Ithilien, June 1442
„Mama, this dress is much too long. I've already stumbled over the hem – twice!"
Rosie Cotton stood in the middle of a huge, elegant room with windows made of precious colored glass, and the expression on her face hovered between laughter and irritation. Elanor stood in front of her, arms crossed, eyes shooting thunderbolts. A moment ago Rosie had been thinking that her beautiful daughter looked so much like a Gondorean princess – well, a rather short gondorean princess, to be honest – but this was definitely the familiar, all too well-known - and very hobbit-like - Gamgee-stubbornness.
"It is a marvelous gown" she chided in a mild tone. „And you can't wear your simple skirt, blouse and bodice at the court of the Prince."
"Yes." Elanor snorted. "And I can't whistle with my fingers or climb a tree either. The only thing missing is the edict that I have to wear shoes!"
Rosie shook her head.
"You're behaving like Prim, really. And here I was thinking that Prim was the minx of this family!" She laid one arm around the tense, silk-covered shoulders and stroked a curl of golden hair behind Elanor's ear. "You should know by now that being Queen Arwen's maid of honor involves some duties… noble gowns included." A tiny smile on her daughter's face. "Don't you like it here, lass?"
"I do, Mam, I do." Elanor murmured. "And no one could wish for a better and more noble host than we have. But…" The tension returned into the slender body. "I miss Prim and Goldilocks and Daisy… I even miss Pip!"
Now Rosie laughed.
"Then you want to go home indeed", she said. "Last year when he ripped your first written tale to shreds and used them to light the fireplace in the boys' bedroom, you swore you would kill him."
Sam Gamgee stepped in.
"Who wants to kill whom?" he asked, eyebrows nearly vanishing under his tousled mop of hair.
"Don't fret, dear", Rosie gave her husband a reassuring gaze. "I think our daughter is a little homesick."
"Never mind, my sunstar", he said. "We will go home next month, and I must confess I dream of burying my hands up to both elbows in good fertile soil. I'm really looking forward to see how my rose bushes are faring,"
"I'd say you can find enough roses here", his wife retorted a little dryly, "Lady Éowyn has the biggest rose garden I've ever seen."
"Of course she has", Sam replied with some heat, "and a dozen gardeners to fuss over it. Every fallen petal is whisked away before it can touch the ground and there are even two men to grit the paths!" He shook his head in mild despair. " When I visited the vegetable garden yesterday and asked them to show me where they keep the shovels and wheelbarrows, they looked at me as if I had asked for a bath in the dung pile!"
Before Rosie could answer, there was a soft knock at the door.
A young man entered the room, tall and slender like a young tree, his long, flaxen hair tamed to a braid. The bright mane was a clear heritage from his mother, but the gray eyes and regular features were those of his father, Faramir. Elboron had just celebrated his twentieth birthday and would soon move to Minas Tirith to join the guard; during the next five years he would only return home for a few weeks around New Year and Cormarë. Rosie had a rather soft spot for the handsome, promising young man; he had a good sense of humor, showed her a natural friendliness and treated Elanor with delightful courtesy.
The young prince bowed. "My parents will be rather occupied this afternoon; an ambassador from Harad has announced his visit", he said. "and a rather unexpected one, I might add. Mother asked me to be at your service." He smiled at Rosie. "If you want to see more of the country, I could guide you to Henneth-Annûn, if you wish."
"Herbs", Sam suddenly said, to no one in particular. "I'd like to see some herbs."
The heir of the steward raised one eyebrow and gave the famous Master Gamgee his most polite smile. "Herbs?"
Sam waved his hand impatiently at Elboron. "Yes, herbs, of course. Parsley and thyme… or some fresh sage and rosemary… or at least chives!"
Elboron twinkled. A mischievous grin slowly appeared in his face.
"Would you like to see some lavender?" he asked. " I know a place where you can find the most aromatic fresh lavender… and melissa, too. And Lady's mantle, if you like, and even some young basil. And I was told that this seems to be a wonderful spring for ramson."
"Ramson?" Sam's eyes shone with delight. "Who told you that?"
"The Healer of Ithilien." Elboron replied. "Come with me… I'll show you." He turned to Elanor. "And you should perhaps change your beautiful gown to something more practical. It might well be that there are some trees to climb…" He grinned at her startled expression. "Excuse my impertinence… the door was ajar."
"Mama, why do you use meadowsweet for this powder?"
Two heads bowed over a huge bowl, surrounded by the strong aromatic scents of licorice and holly… a woman's and a young girl's. The woman had long red hair and the girl glossy dark curls, but they shared the same green eyes.
"Because of the taste", the woman said, gesturing to the mortar beside the bowl. It was filled with dried clusters of pale yellow blossoms. "It's very similar to vanilla, but you don't have to trade for it in Southern Harad. It grows everywhere in the woods around here." She took a few blossoms between her fingertips. "These are the last remnants from last year's harvest", she said with some regret. "Not very strong anymore; I will have until September to get fresh supplies."
The girl laughed.
"Oh… and then you'll make your prune marmalade with elvish wine and meadowsweet! Is it true that there was an argument last year about who should get the last six jars?"
"It is true". The woman grinned. "The King Elessar visited the Prince Faramir and tasted the marmalade. Then the King came down to our house to tell me that he considered it to be the duty of a good subject to fulfill even the most whimsical culinary wish of her sovereign. He tried to claim the last six jars for himself, but I had to refuse. That marmalade is your father's favorite."
She looked at her daughter. "How do you come to know about that story?"
"Elboron", Now the girl grinned, too, and the likeness between mother and daughter became stunningly obvious. "He told me that the King marched back to the house of the Prince soon after, murmuring something like 'disobedient witch' and 'stubborn like an old mule'."
"Still spying behind the corners, is he, the young prince?" The woman shook her head. "He's old enough now to know better."
"Why should he stop?" the girl retorted. "I bet I know more about the secrets of the court than Lord Faramir himself."
"Lírulin…" The woman began what would probably have become a serious educational lecture had there been a chance to finish it. But steps and voices suddenly became audible, quite close to the shed where the two were working. Maethor, last surviving son of the legendary Garaf, lay close to the door, sleeping. The enormous black dog raised his head, jumped to his feet, and before mother or daughter could react, pushed the door open with his nose and shot out of the shed, greeting the yet unseen visitors with a deep snarl.
"Good gracious – Maethor, stop! Stay!" The woman hurried around the table, abandoning herbs, powders and mortar; at the same time the dog – doing full credit to his name – started to bark. She ran outside, the young girl in her wake - and froze directly in front of the shed, eyes wide open in stunned surprise.
Maethor stood in the middle of the clearing, ears pricked up, lips drawn back from his enormous fangs. A threatening growl came from deep in his chest. Directly in front of him stood a hobbit, his feet firmly planted on the ground. One hand was reaching out as if in a silent, determined warning, the other one clutched the hilt of a small sword. Sunbeams met the blade, so it blazed with bright, blinding light. Two other hobbits stood behind him – two women – but all she noticed in this fraction of a second was the male hobbit in front, that grim, sun-tanned face under the barley-blonde curls, those narrowed, brown eyes and the firm line of his mouth.
She had never met him, but she recognized him at once.
"Maethor - heel!" Her voice bit like a striking whip, and in the very same moment a shout came from the edge of the woods. Elboron had appeared between the trees, leading a limping horse, and when he understood the situation, he let go of the reins and took a flying leap in the direction of the three hobbits. But the danger was already over.
The big dog lay in the grass beside the woman, gazing up at her with hanging tongue and a look of deep embarrassment, meekly wagging his tail. The hobbit still stood unflinching in his spot, sword in hand. Elboron came close, his voice unsteady and breathless.
"I'm very sorry, Noerwen…" he said, "but Rusca had a small stone in her right fore hoof, and I stayed behind to get it out. I simply forgot to warn our guests…I forgot that Maethor didn't know them yet."
Noerwen bowed before the hobbit, holding his gaze.
"Forgive me", she said, "but I'm sure you can put your sword back into its sheath. This is only our overeager dog, not a giant spider, and as soon as he knows that you are welcome, he will protect you as if you were a member of our family. And you are very welcome, Master Gamgee."
Slowly the tension ran out of his body, and then Sam's face relaxed in a small smile. He peered up to the clear face above him, taking in the big green eyes under the beautifully curved brows, the full mouth and the unbound, copper red hair, still untouched by the frost of age though the woman was not really young anymore.
"Do we know each other?" he asked.
"No, we don't", the woman replied. "But the song of Frodo with the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom is well known in these lands… and I had to protect our ignorant dog against the brave warrior who fought Shelob."
Sam put the sword away and raised both hands.
"Oh no…" He shook his head. "Not that song! I'm only the mayor of Hobbiton and a gardener since the day I learned how to tell cabbages from lamb's lettuce, and the only spiders I want to see for the rest of my life are those that build their webs in the hedge around Bag End."
His gaze wandered over the huge beds full of lavender, rosemary and sage, of Lady's mantle, foxglove and chamomile.
"This is a lovely place". he suddenly said. "You seem to have a good hand with herbs." Suddenly he blushed, obviously remembering his manners, and bowed deeply.
The woman laughed.
"Oh, I should have!" she said. "Excuse me, I completely forgot to introduce myself: I am Noerwen, Healer of Ithilien, and this", she took the hand of the young girl who had stepped to her side, "is my daughter Lírulin."
Sam turned around.
"And this is my wife Rose," he said, „and my daughter Elanor. She is a maid of honor at the court of queen Arwen, until next month when she will return home with us. "
Noerwen gave a reassuring smile, noticing the uneasy glances the two women shot in Maethor's direction. She gestured over to the house on the other end of the clearing.
"I've always heard that hobbits enjoy their meals enormously", she said. "May I invite you to lunch? We have fresh bread, cold pork roast, beer and milk, and my daughter has just made a wonderful spicy cheese with ramson and chives. Are you interested? And Lírulin – would you be so kind and lock that silly dog in the herb shed?"
No hobbit was able to resist good food, and half an hour later the table was laid in the back garden, on a small, plastered flag stone terrace. Flower tubs surrounded the lovely place, and in addition to the promised delicacies there was also honey, an apple pie and fresh fruits in a clay bowl.
The Healer and her guests enjoyed the meal; Elboron entertained them with stories about his wanderings with Noerwen and her husband, and she gave them a tour around the gardens and the shed. Afterwards, Rosie and Elanor wished to return to the palace with Elboron, but Sam's gaze rested with some wistfulness on the beds that lay in the bright light of the early afternoon. The air was heavy with the scent of herbs and blossoms, and the humming of many bees combined with the aftermath of two pints of Noerwen's homebrewed beer made him drowsy. He laid one arm around his wife's shoulder.
"Rosie, would you mind…"
„No, you ninny, I wouldn't." she said, planting a kiss on his mouth. "I'll tell Lord Faramir that you'll follow later. And you're right…" she smiled and her hand stroked his cheek, "now that I see this peaceful place, I'm really looking forward to seeing my own garden again."
Elboron left with Sam's wife and daughter, and he stayed back alone on the small terrace. Noerwen had offered him a huge, comfortable chair, stuffed with many cushions, and it took less than five minutes for his eyes to flutter shut. He didn't even notice the Healer returning from the front gate where she'd said farewell to her guests… only the pleasant feeling of a light blanket, spread over his legs, the sound of a warm voice and a soft laughter. Then he was fast asleep.
He opened his eyes to the deep golden sunshine of early evening, and when he sat up, he saw that the table had been cleared. A vase with roses stood on a deep blue tablecloth; he also noticed a glass carafe, filled with a straw yellow liquid, two mugs and a plate with small pies. The most pleasant sight, however, was a long pipe, a pot that obviously contained pipe weed and a small tinder box.
"Good evening, Master Samwise."
He turned his head and discovered the Healer. She sat beside him in a second chair, a smile in her eyes. He cleared his throat.
"How long… how long have I been sleeping?"
"Three hours." Now the smile had reached her lips. „I've filled a pipe for you, just in case."
"You've filled a…" He shook his head in wonder and reached for pipe and tinder box. "Are you sure you're not a hobbit lass?"
"Thank you for the lass", the Healer laughed. " But hobbits are not the only ones to cherish a good smoke, as you should know after traveling together with a ranger and a dwarf. Normally I'd fill the pipe for my husband; he's a ranger of Ithilien, but right now he's on duty in Osgiliath. - A glass of wine?"
Sam nodded, feeling strangely peaceful; he inhaled the smoke of the pipe and it was a good, aromatic weed. He tasted the wine, and it had a fine, fruity, green taste. The small pies were made with sour cream and fresh herbs. All the time the Healer didn't speak a word; she handed him what he wanted, but she didn't try to start any conversation, and he was thankful for her thoughtfulness.
"I like Ithilien", he finally said. "When I first came here, it was savaged and abandoned, but it still reminded me of a garden… a bit neglected and in dire need of a pair of able hands and lots of work, but willing to offer its fruits as soon as you were willing to coax them out… and as soon as the war was over, of course, it was beautiful."
The healer didn't answer, but he felt her attentive gaze on his face.
"Mr. Frodo was with me then." Sam explained, meaning to use the chance for a thoroughly told tale about their first encounter with Prince Faramir so many years ago… but then he fell silent. It was the thought of Mr. Frodo - the sudden memory of his Master, strong and astonishingly vivid, how he had been after the exhausting march through the Emyn Muil and the Death Marshes… how he walked through the disheveled loveliness of the former garden of Gondor, already too thin for a proper hobbit, his face gray and tense, but inhaling the sweet scents of Ithilien with tired, thankful wonder.
"I cooked a rabbit stew when I was here" he continued, and to his shameful surprise he suddenly felt tears burning behind his eyelids. "Not a very tasty one… I had no taters, you know, and Gollum didn't like it… but Master Frodo said it was good." He swallowed and tried a trembling smile. "Of course you don't know what I'm talking about… the stew was not a part of the minstrel's song."
"But it was a part of the tales I've been told", the Healer gently replied. "And your master was as homesick as you are. We met once in Minas Tirith and had a long conversation I will never forget, and he said: 'All I want is to get back to the Shire and pick up the threads of my life. I'm longing for my old familiar paths, the smell of the books in my study, the clattering of Sam's clippers in the garden… the sound of rain on the grassy roof, and the scent of the honeysuckle that hangs down over my bedroom window'"
Sam didn't dare to meet her eyes; he was afraid to burst into tears in front of a woman he barely knew. On the other hand it would be much easier to cry in front of the Healer, he thought with deep embarrassment. It would make my Rosie terribly sad if she knew how deeply I still feel the sting of that farewell by the havens sometimes.
"'Tis me and my Rosie who sleep in his bedroom now", he finally managed, "and the honeysuckle is still growing around the frame. I have to prune it twice a year… sprawls like nettles." A huge handkerchief miraculously appeared in front of his eyes, and he accepted it with unfeigned gratefulness and blew his nose. "I know this is ridiculous", he finally said, clutching the handkerchief in his fist," twenty years, and there are moments when I'm still bawling like a snotty-nosed babe. I should be over it by now."
"What makes you think so?" The voice of the Healer was very quiet. Sam gazed at her with some surprise.
"Well, it's not as if I haven't done well, since then. I own the most beautiful and famous smial in the Shire, I'm the Mayor, I have a wonderful wife and twelve children so far… who could wish for more?"
"No one, probably." The green eyes were full of warmth and deep understanding. "But that doesn't mend the pain of losing a friend you love."
"No, it doesn't." Sam stared at his hands. Then he laid the pipe on the desk and got up from the chair, folding the blanket neatly and placing it on the cushions.
"I should leave now", he said. "They will be waiting for me in the Prince's house." A sudden thought crossed his mind, and his face lightened up. "Do you know something? I have a suspicion that my Rosie is with child again."
"Every time she's nesting she gets sick at the mere sight of raspberries. Last week Queen Arwen had a bowl of fresh raspberries on her table, and Rosie's face turned downright green."
"Are you sure? Do you want me to examine her?"
"I do, but I'm sure Rosie doesn't. This will be her thirteenth child, and she probably wants to wait until she can meet our midwife at home. She has already helped Elanor in this world, and each of our children ever since."
"Then we should leave the care for your wife in her able hands." The Healer smiled. "Besides… I'm sure even Mistress Gamgee knows more about this matter than I do. She's ten children ahead of me. --- And you will return home in July?"
"Yes." Sam hesitated. "But… I would like to pay you another visit as long as I'm still here… if you don't mind." He cleared his throat. "I like your gardens."
The Healer stepped beside him. "And I could use your advice with my roses. I make a very fine oil from them every summer, but this year they are completely mildewed."
"You need soft soap and a strong brandy", Sam replied promptly. "But if you mix them wrong, you'll end up with a terrible mess and a lot of dead rose bushes."
"I will need your help with the correct recipe then", Noerwen guided him through the house, walked beside him down the path through the front garden and opened the gate. "And I can give you some fine ramson recipes in exchange, if you want."
"Oh, I'd love to have them!" Sam took her hand and gave it a firm squeeze. Then he turned around and walked over the clearing. Noerwen stood silent beside the fence and followed the small, upright figure with her eyes until the hobbit vanished between the trees and was gone.
Damrod of Ithilien returned from Osgiliath late in the evening. He guided his mare into the stable, sneaked into the house and was greeted by Maethor who was wise enough this time to reduce his welcome to an enthusiastic wagging of his tail and an attempt to lick his master's face. Damrod calmed the dog, washed the dust and sweat of a long ride from his body and sneaked up to the bedrooms. He found his daughter fast asleep, kissed her brow and spoke the same prayer he said every evening ever since his wife had laid Lírulin as a baby in his arms. Thank you for this gift. Thank you that her mother is still here… make both of them stay with me until the very last day of my life. Please.
Noerwen was still awake; she sat in their matrimonial bed, studying a huge tome in the light of two six-armed candleholders.
"You will spoil your eyes, love", he scolded gently, taking the book from her hands and closing it. He slipped beside her into the bed, certain that she could smell the scent of chamomile soap with the faint aroma of horse underneath. She turned to him and touched his cheek, and he could see the tender expression in her face.
"I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too." He felt her fingers running through his hair, and with a sudden sting he remembered that there were some gray streaks in it that hadn't been there only a year ago. I'm getting old, he had told her only last week, and she had laughed, turning him away from the mirror and kissing him. You remind me of Aragorn when I first met him, she retorted with a twinkle, and I'm sure the Numenorean blood in your people will keep you young even if your hair is white – which will look gorgeous, of course. And she had pulled him over to the bed and had proven to him that he was indeed young enough… young enough to rejoice in her unerring gift for love and the delightful blessing of her body.
"What did you do today?" he asked.
"We had visitors", she replied. "Very special visitors." Her eyes were shining in the candlelight. " Samwise Gamgee was here, with his wife and his daughter."
"So you've finally met him?" He laughed and kissed her. "You've waited quite a long time, haven't you?"
"Twenty-three years, to be precise", she said, pulling him down beside her. "But it was worth the patience. I've never met anyone with such a faithful heart before. He is astonishing."
He leaned in and buried his face in her hair.
"Did… did you ever regret it?" he suddenly asked.
"That you left your world behind… to be with me?"
It took some time until she spoke, and his heart sank. Finally she sat up, looking at him with an unreadable expression in her eyes.
"When I first read about the fact that the Ringbearer was too damaged to enjoy the rest of his life, and that he had to leave the shores of Middle Earth, I was tremendously disappointed and angry." she said slowly. "I didn't understand that it sometimes takes a harsh step to cure a wounded soul. But now I'm wiser."
"What does that mean?"
"I had to make that step myself, remember?" she answered quietly. "And it turned out as a blessing. I am sure Frodo Baggins is as healed and whole in the Undying Lands as I am now, here, by your side."
"But one day you will die", he said, his gaze fixed on the familiar, beloved face.
"As will he. That's the way we are created, love", she replied, gently closing both hands around his face. "But I am sure Sam Gamgee will meet his master again before he passes the borders between life and death."
She kissed him, the touch barely more than a faint whiff.
"And whenever I have to go, I want to have you by my side." she whispered against his mouth. "Do you promise me this?"
He nodded. "Nothing could keep me away from you." Not even my own death.
They lay side by side, and he remembered the honest, broad face of Master Samwise; he had met him in Minas Tirith, touched by his simple strength and generous heart. And despite the obvious happiness of the hobbit he had sensed something amiss… deep inside... something incomplete... something that had left an old, lasting scar on the soul of the famous, simple hero of the Ring War.
Let them be reunited one day, in this world or in the next, he silently prayed while he listened to Noerwen's breath grow slow and regular as she slid into slumber, and when I have to leave myself some day, let there be a world where I am allowed to be with her again, too.
Damrod held his wife closer, the sturdy figure of a hobbit with a barley blonde head still sharp and clear in front of his inner eye, and finally he fell asleep, a smile on his face.
Cormarë – Ringday (the 22nd of September, Frodo's birthday).
Lírulin – Quenya: lark
Maethor – Sindarin: warrior
Garaf – Sindarin: wolf
Rusca – Quenya: brown