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A Time to Reap
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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6
The naked truth of it

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

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),

With very grateful thanks to Raksha for all her help and support.
Warning – This chapter may distress sensitive readers.


~~~

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 bathe,” 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.

TBC

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