I fled from the stillroom, Ioreth's piercing tones following me. "And mind you pick the right one this time, miss. We've no use for fools in the Houses of Healing."
Stupid old woman! How was I to know the difference between mint and fleabane? They looked and smelt so similar… and I had spent all my life here in the White City, and knew no more of wild greenery than a country bumpkin like Ioreth could have known the way to the Citadel when she first arrived.
I slowed as I came to the small knot garden set in the warmest south-western corner of the city walls. It was a peaceful place, with its narrow gravelled paths and symmetrical beds, though I could barely tell one plant from the next. Except the roses, of course; even I knew those, and I'd pricked my fingers enough gathering rosehips that I'd never forget them.
I drifted down the angled paths, scanning the garden for likely herbs. If I couldn't satisfy Ioreth that I knew the right ingredients for a calmative decoction today, I would have to forego my other lessons tomorrow, and continue until I got it right – a horrid thought.
Ah, silver sage; it was a safe plant, if not a very strong one. Ioreth wouldn't be impressed with my knowledge, but neither could she accuse me again of trying to kill my patient. I drew the shears out of my apron and grasped a handful to cut.
"Should you not wait until moonrise?" The bruised stems slipped from my hands, and I wheeled about. A stranger – a woman, in a draped gown of blue silk that made me want to weep in envy – stood at the garden gate. What was she doing? Noble ladies sometimes walked in the gardens of the Houses, but they never spoke to the healers. Indeed, there seemed to be a tacit agreement on both sides to pretend that the other did not exist.
"Why would I, my lady?"
A small arrowhead of puzzlement appeared on her otherwise flawless brow. "Sindelassë is always more potent at night, especially if it is gathered under a growing moon." She glanced up at the eastern sky. "The moon won't be at the full tonight, but he is waxing. You'd be better off to wait, else your brew will be so weak it will be nearly useless."
Obviously, some kind of noble eccentric. Perhaps she was even a patient here in the Houses? Of course, people from all over Gondor were flocking to Minas Tirith now, eager to see the new King and to begin rebuilding the city. She might just have arrived, perhaps from Dol Amroth, for she had the look of that folk, tall and pale-skinned with dark hair.
"What are you seeking?" she asked. "Do you need a heart's-ease, or a sedative?"
"I need something for sleeplessness," I admitted. "I am studying with the Healers, and herblore is one of my lessons, but I'll never learn to tell these plants apart. They all look the same to me!"
"Did you never think how alike all we two-legged creatures must seem to them?" She laughed, and a smile twitched the corners of my mouth. Scatter-witted she might be, but charming.
"Plants speak, if we have but the skill to listen. See, this one –" she pointed at a nondescript clump next to the roses. "What is it telling you? Look carefully, and tell me all that you see."
"It has broad, flat leaves on long stems that droop towards the ground, and the leaves are rather limp..." I stopped and looked up at her. "Does it need to be watered?"
"Well done!" she said, and smiled at me. That smile… I cannot think of words for it. It was a little like coming in to the kitchen on a wet day, cold and tired, and smelling my mother's seedcakes baking. But it was wilder too – like standing upon the walls of the city on a clear day, when the air shimmered over the Anduin, and it seemed as if you could rise up and fly free on the wind.
Together we brought water from the nearby pump and tended the thirsting plant – it was called wolfspaw, she told me, and it was an excellent febrifuge.
For an hour we tended the garden, or sat on the grass as she told me of one herb or another. We knelt on the damp paths (she paid no heed to the blotches that left on her skirts) and examined each plant's tiny differences in colour, form, and shape – how the leaves sat on the stem, whether they were oval or toothed, smooth or furred.
Of course, you are laughing up your sleeve already at the ignorance of this silly girl, not to question who this noble madwoman was, or why she was bestowing her time on a junior apprentice. But I never did – no more than we wonder, on a fine day, why the sun has chosen to shine on us. I simply basked in her presence, her interest in me, as the plants drank in the water.
In the end, of course, we were discovered.
"Helin! What are you doing?" Ioreth swept down the garden path. "You should have been finished an hour ago–" She faltered as she caught sight of my companion, then launched forth twice as fast. "My lady! I am sorry, she has only been prenticed in the Houses for a few weeks, she does not know you…" Even for Ioreth, this was garbled. Whatever was she on about?
"Stop pestering the Queen and come back to your lessons!" Ioreth hissed at me.
I stared at my ragged noblewoman. This was the beautiful, immortal elven Queen – this woman with loose hair and a smear of dirt on her cheek, who had spent twenty minutes discussing the use of manure on healing plants with me?
Then I met her eyes again, and finally saw the light of many years in them; but the smile had disappeared from her face. I felt very small and foolish as the Queen cut off Ioreth's stream of scolds with a quiet word, and dismissed her.
By now I was well-used to getting the rough side of a Healer's tongue, but this was sure to be worse than any lecture I'd had yet. I fixed my eyes on the muddy folds of her skirt, dipped a curtsey and mumbled, "I beg your pardon, my lady."
"Where no discourtesy was intended, no apology is required, Helin." Startled into looking up, I saw that the tiny lines on her forehead were back, and her eyes were sad and remote. She went on, speaking almost to herself now. "I am not used to the forms of propriety Ioreth and the ladies of Gondor expect me to preserve; I fear that they find me a strange Queen.
"You helped me to forget that for a moment, and I took pleasure in the simple gifts of earth and water as I have not done since I came to this city, where there is little enough that grows and is green." She looked directly at me. "I am sorry if I have caused trouble for you with your masters. I will not interrupt your studies again, but let me thank you for this time." She smiled once more, but it was only a shadow of her earlier radiance. "I enjoyed teaching a young one again."
Before I could change my mind, I blurted, "I enjoyed it too, my lady. And... and I would like to learn more. If you have time, that is."
"I am certain that we can both steal time from our busy days," the Queen said gravely. Then her smile blossomed forth in full, and my own mouth lifted in return. "I will see that Ioreth understands you were not at fault, and I will walk in the gardens from time to time and hope to meet you, Helin."
She drifted away with a rustle of muddy silk, and I stood blinking in the sunlight, wondering if I had dreamed it all.
Speaking as one healer to another, Arwen and Helin employ some technical terms in this story. A decoction is a concentrated herbal remedy extracted by boiling (rather than a tea or infusion, which is merely steeped). As the name suggests, a calmative is any herbal medicine with a mild sedative effect. A febrifuge alleviates a fever.
Much gardening folklore holds that certain plants will be more vigourous if they are planted and/or harvested during the proper phase of the moon.
Ironically, Helin is named for a flower (though I'm sure she is unaware of it); helin is the Quenya word for pansy.
"...this city, where there is little enough that grows and is green": an echo of Legolas' initial reaction to Minas Tirith in LoTR, Bk 6 Ch. 9.