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A Time to Reap
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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23
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

With grateful thanks to Raksha

The characters are the property of the Tolkien Estate. No profit has been, no will be made from this story.


~~~

“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!”

TBC

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