1. The Wizard and the Herbwife
The Wizard and the Herbwife:
The knock on my door was solid, as though someone were thumping it with a cudgel. Given the headache I had this morning, I felt as though my head were being thumped also. I knew that it was unwise of me to have partaken in the celebrations of Dirk Breeton over the latest of his children. This one was a girl, who looked fair to take after her mother in colouring at least. From what I'd seen of the child, though, she was never going to have the height of her mother's family, nor their narrow build. Which was all to the good. I'd be needing to have words with Dirk and Bronwen about the possibility of her avoiding having any further children. Each of the three births she'd been through had been hard, and it was likely that the next one would kill her.
Either way, the pounding on the door hadn't stopped. I made my way down the stair, twisting up my hair in a rough knot as I did so. The pounding got louder as I neared the door.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," I called, wincing as I did so. "And if that's you, Barliman Butterbur, I swear I'll throttle you."
I'd noticed that the dog wasn't making any clamour. That usually meant that it was one of four people: Nob, Bob, Barliman, or Strider. Of the four, Nob and Bob were more likely to knock politely and wait, while Strider would be more likely to come to the back door. Barliman usually wasn't that much of a noisy type, but with Jenny looking likely to drop her first any day now, I could imagine him panicking at a false labour and rushing to get me by pounding the door down. I quickly checked over my birthing bag, to see whether I'd replenished the supply of birthing herbs in there (I had; I'd apparently not been completely drunken last night, thanks be to all the Valar). Then I opened the door.
I got the shock of my life. I'd been expecting to see someone I knew, but this man before me was someone I'd never seen before in all my days. He was tall, and seemed relatively thin, but the overwhelming thing about him was his age. All I could think was that this man was one of the elderly folk from one of the outlying areas west of Staddle. He was very tall, wearing a grey cloak, with a very long grey beard, as well as a very tall hat. He carried a long staff, with which he must have been pounding my door.
"I do beg your pardon sir," I said, as I gestured for him to come inside. "I thought you were someone else entirely, else I wouldn't have spoken to you as I did."
He looked down at me, rather disapprovingly. "I come seeking the herbwoman, Breelindir," he said, with a touch of bad temper in his voice.
I looked back. "You've found her. What would be the problem?"
"I wish to ask some questions of you, Mistress," the man said, looking somewhat less grumpy.
I considered this. Normally, I'd be more likely to say to people that if they're wanting treatment, they'll need to come to me, but given that I'd not seen this man before, I'd say that he came from a fair distance away. I could go with him to whoever was injured or sick, but I'd be leaving Barliman without my services (and even though Jenny looked hale and hearty, and would probably give birth without any problems whatsoever, Barliman would never forgive me). Advice might be the best I could do for now.
"What are the signs of the illness?" I asked, fairly sure of the reason he'd come to me.
"What? Oh, I have no illness," he replied, gruffly.
"So I see. Injury, then, is it?"
"I have no injury either, Mistress Breelindir. I come to speak with you about someone else."
"So I'd gathered. I'll still need to know the signs of any injury or illness that they have in order to give you advice about it, though." By this time I was starting to get exasperated with the man. Surely there was no need for all this roundaboutation, even if he wasn't sure what I was wanting from him.
My irritation wasn't helped by him suddenly shooting me a very piercing look, then smiling. Admittedly, he looked a very pleasant man when he smiled. I thought I could detect traces of a very fine young man many years ago, but if he was wanting to speak with me about something I just wished he'd do so and let me get back to my bed and my rest. A twenty-hour labour isn't comfortable for the woman having it and it's not that much less uncomfortable for the woman assisting.
"I do beg your pardon, Mistress Breelindir," the man said. "I suspect we were talking at cross-purposes. Let me start over. I do not come to consult with you in your professional capacity. Instead, I would talk with you about a pupil of yours, a man known as Strider. My name is Gandalf the Grey."
I started at the name. It was familiar: he'd long been a customer of the Prancing Pony, and I could remember Barliman speaking of him a number of times. A wizard, by all accounts, although I wasn't too sure of the truth of that - I knew that rumour tended to name any man healthy past his fiftieth year a wizard or a Northerner, while any woman who lived on her own was a witch (such as myself). I pulled myself together and nodded.
"In that case, sir," I told him, "you'll give me leave to get myself a cup of tea, I hope. Would you fancy one yourself?"
He nodded. I gestured him through to the kitchen, where I put the kettle on the hob and got the makings of tea together. Peppermint, today. I felt the need of it to ease my stomach, as well as for the general calming effect that it had on me. I enquired of my guest whether he wished a different one, but he shook his head. All to the good. My supply of Haradic tea was dwindling, to the point where I now kept it for special days.
"Why are you so wroth with Barliman Butterbur, Mistress Breelindir?" The question was unexpected. I looked over at my guest. He looked both curious and mischievous. I couldn't help smiling back.
"Normally, sir, I wouldn't be. But his wife, Jenny, is due to drop any day soon. Their first."
"Ah, and good Barliman is being a panicky father about the whole business?"
"Aye. 'Tis not helped by the fact that he's near to a brother to me - I were raised by his mother, after my mother died of the fever - and he won't believe that even after five years and countless babes in the town and surrounds brought into the world with my help, that I'm a good enough midwife for his Jenny. He came out here about a week ago, all in a panic about Jenny being sore in the belly, certain that the labour had started. Of course, it hadn't, and both she and I knew this. She'd eaten some slightly green apples, just needed a dose of peppermint tea to settle her stomach."
A smile from the man opposite. A friendly smile, one with a touch of knowledge about it. "I take it you are good friends with Jenny?"
"Well, she's as near as I've got to a sister at the moment," I said, "being as how she married Barliman. They've not been lucky in her pregnancies - two of them she lost early on in them, and this is the first she's kept to term. I've been watching over her, making sure she doesn't wind up with any complications." I paused, looking into the fire. "It'd tear poor Barliman apart if she lost another, so it would. It'd tear him apart even more should he lose her. I can't blame him for his worries."
"Is it your own worries which have been keeping you awake well into the night?" the wizard asked me. I looked up at him. He was looking at me, with a touch of concern in his eyes, as though he'd spotted the bone-deep weariness which was afflicting me. I smiled back, tiredly.
"No, it's just that I've been helping another of the local women with her latest. T'was a hard birthing, and I feared for both her life and the child's at one point. I've got to have words with herself and her husband at some point soon, make it clear that if they carry on, another child's likely to kill her."
"It sounds as though it's a bad year for Bree, when it comes to babies," was the comment from my visitor. I looked up at him, and shook my head.
"Nay. Actually, it's been a damn good year for 'em. There's been about twenty or so just in the local area in the past month. I've been near run off my feet, keeping an eye on the women and a lot of the local grannies are helping me out with the midwifing. If all the children survive the fevers and pox, the town looks fit to grow greatly in another sixteen years or so. It's been a very good time all around, to be honest. Good harvests last year, good crops in progress now. It's so good all the farmers are braced and waiting for a catastrophe."
The last brought a laugh out of both of us. Apparently the old man knew what farmers were like - always bemoaning something, or dreading the next problem, never appreciating the good fortune they had now. I swear, with some of the local farmers, if they had seven good years in a row, they'd moan about the lack of storage space in their barns.
I took another sip of my tea. I could feel the headache I had easing, which was all to the good. Another day of hard work beckoned, one I wouldn't be able to complete with my head throbbing.
"Now sir, you said you'd come to speak to me about Strider," I reminded the wizard before me. "Could you describe the man to me?"
This got me an appraising look, with a touch of approval in it. "He's tall and rather thin, with a nose like the beak of a hawk; dark hair, starting to grey around the edges. Carries both a sword and a bow and moves very silently."
I nodded. That meshed with my own knowledge of Strider. "And what would you ask of me about him?"
"I had come to ensure that he was getting trained by someone who knew their business," was the frank reply. I looked at the old fellow, thinking about my reply.
"Well, sir," I told him eventually, "most of what I know is what I've learned from books, and what I've learned from the women hereabout. I've one or two books of herbal lore, which I use to help me in choosing which remedy to use, but where I don't know what I'm doing, why I do nothing. My first principle is not to hurt people more than they are already."
This got an approving nod. "I had gathered that you were good at your trade when you first questioned me at the door. You strike me as a sensible woman; I was glad to hear that confirmed in your principles about healing. If you like, I shall see if I can find you some more books on herbal lore - to aid both yourself and your pupil in your studies."
I looked up at him in wonder. "Oh would you sir?" I asked, hardly believing what I was hearing. "I would so appreciate it. It's just so hard for me to get hold of anything here - the peddlers all know that I'm looking, of course, but they ask so much coin for just a single book of simples. Truth be told, I've been wondering what I was going to do with Strider. I'd guessed that he was learning herbal lore to provide a cover for his presence here, but he's been going through the few books I have so quickly, I'd been despairing of what to do next. He learns so fast, sir. I'd swear he knew much of this already."
"Possibly he did," was all the answer that I got, although the look that accompanied it was piercing. "In that case, I shall add to my offer," he told me. "I shall also assist you with any difficulties you have in the learning, does that sound fair?"
I was past wonder. This was bliss. Not only more books, but someone else to help me. Something I'd been praying and wishing for since first I'd started as herbwife here. All my dreams had come true and I was awake to see it.
"Done, sir. And more than done." I held out my hand and we shook hands on the bargain. I got up to put the kettle on for another cup of tea, when there was a sudden flurry of knocking at the door.
"Mistress Breelindir," came the voice. Nob. Oh dear. "It's Missus Jenny, she's having pains and it sounds like she's going to be birthing the baby soon."
"Coming," I called, rushing for the door and grabbing up my birthing bag as I passed. I looked back at my guest, who appeared to have vanished, although I could hear the noise of the back door banging shut. Ah, good. I whistled the dog to me, locked the door and dashed off down the path, in the direction of Bree and the Prancing Pony. While I rushed after Nob, I thought on the offer I'd been given. Well, even if this Gandalf the Grey wasn't really a wizard, I could always do with someone who was able to get me books on herb lore. Life was looking up.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.