!” Aragorn ordered.

Faramir reluctantly obeyed, with a final glare at Beleg.

“Had I as much practise with the sickle as the sword, I would surely reap all my allotment, and those of four other men as well!” Aragorn said in a tone that chilled the listeners.

“Beleg, have a care what you say to skilled warriors such as these!” Tasariel chided.

The farmer shrugged his shoulders. “If indeed, they are as skilled as they claim to be! Come, there is no time to idle around. Let us start work!” he instructed.

The six men made their way to the cornfield. This morning, Faramir was put to work salvaging as much as possible of the wheat trampled by Roheryn, while Aragorn was instructed to continue reaping.

When he first raised the tool to attack the corn, it took all of Aragorn's considerable will to refrain from crying out at the pains that shot through his aching shoulders. He could not help but flinch.

“You will get used to the labour,” Beleg said, noticing his reaction. ”Everyone is stiff when they start, even those accustomed to hard work!”

“My sword is lighter to wield,” said Aragorn.

“Maybe the kind of sword a high and mighty lord might use; but my grandsire's old broadsword is good enough for me! Beleg snorted.

Aragorn continued to work in silence as best he could. The stiffness did ease a little as the morning progressed, but he still felt considerable pain. Aragorn wondered how he would endure several more days of this agony.

Faramir kept looking across at him, a concerned expression on his face.

They had been working for an hour or two when the labour’s dull rhythm was disturbed by cries coming from the river. Instinctively, Aragorn and Faramir started towards the direction of the commotion.

“And where do you think you’re going? “ Beleg inquired sternly.

“To see if we can be of help,” said Aragorn.

“And what might you know about the needs of our people?” The farmer challenged. “We don’t all set down our tools at every sound we hear or we’d starve! Galador can go and see to it. And when he returns, I will judge if any more of us need to interrupt our labours.”

Aragorn was sorely tempted to tell this impudent farmer that it was not for him to tell the King what he may or may not do. He dared not, lest their disguise be uncovered. Turning, Aragorn saw that the Steward looked ready to explode with fury, and put a restraining hand of Faramir’s shoulder. Trying to hide their frustration, they returned to work. How much more useful they could be by the river if some accident had occurred.

When Galador returned his face was grave. “Ill tidings, I fear,” he said. “Vanreth and her youngling have been found dead by the river. It seems that their hearts failed them.”

“Young women and children rarely suffer from heart failure,” Aragorn said, putting down his sickle. Slowly and painfully, he straightened to face the farmer. He towered above the short-tempered Beleg; but the taskmaster seemed not to care.

“And what would you know?” Beleg challenged, fire in his eyes.

“I am a healer,” Aragorn answered quietly. “Heatstroke would be a more likely explanation for the deaths; yet they perished early in the day, ere the sun’s rays were at their fiercest.”

“I thought you said you were a Captain, not a healer, Morrandir.” Beleg's voice was suspicious. "You’re a strange one; you are. You won’t take your shirt off like the rest of us; you speak with a different accent than your son, and now you can’t even make up your mind what trade you follow! Seems to me that you hide something! The only thing I do know for sure is that you’re no farm labourer!”

“I have followed many trades in my time,” said Aragorn. “I have always been both healer and warrior. But I have never wielded a sickle before yesterday.”

“Well, that is as plain as the large nose on your face!” Beleg chuckled. “Now get on with your work, Morrandir; and stop looking towards the river! I’ll not have you idling when there’s work to be done!”

Aragorn picked up the sickle again, resisting the urge to strike Beleg with the handle. Sighing, he moved away from the farmer and vented his frustration on the corn.

The morning wore on with increasing heat as the strong August sun climbed high overhead. All the men, excepting Aragorn and Faramir, soon discarded their shirts. Even they rolled up their sleeves to try to get some relief from the heat, and Faramir loosened the laces around his neck. Aragorn was sorely tempted to unlace his shirt too, but dared not, lest he reveal the brand high on his shoulder. He took several swigs of water from his flask and wiped the sweat from his brow.

Beleg kept the shady section of the field for himself and his sons to work on evidently annoyed by Aragorn’s wish to leave his work. Faramir continuously shot worried glances at his lord, and several times offered to take his place. Aragorn steadfastly refused, not wishing to risk his Steward’s health by subjecting him to hard labour. The decision gave him no peace. Aragorn's back was breaking, he was too hot, and he felt instinctively that something was very wrong when a previously healthy woman and child suddenly dropped down dead. He found himself constantly tightening his grip on the sickle, frustrated by his own helplessness. What if some plague had struck the village? Minas Tirith had only recently recovered from the grip of the fever. Yet, such maladies usually began in the winter months, not high summer. Drinking foul water caused the most frequent illness in summer, and that made the victims ill for many days before they either died or recovered. The sun was almost overhead now. Aragorn stopped reaping and took another swig from his flask. The water was almost gone and he would have to ask Beleg if he could go to refill it in the river. Aragorn could have laughed at the notion of the King of Gondor having to answer to a Lossarnach farmer for the right to quench his thirst, but his throat was too parched. Sweat poured from Aragorn's brow and every muscle in his body throbbed relentlessly.

“Get on with your work!” Beleg snapped. “Just look at how little you have reaped compared with my sons and I!”

Aragorn took up the sickle again, but found he was swaying on his feet.

“Do you want my father to be the next to fall down dead in your lands?” Faramir said angrily, dropping his sheaves and rushing to Aragorn’s side. “Can you not see he is ill?” He placed his arm protectively around the older man’s shoulders.

“The Valar protect us if all our soldiers are so frail!” Beleg retorted.

“We must tell them the truth!” Faramir whispered urgently.

“Tell us what?” Pelendur, who was nearest, asked.

“No,” said Aragorn firmly. “We must not.”

“I need to speak to my father in private,” said Faramir.

“You may have a moment but don’t be too long over it,” Beleg conceded, withdrawing with his sons to the far side of the field.

“This deception has gone on long enough!” Faramir said sternly in the language of the Riddermark. “We must reveal our true selves!”

“I will not have you shamed before the world!” Aragorn said firmly, also in the tongue of the Mark, and mopped his brow again.

“And I will not have you risk your health on my behalf!” Faramir retorted. “I shall tell them if you will not.”

“They would not believe us even if you did tell them,” Aragorn replied. “They would think the heat had addled your wits!”

“Back to work now!” called Beleg.

“I have something to tell you,” Faramir said. “We...”

”No!” said Aragorn sharply, turning pale.

Just then the women appeared, bearing the midday refreshments. Tasariel’s usually pleasant features looked grim, while Emerwen looked as if she had been crying.

“Go and sit in the shade and eat your lunch,” Beleg said in a kinder tone. “Your father can work in the shady side of the field this afternoon, Falborn. Better that than these endless arguments and excuses, I will hear no more of them!” He turned to Tasariel. “What ails you, wife?” he asked.

“That poor girl and her child, to die so suddenly!” Tasariel exclaimed. “Borlach has ordered the funeral to be held this afternoon because of the heat. We are all invited to attend and support her husband in his grief.”

“We cannot spare the time away from the harvest,” Beleg said shortly. He leaned on his sickle and sighed. “These deaths are a shame, especially the lass and her babe, I admit. But if we finish not the harvest in its proper time, we will not have enough for the Lord's tithe, and none left to sell ourselves or help keep us through the winter. Then we would all suffer; babes, women, young and old!"

“Shame on you!” chided Emerwen. “Vanreth was my dearest friend! I need my husband at my side when they lay her and her baby to rest.”

“I think Borlach wishes the whole village to be there,” Tasariel said firmly.

The farmer sighed. “Very well, rather that, than your endless nagging, woman! There is no need for those two to leave, though.” He nodded towards Aragorn and Faramir. “They can go on reaping.”

“Your head man treated us with great courtesy. We would return the honour he showed us by sharing his people’s sorrow.” Aragorn’s voice was even, but there was something in it that made Beleg reluctant to challenge him.

“Very well. 'Twould be foolish to leave two dolts like you alone in my field!” Beleg conceded. “You would likely trip on a stalk of wheat and break a good sickle as you fall!”

Faramir repressed a smile. He had heard that tone of calm finality many times in his lord's voice; and had seen that few dared argue with the King when Aragorn had made up his mind on a matter.

As soon as the midday meal was finished, the men returned to the village with their womenfolk. The villagers were assembling around the freshly dug grave. A distraught looking group, comprising a tall young man and two women, who closely resembled him, waited at the graveside. A woman in her middle years stood a little apart from them. She wept bitterly, brushing aside all her neighbours’ efforts to console her.

“There are Vanreth’s husband and sisters in law and the older lady is Vanreth’s mother, Hareth;” Tasariel explained to Aragorn and Faramir. “She lost three sons in the War; leaving Vanreth as her only surviving child.

“The poor woman!” Aragorn’s sorrow was genuine. He had seen such sights before. The sheer number of such bereft women, both here and in the North, in no way eased his sadness each time he beheld another sole survivor of a once thriving family.

A hush fell over the gathering as two sheet-wound bodies were carried out on a single bier. At the sight of the pitifully small one, even most of the men dabbed their eyes.

Borlach solemnly addressed the villagers. “My friends,” he said sadly, “Yet again, we are gathered to lament the loss of our neighbours and to bury two of our people before their time. Vanreth, daughter of Garathon, was loved by all; a lass as fair as a sunbeam whom we watched grow up. I can remember dancing at her wedding to Finrod here, and drinking to the health of their newborn son, little Gwinhir. Fate can take us unawares and early, as we saw in the war."

As Borlach commended the souls of Vanreth and Gwinhir to Mandos, Aragorn found his mind wandering. Whatever could have killed this unfortunate young mother and her infant? He wished he had been able to go down to the riverside, to look for signs. Could they have ingested toadstools, mistaking them for mushrooms? With Faramir beside him, Aragorn was standing somewhat apart, under a tree for shade. He suddenly felt something tickling his face. He brushed it aside and a small spider scuttled down his hand. A sudden thought struck him, causing the King to hastily move forward and interrupt Borlach’s speech. “I want to see the bodies!” Aragorn demanded. “Please, can you uncover them? It is important."

Borlach looked stunned. Never before had he been interrupted in such a fashion!

Finrod moved protectively in front of the bier. “Indeed you cannot!” he snapped, raising a fist. “This is an outrage!”

Chapter Twenty-four

A prophet hath no honour in his own country. - The Bible John 4.44

 “We welcome you to our village and offer our hospitality, even though you ruined Beleg’s crops, and now you have the audacity to disrespect our dead!” Borlach looked outraged.

“I believe your people may not be dead,” said Aragorn. “There is a very large spider in the vicinity. Its bite causes the victim to appear lifeless to all but the most skilled of healers.”

“You are a soldier, not a Healer, or so you have said,” Borlach replied. “This tragedy concerns our village, not strangers from afar. We have no giant spiders here.”

“I am also a healer of long experience,” Aragorn said firmly.

Beleg had moved to the front of the crowd and laughed mirthlessly. “I suppose he’ll be claiming to be the King next?” the farmer scoffed. “His sole claim to anything uncommon is that he is the most useless worker I have ever been unlucky enough to know.”

Aragorn struggled to keep his temper. “I beg you to let me examine these bodies,” he repeated, “A spider's venom could have paralysed both of them.”

“How could a spider fell a grown woman?” Borlach challenged. ”I have heard legends of such, in the far off lands to the North that drowned in Ages past. They tell us, though that such evil creatures perished with the first Dark Lord, no more to trouble man nor beast.”

“Nay, good sir: giant spiders infested the Elven woods near Dale until Sauron's end," answered Aragorn. "Though Mirkwood recovers from the Enemy's influence, and Dol Guldur has been thrown down, some of the spiders still linger to this day, hidden in fens and marshes and caves. They are more cunning than the spiders we are accustomed to. No one knows many spawn were thrown by the great spider of Cirith Ungol, not far from fair Ithilien. But I do know that one such creature attacked my son! That is why Beleg’s crops were damaged. Falborn was witless with delirium while the effects of the bite were wearing off.”

Beleg’s sarcastic laughter rang out again. “Now that is a fine tale, fit to frighten little children! I saw Falborn running naked and unmanned with my own eyes, as did my wife and sons. He was witless for certain, I tell you, witless with drink! Spider bite, my foot!”

“It is the truth!” Faramir spoke for the first time. “I was bitten by a giant spider.”

With the exception of the mourners, the whole village erupted in mirth.

“It is better to admit to overindulgence than to tell such falsehoods,” Borlach rebuked him.

“I do not lie and neither does my father.” Faramir trembled with scarcely controlled fury. “Is there anyone amongst you with some knowledge of the healing arts? Let them examine me and see the mark the foul creature left on my body!”

Aragorn sighed and briefly closed his eyes, knowing how much this would cost his reticent Steward.

Tasariel hurried forward. “You all know me well and trust my remedies,” she said. “I will examine Master Falborn and see whether there be any truth in his and his father's words. We owe it to Vanreth and Gwinhir not to bury them without discovering if they could have suffered some malady which creates but a false seeming of death.”

Aragorn nodded approval at her words. From his experience of Tasariel’s remedies over the last twenty-four hours, he was not surprised that she appeared to be the village Healer.

The crowd muttered amongst themselves.

“These men are fools and drunkards,” Beleg protested. “We should ignore them.”

“I pray you all, at least to let Mistress Tasariel decide," said Hareth, speaking for the first time. "We must not bury my daughter without knowing if their story could be true."

“We cannot delay the funeral in this heat!” Borlach protested.

“I intend to examine Master Falborn,” Tasariel said firmly, gripping Faramir’s arm and leading him in the direction of her hut. “I expect you to wait on the burial until I return. It should not take long."

Faramir followed Tasariel into the hut with an expression like that of a sheep being led to the slaughter. She closed the door behind them and lit the lamps. “I’d like to believe you, lad,” she said kindly. “ But whoever heard of such a thing as giant spider save in stories to frighten unruly children?”

“I assure you I am marked by the creature’s bite, mistress,” said Faramir. "And have you not heard the tales of Frodo of the Nine Fingers, how the Ring-bearer was stung to supposed lifelessness by a giant spider, and left for dead by his faithful servant? I assure you that Shelob of Cirith Ungol was no child's tale; for I saw the Ring-bearer myself after the Enemy's fall. The brave perian still bore the monster's bite, though the wound itself had been cleansed.

“You had better show me the mark of what stung you, then,” said the woman. “Where is this bite mark? I don’t recall seeing it when you were running naked through my husband’s field!”

“On my back, between my shoulders,” Faramir replied, starting rather hesitantly to unlace his shirt. He pulled the garment over his head, flushing scarlet. He turned his back to her to allow her to examine the bite.

“You’ve naught to fear from me, lad, “ said the farmer’s wife gently. “I bore and raised four sons, though alas, two fell fighting against the Dark Lord.” She picked up a lamp and Faramir felt the flame’s heat against his bare skin as she lifted his hair to scrutinise his back. “Hmm, you certainly have had a nasty bite of some sort. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I’ve seen many a bite from stinging insects during my life.”

“My father said the bite looked much worse a few days ago,” said Faramir, finally daring to hope that they would be believed.

“I believe you, lad,” Tasariel assured him.

“Thank you, Mistress Tasariel,” Faramir reached for his shirt, but the woman quickly grasped his arm. She moved in front of him and prodded his ribs.

“I can see why you insist on keeping your shirt on,” she said in a horrified tone of voice. "You're half-starved! And where did you get all those bruises from, lad? Has someone beaten you? “

“The bruises were caused when my father thought I was dead and tried to revive me,” Faramir explained.

“That proves your tale beyond all doubt then,” said Tasariel, continuing to feel Faramir’s ribs.” Don’t they feed you in the White City? I can count every one of your ribs, you are so painfully ill nourished! I suppose that if I could but get a proper look at your father, I'd find him as scrawny as you are! You can put your shirt on again now, lad. But don’t you dare think I’m letting either of you leave here before I’ve had a chance to feed you up a bit!”

“He has suffered much and I have been concerned for him,” Faramir said truthfully, thankfully donning his shirt once more.

“It is clear you are devoted to one another,” said Tasariel. "Morrandir looks at you as my Beleg looks at our lads, and never was a father so devoted to his sons as my man. Come on, we had better tell the others that you do indeed have a strange bite mark on you.”

She led Faramir outside again and cried in a loud voice: “Master Falborn speaks the truth! He has indeed been bitten by some large creature unknown to me.”

“Now will you let me see the bodies?” Aragorn demanded in his most commanding tone, which most in his Council quailed to hear.

“Let Master Morrandir see your son!” Borlach ordered Finrod. “I am beginning to think there may be some truth in his claims. Certainly Mistress Tasariel’s word can be trusted.”

Aragorn lifted the pitifully small bundle from the bier and made to take it to the hut he had been sharing with his Steward. Finrod turned to follow.

“No!” Borlach halted Aragorn, “Whatever you plan to do; you do it here in front of us all.”

“I sought only to act out of respect,” said Aragorn shooting a baleful glance at the headman. He took his knife and cut open the winding sheet, revealing the pitiful body of a little boy who could not have been more than about two years old. The child certainly looked dead, for it lay unmoving and bluish tinged.

Almost immediately, Aragorn espied a small puncture mark on the toddler’s chest that confirmed his suspicions. The discovery gave him scant sense of relief. How could one so young survive the bite of a poisonous spider whose venom had also felled a tall strong man in his prime? Yet, Frodo had lived after being bitten by Shelob. Aragorn raised his hand and begged for quiet, then lifted the child in his arms and pressed his ear to the small chest and waited. The following seconds felt like an eternity as he failed to detect any sign of life. He could sense the growing impatience of the crowd.

“Throw him in the river for desecrating our dead!” cried a woman.

“He should be whipped out of the village!” cried Thoron with relish.

“Quiet! My father needs to concentrate.” Faramir used a tone more often heard when he was addressing his troops.

Aragorn was beginning to lose hope that any life remained in the unfortunate child. The infant was well-fleshed, lacking in bruises, and of good size. He seemed to have been well cared-for, and was probably much loved by his family. Aragorn put his ear once more to the small body, above the silent heart. Come now, little one, show us that there is yet a flicker of life within you, he asked silently. Then to his joy, he detected a faint heartbeat.

“He lives, but barely,” the King announced to the waiting throng; and began to vigorously rub Gwinhir’s chest. It would be a struggle to keep this little one alive. Unlike adults such as Faramir, so young a child might not revive if left alone. “Fetch me some hot water, and let me also examine the mother!”

Finrod was still eying Aragorn suspiciously. “You will not uncover my wife!” he protested. It just isn’t decent! And how can you be so certain my son is still alive?”

“His heart still beats, though only once about every two minutes,” Aragorn explained. “I suggest you allow me to look at your wife inside one of the huts.”

“No man save I has ever touched her!” Finrod said adamantly.

“Maybe Mistress Tasariel could examine her body for bite marks then?” Aragorn enquired, now sorely tempted to end all the pretence and reveal his true identity so that they would obey his orders. He could not risk exposing Faramir to public humiliation by so doing so, though.

Hareth suddenly pushed her way forward, elbowing Finrod aside. “Please, take her to my hut so that I can see if she has any mark on her,” the woman said desperately. "I have buried my husband, and three sons and would not bury my only surviving child alive!”

“How can we believe this stranger?” Finrod protested. “Mistress Tasariel had no idea what had bitten his son, it could have been anything!”

“I do not know,” said Hareth, “ But if there is any chance, however slight, that my daughter still lives, I would grasp it. Take her home; Tasariel can aid me.” She gestured the bearers to return to the huts with the body. While the villagers were eager enough to challenge a stranger, they seemed more willing to heed the pleas of a grief stricken mother who was one of their own.

Borlach seemed to be waging an inner struggle, torn between possibly saving the child and having his authority usurped. “Fetch a tub of hot water!” he said at last, his desire to protect his people proving stronger.

Aragorn heaved a sigh of relief. He continued rubbing the child’s body, trying to stimulate the flow of blood to and from Gwinhir's sluggish heart. If the blood flowed normally, there was a greater chance that its protective armaments would destroy the spider's venom. “Bring my healing supplies to me!” he entreated Faramir.

As soon as the water was brought, Aragorn took an athelas leaf from his pack, breathed on it, while murmuring an invocation in a language strange to all but Faramir, who thought it an obscure dialect of Quenya. He then cast the leaves into the water and lowered the child into it. He bathed the little one thoroughly, while continuing to vigorously rub the child's limbs, the pain in his back and shoulders forgotten. From time to time, the water grew cold and Aragorn demanded infusions of freshly heated water to keep his patient warm. After a while, his efforts were rewarded when Gwinhir's heartbeat became stronger and slightly more frequent. Taking the little boy from the tub, Aragorn dried him and called for a clean napkin to clothe him. He then made to put the child under his shirt.

“What are you doing now?” Finrod asked suspiciously.

“My heartbeat and breathing will encourage him to breathe once the paralysis wears off,” Aragorn explained. “Such a young child might forget what comes naturally to older folk.”

“He’s my son, I’ll take him, “ Finrod said gruffly. “Not that I’m certain even, that he is still alive, but, I’ll care for mine own!” Thus saying, he took his child from Aragorn and stuffed him under his shirt.

“Be sure to wear a shirt for the rest of the day,” Aragorn cautioned. “He must be kept warm.”

Just then, Hareth reappeared and ran towards the assembled villagers, her tear-stained face alight. “You were right!” she said, “I found a mark, just as you said, on my daughter’s leg. And Tasariel has found a faint heartbeat! How can I help her?”

“We can only wait,” said Aragorn. ”It took many hours for my son to recover. Keep your daughter comfortable and keep talking to her; she may be aware of what is happening at times. Make sure she knows that she will not be buried alive. Most importantly, do not leave her alone, for when she regains consciousness she might be confused or feverish like my son was. It might also help to place a poultice of cabbage leaves on the bite to draw out the poison.”

“My father's telling me that he knew what had happened to me was a great comfort when I was bitten,” Faramir added.

A sudden horrible thought struck Borlach. “ Might we have buried the men alive who collapsed last week?” he asked.

“Where were they working?” Aragorn queried.

“In the hayfield by the river,” the village elder replied.

“My son was bitten there,” Aragorn said sombrely. “However, you cannot know. They most likely succumbed to heatstroke in this weather," he added, not wanting these simple villagers to dwell on what was likely to be a grim truth. The buried men would be far beyond help now in either case. “I would advise you to wait at least a day before burying anyone else who collapses, until this creature is destroyed.”

The villagers murmured their assent.

“Back to work now!” Borlach ordered, not wanting the people to think too deeply about the ill fate that had befallen their fellows. “There is a harvest waiting to be gathered or we will go hungry this winter!”

Aragorn and Faramir lingered as the villagers drifted back to their work.

“Come, you two, no more idling!" Beleg chided, “You said yourself it will be hours before Vanreth and her child awaken. That is, if you are not playing some cruel trick on us.”

“Their fates lie in the hands of the Valar,” Aragorn replied soberly. He could only hope that Vanreth did truly still live, and the faint heartbeat was not merely the wishful thinking of her distraught mother and Tasariel. They reluctantly returned to Beleg’s field for what mercifully proved to be only two or so hours of work before the sun set.

The evening meal was a subdued affair that night. Finrod still clutched his son to his chest, but the toddler showed no further sign of life and Finrod refused to let Aragorn examine him again.

Faramir walked back to their original campsite and retrieved their bedding, which he shook out and arranged under a giant oak. He was determined that Aragorn should have the chance for a good night’s rest beneath the stars. They retired briefly to their hut so as not to hurt the villagers’ feelings, and tended each other’s hurts within the privacy the walls afforded.

It was hard for Aragorn to properly see the bite mark on Faramir's back in the dim light. Aragorn’s pains were easier to tend. . He just lay flat on his belly while Faramir rubbed in the soothing salve and tried his best to copy the Elven healing methods that Aragorn had used so often on him.

"You have healing hands," Aragorn remarked.

Faramir looked surprised. “I cannot cure by touch and my hands are always cold, unlike yours."

"Your hands can quickly ease pain and remember, you twice recalled me from the brink of death by the strength of your will and devotion. I believe you inherited some small measure of the healing powers of Elendil's line."

Faramir beamed. “I should like to think so," he said. They crept outside and settled down to sleep in the shelter of the great tree.

It seemed they had only been asleep a few minutes when they were awaked by cries of “Master Morrandir! Where’s that fellow who says he’s a healer? Has he run away?”

For a moment, Aragorn forgot that he was Morrandir. Then it dawned on him and he rose stiffly to his feet.

“I am here. Who summons me?” he called, striding out from the shelter of the oak.

“It is my daughter. You must help her, please!” Hareth approached, trembling with agitation.

 

Chapter Twenty Five- Truth will Out

Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of
the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his
own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man's son
may, but at the length truth will out. - Shakespeare- the Merchant of Venice

“Please help my daughter; she appears to have lost her wits!" cried Hareth, approaching in Aragorn a state of great agitation.

“I am coming,” said Aragorn.

Hareth grabbed his arm and pulled him towards her hut.

Faramir followed in case Aragorn might need him. He kept his hand on his sword lest the villagers threaten his lord. He stayed a few steps behind, and discreetly waited outside once they reached their destination.

Several candles illuminated the hut’s interior, allowing Aragorn to see that Vanreth now sat up in bed, retching violently and tearing at her clothing and blankets. She stared straight ahead with wide, terrified eyes. Tasariel tried to restrain the young woman with one hand, while holding a basin in the other.

“I’m glad you have come.” Tasariel sounded relieved.

“Something crawls over me!” cried Vanreth. “Gwinhir! He is in danger! Someone find my baby!"

“He is with Finrod,” Hareth said gently.

“They have stolen him!” Vanreth exclaimed before starting to retch again. She then lashed out at Tasariel, landing a glancing blow on the woman’s shoulder.

Aragorn approached the bedside. Vanreth seemed hardly aware of his presence. She plucked fretfully at the blankets and the linen shift she was wearing.

“There is nought to worry about,” he told the anxious women. “Reactions like this are  not unusual after being bitten by a poisonous spider. I will try to calm her”

He reached out and caught Vanreth’s wrists and pressed on them, murmuring “Easy now,” as he did so. The retching eased somewhat, but Vanreth remained highly agitated. She cried “No, no it chokes me; make them take it off!" and stared at the blanket in wild alarm.

“She is reliving the terror of being sewn in her shroud,” Aragorn explained. While Tasariel restrained the young woman, he laid a hand on Vanreth's brow, then lightly brushed his fingertips over her eyelids. “Sleep now,” he told her gently. Almost at once, Vanreth went limp. “Make some water hot,” Aragorn instructed her mother.

When Hareth returned a few minutes later with a bowl of freshly boiled water, Aragorn took two athelas leaves from his pouch, breathed on them, and cast them into the steaming water. He bathed Vanreth’s face with the mixture. As Aragorn wiped her brow and cheeks with the wet cloth, the woman's taut features relaxed and her breathing deepened.

“I need to look at the injury,” he told the women.

Hareth nodded her agreement while Tasariel pulled back the blankets to reveal a bite just below Vanreth's knee. The obviously inflamed wound resembled an archery target, and, Aragorn noted, it looked almost exactly the same, as had the bite on Faramir's back.

“It needs lancing and a poultice of cabbage leaves applying,” Tasariel said sagely.

“Indeed so, Mistress, “ Aragorn agreed, tactfully not saying that he had been about to suggest the same remedies. He cleansed his knife in the candle while Hareth fetched the leaves. With Tasariel’s help, the procedure was quickly completed and a bandage applied to Vanreth’s leg. Aragorn then felt his patient’s forehead again and frowned. Vanreth was drenched in a cold sweat and shivering, as Faramir had been upon awakening from the deathlike stupor.

“How can I aid her?” her mother asked, misery in her eyes.

“Bathe her in warm water and change her nightgown, “ Aragorn told Hareth. "Then I suggest you or Mistress Tasariel hold her until she stops shivering. She has a fever and needs keeping warm. She should be much better in a few hours, but I will need to awaken her for her deep sleep.”

“Thank you, Master Morrandir,” said Hareth. “I will care for my little girl now.” She soothed her daughter tenderly; stroking back the sweat soaked hair. Vanreth sighed softly, sensing her mother’s loving presence.

“ Call me at once if you need me,” said Aragorn. He tactfully withdrew as the women prepared to bathe Vanreth. Faramir was hovering anxiously outside the door waiting for him. “She lives, and should be well by the morning,” he told his friend, sighing with relief. "I only hope the child is faring as well and I have not raised their hopes too high.”

“The boy is so young,” Faramir said sadly, “If the spider’s venom could fell a grown man such as I, what hope has a little child?”

“That is what I fear,” Aragorn said grimly. ”We can only wait and hope.”

He and Faramir were just about to settle down again to snatch a few hours sleep for what remained of the night when Tasariel emerged from the hut and joined them. ”I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am that you realised Vanreth was alive,” she told Aragorn. ”It would have broken her poor mother’s heart had she died. After Hareth's sons were killed in the war, her husband faded away from the grief of his loss. Hareth would have joined him, were it not for the love she bears her daughter. She was so happy when little Gwinhir was born.”

“I wish I could have continued to tend the little boy,” said Aragorn. “Alas; his father was adamant that I should not.”

“Finrod is a good man, but a stubborn one,” Tasariel remarked.

“That seems to be a common trait in these parts,” Aragorn said wryly.

“I think I should take a look at young Gwinhir,” said Tasariel. “Finrod respects me. You are welcome to come with me, Master Morrandir. I shall tell him that his wife’s condition is improving."

“Than you, Mistress,” said Aragorn. His respect for the village healer was growing.

“Master Finrod!” called Tasariel, knocking on the door of the young farmer’s hut.

When there was no reply, she pushed open the door. The hut was clean and well furnished. A child’s playthings were scattered around the otherwise tidy room. However, a grim sight met their eyes. Finrod lay slumped on the floor, a flagon of wine in his hand. Beside him lay his son, silent and unmoving.

Aragorn snatched up the child. The small body felt cold. Desperately, his pressed his ear to the little boy’s chest. The faint heartbeat was still there but feebler than ever. Tasariel bent over Finrod. "He is the worst for drink,” she pronounced. “He must have thought both his wife and son were dead and decided to drown his sorrows. If only he had believed you! How is the child?”

“Alive, but by a mere thread,” said Aragorn. ”The infection has not come to a head as it should. I feared this might happen in so young a child. I need hot water and quickly!”

“I will fetch some from Hareth,” said Tasariel. She hurried away.

“Hold the child and keep him warm,” Aragorn instructed Faramir. "Light a candle from the lamp too.”

“What are you going to do?” the Steward asked.

“I can only hope that athelas might hold some power over a wound like this,” the King replied grimly, placing his bag of healing supplies on a table.” I will have to rely on my instincts.”

Tasariel returned with a large bowl of steaming water, which she placed on the table.

The King selected a small, sharp knife from amongst his tools and held in it the candle flame.

“What are you doing?” Tasariel asked in alarm. “Surely you do not plan to cut the baby?”

“If the wound is not opened, he will surely die,” Aragorn replied grimly. “Place the child on the table,” he told Faramir. The King washed his hands with soap, and examined the small red mark, feeling carefully round the edges. Then Aragorn took up the now cooled knife and made two small but deep cuts across it. “Let it bleed for a moment,” he cautioned Tasariel, who made as if to staunch the wound. “The poisons need to be washed away."

Aragorn took two athelas leaves and breathed on them; then crushed them in his hands and placed them over the wound, holding them in place. “Gwinhir!” he called. "Turn back from the darkness! I bid you come to me!” He sustained the healing trance for some time, calling urgently until his voice grew faint and the colour drained from his face. He sank to his knees. Rivulets of sweat trickled down his cheeks

“ Ara-er-Ada!” Faramir cried in alarm. “Have a care! You cannot help the child by killing yourself! You have a wife and son who love and need you. Many depend upon you! I beg you, for the love I bear you, to desist!” He grabbed Aragorn’s shoulders, trying to shake him out of the trance. Suddenly Gwinhir gave a cry and opened his eyes. Blood and pus poured from the wound. “Staunch it, Mistress,” Faramir ordered. He quickly threw his arm around the grey-faced King; seeing that his lord was close to collapse. With his free hand, Faramir threw another athelas leaf in the bowl and placed it under Aragorn’s face. The scent was pleasant but lacked the power it had earlier. Faramir dipped a cloth in the bowl and wiped his lord’s face.

“What ails him?” asked Tasariel, tying the final knot on the bandage she had wrapped round Gwinhir’s chest.

“Healing drains his strength, Mistress,” Faramir explained without thinking. “The athelas can aid him, but he alone can utilise its full healing power.”

“Strange indeed,” said Tasariel eyeing them shrewdly. Gwinhir began to cry loudly and she turned her attention to trying to soothe him. “ I have never seen the like before. No Man has the power to bring back one so close to death as the child was!”

“It is a skill that came from my longfathers,” said Aragorn. A little colour had returned to his cheeks, but he was still reliant on Faramir’s supporting arm to keep him upright. “Take the child to Mistress Hareth. I am certain she will take good care of him and he should sense his mother’s presence nearby.”

“You must rest now, lord,” said Tasariel, eying Aragorn as if he were some strange creature the like of which she had not seen before. “I will bring you some tea in a moment.”

“ I need air,” Aragorn told Faramir.

“Come, ada! I will take care of you.” Supporting his friend, Faramir gently led him outside. Finrod now snored in a drunken stupor. The Steward settled his lord under the tree where they had been sleeping. He had just tucked a blanket around him when Tasariel returned with two steaming mugs of tea.

“Thank you, Mistress,” said the Steward. He held a cup to Aragorn’s lips.

“I will leave you to rest,” said Tasariel. “I doubt your father will be fit for reaping in the morning.”

“Can you not ask your husband to let him rest?” said Faramir. “He has saved two of your people, that should surely be sufficient payment for the crops we damaged!”

“So it should,” said Tasariel with a kind smile. “I must return to Vanreth now.”

As soon as the two men had drained their mugs, Aragorn fell into an exhausted slumber. Faramir was slow to sleep, fretting over what the morrow might bring. He feared it would kill Aragorn to work again in the fields. If their hosts insisted that Master Morrandir exhaust himself further, Faramir would reap in his place; or bear the King away and to the Darkness with anyone's objections! A faint light was already appearing on the Eastern horizon and dawn could not be far off.

***

Aragorn was awoken, not by the cock crowing but the warm sun on his face. Slowly and stiffly, he sat up. Faramir was sitting beside him and smiling. “At last you are awake!” he exclaimed. “Mistress Tasariel is waiting for us to eat breakfast.”

A few minutes later, King and Steward joined the other villagers. Most had already finished their morning meal.

“Do not forget there is work to be done after breakfast,” Beleg greeted them sourly. “You are not the only ones who had little sleep last night!”

Aragorn sighed wearily. Would nothing satisfy this farmer save his collapse in Beleg's field from exhaustion?”

"Let me do my father's share of the reaping," Faramir demanded. "Ada needs rest."

“Master Falborn is in no fit condition to work, unless you want another worker to drop dead, Beleg!” Tasariel said sternly, glaring at her husband. “And I believe his father is also unfit for scything. I would examine him too. Come, Master Morrandir!”

Aragorn felt a firm hand upon his arm. ”Mistress, there is no need for this!” he protested.

“Let us settle the matter once and for all,” said Beleg.

Faramir could only watch helplessly as Tasariel led his lord away.

“If you would just remove your shirt, Master Morrandir,” said Tasariel once they were inside her hut. “I need to see if you are half starved like your son.”

“I prefer to remain fully clothed,” Aragorn said in his firmest tone of voice, more often heard when issuing orders to the Council. He towered over the woman, but she stood her ground.

“Come now,” Tasariel coaxed. “There is nothing I have already seen. I have brought many a lad into the world and laid out their grandsires when they departed it. There is naught to fear, I shall not hurt you.”

“I do not wish to remove any of my clothing, Mistress,” Aragorn repeated in a tone that would have caused a lesser woman to flee.

“If you carry the marks of torture, there is no need to be ashamed,” Tasariel said kindly. “Such scars shame only those who inflicted them.”

“There is no shame. A man of honour risked his own life and soul to save me;” Aragorn said softly, more to himself than the farmwife. “If you would excuse me now, good lady? I must see how my patients are faring, ere I begin work.” The command in his voice was unmistakable.

“We will be forever grateful to you, Master Morrandir,” said Tasariel. "However could I have missed it that they still lived? I brought both Vanreth and her babe into the world and would not wish to see them leave it so soon.”

“Do not blame yourself in the matter. I initially thought my son was dead. It took him even longer to regain consciousness. I ought to have used the kingsfoil on him sooner.”

Tasariel started and looked at Aragorn more closely.

"You are skilled with kingsfoil, Master Morrandir. It works well for you. Yet if I should steep the herb, it serves only to freshen a room or ease a headache. I have heard it said that the plant responds to one man only, the rightful King! 'Tis also said that it drains the King’s strength to use, and you look sore weary. Last night you were near to collapse.”

“People say many things,” Mistress Tasariel. It amuses me that you think I am the King. I have just had little sleep.” Aragorn’s tone was level but his eyes betrayed his shock at her words. She caught hold of his wrist.

“Your pulse races wildly for a man who is merely amused,” she said. “People also say that the King was captured by evil men and put to torment, just as you were!”

“The King lives in Minas Tirith with his Queen and a son who is not quite one year old,” Aragorn said desperately. “You said how like my son I am!”

“People also say that the Steward and the King are as alike as close kin,” Tasariel continued relentlessly. "My kinswoman Ioreth, wise-woman of the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, told me how the King recalled the Steward to life. She saw the bond of love that sprang between them, almost as if they were father and son. You cried out his name in your sleep but the other night! I know who you are! Even from the distance, as I saw you at your coronation, I marked your face, the visage of a king out of legend. You have that face still, my lord.” She sank to her knees in a gesture of respect.

“Please, Mistress, do not speak so to me!” Aragorn said frantically, grasping her hands and raising her to her feet. ”Whoever heard of a king working as a bumbling farmhand, or his steward running naked through a cornfield? What respect would such a King and Steward have in the eyes of their people?”

“They would have a great deal of honour in my eyes,” said the farmer’s wife. “What deed could be more noble than that of one friend who seeks to protect the other when he had no control over his actions? Lord Faramir is known to be a sober, modest prince. And I have seen the spider bite with mine own eyes.”

“Mistress, I pray you to say nothing!” Aragorn said urgently. He feared the worst. Their secret now lay in the hands of a kinswoman of perhaps the most loose-tongued woman in Minas Tirith. News of Faramir's seeming disgrace would soon be spread all over Lossarnach, and then onto the rest of Gondor!

Chapter Twent six - Knowledge is Power

 

Knowledge is power.- Francis Bacon

With very grateful thanks to Raksha who wrote part of this chapter

Tasariel’s eyes twinkled. “The entire village would scoff at me should I voice so wild a tale!” she exclaimed. “And what use is a healer who has forfeited the respect of her people? No, that would never do! Go now, Master Morrandir, and break your fast with your son. You both need feeding up. No more working in the fields for either of you!”

“Thank you, mistress,” Aragorn said gratefully. He hardly dared believe their good fortune that the healer would not betray them.

“You can thank me by continuing to appreciate my cooking,” smiled Tasariel. “Away with you now before your son eats it all! I will tell my husband you will not be working in the fields again.”

“Beleg shall be angry,” Aragorn said wryly, “I have broken my promise to him.”

“We will see about that!” Tasariel said grimly. She marched out of the hut. Aragorn meekly followed at her heels.

Faramir hastened to Aragorn’s side. ”What happened?” he enquired anxiously in a low tone. “Did she see the scar?”

Aragorn shook his head. “No, but she knows who we are.”

The colour momentarily drained from Faramir’s face as he contemplated half of Gondor learning of his disgrace. “So be it,” he said simply.” I was going to tell them myself. The farm labour was would have killed you, had you kept on toiling in the hot sun. We had better gather our belongings and leave before the entire village learns the truth.”

Aragorn laid a restraining hand on Faramir’s arm. “I do not think she will tell anyone, ion nîn. She is a sensible woman and fears ridicule from her neighbours should she relate such an outlandish seeming tale. Also, she is a healer, and as such, accustomed to keeping secrets. I believe we can trust the good lady.”

“It is always better to believe than to mistrust; when one has the opportunity,” Faramir replied rather wearily. ”I like Mistress Tasariel.”

“Come and eat your breakfast!” called the lady in question, who had been engrossed in conversation with her husband.

“Now my wife tells me that neither of you are fit to work in my field!” snorted Beleg. ”Small loss that might be, but I need every pair of hands I can get, however slow they are!”

Just then, Borlach appeared, with a brisk step and a friendly face. "Beleg, I would have you release Morrandir and Falborn from the oaths they swore; I am more than satisfied of their recompense."

"Satisfied?" Beleg scowled at the headman. "'Twere my crops that Falborn ruined. Easy for you to tell me to forgive the debt; it isn't your back that will break at the effort to make up for the losses!"

"Come now, Beleg", Borlach replied. "These men came as strangers, but have more than proved their worth as friends; or are a few sheaves worth the lives of Vanreth and her babe, whom we would have buried alive if not for Master Morrandir here?"

Beleg was unmoved. "Nay. It's my decision; and I say they work until the harvest, work until they drop if that's what it takes."

"Work until he drops?" came Faramir's voice, cool and deadly calm, very like that of Denethor as he prepared to castigate some recreant. "Is that how you would treat your--"

"Enough, son of my heart," Aragorn cut him off in Quenya. "They must decide it themselves."

"Beleg, stop being such an ass!"

"Borlach, I won't be a donkey for them!"

"BELEG!" It was Tasariel who snapped her husband's name, and now stood between him and the headman, fists on her hips. "You're not a donkey, but you're acting like an ox. There can surely be some other way. I saw with my own eyes how weary they are; half starved, and in Falborn's case, sickened by a foul wound. What if it had been our own grandchild who had been bitten and left for dead like poor Gwinhir, our daughter in law too?"

"Hmmhh." Beleg scowled again, but his face relaxed slightly.

"No one has worked as hard as you this season, Beleg;” Borlach declared with a softer voice. "I shall speak to all our people. If I can persuade all able-bodied men and women to work additional hours on your crop, so that your portion will be ready for the harvest, will you release our visitors from their oath?"

Beleg continued to scowl. Aragorn wondered what the Great Council of the Reunited Kingdom would think at the sight of Elessar Telcontar standing meekly by while a village healer and two country yeomen decided the duties of King and Steward.

Finally, Beleg snorted again. "Very well, then, if only to content my good wife. I release Morrandir and Falborn from their oaths to me." The farmer began to walk away with Borlach, both farmers talking loudly of the value of their wives.

"Beleg reminds me of Samwise Gamgee,” Faramir whispered to Aragorn; "Only Sam was far more wise."

Borlach turned suddenly and called out, "Please stay on as our honoured guests, until the celebration on the night of the full moon, that you may share in the fruits of the harvest."

“We will and gladly,” Aragorn replied. Much as he missed Arwen, he was enjoying this rare furlough from the duties of kingship and the chance to again enjoy Faramir’s companionship.

Tasariel served the two friends a hearty breakfast of bacon, boiled eggs and mushrooms with thick crusty bread and golden pats of butter. The meal ended with fresh pears and steaming mugs of tea.

As soon as he had finished eating, Faramir left to tend to the horses. Aragorn still tired, but feeling rather pleasantly replete; accompanied Tasariel to Hareth's hut. The older woman opened the door and beckoned Aragorn and the healer inside.

“How are Vanreth and Gwinhir?” enquired Tasariel.

“They rest peacefully, but I cannot wake them,” Hareth replied.

“I need to rouse them,” said Aragorn. “Then I shall wait outside, lest the presence of a stranger startle them. Vanreth should now recognise you, mistress, although she will no doubt be somewhat confused and nauseous. Call out at once if you need me. I shall be just beyond the door.” He bent over the sleeping mother and child and lightly brushed his hand first across Vanreth’s brow, and then over the soft skin of her child's forehead. “Awake!” he said in a gentle yet firm tone. As the young woman’s eyes flickered open, he slipped outside.

The King waited anxiously outside, pacing the grass. He tried to ignore the sounds of retching and crying that came from within. The soothing tones of the two older women suggested, though, that they were able to calm Vanreth and her child. Eventually, Tasariel put her head round the door and bade him enter.

Vanreth was sitting up in bed looking rather wan, but otherwise well. Aragorn now recognised her as the grey eyed young woman he had noticed the night of their arrival in the village. In her arms she held her son. The infant fussed, crying softly; but his colour had much improved.

“How do you feel?” Aragorn asked Vanreth.

“I feel sick and I ache everywhere,” Vanreth replied. “Worse, whenever I close my eyes, I think I shall be buried alive and I cannot stop trembling. They tell me a spider bit me? All I remember is a dark shape and my child falling beside me! Then some hideous monster tried to drag my Gwinhir away!”

“Your baby was but unconscious. You will need to be patient; for your spirit was wounded as well as your body. It will take more time for your heart to heal,” Aragorn told her truthfully, “However, I can give you some ease now, if you let me.”

“Please do,” she replied, albeit somewhat apprehensively.

Hareth took the fretfully wailing baby from Vanreth's arms.

“Where is my husband?” the young mother asked anxiously.

“I will go and see if he is awake yet,” said Tasariel, leaving the hut as she spoke.

“Easy now, I shall not hurt you,” Aragorn told Vanreth. He gently took her hand.

The young woman looked surprised when Aragorn first pressed his fingertips on her wrists, then massaged her feet. He explained that the pressure would ease her nausea, while the foot massage would help drain the poisons. Next, Aragorn bathed the spider bite in water steeped with athelas. Vanreth began to calm; and sighed contentedly while Aragorn added fresh athelas leaves to the water and repeated the entire treatment for the child. Gwinhir stopped crying; instead he watched the movements of Aragorn’s fingers as if transfixed.

“There is such power in your hands!” Vanreth exclaimed.

“It is a gift I inherited from my forefathers,” Aragorn explained.

“Were they wizards?” she asked.

Aragorn pondered his foremother Melian, a Maia of Estë. Melian was of the same race as Gandalf, and like him had great power. Simple folk might think of her descendants as wizards. “I come from the North,” he said at last; preferring to sidestep questions about wizardly powers. “There are few of my kin left now. It is said that long ago our foremother had magical powers.”

“Well, I hope your son gives you plenty of grandchildren to carry on such wondrous gifts!” said Hareth.

“Falborn already has a daughter, and he and his wife are likely to have many more children,” Aragorn said truthfully.

Just then, Finrod rushed into the hut, Tasariel behind him. The farmer's chastened expression suggested that the healer had been chiding him for his conduct. His features lightened when he beheld his wife and child. He hastened to embrace them both.

“How can I ever thank you, Master Healer!” he exclaimed, finally releasing his wife. He turned to Aragorn and grasped the King’s hand. “You have restored my wife and son to me. I thought I had lost them for ever!”

“You should thank Mistress Hareth and Mistress Tasariel,” Aragorn replied “They have cared devotedly for your family since I discovered that Vanreth and Gwinhir still lived.”

Finrod flushed scarlet. “What brought you to these parts?” he asked, changing the subject.

“My son and I sought to spend some time together away from the City,” Aragorn told him. “Coming from the North, I find the summer heat somewhat oppressive. My wife thought it would benefit my health were I to spend a few days in the countryside with Falborn.”

Finrod shook his head ruefully. "To think that Beleg made you labour over his crops in the heat all day! I shall ask him if I can take over your share; my cousins will help, since we have almost finished our own portions.”

“My thanks, Finrod,” Aragorn said good-humouredly. “I am a soldier and a healer, and therefore not accustomed to working on a farm.”

“The Valar be praised for sending you to us!” Hareth said ardently.

The King finally completed his ministrations to mother and son, advising that they should sit outside in the shade when they felt able, as the fresh air would benefit them. Inclining his head politely to the ladies, he then took his leave.

Aragorn found Faramir waiting outside the hut for him. “Vanreth and her child are both much improved,” he informed his friend. “They should be fully recovered by the morrow.”

“Glad tidings!” exclaimed Faramir. “I had feared that the babe could not survive the sting of so foul a creature. Our horses are faring well too. The villagers gave me so many apples and carrots for them that I could scare carry them all. They are all grateful to you and rightly so.”

Aragorn momentarily bowed his head, overcome with shame. He had merely used his training and inborn skills, yet these simple folk showed far more gratitude than he given Faramir for risking both life and honour to save him. “I have much to learn about gratitude,” he said bleakly.

Tasariel emerged from the hut before Faramir could reply. “Can I tempt you with anything else to eat?” she enquired. “And you have any linens you would like me to wash today?”

“No thank you, Mistress, we are still quite full from breakfast,” the King and Steward replied in near unison. They glanced down at their shirts; sweat streaked and poorly washed in a small amount of cold water, and accepted her second offer

“Go and rest then until the midday meal, Master Morrandir,” said Tasariel. “You still move stiffly. Ask your ‘son’ to apply more of my salve.”

“Very well,” said Aragorn. “However, we cannot laze all day in the sun while everyone else labours hard.”

“You can ease pain with the power of touch alone, can you not?” asked the woman.

Aragorn nodded.

“Well then, after the midday meal, maybe you could help me with those of my patients whom I am powerless to ease? “ Tasariel enquired.

“I will gladly help if I can, Mistress,” replied Aragorn.

After a detour to their hut, where Faramir applied a generous amount of Tasariel’s salve to his Lord’s back and shoulders, they collected their laundry, then napped comfortably in the shade of the great oak until midday, when they were again plied with enough food to feed four Hobbits.

That afternoon a young man, who was walking with a limp, shyly approached Aragorn.” You are the healer of whom Mistress Tasariel spoke?” he asked timidly.

“Yes, I am.

“Well, I hurt my foot a few weeks ago, and it will not heal, and pains me greatly. Can you help me?” he asked.

“I will do what I can, “ Aragorn replied.

“I only hope you are a better healer than you are a farm hand!” said Beleg who was passing. “I cannot say I will miss your efforts, I only hope you are of more use to the sick than you are to me.”

Aragorn fetched his healing supplies and laid them out in the hut that had become their temporary home. Soon, a small crowd had gathered. Faramir arranged them in an orderly queue outside. To Aragorn’s great relief, no one seemed to be seriously ill, though many suffered from painful inflammations of the joints, old war wounds, or ulcerated sores that failed to heal properly. Some of the oldest people had pain from frail hearts, but that was the common lot of humanity. Tasariel had skilfully treated them with infusions of hawthorn berries, dandelion root and foxglove.

The King found that the villagers made easy patients, slow to complain and almost apologetic when they did. Aragorn’s greatest concern was the fear that the power in his hands would make them too curious about him. He was amazed how strong his healing powers had become in their return.

By the time the sun was starting to sink into the West, all the villagers’ hurts had been tended and Aragorn was exhausted. Tasariel brought him a drink while she finished help prepare the evening meal. Aragorn retired to the shade of the trees with Faramir.

“You worked wonders this morning!” exclaimed Faramir. ”It is so good to see you restored to your former self, my King!” He wiped away a tear as he spoke.

“A King should help his people,” Aragorn replied, “ I have been negligent and ungrateful far too long, especially towards you.

Faramir simply embraced him. As their heads touched, their thoughts met and they sensed their old harmony was at last fully restored.

They sat together in companionable silence while they waited for their meal, still sensing each other’s thoughts and watching the villagers' children at play.

“We cannot leave without ridding these good people of the menace of the spider,” said Aragorn. ”I cannot bear to think of them being preyed upon any longer by such a creature.”

“If Sam could best Shelob, this creature should be easy prey for two seasoned warriors, if we keep on our guard,” Faramir said thoughtfully.

”We had better not tell the villagers what we intend, lest they try to help us and are injured.” said Aragorn.

“I believe we should confide in Mistress Tasariel,” said Aragorn. “I would not like to risk either of us being buried alive!”

Faramir nodded his agreement.

000

The next morning, Aragorn and Faramir arose at dawn and enjoyed a hearty breakfast with the villagers. Once the men had departed for the fields, Aragorn sought out Tasariel. “Are any working by the river today?” he enquired.

“Borlach said we should shun the spot after the attack on Vanreth and her child,” the woman replied.

“I have a favour to ask of you, Mistress,” said Aragorn. “If we have not returned by the midday meal, send a party of men to look for us. And if you find us seemingly lifeless, do not bury us.”

“Whatever are you planning to do?” Tasariel asked in horror. “No, my lord, you cannot!”

“My ‘son’ and I are skilled warriors with sharp swords, Mistress,” said Aragorn. ”Would you have this menace trouble your village when we can rid you of it once and for all? We are too large for the creature to drag us to its lair. The worst that the spider could do would be to paralyse us as it did Vanreth and Gwinhir. That is why you must ensure that no one tries to bury us. They will listen to you as their healer. I ask for your word on this, Mistress Tasariel.”

Tasariel hesitated for a long moment and then nodded. “You have my word. May the Valar guide your sword!” she said.

Chapter Twenty- seven


With very grateful thanks to Raksha who wrote by far the greater part of this chapter, including the confrontation with the spider.

Warning - This chapter contains violence and may disturb arachnaphobes

Along Came a Spider – Traditional Rhyme

Curled up quietly in the cool comfort of her burrow, well fed from a meal of fresh, juicy kitten, she is startled by noises outside the lair. Frogs? Beavers, or the impudent otters? Surely not weasels, for she has rid her riverbank of those rival predators. She awakens fully and extends her senses.

Men! Loud, rude Men! Can they not give her a day’s peace, the noisy, brutish things! The sounds and shudders continue. Something knocks at the trees and rocks that shelter her. A horse is snorting a challenge to her. And beyond, she hears the voice of its master.

Well, he will soon learn to walk wide of Shelob’s daughter; that is, if she leaves him living to walk at all. Perhaps she has been too forbearing. She has stung Men mostly in defence, since their presence has assured her penned animals to easily capture, especially their juicy young fowl and rabbits. She is too small and immature to feed upon most of the Men as well, though one day she will take them as she pleases. Yet it seemed they would not respect her territory. They must be taught a lesson! Small she might be, but no cloddish Man could match her for skill and speed. Just two days ago, she had felled a female and would have had borne its tender manling to her larder, but for the coming of a great herd of stomping farmers. But another such Man? Little hazard to her! And the few horses they had here were skittish and dull-witted.

She extends her forelegs, feeling their bladed hairs bristle, ready to throw. Lifting her back, she charges out of her lair.

Faramir’s stomach lurched as the creature scuttled from the burrow with surprising speed. At his command, Zachus had reared and struck the nearby ground with battle-force in his strong front legs. The spider had reacted as planned. What a monstrosity it was, larger than even he had thought, the size of a small wolf! He could see the long stinger and the vicious beak of which Samwise had spoken of as Shelob's armaments. Faramir manoeuvred the reins so that Zachus blocked the spider from escape, yet paced out of the reach of that stinger, visible even from the gelding’s back. Eight legs, evil horned head, covered with black and brown bristles except on the barer back; the spider paced and watched them. He could swear that there was a malignant spark of awareness in the clustered eyes. This was no mindless beast; the thing could think!

This is no farmer! The spider backs up fast. She has never seen so furious a horse. Those pounding legs could actually hurt her! She must get behind, or between the legs, jump at it, get a good sting in its hide. Then it will go down, and she'll settle with the rider. She knows that one, the tall West-Man who smells faintly of Elf. She'd already given him what-for when he'd troubled her lair before; though her juice no longer courses through him to mark and hold him as hers. Better fire off some darts to slow them down!

The spider backed up, hissed and rose up slightly on limbs half as long, when stretched, as Faramir's own legs. The Steward barely had time to rein in Zachus and turn him back a few paces before he felt something sharp slam into his cheek. Aragorn had learned from Legolas that young spiders could throw their own body hairs as weapons. Something wet trickled down his face; probably blood. The skin hurt where it had been cut; but the shot was less strong than an arrowhead and less damaging. He had no time to feel for it now. Faramir felt Zachus twitch and shudder beneath him. He looked down to see a light trail of blood on the brown shoulder. Faramir bit down his rising rage; unwound the rope that he had coiled round his saddle horn, and looped an end around his wrist. Leaning forward, he whispered encouragement to Zachus, and then turned him back toward the spider. "Now!" he cried, moving the horse into a gallop and lashing out and down with the rope.

Skhshaaaaaaa! That hurt! The nasty West-Man has a sting of his own. There is no time to throw more bristles; the rider is striking out with his rope, flailing her. She can't get past or behind him; the horse is too fast, the hooves too big to risk a sideways charge. What to do, what to do?

"Good, Zachus; Faramir crooned under his breath; "toward the willow, go!" Their plan was working! The spider was confused, too beset to strike back, and they were almost at the place they needed her to be.

Aha! A sudden inspiration comes. The spider hops as the rope stings her; but does not recoil. Instead, she leaps up, seizes the rope, and pulls with all her considerable might. She shrills a victory cry as the West-Man tumbles from the horse's back down to the ground. The spider marches forward to reclaim her errant prize. This time she will not leave him alive.

The first thing Faramir saw, as he struggled for breath; was the spider; making a steady and deadly approach. It looked much bigger from the ground! The first thing he heard was Zachus' war-cry; followed by the sound and sight of the gelding rearing up between himself and the monster. Faramir scrambled to his feet as Zachus pounded the earth in fury, narrowly missing the spider. There was no time to mount; they had to keep pushing it, not much farther now. "Forward!" Faramir told the mighty bay. Zachus obeyed the command, pawing the ground as he slowly edged onward; prompting the creature to edge backward. Faramir forced his bruised shins to work; danced ahead, around and behind, and snatched the rope back from where the spider had dropped it. He hastily looped the rope around his hand and then attacked the spider with a shorter length, whipping at the legs, keeping out of reach of its visible stinger, working with Zachus to drive her toward the largest of the willows.

She starts to worry; for this Man is far quicker, far more hardy, than any she has encountered in her travels west from the mother-nest. Wait, wait for it; now, there it is, a sudden pause in that stinging line of his as he shifts position. She rears up and fires off more darts; five of them this time. Ah, she's pricked his neck, right below the jaw. And she's struck the cursed horse as well; the beast's scream of pain pleases but does not distract her. While the West-Man stops to pull at the dart, the spider charges full at him. Now she has him in her sights! He's moving again, but not fast enough! He is almost beneath the biggest willow tree; is he fool enough to think it will shelter him from her? She shrills a victory cry as she scores the West-Man's lower leg with one of her claws. His pain gives her precious moments before he can wield the rope again to sting her. She scrapes again, and again, cutting through the coverings on his legs. This time, when he falls, she is close enough to pounce on the Man's foot and seize the ankle in her claws. He struggles, but she pulls with all her might, bringing that ankle closer and closer to her beak and the venom behind it.

"Away!" Faramir cried out to Zachus, gritting his teeth through the pain caused by the spider-bristles' sting and the turned ankle in the spider's claws. The horse was hurt, and would only get in the way now. One more pace, and the spider would be put in the right place. Faramir scrabbled forward, and yanked his captured leg hard. There! The right place, but he was still caught. The creature is horribly strong for its size. He could not get purchase, could not right himself to attack the spider that held him. "Elbereth," Faramir called out, his breath catching in wearied lungs. " A Elbereth Gilthoniel..."

"Release him, spawn of darkness," Aragorn's voice cried, stern and commanding, from above them. The spider swivelled to look up at the source of that call.

Aiiii! What trick is this, the spider questions as she screams. A foul wetness has poured down upon her, burning her very eyes. She can still see, barely, but it hurts to look. She shuts three of her wounded eyes; and recoils, releasing her grip on the West-Man, as something big alights from one of the large tree's branches. The sun burns her eyes even further, nearly blinding her as it comes out from the clouds. She cannot see this new assailant; and wonders briefly if it is one of those monster Eagles she had glimpsed when she had flown from the mother-nest as a terrified youngling. She strains with her tiring eyes: It is a second Man; even more dangerous than the first! She can smell Elf-taint on him in greater measure; not just any Elves either, but the worst kind, the High-Elves. Best to flee now, back to her burrow, where she can tunnel down to fastnesses so dark and deep that they will never find her. Then she can sleep and heal her eyes. She will grow bigger and stronger, too strong for either of these Men or any other to hurt.

The spider turns, but the willow-leaves rustle; and a huge shape comes through. It is a great horse. He moves with fearsome speed, blocking the path back to her burrow; head lowered, whispering warnings of Elven death. The Man advances upon her. He brandishes what looks like a length of light, sharp and cruel. She turns to face him and raises her back high, ready to sting.

"In the name of, Elbereth, Arien and Eärendil; I proclaim that thou shalt die here,” Aragorn vowed in Quenya. Faramir, who had pulled himself up on shaky legs, noted approvingly the use of Quenya and the names of the bringers of light, a fitting pronouncement to doom a monster of so demonic and dark a lineage. “I, Heir of Isildur son of Elendil, send thee back to the darkness that spawned thee, for the pain and death thou has dealt to my people." With that, Aragorn sprang forward, swift as an eagle upon its prey. Andúril flashed once, then twice, in his hand.

The spider's last scream faded to a hiss, ending with its final twitch. It lay still, its greenish-yellow blood sinking into the grass. Faramir leaned against the willow's thick trunk, weary but satisfied. Their plans and preparations had worked! He blessed the hours of training he had undertaken in the past to learn Rohirric rope-work. "Aragorn, are you well;” He asked his friend and king, who was wiping Andúril with a fold of his cloak.

"Very well," answered Aragorn with a smile; "now that this evil-spawned monster is dead."

“You have done it!” said Faramir, reaching to embrace Aragorn in a warrior’s arm clasp.

We did it,” Aragorn amended; then embraced his friend. He stared down at Andúril and wiped a final speck from the blade. “There were times I wondered if I would ever draw this sword again,” he murmured as he sheathed the weapon. “Yet Andúril feels like part of mine own arm. The sword has not forgotten me even though I almost forgot it.”

“Years of skill and practise do not vanish overnight,” Faramir replied, gladdened almost beyond words by the proof that Aragorn had lost none of his old prowess. He sank back against the tree trunk. His ankle throbbed and he could hardly stand. Something was amiss. Zachus; where was the faithful steed who had served him so well today? "I must find Zachus; his hide was pierced by the spider's bristles."

"As was your own,” replied the King. Aragorn came over to Faramir and gently took his chin in his hand, turning Faramir's head slowly back and forth.

"Not badly;" Faramir said; "but Zachus was spooked by those evil darts. I would find him ere he hurts himself. And what of you, mellon nîn? You have blood on your face."

" ‘Tis nothing, a mere scratch. I think you were hurt worse; Faramir. Zachus has just gone down the bank a ways, to drink. I will fetch him back. Bide a moment, but do not touch your wounds; ion nîn,” commanded the King. He walked over to Roheryn, his gait somewhat stiff to Faramir's concerned eyes. Aragorn mounted the stallion with less than his usual ease, and they trotted off through the willows and wild grass.

Faramir glanced down at the creature; glad that the evil thing was dead rather than sleeping like its victims. Andúril had nearly cloven the spider's head from its body. He sighed; for the pain in his cheek and neck was rising, like ten or more wasp stings at once. And his ankle throbbed; though he could still put weight on it, so it was neither broken nor sprained. He was fortunate to have a King who was a healer as well as a warrior. And Aragorn's guess that a tincture of athelas mixed with water would hurt and distract the spider had proved true.

Looking at the spider's lifeless form, Faramir remembered again the horror in the voice and eyes of Master Samwise when the hobbit had told the tale of his battle with Shelob. It must have been so much worse for him than this day's brief skirmish! To think that the child-sized gardener had faced a monster that was four or five times the size of this spider, and hundreds, if not thousands of years older and more cunning. Both he and Aragorn had begun warrior's training in early childhood; but Samwise had not. Samwise had had only the strength of hand and heart, and a small sword he barely knew how to use. Faramir resolved to write a letter to his halfling friend when he returned home. Samwise would be glad to know that the telling of his great deed had helped rid this vale of one of Shelob's get.

Faramir felt every one of his aches and pains, and a sudden desire to sleep. He could not relax though, not so close to the foul thing, dead as it was. The birds chattered loudly; as if emboldened by the death of the unnatural creature.

Aragorn returned with both horses. He dismounted, tethered Zachus, and then approached Faramir. The bay was sweat-streaked, but seemed otherwise unaffected, aside from the evil looking cut across his powerful shoulder.

“Your wounds need tending, ion nîn,” Aragorn said firmly. He assisted Faramir to sit on the grass.

“Zachus is hurt too,” the Steward protested.

“He has a thicker hide than any Man,” said the King. “And Legolas has told me that the hairs of the Mirkwood spiders, though painful, carry no poison. I removed the spider's hairs from Zachus' shoulder; and there is sufficient athelas here to treat you both." He extricated the spider bristles from Faramir's skin with a needle taken from his healing kit, then took up the bottle containing the athelas and water mixture and gently dabbed some on the Steward’s wounds. "Are you hurt anywhere else?” he enquired.

Faramir shook his head. ”Only my ankle.” He swallowed hard as the stench of the spider’s blood, likely the blood of Shelob and the demonic Ungoliant herself, fouled the air. He started to feel dizzied.

“I will treat your ankle back in the village,” said Aragorn. “We need to leave this place.”

“Should we not take the spider back with us to show the villagers?” Faramir enquired.

“We have nothing to carry it in, and the stinging hairs could cause further injuries, even though the creature is dead. Better that we should ask Tasariel for some oil and I come straight back and burn the foul corpse,” Aragorn replied, applying some of the athelas mixture to the bay gelding’s shoulder. Zachus snorted, but otherwise patiently permitted his ministrations.

“But should the villagers not see the creature?” Faramir persisted. “They need to recognise it lest any more of its kind lurk in these parts.”

“I will ask Borlach to summon them here, then,” Aragorn said firmly. ”’Tis but a few minutes walk. There, that should ease Zachus, I will help you mount.” He supported Faramir as the Steward hobbled toward the horse; and helped ease him into the saddle.

000

Tasariel stared in alarm as Aragorn and Faramir rode back to the centre of the village. “Are you hurt?” she enquired anxiously. “What is that vile fluid? Your clothing is drenched with it!"

“We are well, Mistress,” Aragorn assured her. “’Tis but the spider’s blood that spatters our garb.”

“The Valar be praised!” exclaimed the Healer. "Your 'son' is bleeding though, the poor lad is hurt!"

“His wounds are but slight His skin was pierced by the spider's stinging hairs. We have slain the creature; yet we must return to the riverbank with Master Borlach and the other village elders. The remains of the spider need burning as quickly as possible. But first, I would have your people see the entire corpse, so they know we spoke the truth, and to better watch out for any others that might lurk nearby.”

Tasariel espied a girl leaving one of the huts, carrying what looked to be her father’s lunch in a basket. “Go and fetch Master Borlach from the fields,” she ordered. “Tell him it is a matter of grave import for all the village.”

“It will take her a while to fetch him,” the woman said. “His fields are past Beleg’s on the other side of the village. You both look like death! What you need is a good wash, a change of clothing, and a nice cup of my tea. I have some salve for stings too.”

“That will have to wait, Mistress,” said Aragorn. “Apart from the linens you are kindly washing for us, we have no other garments save what we are wearing.”

“That is easily remedied,” Tasariel said firmly. “Now get down from those great beasts of yours. One of the lads will look after them. Your linens are ready for you, and I have breeches and tunics you can borrow. Go to your hut and I’ll fetch you some water.”

Aragorn felt too weary to argue and realised the sense in her words, maybe more even than the good woman knew. Prolonged exposure to the juices of any of Sauron’s creatures was known to be harmful, and though the Dark Lord’s power had been broken, he preferred to be free of all traces of the vile creature. He was starting to feel somewhat nauseous too. He helped Faramir inside the hut. They both sat down heavily upon the straw.

To King and Steward’s surprise, Tasariel, together with another woman brought two bowls of hot water, soap, a pot of salve, their clean linens, towels, and an assortment of clothes. “Call when you are ready and I’ll bring you some tea,” said Tasariel, placing a bowl on the table.

“And some of my good fresh scones,” added the other woman. She put the second bowl on the floor beside Faramir. She looked vaguely familiar to Aragorn. He realised she had companioned Tasariel the night Faramir had ran naked through the cornfield. Obviously she was a near neighbour.

King and Steward began to remove their clothes as soon as the women had departed. They could hardly wait for the soap and hot water, rare luxuries of late.

Aragorn was unlacing his boots when he was startled to hear an exclamation pass Faramir's lips. But when he turned to see what had provoked his friend, he saw that Faramir, seated on the ground, was smiling.

"Look what was nearly fell into the bowl," Faramir announced. Aragorn bent down to see. There, on the Steward's outstretched palm, skittered a small and thoroughly common long-legged spider.

Author's Note: The appearance and behaviour of our spider is based mostly on Shelob's performance in the book ROTK. Additional sources of inspiration were the goliath bird eater spider (largest spider in the world, or one of them) and the Sydney funnel-web spider, which was reportedly a template for Shelob in the ROTK movie (Peter Jackson has an aversion to the critter). Poetic license has been used in the spider's firing off leg hair bristles as projectiles - they can do it, but from the backside, not the legs. However, Shelob and her get are exceptional; and Sam noted the scary bladed hairs on her legs. In our story, as noted within this chapter, it is only the juveniles who have the use of these "urticating hairs". Further info can be found in "Return of the King", by you-know-who (no, no, not Voldemort); and "wikipedia dot com". - Raksha

 

The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate. No profit has been, nor will be made from this story.

"The strife is o'er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!" - Traditional Easter hymn

With grateful thanks to Raksha,

Aragorn and Faramir quickly cleansed themselves in the warm soapy water, towelled themselves dry and started to dress in the assortment of garments that Tasariel had provided. It was obvious that the Healer had lent them her best towels and King and Steward wondered if the clothing had belonged to the sons she had lost. Tasariel's kindness touched their hearts.

“Let me look at you before you put your shirt on,” Aragorn told Faramir. “I wish to check the bite on your back.”

“What of you?” asked Faramir, ”You are moving stiffly, do you want some more of Mistress Tasariel’s ointment?”

“That can wait until later, ”said Aragorn. “But fear not; there is nothing seriously amiss; merely some already over-taxed muscles having been pulled in the fight. The pain is not too bad today.”

Pulling the borrowed tunic over his head, the King turned to face Faramir and picked up the lantern. Faramir sat on the straw-covered floor, clad in the borrowed breeches; and suddenly burst out laughing.

“What is so amusing?” Aragorn demanded, approaching his friend.

“You in those clothes!” Faramir chortled. The High King of the West was indeed a sight to behold. The tunic was both far too short and much too wide. It hung like an ill-fitting sack from Aragorn’s shoulders, flopping just below his waist. The breeches reached only to his mid-calves, and fit so loosely at the waist, that he had to secure seemingly endless folds of material with his belt.

“You will not look much better once you stand up!” Aragorn retorted, noticing that Faramir's borrowed breeches were even baggier than the ones he was wearing. The sight reminded Aragorn that Faramir had lost flesh recently, and that the loss had weakened Faramir and made him more likely to take harm from the spider's poison. Trying to conceal his anxiety, he moved behind his friend, fearful that further exposure to the spider might have inflamed the bite on Faramir’s back. Lifting the dark hair aside he breathed a deep sigh of relief that the small, red mark remained cool to the touch and unchanged in appearance. Fortunately, Faramir’s shirt and tunic had protected his body from any further stings caused by the spider’s hairs.

“Does your face still hurt, ion nîn?” Aragorn enquired.

“It stings but a little,” replied Faramir. His voice was quiet, but Aragorn caught an undertone of weariness, reflected in the younger man's eyes.

“Let us try Mistress Tasariel’s salve then,” said Aragorn, picking up the jar and applying a generous amount to Faramir’s injured cheek and neck. The King then checked Faramir’s heartbeat, finding it slightly too rapid for his liking. He would have liked nothing better than to tell him to rest, and use some Elven relaxation treatments to ease him after his ordeal, but there was still work to be done. He turned his attention to Faramir’s injured ankle while the Steward donned his shirt. The ankle was starting to swell, while above it, ugly scratches disfigured his calf.

Faramir flinched when Aragorn gently felt the injured limb. "I will bathe the grazes with the athelas mixture then bind your ankle for the time being,” the King said. “I will treat it properly once the creature’s carcass is disposed of. Do you wish to remain here to rest?”

Faramir shook his head vehemently. “Of course not, my hurts are but slight. If you can just help me mount Zachus, I will come with you. Some of the villagers might panic at the sight of the creature. I would not let you go there alone.”

“I am blessed by your loyalty, ion nîn,” said Aragorn, patting Faramir’s shoulder affectionately. He tied the bandage securely and proceeded to gather up the dirty laundry, carefully shaking out the soiled clothing to ensure no spider hairs had stuck to it.

“Are you dressed, Masters?” Tasariel’s voice called from outside. "I have brought you some tea, and my neighbour has scones fresh from the oven.”

Aragorn opened the door. He stood there blinking in the bright sunlight.

The two women vainly tried to maintain their calm and avoid staring at the sight before them. The neighbour, a red-cheeked younger woman, was the first to yield to her mirth. Tasariel soon followed suit and both women laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks.

Aragorn maintained his dignity for a full ten seconds before joining in the laughter. “I fear we are rather tall for our borrowed garb,” he said good-humouredly.

“And far too skinny!” Tasariel retorted. “Has my salve aided Master Falborn?” she enquired.

“It has indeed, Mistress, I thank you,” said Faramir. ”We greatly appreciate all your kindness to us.”

“I would be interested in the recipes for your healing salves,” said Aragorn.  Master Elrond’s remedies were far more potent against serious maladies, but the Elves had little practice in treating the everyday ailments that plagued mortal country folk. Tasariel beamed with pleasure.

Aragorn helped Faramir outside. The two friends sat on a log, enjoying their tea and scones as they awaited the arrival of the menfolk.

Beleg and his sons were the first to come in from the fields. “I might have guessed it was you two sluggards who had interrupted our work again while you pass the morning eating food from our wives' hearths!” he snorted. “What is it this time? Giant butterflies or cats the size of horses? More like some strange creature that shrinks your britches?” He guffawed with laugher.

“We have laboured hard this morning,” said Aragorn coldly. “The monster we slew would freeze your blood and that of men far greater!”

Borlach then arrived and Aragorn quickly told him all that had happened. The headman did not entirely understand the full nature of the beast Aragorn described, but he nodded in agreement to Aragorn's plan. Borlach called his people together and told them in a loud voice: “Master Morrandir and his son have done a great service to our people. They have slain the creature that struck down Mistress Vanreth and her child. He would have us go down to the riverbank to see this monstrous spider and burn its carcass.”

Thoron laughed rudely. “Giant spider indeed! I'll not leave the harvest to chase after children's stories. No doubt they killed a common boar! At least we will dine well tonight.”

“Maybe you are too afraid to risk looking upon a monster, and prefer to hide in your mother’s fields?” Tasariel said tartly.

Thoron scowled. “I fear nothing!” he retorted with the bravado of the young and untested. “Had I seen this creature, I would have killed it myself.”

“No one needs to come if they lack the stomach for it,” called Aragorn. “It is best that the very young children remain behind, and any woman who is with child. However, if you see this creature and know what it looks like, it may save your lives should any others ever appear in these parts. If they do, you must send a message to Minas Tirith and inform the King that an evil beast troubles your village again.”

Thoron laughed bitterly. “A fine lot of good that would do. What would the King care about poor folk like us? He left us defenceless when he exiled Lord Fontos!”

“The King cares for all his people,” Aragorn said firmly. “You are especially under his care until Lord Fontos returns. I shall tell him that a giant spider was found near your village. He will listen to Captain Morrandir.”

“I believe you,” said Tasariel.

“As do I,” Hareth added. “Such a great Healer must surely have the ear of his lord!” Her daughter nodded. Vanreth was still rather pale and leaning heavily on her mother’s arm.

“Come then to the riverbank,” said Aragorn. “We must hasten ere the carcass attracts scavengers. Bring torches and oil to burn the creature’s remains.” He helped Faramir rise from the log and mount Zachus.

“It seems Master Falborn fell over when in his cups again,” Thoron said in loud whisper.

“Hush! Would you risk the wrath of fierce warriors who have the King's ear?” Tasariel cautioned.

“I should like to see what attacked my baby and I, but fear I cannot walk that far,” Vanreth lamented. “My neighbour would care for Gwinhir.”

“Are you certain, Mistress?” asked Aragorn. “What lies ahead is a sight most foul.”

“Nothing could be worse that the horrors I imagine in my dreams,” answered the young woman.

“Come then,” said Aragorn, “you can ride with me to the riverbank. Roheryn can easily carry two riders.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Finrod. “I would have my lass rest easy.” He lifted his wife up behind Aragorn on the great horse.

The procession slowly wound its way down to the riverbank at the pace of the slowest villager. As they approached the spot where the dead spider lay, those with a keen sense of smell wrinkled their noses in disgust.

“We are almost there,” said Aragorn. “I warn you, the carcass is not a pretty sight.”

Six of the younger women paled at his words, and hurried back toward the village with two elderly men.

“Cowards!” muttered Thoron loudly enough for those departing to hear.

Vanreth trembled slightly. “You do not have to see the creature,” Aragorn told her gently.

“I want to,” she said staunchly. “Please ride on.”

They rounded a bend in the path. There lay the corpse of the spider, exactly as Aragorn and Faramir had left it. No crows hovered above the dead monster. Even the flies kept their distance. Several of the women cried out. Thoron took one look, paled, and promptly retched. “It must something I ate,” he mumbled to Tasariel, who had come swiftly to aid him.

Aragorn dismounted. “That is the creature we slew,” he explained. “The spider is close kindred to Shelob, ally of the Dark Lord, she who waylaid and wounded the Ring bearer in the pass of Cirith Ungol. This creature has preyed upon your village in secret; and would have killed men, women, children and beasts had it grown to maturity. It lived underneath yonder willow in the hollowed out river bank.”

Finrod summoned up the courage to delve into the spider’s lair. “It is full of animal bones!” he exclaimed. “I think the bones come from pigs, cats and chickens. Small wonder our livestock kept vanishing! We thought foxes were to blame.”

“Gather wood for kindling to burn the monster,” Aragorn ordered. “Look upon it and remember! Should you ever glimpse such a creature again, walk wide of it, and send at once to the King in Minas Tirith. It is his charge and duty to rid to see Gondor rid of such leavings of Shadow.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Borlach. “How can we ever thank you and your son sufficiently for ridding us of this menace?”

Aragorn tensed, wondering if the village Headman had guessed who he was; but it seemed the greybeard was simply expressing respect.

“It is our duty as the King’s Captains to aid those in need, “said Faramir, sparing his Lord the need to dissemble. Aragorn simply inclined his head graciously.

Aragorn tensed wondering if the village Headman had guessed who he was, but it seemed the greybeard was simply expressing respect.

The people searched the riverbank for kindling and had soon built a large bonfire around the dead spider. Aragorn and Tasariel then drenched the pyre with oil.

Borlach handed the torch to Aragorn. “You, my lord, should set the fire ablaze,” he said.

“Thank you, Master, but I can think of two who have greater cause to wield the brand,” said the King. “My son Falborn and Mistress Vanreth.” He helped Faramir down from the horse, while Finrod aided his wife.

The Steward and the country girl cast the torches into the kindling. The flames blazed up high and bright.

“So may all traces of the darkness that engulfed this place be banished!” said Aragorn as the fire climbed toward the sky.

“Our visitors have laboured hard this day,” Tasariel remarked to her husband.

“Humph, it seems they have not been idle after all,” Beleg conceded. “Easy work compared with reaping, though!”

Leaving several men to keep an eye on the fire, King, Steward and country folk made their way back to the village. The women who had stayed behind had prepared food, but few had the desire to eat it. Most of the farmers soon returned to the fields. Tasariel sat near the long table in the village's centre, peeling potatoes for the evening meal. Several young children ran around the huts, scuffling over a ball made of stitched cowhide; shouting as their bare feet kicked up clods of dirt.

“I will tend your ankle properly now,” Aragorn told Faramir.

The Steward settled himself comfortably in the shade of a large tree and took off his boot with some difficulty. Aragorn carefully removed the bandage and gently felt the bruised and swollen ankle. Faramir winced. Aragorn held his hand a few inches above the injury and Faramir felt the pain ebb away, leaving his ankle feeling strong again. He sighed blissfully.

“That is amazing!” exclaimed Tasariel who had been watching, unnoticed by the two men. “I can see the bruises fading before my eyes!”

“Ara, um my ada has wondrous healing skills,” said Faramir fervently.

“I can see that,” said Tasariel. “What are you doing now?” she enquired of Aragorn.

“Massaging the ankle with an Elven healing touch to ease the swelling and stimulate the circulation,” answered Aragorn.

“Well, I hope Master Falborn is on his feet for the day after tomorrow,” said the woman. “We will all dance at the harvest celebrations.”

“He will be,” said Aragorn.

“We have a king and queen of the harvest,” trilled a little girl as she skipped past with her companions. “Just think, to be king or queen for a day, just like the real ones in the City! I wonder who will be chosen?”

 

Chapter Twenty Nine -  Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. - Proverbs 16;18 – The Bible

With grateful thanks to Raksha

The harvest neared completion. Only a handful of villagers still worked in the fields to finish the reaping. Most of the men were busy carrying the sheaves into the barn in order to store them safely. Aragorn and Faramir had offered to help, but Borlach and Tasariel would not hear of it. The women and children could talk of little save the festivities to be held on the morrow, and who would be the chosen king and queen of the harvest.

Since they had handed over their own raiment to be cleaned the previous afternoon, Aragorn and Faramir had suffered the indignity of wearing clothing that was not only borrowed, but also ill fitting. They counted the hours until the next morning when Tasariel had promised their own clothes would be washed, dried and returned to them. The country folk struggled to suppress their mirth at the sight presented by the two outlanders' awkwardness. Worst than that; every time Aragorn and Faramir moved, they feared their belts would not be able to hold up their baggy breeches.

When Aragorn made his way to breakfast on the day before the harvest celebration, the numerous folds of cloth slipped from his belt, forcing the disguised King to hastily grab his borrowed breeches before the entire village was treated to a view of his drawers. Faramir, following a few steps behind, hurriedly tightened his own belt.

Thoron laughed rudely, enjoying the two men's discomfiture. “Just look at the fools!” he chortled. “Whoever saw such a sight?”

“Watch your tongue, Thoron!” Tasariel cautioned. “Remember, what soiled these men’s clothes was the blood of the foul spider that might well have killed many of our folk!”

The other villagers nodded their agreement. Thoron fell silent but did not apologise. Scowling, he rose from the table and strode off to the fields.

Aragorn and Faramir went back to the edge of the forest where they had left their horses. They took the villagers’ gifts of juicy apples and carrots for their faithful steeds.

After brushing Zachus and Roheryn they made their way back to the centre of the village where they found the women and older children sitting in a circle on the ground. Each had a lapful of ears of wheat that they carefully plaited, one at a time. “We are making decorations and corn dollies for the celebrations tomorrow,” explained Tasariel. “We make small dollies to adorn the doors of our homes and two great ones, which are filled with grain on which we ask Yavanna’s blessing. The king and queen bury one, while the other is kept in a place of honour until the spring sowing.”

“It is a charming custom,” said Aragorn. “We celebrate it in the North too where I was raised. May we assist you? My son and I would rather not sit here idle.”

“Gladly,” smiled Tasariel. She took some long stemmed ears in her hand and deftly demonstrated how to plait them then twist them into a circle or heart shape. “Watch out for the hearts,” she cautioned, “some of the young folk try to take them before the feast as favours for their sweethearts. When the decoration is finished, you tie a ribbon upon it, thus.”

Aragorn and Faramir set to making the decorations with a will. Both proved adept at the task, being blessed with nimble fingers. The morning passed in a most enjoyable, albeit novel, fashion for King and Steward.

It was almost time for the midday meal when a young man came running from the fields crying, “Mistress Tasariel, come quickly! There has been an accident. Thoron is hurt!”

“No! My poor boy!” cried one of the matrons, her tired face losing colour. The three young girls who had sat beside her began to cry.

“What has happened?” Tasariel enquired, getting awkwardly to her feet.

The young man paused for a moment to catch his breath, and then panted, ”Thoron was cutting the corn and tripped and fell on his scythe! When we lifted him off it, the wound started gushing blood like he was a slaughtered pig!”

Aragorn leapt to his feet.

“Go on ahead, Master Morrandir,” said Tasariel. “You can run more swiftly than I. I will fetch some bandages and follow you. Gilrath, your daughters need you here. Master Morrandir and I will care for your boy and bring him back here to you.”

Aragorn sped off in the direction indicated by the young man, clutching frantically at his borrowed breeches to keep them from falling down about his knees as he ran. Thoron’s field was at the far side of the village. He heard screams as he approached; then saw Thoron lying on the ground on a pile of freshly cut grain. At first glance, the patch of ground seemed to be covered with scarlet poppies, but when he drew closer, Aragorn saw that it was blood that surrounded the young man. Two other farmers attended Thoron, trying vainly to staunch a gaping wound in his leg with their shirts.

Aragorn grabbed one of the shirts from the helpers and held it against the wound, pressing firmly with his hands. “Raise his legs!” he instructed the men.

Thoron screamed and thrashed wildly. “It hurts! I am dying!”

“Easy lad, keep still; then all will be well,” Aragorn soothed.

Thoron ignored him. He shook off Aragorn's outstretched hand with a sound that was half a roar, half a groan, while continuing to struggle. Sweat poured down his face and bare chest.

“You must be still!” Aragorn ordered in the tones of a King and Chieftain. His command had the required effect. Thoron ceased screaming and lay still. Aragorn continued to press on the wound until the bleeding was staunched.

“Where is Mistress Tasariel?” Thoron demanded.

“She is coming,” said Aragorn. “I ran on ahead.”

“I have never seen the like,” said one of the men. “You must have winged feet to have come with such speed!”

“I am somewhat quicker as a healer and a warrior than I have been as a farmer,” Aragorn replied. At least this sprint had not entailed five days of running after two young Hobbits seized by Orcs!

Just then Tasariel appeared, breathing heavily.

“Thoron cut his leg on a scythe,” Aragorn explained to her as she knelt on the ground. “I have stopped the bleeding, but he will need stitches. Can you bind it before we return to the village?”

Tasariel nodded as she swiftly examined the wound. “Foolish boy!” she chided. “You have nearly frightened your mother and sisters to death! You should know better than trip over a scythe at your age!” She continued to chatter while she bound the youth’s leg with the bandages she had brought. Thoron seemed reassured by her presence.

While Tasariel bandaged the wound, Aragorn checked Thoron’s pulse. As he had expected, the boy's life-beat thrummed quicker than was usual, but remained strong and steady. It seemed to be safe enough to move the boy. “I will carry Thoron back to the village, if you could go on ahead and boil water to treat his wound,” he said.

“The men can bear him,” Tasariel said firmly. “You need to save your strength, Master Morrandir. Go on ahead and tell his mother and sisters how he is faring. It was hard to persuade them to stay behind. I promised to send word as soon as I knew what had happened. I will stay with the lad.”

Aragorn nodded and swiftly set off back to the village. He found Faramir trying to console Gilrath and her daughters.

“My father is a highly skilled Healer,” Faramir was telling the weeping family, “if anyone can help your Thoron, he can.”

“My son has worked our land that we might eat since his father died,” sobbed Gilrath. “He can be headstrong, but he is a good son who works hard.”

“At least the harvest is gathered in safely,” said one of the other women.

“But will my son live to see the celebrations?” wailed his mother.

“He should see them, though he will not be able to dance,” said Aragorn approaching the group.

Thoron’s mother and sisters screamed when they saw the blood on the King’s hands and arms.

“Thoron has cut his leg, but now the bleeding is staunched, he should be well,” Aragorn reassured them. “Mistress Tasariel and some of the men are bringing him back to the village.

Gilrath, hastened to join her son, wringing her hands as she moved. Needing to spend every moment wisely, the King asked the other women to heat water and light lamps while he prepared the necessary potions and tools from his healing supplies.

A few minutes later the melancholy procession came into view, the litter bearers walking slowly and carefully to keep from jostling the injured boy. Thoron gripped his mother’s hand, while Tasariel tried to calm them both. When the procession halted, the Healer directed them to her hut. She hastily prepared a cot for her patient and Aragorn helped her lay him upon it.

“You can safely leave your son with me,” Tasariel told Gilrath. “It is better you do not watch while I tend his wound.”

“I do trust you, old friend,” said Gilrath, “But Thoron is my boy!”

“Please, Mother, let her be,” Thoron pleased. “I am not a baby any longer!”

Tasariel rolled her eyes as the other woman reluctantly left the hut.

Aragorn cautiously unwrapped Thoron’s leg to examine the wound. The gash cut deep into the boy's skin, just above the knee. The wound still bled, but with much less force than before.

“Come on, lad,” said Tasariel. “Let’s get your breeches off. You’ve a nasty cut that needs stitching, but no great damage seems to be done.”

Thoron looked at her in horror. “I’m not parting with my breeches in front of you!”

“You’ve nothing I’ve not seen before lad,” said the woman. ”Remember I brought you into the world! In any case, your mother will have to wash and mend your breeches; they're covered in blood. You can always borrow some to wear while she does as Master Morrandir has done. Until then, you will have to make do with a blanket to cover you!”

Thoron glared at her.

“Shall I undress him and clean the cut while you prepare the bandages we need?” Aragorn offered. Tasariel nodded and started tearing a cloth into strips, having used her supplies in the field. Thoron accepted Aragorn’s help grudgingly. He was soon divested of his clothing and wrapped in a blanket. The youth whimpered as the deep gash was thoroughly cleansed. At a nod from Tasariel, the King began the stitching. Thoron cried out, then bit his lip hard and began to moan.

“I do recall that when I brought you into the world, your mother made far less fuss than this commotion of yours, Thoron!” Tasariel recalled. “You were a large baby too, and it was a difficult delivery. I remember thinking that you were likely to be contrary!” She took the needle from Aragorn and continued stitching the gash closed.

“You have been fortunate,” Aragorn told the youth. “There is no damage to the tendons or bones, so your leg should heal completely.”

“How do I know you truly are a healer?” Thoron grumbled.

“You must be your own judge of that,” replied Aragorn, determined not to let this ungrateful brat make him lose his temper. Thoron screamed again as Tasariel continued to stitch. Instinctively, Aragorn held his hand over Thoron’s wound. The boy stopped screaming and stared at him, his eyes wide with fear.

“What power is that?” he asked. “Who or what are you?”

“A healer and a warrior,” said Aragorn simply.

Shocked into silence, Thoron made no further protest as Tasariel finished tending his wound. Aragorn retrieved some poppy juice from his satchel. He mixed a few drops in a cup of water. Usually, a simple gash did not require such powerful medicine, but Aragorn feared that Thoron would keep the entire village awake all night if he were not given the potion to make him sleep.

“We cannot afford poppy here,” said Tasariel. “We have to rely on willow bark to ease our pains as best we may. Drink, Thoron, you are fortunate indeed!”

Thoron snorted rudely. Aragorn strode over to him and lightly brushed his eyelids, sending him into a deep healing sleep. King and village healer sighed with simultaneous relief.

“My calling is dear to me, but patients like that boy try me to the limit!” sighed Tasariel.

“We have complainers in the City too,” Aragorn told her. “At least there, we have supplies of all the healing potions. In future, I will see that you are sent poppy juice and anything else you might require. Now we had better take this young man to his mother.” He bent and scooped up the blanket-clad youth in his arms.

“It grieves me that I have no daughter to follow me,” said Tasariel as they carried Thoron to his mother’s hut. “My mother was the village healer and her mother and her mother too before her. They say the gift runs in our women folk.”

“Your granddaughter will inherit your talents,” said Aragorn with a sudden flash of foresight.

“You think so?” Tasariel sounded pleased. “Emerwen is convinced she carries a boy.”

“I sense a girl-child who will spend a great deal of time with you and learn your skills as she grows up,” said the King.

They reached Gilrath’s hut and settled Thoron on his pallet, assuring his anxious mother that he would be well and telling her to call them if she were worried.

“You see that life in our village is far from dull, Master Morrandir,” said Tasariel with a weary laugh.

“I have found it anything but,” Aragorn told her quite truthfully.

The rest of the day passed peacefully. By the time the sun set, Aragorn and Faramir had become quite adept in the making of corn dollies. Sharing the villagers' excitement, they helped decorate the barn for the morrow. Aragorn checked Thoron, who lay half-asleep, his wound healing, while Faramir practiced his shooting and told tales of life as an Ithilien Ranger to a growing circle of children and youths. After the stars emerged to cloak the night sky, Aragorn and Faramir joined the villagers in singing songs until Ithil rode high in the heavens. 

 

 Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;

All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home. – Henry Alford 1844

With very grateful thanks to Raksha who co- wrote this chapter with me.

It rained lightly during the night; Aragorn and Faramir slumbered peacefully, sheltered by the mighty oak. They slept through cockcrow and only awoke when the sun streamed through the branches causing their damp blankets to gently steam.

The two friends arose rather stiffly and made their way to the centre of the village where the country folk were eating breakfast. “It promises to be a fine day for the celebrations,” said Tasariel greeting them warmly. “The air feels nice and fresh after the rain. I have your clothes ready for you.”

“Thank you, Mistress,” said Aragorn. “How fares Thoron?”

“Well enough, I believe,” said the village healer. “I was not summoned during the night.”

“I had better rouse him ere I eat,” said Aragorn.

“How did you make him sleep so soundly?” Tasariel asked curiously.

“It is another gift of my line,” Aragorn explained. “I am able to send a patient into a healing sleep, but it is very difficult for another to rouse them from it.”

“Well, I suggest we tend this young dragon ere he awakens,” the healer suggested.

Thoron looked rather pale, but when Aragorn and Tasariel examined the sleeping boy, they found no trace of fever, his pulse was steady and the gash on his leg was clean, and already starting to heal, somewhat to Tasariel’s astonishment. “Another of your special gifts?” she queried when Gilrath’s back was turned.

Aragorn nodded. ”Indeed so, mistress.” He told Tasariel quietly. He then turned to Thoron’s mother. “It gladdens my heart that Thoron will still be able to support his family. I was concerned for them. Your son will soon be well and should be able to leave his bed later," he told Gilrath. "He will need rest and good food for a while, but his leg should heal completely.” He lightly brushed Thoron’s eyelids with his fingertips, then retreated outside, leaving the cantankerous youth to Tasariel's and his mother’s care. Tasariel joined him a few minutes later.

“Thoron is clear-headed, hungry, and in a very bad temper!” the village healer informed Aragorn. “Maybe I should not have told him that he can borrow the breeches you are wearing until his own are clean and mended!” Her eyes twinkled mischievously. “I will bring your clean garb and some washing water to your hut. Leave your linens for me to wash when I next go down to the stream.”

Aragorn joined his Steward outside their hut. A few moments later Tasariel appeared with their clothes while her neighbour carried a jug of steaming water for them to wash in.

Faramir and Aragorn bathed, then thankfully changed into clean linens and their own tunics and breeches. It was blissful to have well-fitted clothes and breeches that did not threaten to fall down with every step they took!

Breakfast was a cheerful affair. The villagers boasted of the bounty of their yield over that of other villages. Long-married folk teased some of the youngest men and women about upcoming weddings. The children could not contain their own excitement over the imminent ceremony, devouring their food like ravenous puppies, occasionally earning parental displeasure when they tried to instigate battle with the wooden forks, and constantly jumping up and down from their benches to visit each other. Harvest was the highlight of the rural year, when country folk allowed themselves to eat drink and be merry.

While the men folk gathered in the last few remaining sheaves, the women and elder children decorated the barn where the grain would be stored throughout the coming months. Aragorn and Faramir helped hang decorations: hearts and circles woven from the corn and adorned with ribbons, on the high beams at Tasariel’s instructions.

The women and children argued loudly about who would be the king and queen.

“Would Thoron have been a likely candidate?” Aragorn enquired. “It seems that he works hard to support his family.”

Tasariel laughed. “That young braggart! Not likely! We always choose someone who has proved as fertile as we hope the land will be.”

“I think Pelendur and Emerwen will be chosen,” said a woman. “Still, it is for the elders to decide who will be honoured.”

The barn looked magnificent when the decorations were completed. Tasariel explained to the visitors that it would be left like that during the winter months to honour Yavanna and fend off evil spirits.

The decorating continued outside. Even the trees nearest to the centre of the village were festooned with wild flowers, a colourful array of cornflowers, buttercups and daisies. It was a perfect day for the festival, sunny but not too hot.

At noon, a group of barefoot maidens garbed in somewhat well worn dresses of Yavanna's green led the villagers to the oak that had sheltered Aragorn and Faramir during the night. A makeshift platform had been constructed beneath it, set atop bales of hay, on which the village elders now stood. All the folk of the village, from infants to the oldest greybeard, wore their finest raiment, with sprigs of flowers pinned to their tunics at the throat or over the heart. Their freshly scrubbed faces were aglow with happy anticipation.

A hush of expectation fell over the villagers as Borlach stepped foreword. “People of Celonhaer,” he began, “our village has suffered many hardships and losses this year, but today we can rejoice. Thanks to Yavanna's grace, rain has come in time to bless us with a bountiful harvest. As always, the village will crown a king and queen as chosen by the elders. This year’s queen was not an easy choice, as many of our women are strong of heart, fruitful and fair; but we have decided on a lass loved by you all, Vanreth daughter of Garathon!”

The people cheered loudly. Hareth was weeping tears of joy.

Aragorn and Faramir exchanged smiles. Vanreth’s devotion to her child and courageous insistence on seeing the dead spider had greatly impressed them. They were curious now to see who would be chosen as king. “Maybe it will be Finrod?” whispered Faramir. ”He seems a decent young fellow.”

“I would guess Pelendur,” said Aragorn. “These people prize fruitfulness highly and the young man will soon become a father.”

Borlach raised his hand for silence. “The choice of a king was much easier,” he said. “Surely this man was sent to us in our hour of need by the Valar, though alas, we were slow to see his true worth! Without his good counsel, there would be three less of us here to celebrate this day, while without the valour of this man and his son, a foul monster would still threaten our people. Master Morrandir of Minas Tirith shall be the King of our Harvest!”

The villagers cheered and clapped. Faramir leapt to his feet in joy and embraced his friend. Aragorn sat stunned for a moment unable to take it in. Vanreth smilingly approached him, her hand outstretched. ”They are waiting to crown us,” she said.

“Go, ada, the people await their King!” cried Faramir, embracing his lord in delight.

Aragorn and Vanreth made their way to the platform. There, Tasariel awaited him, holding out a circlet of golden stonecrop entwined with ivy. Aragorn bent his head, allowing the healer to place the summer crown upon it. Tears pricked his eyes, as he rose and looked out upon the cheering faces. This meant far more to him than these people would ever know. They had chosen him as their King! This time it was not the heir of Elendil who had been chosen by right of birth, but Aragorn the man!

“Let the King and Queen perform the planting ceremony,” Borlach announced as Tasariel crowned Vaneth with a circlet of the bell-shaped mallos blossoms, also golden, and leaves of clover.

At a gesture from the headman, two children, a boy and a girl, brought forth the two large corn dollies.

“The King will now bless the corn,” said Tasariel.

Aragorn could not resist a smile. He had often been asked to perform a similar office both as Chieftain and King. “Gracious Yavanna, Queen of the Earth, Giver of Fruits,” he intoned. “We, thy children beseech thy blessing upon thy bounty. May the clouds yield forth rain, and the earth bring forth fruit that they children may want not. We praise thy blessed name!”

The villagers looked rather surprised at such eloquence and chapped and cheered loudly.

The little girl reverently took a corn dolly to the barn, while the boy handed the other to Aragorn and Vanreth. The Harvest King and Queen carried it between them in solemn procession to the nearest field. Tasariel and Borlach led the way.

Faramir remembered a Westron hymn to Yavanna he had learned in his youth and started to sing. Many of the people knew the tune and joined in.

A deep and recently dug hole, surrounded by bunches of flowers, gouged the earth. It looked suspiciously like a grave. “Now is come time for the King and Queen to make the sacrifice on behalf of the people,” said Borlach in a slow, steady voice that carried across the crowd. Tasariel pulled a sharp knife out of a fine leather scabbard at her belt.

Faramir, who stood just behind Aragorn, looked alarmed. His hand went to his sword. “They cannot mean to kill you!” he whispered in horror.

Aragorn shook his head. ”Peace, son of my heart,” he whispered. “They have a similar custom in the North. It has its roots in an older, darker tradition, but I have never been any the worst for it!”

“They never made sacrifices at Dol Amroth!” Faramir protested. ”We scattered a handful of grain and that was all!”

Two other children, a boy and a girl on the edge between childhood and youth, came to take the corn dolly from Aragorn and Vanreth, and held it in front of them. The young woman was already calmly baring her arm. Aragorn did likewise. Faramir stood quietly in a warrior's stance, legs slightly bent, hand gripping his sword-hilt, poised to defend his lord.

Tasariel raised the knife and with it made a very small cut in Aragorn’s forearm and then did the same to Vanreth. She raised their arms so that a drop of blood from each fell upon the corn dolly. “The sacrifice is made! The land will bear fruit!” Tasariel cried.

The two youngsters reverently laid the corn dolly in the earth, while Tasariel bandaged the King and Queen’s arms.

“Long ago they would sacrifice a man and a maiden, or so Elrond told me,” Aragorn explained to Faramir. “Now a few drops of blood suffice in remote country areas where the custom continues.”

All the villagers helped to cover the corn dolly with the rich dark soil. The people then returned to the village in a cheerful mood.

“The King and Queen of the harvest will now lead the dancing,” Borlach declared. A young man produced a reed pipe and played a merry tune.

Aragorn looked rather hesitantly at his “queen.” He only had one true Queen. As he thought of her, he was seized with a sudden longing that he had not felt in months. He hastily collected himself and turned his attention back to lady he must dance with now. He supposed Arwen would understand that that this was merely a custom of Lossarnach. After all, Aragorn had danced with Lothiriel, and Arwen with Éomer, at the wedding of the Lord of the Mark. And Vanreth's husband Finrod seemed to have no objection, the man was smiling as he held his young son in his arms. The little boy was fascinated by his mother’s crown of flowers and followed her with his eyes.

Aragorn faced the Harvest Queen with a small fire, bordered by stones, between them: a part of the festivities in both North and South. They bowed heads slightly, to show respect without loosening their crowns. Then King and Queen clasped hands and trod the ancient measures of the Harvest Fire Dance, faster and faster to the quickening pipe notes, until they finished with a high leap over the fire. Aragorn and Vanreth stood apart, her left hand lightly holding his wrist, their other hands held high as if to entreat the sky. The villagers whistled and roared their approval.

Aragorn returned the somewhat flushed young woman to her husband. He was about to sit down when Tasariel approached him a gleam in her eye. “The Village Healer has the right to claim a dance with the King!” she said.

“It is my honour, Mistress,” replied Aragorn. They owed much to the lady, and he felt it would be churlish to refuse her. He clasped Tasariel's weathered hand and joined the others in a slower version of the Harvest Fire Dance, dancing in a huge ring with the fire in its centre. Only the Harvest King and Queen were allowed to leap the fire, which would be extinguished before the night ended.

Faramir meanwhile danced with one of Thoron’s sisters, a girl of some fourteen years. The women had their pick, for after so many years of warfare, the fairer sex greatly outnumbered the men folk. Many women either danced with one another or sat and watched. Faramir noticed the speculative glances given him and Aragorn by some of the widows and maidens. He was careful to treat each one as if she was his Aunt Ivriniel, who was a spirited and graceful dancer.

The music then changed to lighter, jollier rhythms. Groups of men and women formed lines and circles, thus ensuring no one was omitted, and began to step in and out with quick, merry kicks between linked hands. Despite weeks of exhausting labour in the fields, the villagers danced joyfully and seemed never to tire. Faramir noted that even the youngest of children, toddlers barely able to walk, merrily circled about in time to the music, their steps guided by older sisters and brothers. The older children danced with each other, save for a few of the twelve-year-olds, who were brought to dance with their adult kinfolk. Of all the young men, Thoron alone did not dance. The youth sat still, his injured leg propped up on a footstool. Borlach's eldest granddaughter, a lass of about eighteen summers, attended Thoron, bringing him wine with a soft smile. For once, Thoron looked content, and was seen to smile back at the pretty maiden more than once.

The dancing continued until sunset, circle and line dances yielding to the Flower land Reel that had been a favourite in Lossarnach since before Ecthelion's Stewardship. Tasariel insisted on a dance with Faramir, while Hareth danced with Aragorn. Then the men and older boys, bearing beribboned staffs, began the whirling turns of the Bucks' Dance.

The women and children left the men dancing, while they slipped away to bring out the food which they had taken turns to prepare since the morning. They laid it on the tables, keeping a watchful eye open to keep insects away. Soon, three trestle tables were laden with platters and bowls. Faramir's mouth watered as he surveyed the fare: warm loaves of crusty bread, giant cheeses, mushrooms simmered in wine, carrot pudding dotted with dates and currants, and one of his own favourite dishes - "Dragon Eggs", eggs stuffed with cheese, raisins and herbs. And that was just the start! The women had also laid out river trout cooked in butter and parsley, rabbit in broth, chicken roasted with apples and chestnuts, and a stuffed roasted pig!

Aragorn took his seat at the head of one table with Vanreth at his side. Faramir was also given a place of honour together with Tasariel and Borlach. Tasariel insisted on heaping Faramir's plate with additional portions and encouraging him to eat, much to the amusement of her sons and daughter-in-law. Such kindness was welcome, though barely needed. Aragorn and Faramir ate until they thought they could eat no more; and quenched their thirst with the famed pale golden wine of Lossarnach. They loosened their belts as the tables were cleared. The women then brought seed cakes, pears soaked in wine and honey, and apple fritters fried in batter and cinnamon.

The company ate and drank and told tales until the full moon was high in the sky. From his days as Chieftain, Aragorn knew what was expected of him and glad he had kept a clear enough head to fulfil his duties. He rose to his feet. ”Gracious Yavanna, your bounty has blessed us abundantly tonight,” he said in a loud clear tone. “May Anor and Isil smile on our labours throughout our planting and reaping. May the land and her people be forever fruitful! May we sleep well tonight under Isil’s protection!”

The villagers clapped and cheered. Faramir heard one old woman say, “How lordly Master Morrandir is, he is the best King we have had in many a year!” Tears welled up in Faramir's eyes even as he beamed with joy. Little did these country-folk know how truly they spoke! He could only hope his reactions would be attributed to the wine.

Aragorn and Vanreth rose from the table to signal the end of the feast. The villagers slowly began to disperse.

“We thank you for your hospitality,” said Aragorn to the Village Elders. “You have made us most welcome.”

“The coming of you and your son has been a blessing,” said Borlach gravely. "Without your foresight and aid, Vanreth and her babe would have been buried untimely and suffered horrible deaths. And the evil thing that struck them would still live, to kill more of our livestock and our people!"

“And it is not every night I can dance with the King!” said Tasariel, still with a twinkle in her eye.

Aragorn and Faramir made their way to their favoured spot under the oak tree and spread out their bedrolls. Faramir was slow to settle and tossed restlessly.

“Whatever ails you, lad? It is time to sleep!" Aragorn enquired rather tetchily.

“My stomach aches,” Faramir confessed, rubbing his stomach ruefully. ”I cannot get comfortable.”

“Little wonder, given the amount you ate!” Aragorn replied. “It seems Mistress Tasariel made good her word in feeding you up! Come here, then, and I will try to ease you.” He held his hands a few inches above Faramir's stomach.

Faramir, who simply expected Aragorn to use a gentle Elven healing touch, gave a cry of surprise at the amount of heat emanating from Aragorn’s hands. The pain in his belly swiftly subsided.

“What is the matter?” asked Aragorn.

“I have never known your healing power so strong!” Faramir exclaimed.

“I was again crowned King today,” said Aragorn thoughtfully. "I intend to preserve some of the flowers from my crown." He yawned loudly and settled under his blanket.

Soon, a gentle wind seemed to kiss the trees good night, leaving a hooting owl as the only creature to cry out under the heavens. King and Steward slept peacefully side by side, their sleeping forms illuminated by Isil’s gentle rays.

TBC

CO-AUTHOR'S NOTES: I was inspired in my conception of the villagers' circle dance by the descriptions in Wikipedia dot com, of the "horo", a Bulgarian dance with many patterns of diverse steps that can be danced in a circle or a curving line of people. I envisioned the Harvest Fire Dance as sort of a cross between a sword dance and parts of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ballet (only without the human sacrifice at the end!).

The Flower land Reel is a dance of my own imagination; inspired by Tolkien's mentions of the flowers of Lossarnach. It is based loosely on the Virginia Reel, and much too complicated to describe in any detail. I'm not sure exactly what the Bucks' Dance is, except that men do it, is noisy and necessitates strength and skill, has some fertility implications, and probably involves twirling and thwacking of staffs.

The villagers' harvest feast menu is inspired, once again, by the descriptions and recipes at gode cookery dot com, a wonderful website for medieval and renaissance food.

Any errors or misconceptions about the dancing and country cuisine are of Raksha the Demon's devising, please don't blame Linda.

 

Chapter thirty one

Farewell to barn and stack and tree - A.E. Houseman – A Shropshire lad

With grateful thanks to Raksha

Faramir woke with a start. For a moment he felt confused, wondering what had could have roused him in the middle of the night. The moon had gone behind a cloud, leaving the sky pitch black. All was still; not even the hooting of an owl disturbed the silence.

His stomachache had gone, and he was curled up comfortably at Aragorn’s side. He started as a truly dreadful noise assailed his ears. Then he realised, Aragorn was snoring at an ear shattering volume. Without thinking, Faramir instinctively dug his elbow in the direction of the King's ribs.

Faramir groaned inwardly. Since his ordeal, Aragorn was afraid of the dark. Just as the villagers had finally realised his lord’s true worth and come to respect him, they would now all be roused from their beds if Aragorn started to cry out. Tasariel would understand, but the others might again view Aragorn with suspicion, or even scorn. The farming folk worked hard and did not take kindly to being roused from their beds, especially not after tonight when the wine had flowed so freely. Faramir could only hope his friend had not been dreaming. He was vastly relieved when Aragorn simply grunted in his sleep and shifted away from the assailing elbow.

The Steward wondered if he should move several feet away from Aragorn in case the pitch darkness prompted another of the King’s nightmares, and he ended up with a black eye as a result. However, he was comfortable where he was and reluctant to disturb Aragorn.

Faramir decided to hope for the best and tried settle back to sleep, his thoughts turning to Éowyn and Elestelle. He wondered how they might be faring. Maybe his daughter would have learned how to crawl? He wondered when his little girl would run to greet him saying "Ada", and found himself grinning at the thought. Elestelle appeared to have a quick ear for learning. He wished he could ask his uncle if he remembered at what age he and Boromir had started to walk; but Imrahil had refused all contact with him since Faramir’s seeming treachery.

Faramir tried to banish such sorrowful thoughts from his mind and go back to sleep. They had a long ride ahead on the morrow if they would reach Minas Tirith by nightfall. Briefly Faramir felt a stab of envy. The Queen would be waiting to greet her lord, while he would have to retire to a lonely bed before he could join Éowyn and Elestelle at Emyn Arnen. He hoped he could persuade his wife to visit Minas Tirith for a while. Faramir’s thoughts started to wander as he drifted again towards sleep.

Suddenly, another loud snore jolted him back to full wakefulness. Faramir sighed in exasperation. Sorely tempted though he was to nudge Aragorn awake, he dreaded how his lord would react in this pitch darkness. Pulling his blanket over his ears, Faramir tried again to sleep. He would have to wait until there was some light before he dared to awaken his friend.

“Faramir?”

He froze in dismay when he heard Aragorn’s voice, fearing the King would start to panic. Yet Aragorn's voice sounded calm, just somewhat bewildered.

“I am here beside you, mellon nîn. You woke yourself up with your snoring!” Faramir stretched out his hand and laid it reassuringly on Aragorn’s shoulder.

“I was dreaming that the people were cheering us. We were not here, though, but in Minas Tirith. Arwen was there and she was so proud of me!”

“A good dream then?” Faramir sighed with relief.

“A very pleasant dream indeed. I long to see my beloved again. Yet, I would not have missed these past days for all of Smaug’s treasure! I hope we can do it again in future.”

“I would gladly miss the bite of Shelob's spawn!” Faramir replied wryly.

“I did not mean that!” Aragorn retorted. “I meant that I hope we can return to being simple Rangers together again when our duties permit. Even sleeping on the ground feels good when you do not have to do it in the winter!” He yawned sleepily and pulled his blanket more closely around him.

“I should like that very much.” The simple words were insufficient to convey Faramir’s delight that this first camping trip with the King would not be the last. He had always dreamed of having a father who would accept him as himself rather than as Boromir's younger brother, a father with whom he could let down his guard.

Aragorn made no reply. He had fallen asleep again and was starting to snore even more loudly than before.

Faramir struggled to patiently endure the racket, this time folding his blanket double before burying his head beneath it. He idly wondered if dragons snored; and if so, did they make such a noise? Faramir feared that the whole village was likely to be roused by this racket. "Aragorn!” he hissed, ”wake up!”

“What is it?” Aragorn asked sleepily.

“You are snoring again!” Faramir grumbled. “How can I sleep if you make such a noise? I do not want to be too tired to ride home tomorrow!”

“My Rangers never complained!” Aragorn retorted.

“They must have either been deaf or had some special Northern Númenorean trait that we poor folk of the South lack!” Faramir replied. "A marvel you did not alert every Orc in the Northern lands to your presence! Unless they all fled in terror from such a cacophony!"

“Arwen never complains either,” Aragorn said smugly.

“Well you can snore all you wish tomorrow night then!” said Faramir. “Lie on your side; then maybe we can both rest!”

Wanting nothing more than to return to sleep, Aragorn did as he was told. He reached for his blanket only to grab Faramir’s in the dark.

“You have taken my blanket now!” Faramir complained.

“I am sorry,” Aragorn said contritely. “I could not see. It is pitch dark! He sat up suddenly, realising the implications.

“Yes, I know. I should not have disturbed you,” Faramir said contritely. His complaints now seemed very petty. He feared his judgement had been somewhat clouded by all the good wine he had consumed earlier.

“I slept in the dark and I had no nightmares!” Aragorn whispered, hardly able to believe it.

“I believe you are healing at last, mellon nîn.” Faramir was grateful that the darkness hid the tears of joy that started to roll down his cheeks. He did not want Aragorn to know that he had often despaired of ever seeing him restored to his old self again. He reached out to hug his friend; only for their noses to bang together in the darkness. They both burst out laughing until they shook with mirth. Hastily they put their hands over their mouths, so as not to wake the villagers.

When their mirth finally subsided they settled to rest again. Just before he drifted into sleep, Faramir noticed the comfortingly familiar scent of athelas and other healing herbs again surrounded Aragorn. From the moment Faramir had first inhaled the healing fragrance of athelas; he had felt secure. All was well in his world once more; Gondor had her King restored to health; he was reconciled with the man he loved as a father, and very soon Faramir would be reunited with his beloved lady and their daughter. Utterly content, he settled against his friend’s shoulder and let himself fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The cock’s crow went unheeded the next morning while the sun was already high in the sky before the villagers emerged from their huts, many yawning and complaining of headaches and stomach pains after their over indulgences of the previous night. Tasariel was much in demand and bustled hither and thither dispensing peppermint tea to the children and a mixture of milk thistle and willow bark to the adults.

Breakfast was a fairly subdued affair with few of the adults having much appetite for the crusty bread and creamy cheese that was served. Aragorn and Faramir made themselves eat, knowing it would be many hours before they reached home.

Tasariel smiled at them approvingly. “It seems I have succeeded in fattening you two up a little!” she said. “Now don’t go and starve yourselves again in the City!”

“I promise you, we will not go hungry, Mistress,” said Aragorn. “Not that the fare in Minas Tirith is as hearty as yours! The farmers should take some of their produce to sell at the City market.”

“I doubt the grand folks there would like our simple fare,” Borlach said doubtfully.

“I assure you, Master Borlach, that this food is fit for the table of the King himself!” Faramir said solemnly.

Tasariel’s dark eyes twinkled. “I will take you at your word, Master Falborn,” she said.

Aragorn stared intently at his plate while struggling to suppress his mirth.

Once the meal was concluded, Aragorn and Faramir gathered their possessions together and prepared to take their leave of Celonhaer. Now that the moment of departure drew close, they realised they were going to miss these simple people.

“We thank you for your hospitality and kindness,” Aragorn told Borlach. “Now, do not forget that if any ills trouble your people, you should send to Minas Tirith for help. I will see that your message reaches the King’s ear. You have my promise.”

“I will indeed, masters,” said Borlach. “Remember, we now consider you as part of Celonhaer. You will always be welcome here and we hope you will return.”

“I fear our tasks in the City take much of our time, Master Borlach,” said Aragorn. “I give you my word, though, that when our duties permit we will visit you again one day.”

“We will never forget you,” said Hareth. She was dabbing her eyes, as was her daughter. Gilrath stood beside them. There was no sign of her son Thoron. Faramir wondered whether the youth was suffering the effects of over indulgence or just rude as usual. Aragorn and Faramir kissed the ladies on the brow in farewell.

“It was a lucky day when you came to our village,” said Finrod, coming forward to shake Aragorn’s hand. “I wish you and your son could stay longer with us.”

“I wish we could stay too, but our wives await us in the City, and we have duties to attend to there” Aragorn told him.

“Hmm,” said Beleg, grudgingly. “I suppose you just about made up for all the damage you caused!”

“They repaid us a hundredfold!” Tasariel interrupted. She thrust a parchment into Aragorn’s hand. “Here are the recipes for the salves you requested of me. I have put a little something for you to take home with you in your packs.”

Impulsively, Aragorn embraced the Healer, and Faramir did likewise. She had become dear to them over the past few days.

“I promise we will return one day,” said Aragorn rather gruffly. ”Farewell!”

“May the Valar bless your journey!” said Tasariel.

Almost the entire village watched as Aragorn and Faramir mounted their horses and rode away. Several times they looked back and waved.

000

Aragorn and Faramir rode steadily until the sun was directly overhead. They halted for a brief respite and to rest the horses. Looking in their packs, they found Tasariel had provided luncheon for them both along with two enormous cheeses and three jars of her salves.

“I am looking forward to sharing this cheese with Arwen,” said Aragorn. ”It is as good as anything I ate at Rivendell!”

“Éowyn will love the cheese too,” said Faramir. ”She is forever saying the cheeses in Minas Tirith compare poorly with those of Edoras.”

“I hope you can persuade your lady to visit the city,” said Aragorn. “I know you will be eager to ride to Emyn Arnen to be reunited with her, but I should like it very much if we could all spend some time together. I should like to see Elbeth again too.”

“Elbeth misses her ‘Strider’ very much,” said Faramir. “She asked about you almost every day.”

Their lunch finished, the two friends remounted their horses and rode on. This day followed uncomfortably warm after the fresh breezes of yesterday; and the sun blazed down upon them relentlessly. Even though they were following the course of the river, it became uncomfortably hot. Both men kept pausing to wipe their sweating brows and cast longing looks at the water. As soon as they reached a secluded spot, Aragorn reined in Roheryn. “Shall we have a quick swim?” he suggested to Faramir.

“There is nothing I should like better!” said the Steward, dismounting from Zachus. He walked stiffly once his feet reached the ground.

“Does your ankle pain you, ion nîn?” enquired Aragorn.

“No, but it is swollen a little in the heat, I think,” said the Steward. He began to rummage in their packs for towels and clean linens. “I must have danced on it too much last night.” He flopped down on the bank and started to unlace his boots.

“The cool water will do it good,” said Aragorn, idly observing a family of ducks as they swam past. Unlacing his shirt, he drew it over his head and tossed it to one side. “Come on!” he called to Faramir, turning to face him. “Hurry up and undress; the water will refresh us.”

Faramir pulled off his socks and tossed them and his boots to one side. He turned towards Aragorn to answer him, and then leapt to his feet, staring at the King in amazement as if transfixed.

“What is the matter?” Aragorn exclaimed, “Are you well, ion nîn?”

Chapter Thirty Two

I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son. - The Bible – Hebrews 1.5

The scar on your shoulder!" Faramir cried.

"I have told you, ion nîn, it troubles me no longer,” Aragorn said gently. "I have come to regard it as a mark of your deep love and loyalty."

Faramir continued to stare at Aragorn's shoulder as if under some spell. He took a few steps forward and reached out with his hand to touch it. "The brand has gone!" he exclaimed in a tone that suggested he could hardly believe what he was seeing.

"What?" Aragorn looked down at his shoulder. The skin, disfigured for months by the livid brand, was now smooth and unblemished. He stared at it in amazement, tentatively feeling the place where the scar had been raised on his flesh. "It has gone!" he whispered, repeating Faramir's words. A huge grin spread across his face. He caught hold of Faramir and hugged him tightly before spinning him around in a wild dance of jubilation. Tears ran down their faces as they alternately laughed and cried.

Breathless and exhausted, they finally collapsed together on the grass. "How can this be?" asked Faramir once he had caught his breath. "You tried every treatment known to Man or Elf, and nothing removed the scar. How could the wound have healed and when?"

"I do not know," Aragorn replied simply. "I tried to forget about it, and over these last days I succeeded."

Faramir briefly closed his eyes and tried to recall when he had last glimpsed the scar on his King's shoulder. When Faramir had kept his back turned when Aragorn bathed or changed, it had been more than his usual natural reticence and good manners, for every glimpse of the scar had felt like a dagger stabbing his very soul. He had been grateful for the dim light and the fact Aragorn was lying face downwards when he had tended his lord’s aching back muscles. "I think I last saw the scar on the day the spider bit me," Faramir said at last.

"I recall my shoulder itching," said Aragorn. "It stopped paining me the day we swam in the mountain lake, but how the scar itched!"

"Maybe the water had healing properties?" Faramir suggested. "We can soon find out." He unlaced his shirt and pulled it over his head, then studied his skin. The neat scar left by the arrow wound of a few months before was still there unchanged.

"An Elven mud bath will soon heal that blemish," said Aragorn. "I believe my healing is a blessing from the One, bestowed on me when I let go of my pain and pride. How foolish I was to be so blind, when I was truly so blessed!" His voice unsteady, he hugged Faramir again. "Come, we had better have our swim if we wish to see our ladies before nightfall."

Faramir sniffed hard and rubbed his hand across his eyes before removing his breeches and plunging into the refreshingly chill water. Aragorn followed a few minutes later. They splashed around in the water, ducking and diving like exuberant schoolboys, enjoying a respite from the heat of the day.

All too soon it was time to leave the cool water. They dried themselves and changed into clean, dry linens before donning the rest of their clothing

Mounting their horses, they set off towards Minas Tirith with a new lightness in their hearts.

***

"The King will return in time for the first session of the Council, as will Faramir." Arwen's tone tolerated no argument. Instead of asking Imrahil to sit down she stood, her eyes daring him to challenge her.

"Forgive me, my lady, but I cannot share your certainty," protested the Prince. "Everyone could see the King was far from well. Now he has vanished without trace along with Lord Faramir." Imrahil's anger was obvious as he spoke his nephew's name. "You tell me my lady, the King has not gone to Rivendell to seek healing, so where might he be?"

"He has gone to seek a cure, but there is none now in Imladris," said Arwen. "The One alone can grant Estel peace. I sent Estel forth with Faramir that both might be restored to their former vigour."

"I would have thought that Elessar would have preferred a more suitable companion than my neph....,er, Lord Faramir could have been found to escort the King," said Imrahil. "The Steward's loyalty is still far from certain."

Arwen's eyes flashed with anger. "Never was a man truer to my husband than your nephew, Lord Imrahil!" she said. "He saved Estel's life!"

"He also spoke treason against the King, joined the rebels, and shamefully raised his hand against his liege lord by branding him!"

"Can you not see, Lord Imrahil, that there was only one way for Faramir to have snatched my husband from that nest of traitors?" Arwen demanded angrily. "Had there been a path to his freedom that was both swift and honourable, I am certain you would have taken it, as would many others. But there was no such easy deliverance. Would you prefer that Faramir had defied the traitors and bought himself and your King to a painful death? We should all be grateful that Faramir managed to save not only my beloved husband, but your other nephew's innocent child. I am proud to call Faramir my friend. You should sing his praise, Prince; instead you treat him like Maeglin!"

Imrahil flushed scarlet, stood staring at his boots for a few moments. “I will think on your words, my lady," he said at last. "But if only the King would return!"

"He will," said Arwen. "I foresee that the day is not far off."

Dismissing the Prince of Dol Amroth, Arwen returned to her sitting room where Éowyn balanced Elestelle on her lap. Eldarion was crawling across the rug clutching a toy horse. A bored looking Elbeth was trying without much success to embroider a kerchief, watched by a nursemaid who sat in the corner. The high, large windowed chamber was light and airy in appearance, furnished with fine tapestries and rugs that Arwen had brought with her from Rivendell. A large bowl of pink roses adorned the table, perfuming the room with their fresh sweetness.

"Has Prince Imrahil departed?" asked Éowyn. "If only he did not think so ill of Faramir!" she sighed deeply. "And where is my husband? I thought you said he was making a pilgrimage on the mountain with Aragorn? I agree they needed some time alone together to sort out their differences, but it has been so long. I fear for my husband; he was far from well when I last beheld him!"

"They will return when they are fully reconciled and beginning to heal," Arwen said calmly. "Then Imrahil will understand the truth at last."

"I want to see Strider again," said Elbeth. "I'll ask him to pass a law banning embroidery!"

Arwen laughed. "Many ladies would be very sad if he did that."

"You can put your sewing away now," said Éowyn. "It is almost time for the evening meal Go and wash your hands before we eat."

As soon as the little girl had left the room, Arwen wandered over to the window and looked out. Two familiar figures were walking past the fountain. They paused briefly before the White Tree. Arwen could see a marked change in her husband's demeanour even from this distance, for Aragorn Elessar walked with a renewed spring in his step. Her husband was obviously engaged in lively conversation with Faramir and both men were smiling.

"They have returned!" cried Arwen. Pausing only to tell the nursemaid to watch the children, the two women hastened to greet their husbands.

"Estel!" Heedless of her queenly dignity, Arwen ran to greet her beloved.

"Arwen!" Beaming from ear to ear, Aragorn embraced her tightly.

"Éowyn, I never expected that you would be here!" Faramir cried joyfully as he greeted his wife.

"Arwen invited me to stay with her while you were away," Éowyn explained. "It is good to see you again, Faramir. You look so well!"

The two couples made their way back inside the royal apartments arm in arm. When Aragorn reached his chambers, he briefly left his wife's side to speak to Faramir. "Please join us for the evening meal, mellon nîn, and bring Éowyn and the children," he said. "Arwen and I would have tell of our travels."

"Gladly we will," Faramir smiled.

As they made their way to their rooms, Arwen noticed that her husband walked with his old confidence. There was a lively twinkle in his eye and he smiled greetings to passing servants.

"How is Eldarion?" the King asked.

"Growing by the day," said Arwen. "He has his back teeth now and had learned several new words. His nurse is just putting him to bed."

"I can hardly wait to see him," said Aragorn.

"I will leave you to change for dinner," said Arwen when they reached the bedroom.

"Wait, I have something to show you," said the King.

Arwen stared in amazement as her usually reticent husband peeled off his tunic, followed by his shirt. "Look!" he said, "I am healed!"

Joyfully, Arwen studied the unblemished flesh. Her husband's muscular body had lost its skeletal appearance, and filled out his powerful frame once more, while his skin was lightly bronzed from the sun. This was the strong man whom she had wedded, fairer than most Elves! She reached out with slender fingers to caress his shoulder where the brand had once been.

Aragorn quivered with delight at the pleasurable sensations her touch evoked. He drew his wife close and kissed her fiercely.

Arwen responded with equal ardour. Her fears that Eldarion would be their only child evaporated. She nuzzled her cheek against Aragorn's bare chest. "Let us retire early tonight," she suggested.

"As soon as we have eaten. I need to keep up my strength!" Aragorn replied, a lively gleam in his eye. He reluctantly released his wife before he was tempted to abandon all thought of dinner. "Faramir and I must tell you of our adventures too.

"It gladdens my heart to see you reconciled," said Arwen.

"We are indeed," said Aragorn. "All he did, he did for love of me. I am truly blessed to have a friend such as he!"

"You are indeed. You should cherish and nurture such love. Your Steward a treasure beyond price!"

"I know that now. Fool that I was to be so blind! You were wiser by far, vanimelda, and could see what I could not." Aragorn kissed his wife again before retiring into the bathing chamber.

***

"Strider!" cried Elbeth when the King and Queen entered the dining room.

"It is good to see you again, Elbeth," said the King, stooping to embrace the Faramir's young niece. "I have missed you."

"Are you all better now, Strider?" asked Elbeth. "Even your shoulder?"

"It is indeed," smiled the King.

"I told you kissing it better would work, didn't I, Uncle Faramir? " Elbeth said triumphantly.

Elbeth was allowed to join the adults for dinner, which was a lively affair as the two men related their adventures. Arwen was charmed by the tale of the hidden lake and delighted with the sprigs of dried niphredil that Aragorn had brought her, while Éowyn and Elbeth both held their breath as Faramir spoke of the giant spider. Both ladies expressed regret that they had not witnessed the mock dual with the grasses, while Elbeth wished that she could have joined in the play fighting. The listeners were highly entertained by tales of the villagers and wished that they could have met Faramir and Aragorn's newfound friends, especially Mistress Tasariel.

***

The next morning, two very contented couples emerged from their chambers to eat a hearty breakfast. Aragorn produced the cheese that Tasariel had given them which both ladies declared to be delicious.

"I have something to show you," Aragorn told Faramir before the two men commenced their labours for the day. "Come, walk with me as far as the White Tree."

King and Steward walked side by side, Faramir with a rather puzzled expression.

"Now look up towards the White Tower," Aragorn ordered.

Faramir did as he was bidden. The Steward could hardly believe his eyes, as there fluttered the banner of the House of Húrin alongside the King's Standard.

"Thank you!" whispered Faramir, blinking away tears. "But why?"

"Our Houses are bound in true friendship; and I would have all of Gondor know this," said Aragorn, his eyes shining with paternal love. "We are as one family."

"It pleased me greatly to pretend that I was your son these past weeks," said Faramir, his voice choked with emotion. All his life he had longed to see his own father look upon him in the proud and loving way Aragorn beheld him now.

"You are my son, the fact I did not beget you makes you none the less so," said Aragorn, embracing him.

The End 







 


rd to see his own father look upon him in the proud and loving way Aragorn beheld him now.

"You are my son, the fact I did not beget you makes you none the less so," said Aragorn, embracing him.

The End

 


 


The Tree under which Aragorn and Faramir sunbathed.

The grasses Aragorn and Faramir had a mock fight with.

Poppies in Lossarnach

The lake in which Aragorn and Faramir bathe and find spiritual renewal.

Sunset at Aragorn and Faramir's campsite, down by the stream.

 The willow tree under which Aragorn and Faramir sunbathed

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