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22

At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he had supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow.

ROTK: The Houses of Healing


~~~

The roof of the smithy is high and made of thin shale, vented to the sky so the smoke of the forge may escape along with its heat. I have had little occasion to visit and so find much that captures my interest there. Tools hang from their hooks in a thicket of iron, wood and leather. I know not the use of even half of these and marvel at the smith's mastery of his trade.

Shutters are cleverly fixed to the vents overhead so that, should it rain, they may be closed and keep all those within dry and warm. But now they are open and the fitful sun streams in columns full to the floor, caught as the light is in the thin smoke drifting about the shed. All about is the thick, scorched smell of hot iron and hammering sounds loud in our ears atimes, but it is not that of steel upon steel but rather wood upon wood. For the land about the smithy has been cleared and its walls are soon to be greatly expanded. And not only that, but our men lay foundation for another house and sheds to be set nearby. Already the supports stand tall and secure, their feet sunk deep into the soil.

"Aye," the smith says slowly, his head bent over the buckles my lord gave him. "I think it can be done." He turns them about in his hand and they clink together as he tosses them lightly until they are engulfed in his broad palms. "Have you a day or two to spare, my lord?"

"I might," says my lord wryly and the smith laughs.

"Aye, well, my lord," he says and points a knuckle at my lord's arm, splinted and wrapped in a sling as it is. "We shall hope your healing will not be much delayed or a burden to you."

My lord nods briefly, a smile lingering upon his face. "A small matter, it is," he says, referring to the buckles, "but it may save me time and worry upon the road."

'Tis the first I have seen of my lord among the Dúnedain of the Angle, and I find my heart warmed by the sight. For, aye, my lord's face is grave as always, but his shoulders gentle, I think, with the brief release of some heavy weight that once rested upon them.

"I would be happy to do it then," says the smith. "If not I, then my good wife shall see to it. In fact, I would ask it of her, instead, she has the better hand for it."

At this, my lord nods to Mistress Tanril, the smith's wife, who sits at her work in a small square of sun. Inconstant as she is of character this day, the sun hides her face and we are plunged into a sudden dimness in which the sullen glow of the forge plucks at the eye.

A soft touch draws my attention away and upon my look I find not the face of the smith's wife, but that of a woman with soft brown hair and dark eyes. She it is, Mistress Linmir, the wife of our wandering smith, whose husband now bends his back nearby to the working of wood rather than metal.

Upon our entrance, she had turned from the corner where she and Mistress Tanril sat with their heads inclined over the woman's bench. I know not what fine work Mistress Tanril shaped with her hands, but Mistress Linmir had no doubt lingered over it when she came to clear away the crockery from their hasty meal. There they had risen and bid their good morrows, but once my lord was deep in his business with the smith, she shared a quick glance with the other woman and accepted the small thing pressed into her hand.

And now I find she looks upon me where I wait for my lord by the door.

"My lady," she whispers and opens her hand to reveal a leather vial of plain make. "Please you to take this."

By her manner I know she wishes the exchange to be made in confidence and so I do not speak, but turn my shoulder to the men and lift the vial from her grasp. It is smooth and well-joined. Smelling of freshly tanned leather, it fills just the palm of my hand. At the eagerness in her eyes, I prize the lid from its top and, by dint of shaking it, stir the needles contained therein. I stare, for they are of smooth metal and many different sizes. Some so fine I think I know not the thread I might fit through their eyes, and some so thick and sturdy their tips are flattened as the point of a blade. Ah! The possibilities they present! A fine gift it is, but one, for disinterestedness' sake, I cannot accept.

"Nay, my lady," she says, laying a hand upon my arm, for my dismay must show.

Her eyes glow with a hidden mirth that makes me smile in return. I think then she must know of the efforts made on her and her family's behalf, for we threw the smiths and their wives much together when e'er we had the chance.

"I shall divide them amongst myself and Mistress Pelara, then," I say, keeping my voice low, and tuck the vial deep within the tall basket sitting at my feet. Mistress Tanril watches from her workbench and smiles upon me, turning away only to beam over her work.

With a nod of greeting and soft words of apology, a young man slips from around me through the door, interrupting our council. He is as tall of frame and broad of hand as his father and carries a basket of charcoal as if it were naught. He sets to noisily stoking the forge so that the men must raise their voices to be heard over it.

"And shall I send Master Baran over upon the morrow?" my lord asks, turning away to the door.

At the first, I know not of whom he speaks, but then it comes to me my lord has discovered the name of the wandering woodsman, and he not fully one day home.

"Nay, my lord, you may send him upon the hour, should you wish," says the smith. "I have the shoes and Tanion here has the time to take him to the farrier's."

His son nods from the forge. "Aye, my lord, I think I should like to see this new horse of yours. I hear much of him."

"Very well," my lord says, smiling, for he has purchased himself a new mount and arrived home to find the beast waiting for him there. Aye, my lord is much taken with him and, true though he may have weathered the worst of his pain upon the Wild, naught else would do but my lord spent the morning putting the horse through his paces. "My thanks to you, then, Master Mahtan."

I take up again the basket I have brought here.

"And a blessing on your House," the smith replies, touching upon his brow before he tosses the buckles onto a bit of cloth on his bench.

It seems my lord shall leave with little greeting for the woman at my side, but when she touches upon her brow and gives him a low obeisance, he stops, at first scowling mildly at her before, upon the relief of his puzzlement, his face brightens.

"Ah!" he exclaims. "I see you have found yourself a place here in the Angle! You are recovered well! My heart is glad to see it so. And your husband?"

"Aye, my lord!" she says. "And he is here, as well."

"And how fares that lass of yours?"

Her face bursts into a shy and joyful look. "Aye, she is about someplace with her sister," says she, waving a hand loosely down the path toward the center of the Angle. "I sent them on an errand of a few minutes and they've been gone nigh most the hour. Getting into mischief again, they are, my lord."

"That is well, then," he replies and, smiling, presses her gently upon her arm. I do not think she had expected his warmth and she looks nigh to tears for it.

"They will be greatly sorrowed to have missed you, my lord."

"Then I must return at some other time to see them again," he says and withdraws his hand. "Bid you good day," he ends with a nod.

Upon the path the morning rain left puddles of water in which the westering sun pools its light. We step carefully, walking most oft upon the grasses by the side of the road. The basket is not so heavy, filled as it is with blankets and linens stripped for the making of dressings, but still my lord will not suffer me to bear it. He lifts it from my hands when I think to put my arm through its strap, taking it and fixing me with a stern look when I resist.

"Come, now," he says. With some effort, he twists the basket about and slings it to his back. "I still have my one good arm, and know you would wish to keep your hands busy."

He nods to my hip where, in truth, my spindle does bang lightly against me as I walk. Seldom do I go without it hooked to my belt and a bit of roving somewhere within reach for when I must sit and wait with naught else to do. It is an old habit, for I much dislike my hands being idle and find the whirring wood and slow growing thread a wholesome remedy for when my thoughts grow unquiet. And even when walking I would have it so. What my lord says is true, for in the bag hanging from my shoulders I carry a lucet and the thread with which to make a fine, soft cord, and I get it out now.

My lord looks upon me with some secret knowledge shining in his eyes and then he sets to the path before me so he might avoid the mud and I need do naught but place my feet where he once stepped.

Ah! There are times when, I must admit, it is a sore trial to have a husband so perfect of mind and character. For he has little fault I can detect and I am laid bare before him, with every foible and whimsy exposed.

Still, after some time, I am glad of having somewhat to do that keeps my eyes as well as my hands busy. With a bit of thin bone I lift the loops of thread one o'er the other and the cord grows beneath it. It slows my feet, but my lord seems not to mind, but looks about him and sets an easy pace I might match. We do not talk as we make our way along the paths of the Angle, past house and shed and croft. I can think of naught on which to speak, for I am much used to going about the Angle with little comment other than greeting the few folk I know well. But, as I walk with my lord, heads turn and eyes stare, though I think they make some little effort to hide it. Atimes, they nod in silence or turn quickly to their fellows and speak, and at others, his people beam in joyous greeting. Word runs quickly through the Angle upon the feet of young children that my lord is returned and its folk come about every corner and fill every door. My lord bears with it well, greeting them each in turn as they will, but I feel each gaze as if they burned upon me.

It is not until we turn aside unto a path shadowed by tall elms my lord speaks. He twists about and fixes his gaze upon me while he walks.

"And what was it she gave you?" he asks, his face alight, and I wonder if he had been puzzling over the mystery all this way since the forge. "Mistress Tanril?"

"It was naught, my lord," I say and when his eyes sharpen upon me, go on. "'Twas merely a woman's trifle."

He makes a small noise, the meaning of which I cannot discern, for he turns away and says no further.

We go not to the center of the Angle, but away from it. Here few feet have traveled. The cooling of the nights has turned the leaves overhead a soft gold and the rain has struck them to the ground in places so that they pave the path with their bright colors and we are more free to walk side by side. Above our heads, sharp points of light shimmer upon the high fluttering edges of the trees and, below our feet, we stir the musk of wet earth and autumn leaves and the green tang of crushed grass.

I think, when my lord awoke, he found the world much refreshed, for though he suffers through moments of discomfort he walks easily and breathes deeply of the clean air. Aye, he is much changed from the morning. I think the rest he took did him a good, for, much spent, after our conference at the noon meal, he refused me my other tasks and so we kept to the solar and waited upon the sun.

In truth, I think he did not know himself so weary until he rested his head. There, upon my shoulder, he suffered me to card the locks from his brow with but the tips of my fingers and he fell deep to slumbering. There, I listened to the breeze drive the clouds o'er the tops of the trees and watched the light fade and swell in the solar. In the quiet of the middle of the day, I puzzled over the character of a man who, without thought of rest or need, hunted the Enemy in whatever form he might find him and yet, when home, abandoned himself so utterly to the pleasures of good food and an agreeable bed. I dared not move from beneath his heavy weight, nor did I wish to. Why take to the iron bit of my day while I had other tastes to savor the more sweet? And so I dozed atimes, drifting in a haze between sleep and wakefulness where I lay upon the fecund earth and its embrace smelled of bay leaf and skin warmed by the efforts of the flesh.

Soon the canopy above our head lifts to a high ceiling of blue and rushing clouds. We stride then across a lawn of soft green on which is set a long, low building, little more, in truth, than a rude shed with many windows where they may catch the light and breeze. About its walls twines honeysuckle so that its scent might sweeten the air, and yet, through its open door, I hear the muffled sound of coughing and a low groan. My lord halts and frowns, easing his burden from off his back.

"You said we were to meet Mistress Pelara here and help settle those newly wandered to the Angle, lady?"

"Aye, my lord, here they will rest a little, until they are well." I put away the bit of wood, cord and bone I have been working.

"Until they are well?"

I catch not my lord's look for my hands are deep within my sack and my eyes there as well, but know him gone by the sudden sense of his absence.

"Wait, my lord," I call, but his long stride carries him from me swiftly. I am no match for his legs though, grabbing up the basket he leaves behind, I hurry after him.

"My lord! Thou should not go in there! My lord!" And though I follow swiftly, I am too late, for he has already ducked his head below the low lintel and gone inside.

Ai!

The long hall is broken into small rooms by dint of naught other than rugs hanging from strung line. In each small space burns a small brazier and upon each sits a pot, enough for tea or a bit of soup should they so wish. I stand in the door and dare go no further.

My lord stoops over an old man lying there upon a low bed. So grey is the man's skin I know not where his cheek begins and his beard ends. He is much taken with coughing and my lord kneels to prop the man up so he might breathe more freely.

"Lady, why did you not say there are signs of this sickness?"

"Alas!" comes a loud voice. "My lord, you should not be here!"

Her eyes wide, Mistress Nesta bustles round the hanging rugs, flinging them aside. They flap and bob in her wake. It seems she was summoned by his voice and, seeing me staring at my lord's back in horror, is in no doubt who he is.

"Is it the cough that ails him?" my lord asks, sparing the healer a brief glance.

"My lord!" she exclaims. "Get away from him, at once. Have you no knowledge of your peril?"

I think, had not her hands been burdened by a pot of a thick and pungent substance, she would have taken a hold of his coat at the shoulder and tugged him away. But, as it is, he seems most disposed to ignore her, his attention all for the old man. Though greatly weakened by the spasm, he breathes a little clearer for it. My lord eases him back to his pillow and the man pats a trembling hand upon his arm, unable at the moment to speak.

"Nesta!" a voice exclaims behind me. 'Tis Mistress Pelara, and she gapes at the scene. "Have you finally addled your wits with those strange pottages you brew?"

"What was I to do?" the healer asks, her irritation clearly felt in the crack of metal upon stone as she nigh slams the pot to the floor. I see naught of her face, but have full view of the broad hips bent before us. Her voice comes muffled against her skirts as she roughly stirs at the thick substance. "Tell the Lord of the Dúnedain he may not go where so ever he pleases? Or would you rather I sling him across these shoulders and cart him out the door?"

"Calm yourselves!" my lord commands and they fall still. "Be easy, I am in no danger." This last he delivers gently to me, who have stood quiet in the open door and, no doubt, fixed him with a shocked and grief-stricken look.

"My lord," say I in the silence following his words. "What would you have me do?"

"You, lady," he says, sending a piercing look my way, "shall step no further into this place. Have you the linens we brought?"

"Aye, my lord," I say and lean to the basket, digging about for what he seeks.

"You are the healer here?" he asks of the Mistress, for she has risen and smoothes her skirts and hair, her face still a pink of vexation and effort.

"Aye, Nesta is my name, daughter of Bormund."

"Your mother then was Elannui. I knew her well. Have you many such?" He nods to the old man, whose dark eyes flit from one to the other, bright with understanding and not a little mirth.

"Aye, my lord, it settles deep in the lungs upon our wet weather," she says, fussing with the man's bedding and plumping the pillows beneath his head. "They sleep not for their fever and sweat, then weaken as their lungs become corrupted."

"Aye, 'tis what I thought," my lord says briskly, with an eye to the man who watches them so close. "If you would bring me the linen from my lady, please, Mistress Nesta."

"And these wandering folk more so than most," she goes on and leaves the man with a last tweak to his blanket. "So weary they are already, once it takes hold they can bare fight it off. Aye, my lord, 'tis their elders, my lord, who fall to it most oft."

"Worry not so much," my lord says to the man lying beside him. So soft is his voice I would hear it not beneath Mistress Nesta's word were I not attending so closely to them and only absently to the healer. I have found the bundled strips of linen cloth, and shaken them free of the leather box and let it rattle to the bottom of the basket. "I have seen many men, and your elders at that, who have lived through this to many good days after."

"Though, atimes," Mistress Nesta says, taking the linens from me, "it takes our young, as well."

"Och!" Mistress Pelara leans her back against the doorway and shakes her head at the woman. "Hush you now, Nesta. Is this how you treat all those under your care?"

The woman shrugs, but it is the old man that speaks, his voice a rough whisper.

"'Tis kind of you, my lord, but who knows what I face better than I," he says.

"Aye." Mistress Nesta settles one haunch to the edge of his bed, places a hand upon the man's brow and brushes aside his hair. The smile she has for him is small and brief, but surprising in its tenderness.

"Have you athelas?" my lord asks and Mistress Nesta nods, handing him the bundle of linens where he kneels beside the bed.

"Aye, my lord, fresh, too," she replies and, with a grunt, pushes herself to her feet, "and as much as you might wish. Shall I go for it and heat you some water?"

"Yes, if you would." My lord sets to worrying at the knot about the linen. "I think I may be able to help some. It shall at least give them ease and clear the air of the corruption, if naught else."

Mistress Nesta grunts, nodding and shifts the ill-smelling pot closer to the bed with her foot.

"I shall take over this. The poultice is ready, then?"

"Aye, my lord. Put it on his bare breast and it shall ease the tightness, if you would my lord, and I will see to getting you what you need. I have made enough of the brew to last for the next few days, while it is yet potent. Be sure to spread it thin, a little goes a long way and you would not want to urge them to desire their failing for the smell."

"My thanks to you, Mistress Nesta, but I know what to do with it." He has done with the knot, though he had to work at it and my fingers twitched with his effort. "When you have the athelas, call to me and we shall see to the others."

"Well then," the healer says, waving Pelara from the door. "Let me pass. I have an errand to run for our lord and I best be quick about it, do you not think?"

Mistress Pelara gives way, tutting her vexation at the woman, for clearly the healer's eyes brighten with her sense of purpose and importance.

"Shall you stay here, then, my lord?" I ask, for I had much wished for his company upon the remaining errands of the day. Greatly could I use his skill at leading others to the heart of the matter and making them see the reason they might find there.

"Aye, lady, so I had thought." The old man plucks at the edge of his tunic, attempting to assist my lord in easing it about his shoulders. My lord halts of a sudden and peers at Mistress Pelara and I. True it is, we have not moved and my look must hold somewhat of worry about it.

"Why? What else had you thought to do?"

"The Council meets upon the morrow, my lord," says Mistress Pelara.

"Does it?" He looks to me to confirm it. He shrugs when I do. "Very well, go, see to preparing for it. I shall meet you at Elder Maurus' house when I am done."

"Wait, what is it that troubles you?" he asks and the Mistress and I halt where we had turned away. She looks from me to my lord her eyes dark with doubt.

"Aye, well," she says slowly. "We have the problem of the surplus of grain."

"What of it?"

"We have none," I say.

"Indeed? And you would wish to set aside some of this year's harvest for later need?"

"My lord," I say. "We have been blessed with enough rain when needed and sun in between. Not all seasons shall be so kind and yet we use all we can produce to feed those who shelter here."

"Aye, seems a good enough plan. What is the difficulty?"

I hesitate to say, for I may not speak so plainly as I might wish here in the open where too many ears may hear. There are those on the Council who, though would do it easily should it be of their own will, still would balk were restraint forced upon them for the good of all.

"Ah, well," he says. It seems he has perceived my thoughts, for he presses me no further, but pulls at the linens to dislodge one for his use. "We shall speak of it later. No matter, I shall bring it to the Council and there they shall see reason."

At this, both the Mistress and I bow, though I think her look has somewhat of disappointment about it. No, they are not likely to say him nay. But I wonder to their willingness after, once he is again gone. Ah, well, naught to do but go.

"Wait, you," he says and turns away from his charge. Kneeling there on the floor, his hand upon his thigh he considers us both.

"Nay, lady, go! Speak to whom you will. Root out what you need to know. I shall meet you again at the house where I wish you to tell me all of your plans and how you have played them. We can speak over the evening meal, if you wish, though I doubt not my stomach shall rebel should I have to eat too much more of words today. Then, upon the morrow, you bring this matter before the Council and we shall see what they make of it, shall we?"

"Aye, my lord," but it is Pelara who speaks and I see again that familiar light in her eye.

"Come now, my lady," she says brightly and turns to me. "Shall we let our lord to his business? You asked to see how the men get on with this man and his family's house."

"They have a house?" my lord asks, looking up of a sudden from where his hand is deep in the poultice.

"Aye, my lord," says Mistress Pelara.

"It was most done as of last week, my lord," I say, interrupting the Mistress for fear of what else she might add, for she looks much like a cat who has crept into the henhouse without its owner knowing. "Though we have had little time to spare to them as we come upon the harvest."

"Them? There are more than the one?"

"Aye, my lord," says Pelara and I think she shall burst with the pleasure she is forced to conceal. "And many more there are. Though we are hard pressed to keep up. You will find the men of the wanderers most willing to lend a hand, and their women, too, my lord, should you care to ask them."

"Mistress," I say and wish my face was not quite so red, for my lord's gaze is all too keen. I take her arm in one hand and the basket in the other, pushing both out the door. "Let us go. Now."

My lord laughs softly, shaking his head as his look lingers after us.

Had I stayed, perhaps I would have seen more. For the old man smiles up at my lord, his eyes hidden in folds of wrinkles all but for the laughter that shines from them. "She is your lady, my lord?" he asks in a soft voice.

"Aye, that she is." My lord wipes his fingers against the rim of the pot.

The old man's chuckle erupts into coughing and my lord, passing his good arm below his shoulders, eases him to sitting so he may breathe the easier. Then, when the fit has passed and he has drunk from the water my lord poured him, he speaks in a roughened whisper.

"Wives," he says and grins. He waits for my lord to spread the linen upon the bed beneath him before he slowly lays himself back down. "I had one like that, and that seemed enough at the time. 'Tis the quiet ones you have to watch, my lord."

"Indeed?" My lord spread the green substance upon the man's breast and the smell at first seems to overwhelm them both, for they take to breathing through their mouths and the old man rubs at his nose.

"Ah, I meant no offense, my lord," says he when again he catches his breath. "You must forgive me. I am an old man and my years atimes loosen my tongue where in my youth I would once have been more cautious."

My lord shakes his head.

Thus encouraged, the old man goes on. "I doubt not she is a good woman and loyal to you, as she ought. But those wives who keep their own council tightly held to their breast, oh but they are wily."

"Had you one such?" my lord asks, his fingers stilling momentarily.

"That I did, my lord, though the cough took her in the night, may the Valar receive her and ease her passing," the old man says. "Ai!" Here his voice drops to a soft sigh, but then his face brightens with a sudden mirth. "Aye, she would cast down her eyes in my presence and speak me meekly, but where I could not see, there, my lord, did I have little say. Ever she kept me guessing, my Aelin, until the very end."

My lord must have looked doubtful, for the man asks, his voice mild, "Does she keep you well-fed and comfortable, my lord?"

"Aye," my lord responds, drawing out the word so it seems more a question than an answer.

"Ah, then, and what does she do with her other hand while she has you kept complacent, eh?"

My lord bursts into a soft laughter.

The old man's smile broadens though he has learned and forebears from laughing. "Aye, indeed. If you will forgive me for making so free, my lord, but you are well in for it."

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