25. Chapter 24
Look not to me for healing! I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle.
ROTK: The Steward and the King
Scratches lie in faint trails upon the back of my hands as paths amidst dusty plains. Ah, but they itch for the stinging salt of my own sweat! No help for it but to keep on. The line of men snakes dark against the wall of grain, and, at a glance, I know the lass who bears the buckets of water makes her slow way hither. The men have stripped to the waist and bend their backs to the harvest, their sickles striking the straw and rattling the heads of rye. We women follow, binding what the men reap into sheaves. Dirt crumbles beneath my knees as I kneel and twist a thin handful of straw into a makeshift cord. Ai! But my throat is parched and waiting for relief a sore trial.
These are the days of the harvest and all the Angle is pressed to its service. Not only do the men reap and women bind, but their lads and lasses bend to earth, for their eyes are the sharpest and they glean fallen berries their elders would miss. None are so low as to fail of their service, nor so high. Even my lord bends beneath the sun and swings his borrowed sickle, though he seems better suited to felling orc than fistfuls of rye.
Upon my rising, I found my bed empty and my lord already about, though the sun had not yet tipped above the meadow. Swift was my dressing, for I pulled on naught but my most ragged of linen dresses and wrapped my hair tight beneath a soft brimmed hat, for I knew I would spend the day laboring in the fields. I burst into the hall upon quick feet, having taken to my lord's habit of tripping lightly down the stair, and then halted. My lord was there awaiting me, with the morning's meal laid out before him.
"Ah, good," he said. He closed his journal with a thump and set it aside. "You are ready."
My feet were slow to bring me to join him, for I had much to marvel over. My lord sat comfortably upon his chair, dressed in no more than his light shirt and breeches. Upon the table, tea steeped in a cup set in what must have been my place. A cup of ale sat before my lord. Half gone it was already. He had tasted, too, of freshly baked oak cakes which were not of my making. It seemed he had attempted to wait for me in breaking his fast, but failed somewhat. In this I could not blame him, for the cakes smelled of apricot and some rare spice I had found in the pantry but knew not how to use nor even its name. And I could only wonder at what lay bundled in the bucket that sat upon the far end of the table. No doubt it was our noon meal, prepared and packed before I had even thought to see to it.
He looked up from where he thrust his journal into the tall chest. "Aye, lady, I have drawn more ale, if that is what you wish, instead. But I thought you partial to tea upon rising and the ale we can bring with us."
"You go to work the harvest, my lord?"
"Aye," he said and then caught my look. "Unless you think I be unwelcome." Doubt troubled his face, though briefly and leaving little trace once it was gone.
"No, my lord, I think your folk eager to see you no matter the occasion."
"That is well," he said and, at that moment, I thought sure the dawn outshone by his face. "Come then!" He waved me to the place he had set for me and placed a cake there. "Eat, for the sun rises and we must soon make haste. I think it not a good thing for the Lord of the Dúnedain to be the last to arrive upon the first day of the harvest when his people have risen early for their work."
I sat with some hesitance and my lord smiled, for I think he caught my sniffing at the piece I had broken off my cake.
"Think you it poisoned, lady?" he asked and his eyes twinkled above the rim of his cup.
"No, my lord." I said and cast my eyes down as was proper. "I would think, as you have eaten of it before I arrived, any ill effects should be evident by now, and you seem well enough."
He laughed into his cup and wiped at his mouth after. The look he gave me was of both wonderment and delight equally mixed and I ate the easier for it.
I stoop to bind the bundle of rye, and the grasses rustle and creak in my arms and smell of the dryness of the dust and sun. The shadow of my lord falls upon me and he lets drop yet more for me to gather up and make fast. His hair lies bound against his neck so it might not fall into his eyes as he works, and his shirt he has tied about his waist. Sweat beads upon his face and back and he halts but a moment to wipe at his brow and then steps back into the rhythm of grasp of rye and swing of sickle. My lord seems well-healed, for he works long and does not weary.
Ah, is not my lord the hardiest of men of this Age? For it shows in the care with which his frame is knit and the keen mind that gives it life.
I shake my head free of my thoughts. The grain shall not pluck from the ground and fly into our granaries of itself.
Flocks of crows circle high overhead or croak from nearby branches. Ahead, a large black-winged bird alights and struts along the furrow, thinking, perhaps, to snatch the grain from beneath our very guard. Soon, the dogs shall bark and the children run, and a great cawing and flapping of wings will answer their assault. Oft the retreat is but a feint, no more than a few yards away and the gangs of youngsters cry after them and throw stones as they give chase. Atimes, it seems I see mirth in those black, twinkling eyes as they hop away and wonder what sport the crows find in these games, for, true, they take to the air, but only to begin it all again.
I rise to lean the shock of grain against its mates and when I look again, my lord stands tall, his sickle dangling in his loose grasp. The lass has at last come upon us and so eager is he to pour the cup down his throat, water trickles through his beard and upon his neck. He has grown dark for his days out of doors and the sheen of sweat upon his back captures the very sun.
Ah! My thoughts grow wild and willful and I despair of taming them. Aye, so it ever was. He is as the flower's nectar and I am as the bee, having but once been given its taste, ever am I a slave to its sweetness.
Ai, but I burn!
His smile earns my lord one in return below the bare dip of a head from the water-bearer. Her gaze, too, seem ascendant o'er her will as much as mine. She cuts her eyes at him though she turns away, for others draw near and would dip into the water with their cups. My lord has greetings for them, as well, and they seem as easily drawn to the sight of him.
Aye, but it does his folk good to look upon him, their lord. They much regret his absence though they allow its need. In his place, I make for a poor substitute. Their eyes, it seems, hold a curious shadow when they look upon me and think I know it not. They puzzle over me, it seems, as much as I over them. And now, when they see us two together, my lord and I, I think they wonder. For I have caught many a glance upon the change of the season after each of my lord's farewells, swiftly withdrawn though they are, but that take in the fall of my skirts and measure for aught of change. My lord gives little thought to the fondness of touch or glance, either within his house where we are private, nor abroad when we are not. And I think his people wonder for it.
My lord has caught sight of me as I stand, my burden set down, stretching my back. Aye, I shall be stiff upon my next morn's rising. He begs of the lass bearing water another dip into the bucket and bears the cup to me. Sweet is the water, though warm, and sweeter still the gladness that lights upon my lord's face. I think he has as much need of his folk as they of him.
"What think you of the harvest, my lord?"
"Ah, lady!" he says and his gaze travels far over the fields and the backs bent upon them. His eyes shine upon the sight. "I am blessed for it."
"And your arm, my lord?"
"Nay," he says and twists it about, working his hand into a fist. "It pains me not." His face turns to me and he smiles. "Worry not, lady."
And so I drink of the water and the sight of my lord much renewed by work without fear or hurt to hinder him.
When I lower the cup I find my lord frowns and his gaze seems much taken by my wrist. It is not until he has taken my hand in his and turned it that I see the blood upon my sleeve. It is but a dark shadow upon the linen, but my lord drops his sickle at his feet and takes the cup from me. He pushes the sleeve aside so he can see the skin below. It is naught but a scratch taken in my carelessness upon lifting the sheaves and I would think it of little concern. But he looses my hand only to tug at his shirt and dip a corner of the cloth into what water remains in the cup so he might tend to my hurt. He rubs at the tender skin of my wrist, holding my hand in his.
"Let it dry before you return to your work, lady, and it will heal cleanly," says he.
I think him done, but he turns my hand about and it seems he is displeased for their marring. It would make me smile, for lord bears scars white upon his skin that he has taken in our service, but for the thought one day such a wound may take my lord from his folk. I wonder, then, whose hands he knows are so fine as to ne'er bear signs of labor.
"What doth my lord know of women?"
"In truth?" he asks in kind and his eyes come upon me. "Little," says he, "for I have not lived among them since my youth, though I learn more daily." This last he offers with a flash of a young boy's smile. "At the least, I have learned to have little hope of persuading thee to forebear from working the harvest, though it brings thee discomfort."
But this does not tickle my mirth, as my lord no doubt intended.
"I would defy no command of thine, my lord."
"No," says he and his face falls full sober. "You would not. But were I to force you against your will, I would care little for the price it would cost me."
I can think of naught to say in reply, for I had thought my lord's will of such supremacy he need not consider its effect. Nor had I thought he would set the price of my good will so high.
'Twas these thoughts, then, that disturbed my mind when we returned to the harvest. I knew not when the sun traversed the sky and when we had come near the end of the furlongs we worked. All through the binding and carrying of sheaves, in the heat and the dust and the bright sun, I felt none of it. I only knew I had my lord's regard, and felt dizzy and wine-besotted for it.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.