With grateful thanks to Raksha for plot assistance and editing and Deandra for editing.
These characters belong to Tolkien and this story was written purely to entertain.
A herb mistress has a fateful encounter with a stranger.
“He was mortified I tell you, utterly mortified! Herb master here in the Houses for more than forty years and when the King returns he doesn't have the kingsfoil that Lord Elfstone needed! It was that what brought on his seizure, I tell you. I don't care what the healers say. It was a wonder he didn't die of the shame on the spot there and then!”
Morwen nodded vaguely. She believed that the mild seizure which had led to her predecessor's retirement had been caused by his somewhat excessive enjoyment of fine food and wine; but it was better not to argue with Dame Ioreth. Morwen was sorry for the old herb master's illness. His retirement, though had led to her fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming herb mistress in the best healing Houses in Gondor. She only half listened to Ioreth's ramblings, understanding the old woman meant well in telling her all that had happened while she was away in Lossarnach these past two years. Morwen had been evacuated with the other women during the siege and stayed afterwards to look after her sick grandmother. She had only returned after receiving a letter from the ailing herb master whose apprentice she had been. He had urged her to hasten back to the City now her grandmother was much recovered.
Much had changed in her absence. Rebuilding work was going on in the lower levels and foreigners were everywhere. She heard that former enemies had now established embassies in the City and merchants from many lands hawked their wares in more busy markets. Morwen had availed herself of their services by buying herbs and spices which had been scarce in the past. She now had, amongst many other things, adequate supplies of poppy for pain relief and turmeric and ginger for digestive disorders.
The very rule of Gondor had changed too; a King rather than a Steward ruled in the Citadel. Morwen was not greatly interested in who held the reins of governance. As long as it wasn't the Dark Lord, one ruler was as good or as bad as another. All she cared about was that the Houses of Healing continued as they always had.
Ioreth finally paused for breath. Morwen hoped she had smiled and nodded in the appropriate places during the old woman's seemingly endless speculations about the lack of kingsfoil leading to the herb master's retirement.
“Well, I shall keep the herbarium well stocked, I assure you, Dame Ioreth. Even with kingsfoil, even though it is only used to freshen a room, or maybe ease a slight headache.”
“Didn't you hear a word I was saying, Mistress Morwen? In the hands of the King, kingsfoil can work miracles! He's been away on campaign, but now he's returned, he'll be back at the Houses with us to lay his healing hands on the sick, you mark my words!”
Morwen bit back a sharp retort that the King was hardly likely to keep coming to the Houses whenever a miracle was needed. She'd heard the tale of how he supposedly healed Lord Faramir until she could repeat it in her sleep, but she remained unconvinced. Lord Faramir must have just happened to wake up when this Elessar steeped some kingsfoil and the would- be king had encouraged them to believe that he was the rightful heir to the throne due to some fabled mastery over the herb. Kings were men like any other; and had no special powers over maladies and hurts. Better to depend on the knowledge and skills of healers, and the strength of the herbs she used, then to trust old legends and wives’ tales, however charming such stories might be.
“Well, I can't waste all day here talking,” said Ioreth, pulling off her bloodied apron and throwing it into the laundry basket. “I must return to my patient.”
Morwen regarded the bloodied garment with well concealed distaste. She had always been interested in healing, but had never wanted to be a healer like Ioreth, as she had little love for the sight of gore. As an herbalist, she could help to heal people without constantly having to clean up blood and guts, and repair torn flesh and broken bones. Ioreth pulled on a clean apron and paused, as if expecting Morwen to say something.
“Have you been assisting with an operation, Dame Ioreth?” she enquired, hoping she would be spared a detailed description of something like amputating a limb.
“Gracious, no, I've just delivered twins to Mistress Indis, the wife of one of the Citadel Guards. They were in breech position and the poor lady had been in labour for hours, so she needed to give birth here at the Houses. Poor lamb, it was a hard birth. I've left her with her mother and my assistant. I just slipped out to change my apron and fetch a fresh supply of raspberry tea. It helps the womb return to normal, you know, dear. I don't want the new mother to suffer a prolapse, the poor lamb I -”
“I will gather some more raspberry leaves, fresh ones will be especially beneficial.” Morwen hurried away before Ioreth could enlighten her any further concerning the condition of Mistress Indis' womb.
Morwen heaved a sigh of relief when she reached the sanctuary of the herb garden. She was fond of Dame Ioreth, but sometimes the old lady tried her patience to the limit. The breeze and sunshine felt pleasant on her face and the herbs smelled sweet and refreshing after the overwhelming smell of soap that pervaded the houses. Morwen smiled contentedly. Surely she had the most rewarding job in Middle-earth, working here amongst the herbs that had fascinated her since childhood. Ever since she could remember she had wanted to know what each herb was called and what it was used for. Once she had learned the name and uses of a plant, she never forgot.
She made her way over to the raspberry canes and started to gather the leaves that she needed. She had half filled her basket before she became aware that she was not alone. A man was busy gathering dandelion leaves at the far side of the garden.
Morwen felt annoyed at having her solitude interrupted. This was a private garden that only the healers were permitted to use. The man was a stranger, dressed in a scruffy old cloak. He had no right to be here. He was gathering dandelion leaves, no doubt to be used in a salad for his evening meal.
Leaving the raspberry canes, she marched up to him and said sternly. “This is the private herb garden for the Houses of Healing. You should not be here.”
“Is that so?” the man said mildly. He plucked another dandelion leaf and tasted it. “Perfect,” he said.
“The patients need those leaves as a treatment for dropsy,” Morwen said crossly. “I have no choice but to report you to the Warden.”
“There is no need to trouble yourself, mistress, he minds not that I gather herbs here.” The man stood up, revealing his true height, which was considerable. He was rather a good-looking fellow in a roguish, wild way, with shaggy grey-streaked hair, keen eyes and big, long-fingered hands.
Morwen glared and returned to plucking raspberry leaves, trying to ignore the strange man's presence. She supposed the Houses could spare a few dandelion leaves for a poor man's supper, but whatever was the Warden thinking of letting such riff-raff wander amongst her herbs?
A few moments later, she glanced towards the man again. He had moved away from the dandelions to the part of the garden where the most potent herbs were growing. To her horror, he started plucking foxglove leaves. Horrified, she hurried over to him., exclaiming, “Don't touch those leaves, they contain a deadly poison!”
“I know,” said the man calmly.
“What sort of fool are you to gather foxglove leaves?” Morwen demanded. “Are you trying to kill yourself or murder someone? I don't believe that the Warden gave you permission to come here. Leave my herb garden at once and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before you eat anything!”
Before the man could reply, the Warden hurried into the garden. Not seeming to notice Morwen, he addressed the man. “My Lord King, praise the Valar I caught you here! I have a young soldier in my care stricken with fever who is not responding to our treatments. I wondered if you would be so good as to try to help him?” Only then did he appear to notice Morwen and nodded in her direction. “Good day, Mistress Morwen.” The two men strode off into the Houses.
Morwen stood staring after them as if rooted to the spot. That rascally- looking fellow was the King? What had she just said to him? She had called him a fool and a liar as well as suggesting he might be trying to murder someone! Bile rose in her throat. She had no idea what the penalty for insulting a king was, but was certain it would be something unpleasant. She would most likely be thrown in the dungeons to await trial and at the very least she would be dismissed from the Houses of Healing.
She trudged back inside the Houses, fearing any moment to be arrested. She expected to find guards outside the room used by the women who worked at the Houses of Healing to change their clothes. Only Dame Ioreth was there, though, waiting for the raspberry leaves.
“Did you see Lord Elfstone?” the old woman demanded.
“He's here this afternoon, amazing isn’t it that a king should take time to visit the Houses and tend the patients? I did say he would, though. He has a wonderful healing gift, unlike anything I've ever seen. Folk say he was taught healing by a great Elf lord in the North. It's like magic it is. He has a heart of gold, has Lord Elfstone, though his tongue is rather sharp, but you'll get used to his ways, my dear.”
Morwen very much doubted it. She mutely handed the leaves to Dame Ioreth then retreated to the shelter of her herbarium. She spent the rest of the day carefully tidying and arranging the herbs so that her successor would replace her with as little disruption to the patients as possible. She immersed herself in her work, trying not to think of the fate that awaited her for presuming to chastise the King.
She abandoned her task only when forced to as it became too dark to see properly. She was loth to call for extra lamps in case anyone questioned her about why she was working so late.
Morwen reluctantly left the herbarium and made her way to the comfortable rooms within the Houses she shared with her cat. As the hours passed, the likelihood of her being arrested diminished, but Morwen was certain she would lose her position at the Houses, and with it her comfortable home. Her work here was all that she had ever hoped and dreamed of. Where could she go? What else could she do? This position was unique and she had worked towards it since she was a girl. Where else could she devote her life so completely and usefully to the study of herb lore?
Granted, every village had a wise woman and she was more than adequately trained for the task, but village herbalists were also healers, a calling which Morwen had never felt drawn to with her dislike for blood and guts. As a village healer, she would spend her days in gory and thankless tasks, just like the healer in the village where she was born. Morwen had great respect for Mistress Tasariel, a kinswoman of Dame Ioreth's. It was Tasariel's influence that had helped her become what she was today. Morwen had no wish to be like Tasariel, though, spending her days stitching up gaping wounds inflicted by farming tools and delivering babies. Tasariel had to rely on the most common herbs unlike Morwen who had well over a hundred in her well stocked herbarium While Morwen had been staying with her grandmother Mistress Tasariel had attended the King's coronation with Dame Ioreth and left Morwen in charge of her patients She had been mightily relieved that a child with a fever was the only case she had to treat. What else could she put her hand to, though. other than cleaning or sewing; tasks which were even less appealing than a village healer's lot.
Why ever had this new King taken it into his head to skulk anonymously through her precious herb garden, dressed like some ne’er-do-well? If she had but known he was the King, she would have treated him with all due respect and courtesy. It was too late! Just a few careless words had ruined Morwen’s life. She buried her face in her cat's soft fur and wept.
Morwen tossed and turned all night, hardly sleeping at all. She rose early and dressed. She tried to eat breakfast, but the food tasted like ashes in her mouth. After forcing down a cup of herbal tea, she made her way to the herbarium.
She expected to soon be summoned to the Warden's office to be dismissed, but it was too early for him to be working yet. While she waited, she dealt with requests from the healers for treatments for their patients. Foxglove for an old woman with heart failure and dropsy, willow bark tea for the fever patients, comfrey salve for an old man with rheumatism; familiar comforting tasks that she performed every day and feared now she would never perform again.
Dame Ioreth entered the herbarium later that morning just as Morwen was preparing fresh supplies of comfrey salve. She startled as the old woman entered the room.
“Gracious, my dear, you are jumpy today and you look as if you've not slept a wink! Are you sickening with something? There's a lot of fever around at present. Folk shed their warm clothes too quickly when the fine weather comes, I always say.”
“I just didn't sleep very well.”
Ignoring Morwen’s protests, Ioreth insisted on examining her for signs of fever, but found none. “You young folks will stay up too late,” she said.”I remember when I was a lass, I never wanted to go to bed at a decent hour.”
“Have you seen the Warden this morning?” Morwen asked once she could get a word in.
“He is with the King,” said Ioreth.
Morwen’s heart missed a beat. They were no doubt discussing her future this very moment.
“Are you sure you are well, dear? You look quite pale.”
“I am just tired.” Morwen repressed the urge to confide her troubles to Dame Ioreth. She worried that the fearless old woman might unleash the full sharpness of her tongue on either the Warden or the King. Ioreth loved to relate a tale about how she had once rebuked Denethor who had threatened her with dismissal for her pains. There was no point in them both losing their positions. She changed the subject. “How are Mistress Indis and her twins today?”
“They are doing well, but Mistress Indis is sore and weary after the birth. That's why I'm here. I need lavender, arnica, chickweed and calendula for her bath and for salves. I also need an infusion of nettle and raspberry.”
“I will get them for you at once, Dame Ioreth.”
“Why don't you bring them to Mistress Indis' room when they are ready. We don't often have twins born here, you should meet them. Such beautiful babies and big too for twins. I remember the first set of twins I delivered, so tiny they were that no one thought they would live and I rubbed them with olive oil and wrapped them in cotton wool and -”
Morwen nodded mutely as Ioreth rambled on. Maybe meeting the twins might be a welcome distraction. That is, if the Warden had not sent for her to pronounce her doom before she could gather the herbs together that Mistress Indis required.
A short while later, Morwen, together with Ioreth, entered Mistress Indis' room with the herbs. The pale new mother was dressed in a robe and sitting on a comfortable chair holding one baby while the other slept in a cradle at her feet.
Morwen offered her congratulations. Babies tended to look much alike to her, but these were certainly fine ones, a boy and a girl each with a shock of dark hair.
Mistress Indis smilingly accepted Morwen’s good wishes. Her eyes were sparkling as she then said, “Would you believe it, but the King has asked to meet my babies! I'm all a flutter!”
“You don't have to see him if you don't wish to, my dear,” said Ioreth. “He made it very clear that it was a request, not an order, did Lord Elfstone. He 's here to see a patient he's treating, but he likes to give new babies his blessing when he can and folk say there are twins in his family, so I expect he is especially interested.”
“Oh, but I want to meet him,” said Mistress Indis. “It would be a great honour.”
“I must return to my duties,” said Morwen. “It was a pleasure to meet you and your beautiful babies, Mistress Indis.” She turned to leave the room as swiftly as possible, but before she could leave there was a knock at the door. Ioreth called permission to the newcomer to enter. Much to her dismay, Morwen almost collided with the King.
Today, he was still dressed simply, but in quality garments that made him look more kingly. On his breast he wore an eagle-shaped brooch set with a striking green gem.
Mistress Indis made as if to rise, but the King gestured her to remain seated.
Ioreth gave a cursory bow and introduced Mistress Indis then gestured towards Morwen. “And this, my lord, is Mistress Morwen, our herb mistress.”
“Mistress Morwen and I have met,” said the King.
Morwen tried to edge towards the doorway.
“Wait, Mistress,” he said. “I wish to speak to you.”
With a sinking heart, Morwen could only watch as the King took each baby in his arms and blessed it. “What are their names?” he asked the young mother.
“I have not yet been able to decide, my lord. My husband and I never expected to need to think of two names.”
“How about Beren and Lúthien?” the King suggested.
Indis beamed. “I like those names well, my lord.”
“And how do you fare, mistress?”
“Well enough, my lord, but I am sore weary.”
“Permit me to aid you.”
Morwen’s eyebrows lifted as the King took Mistress Indis' hand and held the other a few inches above her still distended belly. It seemed to her that Indis' skin took on a healthier colour while for a few moments the King looked pale and weary. She blinked, thinking she must be imagining things after her sleepless night.
The King said a few more words then took his leave of Mistress Indis. He made as to leave the room, beckoning Morwen to follow him.
“There's no need to be scared, dear, just speak your mind freely,” said Ioreth in an encouraging tone.
“I believe Mistress Morwen always speaks her mind,” the King said drily.
Without another word, the King led Morwen to the Warden's office, though there was no sign of its usual occupant.
Morwen fell to her knees. “I am so very sorry, my lord King. I did not mean to insult you.”
“Please rise,” The King extended a hand. “You have a sharp tongue, mistress, I admit, but the fault was mine. I should have introduced myself. It was natural that you should take me for a trespasser. Sometimes, I forget I no longer have a need for anonymity. It is indeed needful to exercise caution concerning who is allowed near such potent herbs. It was not about yesterday that I wished to speak to you about.”
“My lord?” Morwen’s voice was little more than a croak. Could it be that the King of Gondor took no offence at her rudeness, as if she were some great lady rather than a simple herb mistress?
“I should like to grow more Elven herbs here at the Houses, but would not plant them here without your permission, Mistress. I believe we could have many new treatments to benefit the patients.”
“Gladly, my lord. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to learn about new herbs.”
The King smiled. His whole face lit up like the sun breaking suddenly free of a cloud. “Then I believe you and I will work well together, Mistress Morwen.”
Morwen smiled back. “I believe we shall, my lord.” And she breathed again, as if for the very first time.
A/n Written for the the Teitho “Anonymity” challenge where it was placed 3rd. Wishing all my readers a happy and healthy new year.