Title: The Refuge from the Storm
Theme: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Elements: a photo of a kitchen garden
Author's Notes: For HarrowcatLiz and Claudia for their birthdays.
Summary: When young Bergil's horse runs away during a storm, only the King's steed will follow after, and an elderly cottager finds herself hosting two Men unexpectedly.
Word Count: Well, a bit more than I'd counted upon: 3,995
The storm hit with a suddenness and fury that took all by surprise, causing those in the party traveling south to Dol Amroth to look up in dismay at the lowering clouds and pouring rain as bolts of lightning hit the surrounding high ground and peals of thunder rolled over the landscape.
Crash! A tree atop the rise to their left burst into sudden flame—that which had not been blasted into pieces from having taken a direct hit of lightning, that is, and more than one horse neighed in terror and either reared up or turned tail and ran, no longer docile or answering to the reins. One of those that lost its head entirely was a young gelding being ridden by Bergil son of Beregond, the youngest of the King’s guards present. It bucked and cried out in its alarm, and swerving sideways headed down a track none of the others had noted.
Only one steed within the party was sufficiently responsive to its rider to answer the order to follow the youthful horse and guardsman, and that was the one ridden by the King himself. Roheryn, after all, had many years of experience in traveling in all weathers through worse wilderness than one found anywhere within Gondor, and although he did not particularly like the current conditions he trusted his master sufficiently to go where directed.
“Bergil!” A single flash of lightning lit the landscape before them, and a huddled shape could be seen upon the sodden ground where the young Man had been swept off his steed by a low limb. Roheryn stopped just short of the tree as yet another peal of thunder boomed, and the tall Man who’d ridden astride him leapt to the ground and fell to his knees by the guardsman’s limp body. A hand was placed against the pulse point on the throat, and after a moment the King relaxed somewhat. “He’s alive—merely unconscious from the fall, apparently,” he said aloud. Now he felt the back of the neck and down the spine, nodding with further relief as he noted no signs of any serious injury there.
One wrist was beginning to swell, and a knot was forming on the young Man’s brow under a bleeding abrasion. “Concussion and either a break or sprain to the right wrist,” the King concluded. “We must get him out of this rain, and as soon as possible,” he added, looking about. There was a glimpse of a yellow light to be seen beyond the tossing trees, further down the track. “A house! We can take him there!” So saying, the tall Man scooped up his unfortunate youthful guard into his arms and rose to his feet, heading toward the source of the light as best he could, his faithful horse following behind.
Old Mithrellas closed the shutters to her windows against the sudden onslaught of wind and rain, muttering to herself as to how much damage the unexpected storm was likely to cause to her kitchen garden and the peach orchard. “Of all times for the Powers to decide what we need rain!” she grumbled. “Half the young fruit swept off the trees ere the blossoms are fair set, most like! And my new onions sets probably drowned ere they take fair root, I’d wager.” Well, there was nothing she could do to protect either trees or garden at this point. All she could do was hunker down in the safety of her cottage and hope that the fixes to her roof made by her near neighbors a week past held against the wind and rain.
The sudden pounding on her door took her by surprise, and she clutched at her chest before realizing that someone had somehow come upon her steading in the storm and was in need of shelter from the unruly elements. She rose and stumbled to the door, and unfastening the bar opened it, only to have the wind tear it from her grasp and bang it fully open against the wall of her house. An enormous shape stood there holding a second form in its arms, both dripping from the downpour. The tall stranger stooped to enter through the low doorway, and brought his burden within her cottage.
“Please, my lady,” her unexpected guest said, “my man here was swept off his horse and has been hurt. May we take shelter here until the storm clears away?”
In moments the injured Man was laid upon her cot, and she was fetching toweling and clean linens to see him dried and cleansed of what mud was upon him. “Is there a place I can stable my horse?” the other asked. “Then I will return with my bags and see to his injuries.”
“There’s a rough byre ahind the place, back by the jakes,” she directed with a jerk of her thumb to indicate the general direction in which the building might be found. “Got no cow nor goat now to keep in it there for the nonce, but it should do well enough for your needs.”
He gave her his thanks and went out, closing the door behind him. It was some time before he returned again, and she figured that he was seeing to it that the horse’s saddle and bridle were properly removed and the horse rubbed down before he left it. One who was competent in caring for his steed, at least. Meanwhile, she saw the wound to the younger fellow’s forehead cleansed, and set some comfrey to steep in a pannikin in front of the fire.
He gave a brief knock ere he reentered the cottage, and soon had the door properly closed and barred once more. He was quickly kneeling beside her, setting two bags down at his side, drawing the smaller of his bags to him and unfastening the complex knot that held it closed.
“You a healer?” she asked, surprised as she saw him draw forth a few small packages from the red bag he’d opened.
“Yes, I was so trained,” he replied absently as he examined the wound she’d exposed. “Not as bad as I’d feared,” he commented, giving the knot a gentle but competent touch. “Thank you so for cleansing it. And you’ve set comfrey to steep?” he added, meeting her gaze. “That is most helpful. I will add these, if you don’t mind.” He set one of the packages to the side and opened the others, and added some more herbs to the pannikin, murmuring to himself as he dropped in a pinch of this and a measure of that and stirred it with a clean wooden stick that she set before him for the purpose. They soon had both head and wrist poulticed and properly bandaged, and the Man saw his unconscious companion gently stripped of his wet garments and set the clothing to steam dry near the fire. Then he competently prepared a pallet for her to lie upon. “I will do well enough for the night in a chair, Mistress,” he said. “But you should not be denied your rest because of our unplanned for visit.”
“Him, he’s a soldier,” she said, her eyes on the uniform stripped from the young Man’s body.
“Yes, a soldier of Gondor, as is his father. Two men of particular honor, the two of them have proved.”
“But you wear no uniform.”
“I, too, have fought for Gondor, and have worn her uniform in my day. And if she is threatened again I shall do so in the future. But my primary service is otherwise now. Have you eaten your evening meal as yet, little mother? You need not worry about us—we ate not that long since, and we have rations in our gear.”
“But I saw no gear upon him.”
He gave his companion a thoughtful glance. “Alas, I must admit that his gear has gone with his horse, and in the rain I have little heart for tracking the creature, which is young and inexperienced with the ways of storms. But I think I have enough for the both of us. I ask again, have you eaten?”
She had the unique experience of seeing this stranger preparing her a filling evening meal, supplementing it with jerked meat from his personal satchel that he added to the stew he cooked, along with certain herbs. “You carry cooking herbs as well as healing ones?” she asked.
He gave her a conspiratorial smile. “A true herbalist learns all uses for each plant, little mother. And my adar saw to it that I was trained as a true herbalist. You should hear my beloved wife on the subject, for she studied under him even longer than did I!”
“It’s married you are, then?”
He smiled, and by that smile she recognized just how dear his wife was to him. “Married? Oh, yes, little mother, I am now married, and happily so.”
She gave him a quick appraisal. “I’d say she has a good husband, then,” she responded.
He smiled even more fully. “How could I be anything other?” he asked simply. “Now, eat that and go to your rest with a calm heart.”
It was not long before the young Man began to stir, and her tall guest rose to kneel by the low cot and saw to his care. Yes, a born healer he was, she thought as she heard the reassuring tone in his voice and noted how competently he saw to the younger Man’s needs. He was speaking with the young Man in the high tongue as easily as he’d spoken with her in the vernacular. A healer, an herbalist, and a scholar, apparently, she thought. Somehow this was reassuring, and she soon relaxed into sleep, soothed by the Man’s humming as he oversaw the administration of a draught he’d brewed up for his younger patient. Somehow just having him within her house, as small as it was, made her feel safe and watched over.
The storm was past when she awoke again, and moonlight was flooding past the swiftly shredding clouds and slipping through the cracks in her shutters. There was a distinctive odor, and she realized that the younger Man must have been coaxed to use her chamber pot. He lay now with his eyes closed, visibly swallowing. “Him, he’s dizzy?” she asked the taller healer.
“Yes,” he answered, making certain the lid was closed over the vessel. “We’re fortunate he’s not become seriously nauseous. I’m allowing him to move as little as possible for the moment. The blow to his head was a glancing one, but not anywhere as serious as I’d first feared. He will be all right to travel after another day, I’d say. I grieve we will not be able to leave ere that, but shall see to it that you are well recompensed for your courtesy and hospitality.”
He was examining her chamber pot. “I admit to being surprised by this,” he said, lifting it slightly for emphasis. “It is quite old, and of Elvish make.”
She gave a slight nod. “My Amdir, long ago he made a journey to Dol Amroth with some others from the village yonder. Brought that back for me, he did. Said as he found it in the ruins of the old Elf city t’other side of the harbor. Said as the Elves made beautiful things such as shouldn’t go wanting for use. Said as I deserved beautiful things for taking the likes of him as husband.”
He gave her that winning smile. “He was a wise Man, your Amdir, and one who knew the worth of a good woman.”
She felt she was blushing as she’d not done for long years, perhaps not since that day when Amdir had returned from his journey to the Prince’s city, bringing with him such an item as a chamber pot wrought ages past by the Elves. Then, thinking, she eyed her visitor in the firelight. “You are from the White City?” she asked. “You know Elvish work, and it’s said our new King and Queen are both tied to the Elves. Most people wouldn’t recognize Elvish work, I’d say, but you do.”
He shrugged. “Yes, the stories are true. Our Lady Queen is own daughter to the Lord Elrond Peredhel, all blessings upon him for granting her presence to those of us who will remain throughout our lives here in Middle Earth. And for a time we will know trade with those Elves who remain in the hither lands, and many will know the blessings of Elven work, as well as Dwarven work and even Hobbit work. When I return to the capital I shall see to it you receive samples of each.”
She gave a snort. “Not what you’ll remember the likes of me when you are back among your own.”
He gave a short laugh. “Do not count all of your chicks as cockerels ere they come of an age to begin to lay,” he said, quoting an old adage to her. “Now I’d best get this emptied out into the jakes, as I doubt you will wish to use it until it’s been cleansed, not after young Bergil there. Shall I bring in some extra water, think you?”
She shrugged. “The rain will have filled the cistern and the butts. And there’s a tap in here to allow me to draw water from the cistern without needing to go out to fetch it. My Amdir, he sought to make things as easy for me as is possible.”
“A good man he proved to you, I’d say. I will return soon, then.”
When she awoke again she saw him dozing in the chair that had once been Amdir’s, and on its stand stood the Elvish chamber pot, properly clean, she was certain. She smiled and returned to sleep.
When she awoke again water was already steaming over the fire, which had been properly stirred ablaze for the morning’s cooking. The youth Bergil was awake, and gently rubbing at his eyes. She sat up and looked about. The older Man was gone out, most likely to see to his horse, she thought. Well, she needed the jakes, and so she’d go out and use them, even if it meant she’d have to rouse him from them so as to give her a proper turn. She simply did not feel like relieving herself in front of the younger Man, recovering or not from his fall from his horse. She smiled at Bergil and wished him a good morning, and rose to prepare her for the day.
She did not see the taller Man until she came out of the jakes. He was coming from the direction of the fields to the south of the village, leading a dappled grey horse that was still laden with a saddle that was knocked somewhat askew, its reins dark with wet and mud, leaves and twigs caught in its mane and tail. One of the saddlebags had been torn open and appeared to be empty, although the second appeared to be whole and properly packed. “You found his steed, then?”
He nodded. “Yes, and not badly off, I rejoice to say. There’s a bit of a scrape to its off hock and another to its shoulder, but no serious damage done. It, too, will require a bit of time to recover from its fright. There was a bolt of lightning that hit a tree quite near us, and this one found that more than it had bargained for. Bergil was scraped off when this one tried to hide among the trees of your orchard—he held on quite well until they went under that last branch. I will see him into the byre by Roheryn, with your permission. I am sorry that we must impose upon you for a time, but until our other people find us it is best that we remain in one place and that Bergil not bestir himself more than is absolutely necessary. I set some water to heat for the morning’s needs.”
She gave him a smile. “Will porridge be acceptable to you and young Bergil?” she asked. “And we have some peaches that I put up last summer.”
“That sounds delightful! And in return I shall see what there is I can do after last night’s storm to set things aright for you.”
When the porridge was ready she came out to find him refashioning the hinges to the gate to her poultry run, and saw that he’d gathered a number of fallen limbs and had set them into as orderly a stack as was possible near the byre. He came in and ate both swiftly and neatly, checked Bergil and appeared pleased with the young Man’s condition, and went out again to continue such work as he could find was needed.
When he came in with an armful of wood to set beside the fire she shook her head with amazement. “I could become quite spoiled,” she said, “having all of my work done for me in this manner.”
He laughed. “It is good to have something physical to do,” he assured her. “I feared I should forget how to do such things, so long have I dwelt within city walls.”
After nuncheon he went out again, and she found him kneeling within the kitchen garden, examining the young plants and doing what he could to see them cleared of the storm’s debris. She joined him for a time, concerned that he might do more damage than good; but he proved to be knowledgeable about such things as seedlings, and she saw no signs that he was pulling up young lettuce mistaking them for weeds or any such mistake. At last she left him to it, and went in again to find the younger Man sitting up, glad for her company.
It was late afternoon when she heard a hail from the orchard, and she went to the lane between the trees to greet a small company of about five soldiers. “You looking for a tall Man and a second little more than a boy?” she asked. “They arrived here at nightfall in the midst of the storm. The young one is sporting quite the bruise to his head, but will be well soon enough. The older one has been caring for him, and says he ought to be able to rise on the morrow.”
“Our Lord was unhurt, though?” asked the one who appeared to be in charge.
“Oh, yes. He’s out in the kitchen garden, seeing to it. Seems what he knows what to do with the young plants.”
One of the soldiers shook his head. “Trust our Lord to be working in a garden,” he said. “Who would have ever imagined the likes of him being so fond of gardening?”
Three of the five left again, while two remained, although on orders of the tall Man they went into the village to take a room for the night. One returned with provisions to replace what the Lord and his soldier had eaten and with grain for the horses, and from what she could tell one or the other remained outside the steading on guard throughout the night.
Seven Men arrived the next day, leading an extra horse for young Bergil, as the dapple grey was deemed in need of more time to recover from its own injuries. The tall Man again thanked her for her hospitality and kindness, and offered to pay her for allowing them to stay with her, but she would not accept it. “With all what you’ve done, how could I accept more?” she asked. “No, go your way, and may you rejoice to return to your wife again.”
He smiled at her. “Oh, I always rejoice when I see my beloved Lady,” he assured her. “And at least I will be able to return Bergil to his father little worse for the wear.”
She laughed and gave him a familiar swat to his backside, and he left, mounting his horse with a wonderful grace. In moments they were gone down the lane between the trees, and she went back to look about the place, amazed at how neat and clean all was, the yard swept, fallen limbs drying for firewood, the hens contentedly pecking the ground behind the renewed gate to their run, safe from fox and other predators, and the plants in the kitchen garden all standing straight and green, each one she would swear several inches taller than it had been before the storm. Her unexpected guest had indeed left things far better than he’d found them!
Some six weeks later she was sitting in her door yard plucking a foul for her dinner when a small cart came down the lane. Surprised, she rose and approached the place where the lane emerged from the overarching limbs of the orchard. “You are Mistress Mithrellas, the widow of Amdir the orchardist?” the carter asked.
“Yes,” she said. “You seek me out?”
“Yes—I was given a cartful of goods I was to bring to you.”
“Goods, for me? But why?”
“I was sent by the King, Mistress. He told me that you were promised samples of workmanship from the various races and peoples who have allied themselves with Gondor, in thanks for the hospitality you showed to him and to his guardsman when the younger Man was injured in a storm some weeks ago. Shall I carry them into your cottage for you?”
She stood, paralyzed with shock, as he pulled back the heavy canvas that served as a tarp over the back of the cart and began carrying items into her house. There was a proper bedstead with two mattresses upon it, new linens and blankets far finer than she’d ever possessed; two cooking pots and metal spoons and ladles she was told had been made by the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain; a set of mugs that came all of the way from the Hobbits’ Shire, from the land of the Cormacolindor; a table of finely carved lebethron that came from Eryn Lasgalen; and a beautifully made basin and ewer set that had been brought to Gondor by the Queen Arwen from her father’s home in Imladris.
“It was made by the High Elves,” the carter said proudly as he set the ewer within the basin in place on the wash stand. “The Queen was insistent that you should be gifted with this in particular, for succoring her husband and their guardsman. She loves our Lord King so very much, you see.”
She could barely speak as he took his leave, but he was smiling as he drove away, realizing how overwhelmed the old goodwife was by the gifts sent to her from the White City. Only after he was well gone did she return into the cottage to examine each item. Most of it was proper to its new home, save for the ewer and basin, those and the table. Those were of the most exquisite workmanship imaginable. And although they didn’t exactly match the chamber pot, yet they managed to go well with it!
At last she found that the cottage could not hold her gladness, and she went outside, looking about her again at all that the tall Man had set right in the day he’d remained in her house. She wandered over to the low fence that surrounded her kitchen garden and looked down at the neat rows of plants—onions and tomatoes, marrows and peas and turnips, remembering how she’d knelt by him as he’d labored over her storm-tossed garden and set all aright once more. “The King—that was no mere Lord, but the King’s own self! Who could have thought that the King was a healer, an herbalist, a scholar, and a gardener—and such a good Man?”