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Peonies bloom and the world is full of liars. by Urloth

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Story notes:

A tentative helloween fic I wrote only to be given triple shifts back to back so I couldn't finish the first chapter in time :c

Story title is a haiku by Kyoroku (d. 1715)

Chapter notes:

Chapter title is a haiku by Issa (d. 1823)

Unbeta'd for now.

Baradui awoke feeling horrible. Her head was aching and her nightdress stuck to her with sweat. Her sleep had been restless; her roommate had a tendency to cry softly in her sleep, just loud enough to wake Baradui up, and despite the seaside location, this time of year the Havens of Sirion were oppressively hot.

She flung open the small window the sleeping room had, allowing in a trickle of sea breeze. This area of Sirion might have once received a good sea breeze, but with the walls of buildings that had gone up hurriedly and cheaply to house the thousands of refugees pouring out of Doriath and now Gondolin the breezes no longer stood a chance. Between her dehydration-headache, and the nearly nauseous feeling of exhaustion, she almost flopped back onto her musty, wrinkled sheets but stopped herself. 

No, she must go. There were scratches and bruises and suspected broken bones to diagnose. There were children who had eaten the wrong thing from the garden and those who suffered from inexplicable exhaustion and threadbare nerves; invariably diagnosed as grief though that never soothed the patient who usually wished for something that a trip to an apothecary could fix.

To the window she went and peered out, standing on tiptoes to get a small glimpse of the lodging house’s green garden. The sight soothed her own nerves and she gave herself a thoroughly unsatisfying sponge bath from the jug of room temperature water in the washbasin, placating her crawling skin that tonight she would have enough coins to pay for a trip to a public bathhouse.

Everything in Sirion was just so damnably expensive. Food and board. She already got a ridiculous discount for this cramped shared room, one of five that lead onto the same common room, for offering her services as a healer and even then she barely kept her stomach full from the grateful presents some patients gave her.

Tonight though she would have enough little copper coins to make a much needed trip to the one bathhouse she could trust to have changed its water since she last paid a visit. Cleanliness was a fact of life for a healer yet the authoritative body had yet to approve of an account at a reputable bathhouse for its healers. Oh if she wanted to go soak in a pool so thick with dead skin it formed a leathery surface on the bottom of it, she could do so for free. But one of the bathhouses that regularly serviced its pools and changed the water? 

She shuddered a little at the thought of the dirty bathhouse that, coincidentally, the sister of one of the members of the authoritative body owned, her resolution to spend hard earned copper at her preferred bathhouse strengthening.

She pulled on her robe and smoothed it down, staring morosely at the suspicious stain on the front pocket. The laundry too, tonight she would do the laundry, before the bathhouse so that she was partially clean and could spend more time soaking in the hot water. She spared a glance at her roommate, wondering if she should ask her if she would help with the washing.

Férinael continued to sleep, cheek probably glued to her tear sodden pillow. Baradui felt uncontrollably cross and guilty as she stared at her roommate. Cross because Férinael’s crying continued to keep her up and guilty because Férinael’s grief was natural; family lost, surviving sister disappeared and her betrothed taken by Orcs just outside Sirion. It was Baradui who felt a bit unnatural, having been unable to shed a tear despite her own losses.

Never mind. Let Férinael sleep.

The sun was barely dragging itself over the horizon which meant she had ten minutes to run to the house of healing before she was late. Baradui reached for her sole piece of jewellery, stroking the silver nightingale of the fibula with reverence and whispering a prayer before she secured it at her shoulder where all could see it.

More precious than a diamond, this fibula was her meal ticket. The nightingale was set against Melian’s Nimloth device in case the wearer had any doubt about who had issued the fibula. Around the rim was Baradui’s full names including best known epessë, her rank and the number that had once also belonged to a file kept in the large records office, in the grand House of Healing of Menegroth. 

Tuiweril Merilthuiwiel, ‘Baradui’, Journeyman Healer in Her Majesty’s Service. 02798 

No one in their right mind would duplicate fibulae like this, at least not in Doriath where the vast network of healers could constantly double check on one another. 

And why such a vast network on healers?

King Elu had, had his march-wardens.

Queen Melian had, had her march-healers to make sure the march-wardens didn’t die of anything less than decapitation.

Cheerful thought really.

Baradui’s legs flew across the ground as she sprinted towards Sirion’s house of healing, a considerably less inspiring structure than the “grand-house” of Menegroth. There was something that made her pause though, skidding on the streets uneven stones as she rounded a corner. 

A patient, two years past, had given a gift of several peony root divisions to the healing house. Not knowing what else to do with them, they had been duly planted by Baradui and the other healers in their minimal free time, along the barren patch of earth that separated the healing house from the street. The root sections had been miserable brown things that had reminded Baradui of nothing more than desiccated hearts.

Now suddenly overnight, or so it seemed, they had become a thriving green wall with sheltered green buds the size of an infant’s fist.

She slowed to take a look at this sudden transformation and because of this, put herself right in the trajectory of another who was sprinting along the street to try and make it to the house in time. 

The resulting collision sent her into one of the bushes she had been admiring, whilst the projectile whom she tentatively identified as the girl who looked after the waiting hall, bounced back onto the street.

“Oh! OH! Tuiweril! I am so sorry! SO SORRY!” Hands clumsily plucked her out of the bush and brushed her down.

“No it is not a problem,” Baradui rubbed her head and frowned at the small smear of blood. She must have cut herself upon one of the branches. 

The girl, Lagorwen, still gave her a worried look probably frantic that she had not lost favour and thus her job. Given she had been given the job as a punishment to begin with, she lived constantly with the fear that she would be sent away for the slightest infraction.

“Really,” Baradui reassured her. 

Even if she had the rank to dismiss the girl for such a minor incident, she would not have. Lagorwen might have begun maintaining the peace of the waiting hall as punishment for an unspecified offence (possibly involving someone’s prized gazebo and a fire,) but she had swiftly discovered an innate ability to discern those actually in need of a healer from those who needed a cup of something hot and sweet and someone to talk to. Strange to think that a delinquent of 40 years old, not even old enough to drink in a inn, was now the only thing upon which increasingly frazzled healers could count on to keep them from complete exhaustion. 

It also stung a little that Lagorwen would think that of her. She thought they were almost friends, certainly Lagorwen didn’t talk to the other healers as much as she talked to Baradui.

“I thought I told you, you could call me Baradui.”

“It does not seem respectful… you being a healer but I will if you insist.”

Lagorwen beamed brightly at her and opened the little gate for her with a chivalrous flourish that had Baradui suspecting Lagorwen’s unnumbered mass of younger brothers had been playing at being “dashing lords” again and Lagorwen had been joining in.

“Thank you,” she chuckled and led the way in. 

-

It might have seemed a bizarre skill for a group specifically trained to take care of warriors constantly on the move, but no healer left the Great Hall without knowing the basics of midwifery. This was because whilst march-wardens were the strong backbone of Doriath’s security and heroes in their sacrifice for their duty, they were also still men (and women) with needs and the occasional drive to settle down and start a family.

Also horses. 

Must not forget the horses. 

“Everything seems to be normal,” Baradui had repeated that sentence so many times she probably said it in her sleep. 

The mother-to-be wriggled off the examination bed and began rearranging her skirts whilst Baradui turned her back to give her some modesty (despite where her fingers had been just previous) and washed her hands with the small lozenge of carbolic soap and water that Lagorwen had made sure was refreshed after every patient. (Bless her.)

The patient left with a soft murmured thank you and a gentle clink of coppers into the small box by her door.

Baradui rubbed the back of her neck and scowled at the sweat that she found accumulated there. She washed her hands again and pushed open the window of her examination room a little wider. A sea breeze, far less stifled than the ones that reached the built up refugee quarter, teased at the fly away strands of her hair.

Her rooms had once been a storage cupboard and the only redeeming feature of this was that it had been the cupboard that stored the astringent and antiseptic herbs (which it still did, in hastily built cabinets high above her head), leaving the small room smelling clean despite the clutter. Like the rest of Sirion, the house of healing was too small and lacked resources.

“Hello! Tisane time! And I have some news for you!” Lagorwen poked her head around the door carrying a large mug of apple tisane laced heavily with honey and a slice of some sort of bread which was probably a present from one patient. Such offerings tended to get shared on pain of horrible things happening to a greedy healer.

“Eru bless you and keep blessing you.” Baradui took the bread first and ate it in three bites before not-quite gulping her tisane, moaning in delight when she discovered it had been chilled. The thick ceramic of the mug was cold as well and without any shame she pressed it against the back of her neck, sighing in delight.

“I put the mugs in the chillroom with the tisane this morning,” Lagorwen beamed at her and frisked excitedly.

“What is the news you have?” Baradui unstuck her dress from her chest and pressed the still cool mug against her throat.

“A new healer arrived today… with… they look like farmers carts…but covered…and green.” 

“Healer’s wains, they are how medicines were distributed to the depots around the kingdom, to areas where a herb might not grow or some such,” Baradui felt a flicker of excitement. 

“Ah…well there are a few of those and one healer.”

“What sort fibula? Where is he or she going to work from?” the healing house was at full capacity, as evidenced by her storeroom-cum-examination-room.

“Silvery and he is going to work from the …uh…wains, I heard.” 

Baradui’s excitement dimmed at the mention of a silver fibula. She had been hoping to hear of the gold of a master healer. Silver fibulae indicated that the healer had left the main healing school Melian had set up and that all healers working in Doriath had to attend if they wished to practice their trade. Then for the next fifteen years, conveniently the amount of time that a healer who went through the healing halls had to serve amongst the march-wardens to pay for their education, they wore the silver. Silver indicated capability but didn’t indicate how much experience.

“Yes…silvery…that special sort of silvery,” Lagorwen was clicking her fingers, searching for a word in hear head. “You know, the really, really shiny silvery… ….shimmery….grey… misty …”

“Mithril?” Baradui’s excitement flared again and became an inferno. She leaned forwards and grabbed Lagorwen’s arms in excitement. “What coloured stone was it set with?!”

“YES! Mithri-whoa!! Turquoise”

Baradui’s excitement dropped.

“Not nacre?”

“What is nacre?” asked Lagorwen whose black lacquered hair comb was decorated with insets of the stuff.

“Mother-of-pearl,” Baradui tried not to shake her in frustration.

“Oh! It has another name? But no it was definitely turquoise. I did not see him for very long. He left to go back to where he has settled the… wains?”

“Wains,” Baradui confirmed and thought to herself for a moment. First was the disappointment that the healer was not likely to be her old mentor but following that was the excitement that they had a grand-master healer. Turquoise indicated their focus was herb-lore and the delicate chemistries of the apothecary room. The lack of resources in Sirion extended to its herbal medicine. 

“I am guessing this is something good? Bragollaer did a little dance when I told him so…”

“Yes,” Baradui nodded.

“But not the person you would want him to be?”

“No,” Baradui admitted with a casual shrug. “The healer who looked after the students starting in the same year as I, was called Nirthon and his badge was mithril set with nacre. I am still not sure what has become of him.”

“Ah, well perhaps our new healer might know. There were not a lot of healers with mithril fibulae were there?”

“A handful. They were the ones entrusted to teach in the healing school because their knowledge in their specialities was considered absolute. He is probably Lithwaloth if it is a turquoise setting.”

“He should know then.”

“Yes.” Baradui’s stomach coiled and the bread she’d eaten felt like lead. On the days she felt like admitting the truth to herself, she did not hold out much hope that her mentor had survived. The golodh had ploughed into Menegroth and the destruction there was said to be nearly absolute.

But if this honoured teacher had survived, surely others had piped up her little used voice of optimism.

“Well I had better let you get back to work. There is quite a crowd today, mostly to do with the weather.” Lagorwen hopped to her feet. She looked so young. Baradui tried to remember what she, herself had been like at 40, not actually all that long ago, but she could not remember being as cheerful and energetic Lagorwen.

“This heat is healthy for no one, especially if they live in the refugee quarter.” The infrastructure simply could not handle the amount of waste. She suspected she would be seeing quite a few cases of sore-stomachs, vomiting and diarrhoea in the coming summer months.

Joy.

-

The day had concluded and night had crept in by the time the last little copper coin rattled into Baradui’s box. Everyday all of the healers in this crowded house worked from the moment the sun could illuminate their rooms, to the point where they had used up their day’s allowance of candles and lamp oil, but still Largorwen had to send people lingering in the waiting hall away at the end of each day.

They did not have enough healers. They did not have enough space for the healers that they did have. They did not have enough medicine. They did not have enough space to house patients that needed on site care. It was just one big headache.

And speaking of headaches, that was what was pounding about in Baradui’s head incessantly. Her thoughts about going to the bathhouse and doing her laundry were dead, old things in the face of the incessant stabs of exhausted pain through her skull. 

She just wanted to sleep.

The evening meal sat in her stomach uncomfortably: the usual fare of vegetables and fish that the city provided for the healing house.

Someone knocked lightly on her door and she raised her head wearily to see Lagorwen peek in at her worriedly.

“Here, the last of today’s tisane,” the girl presented her the mug and took a seat, looking a little wilted and tired.

It was cold and beautiful as she drank it down.

“Another long day,” Lagorwen commented after a moment.

“Another long day,” Baradui agreed.

“The committee is talking about buying another house,” Lagorwen offered up second hand gossip with an air of hope.

“The committee says a lot but I have yet to see them do a lot,” Baradui mumbled into her cup, killing the conversation. She felt a stab of guilt but exhaustion was making her limbs like slabs of stone. 

Silence reigned over the room. The window was still open despite the growing dark outside and it was still as warm as it had been when Baradui had awoken that morning; an oppressive, never ending heat that baked your bones and stuck your clothing to your skin.

“My mam calls this weather ‘ghost weather’,” Lagorwen said after a moment, her voice gaining a slight Teleri brogue when she spoke of her mother who was the Teleri influence in her life.

“Does she? Why?” Baradui had never heard of that expression before. 

“Well she says that the heat makes ghosts restless so they start to wander about. That because bodies rot faster in the heat, the bodies that are in graves begin moving about. Which disturbs the ghosts lingering there.”

“That is utterly…” Baradui began, her nose wrinkling.

“Charmingly horrific?” a voice suggested from the doorway.

Baradui jumped, and Lagorwen jumped and then both turned to the doorway and shrieked a little at the looming, dark figure standing there.

“My apologies for startling you, ladies. Healer Tuiweril I wanted to make the acquaintance of all the healers I am to work with. I am Lithwaloth Mornion.”

“Oh I know,” Baradui answered tiredly without thinking then snapped her jaws shut, mortification painting her face bright pink. 

It was the truth though. Once she had gotten over her little fright she had recognised him immediately. There had been two teachers of apothecary in the healing school at the time she began her studies. One had been the patient Tuilinniel, onetime apprentice of Lithwaloth, whose gold fibula had been about to be replaced with mithril. The other had been Lithwaloth.

Tuilinnel had handled the introductory classes to herb lore. Lithwaloth had then taken over and ensured they were terrified of ever miss-stepping in an apothecary.

“You… uh… I mean… you… um… taught me sir,” she squeaked.

“I am not offended. I believe I have taught nearly all the healers here at one point; all of the Doriath trained ones at least.” Lithwaloth stepped into the room.

He was tall. Very tall. You noticed that first. And his eyes were dark to the point of being unable to see the colour of his irises. Completing this was the long fall of his hair, black save for a strange dappling of light grey across it.

Baradui realised suddenly that Lithwaloth looked like a Golodh. It was an alarming thought. As a student, with Melian’s girdle keeping the outside world at bay, most of the Noldor she knew of had been the golden haired relatives of their king and she had never made the connection. Now that she was a little more world wise she knew those golden haired relatives had been the exception to the rule. 

His dark eyes saved him from a complete resemblance though. Everybody knew that the flame-eyed all had grey eyes to go with their black hair. 

“Yes… ah…” Baradui hopped to her feet, followed by Lagorwen who was half bristling, half curious.

“Well it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance again Healer Tuiweril. I suspect the last time that I saw you, you were still wearing the copper badge.”

“It is a pleasure and an r-relief to make your acquaintance again as well Healer Lithwaloth,” the instinct to call him sir or Teacher was a hard one to suppress. 

Lithwaloth smiled down at her and she managed a smile back.

“Do either of you ladies need someone to walk with back to your homes? I am walking to the refugee quarter to meet an old friend.”

“No, I live in the opposite direction,” Lagorwen answered but with a worried glance at Baradui.

“I am going in that direction. Thank you for the offer,” Baradui went to her window and closed it tightly before locking up her room.

The lamps had completely died in the hallways and Lagorwen snuffed them behind her as they walked out, creating a feeling of pitch blackness stalking them. 

“Well…. Um, Baradui would you like me to walk with you too?” Lagorwen offered impoliticly, glancing at Lithwaloth, when they at last stood outside the healing house under the flickering glow of the candle lit street lamps. Baradui felt her face heat with both mortification and gratitude at the offer and also glanced at the elder healer who just laughed, not insulted in the least.

“No I shall be fine but thank you for the offer. I am going to the bathhouse on Haddock Street then straight home to bed,” Baradui offered the last part as a sop to Lagorwen’s worry and they parted ways.

“A good friend,” Lithwaloth commented as they began the walk into the refugee quarter, “or you shall be when she is a little older and you have stopped thinking of her as a child.”

His words were accurate to the point of pain and Baradui winced a little at the censure she imagined they carried.

They walked in silence a while. Then suddenly Lithwaloth exclaimed “aha! Dewberry!” which made Baradui’s face flame with colour all over again.

“Forgive my silence, I was trying to remember what class you belonged to, you were a Dewberry were you not?”

“Yes that was my class Teacher,” Baradui mumbled shyly.

“And Nirthon Sigilion was in charge of the six of you.”

“E…eight,” Baradui corrected, “we had the Canniel twins join us halfway through the first year.”

“Oh yes I remember, Healer Cannion’s daughters.”

Lithwaloth was smiling and it was a charming expression on his haughty features.

“Teacher…” Baradui started.

“I am hardly your teacher any more Healer Tuiweril, you may call me Lithwaloth if you wish.”

“Then I insist you call me Baradui,” Baradui reciprocated and then shored up her courage and started again.

“Healer Lithwaloth, about T..teacher Nirthon…”

They had come where Haddock Street turned off the main road and there they paused in the light of a street lamp. Baradui was staring up at Lithwaloth with her stomach tense and sore. Lithwaloth’s dark gaze, which she recalled from her student days as being as impenetrable as obsidian, softened.

“He died in the kinslaying,” Lithwaloth said gently but firmly. Baradui felt the words like a chilled punch to the stomach and reached up to grip the lamppost for support. An icy feeling of nothingness began to spread through her chest and her throat began to hurt. She swallowed convulsively. Six years of uncertainty had just been ended and the news was what she expected. It was still hard to comprehend though.

“H…how… if you know?” She croaked.

“Ah that is a discussion best given a couple of hours, when is your next break day?”

“Oh we don’t have break days. I have the morning off in three days though.” Lithwaloth frowned darkly at her words but said nothing.

“Then in three days shall we meet? We can discuss Nirthon then.” 

“Three days. Shall I come find you?”

“Yes. I should be permanently settled by then and easy to find.”

“I shall come find you,” Baradui inclined her head and despite a concerned glance at her, Lithwaloth left her there and continued on her way while she continued to the bathhouse.

She scrubbed herself thoroughly, paying attention to all the nooks and crannies of her body. The chilled water of the cold pool shocked her from her daze before she crawled into the hot pool to soak thoroughly for a while. The steam gathered thickly around her exposed body, condensing on her skin and if there were a few extra trickles of water making their way down her face, nobody knew, least of all herself.

Lagorwen’s mention of ‘ghost weather,” mingled with her numbness had her flinching and jumping all the way back to the boarding house; freezing with terror at one point against a wall when she heard soft hissing only to discover it was a pair of cats disputing their territory.

She crept at last into the boarding house, finding the common room silent and dark. She made her way by memory to her rooms, bracing herself for the musty smell of unwashed cloth which would be all the more horrible in her cleansed state.

Instead she walked into a totally clean smelling room, the air carrying only a faint hint of the strong laundry soap available here, the type which had been heavily laced with lavender. There was a large pile of washed and neatly folded clothing on her bed which she moved after a moment of staring at it. Then she sat down on freshly made bedding, wincing a little at the loud crunching noise her mattress made.

“I hope you do not mind. I noticed that our linens were getting quite musty,” Férinael said sleepily from her bed, awakening at the noise and espying her roommate. Thin moonlight highlighted the long coiled braid of silver-gold that lay across Férinael’s pillow, and the bright crimson cord that hung around her neck, likely holding some sort of protective charm or pendant. Such things were common here where Teleri superstition mated with the Pagan ways of surrounding Silvan groups.

“No not at all,” Baradui replied dazedly, “How much do I owe you?”

“Two coppers but pay me in the morning. Go to sleep. You work too hard,” Férinael was silent while as Baradui shucked her dress and slid into her bed, revelling at the feeling of clean sheets on her clean body.

“Baradui?”

“Yes?” Baradui stirred from where reverie had almost taken her before she had braided her damp hair into its sleeping plait. She hastened her hands and finally lay down completely. The pillow was cool against her cheek and smelt sweetly of lavender.

“I wish to apologise for my behaviour these past couple of months. I know I have not been a very good roommate. I let my grief make me lazy and selfish. It shall not happen again.”

This must be a dream, Baradui thought, dazed like she’d been hit in the head. Punch-drunk, that was the sentence she was looking for. First Lithwaloth, then Nirthon and then this. Life seemed to be out to unbalance her today.

“You were grieving,” she replied lightly.

“Ah but my behaviour went beyond that. You rise so early every morning and stumble home exhausted whilst I have the evening to myself most days. I could have helped ease your burden instead of letting you run yourself to a thread.”

“Well… uh…” Baradui blinked, her eyelids feeling like granite slabs, “you are forgiven.”

“Thank you,” Férinael whispered plaintively and then there was a companionable silence until reverie took them both. Despite her tiredness Baradui stayed awake a while longer, contemplating the great feeling of nothing that had come over her at the news of Nirthon’s death. Should there not be tears now that she knew for certain he was dead? He had been as dear to her and as loved as her parents, and she had, had a considerably better relationship with him than those that had brought her into the world.

Nothing came through. Not weeping. No storm of tears. She felt cheated and worried over her lack of reaction. Férinael’s breathing came steadily from the other side of the room and like a lullaby it soothed her and she abandoned thoughts of grief.

Chapter end notes:

The system of healers from Doriath might seem overly contrived. Let me explain my head canon:

With a maia as a queen and the girdle keeping them fairly well protected (though not entirely) Doriath had time to become quite advanced. Also with Elu's great army and the march wardens there was a pressing need for healers to support that army.

 

Essentially the Great Hall of Healing in Menegroth served not only as a house of healing but as the only medical school and a compulsory medical school to  ensure healers in Doriath had a consistent level of knowledge. 

Anybody was accepted and housed there so long as they weren't legally forbidden from being a healer and they had the right attitude. Students studying there wore a copper fibulae to distinguish themselves from patients and also served as orderlies and nurses when not at their lessons.

In exchange for this after completing the scholarly side of their education those healers served as essentially army-medics for fifteen years (silver fibulae). Those coming from small communities (The amount of land Elu claimed was huge. There had to be more than Menegroth) would have wriggle room to be stationed near their home communities.

Then after that (gold fibulae) they were free to go or to stay on in their positions or if they had a particular interest in a field of medicine, return to the great house to study that field until they were considered a master in it  (mithril fibulae). Whereupon they would be obliged to teach incoming students their speciality.

 

Ok that's all folks. Sorry for talking your ears off.