Lethion smiled satisfied when he put the bread dough over the fireplace. This one would be perfect. Well, maybe not perfect, but so good that the baker would see that Lethion had some potential - enough potential to be considered as an apprentice, even though he was older than the others, who wished to learn a new profession. Lethion was not in the usual age for apprentices because he had already learned a profession. He had been a healer. However, he had barely worked as one, before he had found out that it was not the right thing for him. So he needed to find a new one. Lethion was good with mixing herbs to produce medicine and he had always enjoyed interacting with patients. Mixing ingredients and speaking with customers should not be much harder. Yes, he would become baker and this bread would convince old Master Hothron to take him as an apprentice. Lethion didnít know how exactly he would accomplish that, but he assumed bringing the baker a good bread that he had made, could only help him being chosen as apprentice.
He had prepared the dough very meticulously, taking great care to measure every ingredient precisely and proceed exactly as the recipe stated, as if he were making a medicine, where a mistake could have very dire consequences. He had been so concentrated that he had not heard the knock on his door or the shouted question whether someone was at home. Only after Lethion had put the dough over the fireplace, he was again aware of his surroundings and suddenly aware that there was a man standing uncomfortably close to his opened window, staring at his outside windowsill as if something wondrous might be found there. Lethion found that rather unsettling.
Unsure what to do Lethion went to the window and asked: "May I help you?"
He tried to sound stern and as if it was completely normal that he was having conversations with strangers through his window. It seemed more polite than asking this man what he thought he was doing and why he thought it would be acceptable to stand so close to other people's windows. It was also more dignified than a startled cry. Lethion was a little proud of how he handled himself.
"I apologize for appearing here", the stranger said and bowed.
He did not straighten himself fully after the bow. Probably so that he could keep looking at Lethion. The window was not as high as it could be. Lethion could look through it without problems, but the other man was much taller than Lethion was, and to appear completely in the window, he had to duck a little. It was an odd sight.
"I knocked, nobody answered and ...", the man outside started, but before he could explain himself Lethion interrupted him: "And so you thought, let's just explore the house and talk through a window?"
Lethion was upset that a stranger inspected his window without asking, but more than that he was confused about it. He was also slightly amused at the setting of the conversation and the posture of the other man.
"I went to this window, because it is where the Athelas was found, or the Kingsfoil if you know it by that name. I am afraid after young Bergil pointed me towards the window, my excitement took over and I forgot my manners. I am very sorry for that", the man explained. At least it sounded as if it was supposed to be an explanation. Lethion wasnít sure how it explained anything. Indeed, it gave rise to more questions, for now Lethion wondered who Bergil was and whether there was another man outside. He could only see one.
ďMy young guide has gone after he led me here, he had other duties awaiting himĒ, the man explained, once he saw Lethion looking around. So there was only one man interested in Lethionís window at the moment. At least that part was answered. But why this Bergil would lead anyone to his house was still a mystery. Lethion knew nobody with that name.
ďAnd he led you here because of Athelas?Ē, Lethion asked.
He didnít understand why anybody would search for that weed, even though he himself had done so not too long ago. It was a useless plant. It had been fruitless to get it; a waste of effort and a stupid thing to set his hopes on. He would never have gotten it, if there had been another solution. But Athelas had been his last hope. Lethion had had to try everything he could. In the end it had turned out that doing everything he could still wasn't enough.
"Yes, I wished to speak to you about your Athelas and purchase plants should you have some that you are willing to sell", the man outside said.
Lethion was glad that his thoughts were interrupted. His mind was about to go to places he tried to avoid. He hesitated a moment to decide whether he should have this conversation through a window or let the man in.
It would be more polite to let him in, Lethion mused. But it might be unwise, considering the man outside was not only a stranger, but a stranger that was much taller and by the look of him also much stronger than Lethion. Still, Lethion didnít feel threatened. Maybe he didnít because the man patiently waited outside with a slightly bend back as if that were normal. Or perhaps he didnít, because the stranger had an air of nobility around him. The manís looks made it obvious that he had noble heritage (his face would have given that away, even if he hadnít been so tall) and his clothes seemed rather fine. Most impressively, that tall man managed to look dignified despite the hunched posture he was forced to take. Lethionís interest was piqued by the man and his unusual quest to look at Athelas. Besides Lethion had nothing to do, but watch his bread, so he decided to invite the man inside.
ďI do have Athelas that I would sell, if you are truly interested. Do you want to come in, or do you prefer conversations through windows?", he asked.
The man outside laughed. It was a warm laugh that changed his whole appearance as if he got younger and freer by laughing and while he still looked dignified, he now seemed more approachable. Lethion smiled in return - because the laugh was infectious and because he was now sure that inviting the man inside was no mistake. It might only be Lethionís youth and naivety that made him think so - as it had been his naiveness that made him think getting Athelas would save them all - but Lethion felt sure that no evil man would laugh like that.
"Albeit speaking to you through your window has been a pleasure, my back would thank me if I ceased", the man then admitted.
Lethion let him through the door and then led him directly to the Athelas. That was what the tall man had come for after all; so Lethion didnít think anything about it until he found himself standing with a stranger in his bedroom. He probably should have told him to wait in the living room and bring the Athelas. Well, it was too late for that.
ďI keep the plants here during the summer, because it is the coolest room and the plants come originally from the north. They grow in Gondor as well, but I thought it. But it is better to not have them exposed to too much heat and I thought this was the best solutionĒ, he explained.
Lethion tried to make it sound as if he wanted to explain how to take care of the plants for the other manís sake. In truth, he felt the need to defend himself, more precisely to defend why he had led the other to his bedroom and why it was full of herbs (not only Athelas) and even some food. It was not what bedrooms were for, but the living room got very warm when he used the fireplace, while the bedroom stayed a little cooler even in winter, so it was the most convenient room for some plants.
Lethionís guest didn't seem to care about any of that. He only looked at the Athelas plants as if they were the most precious things he had ever seen. Lethion felt sorry for him. This man apparently thought the same foolish things about Athelas that Lethion himself believed not so long ago. Hopefully the reason this man thought he needed Athelas was not as dire as Lethion's had been.
"I am not sure what you expect from these plants. They certainly smell nice when put in hot water, but if you are hoping for wonders, I am afraid I have to disappoint you", Lethion said.
If he were a greedier man, he would have said nothing and sold the plants for as much as possible. But Lethion was not in dire need and he didn't want the man to be as devastated as he was, when he found out that Athelas wasnít the magical plant he had expected.
His guest looked at him surprised.
"You mean you know nought of their use? Did noone tell you what your leaves did?", he asked.
"Oh, I have heard enough tales about what the plant could be used for. Or rather I have read them. That is why I got them. It was meant for the houses of healing", Lethion told the stranger.
More specifically, it was meant for soldiers that had been brought to the house of healings just two days after Lethion had finished his apprenticeship and thus had become a full healer. The soldiers had suffered from some sort of illness that Lethion had not heard of before. Some of them had been brought unconscious, the others had been drowsy and their thoughts unnaturally desperate. Nobody had known how to help them. The healers had tried all they could, but the illness of the soldiers had only grown worse. Those who had not been unconscious from the beginning had become more and more spiritless. While their body had grown weaker, their mind had wandered to ever darker places where it would dwell longer and longer until it had stayed there. At that point the soldiers had fallen into a slumber from which they had not been able to awake. The patients hadnít reacted at all to anything the healers had done and were impossible to rouse. The only reason that Lethion knew something about the state their mind had been in was that they had sometimes spoken or shouted during their sleep and it had been clear that they had had terrible nightmares.
Not knowing what else to do, Lethion had looked through the archive to find other possible cures. He had hoped to find some writings about similar cases where the patients were cured by foreign treatments that he and the other healers had not yet tried or by forgotten medicine that they could rediscover. Lethion had thought that he had found what he had been looking for, when he had read about Athelas. Nobody had used that plant in the houses of healing and, before reading about it, Lethion had never heard of had any healing properties of that plant. But according to some old texts it was supposed to cure maladies with the same symptoms as the one that Lethion wanted to heal. Since the houses of healing had had no such plants, he had gotten them from outside the city. It had been some effort, but Lethion had been so hopeful, that he hadnít minded.
"I was a healer than. I got Athelas, because I thought bringing this plants might save some patients, who were doomed to die otherwise. It was the only thing I could think of and sometimes outlandish ideas are the ones that work best. But this idea was just foolish. In the end it was all in vain", Lethion said quietly, sharing only a part of his thoughts with his guest.
Then he added more loudly: "This plants are useless."
Their healing properties had not been forgotten, they had never existed at all and whoever had written about their powers had been sorely mistaken.
"Oh, but nothing could be further from the truth", Lethionís visitor insisted with surprisingly much force. "A foolish idea you say, when you saved so many lives by bringing Athelas into the city. If not for leaves of your plant, this land would have fared so much worse."
There was no doubt that the tall man believed everything he just said and he spoke so intensively that Lethion nearly believed his words. But he could not, for he had witnessed the failure of Athelas himself.
"I am sorry to say that, but you must be mistaken. No leaves from my plants could have saved lives. I tried. Everything. They all died", Lethion told the other man.
The writings had not been specific about how exactly this Athelas was supposed to be given to the patients. The only hint had come from some passages that had mentioned chewing. So Lethion tried to cut the leaves, crush them with a pestle, and mist them with water. When that had not worked, he had actually chewed the leaves. He had found it unclear and unsavoury, but there had been nothing to lose and everything to gain. But that had not worked either. So he had used it like other medication. He had made tea with it and linctus; he had put the leaves directly on the patients; he made salves out of it together with other herbs that he thought might help. Nothing had worked. Lethion had been forced to helplessly watch as his patients grew worse in body and mind. In the end he had been nearly relieved when death ended their suffering.
Lethion swallowed and hoped he would not cry in front of this stranger. He hated thinking of his failed attempts to save the soldiers. That was also why he had never come back to the houses of healing after the last man died. The healers there did not need him anyways. He had not been able to make any sort of change.
"Its power can be used only by some", Lethionís guest said. His tone was heavy and compassionate and there was something else in his voice that Lethion could not quite place.
"Ah, yes, that was mentioned. Dame Ioreth even said that only the king could helpĒ, Lethion remembered. He had always doubted that theory - not only because he did not want to believe that he could do nothing to help. Ioreth had mainly said that because of some myth about healing hands of kings. Lethion had heard that the king had indeed healed many, so there was surely some truth to that myth. However, concerning Athelas specifically, Lethion had not found any texts that stated the herb was only potent if a king was involved. There were only some vague lines that few could use Athelas, but Lethion had assumed it merely meant that not many knew how to use it. Then again, everything he found about Athelas was very vague and the name "Kingsfoil" must have come from somewhere.
"I don't know if it would have worked for the king. We didnít have one back then", Lethion said still in thought. He was grateful that he could think about that rather than about the dead. Could it be true that it was not the plant that was lacking, but the healers? Would the king have been able to help?
"I am sorry", the man said. He sounded so sorrowful at that moment that Lethion was tempted to reach out and pat his back. However, even crestfallen the tall man had some aura around him that clearly said ďDo not touch meĒ.
"Do you blame the king?", Lethionís visitor asked.
"Blame the king that Athelas doesn't work when I try to use it?", Lethion asked a little confused.
"That he came late", the tall man specified. "We have lost so many. These men could have been saved, had he come earlier."
Lethion had not even thought about it until now. He still didn't know whether the king could have truly saved them, even if the other man seemed very sure about that. For a moment Lethion did wish the king would have come earlier; that the king would have come to the houses of healing and would have taken charge of the patients Lethion couldnít help. Maybe the king would have been capable of healing the ill soldiers, and if not the responsibility for them would have been on him instead of Lethion and the healers. Then Lethion remembered what he had been told the king did before he came to Minas Tirith and his wish seemed unreasonable and very selfish.
"No", Lethion answered truthfully. "Maybe he could have saved these men, but how many more would have died, if he had taken another course? He did what he was destined to do and came when the time was right. Middle-Earth is better for it."
Lethion said this with conviction, even though he had never laid eyes on the king. Most inhabitants of Minas Tirith had gotten a glimpse of the new king, because they had attended the crowning ceremony or because they had seen the royal couple when they had waved at their subjects from a balcony after their wedding. Lethion hadn't felt like celebrating after witnessing death and didnít mind not seeing their new leaders. He was satisfied with the knowledge that Minas Tirith got rebuild. The city was improving with each day and from what he had heard that was true for the rest of the kingdom. Their new leaders seemed to do well and that was all Lethion was interested in. In fact, now that he truly thought about it, all of Middle-Earth was better now.
"We have lost much, but we have gained much more", Lethion said, more to himself than to his new acquaintance.
How could he not have noticed this until now? Before the fall of the dark lord there had never been a time when the people of Minas Tirith felt truly safe. They hadn't feared for their lives all the time, but the threat from the South had always been there and had been ever noticeable. Now that threat was gone. Lethion had been so devastated and focused on the deaths in the houses of healing that he hadnít noticed how much freer he was now. The city and the whole of Middle-Earth did not only recover from war, everything recovered from the shadows that had pressed it down before.
ďAye, we gained more than I ever dared to dream of", the other man answered softly with a smile.
Lethion could still see pain in his eyes; it was in the eyes of most people these days. But there was also hope and joy and not a small amount of gratification and Lethion couldnít help but smile too.
Lethion thought about sharing his thoughts in more detail, but decided against it. He had said what really mattered and the way the other man looked at him, made Lethion think that he understood him, even the words that Lethion had not said out loud. So neither of them spoke for a while. It was not an unpleasant silence. Lethion dwelled on the soothing fact that despite the great losses, everything was better now. His guestís mind seemed far away, but judging by the light in his eyes, it was at a pleasant place.
"Oh, how right you are, young friend. We have indeed gained much more and we owe it to those who died fighting for the good, that we make use of it", Lethionís visitor finally broke the silence.
He said those words a little louder than his previous ones and with much conviction. Lethion got the impression that he said it as much for Lethionís benefit as for his own.
"And you have played a much bigger part in this than you think. I did not jest when I said your leaves saved lives", the tall man started again.
Lethion wanted to disagree. He was unhappy that this conversation that had become unexpectedly uplifting, would be back to this useless plants again. However, before Lethion could interject the other man held his hand up and begged:
"Please, hear me out. You should have been told that long before and I am sorry you haven't. I think everyone merely assumed you heard somehow. The king is indeed one of few who can use Athelas to heal. And he did. Before the last battle he came to the houses of healings to help with the patients suffering from Black Breath. It is an illness caused by the most terrible of the Dark Lords servants and in severe cases it ends fatal unless it is treated correctly. I assume it is the very illness your patients suffered from. You were right in your findings that it can be cured with Athelas. In fact, that is the only herb we know of that can be used to heal patients with that particular illness. The king needed it and Bergil, a brave boy who ran errands for the houses of healing during the war, was sent to get some. The boy found leaves on your windowsill and with them the king could heal his patients. They would have died if not for your plant. The king was too late for the soldiers you wanted to save, but you took a great part in saving others, very valiant patients like Prince Faramir."
Lethion did not say anything for a while after the other man had finished speaking. It sounded like a fictional tale made up to make Lethion feel better. However, Lethion doubted that the other man would do that. It was possible that the tale was true, theoretically. Lethion had lived with a friend for some days during the war. Lethion had needed some company after losing the patients and his friend had been happy to host somebody who could cook at least a little, because his wife, mother and children had left the city when it had become clear that Minas Tirith would be in danger. Lethion had let all his plants at home and even forgot to water them for some days. When he came back to check the house, he was surprised to see that most plants in his bedroom still lived, even though they needed some special care in the next days to get better. The Athelas plants were amongst them, but back than he had also had an Athelas plant on the sill outside the window to see how it would do outside. That plant had been withered and the leaves had been missing. Lethion had gotten rid of the plant without any thought. It had not been surprising that the plant that stood directly in the sun had coped worse with the lack of water, and it would not have been a surprise either, if the leaves had fallen off because of that. However, now that Lethion thought about it, there were no leaves, not even dried, fallen down ones.
"I have heard that Prince Faramir was saved by the King. I wasn't home then and I haven't visited the houses of healing since...I havenít visited for a while", Lethion trailed of. After their talk the other man could surely guess when he had stopped going there and why. Lethion did not want to talk about that again.
"Maybe you should go back to the houses of healing. It won't be easy, but you seem to have been healer with a passion and the living should not give up their passion because of the dead", the tall man suggested.
Lethion thought about his words. His friends have told him similar things too. Until now he had refused to consider being a healer again, but the fact that his efforts had not been as useless as he had thought changed a lot. It would still be difficult to go back there. It would bring back memories and Lethion would inevitably lose more patients some day. However, the memories followed him wherever he went, and losing some patients might be worth it, if he managed to save more. Also, Lethionís guest has been right with what he had said before: They owed it to the dead to make use of the chances they had now. They had to try and do the best. Was it the best for Lethion to be healer? He once thought it was, then he thought it was the worst, now he was unsure.
"Maybe I'm a passionated, but bad healer", Lethion said in a joking tone, because he didnít know what else to say. He had no answer about his future to give the other man.
"You provided Athelas when others could not and that is proof to me, that you cannot be useless as healer. However, you might be very clumsy and have insufferably cold hands. I would not know", the man responded in an equally joking tone before adding very seriously:
"But I think you have a healer's soul. Speaking to you has been very healsome for me. Your words mean more than you know and I thank you."
Lethion didn't know which words exactly the other man meant, but he knew that he felt the same. The encounter with this man, odd as it has been, had been soothing his heart in a way Lethion didn't fully understand.
"It has been healsome for me as well", he confessed, sounding less intense than the other, but being equally as honest.
Both men were quiet for a moment before the taller one asked: "Are you still willing to part with your Athelas, now that you know what treasure they are. I will pay you their worth, of course, and I can assure you that they will be used for healing"
Lethion had nearly forgotten that the other man was here to buy these plants. His mind had been elsewhere, where only their conversation mattered and their surroundings didn't really exist. Now he felt like he was pulled back to reality and again noticed that they were in his bedroom. How could he have talked so long to a stranger in here?
"They would be used?", Lethion asked the more important question (not that he would ever ask the other man how they could talk here).
Lethion had always intended the plants to be healing supplies. When he had thought they could not be that, he would have sold them without thought. He had even considered throwing them away, but the healer in him could not help but care for everything living, and so he had kept watering them despite his dislike for them. Now that he knew of their power, he was glad that he kept taking care of the plants, but unsure whether he should sell them. Lethion would rather give them to the houses of healing, in case the king was willing to help again. He wanted them to be available to those who could use them. Maybe the houses of healing already had new Athelas, but then Lethionís visitor could have probably gotten it there and wouldn't have gone through the trouble to search for it. Who knew when new plants would be brought?
"I promise you, it will. I am here to purchase them for the king", the other man answered and all Lethionís doubts disappeared.
"You were sent by the king?", he asked and didnít try to hide his happiness. The plants would be in the hands of the one person who could use them. Lethion could not wish for a better new owner.
"One could probably phrase it like that. I am...", the man started to answer, but then went quiet and turned his head a little before he spoke again: "Is something burning?"
"The bread!", Lethion half shouted while running to the fireplace.
Nothing but the wood of the fireplace was in flames, but his hopes of making a bread that would impress the baker were crushed. Unless the recipe failed to mention that this special kind of bread was supposed to be black and smell burned, it was everything but perfect.
ďWell, so much for my plans to become a baker. Thank you for your warning. I was lucky you have a good nose", Lethion told his guest who had followed him. "And that after I have been such a lousy host. Letting you stand in my bedroom all the time without refreshments. Do you want something to drink? Maybe we should sit down", Lethion remembered his hosting duties very belated. Thinking about his time in the houses of healings had somehow made him forget all his manners.
"I am glad nothing happened and I am sorry for distracting you. You have been a very pleasant host, considering how we met. It was I who stood in front of your window uninvited and then entered your house without introducing myself. Others would have shooed me away. Some of my past acquaintances have indeed done so. But while I enjoyed our conversation immensely, I fear I have imposed on you too long already and should be going. Will this survive for all your Athelas plants?", the man asked and held out some coins - gold coins that were enough to buy not only the Athelas plants, but also every other object in Lethionís house and possibly even the house itself.
"It is far too much", Lethion protested.
Of course he didnít mind getting money and would be happy if he made some profit, but selling the plants so much above their value felt wrong.
"It is a very precious plant, and the money is also for the leaves that were taken without your consent or even knowledge", the other man explained.
It was still far too much. The leaves that had been used must have been half-withered and Lethion could not complain that they were taken without his consent, when there had been such a great need and he had not been there.
"I insist to not pay less", the man said.
Did the king know that the man, whom he sent to purchase things for him, was very bad at bargaining? Or rather, he bargained well, but had the opposite goal of what a trader should have. He should try to pay less, not more. Then again, Lethion should try to sell his goods for more money and not refuse it.
"Thank you", Lethion gave in and took the coins, while he led the man back to the plants. His guest took two of them and said that the king's men would come later to take the others.
"You are welcome to visit again. Next time, I will make sure to actually let you sit down and offer you some refreshment", Lethion said while bringing the man to the door. At least that he did like a proper host.
The man smiled and said: "I hope we will see each other again. Unfortunately, I do not have the chance to make visits like this very often, but I think we might meet in the house of healings. I visit there often and something tells me that you will come back someday. But I do not want to influence your decision even more. There are other honest professions and I have the greatest respect for bakers. Though I think it would be advisable to not burn the bread."
"But that was supposed to be my special treat. Tired of normal bread? Try the new bitter taste of Lethionís burned breadĒ, Lethion announced while he held the door for the other man. He would pretend that all of this was a joke and he had never intended to be a baker. Everything else would be too embarrassing.
ďIt has been a pleasure to meet you, Master LethionĒ, the other man said once outside, using the name that Lethion had just given to him.
Those parting words made Lethion notice that they hadnít introduced each other.
ďLethion son of Caldir, at your serviceĒ, Lethion said with a slight bow. He was eager to do at least a proper introduction, even though they were usually made when two people met, not when they said their farewells. But nothing in their encounter had followed any protocol, so Lethion guessed it was alright. An introduction at the end was better than none at all, he told himself.
ďAragorn son of Arathorn, at yours and that of your familyĒ, the other man responded, bowing slightly as well.
Lethion knew that name, though he usually referred to its owner as King Elessar. Was this really the king? Lethion could only stare at him in shock and didnít even hear the last farewell words that the man - the king - gave him before turning and walking away as if he were any other inhabitant of the city and as if this meeting had not been completely unusual.
Lethion stood in the door and stared at the back of the king until he couldnít see him anymore. Then he stared at the place the king had been before. When he finally woke up from his stupor, he closed the door with a big smile on his face. This meant the Athelas would be used for sure. It was incredible that only this morning Lethion had thought getting Athelas had been a stupid idea. It had been the best idea of his life.