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The Last Yule in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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7
Day 07 - The Herb-Mistress

For disclaimer and further details see Part 1.

Rating: General, for this part.

Author’s note: Radish syrup – well, actually carrot syrup – and onion tea were really used in Transylvania against stubborn coughs. They both are absolutely vile. Carrot syrup is made by drilling a hole into a thick, peeled carrot (but not entirely through it) and filling it with sugar. The sugar melts in the juices of the carrot and seeps through it in the form of a thick, abysmally sweet syrup. Onion tea is just a brew of onions, although sometimes cumin is added to lessen the intense taste. Not an experience you would like to make, unless absolutely necessary. Trust me.


~~~

Day Seven – The Herb Mistress

Sitting in her cozy little room above the Infirmary, old Mistress Crodergh was grinding dried herbs in a small stone mortar, humming to herself contentedly. Usually, she would do this work in Mistress Angharad’s workroom that occupied the ground floor of the healer’s small house leaning onto the southern side of the Infirmary, or in her own little manufactory in the herb gardens. But her old bones bore the harsh weather less and less well with each passing year, and thus she chose the warmth and comfort of her own chamber instead of any of the larger, sparsely heated rooms.

She had been fortunate with this place, next to which the chimney of the Infirmary’s huge hearth stretched upwards. The chimney had enough heat to warm up not only her little chamber but also the somewhat larger room on the other side, in which Meurig and his ten-years-old nephew, merry little Edwy lived.

Just like those two, Mistress Crodergh was one of the numerous people washed ashore by fate in Halabor. The only daughter of a widow in Lossarnach, she had learned herbal lore from her mother and grandmother, both of which had been considered witches in their village. They knew their herbs like few other people in Gondor, but not even they were all-knowing. And when the respected and much-feared leader of a far-away little village had died under their hands, long having been beyond help, the enraged villagers had waylaid the “witches” and beaten them to death.

Or so they thought anyway. By some miracle, though, Mistress Crodergh, a young woman back then, survived the savage beating and was found by Lord Orchald’s healer, a good and wise man named Echtge, who had been on a journey to gather or buy herbs needed in his Infirmary. Echtge, a soft-speaking man well beyond his young years but of a merciful heart, had brought the half-dead Crodergh home with him to Halabor and even married her half a year later, delighted to find someone with her vast knowledge in herb lore. He was a good healer, but better in leechcraft than with herbs, and the two completed each other nicely.

Alas, the great age difference – they had more than a score between them – had also meant that after a few good years Echtge suddenly fell ill, becoming an inmate of his own Infirmary. He withered away in four more, pain-filled years, and when his heart finally gave up and released him from his misery, Mistress Crodergh was grateful. For though she had loved him and missed him terribly for years afterwards, everything was better than seeing him in so much pain and being unable to ease it for him.

For the next thirty years or so, the care for the Infirmary had become hers alone. Finding a good healer was not easy, and Lord Orchald, albeit a generous man, simply had not had the means to lure away any healers from such places as the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, to name just one. Who would come to such an unimportant nest as Halabor, unless they had a personal reason to do so?

At first, it had been very hard work. Mistress Crodergh was an herbalist, not a healer, even though she had learned a great deal from Echtge. Fortunately, at that time the Infirmary did not have such inmates yet who would live there permanently, for the lack of any close kin to take care for them, just the actually ill people who came and left as soon as they were healed. Thus she still had found the time to keep the herb gardens that they had planted together when Echtge had been hale, in a good shape. And when Mistress Dorlas, the midwife, and then young Mistress Angharad, a healer native to Halabor but trained in Lord Forlong’s town in Lossarnach, had joined her to work with the sick and the ailing, she finally could devote all her attention to her beloved gardens.

When she looked out of the window in these days – when the weather was mild enough to do so, that is – she could see the enclosed gardens within the walls of the Infirmary, separated by the small hut where she manufactured soaps and scented waters and other small pleasantries for the young townswomen’s delight. Most of the plants she had brought there in seeds from Lossarnach and from other, farther and more dangerous parts of Gondor – several trips to Ithilien came to her mind – and some she even grew in pots in the house ere she dared to set them out.

Secretly, she was certain that no other herb garden had the finery and variety her own ones did. She grew every manner of herbs here; from the common ones used in the local cuisine to rare examples, not widely known and good only for the making of medicine. Rue and sage grew here, rosemary and gilves, gramwell and ginger (the seed of which Lord Orchald had been generous to order for her from Dol Amroth), mint and thyme, columbine and herb of grace, savoury and mustard, basil and dill, parsley chervil, and marjoram.

These common herbs she allowed her young apprentice, sweet-faced Godith of fifteen summers, to work with alone. She had taught the girl all their uses but pointed out their dangers as well. For with herbs, one had to care for the right dosage. Too little would do no good, too much could kill a patient a lot faster than any disease could.

But in the other garden there were the beds where no-one was allowed to work without her presence, not even Mistress Angharad. Here she grew wild plants only she knew well enough to work with. Masterwort there grew, sticklewort and betony, maythen for the upset stomach and baldersbrow against swelling and itches, wild carrots to prevent blindness and bloodwort to treat ailments of the skin, coltsfoot against throat sores and swine-snort to ease kidney problems, ox-eye to treat bruises and for a lotion to treat chapped hands… and many, many more, even more dangerous ones. Few herbalists dared to grow wolfsbane in their own garden, although it made a good rubbing oil for aching old joints, as it could kill a grown man in mere moments. Or poppies, for pain medicine or for the lack of sleep.

The gardens were a small wonder to behold in summer, and now that they were lying complacently under ice and snow, waiting for the reawakening in springtime, the harvest, brought in in good time, surrounded Mistress Crodergh in her little realm with comforting familiarity. Linen bags of dried herbs were hanging from the eaves, jars of spiced cherry wine were sitting in rows in the unheated storeroom nearby, and the shelves were full of bottles and earthenware pots. With the help of Godith and Mistress Angharad, they had stocked up with medicines for all the ailments a cold winter could bring: sneezing and snuffling colds, seized-up joints and sore or wheezing chests. They had arranged everything so that whatever could not be prepared in advance, they would be able to make freshly, whenever the need arose. And with a dozen old people residing in the Infirmary full time, that need would arise sooner or later.

Mistress Crodergh knew that many of the townspeople, and even more so the superstitious folks living on the farmsteads, thought that she was some sort of witch. A good one, most likely, but a witch nevertheless, whose knowledge often frightened them. The fact that she was a wrinkled old hag beyond her seventy-eighth summer did not help things, either. Foolish men often mistook high age and a withered face for evilness. But here in the Infirmary, living among like-minded people, she was safe and respected – and allowed to continue her work as long as her crackling old bones let her. What else could she wish for?

A hesitant knock on the door brought her back from the meandering thoughts of an old mind. At her call, the door opened for a crack, and the tousled head of little Edwy peeked in shyly.

“May I come in, Mistress?” asked the boy. He had an enormous respect for the herb-mistress and was always a little frightened when he had to speak to her directly.

“Of course, my lad, come in and close that door,” said Mistress Crodergh kindly. She genuinely liked the boy who had lost his parents at the age of barely one year and was now in the ward of his only surviving kin, the good, though slow-witted Meurig, the Infirmary’s helping hand. Meurig worked on the crop fields of the Infirmary, outside the walls, but he also helped moving the patients who could not move on their own any loner, and he cut the wood for all the hearths in the house. Edwy did small tasks suited for his size and ran errands for the healers, and both were content with their lives.

“How are you doing, my lad?” asked the herb-mistress gently. “Is your coughing getting easier? You know, if the radish syrup does not help, we must try the onion tea.”

Edwy made a wry face, for while radish syrup was disgustingly sweet, even for a boy with a definite sweet tooth, onion tea was downright vile. Yet no other concoction helped with stubborn coughs so quickly and so thoroughly.

“I am doing better, honestly,” he assured beseechingly. “I even slept through the night yestereve, for the first time.” He blushed profoundly and placed a small earthenware pot, covered with a tin plate, onto the old woman’s table. “I brought you these. Mistress Lendar made them for the old people in the Infirmary, and gave me a few to my supper.”

Mistress Crodergh lifted the cover a bit and sniffled at the scent wafting against her.

“Cinnamon apples?” she asked in delight.

Cinnamon, like all spices coming from Harad, was expensive, and usually the Infirmary could never afford it. However, when Mistress Angharad had sold the Drunken Boat, after the passing of her grandmother, she had kept the late Pharin’s impressive stock of spices, and sometimes she allowed Lendar, the cook of the house, to use them.

“Yestereve was the inbreak of winter,” explained Edwy shyly. “Mistress Angharad said ‘tis an important day, so the old people should have something good. And Mistress Lendar saved a few of the apples for me, as I was too ill to go down to eat in the evening.”

“But if she gave you these apples, why do you bring them to me?” asked Mistress Crodergh.

Edwy blushed again. “I… I wanted to thank you. For healing my cough… and for telling me stories. I like stories, but Meurig cannot tell any, and no-one else here has the time.”

The old woman was deeply touched by the selfless offer of the ever-hungry child. Cinnamon apples were something special, even for adults – sharing them was a great sacrifice for little Edwy.

“You know what?” she said. “We shall sit down by the chimney, where ‘tis nice and warm, and share your apples. What say you?”

Edwy said naught, just nodded eagerly, several times in a row. And thus the old hag and the young lad sat down comfortably at the chimney, throning on several flat, worn pillows, and shared the baked apples that were filled with crushed nuts and raisins, and the sweet, spicy scent of cinnamon filled the little room, making this simple evening a precious feast.

~The End – for now~

~~~

Note: Mistress Crodergh, little Edwy and his uncle Meurig died in the destruction of Halabor; so did their patients and Mistress Lendar, the cook. Mistress Angharad and Godith escaped to Lossarnach.


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