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No Better Name  by Cairistiona

Author's note:†

Middle-earth and its denizens belong to Professor Tolkien... I only take them out to play with for a while before I put them back where they belong.

Many thanks to my betas, Inzilbeth and Estelcontar.

Reading "By Such a Foolish Name" is recommended, as this story takes up where it left off.

A slight word about the rating--this is not a graphic story by any means, but at the same time, if you've read any of my stories that include Denlad, you'll know he had a very painful and harsh childhood.† There are references to that here, but the focus is not on the gritty details but on the hope that a man can overcome such things, even when the memories may occasionally crop up and cause distress.

Onward now to the story!

~~~

Chapter One - Never Have I Nursed A Ranger

Bowen Rushlightís conscience smote him.† He couldnít sleep in the comfortable bed, not with Strider down there on the cold, hard floor, coughing his lungs out.† He sat up, shoved the blankets away and swung his legs over the side.† ďStrider,Ē he called softly into the gloom.

ďHmmf?Ē

Bowen fumbled with flint and spark until he got the lamp burning.† He held it over Striderís face, which immediately caused him to wince and grimace as he threw a hand up against the glare.† ďHere now,Ē he rasped.† ďWhatís the meaning of this?† Away with that light!Ē

ďSorry,Ē Bowen said, chastened.† Strider was the type fellow you obeyed without question, even if he did sound like one of the frogs in Bowenís north pond.† He put the lamp back on the table.† He had seen enough, anyway; Strider looked simply awful.† ďYou need to get in the bed.Ē

ďWhat?† Why?Ē

Odd, this fellow hadnít seemed daft.† ďYouíre sick and Iím not, thatís why!† You need up here where itís warm.† In fact, Iím going to get Barliman and see if I canít get him to make you a poultice and bring up some good hot bath water.† I donít like the sound of that cough.Ē

ďYou need not worry.† Iím perfectly comfortable on the floor, and the cough is not deep within my chest,Ē which assertion was completely undermined by a spate of very deep coughs indeed.† Bowen huffed in disbelief, but Strider ignored him and pulled the blanket closer to his chin.† He rolled onto his side and curled up in a ball.† ďDonít need a poultice.Ē

ďNonsense.† I know a bad cough when I hear it and thatís as bad as anything Iíve ever heard.† The only good thing about it is that itís still loose, but itíll tighten up on you if youíre not careful and then youíll find yourself in the soup.Ē

Strider grunted, but his eyes didnít open and soon the sounds of deeper breathing told Bowen he had fallen back asleep.† Bowen dared to move the light a little closer and huffed again when he saw the flush on the manís pale cheeks.† Fever. †

Well.†† Since this fellow deemed it unimportant to take care of himself, it looked like Bowen would have to do it for him.† ďWouldnít be the first time, me takiní care of what canít do for itself,Ē he grumbled to himself.† ďHorses, cows... them Iím used to, but never have I nursed a Ranger.† Thatíll be sommat new, but I reckon I can manage, one way or tíother.Ē

He turned down the wick and quietly left the room.† He tiptoed down the hall, then down the stairs.† Crossing the deserted public room, he slipped behind the counter to the sturdy door set flush against the stone wall.† Barlimanís private quarters.† He was relieved to see a light shining through the crack at the bottom.† Barliman was still up.† He knocked softly.

He heard a thump and an annoyed grumble and a muffled call, ďWeíve no rooms!Ē† Then the door opened to reveal Barliman wearing his nightshirt, nightcap and a scowl.† The scowl lightened when he realized who was knocking.† ďBowen!† Is something wrong?Ē

ďAye.† Strider.† Heís getting sicker by the hour.† Have you the means to make a mustard poultice, and can you have Nob bring up hot bath water?Ē

ďIíve the means, yes, but donít expect Strider to let you put it anywhere near him.† I tried it one other time when he dragged in here sick and youíd have thought I offered to stab him.Ē

ďBut he needs it!Ē

ďLet me tell you something about Strider: heís as stubborn as they come.† If he takes a notion not to let you do something, youíre not going to do it.† Heíll be polite about it, but youíve more chance of moving Weathertop to my garden with a spoon.Ē

ďThen give me the makings and Iíll do it myself.† Iíve a feeling I can get him to cooperate.† He doesnít seem to have much fight in him.Ē† He hurriedly put out of his mind the memory of Striderís eyes glaring at him over the incident with the lamp.

Barliman shrugged.† ďIf fighting hopeless battles suits you, far be it for me to stop you.† Iíll wake Nob.† As for the poultice, youíll find what you need in the kitchen.Ē† With that, Barliman shut the door.

Bowen shook his head but made his way into the kitchen.† Nob staggered in shortly after and drew water to boil and stirred the fire, all without seeming to open his eyes.†† Bowen left him to his business to get on with his own, and after several false starts looking for the ingredients and the towels and frowning a bit trying to remember how his wife prepared it, he finally had a cloth covered with a layer of the smelly paste, and another cloth to cover it.†† It smelled a mite stronger than the one his wife made for him, and he wondered if putting that chopped onion in it might have been overdoing things, but after all, his old grandmother always said, ďIf it scalds the eyes, him whatís sick neíer dies.Ē† He blinked and sniffed and carefully folded it, and giving a grateful nod to Nob, who seemed to be boiling the water while standing by the fire completely asleep, made his way back to his room.† He hoped Nob didnít let the water boil completely away before he woke up and remembered why he was heating it.

Strider was still curled in a ball, all but the top of his head buried in blankets.† ďStrider,Ē Bowen whispered.

The curled-up lump stirred and two grey eyes peered up at him.† They looked at the folded packet and his nose wrinkled and his eyes narrowed to angry slits.† ďNo.† Get you gone with that.Ē

So much for polite, but then it was the middle of the night, and Strider was a sick man.† Allowances might be made, Bowen reckoned.† ďItíll help you breathe.Ē

ďIt will make me sicker than a dog and feel like Iím going blind.† By Elbereth, did you put onions in it?Ē Strider protested, then the eyes disappeared back under the blanket.† Bowen heard a poorly stifled cough, then Striderís voice softened, and bless him, Bowen heard a faint but unmistakably plaintive note amongst all the hoarse rasping.† ďIím sorry, but I canít stand the smell, and it makes my nose burn and my eyes water and my chest blister... I wonít do it.† I appreciate what youíre trying to do, but, truly, you deem me sicker than I am.Ē

So he was polite after all.† Bowen sighed and put the poultice down on the bedside table.† ďIím doing no such thing.† Iíve been listening to you cough all night, and I can see plain on your face that youíve got fever.Ē

The eyes came back out, already watering.† ďIf you want to really see sick, you should see me after someoneís put one of those on me.Ē

ďWhen was the last time you had one?Ē

Back under the blanket he went.† ďI was eleven,Ē came the reluctant, mumbled reply.

ďEleven!† By wind and by sun, that had to have been twenty years ago!† You can no doubt stomach it now.† So come out from under there and letís try.Ē

ďIt was longer ago than that, but no.Ē

Bowen let out an incoherent growl of frustration.† It seemed Butterbur was right, but Bowen could be just as stubborn.† ďHere now, Iíve given you a spot in my room, and Iíve used up a goodly amount of Butterburís eggs and flour and mustard powder, and a very nice onion, and dirtied up two towels, not to mention losing sleep traipsing to the kitchen to put it all together.†† Nob is busy drawing water for your bath, or at least he is if he hasnít fallen asleep and into the fire.† The least you can do is let me try it.†† You wonít be wearing it but for a little while.† You can surely live through it, and you might not live without it.Ē

Silence, then a deep sigh interrupted by a racking cough.† The blanket flung back and Strider sat up. ďVery well.† I can see that you will give me no rest until I let you try playing at healer at my expense.Ē† He pulled his shirt off and cast himself onto his back as he held both arms out as though offering himself up as a sacrifice to some heathen god.†† ďDo your worst.Ē †

Bowen smiled.† ďThereís the spirit,Ē he said, then he took a good look at Striderís chest and his voice trailed off.† ďOh.Ē

ďYes, yes, I have scars,Ē he growled.† ďMine has not been a life of ease and safety but thatís no concern of yours.† Now get on with it, if you please.Ē† He waved his hands vaguely at the folded towels.

ďUp in the bed, then.† Iím not squatting down on the floor.Ē

Strider rolled his eyes and dragged himself into the bed.† By the time he settled himself, he was coughing again.

Before Bowen could get started, there came a soft knock at the door.† Barliman stuck his head in.† ďBowen?Ē

ďHeís agreed.Ē

Strider finally stopped coughing and glared at Barliman.† ďBut not to having the entire population of the inn looking on!Ē

Barliman cheerfully ignored him as he fully entered.† He set a small hourglass on the table.† ďYouíll be needing this, to keep track of the time.† I think half an hour is about right for a mustard poultice?Ē

Bowen nodded.† ďNo longer, or it might burn him.Ē

ďGood, good.† You know what youíre about, then.† Not to worry, Strider.† Iíve known Bowen many a long year and heís a dab hand at nursing, at least of cows and horses.† I imagine he can fix you up proper in no time.† Oh, and Bowen, Nobís nearly ready to start bringing up buckets of hot water.† Had to give him a sharp poke as he was asleep on his feet, but heíll be bringing Ďem up shortly.† Strideríll need that bath by the time youíre through.Ē

ďStrider will need a bucket,Ē Strider muttered. †

Bowen had to admit he was already looking a shade green.† Still, even if it made him sick to his stomach, the fumes and the heat would help clear out the lungs.†† He picked up the poultice and, after making sure that it hadnít soaked through the towel where it might touch Striderís skin, he laid it across his chest.† Strider screwed his eyes shut and made a horrid face, but he didnít let out a sound.† Bowen backed away quickly, for the fumes were making his own eyes water.

ďPhew,Ē Barliman said.† ďI canít rightly blame him for not wanting one of those laying atop him.† I imagine orcs donít smell that bad.† I best get Nob moving faster with that bath water.Ē

Bowen nodded absently, then reached quietly under the bed for the chamber pot.† As fast as Striderís face was turning green, he had a feeling heíd need it in mere moments.

~~~

The poultice was discarded and burned in the fireplace, the bath taken, and soothing salve applied to one spot on his chest†where the poultice had oozed and blistered him.† Bowen felt bad about that, but he supposed it was small price to pay for easier breathing.† As were the bouts of vomiting.† He grimaced.† Strider the man apparently wasnít much different than Strider the boy in that regard.† But now he was back in bed, dressed in a clean... and very fine, Bowen was quick to note... tunic that Bowen had found in Striderís pack.† Most importantly, he was breathing much easier, to Bowenís triumphant relief.†† He laid a hand against the sleeping manís cheek.† A dose of willow bark, again from Striderís own pack, and the fever was down, too.† Not a bad bit of healing for a farmer, he thought.† Strider, in between bouts of coughing and nausea, had told him that he himself was a healer, among his own people.† Bowen grinned.† Fancy that, him as had little experience at such things healing a healer! †

Well, perhaps Ďhealingí was overstating it.† Strider was still ill, no doubt about it.† Bowen laid his hand on Striderís chest.† Yes, there was a still a rattle, and heíd have to take care of himself lest he undo everything Bowen had just accomplished and come down with full-blown lung fever.† Bowen thought of the scars on the manís body and had a strong suspicion that, healer or no, Strider wasnít the type to let himself rest as he should.† He could just imagine the man crawling out of bed come morning and staggering down the road only to collapse in a fever-riddled heap miles from help. †

Bowen set his jaw.† He wouldnít let that happen.† Other folks hereabouts might not care what happened to a Ranger, but Bowen couldnít square it with his conscience.† Despite his scowls and growls, Bowen knew in his heart that Strider was likely a good fellow who was perhaps a little down on his luck, if that famished coin purse was any indication.† He surely couldnít afford to stay here for the time it would take to get back on his striding feet, so he would have to come home with him.† There was nothing else for it.†† He shook the blankets out on the floor, then laid down, determined on the morn to put Strider astride Bitsy.†† He grinned again.† Strider astride... heíd have to call him Astrider, he supposed.† Strider or Spider or Alder or Tom, Dick or Harry, it mattered not.†† He would take him home to rest and recover under the tender ministrations of his wife, and that was that.

He just hoped he could convince him that was the best course.

Chapter Two - I Liked You Better As†A Weepy-Eyed Lad of Nineteen

"One ... two... yes... thatís it, parry then thrust... three... well done, now, watch your feet... foĖ Ow! By the Ė !" Halbaradís instructive chant disintegrated into incoherent cursing as, before Denladís steel even touched his own, his sword clattered to the ground from his completely nerveless right hand. Or perhaps better to say completely nerve-filled, for tingling pain marched up and down his arm from fingertips to elbow and robbed him of any motion or strength in that hand.

"Are you all right?" Denlad asked.

Halbarad squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to hop up and down. By Elbereth, when would that wound finally get on with it and heal? "Itís nothing," he muttered. He bent over and tucked his hand between his legs, hoping the pressure would ease the tingling ache. He wondered if Denlad would think him unmanned if he fell weeping to the ground...

"It doesnít look like nothing to me," Denlad argued mildly. "Itís that orc cut again, isnít it?"

"Hmmm." Over two months ago, an orc blade had slid past his guard and went on to slice his forearm by his elbow. It hadnít seemed the worst wound ever, but Aragorn told him it had nicked the nerve that ran from his elbow to his hand and thus would be a long time healing. Halbarad had grinned and scoffed and boasted how fast a healer he was Ė and had been completely, dismally wrong. The thing ached and burned and tingled and barely let him sleep at night. Not even his own healing balm seemed to help, though heíd nearly blistered his skin trying it each day.

Denlad sheathed his sword. "Come," he said softly. "Hand it here."

Halbarad straightened and let Denlad take his arm. Aside from plunging it in icy spring water, there seemed only one other solution for it when it flared up, and that was either Denlad, or better yet Aragorn, massaging it. Denlad pushed up the sleeve and dug his fingers gently into the inner forearm along the scar. It brought tears to Halbaradís eyes, but he gritted his teeth. He would endure this even if it killed him, for he knew the spasms would end quicker after such rubbing, and far more importantly, he would not fall weeping to the ground in front of the younger man.††He winced as Denlad hit a particularly tender spot. Aragorn had a better touch Ė he somehow knew exactly where to press hard and where not to and there was of course that entire Ďhands of the kingí consideration Ė but as Aragorn had taken said healing hands to Bree, young Denlad was the next best thing. He knew not to ask Eledh; the one time heíd tried, Halbarad had dropped to his knees, nearly writhing in pain when Eledh sunk his thumb nearly to the bone and actually reopened the wound. Halbaradís arm had been bruised and swollen for a week after. Never ask an archer named after an Elf maiden for medical assistance, heíd sworn darkly, and he had kept to his vow faithfully ever since.

"Getting better yet?"

Halbarad shook his head, and Denlad frowned. "Show me again where Aragorn usually rubs it."

Halbarad swiped his running nose with his other sleeve. He sniffed and cleared his throat and finally unclenched his jaw enough to say, "Along the forearm and then at the wrist. He sort of presses on top and bottom, here." He pointed to the spot.

"But the worst of the injury is higher up your arm."

"Donít ask me why it works; I only know it does," Halbarad snapped.

Denlad said nothing but he moved his fingers where Halbarad directed and this time Halbarad did hop up and down a bit, but finally Denlad hit the right spot and the pain lessened and then faded altogether. Halbarad took a deep breath, opened and closed his fist a few times and nodded his thanks. "Blasted wound. And Iím, er, sorry I snapped at you."

Denlad said nothing. He did, however, start to pull his sword from its scabbard.

Halbarad had a bad moment as he envisioned Denlad running him through to repay him for his rudeness, but of course Denlad would never do such a thing. He merely wanted to continue sparring, surely. Although he had been in a bit of a black mood of late...

No, that was too ridiculous to contemplate. Halbarad waved him off. "Nay, Iím done. Go find Galadh or Eledh to practice with."

Denlad nodded. "Call out if you need me again."

"I wonít. Go." Halbarad retrieved his sword and drove it back into the leather with a disgusted shove. He hated being injured. And he hated even more needing to ask for help. He had a cat, once, as a boy, and any time it felt poorly it ran off to be alone until it healed or died, and thatís exactly how Halbarad preferred to handle his own hurts. Hide in a hole somewhere until he was better or dead, thatís the way to do it. But that luxury was never afforded him. If it wasnít Aragorn fussing over him, it was Denlad. Or if he were home, it was his wife, or his Grandmother Ivorwen. Or... someone. Somewhere it was apparently writ that, no matter how much he might wish it, Halbarad could never be left alone to lick his wounds for even a moment. He rubbed the sweat from his forehead. Still, he was not such a crosspatch as to be ungrateful for the help or heedless of the affection and regard for him that drove them to all but smother him with cosseting. Nor was he unaware of the blessing that he was still in complete possession of his right hand. Had the orc cut just a little bit deeper, heíd be pinning his sleeve back and calling himself Halbarad the Left.

He scowled, nonetheless. His injury notwithstanding, it seemed like theyíd been hit with any number of niggling mishaps of late. Galadhís horse stepped in a hole and not only broke its leg but knocked Galadh senseless when it fell; heíd seen double for three days after and still occasionally fell prey to raging headaches by dayís end. Denlad had been bitten by some sort of nasty bug that gave him a welt on his foot that left him bootless and limping three days before subsiding. And Cannagar... Halbarad hid a grin. The old warrior hadnít been sitting in his saddle with ease these last two days, thanks to a boil right on his arse.

And it had rained. Not just spring showers but flooding cold deluges that left everyone damp and cranky and feeling as though mildew had grown black and smothering over their very spirits.

Of course, all of this happened while Aragorn was gone to check the Rangers nearer to Bree and along the Hedge around the Shire. If Halbarad were the superstitious type, he might believe they were plagued by mishaps simply because Aragorn was gone. But that was foolishness. Aragorn had brought them hope, surely, but he wasnít some sort of walking and talking talisman against mishap and misfortune. Spates of illness and minor troubles hit as often in his presence as away, but it was just so much easier when he was here to scatter athelas leaves and good cheer and promises that things would get better. Halbarad was no good at that sort of thing. Denlad did what he could, and he had a knack for it, Halbarad reluctantly allowed, but he was still young enough no one really took him all that seriously. His boundless optimism usually irritated more than inspired.

Halbarad squelched through the mud to a large rock and sat down, still rubbing his arm gently. He glanced at the sky, which finally this morning showed signs of clearing. Aragorn had set off eight days ago and it had started raining shortly after he left and hadnít let up until now. He worried for a moment about Aragorn, but it wasnít as if heíd never been caught out in the rain. He surely was sitting in the Prancing Pony by now, puffing his pipe with his boots on the warm hearth and living the good life while the rest of the men squatted in the mud wiping rain from their brows and wishing vainly for a hot meal.

"Ach, you are in a foul mood, Halbarad," he muttered to himself, "if youíre begrudging your Chieftain a bit of respite."

Halbarad thought about the men. They were all a bit worse for wear after the long winter. Even the eternally cheerful Denlad was a bit down in the mouth, a rare thing these days now that he was finally believing, despite his questionable siring from an unknown father who left him nothing but life and a head of blonde hair and what Nķmenůrean blood his mother possessed, that he was as fully Dķnadan as anyone born to the life. Yes, they could all use a respite. But sending them all to Bree was out of the question; they could not leave the area defenseless. But perhaps one or two at a time could be feasible. But who to send first? Eledh and Galadh? Cannagar? No, not Cannagar. Heíd give Halbarad no thanks for sending him on a half-dayís ride with that boil gnawing on his bum. So he was back to Eledh and Galadh. That would leave them with Denlad, Cannagar and... he grimaced. Me and my useless sword arm.

But as commander in Aragornís absence, he could hardly go. So it would be Eledh and Galadh. Or he could send Denlad and Galadh... no, would be disastrous. Denlad would talk Galadhís ears off and by the time they reached Bree, Galadh would probably cut out his tongue just to get him to shut up. Galadh liked quiet, he did, and did not suffer talkative fools lightly. Not that Denlad was anyoneís fool, but he did like to talk...

There was a soft step and there stood Denlad before him, as though conjured by Halbaradís very thoughts. Halbarad started a bit as he stared rather blankly at him.

"A man could lose his life while so lost in thought."

"Do you keep such a poor watch that I cannot let down my guard even for a moment?"

Denlad didnít retort with an insult of his own and that bothered Halbarad. "What is it?"

"No one wished to spar with me, not even Elf Maid," Denlad shrugged.

"You shouldnít call Eledh that, you know," Halbarad countered mildly. "Little wonder he wouldnít spar with you."

Denlad almost, but not quite, smiled. "Can I help Eledhís mother gave him such a foolish name?" The scowl came back, full force. "I think it is the weather. This rain, it saps all our spirits, and our strength and resolve with it. I long for days and days of sunshine after such a dreary winter." He glared at the clouds. "I want to cast myself down in a meadow on the new spring grass and bask in the sun like a lizard, until my bones are thoroughly dried out and warmed through."

"The sun will come, soon enough, and then youíll complain of the heat."

"I suppose."

Denladís glum reply decided it for Halbarad. "Thatís it, then. Iím sending you to Bree. You and Eledh."

"Bree? Why? I need nothing in Bree."

"You need a good hot meal and a night in a dry bed, as do all the men. As you say, all this rain is drowning our spirits. So Iím sending each of you, by twos. You and Eledh are the first. Stay a night at the Prancing Pony, get yourself a good hot meal and a good nightís sleep, then come back so I can send along Cannagar and Galadh."

Denlad watched him for a moment. "What of you?"

"What of me? Iím well enough. Iím certainly not consumed by the mulligrubs like the rest of you lot."

"If you send Eledh and me away, you not only leave the patrol two short, but two short with two of the remaining at less than full strength."

Halbarad flexed his hand, knotting his fist and opening it several times. "I can manage well enough."

"And Cannagar?"

"As fighting is generally done while standing, not sitting, heíll manage."

"I donít like it."

"Neither does he, Iím sure. Look, Denlad... itís not for you to like or dislike. The decision is mine, and youíll go."

"Why not you and I, then?"

He might as well be talking to a rock. Halbarad scowled. "No. Iíll not indulge myself nor abuseĖ"

"Ė your position as leader, yes, yes... I know. You think weíre all sitting around seething with resentment, grumbling how Aragorn grants you a special boon because youíre his cousin, but nothing could be farther from the truth. By Elbereth, man, you think we like watching you drive yourself into the ground trying to prove youíre granted no special favors?"

Halbaradís scowl deepened. "I just donít want to give anyone grounds for envy."

"You havenít, neither in the past nor at present, and believe me when I say I will be the first to very painfully point it out to you if you do."

"How very reassuring."

Denlad smiled, albeit a shadow of his usual cheeky grin. "So, with that bit of nonsense out of the way, I will speak as the next best thing to a healer weíve got with Aragorn gone and advise you to take yourself and your bad arm into Bree so that we can find Aragorn and let him look at it."

"As justification, thatís weak."

"Iím afraid itís the best I can come up with on short notice. And it is true. I donít like the way you dropped your sword."

"I donít like the way I dropped my sword, either, but thereís nothing Aragorn can do about it."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. At any rate, you can do little here to help defend the region, so you might as well go."

And that was the crux of the matter, Halbarad supposed. He couldnít grip a sword and he could barely pull back a bowstring. As a warrior, he was really rather useless.

"You know Iím right."

Halbarad glared. "You need not gloat."

This time the smile was genuine and broad. "But I have so few opportunities."

"I think I liked you better when we found you as a weepy-eyed lad of nineteen."

"Shall I go huddle crying in a corner somewhere, then?"

"Valar forbid! We wasted enough of our handkerchiefs on you then; weíve none left to give you now. So get you gone to ready your horse and your gear."

"And yours?"

Halbarad sighed. "And mine." He winced at the slap Denlad gave his shoulder before he went grinning to gather the horses.

Valar, save me from my own reckless decisions.

Chapter Three - Strider Said Nothing

Strider seemed somewhat better, come morning, but even though Bowen was far from familiar with the man, he still seemed pale and lethargic. Strong and vital he may be when healthy, but right now it was obvious to anyone with eyes in his head that he did not feel at all well. Upon waking, he had got up and run his hands through his hair and splashed water on his face, but all very slowly, as though his joints pained him or his head ached, or both. And, now, as he sat on the edge of the bed, holding a bowl of congealing oatmeal of which he had eaten only a few spoonfuls, he stared dully at the floor in much the same way as he had while sitting on the hearth the afternoon before. Bowen scratched at this jaw. Granted, no man ate like a hobbit, and oatmeal wasnít exactly a meal to get overly excited about, but it hardly seemed natural, a man his size eating only a bite or two of breakfast. And he didnít like the look of Striderís eyes, so dull and weary when Bowen was sure they should be sharp enough to cut a man in two. "Are you certain youíre feeling better?"

Strider blinked, then glanced up at Bowen. He nodded, then put the bowl on the table and picked up the mug of tea. He took a sip and went back to staring at the floor. He had yet to utter a word.

"Your chest doesnít feel tight?"

A shake of the head.

"Stomach all right?"

A nod.

"Fever?"

Another shake of the head, plus a shrug, as if to say he didnít think so but couldnít say for certain. Bowen scowled and reached toward Strider, who immediately stiffened. Not glaring exactly, but there was a warning flash in the grey eyes.

"Here now, I only want to check for fever. Iíve no mustard poultices hid anywhere, if thatís what youíre worried about." When Strider relaxed, Bowen laid his hand on the Rangerís forehead. "A bit warm, but still better than last night."

Strider said nothing. He took another sip of tea.

"Are you still sore about the poultice, or is it just your way to not speak in the mornings?" Polite he always tried to be, but Striderís obstinate silence was more irritating than being around his wifeís mother, who never stopped talking.

Striderís lips moved but Bowen couldnít hear any words.

"Whatís that you say?"

"Hurts to talk," he said in a raspy whisper. He winced, shutting his eyes. His face took on a terrible drawn look, and Bowen instantly felt ten times the churlish fool.

"By wind and by sun, Iím a sorry excuse of a heartless, addlepated twit... of course thatís why youíre not talking. No, no... hush! Donít say anything! Rest your voice and keep drinking that tea. Thereís honey in it. Should help a little."

Striderís lips twitched in a faint smile as he nodded.

Bowen thought he should give Strider a reassuring pat or squeeze of the shoulder, but he figured a man as feral as Strider might not take it kindly. Feral. Yes, that was the word for him. Wild and fierce and a bit scary and as likely to respond to ordinary kindness with a slash of claws as not. But no... that was too harsh. Strider had his moments of crotchetiness but he wasnít cruel, nor ungrateful, Bowen knew that. But still... he had a distinct touch-me-not air about him. In fact, Bowen had a feeling if he tried to hug Strider Ė not that he would, of course Ė heíd end up flung against the wall.† At a loss, Bowen paced to the window. Watery sunshine struggled through the thinning clouds. "Good to finally see the sun."

Strider glanced out. Nodded. Took another small sip and painfully swallowed.

Bowen rubbed his hands back and forth on his thighs as he sat down in the roomís only chair. "Strider," he started, then stopped. He finally gathered his courage. "You need to come home with me."

Strider stared at him. He may not have said a word, but Bowen could read his surprise and growing protest plain as day.

"Now, before you argue with me, hear me out. Youíre still sick. I saw what little money you had, and I mean no insult, of course, because money doesnít make a man after all, but I bring it up just to make the point that staying here isnít something I wager you can afford. And staying out in the wilds where itís still wet and dank and chilly will be the death of you. So as I see it, coming home with me is the only sensible thing, unless of course you have some other friends or family nearby what could take you in?"

Strider looked at him for a long moment, then whispered, "No. None near."

Somehow that didnít surprise Bowen. He had no idea where Rangers came from, but Strider left him feeling that he had blown into the Prancing Pony like a dazed bird stranded by a storm. Not just any bird, mind you, but a wounded eagle, fierce and independent and a little bit frightening. Even in need of care, he had a wild and wandering air about him that couldnít be ignored... feral, there was that word again! Bowen shook his head. Eagles might fly free and alone, but no man should be rootless, even one called Strider. No, a man needs deep roots somewhere, so why not try to coax him into putting down one or two small ones right here in Bree? It may not be as grand as Minas Tirith or the Elven cities of old, but it was a homey place, quiet and filled with good folk. A man could do worse than to plant himself in Breelandís good soil. "There you go, then. You donít know me from the cobbler, oí course, but consider me the next best thing to family. Youíll come with me and no arguing."

Strider looked a little nonplused, but he didnít offer any protest, so Bowen got busy gathering up all their belongings. "Now, Iím sure Iím not packing away your things as neatly as you had... my, but you have a knack for packing... but Iíll be sure not to leave anything behind." He snatched up Striderís shirt and pants from yesterday, where they had hung on the back of the chair to dry overnight by the roomís small fireplace. "These arenít clean from the laundry, exactly, but at least theyíre good and dry now. Iíll run down to the kitchen again and get your cloak. Nob was good enough to let me hang it down there to dry, by his big cooking fire... it was so soaked through that it would have taken a week for this little bit of a fire to dry it out." He laid Striderís clothes on the bed beside him. "Now, donít take me the wrong way, but that tunic youíre wearing, while itís just about the nicest shirt Iíve ever seen, isnít really fit for traveling in, if you get my meaning. But my, what a shirt! Never seen anything like that white fabric... I donít know how anyone made it with that ferny pattern that only shows up when you look close. Looks like something a king might wear, if youíll forgive me for getting too fanciful."

Strider smiled a bit and bowed his head and waved his hand as though he were a king granting pardon to a misbehaving commoner. When he raised his head, he winked.

Bowen chuckled. Maybe he was wrong about Strider being such a wild and grim sort. "I know, I know... youíre no king, thatís for certain. Iíve just got an imagination that gets away from me. But itís not often I see anything that fine. That stitchery is fancier than anything my wife can do, and sheís the best seamstress in these parts, or at least I think so, but donít you be telling that to Daisy Fernhill. She fancies herself as the best seamstress in all of Breeland, but my Flora showed me her stitch work on a quilt she gave us for our wedding and even I could see her stitches wandered all over the place. Anyway, back to your shirt Ė did your woman make you that, maybe to wear for special times?"

Strider blushed a little as he nodded. He didnít seem aware of it, but his whole face softened as he seemed to lose himself in thoughts of his lady love.

"Ah, thatís wonderful, it is," Bowen sighed. "It does my heart good to know youíre not completely alone in the world. Iím betting sheíd be welcome about now, were she to walk in that door."

Strider nodded. His gaze dropped to his lap, where he ran his fingers over the designs woven into the fabric.

"But here you are, stuck with me, moreís the pity."

Strider looked up immediately and gave him a protesting look, holding out a hand.

Bowen shook it, not sure if thatís what Strider really meant for him to do, but it seemed to satisfy him. "Just donít try to kiss me."

Striderís eyes crinkled in the corners and danced a little as he shook his head vigorously and crossed his heart.

Bowen chuckled again. "Youíve no idea what a relief that promise is to me, Strider. But back to your†outfit... as I said, donít take me wrong but that shirt looks a little delicate for even a short journey. Best you get back into the clothes you wore yesterday. Theyíre a bit travel-stained but far more serviceable."

Strider nodded.

"Thought you might agree. You get yourself changed while Iím downstairs. Donít worry, Iíll knock before I come back in so I donít catch you with anything showing as shouldnít be." He started for the door, but Strider held up a hand.

"There was a pin," Strider started, pointing at his shoulder.

"Oh yes, your star-shaped pin. Pretty thing, that. Iíve got it right here, in your pack. It looked valuable so I didnít leave it on the cloak while it was downstairs with no one to watch over it. Didnít figure youíd think it any favor had I gone and let it get stolen!" He stuck his hand into the pack and felt around. He yelped when his finger found one of the pointed rays. He gingerly pulled it out and handed it to him, then examined his finger. "No blood, thereís good news at least."

Strider clutched the pin in his left hand as he looked toward his pack. He seemed worried.

"I say, is it broken?" Bowen slapped his hand to his forehead. "By wind and by sun, surely I didnít break it, but I can be a clumsy oaf sometimesĖ"

Strider shook his head, then cleared his throat, or tried to. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but grimaced and massaged his throat. After a frustrated sigh, he flapped his hand toward his pack, gesturing for it. Bowen put it beside him on the bed and he thrust his arm in, digging around in the very bottom. Bowen heard something make a muffled thunk, almost a metallic sound but he couldnít be sure. At any rate, upon hearing it, Strider let out a soft sigh and the worry left his eyes.

"Is whatever it is that youíre concerned about still there, then? I didnít paw through your things, exactly, but I had to find you a clean shirt. And then I found the willow bark, so I took it out. But I didnít look any more after that. I didnít figure it was any business of mine what else you were carrying."

"Sorry. Had to..." A fruitless clearing of his throat. "...check something..." Another cough. "...that is dear to me."

"Hush, hush. Please, donít try to talk; it hurts me to listen to your voice, to be honest. And I understand completely Ė even a man with no money has treasures he canít bear parting with. I bet youíd never part with that pin, even if you were down to your last haípenny. And of course thereís plenty of other things that are treasures to one man thatíd be worthless to anyone else. Iíve an old pot of my motherís that has a hole in the bottom and rust on the sides that make it useless to anyone else, but I canít bear to toss it out. Memories and all, you know."

Strider nodded, smiling. He tapped his heart, then made a gesture as though holding a pot and nodded again.

"Aye, exactly. So youíve got one, too. Sentimental foolishness, men like us clinging to old bits of nothing, but there you go. We understand each other, donít we. Now, get yourself dressed. Iíll be back in two shakes. Maybe three, to give you plenty of time to dress. I may even go to the stable and saddle my horse. I donít suppose you have a horse?"

To his surprise Strider nodded. "Bay mare, named Bronadui." He held up three fingers.

"Third stall?" At Striderís nod, he said, "Good, good. Thatíll make the trip easier, then, so long as you donít faint and fall off halfway along the way. I might be a dab enough hand with fevers, but naught I can do about a broken neck."

Strider shook his head and flexed his right arm, as it to show how strong he felt.

"Hmm, I donít know that youíre as strong as all that, at least not at the moment, though I donít doubt youíre sommat to see at full strength. Still, Iíll take your word for it. Iíll ready them both." As he shut the door behind him, he paused in the hall, smiling. "Funny, a grim old fellow like him, sentimental enough to carry around his motherís old soup pot. Probably uses it every night and remembers her." He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat at the thought of his own departed mother and hurried downstairs.

Chapter 4 - Valar Forbid Anyone Turn Down Your Oatmeal

Halbarad stepped into the Prancing Pony and breathed in deeply. Now there was a comforting smell for you. Roasted meat, apple pie, bread and ale, all combining in an aroma more heady than fine wine. A man could live on the smell of this place alone, but far better to actually partake of the wonders of Barlimanís kitchens. "Barliman! Ale and a platter of that roast beef Iím smelling!" he called, then when Denlad nudged him sharply with an elbow, he added, "Make that two platters and two ales, to be exact!"

Barliman scowled at him, but Halbarad merely grinned back as he pulled a chair out from a table in the center of the room. "Why the dour look, my friend? From the echoing silence in this dining room, Iíd think youíd welcome anyoneís patronage, even a pair of rascals like Denlad and me."

Barlimanís face softened. "Youíre right, Halbarad. You just caught me off guard, barging in like that."

"I always barge in like that."

"You could use some lessons in quiet from your friend, Strider. I barely know when heís about, until next thing I know I walk by and there he is, sitting in his corner booth."

"Yes, and for all his stealth, he ends up having to wait an inordinate amount of time for his food, whereas I get mine almost immediately."

"Aye, just to shut you up," Barliman growled, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Denlad shook his head. "Halbarad, why do you tweak his tail like that?"

"All in good fun. Heíd think it the end of the world if I came in any other way Ė besides, he tweaks our tails often enough with his slights and slurs. If it werenít for his love of our coin, heíd likely toss all Rangers out into the mud."

"Butterburís not that bad," Denlad murmured.

Halbarad merely grunted. Strider might get along with him all right, he supposed, and truth be told, Butterbur wasnít an evil sort by any means, just rather heedless and too easily swayed by local prejudice against the Dķnedain. He was a good innkeeper and a better cook, but that was about the extent of Butterburís finer points. "Say, I wonder if Striderís been here?" He twisted in his seat, looking back toward the booth where Aragorn regularly sat.

"Did you expect him to have carved ĎStrider was here, 24 March, 2995í on the bench?"

"No," Halbarad admitted, blushing a bit.

"Weíll track him down if heís nearby, fear not." Denlad hitched his chair sideways so he could stretch out his legs. He yawned mightily. "Good to finally be here. Howís your arm?"

He bent it at the elbow several times, then shrugged without replying. He drummed his fingers on the table, then turned and looked toward the kitchen. "Whatís keeping him? Iím starving."

"Patience, Halbarad. We only just walked in."

Five more minutes passed before Barliman finally emerged, carrying a tray. He placed before each of them plates heaped with slices of gravy-drowned beef, generous portions of buttered peas and steaming mounds of potatoes cooked with cabbage. Halbarad rubbed his hands together with glee. "Now thereís a good hot meal. I could have used this several times over in the last two weeks."

"Itís been gloomy and wet, no mistake," Barliman agreed as he set down their mugs of ale. "Good for business, though. Sunny days like this are useless to me. Everyoneís back at work or like you daft lot, back at wandering."

"Speaking of wandering, have you seen Strider lately?" Denlad asked.

"As a matter of fact, he stayed the night here, left just this morning, with Bowen Rushlight. And all the rest of my good paying customers," he added darkly, casting a glare at the sunny window.

"And who is Bowen Rushlight?" Halbarad asked. He pinched some salt from the saltcellar and sprinkled it over his meat. Butterbur never used enough to suit him.

"Farmer, lives north of here. Good man, Bowen."

"Iím glad to hear that, since Striderís with him, but can you tell me why Striderís with him?" He tasted his meat. Perfect.

"He was sick, thatís why."

"Huh." It didnít surprise Halbarad that Aragorn would have traveled with Bowen, if he was sick. The healer in Aragorn wouldnít let him ignore a man with a hangnail, let alone the sniffles. He swallowed and before shoving in another bite, asked, "What was wrong with him?"

"Had a terrible bad cough. Fever. Wasnít his usual self at all."

"And his usual self would be what?"

Barliman gave him an odd look. "Youíd know that better than me. Heís your friend."

Had Butterbur tossed a bucket of icy well water on him, Halbarad would not have felt so suddenly cold. When he swallowed, the meat seemed to stick in his throat. "You mean Strider was the one sick?"

"Of course. Bowen never gets sick. Well, hardly ever."

"Nor does Strider." Halbarad shot an alarmed glance at Denlad, then fixed Barliman with a stare. "How bad is this cough?"

"I donít reckon it was lung fever, if thatís what youíre fearing, but it was bad enough, I suppose. His voice was completely gone this morning, could barely whisper. I didnít feel his forehead to know for sure, my life and limbs are worth more than that, but he looked feverish. In the eyes, that is. Kind of glittering and dull at the same time, you know how people look. Bowen was rightly worried he could get lung fever left to his own in this rainy weather, so he made him go home with him."

Denlad scooted his chair back. "Whereís this Rushlight fellow live?"

"He has a farm north of here, about an hourís ride down the first right turning past the stream.†One of them†cozy sort of†stone cottages, big barn. You know the type.† You canít miss it. The road goes right up to his door and thatís the end of it. The road, I mean. The tame lands pretty much end at his farm; beyond it thereís nothing but wilds."

Denlad started to rise, but Halbarad stayed him with a hand. "Slow down, Denlad," he said more calmly than he felt. He looked back at Butterbur. "How sick would you say Strider was, truly? I mean, if he were your son, how worried would you be?"

Butterbur pursed his lips, then shrugged. "Iíd have been more worried if he hadnít got better after the mustard poultice."

Halbarad winced. "You didnít..."

"No, I didnít. I value my own life, after all. But Bowen did."

"And how did Strider...?"

"Eh, it wasnít a pretty sight."

Denlad looked from one man to the other. "What? What happened?"

Halbarad sighed. "Strider and mustard poultices... to say heís fond of them would be to say Iím fond of dancing with orc maidens."

"Are there such a thing?" Butterbur interjected.

By Elbereth, Butterbur could be thick. "Iíve no idea," Halbarad said, "but thatís not the point, Butterbur. Iím merely saying Iím amazed he let Rushlight do that to him."

"Bowenís got a persuasive way about him."

"He must, if Strider agreed to a poultice and then despite that also agreed to go home with him. So you say it helped?"

"Made him sick as a dog," he said, and Halbaradís hopes fell like a stone dropped in a well. "But that was just for a little while. He was better this morning, seemed to me," he added, and Halbaradís hopes rose. "Except for losing his voice, of course. And still having fever." Halbaradís hopes plummeted. "But he was well enough to sit a horse. Then again, he did look awful pale."

Halbarad could take no more of this handing out of good news with one hand only to snatch it away with the other. "Butterbur!" he snapped. "A curse on your fickle tidings! Tell me one or another: is he better, or do you deem him still in danger?"

"No need to get angry! Iím just an innkeeper, not a healer. Iíve no idea, really; youíd have to ask Bowen. But I do know that he barely ate any breakfast, and it my good oatmeal!"

"Valar forbid anyone turn down your oatmeal," Halbarad muttered. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as good oatmeal.

Denlad stirred restlessly. "Halbarad, if heís as sick as all that, we should go..."

"Weíll be no good to Strider if we faint from hunger along the way, and our horses need rest. It sounds as though Striderís in good enough hands with this Bowen fellow. Eat first, then weíll leave."

Denlad picked up his fork and poked listlessly at his food.

"Eat!"

Denlad glared at him but shoved a chunk of beef into his mouth. Barliman nodded to them both and went back behind his bar to straighten already perfectly neat rows of mugs while muttering about the tetchy ways of Rangers. Halbarad stabbed at this own food, which, thanks to worrying about Strider, had completely lost its appeal. He took three bites he could barely swallow and finally threw down his fork along with a handful of coins. "Come."

Denlad beat him to the door.

~~~

"It could be worse, you know," Halbarad said. His horse sidestepped a puddle. "At least heís not badly injured."

Denlad said nothing.

"And he has someone with him that apparently knows something about taking care of folk."

"Halbarad, I appreciate what youíre doing, but my mind will not be eased until I see Strider for myself."

Halbarad nodded. "Of course." He felt the same, although to be honest, he had no sense of fear. No dread knotting his bowels, no cold emptiness in his belly. Aragorn might be ill, but he was not in any danger, that was what Halbaradís heart assured him. But he kept it to himself, since Denlad preferred to ride in tight-jawed silence. And Denladís continued agitation started to worry him a little. Maybe his own instincts had been dulled by the nagging wound in his arm. Maybe Aragorn was in dire shape...

But even so, there was aught they could do about it at the moment. He took a deep breath as he looked around at the country through which they rode. It was a pleasant land, almost like the Shire for all that they were on the opposite side of the river from its borders. The greening hills rolled tranquilly under a cloud-dotted sky, and the wind whispered promises of summer to the new leaves on the trees lining the road. He liked this part of Eriador, though he rarely passed through this particular stretch of road. He and Aragorn tended to send the younger, less-experienced Rangers out this way, for it was one of the safer corners of these lands, well off the beaten track and of little strategic interest to orc or bandit or any other vile creature. Houses too few and roads too empty, though he supposed if left unchecked, evil might wander back this direction. But if it had, it hadnít been a recent visit. Aside from Bowenís and Aragornís, Halbarad had seen no other tracks along the muddy trace.

Denlad kicked his horse to a faster pace. Halbarad shook his head, but he followed suit, though they really had no business driving the horses so on such little rest. When he caught up, he glanced at his younger companion. "Denlad, I feel no trepidation. Barliman assured us that Strider is in good hands."

A muscle knotted along Denladís jaw, then he kicked his horse into a full gallop, slinging mud up on Halbaradís chest. Halbarad swiped it away, and with a resigned sigh, hurried to follow, trying hard to banish his worries and failing miserably.

Chapter 5 - A Ragtag Stray Like Strider

"Weíre here. I say, are you all right?" It hadnít been a long ride, as rides go, but in deference to Striderís illness, Bowen had set a careful pace and it had taken longer than it usually did. Despite his care, Strider had grown more and more grey and drawn as the morning wore on. Eventually his chin had dropped to his chest, his shoulders had slumped and Bowen wasnít quite sure heíd stay ahorse. But he had, riding along beside him in a sort of half-awake stupor. The one time heíd started to sag from the saddle, his horse had jigged just enough to wake him, which impressed Bowen no end. If the situation had been reversed, Bitsy no doubt would have let Bowen crash to the ground and then wandered away to graze, heedless of her masterís plight. Bronadui was a fine horse, no two ways about it.

But Strider still looked terrible. "Strider," Bowen said a little louder. "Weíre here."

Though Bowen fully expected him to drop senseless to the ground, Strider finally stirred. He squinted round at the house before him, and at the barn and stone walls and rolling pastures beyond.

"Your home?" he whispered.

"Aye. Rushlight Farm." He felt a sudden rush of nervousness, wondering how his farm must look to an outsiderís eyes. Why it was, he couldnít say, but that Strider thought well of it was suddenly the most important thing in Bowenís life. Would he find it a tidy, well-run place or would he notice that the rain barrel over there had green moss growing up its side? And that the stile going over the wall was a little bit crooked because Bowen hadnít been able to dig under that left post to reset the stones that had sunk into the spring mud? And would he notice the missing mortar†beneath the topmost chimney stone? And the tatty remnants of last yearís dove nest hanging from one of the holes in the dovecote? All those little things... they suddenly seemed glaringly conspicuous. Oh by wind and by sun, Bowen despaired, the farm looked derelict, run down, as though the owner were nothing but the laziest ofĖ

"Itís beautiful. You keep it well."

Bowen couldnít help it: he gasped as the breath heíd been holding rushed out. But he grinned, enjoying the giddiness of relief. He looked around with pride. There was just a little hint of green on that rain barrel after all, and the stile was sturdy even after a long, hard winter, and the chimney stood straight and plumb, and why ever did he worry about that nothing little wisp of straw sticking out of the dovecote? "Thank you. But thereís little things here and there in need of attention," he said, "and Iíll get to them as soon as this weather lets up and plantingís done. My olí daí would rise from the grave to thrash me if I didnít."

Strider gave him an approving glance, then clumsily bunched the reins in one hand and braced his free hand on the horseís neck as he started to dismount. Bowen lifted a hand, thinking to steady him, but then let it fall when he saw the set of Striderís jaw as he slowly dismounted. Bowen scowled. Why couldnít the man accept a helping hand without all this stiff-necked pride? He watched, holding his breath, as Strider finally reached the ground and pulled his foot out of the stirrup. All seemed well.... but no! Strider suddenly staggered, grabbing at the saddle like he was about to swoon, and Bowen could refrain no longer. "Here now, enough of this," he said, jumping down from his own horse. His hound, a shaggy red-haired thing named, rather unimaginatively Bowen would admit, Ruddy, chose that moment to come haring around the house barking and acting as though he would tear the world to pieces. As if Bowen didnít have enough to deal with! "Ruddy! Hush!" he yelled sternly. When Ruddy slunk away to the barn, Bowen said, "Never you worry about that dog, heís noisy but harmless. Keeps the foxes away from the chickens and ducks, he does, but heíd never harm a man. But as for you, let me help."

He grasped Strider around the waist and threw Striderís right arm over his shoulders. Strider tried to pull away, and Bowenís patience snapped. "Now stop you with that or Iíll let you fall, if youíre so set on it! Donít you know that even an eagle sometimes needs help? Hang on to me instead of that horse, and Iíll help you into the house and thereíll be no complaining about it, do you hear me?"

Strider didnít offer up a protest or even a scowl. Just gasped out a "thank you" followed immediately by, "Iím sorry."

"There now, no need for apologies. Itís hard for any man worth his salt to ask for help. Donít want to appear weak, after all, but sometimes a man canít help it. So just you lean on me and weíll say no more about it. There you go, yes, just like that. Iíve got you, and the world didnít come to an end at all, now, did it?"

That Strider seemed to have lost all pretense of not wanting nor needing any help told Bowen what kind of shape he was in, even if he hadnít been able to feel fever heat blazing like a forge through the manís shirt. He was fairly eaten up with it, Strider was. "Here we go, up the steps. Careful now! Oops!" This when Strider stumbled on the second step and nearly fell across the threshold.

His sweet Flora hurried to meet them, her big brown eyes smiling and frowning with worry all at the same time in that way she had whenever she saw a creature in need of care. He loved her for it, he did, and never more so than right now, when by all rights she should be angry at him for bringing such a dangerous-looking stranger home. "Goodness, Bowen, who have you rescued this time?"

"His nameís StriderĖ"

Strider raised his head and looked from Flora to Bowen. "ĎThis timeí?"

"I tend to bring home strays, now and again," Bowen admitted.

Strider laughed, then coughed and nearly went down again. He stiffened his legs. "I am all right," he rasped, then he looked at Flora again and suddenly straightened completely. "You are with child?"

Flora smiled. "Any day now, most likely."

Strider immediately jerked away from Bowenís grasp. "No, Bowen... I cannot..." He coughed, spinning away from both of them. "She might fall ill." He stumbled down the steps and back to his horse.

Bowen stood gaping for a moment, then hurried after him, joined by Ruddy, who came rushing over again to add his barking to all the commotion. "Ruddy, get Ė oh bother, bark if you want to. I say, Strider, come back here! You wonít cause her any harm!"

"Heís right! You wonít!" Flora called from the doorway. She hurried forward and caught up with Bowen just as he and Ruddy caught up with Strider. Ruddy stopped barking and busied himself sniffing Striderís boots. "Truly, sir, you will bring no harm. From the sound of your voice Iíve a feeling I know what ails you, and I have already nursed three people with the same sickness and suffered no ill effects from it."

Strider stopped trying to fumble his foot into the stirrup. He was having no success at it anyway. "What do you mean?" he whispered.

"I am a midwife, the only healer in these parts, outside of the one in Bree itself. Two of my neighbors were struck with that ailment, a fever and an inflamed throat. They sounded nearly as bad as you do, and one fell very ill with lung fever. I feared I wouldnít be able to save him, but he did finally pull through after I nursed him nearly a week. Despite all that time around the sickness, I feel stronger these days than ever. So believe me when I assure you that you will not endanger me any more than they did."

Strider looked unconvinced, and turned accusingly to Bowen. "You did not tell me she was with child."

Ruddy barked at Bowen as if in complete agreement with his new and beloved friend that Bowen should have said something. Bowen glared at the dog, but shrugged. "It never came up."

Strider chewed his lip, looking first at Bowen, then at Flora. He shook his head. "I cannot risk it," he rasped, and again tried to put his foot in the stirrup. This time he managed it, but he didnít seem to have the strength to haul himself into the saddle. Ruddy started barking again.

"Oh, for the love of my dear departed daí, enough of this!" Bowen said. He pulled Striderís boot free from the iron and again put his arm around the manís waist.

"No. I dare not..." But his protest lost all its vigor as his knees started to sag.

"Take his other side quick, Flora!" Bowen cried, and together they helped him back up the front steps and into the keeping room. They dragged him to one of the two chairs by the hearth, ignoring his mumbled, rasping protests. Then it seemed as though the sight of the chair and the fire on the hearth drove the fight clean out of him. He fell into the chair, completely limp and silent. Ruddy, who had finally stopped barking as he followed them in, whined and nudged his hand.

"Heís burning with fever," Flora said. She laid a hand on Striderís forehead, and there was none of the stiffening nor the glares he had given Bowen whenever he tried to do that. Bowen wasnít sure whether he was being a gentleman or simply didnít have it in him to kick up any more fuss. He suspected the latter.

"Aye. He came into the Prancing Pony yesterday afternoon, just starting to get sick, and then he just kept getting worse and worse as the night went on. I couldnít leave him."

"No, you most certainly couldnít." She arched her back, one hand supporting her lower back and fanning her face with the other. She blew upward at a curly brown lock that had strayed into her eyes. "Ooh, but this baby does make the simplest things hard work. What did you say his name was?"

"Strider. Itís a bit outlandish, but he says it suits him." Bowen kicked the footstool a little farther from the chair, then hauled Striderís feet atop it.

She looked him over head to foot and nodded. "I can see where it might. Those long legs of his look able to run for leagues. Well, they would if he werenít in such a state. Itís good that you brought him here, love," she said, giving†Bowen a kiss. "Iíve even got some fresh soup all but made." She leaned down and patted Striderís shoulder. When he dragged his eyes open, she said, "Donít you worry a bit, Mr. Strider. Weíll get you back on your feet in no time. Iíve got some good chicken soup about to simmer that Iíll give you when itís ready, and hot tea to drink in the meantime, and then weíve a nice cozy bed for you to sleep in once youíve finished."

Strider nodded a silent thanks. He looked piteous, poor man, the fierce eagle utterly in abeyance. Bowen dared give him a pat on the shoulder, and his worry climbed a rung or two when Strider merely closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the chair.

"Get him a blanket, Bowen, thereís a love, and then Iíll need you to ready the bed in our extra room. It hasnít been turned yet this spring and Iím sure the straw is all matted, and of course thereís no bedding on it at all at the moment. So do turn it for me as I canít carry a mattress and this baby at the same time," Flora said, then she waddled Ė Bowen felt a little guilty but there was no other word for the way she walked these days Ė into the kitchen to finish the soup. Bowen opened the chest in the corner and shook out a red blanket. He draped it over Strider, tucking it around his shoulders and neck. Strider neither opened his eyes nor moved. Asleep, most likely. Ruddy curled up at Striderís feet. "Good boy, keep an eye on him," Bowen said, then tiptoed out of the room to the kitchen and put his arms around Flora from behind. He rested his hand on her belly and grinned as the baby kicked. "Heíll be a strong one!"

"Or she," Flora replied with a bit of tart in her voice.

"Aye, or she. And if itís a she, sheíll be every bit as beautiful and compassionate as her mother." He gave her a gentle hug. "Thank you, love. Not every wife would welcome her husband bringing home a ragtag stray like Strider."

"Oh, you know I wouldnít raise a fuss or you wouldnít have brought him all this way. Iím amazed he made it without falling off his horse."

"He seems a strong one, even sick. I wonder who he really is."

"Name like Strider doesnít really feel like a given name, does it."

Bowen moved around to her side and filched one of the disks of carrot. "It isnít, but he wouldnít tell me his given name," he said as he crunched. "Heís a man full of secrets, that one."

"So long as heís no murderer. Iíd hate to think we nursed a neíer-do-well back to health."

"No, he ainít a murderer, I donít think. Butterbur knows him and seemed all right with him, and he wouldnít take to no murderer, thatís certain." Bowen thought about the scars heíd seen, and the long sword. "But I do think heís killed."

"Killed what, is the question."

Bowen looked toward the keeping room, at the sleeping man huddled under the blanket. "Killed any number of things that would want to kill us, Iím betting," he said softly. He shivered. "Heís a Ranger, he is."

"Ranger!" There was a whiff of disapproval in her voice.

"Now, now... I know Rangers donít have the best reputation, but my daí knew some and liked Ďem well enough. And this man seems to have a good heart, for all that heís cranky from not feeling well."

"His eyes did seem kind, or at least they did before he went a bit wild there, afraid of making me ill. And even then, I must say he seemed more frightened about making me sick than worried about his own well being."

"See, there you go. Itís his eyes that tell the story. When theyíre not glittering all angry and fierce, thereís kindness to them, no mistake. He told me he was a healer, can you believe that."

"Him, a healer? Of what? Wild animals?"

"Iím assuming of people. His own people. Doubt anyone in these parts would call on him, as fierce and frightening as he looks."

"Well now, donít be so sure," she said slowly. She looked past him to Strider. "You remind me just now of the time my aunt Tansy Hornbeam over in Archet said one of them Rangers helped her daughter Ivy deliver her baby."

Bowen stared at her. "Really now?"

"As real as Iím standing here! She couldnít get a midwife in time but he was happening down the road and heard her cries and came right in to help. Ivy said he was as gentle a man as sheíd ever seen. Better hands than a midwifeís. And he used kingsfoil, can you imagine! A weed, but she said it had a lovely scent and left her feeling very calm and refreshed, despite everything going on."

"Huh. Suppose it was this fellow?"

She craned around him to look at Strider. "Might have been. She said he was a great tall man with black hair. I canít imagine anyone taller than Strider, and that mane of hair on his head is certainly black enough."

Bowen couldnít imagine Strider doing anything as delicate as delivering a baby, but then before yesterday he never would have imagined he would find himself befriending a wild man sick with fever. Life had a funny way of taking odd turns and tossing aside your expectations with the wind, that was certain. "Well, if it was him, and he used kingsfoil, I suppose Iíll have to readjust my thinking on both. Never had no use for either before, but I guess Iím not so proud that I canít admit when Iím wrong." He snatched another carrot before Flora could slap his hand away. "Best get the horses taken care of. Call out if you need me."

"Donít forget his bed, since itís beyond me at the moment." She patted her swollen belly and Bowenís heart melted. She could ask him to flatten the Weather Hills and heíd rush to get it done, he would.

Turning a mattress would be easy.

Chapter Six - This One Was a Hawk and No Mistake

Turning the mattress had indeed been easy enough, and Bowen had put fresh linens on it and dusted the roomís furniture and swept both floor and walls. No one had used the room all winter except a spider up in one corner. He was tempted to let it be, as he didnít share Floraís abhorrence of the little creatures, especially harmless little ones like that one, up in a corner not hurting anyone and doing some good by catching flies now and then. But he had no idea if this Strider fellow might be leery of spiders. No sense him waking up thinking heís safe only to be frightened out of his wits when he saw it. Heíd known men that afraid of them, he had. Of course, those men also thought there were giant spiders living in enchanted woods far to the east. Strider seemed too sensible to believe in anything that outlandish, but he banished the cobweb and its builder to the dustbin, just in case he had judged wrongly.

So the bedchamber was ready and when he came into the keeping room, Flora was handing Strider, still wrapped in the red blanket, a cup of her good hot tea. It seemed all was well in hand. He gave Flora a kiss and Strider a nod, then went outside and retrieved the horses and gave them both a good brushing. It being a nice warm day at last, he turned them out into the pasture instead of putting them in stalls in the barn. He needed to clean that barn out good and proper, not that he hadnít kept it tidy enough all winter. But there was a muckheap outside the back door that needed shifting, and the bright spring sunlight was revealing corners filled with shreds of old cobwebs and stray bits of straw and dust. Funny how spring made every little speck and spot of dirt loom like boulders. He glanced at the sun... he was still full from all that good oatmeal and fried sausage at the Prancing Pony, and since plowing had to wait a few more days for drier ground, he decided to skip elevenses and get on with the job.

Heíd finished with the barn and had just shifted the last of the muckheap Ė and a nasty, smelly hour of work that was Ė when he heard the muffled clatter of hooves moving swiftly down the lane. He looked down at his filthy clothes and sighed. Visitors never showed up when he was fresh from the bath. He knocked off the worst of it and hurried around his barn, but when he saw the two men pulling up in his yard, he stopped short.

They looked a lot like Strider, or at least the one did. He had longer hair than Striderís, or any man Bowen had ever met, but it was just as black as it tumbled past his shoulders. He seemed a bit heavier than Strider, a bit broader in the shoulders and fuller in the face, but really now, if he wasnít Striderís brother then Bowen would go sit down in his newly-moved muckheap and sing a hobbit drinking song. The other was quite a bit younger, and he looked like he could be Hador himself, so tall and blonde he was. Both of them had cloaks like Striderís, and the same star-shaped pin glittering at their necks and long swords hanging from their waists and keen eyes that seemed to take in every detail of the farm and Bowen himself, right down to the stray bit of straw and muck clinging to his left boot.

He swallowed. More Rangers, and here he was without Butterbur around to reassure him that these two werenít murdering rogues. He stepped forward cautiously. "Can I be of help, then, gentlemen?" He had no idea if they were gentlemen, but it wouldnít hurt to put the idea in their heads in case they werenít.

The dark-headed one nudged his horse closer. They both glowered at him but the dark-haired one seemed especially fierce about it. "Are you Bowen Rushlight?"

"Aye."

A slight lightening of the scowl. "We seek a friend... my kinsman. His name is Strider, and Barliman Butterbur told us he left with you this morning."

"Aye, heís here, Strider is. Did Barliman tell you he was sick and I was taking him home to care for him?" He started trembling, but blast it if he would these men see. Heíd done the man a good turn, he had, so no reason to fear. None at all. He cleared his throat and went on trembling, but his voice held not a quaver. "He gave me the impression, Strider did, that he had no friends or family near, so I convinced him to come home with me. The Prancing Ponyís no place for a sick man."

The blonde fellow remained unmoving and unspeaking, as grim and cold as a blizzard, but the dark one nodded. "Barliman told us, yes. How fares he?"

"Heís sick, and no mistake. ĎTis a good thing I got him here where he can get proper care. He has a fever and a terrible bad cough, but my Floraís a good healer. Iím sure heíll mend in no time."

The man stared at him for a long moment, as though weighing whether to relax or draw his sword. "Can we see him?" he finally asked.

"Donít see why not, as heís your kinsman. Can I tell him whoís come for him?"

The scowl disappeared altogether, and the man slid from his horse and stepped forward, his left hand on the pommel of his sword but his right hand outstretched. "My apologies. I let my worries overtake my manners. I am Halbarad Dķnadan, and this is Denlad."

And just like that, the trembles went away. He smiled broadly. "Ah, Halbarad! Butterburís mentioned you. We were talking about you just yesterday, in fact."

"Nothing good, Iím sure." The man actually smiled back, and like Strider, it changed him completely, though heíd never look warm and cozy. If Strider were an eagle, this one was a hawk and no mistake.

"Only that your name sounds a little Elvish, which," he leaned forward and lowered his voice, though Strider had no way of hearing, "is a far more suitable name for a man than Strider, if you ask me. Halbaradís a good strong name."

Halbarad looked surprised, but he chuckled. "I thank you, I think, though do not be too hard on poor Strider on account of his ill-sounding name. Do you speak Sindarin, then?"

"Oh goodness, no. But Iíve a few books with some of the old stories of Men and Elves. Right entertaining they are, although I guess theyíre naught but tales and myths."

"Donít be so sure," Halbarad murmured but before Bowen could ask what on earth he meant by it, he turned to Denlad. "Iíll see to Strider, but Iíve no wish to go armed into this good manís home," he said. He slipped off his sword belt and handed it up to him. "Nonetheless, bring it back with our packs after you take care of the horses."

Denlad looked as though he might protest, but at Halbaradís sharp glance he merely nodded curtly.

"Bowen, is there a place Denlad might put our things?"

"Oh, aye... itís small and youíll have to take care not to knock your head on a rafter, but weíve a room on the top floor Ė the attic, really Ė where youíre both welcome to stay until Striderís better. Itís not really a proper bedroom but thereís a cot for one of you and room on the floor for the other. You can put your things there."

"Thank you, youíre very kind," Halbarad said.

Denlad nodded his own thanks, although his gaze seemed anything but warm. Bowen felt somehow that heíd done something wrong, but he couldnít imagine what. Still keeping his silence, Denlad dismounted and led the two horses to the water trough along the side of the barn. Bowen wondered if perhaps the man was a mute. Halbarad seemed chatty enough, but if he were left with Denlad and poor voiceless Strider, Bowen had a feeling he might be as well off to try to coax a conversation from the cows.

"Come in, then," he said, and waved his hand for Halbarad to follow. The keeping room was empty save for Ruddy, who stood up tail wagging as he approached Halbarad for a good sniff. Flora must have gotten Strider off to bed. Good. Sleep was what the man needed most, Bowen figured. He left Halbarad to wait in the keeping room while he tiptoed down the hallway and met her as she shut the door to the spare bedroom.

"How is he?" Bowen whispered.

"Poorly, but I think heíll be better for a nice nap. That cough worries me, though, but I darenít try a mustard poultice."

Bowen felt his face grow warm. "Er, why not?"

"Well, for one thing, it looks like someone already tried it but did a right sloppy job of it; thereís a burn clear down the side of his ribs. And, well, to be honest, when I mentioned he might need one, the poor man nearly burst into tears. He begged me not to and, honestly, Bowen, if someone made up one that was strong enough to burn him like that, I donít blame him for not wanting to endure another round."

Bowen cleared his throat and nodded without saying anything, but she gave him a sudden sharp look. "Oh, Bowen! Tell me you didnít!"

"Well, he was just so sick, and that cough was terrible, far worse than he sounds now."

She covered her mouth with her hand. "Bowen!"

"I was only trying to help him! I didnít have any idea itíd make him so sick."

"Dare I ask how you knew how to make a poultice?"

"I remembered watching you make one, so I sort of, well, just mixed it up. The onion might have been overdoing it, and maybe I used a little too much mustard, but I didnít leave it on him longer than thirty minutes. Barliman made sure of that."

"Barliman! He was helping you? And an onion! Goodness, itís a wonder heís still alive after all that."

"Now, FloraĖ"

"No, donít you Ďnow Floraí me! Next time you find someone in such a state, you leave off trying to heal him yourself and just get him home to me to take care of." She started down the hallway, muttering as she went. "Onions in a mustard poultice, I never! Next youíll be telling me you put arsenic in his tea†Ė oh!" She stopped so suddenly that Bowen bumped into her.

Bowen stepped around her and held a hand out toward Halbarad, who was standing patiently by the fireplace. "Flora, this is a kinsman of Striderís, come looking for him. Halbarad, this is my wife, Flora."

Halbarad placed his hand on his chest and bowed deeply. "My lady."

Flora actually blushed and ducked her eyes. She managed a clumsy curtsy, no mean feat in her condition. Bowen raised an eyebrow at her, but he might as well still be out in the barn, so taken she seemed with this Halbarad fellow. Bowen gave him a narrow look, trying to see what had Flora all a flutter. He finally shook his head. It was an admittedly elegant greeting, but despite the courtly manners, all he saw was an unkempt vagabond. Tall, yes, but a vagabond and no mistake. Bowen cleared his throat. "Yes, right then... Flora, tell him how Strider is."

Flora dragged her eyes away from Halbarad to shoot an irritated glance at Bowen. He flushed again, hoping she wouldnít mention his role in the mustard poultice incident. But her gaze softened a tiny bit before she looked back at Halbarad and he knew all was forgiven. "Heís not well, the poor dear. The soup and the tea helped put a little color back in his cheeks, but heíll need lots of rest."

"May I look in on him?" Halbarad asked. Bowen had never seen a man look more worried.

"Certainly. But be quiet; heís only just fallen asleep."

Bowen bade Ruddy stay, then tagged behind Halbarad and Flora, where he watched from the doorway as Halbarad walked over to the bed and looked down on Strider. Flora had tucked him under so many blankets Bowen wondered how he was managing to breathe, but he supposed she knew what she was about. Halbarad started to reach out a hand, then let it drop. He looked terribly sad as he watched Strider sleep, so sad that Bowen felt he ought to rush over and give reassurances. But Halbarad shook his head, as if chiding himself, and gently tugged the blanket a little closer to Striderís chin. Strider stirred, turning his head, but he didnít wake. Halbarad felt Striderís cheek and forehead with the back of his hand, then brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen across his nose. He looked at him for another long moment, and Bowen was struck by the tenderness in his gaze. Brothers, had to be.

Finally, after taking in every corner and cranny of the room itself, as if judging whether it was fit enough for a very king Ė and leaving Bowen very glad heíd banished the spider Ė Halbarad stepped quietly back. He turned and shooed both Flora and Bowen out of the room. Pulling the door shut behind him, he gestured them toward the keeping room. "I thank you both for taking such good care of him," he said quietly.

"I can see heís dear to you," Flora said. She patted his arm, which seemed to surprise him. He dropped his head for a moment, then nodded.

"He is more dear than a brother."

Not a brother then, though Bowen wasnít about to go singing atop the dung heap. Before he could ask further, there came a knock at the door, and Bowen hurried to open it. Denlad stood on the step. He had the swords tucked under one arm but the packs were on the ground beside the path. "May I come in?" he asked.

So he wasnít mute after all. He still looked grim as death, though. Bowen stepped back. "Of course. Weíve just been to check on Strider. Heís sleeping. Prop the swords there in the corner, if youíd like, but weíll take those packs up later, if you donít mind. Donít want to wake him up, you see, banging around in the attic right over his head."

Denlad glanced at Halbarad, who nodded. It seemed then as if an entire silent conversation took place between the two of them, and some of the tension left Denladís shoulders. Bowen was again struck at how young he seemed. He couldnít be out of his twenties, yet he had the same careful gaze and weatherbeaten look about him as any Ranger. He started when Denlad turned to him. "May I check on him?"

"Denlad is our own healer, or is when Strider isnít available," Halbarad explained.

Flora brightened even more, and Bowen couldnít help smiling. He was sure that Flora and Denlad would soon be deep in conversation about herbs and medicines and whether to try another mustard poultice on Strider despite his protests, though good luck to them both with that. Flora took the young man by the hand and led him down the hallway, leaving Halbarad and Bowen alone in the keeping room. Bowen glanced up at Halbarad... these Rangers were all so tall... and again was struck by his similarity to Strider. Same color hair. Same grey eyes, though Halbaradís might be a shade more blue. Same long nose and firm chin and definitely the same almost fey and dour look about him, as if he might suddenly launch into battle against enemies right here in Bowenís keeping room, fell creatures that his keen gaze saw but Bowenís didnít. Bowen swallowed. "If you donít think me too nosy for asking, might you be blood-kin to Strider? You favor him."

"We are cousins. His mother is my fatherís sister."

"You look like you could be brothers."

Halbarad smiled faintly but shook his head. "I have no siblings; nor does he. Our people tend to have small families." A fleeting sadness darkened his eyes, but before Bowen had time to speculate, he gestured to a shelf above the fireplace. "I see your beloved books there."

"Ah, yes!" Bowen hurried over and pulled both of them down. "Have a seat, have a seat," he said, then handed both volumes to him, wondering if the man had ever held a book. "I bought these in Bree, I did. Would have been wiser had I bought seed, but they were so fancy-like, with those lovely leather covers, and the writing! Iíd never seen the like of that writing. The peddler offered them for a good price because heíd been carrying them around for years and was tired of, as he put it, the dead weight. As if books such as them could be dead weight, I ask you! Iíll allow that theyíre both a bit damaged, see there on the edges and on the back cover of that one youíre holding? See that blotchy stain, yes, right there. They got wet at some point, and I imagine thatís another reason why the peddler priced them so low. But itís a lucky stain, if you ask me, because without it, itís certain theyíd have been far out of the reach oí the coin in my pocket."

Halbarad, with Ruddy resting an adoring chin on his knee, opened one and looked at it with an odd expression, almost as though he were seeing an old friend after a long absence. "Do you know who scribed these?"

"No. The peddler had no idea. He said heíd found them both in an old abandoned farm cottage, away up north and east of Deadmanís Dike." He shivered. "Why a peddler would go up there is beyond me. No one lives anywhere near there anymore."

Halbarad gave him a sharp look, but he ran his hand over the cover. "I know that house."

"You do? HowĖ "

Halbarad with what seemed like reverence put both books on the small table between the two chairs. He lined up their spines perfectly with each other and the spines themselves square with the tableís edge, and then he leaned back and idly scratched Ruddyís ears. "Because I lived in it. And I know these books. They were my fatherís, given him by his uncle. It was by his hand that these pages came to be."

Bowen felt his jaw drop. "You must be joking!"

"Eriador is not as large as you may think, nor as completely empty. I studied from both of these as a young boy and know them as well as I would know the face of a dear friend. I thought them lost forever." He picked up the one on top again and opened it to its middle. He pulled out a dried four-leaf clover. Bowen had seen it there, nestled in the pages, and for no reason other than it tickled his imagination, he had left it. How glad was he now for having such a sentimental streak, for it brought a smile to Halbaradís stern face. "I picked this when I was seven years old," Halbarad said with a soft, disbelieving laugh. He shook his head as if at the unlikelihood of it all and tucked it back in the book. He closed it and put it back with the same care as before. "My mother had me copy these texts into Sindarin and then back into Common, so I spent many long hours on rainy days staring at these pages."

"How did they... how did you come to leave them behind?"

Halbarad shook his head. "That is a tale for some other time, for it is long and sorrowful, though not without hope."

Bowen scratched his jaw, wishing this fellow wouldnít talk in so many riddles. But plain speaking didnít seem to be his way, so Bowen merely said, "Please take them. Iím not one to steal away a manís family heirlooms."

Halbarad shook his head. "No, you paid for them, and I can tell they bring you great joy. I hadnít thought of them in years, to be honest. And though I have a wife and children of my own, I also have a store of books much larger than your own which includes the stories in these two copies. Just as you would not steal a manís heirlooms, neither would I strip away a manís entire library for the sake of sentiment."

Bowen sat back in his chair, touched but also completely at sixes and sevens. Fancy a Ranger having a wife and a family and being educated far better than himself, though he had to admit it wouldnít take much to be more educated than Bowen Rushlight. But still... the idea of one of these Rangers owning books. It took some doing to get his mind wrapped around the idea. "Are all Rangers like you, then? Is Strider learned? Can he read and write?"

Halbaradís eyes danced merrily. "He even knows how to count to twenty without taking off his boots."

"Oh by wind and by sun, Iím sorry... I meant no insult. Itís just that... you Rangers seem so..."

"Barbaric?"

"No, no! Well, that is to say... yes." Bowen resisted the urge to squirm. Oh, why did he always let his mouth land himself in such miserable straits?

But Halbarad let out another of his soft laughs. "We are no barbaric tribe of heathens, Bowen. Wanderers, yes. A people diminished, but still a people with a history and a culture we are desperate not to lose. Our lore... indeed, all of the lore of Arda is precious to us, as precious as the good folk whose tales it tells. Too much has faded, lost to time and myth."

Halbarad again seemed to feel some great sadness that he quickly hid. Bowen wanted desperately to ask him about that and a hundred other things besides, but Halbarad, like Strider, so carefully veiled his thoughts that it might be easier to hear the echoing cries of Ered Lůmin that heíd read about in those books than to get any straight answers from him. He wished quite keenly at that moment that his father were still alive, that he might tell him more about these tall strangers that Owen Rushlight had counted as friends.

At a loss for words and feeling very much like his world had suddenly tilted on its edge to send everything sliding sideways, he cast about for something solid. "Would you like a cup of tea?" he finally blurted.

"That would be most welcome, thank you."

"Sit there, then, and Iíll bring you a cup."

As he hurried off to ready the tea, he felt the world righting itself again. After all, how frightening could these fellows really be, if they caught colds and read books and appreciated a nice dog and a good cup of tea?

Chapter 7 - Hanging On So Delicate a Thread...

Listening to muffled coughs floating up from the room below, Halbarad rolled over, the straw in the mattress squeaking and crunching beneath him. The ropes stretched across the bedís narrow frame creaked. "Is he all right, do you think?" Halbarad whispered into the darkness.

"Hard to say. He slept most of the day, which is probably the best thing for him," Denlad replied in equally soft tones from where he lay on the floor beside the bed.

Halbarad nodded, though of course Denlad couldnít see. The window was on the wrong side of the house to let in the moonlight. Dark as it was, they might as well be deep in Moria instead of tucked up here under the rafters in Bowenís attic, and it didnít help Halbaradís mood any. Ever since theyíd arrived and heíd seen Strider laying so pale and still, heíd been fighting off a feeling of sorrow†that flirted too closely to†despair. He hated that their future seemed always to be hanging on so delicate a thread.

"Should one of us sleep down there with him?" he asked.

"You saw how tiny that bedroom is, Halbarad. Weíd have to sleep under his bed, and even that doesnít have enough clearance; weíd be forever banging our noses on the underside of his mattress. Fear not, for while sounds from him might seem muffled to you up there in that cot, I can hear him plain, through a knothole in this board beside my head. The attic ladder is right outside his door, and I can and will check on him through the night, and if he should have sudden difficulties, Floraís right there across the hall."

Halbarad sat up, pounded his pillow and laid back down. "Do you think sheís a competent healer?"

Silence for a moment, then, "Sheís not as good as Strider."

"Well, who is! But is she capable?"

"She seems to know her way around most healing herbs, at least so far as I can tell from what Striderís taught me. And thereís no question she has a caring heart and a gentle touch and a knowledge about this illness."

"They seem like good people, the Rushlights."

Silence again from Denlad.

Halbarad leaned further over the edge of the bed, but he couldnít see Denlad down there in the darkness. "Donít you think so?"

"Heís in good hands."

Denladís tone was so utterly flat that it took no genius to discern that there was much more he was leaving unsaid. "Denlad, whatĖ"

"I said heís in good hands," Denlad said rather sharply. He sighed and then added, "Never mind me; Iím just tired. Strider has the luck of a widowís son. He fell in with good people and no doubt will be himself again in no time."

Halbarad didnít think it was fatigue causing Denladís odd mood, but he let it drop. He rolled back over and stared toward the shadowed rafters. "I wonder what Cannagar and the rest of the men will think when we donít come back tomorrow."

"I imagine theyíll do what we did... ride out looking for us, and for Strider."

"And Butterbur will send them here."

Denlad yawned. "I hope Flora knows how to cook for a crowd," he murmured, then Halbarad heard the rustle of blankets and deep and steady breathing. He couldnít be sure Denlad wasnít feigning sleep, but the message was clear: Denlad was done talking.

Halbarad pulled the blanket closer to his chin. It was chilly and a bit drafty, up here under the roof where the cool spring wind found cracks to sneak through. He chewed his lip, thinking about the Rangers who might show up. There was no way to stop them coming, he supposed, short of riding back to Bree to tell Butterbur to send them back to the Chetwood. But he would really rather not let it be widely known where they kept their camp, and telling it to Butterbur would be the same as erecting a sign announcing their location to any and all passers by strolling down Breeís busy streets. Perhaps he could leave a sealed note for Cannagar with Butterbur. But if it went astray and found itself in the wrong hands... or what if it wasnít Cannagar who arrived? Would Butterbur know it could be given to Eledh or Galadh? Halbarad couldnít be certain, so heíd have to list on the envelope every Ranger in the region...

No, it made more sense to simply go out and hunt for a goodly-sized deer to make up for the soon coming depletion of poor Floraís pantry. He rubbed his arm. It would surely hold up long enough to shoot one arrow, and one arrow was all he ever needed to take down a deer. Still, he wished it were not necessary, putting that strain on his arm. Denlad and Aragorn both had pestered him to give it rest until it healed. But Denlad must stay here, to help with Aragorn, and Bowen had his farm to take care of, and a wife with child. He could hardly be asked to spend who knows how long chasing across the country after a hart.

Ah well, the arm would do what it would, he supposed. Even if he came back with nothing to show for it, going on a good hunt might keep him from worrying so much about Aragorn.

~~~

Halbarad tiptoed into Aragornís room. A single candle burned low on the table beside the bed. He heard a soft cough, then Aragorn stirred, rolling over onto his side and curling up in a ball. That was never a good sign. When Aragorn was healthy, he slept unmoving, flat on his back with arms sprawled and legs akimbo whether in a bed or on the ground. He never curled up in a ball.

He put a hand to Aragornís cheek. It felt warm, but not terribly so. Maybe he was getting better. Halbarad could hope for it, at any rate. He started to turn to leave when Aragorn took a sudden deep breath and coughed. He blinked up at him. "Halbarad?"

Halbarad squatted down beside the low bed so he was closer to eye level. "Hello there, sleepyhead."

Aragorn frowned. He pushed himself upright until he was sitting back against the headboard. Halbarad helped adjust the pillows so he could be more comfortable, then sat down beside Aragornís legs. Aragorn blinked a few more times, gathering his wits, and finally squinted toward the window. "What time is it? Why are you here?"

"Not yet dawn, and Butterbur said youíd left with Bowen, sick as can be, so I hunted you down. Iíve been here since mid afternoon yesterday, though youíve been sleeping and unaware every time I looked in on you."

"But why are you here? I mean, why arenít you asleep?"

"Because I wanted to check on you before I go hunting."

"Hunting? Why?" He coughed a few times, then shivered. He pulled the blanket closer to his chin and drew his knees up.

"So many questions!" Halbarad laughed. "The fever has stolen your wits, evidently. To fetch back a hart to feed hungry mouths, thatís why. But enough of your questions. Answer one of my own: how do you feel?"

"Like I swallowed a vat of lye and threw myself down a mountainside where I was then tossed and kicked around like a football by stone giants."

"That well?"

"Halbarad, I rarely fall ill, but this thing..." He shook his head. "Though it is better today than yesterday, my throat feels like itís been flayed."

"It sounds like it, too. However did you get yourself in such a state?"

"Helping a family who were all sick. I donít know how many times I was coughed on or sneezed at. Or worse," he added grimly. "They had twin babies, maybe two years old. Too young to know to turn their heads when... eh, I shall spare you those details for I donít like remembering them myself."

"Thank you."

"Had I not come upon that family when I did, I doubt any of them would have survived. For four days I cared for them, barely sleeping and eating only what I could scrape up quickly between tending each one. Admittedly, I may have stretched myself too thin."

"Think you so!" Halbarad gave Aragorn a fondly exasperated look. "When will you ever learn?"

"How long do exiled kings of Nķmenůrean descent generally live?"

Halbarad chuckled. "It will likely take that long."

Aragorn fell silent and started picking at the blanket. Halbarad watched him until he could no longer stand it. "Instead of unraveling Floraís nice blanket, tell me what else troubles you."

A long pause, then Aragorn said, very softly, "One of the little ones did not survive." He blinked rapidly, then continued. "I did all I could, but I donít think she was a strong lass to begin with, and she faded quietly away while I was tending her sister. I buried her myself, for the mother and father were still so ill. I... the weather was cold but not cold enough to prevent... she simply had to be buried..." He had to stop then as coughing nearly bent him double.

"Shh. Say no more, Aragorn. Save your strength."

But after recovering, Aragorn continued as if Halbarad hadnít spoken. "It was the only thing I could have done, but the father... he came out of their cottage as I was digging... it was evening, rainy and cold and I was struggling with the wet, heavy clay. I think even then I was starting to fall ill myself, for my strength was waning with each thrust of the shovel into the ground. I was despairing ever finishing..." More coughs, then, "At first, when he came, I thought it was to help. But he was nearly delirious from fever... and angry, so very angry from his grief. He did not understand why I had to do it, bury her. No matter how I tried to explain, he would not understand..." He stopped and coughed again. "The mother came out, then, though she was still very ill. Had she not, I think he might have tried to put me in that grave instead of his daughter, and by that point I was so low that I might have welcomed it. But she stopped him. She was angry with me as well, but she at least saw the need for it and so held him back until I finished. I was ready to drop, but she demanded that I leave, and so I gathered my things and fled into the night. It seemed as though the fatherís curses that I was nothing more than a murderer in ragged cloth chased me all the way to Bree."

"Wet and exhausted, heartsick and forced out into the foul weather. ĎTis no wonder you fell ill. But you did what you had to. Take no blame."

He sighed as he leaned his head back against the headboard. "I do not, or at least I know I should not, though my heart would try to condemn me. But such a thing I am used to, that false accusal, and though it is not easily set aside, lay it aside I do. I have been a healer long enough to know that not all can be saved. Still, their sorrow weighs heavily." He looked into vistas unseen for a time, then his eyes lightened. "Meeting Bowen was a blessing unlooked for. He gladdened my heart more than heíll ever know."

"He seems like the type that would."

"He is a good man, much like his father. Full of simple joy and easy cheer that seems far too rare in these days of growing darkness."

Halbarad watched returning sorrow shadow every line of his face, and did the only thing he knew to drive it away: he gave Aragornís leg a sharp slap with the back of his hand. Aragorn yelped a protest, but Halbarad was stern. "Then let us fix our minds on men such as he and put sorrow behind, lest your dwelling on things past that cannot be changed and things future that have yet to come to pass drive us both into the pit of despair."

Aragorn pulled his legs ups to his chest, out of reach. He wrapped his arms around them and rested his chin on one knee as he aimed a sullen look at Halbarad. "Youíre a hard-hearted wretch, cousin."

"Yes, well... my ears weary of your self-pitying yawping. Besides, you need to rest your voice before you strain yourself. Can I get you anything before I leave? Everyone else is asleep, but I can surely rummage around and come up with some tea and toast if youíd like."

He shook his head. "I'm a little hungry, but it can wait. I am better, you know. This morning I am a regular chatterbox, where yesterday morning I couldnít speak at all."

"You may think youíre better, but you still have fever, so stay abed."

"I will."

Halbarad gave him a narrow look.

"I promise."

"I suppose that will have to do, although I know how thin and flimsy the fabric of your promises can be when it comes to taking care of yourself."

Aragorn glared at him and changed the subject. "Are you here by yourself?"

"Denladís with me."

"Good. Have him take care of me instead of Flora. The less contact she has with me, the better. And tell him absolutely no mustard poultices. Make sure you..." He bent his head to his knees and succumbed to a coughing fit. "Be sure you make it clear to him. No mustard poultices."

Halbarad waited until Aragorn quieted. "I will tell him, fear not. I know how you are with those things. By the way, he's been in to see you several times, through the night."

"He has?"

"You were sleeping."

"I canít remember." He winced. "Elbereth, I ache like a rheumy old man."

"Have you some willow bark?"

He nodded and gestured toward the table. "I think thereís some in that mug."

Finally, something constructive Halbarad could do for him. Halbarad took it and sniffed. "I canít tell willow bark from cat piss, but if you say itís in here, maybe you should drink some."

He obediently sipped when Halbarad held the cup to his mouth. He grimaced. "It tastes about like cat piss."

"Drink cat piss often, do you?"

Aragorn chuckled. "Youíre good for me when Iím sick, you know that? Your complete lack of any sort of compassion keeps me from wallowing in self pity."

"Precisely. And Iím good for you no matter what the state of your health and well you know it. You are a right mess without me... just look what happened after little more than a week away from my side. So exhausted yourself that you got sick as a dog, and you a Nķmenůrean who shouldnít ever fall prey to such things. Hopeless, thatís what you are." Halbarad put the cup back on the table. "Well, you seem to be lively enough and that deer wonít come trotting to the dinner table by itself, so I must leave." He pointed a finger at Aragornís nose. "Behave."

"I will. And Halbarad, if you come across any athelasĖ"

"Iíll pluck you a bouquet and tie it with a red ribbon."

"Just donít expect a kiss. My heart has been claimed by another."

"Alas, I shall pine the rest of my days." Halbarad sketched a bow and left, Aragornís laughter easing his worries quite a bit.

Maybe the thread was not so delicate after all.

Chapter Eight - Beating Carpets Was Probably Good For Him

"There, see what you can do with that," Bowen said, placing a tray holding a platter of eggs, sausage, and sliced tomatoes across Striderís lap. He made sure he had the tray settled, then stepped aside to let Denlad set on it the mug of hot tea he carried. "Do you think you can eat some of this?"

"Iím sure I can, yes. My belly is starting to wonder why it must suffer simply because my throat is sore," Aragorn said.

Bowen nodded. "Ďtis a very good sign, that youíre hungry. I always know a horse is going to recover when he starts getting that gleam back in his eye and takes a nibble of hay."

Strider chuckled. "I am glad youíre not feeding me hay, though Iím hungry enough I might happily eat it."

"Do you want anything else? Besides a bale of hay, that is."

"No, Bowen, thank you. This all looks very nice."

Strider still looked terribly pale and weary, but oh, it was good to see a sparkle in his eye and hear him speak more clearly. There were some stray burrs and squeaks still, like rough-cut wood that had yet to be polished, but he sounded much better now than he had yesterday, and he was barely coughing at all. Bowen watched him take his first bite, then glanced at Denlad, who had retreated to the doorway. The young man had watched the proceedings, as he had the preparation of Striderís meal, with a gimlet eye that was growing more and more annoying. Why, it almost seemed as though he expected him to poison Strider! Bowen couldnít understand the manís antipathy. Not that Bowen had done any of this in order to gain anyoneís approval, but at least Halbarad was grateful. Why, he was nearly tripping all over himself thanking Bowen for the care heíd given his cousin. So why this odd suspicion from Denlad? Bowen was sure he had no idea and was beginning not to care one way or another, so he turned back to Strider, who for his part gave him an uncomplicated smile as he happily chewed his way through a bite of sausage. "Enjoy your breakfast, Mr. Strider. Iíll be back later to get the tray out of your way. Can I bring you one of my books?"

Strider swallowed and wiped his mouth on a napkin before replying. "Yes, please. I would like that very much. And thank you again for helping me... you and your wife have shown me kindness beyond duty or expectation. I know I would have been in dire straits had you left me to my own devices."

"Think nothing of it," Bowen said, making sure not to shoot a Ďsee there! Thatís how to show proper mannersí glance toward Denlad. "Iím just glad youíre doing better. Now eat up so you regain your strength. Feed a cold, starve a fever, they say, but I say if you can feed either one, moreís the better. A man needs food to keep up his strength, be he sick or well, so eat up."

"I shall do my best," Strider said with an even wider smile.

Bowen turned to leave, and for a moment Denlad seemed ready to refuse to move from the door to let him pass. A glance back at Strider showed him absorbed in cutting into another sausage, so he simply stepped forward with the expectation that anyone of good manners would get out of the way and thus so would Denlad, and in the end Denlad did just that. Bowen passed him with a nod, which Denlad ignored as he pushed past him to disappear into Striderís room. He shut the door firmly. Bowen stared at it for a moment, scratching his chin. He was a cold one, Denlad, and no mistake.

He shrugged and headed off to get his own breakfast. "Flora?" he called out when he didnít see her at the kitchen table.

"Iím outside!"

He walked out to a pleasant stone courtyard beyond the back door. Heíd laid the stones himself, some years back, to give them a place to sit of a fine morning and enjoy their breakfast up and out of the wet dewy grass. In the center of it stood a small table and two chairs, and Flora was sitting in one of them. She had laid his own breakfast at the other. He gave her a kiss, eyed the spread with approval, and sat himself down. "Striderís better this morning. Much better."

"Oh, Iím glad. No need to subject him to a poultice, then, which will make him more than glad, Iím sure."

Bowen felt his cheeks grow hot, but he jabbed at his eggs and said nothing. Least said, soonest mended, after all. Heíd more than learned his lesson about mustard poultices.

"I was a bit alarmed when Mr. Halbarad and†Mr. Denlad both insisted that I not go near him, but I can see where caution is probably the better part of valor." She patted her swelling stomach. "I wouldnít want to get too sick to have this baby."

"Shall I fetch the midwife from Bree, do you think?"

She rubbed her stomach thoughtfully, then smiled almost shyly. "I donít think youíll have time to, dearest."

Bowen felt his face drain. "Oh my. By wind and by sun... you mean..."

"No, no... nothingís happening yet, but I feel like it must, very soon. Perhaps tonight. Iíve had a few odd pains, and my back aches terribly, and thereíve been a few other signs."

"Other signs? What other signs?"

She reached over and squeezed his hand. "Calm down, love. Signs that only a woman knows, and such signs tell me that all is as it should be. As for right now, Iíve a great urge to be up and getting the house clean, which is one of the signs I can tell you about. Do not stop me, for I will not tire myself. But things need to be ready."

"But what about Strider, and Denlad and Halbarad... the house is full of strange men! They shouldnít be here..."

"Bowen! Take a deep breath and compose yourself! They are men used to the ways of life, I am sure, and two of them are healers. Iím more certain than ever, in fact, that Strider was the one who helped my cousin. They will be no trouble and in fact may find themselves returning the blessing we gave them by caring for Strider."

Bowen took a deep breath as she suggested Ė she was a healer in her own right, after all, and knew these things Ė and tried to think rationally. It was hard, because all sorts of dire and awful stories he had heard of difficulties in childbirth kept bouncing around inside his skull until he felt very near to letting out a shriek and falling sobbing into his wifeís arms. But he took another deep breath, and then, to show Flora that he could be as collected as she, picked up the salt cellar and spooned salt over his egg and tomato. "There. You see? Calm as can be."

"Bowen, dear, you just put sugar on your eggs."

"I did?" Bowen looked blankly at his plate. "Oh dear," he said faintly.

She laughed aloud and took up his plate. "I shall fix you some more. But please, stop fretting so. Everything will be right as rain, youíll see."

"Yes, yes... I know it will. Iím sorry." Another great breath. "Yes, Iím fine now. Here, leave me that sausage." He speared it with his fork as she pulled his plate away. She gave him a kiss atop his head before heading into the kitchen to fix him a fresh egg. He watched her, feeling such a surge of love that he feared he might burst into tears. But instead, he simply reached over and pushed the sugar bowl well out of reach.

~~~

The day passed peaceably enough, with no more salt or sugar mishaps on Bowenís part. He or Denlad in turn continually checked on Strider, who, having finally overcome his fever, spent most of the day quietly reading or dozing in an ungainly but peaceful sprawl with the book fallen open face down on his chest, or once, tumbled upside down on the floor. Bowen had carefully picked it up and smoothed the pages and set it on the night stand, and all the while Strider slept on without waking. Fever could surely exhaust a man. He was glad Strider was getting some good, restful sleep.

But Flora! Surely rest would be better for her ordeal ahead, but no, she was an absolute dervish, flying around the house dusting and cleaning and setting out stacks of neatly folded linens and buckets of water ready to heat by the fire. She baked six loaves of bread and started up a huge pot of pease porridge that she said even Bowen couldnít ruin. She also made four batches of shortbread and two dozen buns, plus cleaned enough potatoes to surely feed them all for a week after the porridge ran out. She reminded Bowen to make his cake, for after the birth, which he did, though he wasnít altogether sure it would be edible, what with his lack of baking skills. Heíd been careful with the sugar but he suspected he may have put too much ginger in it. But he at least remembered to pull it out of the oven before it burned.

And so the day went. If either Denlad or Bowen came within earshot, they were put to chores like scrubbing the floors and beating carpets, which Denlad went at with an almost maniacal glee. Their carpet had never been so free from dust as it was by the time he finished. For his part, Bowen tried to avoid Denlad as much as possible, and so he welcomed all the extra chores. When the two of them finally sat down for a bite of lunch, they were too weary to speak beyond a brief exchange about how Strider was doing. Denladís hard eyes had softened finally as he reported that Strider seemed to be much improved and well on the mend. Bowen had nodded, and decided perhaps Denladís pique was due to extreme worry over his friend. He had never seen two men as fretful over another as Halbarad and Denlad. It did make him wonder just what significance Strider held to them or to their people. The family connection he understood, of course, being quite fond of some of his own cousins, but there seemed something more between the three men than mere kinship. Maybe he was some sort of general or captain or chieftain. Or perhaps it was simply that he was a terrific fellow. Bowen certainly could see where that might be the case, despite only knowing him a few days and him not at his best at that. His courtly manners and soft-spoken ways, when fever wasnít making him snappish, spoke well of the man and no mistake. Bowen hoped he would stick around long enough for a proper chat before he made his way back into whatever wilds his whims and responsibilities took him.

Bowen was just sopping up the last of the†porridge with his last bite of bread when he saw a shadow pass across the keeping room window. There was a soft thump outside and then Halbarad came in. Now there was another well-spoken man, Bowen thought. He really would have to readjust his thinking on Rangers. He was finally beginning to understand his daís admiration of them.

"Iíve brought you some meat," Halbarad said as he laid a small handful of kingsfoil leaves on the window sill. Bowen wondered why on earth Halbarad had brought in a handful of weeds, but he didnít have time to ask before Halbarad continued. "Itís not the fattest buck, but it will do to feed us for a few days. Come see."

He and Denlad both hurried outside. "Oh yes," Bowen said. "Thatís a fine one, as good as youíll get this early in spring. Come†out past†the barn and Iíll show you where I do the butchering." He ducked briefly back into the kitchen to snatch up a stack of large tin pans, each nested inside the one below, then†waited while Halbarad swung the buck over his shoulder.† He then led him through the barn and out beyond its rear door to where there stood a sturdy post with a large metal hook attached near the top and some chains hanging on another hook. Beside it stood a table, onto which Bowen set his pans. "For putting the meat in until we smoke it or salt it down," he said. "Hang the buck there, use the chains if you need them. You can stretch the hide when youíre finished on the barn wall there, see those nails? Right there, yes. Iíll bring you the butchering knives; I donít keep them out here, you see."

But Denlad, who had followed quietly behind, brandished a long sharp knife of his own. "Halbarad, you donít need to overwork that arm of yours cleaning that buck. Go get you something to eat. Iíll take care of this."

Halbarad gave him a grateful nod. "Come then, Bowen, and tell me how Strider fares."

"What did Denlad mean by overworking your arm?"

"I wounded it, a while back. It has been slow to heal, but it is nothing, really. Tell me, how is Strider?"

"Heís improving all the time," Bowen said as he hurried after him. He was glad, on the whole, to get well away from Denlad and his knife. "I imagine heíll be back on his feet tomorrow." He strained to get a peek at Halbaradís arm. "How did you wound it?"

Halbarad gave him a look, then tersely said, "Orc attack. What of Flora? Sheís not fallen ill with this, has she?"

Orc...† Bowen felt his jaw hanging. He closed it with a snap and struggled to stifle more questions, because Halbaradís entire demeanor clearly showed he would give no more information on that subject. "Flora ... yes, er, I mean no. Sheís not ill, exactly. But her time is nearly upon her, she says."

Halbarad slowed a step. "It is?"

"So she says. You canít tell it by looking at how sheís working herself to death, though."

Halbarad surprised him with a chuckle. "My wife gets the same way. Has Flora had you beating the carpets yet?"

"Denlad did that."

Halbarad let out a great laugh as he turned to call to Denlad, "Covered in dust, are you?"

Denlad merely scowled, which made Halbarad chuckle again. "Heís in a foul mood, that one. Beating carpets was probably good for him."

"Is he always this grim?" Bowen asked, once they were through the barn and well out of earshot.

"No, which makes it all the more strange that he is now. Heís usually one of the sunniest young men youíd ever care to meet," Halbarad said as they entered the shadowy kitchen. Flora was splashing away at the dishpan, washing all the tin cups they owned and some Bowen had never seen before.

"I canít imagine him smiling." He snatched up one of the clean cups, hauled down the jug of cider from its place on the shelf and poured. He handed it to Halbarad. "Here you go. Iíll have you a plate of food in just a minute, but tell me a little about your young friend whoís usually so sunny. Why do you suppose heís not now? Is it because heís worried about Strider?"

Halbarad looked toward the barn, though of course he couldnít see Denlad at work beyond it. "I cannot be sure, but it might be that his worries have consumed him. Strider is dear to him, almost like a father."

"But Striderís not, is he? Denladís father, I mean?"

"No." Halbarad sat for a moment, seeming lost in thought or perhaps weighing what to say. "Denlad knows not who his father is, and it weighs on him sometimes."

"Oh, I see." He didnít, really, but for once he held his tongue, knowing it to be far too impolite to pry.

"Denlad came to us at the age of nineteen, when his mother died. She was of the same line as our people, but for reasons none of us know turned her back on her heritage. She made choices that were, for lack of a more polite way to put it, unwise. She lived apart, alone, and Denlad suffered for it, I think, though heís never shared much about his upbringing."

Now Bowen was starting to see. "You mean his mother and father never...."

"Nor did she with any other man. She preferred coin to fidelity," he added drily.

"Oh... oh! I see. My goodness. However did Denlad turn out... well, that is to say, I mean... oh, Iím making a right hash of this. Denlad seems cultured and a good man, aside from the scowls. Not someone I would have guessed came from that sort of background."

"Much of that was thanks to Striderís tutelage, and whatever example I and the rest of our people may have set. And truly, his mother apparently shielded him from how she earned her living, as much as Iíve been able to gather. He knew what sort of woman she was, of course, but that knowledge came only as he grew older."

"Did you know her?"

Halbarad glared at him.

"Not in that way!" Bowen squawked. "Good heavens, what do you take me for? I meant were you acquainted with her, before she died."

The fire died down in Halbaradís eyes. "No, not really. Strider and I would stop by their farm about once a year, for Striderís heart was smote by the boyís plight, and the womanís as well, I suppose. But we never stayed longer than to drop off some meat or other provisions for winter. We would have done more, but she was both proud and bitter and barely suffered us to extend even that small kindness, and then only for the sake of her son, Iím sure. Denlad never would talk to us, though Strider tried to coax him into conversation. Heíd call him ĎMighty Warriorí and try everything he could to get him to speak." He smiled fondly, remembering. "But he always hid behind his mother, refusing to come forward but shyly watching us with eyes so filled with longing that it nearly broke my own hard heart. I have sons of my own, you see, and I saw the desperate need in him for a father. But he only looked to Strider, never to me, and eventually, when we arrived during his nineteenth year to find him weeping at his motherís newly laid grave, it was Strider who convinced him to come home to his people. I wasnít so sure, thinking perhaps he might have more of his motherís lesser qualities in him than could be driven out, but he has proven himself true."

"Now thatís a terrible sad story and no mistake," Bowen said. "Iím glad it has a happy ending. Iím sorry he seems to think ill of me, but I can see where a man like that, with that sort of background, would be slow to trust anyone."

Halbarad snorted. "Heís not especially slow to trust, thatís the problem. On the other hand, sometimes in his zeal to defend Strider, heíll get odd notions that need pummeling out."

"Oh mercy, donít hurt the lad! Itís nothing as bad as all that!"

"Fear not, I will only talk to him," Halbarad promised. But from the grim light in his eyes, Bowen couldnít be sure he wouldnít have to deal with three patients by dayís end. Strider, Flora and a battered and bleeding Denlad.

_______

Authorís note: itís an old custom in parts of England for the expectant father to make a cake and present it to those present during childbirth. There are many variations of the custom, but most seem to have the father cut the cake after childbirth, with care not to cut his own fingers, lest the child be stricken with death or some other tragedy. In Yorkshire, the cake is called "Pepper cake" and is spicy, like gingerbread. It is also a custom to provide all in the house with shortbread and buns before they leave, or risk bad luck. Iíve modified those customs a bit to fit Breeland. Source: Encyclopedia of Superstitions 1949, by Edwin Radford, Mona A. Radford, page 70.

Chapter 9 - "Itís Always The Brown Eyes I Remember..."

Halbarad walked through the barn, prying at a bit of food stuck between his molars. Denlad was still at the butchering but he looked nearly finished. "Is it wholesome, the venison?"

Denlad glanced up as he dropped a slab cut from the shank into one of the pans. "Aye. Itís good meat. Lean but cooked low and slow it should be tender enough, and there are several steaks that I think will be good even if cooked quickly. Iíll ask Flora if sheíd like me to get started on it for her."

"Bowen tells me she says the baby might come today."

"So she says." He turned back to the deer and continued carving.

"Denlad, lay aside the knife for a moment and join me. I would talk to you about something." He sat down on a bench against the side of the barn and watched as Denlad carefully set down the knife and wiped his hands on a rag, each movement more deliberate and slow than was his wont, which told Halbarad that though heíd intended to make it sound like a friendly chat, Denlad expected a thorough dressing down. When he finally came over and was seated beside him, staring at the ground between his boots, Halbarad made sure his voice was gentle. "Denlad, what troubles you about Bowen Rushlight?"

"In regards to his care for Strider, nothing. He seems a goodĖ"

"Yes, yes," Halbarad interrupted. So much for gentle handling but he had little patience for hemming and hawing, since Aragorn regularly used up his entire supply. He had none left over for Denlad. "He seems a good man. You said as much last night. Why then do I think that you do not believe what you say?"

Denlad shook his head. "It is the truth."

Halbarad waited.

Denlad picked at a speck of blood on his hand, then rubbed one thumb across the other palm, over and over. "I..."

"Go on."

He cleared his throat. "You know of my upbringing."

"Yes, something of it."

"My mother... sometimes..." He let out a breath, pursed his lips and straightened. "This is difficult for me to talk about. Iíve told no one any of this, not even Strider or Dirhael."

"If it is too hard, you donít have to say anything."

"No, I must. Itís... I must."

So Halbarad waited, watching as the younger man suffered the return of painful memories. He wished suddenly that Strider were here, for he was far better at sorting out tortured spirits than he. But Strider had his own burdens to bear and could hardly be asked to rise from his sickbed and trot out here to listen to Denladís troubles. He winced. A fine respite this was turning into... Denlad was hardly getting his lazy day in the sun, or at least the good nightís rest in Butterburís warm inn that Halbarad had wished for him. He then realized in all his self-castigating, he wasnít paying the least attention to Denlad.

"... was eight, I think. Perhaps seven... no, it was eight, for it was just after that that we moved from the area around Sarn Ford to the farm where you and Strider found us, and I had just turned nine, then." More palm rubbing. Halbarad worried he might rub a blister, but he said nothing. "A man came, as they did in those days. He was from Breeland, somewhere. Short but strong, the hands of a brawler or a farmer, hard to say which. Brown hair. Brown eyes." His voice trailed away, and when he spoke again it was almost a whisper. "Itís always the brown eyes I remember. So cold. Vicious."

Halbarad felt his mouth go dry. He wished more than ever that it was Strider listening, not him. He had no idea what Denlad was about to tell him, but it could not be good, and he would not know a thing to say, that much he knew with stone certainty. He wanted to command Denlad to stop talking, but he quelled the notion. Apparently it was written that today Halbarad would listen to the worldís cares, and as he had leant his shoulder to Aragorn, so would he lend it neither grudging nor flinching to Denlad.

"The first time he came, not much happened, but even so, he frightened me as no other man come to see my mother ever had. He glanced at me, you see, before I could duck out of sight into my little bedroom. His eyes..." He shook his head as he again stopped, and for a long time he sat silent. Then with a quiet sigh, he continued. "To my knowledge, he came and left without incident. But afterward, I could tell my mother was troubled, though she said nothing, which was her way. What she did to earn her keep... it was hardly something a mother could chat with her son about it now, was it." A bitter laugh, then, "Even so, we were all we had, each other, and I loved her dearly. And maybe that love and our isolation made me more attuned to her moods, even so young. Hard to say. I simply remember hoping and praying that the man would never come back."

Another long silence, and finally Halbarad could stand it no longer. "But... he did?"

A nod, slow and painful.

"He hurt my..." He stopped and cleared his throat. "He hurt my mother. I heard her cries, and I rushed in, thinking to help her, but there was not much an eight-year-old boy, thin and small for his age, could do. He chased me out of there, followed me to my bedchamber and beat me until I fell senseless to the floor. When I woke up, he was gone, and my mother was wiping the blood from my face, though she still had blood on her own." He took a deep breath. "She was never the same after that. He broke her, utterly, and she was a long time healing. I nursed her, as much as I could, which wasnít much. Mostly just bringing her a cup of water or a crust of bread when I could manage to steal a loaf; one kind charwoman actually gave me a whole meat pie. We ate like kings than night. But mostly I had to steal to find food during those months when she couldnít earn any money, and we were lucky to have a bite one day in three." A crooked smile. "I wasnít exactly the best of thieves. We survived, somehow, and when she was well enough, we fled to the hills and found that abandoned farm where you and Aragorn found us. It was hard, but we scraped a living out of the fields there. Men still came by, but never as many, and she kept a long knife by her bed and dealt as she saw fit with those who would be cruel." His eyes turned as bleak and cold as the HelcaraxŽ. "Those that were, we buried in the woods beyond our cottage."

Halbarad didnít know what to say. Such revelations were beyond anything in his own experience and what words of comfort that came to mind felt trite and meaningless. "I am sorry," he finally said.

Denlad shook himself. "It was long ago. I should not let what is now mere memory so torment me. My life is good these days." He cast a small smile his way. "Very good."

Halbarad nodded, still rather struck dumb. But a question came to mind, one for which he suspected the answer but still could not fathom. "This man who beat your mother, this Breelander... are you saying it was Bowen?"

Denlad laughed, a quiet sound so utterly devoid of any humor that it gave Halbarad a twinge in his chest. "No. How could it be? That was nearly fifteen years ago, and the man had grey in his hair, I remember that much. Bowen is what, thirty, perhaps? Probably not even that. Far too young. It wasnít him."

"But you fear it might have been his father."

Denlad shrugged. "Even if it was, it is foolish and the worst sort of hypocrisy for me to hold it against Bowen, for I know how it is to have the sins of your parent held against you. Still... I cannot seem to bring myself to look upon him with favor, or friendship."

Halbarad blew out a hard breath. "Denlad, if your suspicions hold trueĖ"

"I said I will not hold what happened against Bowen Rushlight," Denlad snapped. "And I mean that. I may never be able to extend friendship, but I will apologize for my attitude toward him, and see what I may do to help his wife in her childbirth, if she would accept such help as I can give."

"Iím sure she will welcome your care," Halbarad said. Then he added, with a sly grin, "Of course, you realize you will actually have to speak to her if you help her." Denlad, perhaps because of his upbringing, was never keen on speaking to women. Save for Ivorwen, he always seemed at a complete loss. He wasnít sure Denlad had said a single word to Flora. Nods, yes, and perhaps simple courtesies like please and thank you, but actual words beyond those, Halbarad had heard not a one.

Denlad glared. "As a healer, of course I will speak to her. And in fact, she and I have talked quite a bit about Striderís care and about other aspects of leechcraft and midwifery. I am not an idiot incapable of holding a conversation."

Chastened, Halbarad fiddled for a moment with a frayed string on his cuff, then stopped when he realized how much it irked him when Aragorn did that. Were they so alike, the two of them? Next thing Iíll be fretting over how to get my throne back and marry an Elf lordís daughter, he thought. He sighed. "My apologies, Denlad. It was a poorly placed jest. Iím sorry about all of this, really. If I had known this idea of mine to let you have some respite would have turned out soĖ"

This time Denladís laughter was genuine. "Halbarad, listen to yourself! How could you have known?"

"Well, I couldnít, of course, butĖ"

Denlad snorted but his smile was affectionate. "Halbarad, what you lack in prescience and tact, you more than make up for in mother henning."

"Here now, thereís no need for insults! I meant what I said."

"I know."

"Mother hen, indeed," Halbarad muttered. If he were, it was Aragornís fault.

"Now itís my turn at mother henning. Howís your arm, after that hunting?"

Relieved at the turn in the conversation, even if it meant having to talk about his arm, he nodded. "It held up well. Of course, I only took one shot, but it was steady enough."

"Hold out your hand."

"Denlad, thereís no needĖ"

Iron entered his voice. "I said hold it out."

Halbarad held it out.

"Flex your hand."

He made a fist.

"Now loosen it."

"Denlad, is this entirely necessarĖ"

"Yes. Do it."

Halbarad scowled, but he opened and closed his hand several times in rapid succession. "See, itís in perfect working order."

"No tingling?"

He hesitated. "No."

"Halbarad."

"All right, thereís some. In my little finger, mostly."

"Grab my hand." He held out his left hand and Halbarad took it. Denlad slapped at it. "Not like Iím some maiden youíre wooing. Grab it."

Halbarad grabbed Denladís hand and took great delight in squeezing it until Denlad started to squirm. "All right, all right! Thatís enough."

Halbarad grinned as he gave him a last knuckle-creaking squeeze and then dropped Denladís hand. "See? Nothing wrong."

"Just be sure to keep resting it," Denlad grumbled as he massaged his fingers.

"Not much I can do but rest, sitting around as we are waiting on Aragorn to get better."

Denlad smiled. "That wonít take long. His fever is gone, and after this long day of napping, heíll be up and pacing, ready to leave."

"I think before we leave, we need to be sure Flora and the babe are healthy."

"I had the same Ė" A sudden cry from the courtyard interrupted him. "That sounds like her," he said and leapt to his feet, taking off at a run toward the cottage.

Halbarad hurried after him, catching up in time to see Denlad scoop her off her feet as if she were no more than a child and carry her into the house. Bowen came huffing from the direction of the pasture and gave Halbarad a stricken glance. "It must be her time," he cried in a choked voice, then hurried in after them.

Halbaradís steps slowed. Memories washed over him in a flood of nostalgia of the times his Miriel had given birth and he had paced endlessly outside, wishing by turns that he could run for the hills or rush in and take her pain away. Elbereth, these are hard times for a man, but still harder for the wife. Awful and wonderful, all at once, and altogether exhausting. He did not envy either of them this day. He looked to the sky. "Elbereth, give them strength."

Chapter 10 - Surely†It Must†Be Bad If Denlad Was Being Nice

Bowen ran after Denlad. "In our bedchamber, Denlad. Put her in our bed," he said as he caught up with him.

"No, Denlad! Not yet!" Flora cried. "Bowen, change the sheets and blankets before he puts me down! See those old ones, right there in the corner on the chair?"

"By wind and by sun, wife, why are you worrying about the bedding! Put her down, Denlad, and never mind about the sheets."

Denlad started to, but she threw her arms around his neck and all but hung there, refusing to let go. He staggered but managed to straighten back up without falling and squashing her flat, though it was a near thing. "Bowen," he pleaded. "Just change the bedding, would you?"

Bowen huffed and muttered under his breath, but he yanked away all the perfectly good bedding and grabbed the stacks of muslin and wool blankets and hurled them onto the bed.

"Tuck them in properly!" Flora insisted.

"Tuck them... ! Oh this is a fine turn! Will you have the baby in Denladís arms then, because the bedcorners arenít perfect?"

"Iím a ways yet from that yet, so fix them, please."

Denlad shifted, widening his stance a bit even as he silently pleaded for Bowen to get on with the job. Knowing his wife was no small burden, Bowen hurriedly set things aright. "There! That will have to do because I canít get them any straighter."

"Theyíre perfect, dearest. Oh, and is the knife under the bed?"

Bowen bent to look; he saw it gleaming in the shadows. "Aye, itís there, right where you left it."

"And the window open and the doors unlocked?"

"Aye, Flora... and the catís chased out and I even unstoppered all the bottles of vinegar earlier." Bowen was feeling ever more frantic. "Flora, please..."

"I have to be certain all is ready," Flora said calmly. "And as it seems it is, you may put me down now, Denlad."

With palpable relief, he set her carefully down and this time it was Bowen that had the gimlet eye, but he could find no fault with Denladís gentle handling of her. Flora apparently found nothing to complain about either, for she gave Denlad a smile as she thanked him. He simply nodded and tried to hide a wince as he rubbed his lower back.

Bowen hurried to take her hand. "Iím sorry for snapping at you, love. Iím just that worried about you, I am."

She gave him a smile. "I forgive you. I understand how hard this is for you, and youíre being the sweetest husband ever."

"Is there anything I can get you?"

"No, I just need some quiet and a bit of time to get this job done."

"Job! Listen to you. As if youíre nobbut cleaning the floors," Bowen said. He tried to smile but he could feel that same shriek from breakfast building and building in his chest. It was all but choking him, it was, but he bit it back. No sense worrying her, her with this big job to do. He searched for something to say but finally just squeezed her hand.

Denlad†spoke, rather shyly. "I am no midwife and only an apprentice healer, my lady, and Iím sure you know more about births than I do, but if you feel anything is going amiss, please let me know. I may be able to help."

"I will, thank you. So far things seem normal enough, although I must admit that feeling it for myself is something new." She smiled at Bowen, then grimaced. "Ooh, here comes another one!" She nearly broke every bone in Bowenís hand as she bore down on it in her pain. After what felt like months, she finally relaxed, breathless and gasping.

Bowen cast a stricken glance at Denlad. "Is this normal? Is she all right? Whatís wrong--"

"Peace, Bowen," Denlad said gently. He actually put a hand on Bowenís shoulder, which made Bowen all the more frantic. Surely it must be bad if Denlad was being nice to him...

"Dearest," Flora said after finally catching her breath, "calm yourself! This is all perfectly normal."

"ButĖ"

"Bowen," Denlad said, still gentle and so blasted sympathetic that it set every nerve jangling, "it might be best if you wait outside. She will be perfectly well, and I am right here."

"As am I," came a voice from the doorway.

"Strider!" Bowen cried. "I donít think you should be up!" Indeed, the man looked a shade wobbly on his feet as he leaned against the doorframe.

"Donít worry about me," Strider said. "I am only going to keep an eye on things from here, lest I still be ill enough to sicken your wife or child. Denlad is well able to attend to her needs, and his advice is sound; you might find it easier if you wait outside. Halbarad can keep you company and give you reassurances. He has been through this six times, after all."

"Six! I thought... well, he said that you folk didnít have big families..."

Denlad covered a smile, but Strider didnít bother. "He and his wife are the exception that proves the rule."

Halbaradís face appeared over Striderís shoulder. "Whatís this, disparaging my good name, are you?"

"Only slightly," Strider said. He turned to him. "Did you get your buck?"

"Aye, caught and thanks to Denlad, butchered and ready to cook. Here, you might need this." He handed Strider the handful of kingsfoil. "Sorry thereís no ribbon. And, er, good to see you on your feet finally."

Strider thanked him and turned to Bowen. "Here is a chore to keep you busy: I need some steaming hot water, and a bowl."

"It was you what helped my cousin!" Flora crowed triumphantly from her bed.

Strider raised his eyebrows. "My lady?"

"Tansy Hornbeam is my aunt... her daughter Ivy had a child last fall. Her time came on her suddenly, when she was alone. She had no way to send for me or anyone else, but she said a tall stranger helped her tremendously. She said he used that weed you have there. Kingsfoil."

"Ivy Longhill! Of course! Martin Longhillís wife. Well do I remember her," Strider said with a smile. "She had a beautiful strong son, as I recall."

"Who is doing marvelously well, no little thanks to you."

Strider actually blushed a bit as he ducked his head in thanks.

Well, Bowen thought. It did seem that Flora was in good hands, what with Strider definitely being the one that helped her cousin, and Denlad being a healer trained by Strider. He took a shaky breath. "Flora, if I leave, are you sure you will beĖ"

"I shall be in very good hands, Bowen. And I fear if you stay you will work yourself into a panic, and that will help no one. So go, fetch Strider his hot water, and then talk to Halbarad and ease your mind."

"Come, Bowen!" Halbarad called. "Iíll tell you all about my children and how each one arrived. Youíve nothing to fear."

Bowen looked at him, then at Denlad and Strider one more time, then finally let out a sigh that felt as though it came from his toes. "All right." He leaned down and gave Flora a kiss, then hurried out on shaky legs before his resolve failed him.

Halbarad followed him down the hallway. "It will be all right, truly. She looks to be a strong lass, your Flora."

Bowen took one of the buckets of water Flora had set out earlier and poured it into their iron teakettle. Denlad came in just then and as Bowen finished took the bucket from him to use the water left it in it to scrub his hands. Bowen watched him for a moment, but when Denlad maintained his usual silence, turned away to hang the iron kettle on the hook above the fire before finally replying to Halbarad, "I know she says she is strong, and that she feels all is well with this child, but I can't help but worry.""Of course you canít. Thatís only natural. So you will, over the course of the next few hours, pace and growl and mumble and pray and so work yourself up into a lather that when the babe does come, youíll dissolve into tears. Youíll be lucky, really, if you donít faint away entirely."

"Did you..."

Halbarad grinned. "The first, yes, I did. Face down on the floor and broke my nose, in fact. My eldest sonís first glimpse of me must have been hair-raising, all that blood and gore. My wife thought me completely useless."

Bowen chuckled despite himself. "I pray I wonít do that."

"You may faint, but Iíll try to catch you before you hit the floor nose-first."

Bowen nodded, but he stiffened as Flora let out another long cry. Denlad hurried back to the bedroom, wiping his hands dry on a clean towel as he went. "Oh dear," Bowen whispered, and reached shakily for one of the chairs around the table. He fell into it and stared toward the bedchamber. He felt all hollowed out inside.

Halbarad patted his shoulder. "Steady, Bowen."

Her cry faded, then Strider came into the room. He lowered himself to a seat across the table from Bowen. "Sheís doing well," he said. "Things are moving along quickly."

"Is she really doing all right?" Bowen asked.

Strider nodded. "Sheís strong, and I dared go near for just a moment, to check that the baby was turned aright, and all seems as it should be. Youíll be a father by nightfall or perhaps even sooner, I wager."

"A father..." A tremulous smile wobbled its way onto his face and he nodded. "By wind and by sun... me, a father!"

Strider exchanged an amused glance with Halbarad, then said to Bowen, "Howís the hot water coming along?"

Bowen blinked for a moment, then hurried to the fireplace. "How hot do you need it?"

"As hot as you would use to make tea."

"A minute or two more, then." He sat back down, feeling a little steadier than he had earlier. Strider and Halbarad seemed so utterly calm that surely he had nothing to fear.

Halbarad walked into the kitchen and came back with a loaf of bread and the crock of butter. "You need to eat something, Bowen," he said, and proceeded to slice off a great slab of bread. After slathering a generous amount of butter on it, he handed it to him. He then repeated the process. "You, too, Strider. You look like a stiff breeze could blow you to Rivendell. Eat and regain some strength."

Strider lifted his as if it were a tankard. "To new life," he said, "and the hope it brings."

Bowen grinned broadly and tapped his bread against Striderís. Or at least, he meant it to be a tap. Instead, he knocked it a little too hard and Striderís bread slipped out of his hand to land buttered side down on the table. "Oh dear," Bowen said, and he worried that it was a bad omen and suddenly all the panic he thought behind him surged back.

Strider simply chuckled and picked up the bread. He used his finger to scoop up the butter and smear it back on the bread. "Eat, Bowen. Clumsiness is never a portent, after all."

"No... yes, no... of course not," Bowen said, somewhat hysterically. He shoved the bread into his mouth to stop his idiotic blathering.

Halbarad stood. "Iíve got to see to that meat before flies get to it and it spoils. Bowen, if you need me, come out and get me. In the meantime, I imagine Strider here can offer up some diversions in the way of conversation. Just donít let him bore you nattering on too much about leechcraft."

He left and Bowen cleared his throat, suddenly shy now that they were alone and Strider seemed more himself. "Iím sure you wonít be boring," he finally said.

"Iíll try my best. And since telling my own tale is rather tedious and dull, tell me about this farm instead. How long have Rushlights lived on this land?"

"Oh, for many, many generations. Iím not sure how many, in fact. Probably as long as Men have lived in Bree."

"Which is a very long time, indeed." Strider looked at the ceiling beams and the fireplace. "This house does not seem that old."

"Itís not. My grandfather built it about thirty years ago. The old one burned one winter when the chimney caught fire. They moved into the barn for the rest of that winter and the following summer built thisĖ"

Another cry from the bedroom, followed by loud imprecations, mostly at Bowenís expense, that made Strider chuckle. Flora did not sound happy in the least.

Bowen felt his cheeks burn. "Oh dear... I had no idea she even knew such words...why is she... you must think us cut from the worst sort of cloth..."

"Shh, easy, Bowen. Her cries will come more often; her pains are already quite close together, which is a good sign that things are progressing well. And that her temper is rising is also a sign that the time is nearly at hand. She seems to be one of the fortunate women for whom birth is a quick thing."

"But she sounded so hateful!"

"You should hear Halbaradís wife during such times. She has sworn, with each child, that she will take a knife to Halbarad and put an end to his... how did she put it? ĎOverweening male prideí, I think it was. And with their most recent child, it was, Ďslice into slivers his wee bits of shriveled male prunesí, which threat has transcended into legend among our people, though donít dare say anything about it to Halbarad! Her insults have gotten better with each baby, actually."

Bowen felt the blood drain from his face. He looked askance at the bedroom door. "Oh dear."

"Fear not, Bowen. Just as Miriel has yet to make good on her threats, neither shall your Flora. She will take one look at her child and all anger will simply melt away."

"Have you... have you done this sort of thing much, helping with... well, that is to say, births?"

"Several, yes. And all of them went well."

Which could mean Strider was due a spectacular failure. Bowenís stomach flipped. "Oh dear."

"That does not reassure you?"

"You might be... well, due, if you know what I mean."

"Bowen, I know it is the way of your folk to... do things to ward off evil, the cake and the windows open and the knife under the bed to cut pain and whatnot, but surely youíre not as superstitious as all that."

"No, not exactly... but... the odds, you see... the more you do a thing successfully, the more likely eventually youíll make a hash of it."

Strider stared at him for a moment, then let out a great laugh that quickly dissolved into a coughing fit. But he finally regained control of himself and wiped this streaming eyes. "Seeing as Iím not even in the same room with her, I donít think that Iíll be making a hash of things this day."

"No, Iím sure you wonít, and I didnít mean any insult, truly. My mindís in such a muddle I should probably keep my mouth shut." He got up and checked on the water. "I think this is ready."

"Good. Bring it here." Strider rose and helped himself to a large bowl from the shelf. He put it on the table and had Bowen fill it halfway with the steaming water. He pulled the kingsfoil leaves from his pocket and held them between his hands for a moment, and then he did something Bowen thought rather odd: he seemed to breathe on them. He didnít blow, exactly, nor did he spit... he simply exhaled onto them. Heíd never seen anyone do anything like it and couldnít imagine it making a blind bit of difference in whatever medicine the leaves provided. Rangers really were a rum folk, as strange as news from Bree.

Strider dropped them into the water and within moments the freshest scent Bowen had ever smelled seemed to fill the entire house. Fresh rain on spring crops didnít smell as good.

"Oh, now thatís nice, that is. Thatíll chirk up a manís spirits right enough. How did you know kingsfoil could give off a fragrance like that?" He picked up a leaf that had fallen back to the table and sniffed it, but it just smelled vaguely green, like dandelions or oak leaves or lambsí ear.

Strider merely gave him a smile, then picked up the bowl and disappeared into the bedroom. Bowen thought to follow him, but he looked instead at the leaf. He grabbed one of the tin cups and filled it with hot water, then held the leaf and blew on it just as Strider had. He dropped it in and took a deep breath... and smelled nothing. He grabbed a spoon and swirled the water around a bit, and finally there arose a scent that was fresh enough but nothing like when Strider had done it. Disappointed, Bowen set aside the cup and hurried down the hall and peeked in. Strider had put the bowl beside Flora on the table and was leaning over her, speaking softly. He put his hand on her forehead and Bowen heard her soft sigh, and then Strider gave Denlad a nod as he straightened and turned to leave. He nearly bumped into Bowen as he hurried out of the room. Bowen trotted along after him, but stopped in his tracks when Flora let out yet another cry. This time, at least, she didnít call Bowen any filthy names. That kingsfoil must have really done the trick.

As Strider settled back down at the table, he spied Bowenís abortive attempt at making the kingsfoil aroma. He raised an eyebrow, but saying nothing, reached into the cup with the spoon and pulled out the wet leaf. He again held it, then breathed on it and dropped it back in, and the aroma once again rose fresh and clean. "I suppose I didnít breathe on it long enough," Bowen muttered, scratching his jaw.

"It takes a bit of a knack," Strider said. He gave Bowen a wink, then settled back in his chair, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles.

Bowen was too nervous to sit idly waiting, so he turned away and started to pace. Back and forth he went, from the hearth to the front door, until finally Strider called out, "Bowen. Youíre wearing me out watching you. Sit down."

Bowen meekly dropped back into his chair, but then his left leg, seeming on its own, started bouncing rapidly up and down. Strider sighed. "Get up, then, and pace. Itís your own floor to wear out, after all."

Bowen fairly leapt to his feet. He resumed his pacing, not even stopping when Halbarad came back. Halbarad watched him, smiling. "Did I not tell you?"

Bowen just kept himself from glaring.

Halbarad laughed. He poured water into the washbowl and grabbed a handful of the soft soap that Flora kept in a small pot on the windowsill. As he scrubbed his hands, he looked over at Strider. "So how are you, really?"

Strider twisted in his chair to face him. "Better. Definitely on the mend."

"Glad to hear it."

Bowen watched the two of them, and just as it was between Halbarad and Denlad, an entire conversation without words seemed to pass between them by the time Halbarad dried his hands on a towel and Strider straightened back around in his chair. "Bowen, have you any more tea?" Halbarad asked. "I fancy a cup after all that butchering, but donít trouble yourself; I can make it as easily as you."

"Corner cupboard, top shelf. Youíll see a box of it there, and a tea ball beside it."

"Thank you, kind sir. Either of you for a cuppa?"

Strider, who had straightened back around to resume his indolent lolling, leaned his head back toward the kitchen behind him. "Make it plenty strong."

"When have I not?" He rattled around arranging mugs and teapot.

"The week before I left. You made a pot that was nothing more than colored water."

"That was because we were nearly out of tea!"

"You shouldnít have tried making it, then."

Halbarad straightened, an indignant look on his face. "If I recall, you insisted I make it."

Strider wore a wicked smile that Halbarad couldnít see. He winked at Bowen. "I did no such thing."

Halbarad looked ready to hurl the tea ball at the back of Striderís head. But instead he simply growled under his breath and dropped it into the teapot and poured steaming water from the kettle over it. He carried the pot to the table and plunked it down in front of Strider. "There. You finish the making of it, since youíve become so particular."

They sounded so like a pair of bickering women that Bowen laughed. "You two are mad," he finally said.

"We may very well be," Strider agreed. He checked the depths of the teapot. "Not yet."

"And you may not have realized," Halbarad added, "but thanks to us, you have not once flinched at the sounds from the bedroom."

Bowen blinked. It was true. Heíd been so caught up in their antics that he hadnít noticed anything at all coming from the bedroom. His conscience immediately smote him. How could he have been so heedless during his wifeís hour of tribulation? "Oh," he said miserably, and started to pace again.

"Well done, Halbarad," Strider muttered.

Halbarad started to reply, but Denlad came hurrying into the room. "Strider, could you come?"

Strider immediately rose and disappeared to the bedroom. Bowen watched him, then turned his gaze to Halbarad. "What do you supposeĖ"

"Likely nothing. It could be the baby has been born, in fact, and Denlad merely wants Strider to watch that he finishes things up properly. The cleaning up and such."

Bowen nodded, but he was unconvinced. If the baby was born, surely theyíd be hearing its cries by now. He chewed his lip, trying to tell himself to go back there and see, but he seemed somehow to have lost all feeling in his legs. Quite unintentionally, he heard himself let out the tiniest of moans.

Halbarad squeezed his shoulder. "Would you like me to go check for you?"

Bowen nodded vigorously. "Could you? Please?"

Halbarad disappeared, and after what felt like hours but could only have been a matter of minutes, returned.† He smiled broadly. "You might want to go back there now.

"You mean..."

Just then, the robust bawl of a newborn rent the quiet of the cottage. Bowen felt his knees quiver.

Halbarad gave him a shove. "Go on, then. See your new son!"

_________

Authorís Note: More childbirth superstitions! A knife placed under the bed is meant to cut the pain; people used to think a cat would steal the babyís breath (this may actually be a superstition that, while not literally true, is still a good idea, as we know today that a pregnant woman should never clean a litter box, because of the risk of toxoplasmosis); and windows, doors and all the bottles in a house were opened, to help ease the passage of the baby into the world. Again, Iíve modified them a little to fit Middle-earth.

"As strange as news from Bree", JRR Tolkien, taken from FOTR, "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony".

Chapter 11 - "There Could Be No Better Name."

Bowen stopped at the doorway. Both Denlad and Aragorn blocked his view of the bed, so he quietly tiptoed around them, hoping his knees wouldn't give way. "Flora?" he whispered.

Denlad spun around and actually gave him a smile. "Come, Bowen. Flora has someone she'd like you to meet," he said. Strider, looking even more pale than he had earlier, simply smiled and stepped back out of the way to lean heavily against the doorframe. Bowen cast a worried eye over him, but he shook his head and waved toward the bed.

Bowen, still feeling he must tiptoe, eased to a seat next to Flora, who looked exhausted but joyful all at once. She held a small wrapped bundle in her arms. "Is that..."

She pulled a corner of the swaddling cloth back, and Bowen beheld a small, wrinkled face topped with a fuzzy swatch of dark red hair. The baby had one tiny fist balled up and pressed against his rosy cheek, but he looked peaceful and content. Then the image before Bowen melted into a watery blur, and he covered his face with both hands and wept. It was embarrassing in the extreme, unmanning himself so and in front of Strider and Denlad no less, but there seemed no stopping it.

That he hadn't actually fainted was his sole consolation.

"Bowen, dearest," Flora murmured, and he snuffled and hiccuped and got hold of himself.

"I'm sorry," he said. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. "Halbarad told me I'd do this, and he was right."

"As I usually am," Halbarad said from beside Strider in the doorway. He seemed to be propping Strider up, which worried Bowen in a distant sort of way. "Now go on, quit your bawling and get a proper look at your son. I'm betting Flora will even let you hold him."

He quailed at the thought. "Oh no, I couldn't ... I might drop him or squeeze him too tight orĖ"

"Oh for Elbereth's sake, just pick up your son!" Denlad said. He reached down and Flora gave him the baby. "How do you think you can be a proper father if you never actually hold him? Here. Just watch that you support his head Ė babies' necks wobble. Yes, that's it, that's exactly right." And as quick as that, Bowen was holding his son, and the tears started in again. He blinked them back quickly this time, for his son had his eyes open and was looking at him intently, and it wouldn't do for him to think his old da' was nothing but a blubbering wreck. His eyes were blue, a sort of smoky shade that Bowen knew, even as little as he knew about babies, would likely darken into brown, although he supposed since his own mother had blue eyes, his son might be blue-eyed as well. Time would tell. The red hair he knew would darken to brown; his grandmother had told him once that Rushlight men tend to be born carrot tops. Rowen Rushlight, Owen's brother, had even been so named because of his red mane, although it turned into a right misnomer once his hair darkened to ordinary brown by the time he was three.

Of course, it mattered not a whit what the color of his son's hair was. That he was healthy and sound was all that mattered. He cradled the baby in the crook of his arm and marveled at how easy and right it felt. He also knew that if anyone tried to take him away or do him the least bit of harm, he'd have a fight on his hands.

He reached up a finger and stroked the tiny cheek. It was so soft he almost couldn't feel it. "Hello there, my fine great boy," he crooned. "I'm your da' and very pleased to meet you." He didn't know what to expect, a smile perhaps, but the baby simply kept staring at him until finally his little eyes closed and his mouth opened in a tiny, perfect 'O' as a mighty yawn seemed to shake his entire body. Bowen laughed in delight. What a marvel, having a son!

He then realized that everyone was watching him. He cleared his throat and looked at his wife. "How are you, Flora, now that it's over?"

"Tired and more than a little sore," she said. "But very happy."

Bowen leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss. He had no words to express how much he loved her at this moment, so he simply touched his forehead to hers and sighed with contentment.

There was a stirring near the door and Bowen looked up. Strider was looking more than ever ready to drop, but Halbarad had a firm grip on his arm. "Strider, best you get back to bed!" Bowen cried.

"Worry not, I am merely tired. I do think a rest is in order, but before that, let me congratulate you on your firstborn son," he said, his voice far stronger than his looks would suggest. "He has ten fingers, ten toes and is hale in every way. No doubt he will grow to be a strapping young man someday."

"Thank you," Bowen said softly, then he looked at the other two strangers... no, that was wrong. These men were strangers no longer. He would now dare to call them friends, as much as he could ever call these dark men who were so different and aloof friends. At the very least, he knew without doubt that Rangers were not the murdering rogues they were made out to be, not by a long shot. "Thank you all."

Strider nodded, and the other two gave him smiles, but then Flora interjected softly, "Bowen, what shall we name our son?"

A name! By wind and by sun, he hadn't even given it a thought! He stared at her. "I... what do you think?"

She glanced at the Rangers. "I suppose Bowen Strider Denlad Halbarad is a bit of a mouthful."

Halbarad chuckled. "Pray do not levy the child with so great a burden as all that."

Denlad merely shook his head at the absurdity of the idea.

"How about... Owen. After my old da'?" Bowen suggested. "Or maybe William, after yours?"

"Owen, I think. We might save William for our next son. But I also want to honor these fine men who helped us."

Bowen looked at each Ranger in turn, then finally said, "Then let them choose his second name."

Denlad eyes went blank in panic, and Strider looked startled as he stammered, "I, er..."

But Halbarad smiled. "Estel," he said. "His second name shall be Estel."

Denlad nodded vigorously. "There could be no better name." Strider, for his part, seemed nearly moved to tears but he said nothing.

"Owen Estel. I like the sound of it, a wee bit Elvish but not too outlandish." Halbarad choked on a laugh and Strider actually blushed scarlet, though Bowen couldn't imagine why. "But Estel... what does that mean?"

Strider cleared his throat. "It means 'hope'."

"Hope," Bowen echoed softly. "Aye, we need hope, don't we. Well, little one, what do you make of your name? Owen Estel Rushlight, son of Bowen, grandson of Owen, and the newest citizen of Breeland, born this twenty-fifth day of March, 2995."

Owen Estel yawned again and then fell asleep.

"He doesn't seem over impressed, does he," Bowen chuckled. He sat rocking gently back and forth, staring down at his son. Fancy it being so beguiling to watch a baby do nothing more than sleep. He was barely aware that everyone had left the room.

"I don't know what we would have done without Denlad and Strider," Flora said softly.

Bowen looked up. She had tears in her eyes. He reached over and knuckled away a tear that had fallen down her cheek. "Shh, shhhh... no need for that, lass. You would have done marvelously even without them."

"No, Bowen... but then how could you know..."

"Know? Know what?"

"The babe... Owen Estel. The cord was wrapped around his throat, as sometimes happens. Denlad quickly untangled him, but he was already terribly blue. He wasn't breathing, and Denlad couldn't get him to start."

Bowen might have stopped breathing himself if he weren't holding his very healthy and happily breathing son in his arms at that very moment. "Oh dear. That must be why Denlad came in such a rush to get Strider."

She nodded. "Denlad was nearly in tears, the poor boy. But Strider came in and he... did something. I could not see what, exactly, although he, Strider that is, had his eyes closed and his hand on Owen Estel's little chest and was concentrating so hard he turned nearly grey. And then after what seemed an age but couldn't have been more than half a minute, I heard the tiniest wee gasp, and Owen Estel let out a great wail, and I knew all was well. Strider was pale and shaking by then, and for a moment he seemed lost, almost, like he'd faded from this world to walk in some other. That sounds so ridiculous, saying it straight out like that, but that's how it seemed. Oh! And right before Owen Estel took his first breath, Strider said the oddest thing, in a terrible voice, 'There. You will not win twice!" he cried. I was afraid, to be honest, though of course I knew he wasn't speaking to me or Owen Estel... he was, well, gone, really is the only word that comes to mind. So I wasn't afraid of him, exactly, for if anything he made me feel safe, somehow. But I was afraid of... of whatever it was he said that to, if that makes sense. It was as though he... no, never mind, it's too ridiculous."

"No, Flora, tell me. As though he what?"

"Well, as though he were fighting death itself on our son's behalf," she said with a rush, then her cheeks turned rosy. "Oh listen to me, you'll think me addled because of this baby."

"You could never be addled, love."

"Well, anyway, after Owen Estel let out his first cry, Strider sort of blinked and came to himself again. His gaze was once more kind and warm and just so very ordinary that I dared asked him what he had meant. But he only smiled and said, 'Think not of me, nor of any dark thing; behold your son.' And he handed our baby to me." Her chin wobbled. "Oh, Bowen! When I think what might have been, had these Rangers not been here... dearest, I know in my deepest heart of hearts that you saved your son and no mistake when you brought Strider home."

Bowen felt prickles all up and down his spine, like a goose had walked over his grave. Who was this Strider? What sort of a thing was it that let him apparently call forth life from death like that? Troubled deeply, he looked at his sleeping son, and something settled inside him. The fear abated and he knew that whatever had taken place had been a good thing, however otherworldly it sounded. He took a deep breath and looked toward the doorway where Strider had stood. Even as he watched, Halbarad walked by. "Halbarad! Can you come in for a moment?"

Halbarad glanced back toward Strider's room, but he came in. "Can I get you anything?"

"Strider... is he all right?"

"He needs rest, that is all."

Bowen opened his mouth, then realized he had absolutely no way of asking any of the questions barreling around inside his head. One doesn't just up and ask a man if his kinsman is some sort of wizard or sorcerer or worse. Even if Strider was some sort of dark magician, he seemed to think the Rushlights were on the side of good, so best leave it at that lest he risk changing Strider's opinion. A man what could save a babe from death might as quick as that call down fire on their heads as they slept and roast them to a crisp. No, best leave well enough alone.

"Bowen?" Halbarad asked.

He started. "Oh, yes... that is... there's shortbread, and buns, in the kitchen. And my cake, of course. Do you think he'd like some?"

"I think he'd like that very much, yes."

Bowen's relief was vast. Odd trances and terrible voices were all completely beyond him, but a man tired and hungry, in need of cake, that was something he felt he could handle. "Brilliant! I'll get them ready now." But that meant having to put down the baby and he realized he hadn't the first clue how.

Halbarad saw his dilemma and came forth with a smile. "Like this," he said, and deftly scooped his arm under the baby and handed him over to Flora. "You've much to learn, Bowen. I'm not sure I can teach you everything in the short time we'll be here."

And just like that, worries over Strider's dark arts melted away into a vast hollow in his belly at the thought of him and the others leaving. It was beyond him how, despite their uncanny ways, they could feel so much a natural part of things, even after such a short time. But surely the Rangers had families and lives of their own to get back to, and what would Bowen's own family and neighbors think, them suddenly taking up with Rangers? No, he supposed it was best all around for the three of them to go on their way, but Bowen couldn't help but feel their days would be emptier for it.

He gave Flora another kiss, then ushered Halbarad out of the room and to the kitchen. He pulled out plates and mugs and the shortbread, buns and cake. The tea was now very strong indeed, for they'd all completely forgotten it in the fuss over the arrival of the baby... Owen Estel, he reminded himself. He must get used to calling his son by his rightful name. He poured tea as black as ink into the mugs. "I think even Strider would approve of this," he chuckled.

Halbarad smiled, but it was a worried smile. Bowen slowly put down the tea pot. "Whatever is the matter, Halbarad? Is Strider really all right?"

"He is, he is... or I suppose I should say he will be. He tired himself, though."

"He didn't look too steady on his pins there toward the end. But take him this tea. I could fortify it with a bit of apple brandy if you think that might help."

Halbarad grimaced. "Bowen, that would be vile."

"Here now, Flora's apple brandy is praised from Bree to Buckland, it is!"

"But mixed in tea?"

"Goodness, man, have you never had a hot toddy?"

"Well, yes, but not with apple brandy. My own mother used peach brandy, and even Butterbur makes it with wine or his blackberry brandy. Apples and tea... they just don't go."

Fancy a man being so particular about his toddies! Bowen shook his head, but offered, "If you think it would suit him better, I could pour him some in a small glass, then. Separate."

"I'll ask him." Halbarad picked up mug and plate and disappeared to Strider's room. Barely a beat went by before he returned with the mug. He held it out wordlessly. Bowen didn't bother hiding a smirk as he poured a generous splash of apple brandy into it. Halbarad nodded, not meeting his eyes, and ducked back into Strider's room.

That left Bowen alone with Denlad and blame him if that wasn't more awkward and uncomfortable than being alone with Strider. He put a bun on a plate, and a piece of shortbread and a slice of the cake and handed it to him. "There you are."

Denlad thanked him, then walked to the table. He stood quietly for a moment, looking out the west window, then he sat at the table. In Bowen's seat, but of course he couldn't know that. Still, it irked Bowen a little. He gathered up his own tea and a piece of shortbread and settled down in the third chair, the one that they kept in case of guests. The room seemed all out of shape, looking at it from this chair. In fact, he had the feeling that the world had tipped sideways again, but he took a sip of his tea and it steadied him a might. It was indeed very, very strong. Strider should have no complaints.

"Bowen, I would like to offer my apologies."

Denlad's words came so abruptly that Bowen jumped and splattered tea on the table. "Oh... er, whatever for?" Surely he couldn't have known Bowen was irked about him taking his chair...

"I have been cold to you, and rude."

Well, there was no arguing that. Cold and rude were the bywords for Denlad's behavior and no mistake. Bowen wondered if Denlad would explain himself, should he ask him the reason for it, then decided he probably wouldn't. So Bowen chose to do as his old da' would have and be magnanimous about the whole thing. "Think nothing of it. It has been a stressful time for you and your friends."

"I will not claim that, nor anything else, as an excuse. I only ask your forgiveness and give you my promise not to let it happen again."

"Of course, of course. It's yours. I could hardly hold a grudge after you helped my wife, could I."

Denlad remained somber. "I am glad that the babe is healthy."

"Aye. Flora told me what happened. I feel like I've said thank you so many times it's become meaningless, but I must say again, thank you."

"It was a near thing. If you're to thank anyone, thank Strider."

"I intend to, at first chance."

Denlad fiddled with his fork. "Bowen... might I ask you something?"

"Certainly."

"Your father..." He frowned, then shook his head. "Never mind."

"What about him?"

"Did he ever travel beyond Bree?"

An odd question, but Bowen shrugged. "Not to my knowledge. He always said that if it couldn't be found in Bree, it wasn't worth looking for. He was a man who loved his farm and family and saw no need to go rooting around for adventure elsewhere."

A look of relief lightened Denlad's brow. He took a bite of Bowen's cake and for a moment froze as he seemed to stare inwardly, troubled in the way of a man who's bit down on a bone and cracked a tooth. Before Bowen could ask, he blinked, carefully swallowed, and said, "'Tis a good thing, being so settled and happy."

"My da' always knew his blessings, he did. Now his older brother, my uncle, he was cut from altogether rougher cloth. He never did amount to much, that one. His was a misspent life from cradle to grave Ė or at least from the age where he was old enough to make his addlepated choices. Drinking, carrying on in any pub or inn he could stagger to, debauchery and probably worse. He was a right rogue, that one, and cruel besides."

Denlad grew very still. "Did he too stay near to Bree?"

"No, he wandered everywhere, pretty much, and thank goodness for it, since that meant we didn't have much dealings with him. He finally went off to the south, some twenty or twenty-five years ago now it's been, I suppose; I was only about six or seven the last time I saw him on one of his rare visits back to Bree, so yes, it was near that long ago. We never saw him after that, and word finally reached us just this past year, shortly after my old da' passed on, that he'd been knifed in some tavern near Sarn Ford. Turns out he'd been living down there all that time, and I suppose he must have picked a fight with the wrong man or tried to beat the wrong sportin' lady, if you know the type. Oh he was awful in how he treated those poor women...and how he'd boast of it even to me, just a snip of a lad." His words trailed off as he belatedly remembered what Halbarad had said about Denlad's own mother. Denlad seemed not to notice; in fact, he seemed utterly lost in thought, his gaze locked on the tabletop. He waited, but when Denlad said nothing, he went on, "All we got was a note saying they'd found our name on a letter in his pocket so they wrote to tell us they'd buried him in a pauper's grave. By then it had been so long since we'd seen him, he was nobbut a stranger to us. 'Tis a sorry thing to have to say good riddance about your own kin, but there you go. The one good thing about his passing is that my old da' never heard of it; it would have broke his heart, I guess. He always hoped his brother would come around to the good before the end."

Denlad finally looked up to stare closely at Bowen, a deep sadness in his eyes but also a glint of something that looked a little like anger. Bowen dearly hoped it wasn't over his miscue about sporting ladies. "Do you... do you favor your father or uncle?"

"Aye. They say you can tell a man's a Rushlight as easy as knowing an elm is an elm. We all seem to be leaves on the same twig, leastwise until you get to know us. Then you'd never have mistaken Owen for Rowen." Bowen peered at Denlad, struck by a horrid thought. "I say, why are you asking these things? Did you know my uncle?"

Denlad shook his head. "It does not matter." He let out a long, tired sigh. "No, it does not matter," he repeated, almost to himself.

Bowen frowned, but felt he could ask no further questions without prying and putting Denlad in an awkward spot having to talk about things best left in the past. Denlad no doubt hadn't a clue that Halbarad had revealed to Bowen anything about his past, so he daren't say anything more, even if he could think of the words. Blasted secrets! How Bowen hated them. Made life far too complicated, they did, but there you go, some things are best left unsaid. But they made for difficult conversation and no mistake, especially with a Ranger. So many secrets surrounded these quiet men, so many that the only way they seemed able to hand out a bit of truth about themselves was to wrap it in a riddle and tie it in a knot. Determined to keep themselves to themselves, they were, and just try breaking through their iron reserve. Good hearted they may be but Bowen was suddenly weary of it all and dizzy from the struggle. No sense even in trying to make true friends of any of 'em, really. He was grateful beyond words for the help they'd given, but he had to set his world back to rights and these sorts of conversations were too unsettling. "Well, then. Do you mind if I go take a peek at Strider? I want to make sure to thank him."

"By all means. He is tired only, not really ill anymore. Despite Halbarad's worries, he will be fully himself again after a little food and rest."

Bowen nodded and stood, thinking again what a relief it would be to have shut of these Rangers and have his farm and his Flora and his little son all to themselves once more. He glanced at Denlad, though, and saw something in the line of his mouth and the droop of his shoulders that looked a little too much like abject misery, and his pique melted away. He sat back down. "Here now, Denlad... I hold nothing against you, you can be sure of that."

For a moment, Denlad's eyes held only sorrow and uncertainty, a jarring thing to see in such a strong man to be sure, but then he suddenly smiled, genuine and warm without a hint of reserve. "Thank you, Bowen. You are truly a good man, in every sense of the word."

Bowen nodded, too much in a muddle over whether to be happy or entirely vexed by Denlad's sudden change of heart to say much of anything. Oh yes, how much simpler life would be once they'd gone! He shoved a bite of shortbread in his mouth, putting off thanking Strider for the moment. He chewed and swallowed and took another bite as Denlad did the same, and for a long time the two of them simply sat quietly eating, if not in companionable silence then at least in the sort of mutual comradery that two strangers at the Prancing Pony might feel if happenstance thrust them beside each other at the same table. Finally, his plate cleaned - he had put too much ginger in that cake, blast it all - he stood and put it and his empty mug on the counter by the dishpan. "I think I'll go look in on Strider now."

Denlad nodded, and Bowen started toward Strider's bedroom, but a clatter of hooves outside stopped him. Denlad lunged to his feet and hurried to the window, peering out of it from the side as though he expected to be punctured by enemy arrows if he dared show more than one eye and a sliver of his face. Goodness but these Rangers were fey and jumpy! Bowen saw no need for that sort of nonsense. "Here now, Denlad, it's probably just one of the neighbors," Bowen said, and opened the door. He stopped short when he saw two men, tall and fierce and mounted on great shaggy ponies. Bowen suppressed a groan.

More Rangers.

Chapter 12 - Rangers A'Plenty

"Do not reprimand me, Halbarad, for I no more regret risking my own health by extending my healing powers than I regret having you as a cousin. However, if you scold me, I may have to change my opinion about the latter."

Halbarad chuckled as he took the empty mug, its apple brandy contents now warming Aragorn's belly and putting a contented but sleepy look in his eye. "Hush, Strider. What could I possibly say? You saved the baby's life."

Aragorn sighed as he nestled into the soft pillow. He shut his eyes. "I did this time, didn't I," he murmured, then smiled and just that quickly fell asleep.

Halbarad sat down on the bed and watched him for a moment, but he seemed to be sleeping easily and comfortably, as was his wont after calling upon his healing powers to any great extent. He reached over to lay the back of his hand against Aragorn's cheek.†He wasn't blazing with fever but he did seem a bit warmer than he should be. It could be the brandy, he supposed. Or it could be that it was a normal reaction after healing; Halbarad had never actually checked him for fever after he plied his healing skills. He laid his hand on Aragorn's forehead, with the same ambiguous results. Aragorn, for his part, scarcely stirred, though his eyes fluttered open a bit before dropping shut just as quickly. He muttered something unintelligible that may have been "Stop it!" and rolled away from Halbarad. He jerked the blankets over his head.

Halbarad smiled. He could take a hint as well as the next man, so he stood and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. The long day was beginning to tell on his back and his legs, but he was relieved that his arm wasn't troubling him, despite the hunting. Maybe rest was indeed what it most needed, which was just as well seeing how Aragorn and his healing hands had been busy elsewhere. In his exhausted state, he surely didn't need to be called upon for Halbarad's benefit.

He yawned. Watching someone sleep was hardly scintillating entertainment, plus he likely needed a nap of his own, or given the lateness of the hour, a climb up the ladder to bed for the night. But his mind was buzzing with too many thoughts to let him rest. Seeing Bowen's baby son and the light of joy in Flora's eyes had stirred emotions he tried hard to keep locked at bay. He was happy for them, that was certain enough, but the happiness came with the price of a stinging behind his eyes and an ache in his heart to see his own family, to hold his own children. To kiss his own wife.

He was, to put it plainly, homesick.

He walked to the small window and leaned on the sill, looking out at the evening sunshine slanting down on the pastures behind the cottage. Bowen's fields looked much like the ones surrounding his own home, green with new grass and neatly lined by stone walls here and by the rougher edges of woodland there. He watched the wind dance among the little daffodils blooming along those woody edges, and for the longest time admired a swallow as it swooped and darted through the air, hard at work catching insects. Far off, along the river, the nightly chorus of frogs stirred to life, and farther away still a whip-poor-will began his chant into the twilight.

It was a lovely sight, those cultivated fields of Eriador, and one Halbarad carried like a secret treasure in his heart during all his journeying into danger and darkness. He lived to keep Aragorn safe and regretted not a minute by his king's side, but in these quiet moments he felt keenly the longing for a simple life by his hearth and fields. He had no doubt that someday such peaceful scenes as far as the eye could see and beyond would be the reward for all their hard labors, if not for them then for their children or even their children's children. A world at peace, where men and women tended their farms and raised their families without fear, where little ones like Owen Estel enjoyed a childhood full of small adventures and harmless mischief and bright hopes for the future... how Halbarad coveted such things.

He wondered what mischief his own children were getting up to, and what Miriel was doing right now. Was she thinking of him, or was she so caught up in the myriad affairs of their household that all thoughts of him were driven away until the quiet of night? Did she then ache to hold him as he longed to hold her? He shut his eyes, picturing her, picturing them dancing in the quiet after the children were finally abed, moving together slowly as he hummed in her ear. He had no kind of voice for singing but she loved his off-key attempts nonetheless, and so he always hummed softly, feeling the tickle of her hair, smelling the clean warmth of her skin. He would see her soon, for surely after this sojourn they would head back to their little village hidden beyond Fornost, and then it would not be his imagination comforting him but the warmth of her body and the light in her eyes...

"Halbarad!"

He jumped and opened his eyes to see Bowen, who had suddenly burst into the room without so much as a knock or a by your leave.

"You have more cousins or brothers or some such arriving," Bowen said with a scowl which lightened only slightly when he glanced at Strider asleep in the bed. He lowered his voice but not his pique. "Two Rangers, tall and dark-headed. They're in the yard looking at my farm as though they expect goblins to jump out at them, so you best go out there and help Denlad reassure them before they start shooting arrows into my livestock, my chickens and Ruddy."

Halbarad hurried out, Bowen dogging his heels. He stopped in the doorway and beheld Denlad chatting with Eledh and Galadh, who both looked just as Bowen had described, as if despite the peaceful vista of the farm they expected death and destruction to come flying out at them from every corner. Halbarad noted, however, that Eledh's bow was still slung over his shoulder and Galadh's sword was sheathed, although he did seem especially put out by Bowen's dog, who was barking madly and leaping about, tail wagging. "Here now, that's no way to enter a good man's yard, glowering and looking to mete out death to all that breathes!" Halbarad called. "No wonder Ruddy's upset!"

Galadh glared at him, but Eledh swung down. "Halbarad! Good to find both you and Denlad here."

"I take it Butterbur sent you?"

"Aye."

Bowen hurried forward and pulled Ruddy away, and Galadh gingerly dismounted, keeping a wary eye on the big red hound. Ruddy, for his part, seemed especially fascinated by him. He lunged and yipped and finally broke away from Bowen and hurried to sniff Galadh's boots. Apparently he liked what he smelled, because he sat himself down at his feet to stare adoringly upward at him. Galadh ignored him.

"Come on, Galadh," Halbarad chided. "He just wants a pat on the head."

Galadh's glare softened not a whit. "Where is Strider?"

"He's inside," Halbarad said. He walked to Ruddy and ruffled the hair all around his neck and ears. Ruddy's tail thumped a delighted tattoo on the ground as he switched his adoration from Galadh to Halbarad. Fickle hound. "He's resting after helping Bowen's lovely wife deliver their firstborn son."

Eledh frowned. "Barliman said he was ill."

"He was, but he's more or less recovered. His illness left him more tired than usual, for he had to do a spot of healing after the child was born, but all he needs is rest. I'm afraid you rode all this way for nothing, really. In fact, it's probably best you be on your way back. I don't want us to abuse Bowen's good hospitality, and he's already had Rangers a'plenty with the three of us clogging up his house. He doesn't need more."

"Here now," Bowen protested, his earlier scowl giving way to something approaching half-hearted welcome. "They can stay. We've plenty of food, and they can sleep in the keeping room by the hearth. It's far too late in the day to send them back to Bree, and I won't turn anyone away from my home at nightfall."

Eledh smiled. "Thank you, sir, but I think we'll just check on Strider and be on our way; we are well used to travel at night. Congratulations, of course, on the birth of your son."

"Oh well... thank you," Bowen said. He beamed. "Would you like to see him?"

"Of course." Eledh glanced at Galadh, who shrugged. Galadh would make polite admiring noises but the truth was that he liked babies about as much as he liked talking. Which was to say, not much. Halbarad hid a smile as he trailed behind the three of them into the house. They filed into Flora's bedroom, but Halbarad ducked into Aragorn's.

He was awake and sitting on the side of the bed. "Was that Eledh I heard?" he said as he rubbed his left eye.

"It was. He and Galadh came looking for you. And I suppose looking for Denlad and me if they happened on us, though I hardly think they were much concerned about the two of us."

"Ah." He yawned and arched his back. "How long did I sleep?"

"Half an hour, maybe a bit less. You need more."

"Nay, it was enough, for now. Poor Bowen, he must be beside himself, all these Rangers suddenly invading his quiet farm like dwarves invading Beorn's hall. He's probably regretting ever offering me that chair at his table at the Pony."

"I'm sure he's not, seeing how you saved his son's life." Halbarad sat beside him on the bed. "However, it is probably well past time for us to let them to get on with their lives. Do you think you'll be able to leave come the morn?" He tried to lay his hand on Aragorn's forehead but Aragorn ducked and swatted his hand away.

"Stop that. I'm sure of it. A good night's sleep and I'll be back to my old self, or near enough."

"Why don't you try to get back to sleep now? You didn't end up getting much of a nap and you have great dark circles under your eyes."

"No." He stood. "Time I quit lazing abed like an invalid. The buns were delicious and the cake was... nice." He hesitated only slightly. "But I desire some meat. Is any of that venison available?"

"I'm sure I could fry up a steak for you. And for everyone. Save Bowen having to do it. And there's a very good pease porridge if you'd like some of that."

"I would. So let us away to the hearth."

As Halbarad readied steaks for Aragorn and all the men and stirred up the pease porridge, Aragorn looked out the window toward the as-yet unplowed field, just visible in the dying light of day. "How long before it's ready for turning, do you think?"

"Another day or two of sun should do it, since no rain fell today. It'd be hard going but possible tomorrow, even."

Aragorn chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. "Eledh and Galadh... what are their intentions?"

"To leave right away, as soon as they finish paying respects to Flora and see that you're upright and alive and breathing and all that."

"No. With the venison there is food enough for all, so we will wait at least one more day before we leave, and you and the men will ready Bowen's field for him and do such work as he directs. I'll do what I can, as well."

"'Tis a good enough idea for us, but not for you. If you overextend yourself and fall ill again, we may very well be here long enough to help with the harvest."

"I am not up for plowing," Aragorn admitted, "but I'm sure there are plenty of smaller jobs I could take on. Bowen took a great risk in helping me, a stranger, and I feel as though there cannot be enough we can do to thank him."

"Thank me for what?" Bowen said as he came in and heard the last of Aragorn's words.

"For everything," Aragorn said. "I have told Halbarad that, so long as you are willing to tolerate our company a day or two more, he and the rest of my men will assist you with plowing and planting and anything else you might need."

Bowen turned bright red. "Here now, that's kind of you and all, but there's no need."

"I insist."

"But..."

"I insist," Aragorn repeated, and his gaze brooked no argument.

But Bowen proved stubborn. "Strider, that's a generous offer and no mistake, but you and your men surely have your own planting to get back to, or your own hunting or whatever it is you do. None of you are farmers andĖ"

At this, Halbarad cleared his throat. "I, er, have done my share of plowing fields, and still do nearly every year, as a matter of fact."

"He can plow a straight row," Aragorn said. "As can Eledh, Galadh and Denlad."

Halbarad raised an eyebrow. "Eledh? Did you see my cornfield the year he helped me because I was laid up with a broken leg? The only things he makes straight are his arrows."

"Point well taken. He can follow along and drop the seeds in, then."

"He can probably manage that well enough."

Bowen folded his arms. "See here, experienced or no, I won't be having other men doing my work while I sit idle."

"Oh, you won't be idle," Aragorn assured him. "You will be busy getting to know your son. And helping Flora until she's back on her feet. Mopping floors, cooking, laundry, watching the baby while she sleeps... all those things."

Bowen's eyebrows shot up. "But those are all... I'm no good at cooking, and I don't have the first clue about the laundry."

"I'm sure you'll learn," Aragorn said dismissively. He glanced at the spice cake, and though he hid it well, Halbarad saw the wince. Aye, the ginger had flayed Halbarad's tongue when he braved a bite.

Maybe Bowen could start with learning how to make a proper cake.

~~~

And so the next day passed, with Halbarad plowing, for he trusted no one to plow as straight a furrow as his own, and Eledh planting, while Denlad and Galadh took upon themselves the task of repairing the stone wall along the ha-ha that divided the sheep pasture from the cow pasture. Aragorn for his part worked at countless small tasks, from cleaning out the dovecote to holding the baby while Flora sorted out the seeds for her vegetable patch. Bowen flew from one group of men to the next, endlessly thanking them until, annoyed, Halbarad bade him cease and go tend to his sagging stile.

At the end of the first day of work, Halbarad sat down with a long sigh at the little table in the brick courtyard beside Aragorn. Aragorn, as was becoming habit already, held a sleeping Owen Estel. "He likes you."

Aragorn smiled but said nothing.

Halbarad leaned closer and brushed the child's cheek. "The field is done, as is the wall repair. I think tomorrow we'll give Flora's vegetable patch a turn, then work on clearing away some brush and saplings that are encroaching on his pasture." He paused, looking around. He was not sure how to go on, for he did not want to alarm Aragorn unduly, but a worry had been growing in his mind. "There is another thing I feel we must do."

Aragorn waited.

Nothing for it but to plow ahead, just as he had out in the field. "Strider, have you seen any weaponry here?"

"I think Bowen may have a bow, a small one for hunting. I saw it hanging in a corner of the kitchen, by the back door."

"I saw it as well, but it is not much of a thing. And such arrows that he has are poorly fletched."

Aragorn looked around at the quiet fields. "These fields may not always be this peaceful," he finally said. "And we may not always be here to defend them."

Halbarad nodded. "We... the Dķnedain, I mean... see so much darkness that I sometimes think perhaps I leap at every harmless shadow."

"And yet?"

"And yet last night I had a dream. I saw Eriador, but smoke dimmed the sun and men rode fast down the road, looking over their shoulders, swords at the ready."

"Is it foresight?"

Halbarad studied a blister on his palm. "I cannot say. It could be simply, as I said, my seeing evil at every shadow. Then again..." He shrugged.

"We have seen evil slowly encroach on these lands, so I suppose it takes no special foresight to guess at what the future may hold. The Breelanders are such a unwary folk," Aragorn murmured, frustrated. He looked down at the baby he held and sighed. "Yet with so much to fight for, should it come to that. They are a good people, these men of Bree."

"Yet if we warned them to take up arms, they would never heed us. They would not believe us."

Owen Estel let out a fretful noise and Aragorn put him against his shoulder and patted his back. "There now, little one," he crooned. "Fear not. Your ada will keep you safe enough when we're gone." He looked at Halbarad, and the steel of his sword had nothing on the stern determination†of his gaze. "We will see to that."

__________

A/N: A ha-ha is defined by Merriam-Webster as a ditch with a retaining wall used to divide lands without defacing a landscape. Or, in Bowen's case, dividing his two pastures

Chapter 13 - Good and Ill Oft Travel the Same Roads

Bowen rubbed his sweating hands on the seat of his pants. He glanced nervously around the courtyard, which had been cleared of table and chairs, and then back at Strider. He had just spent an hour with Eledh, firing arrows at a tree trunk, and that had gone well and was even a bit of fun. Eledh was a lighthearted man, full of easy smiles and jests and moreover was a very good archer. Bowen felt it an honor to have him as an instructor, and he had seen his own poor skills improve greatly after just the one session. But this... this was an entirely different affair. "Er, are you quite sure I should be handling that?"

Strider hefted the sword and sliced it through the air. It made a whooshing, whistling sound that set Bowen's belly to quivering. "Of course. A man needs to learn how to handle a sword, for he never knows what may show up at his door. Good and ill oft travel the same roads." He fixed him with a stern look. "And you have a son and a wife to defend."

Bowen nodded. The Rangers, all five of them, had gathered around him early this morning, at breakfast, and Strider had very politely but firmly informed him that he was greatly lacking in skills needed to defend his lands. Bowen had stiffened for just a moment, flinching from the wound to his pride, but in looking around at the hardened men sitting at the table with him, he deflated just as quickly. Bowen could set a snare and shoot an arrow at a hart, but that was about the extent of his prowess. And though he would never admit it aloud to any man, half the time the deer bounded away unharmed; Flora was actually a far better shot than he could ever hope to be, and it was usually she that did the hunting. Of course, that might change now that Eledh had taught him proper technique, but to learn to use a sword! He didn't even own a sword, which fact seemed rather relevant to the matter at hand. "Strider, it's all well and good, you teaching me some sword work, but I don't actually own one."

Strider handed him the one he held, one of two he had brought out into the courtyard with him. "Now you do."

Bowen hesitantly took it, feeling the smoothness of the dark wooden grip and the warmth of it that lingered from Strider's hand. He knew his mouth was hanging open, and he suspected at any moment drool might fall from his lower lip, he was that stupid with astonishment. He finally found his voice. "I can't possiblyĖ"

"You can and you will."

"But this is too fine a gift!"

"It is a good sword, but if you had examined his pack, you'll see that this one of Halbarad's spares, of which he has several because he can't stop himself buying them any time he passes through a village with a swordsmith. He justifies himself with a tale that as a young man on the very eve of his first journey as a warrior, his only sword broke."

"Oh, I can see where that would be very upsetting."

"Aye, especially as it was a journey to rid the area of trolls. He was given another, but then lost it as well in the heat of battle."

"What rotten luck! What happened then?"

"I will leave it for him to tell you that tale, for it is long and harrowing, for he came fully to manhood at that time, and such rarely happens without hardship and sorrow. Suffice now to say that he swore never again to be without a spare. I will admit there is wisdom in that, even if he does carry it a bit too far. At any rate, this particular blade is well made and well balanced, but Halbarad never has liked the feel of it, for he prefers a longer blade. But since you are shorter, he thinks, as do I, that you will find its length perfectly to your liking."

"So he knows you're giving away his things." Bowen could just imagine Halbarad seeing his sword in Bowen's hand and pelting over to pummel him into a smear on the ground for his thieving ways.

"Fear not. Giving it to you was his idea. In fact, had his own injured sword arm not still been in need of rest, it would be he giving you this lesson. The sword is yours, Bowen."

There seemed little else Bowen could offer up as an argument against this folly, short of declaring he was afraid he would slice off his own leg, and though it was the honest truth, it seemed far too cowardly a thing to even contemplate speaking aloud. He took a firmer grip and stepped away from Strider. He held the sword upright and well away from his body. "What do I do, then?"

Strider did a poor job at hiding a smile. "I would suggest relaxing, to begin with. It's not going to bite you."

It might, in my clumsy hands, Bowen thought darkly, but he brought his arm slightly down and in.

Strider nodded, then picked up his own sword from where it rested on the pushed-aside table. It seemed an especially fine one, and Bowen was glad for a chance to see it unsheathed. "I say, that's a right wonder, that blade. Fancy all those etchings on it!"

"This was made in Rivendell, by the Elven swordsmiths there. These are Elvish runes." He held the blade sideways so Bowen could see.

"Is it... is it a magical sword, then?"

"If you mean will it leap from my hand to level mountains or burn through my enemies with a flame eternal, no. Alas, it does not even glow blue when orcs arrive."

"Will swords do that?"

Strider smiled and, as usual, went on as if Bowen hadn't asked anything. "But it is strong and true, and in my hands, can cleave through goblins easily enough, even if I have to rely on my own eyes and ears to detect their approach."

"Oh." Bowen stared at Strider, imagining for a moment him slashing and hacking his way through a horde of goblins in some distant land. He thought of the scars he had seen on Strider's chest, and the thick muscles cording his arms and the fierce light in his eyes and then, oh dear, he pictured Strider doing all that here, in Breeland, and his world tilted utterly off center and his skin prickled up in thousands of goose bumps. "Do you... by sun and by wind... surely you don't mean that you've fought goblins here. I mean, in Breeland."

Strider did not reply.

Bowen swallowed hard. To think... goblins in Bree. Could it really happen? He looked round him at the fields and trees and suddenly knew he would never feel quite as safe again. In fact, so frightened was he that he had to resist a sudden urge to run into the bushes and void his bowels. He took another deep breath instead and the feeling passed. He set his jaw and firmed up his grip on the strange new sword. "I suppose I best learn quickly, then," he said and his voice quavered only the smallest bit.

Strider's expression softened. "Bowen, fear not. It is my hope and indeed my expectation that you will never have to use this sword in defense of life or lands. But I will not deceive you: there are dangers in this world of which the people of Bree know little, nor would believe if told. And though I wish for Breelanders to continue to live happily heedless because there truly is nothing to concern them, I fear it is the height of foolishness to have forgotten the dark foes of the past, for they may yet return. And out here as you are, on the very edge of the tame lands with neither wall nor tower to defend you, I want you to know enough to be cautious. Not paralyzed by fear, but watchful."

Well, said like that, maybe things weren't so bad. Being prepared against foes that will likely never materialize is only common sense, after all. Doesn't mean things are lurking in the bushes even now, sharpening fang and claw and spying on them with goggling red-tinged eyes. Bree was still safe. "So, it's like in the days of the Watchful Peace?"

"You know your history."

Bowen blushed a bit under Strider's approving glance. "Well, you know... those old books I have. And stories my old da' heard from his da', and so on. I know that there's some evil in places and was plenty enough even in these parts at one time, so I suppose it wouldn't be the strangest thing for some of it to sort of spill over our way, so to speak. Nothing wrong in being ready for it, even though it probably won't happen."

"Just so. And now I deem the need for talk is over; let us begin."

Strider proceeded to educate him on the parts of the sword, and showed him how to tell if a sword was well balanced and the blade true, and how to take care of the sword so it stayed that way, showing him the whetstone tucked into a clever pocket attached to the sword belt that he was also giving to Bowen. He showed him how to wear the belt so that the sword's hilt and guard didn't dig into his side. He also showed him how a second little sheath on the side of the scabbard could hold a small utilitarian knife, if Bowen had one. "Because you don't want to have to cut a broken lace from your boot with a great big sword," he said with a quiet smile. "You'd be as apt to cut your entire leg off as not."

Bowen had laughed and relaxed, but then it was onto the dangerous bits. He taught him how to hold the sword firmly, and then he struck it with his own sword to let him feel the way the sword vibrated. He pointed out the spot toward the end of the blade that was the best place to strike an opponent. And then he walked him slowly through all the various stances and thrusts and lunges and swings and parries, explaining the reason behind each and gradually increasing the speed and intensity of the moves until sweat poured down Bowen's face and stinging into his eyes. His ears rang from the loud clashing and his arm trembled with fatigue. Strider, for his part, was barely breathing hard. No sign of illness at all. "By wind and by sun," Bowen gasped as they finally stopped. "But that's hard work. I don't feel this tired after plowing an entire field."

"You are a quick learner, and moreover, you have a grace about you, Bowen. It will serve you well."

Bowen couldn't help it; he beamed with pride.

"Nonetheless," Strider continued rather sternly, "do not be overconfident. You will never be as good a swordsman as one who has practiced from a young age, but keep at it, an hour a day if you can manage between all your farm chores and caring for your family."

"But I have no one to practice with, don't you see? Am I to just spar with empty air and hope I'll prevail against a flesh and blood enemy?"

"Yes and no. Going through the moves every day will train your muscles to move without thought. Mastery of a sword is not something that comes naturally to a man but is accomplished through repetitive movements, over and over until you can do them in your sleep. As for a sparring partner, I will put the word out to all Rangers that they might stop by your farm and provide you some sport in exchange for a hot meal. When word spreads what a good cook Flora is, I suspect you'll have no end of sparring partners."

"Oh, yes. That'd be capital. And I'll give them a warm and dry bed besides. But surely there aren't many that come out this way?"

Strider smiled and again ignored his question. Bowen scowled. Secrets! Always secrets! And this one about his own hedgerows! He didn't know whether to be angry or worried. But Strider went on before he could sort himself out. "It should not take too many days for you to gain enough proficiency, strength and stamina to use the sword to good effect if needs must, with or without a sparring partner. But do not go looking for battle."

"No, sir," Bowen stammered, his pique fading at the realization that Rangers in the hedgerows meant far worse things beyond. He swallowed. "I won't, you can count on that." And that too was the honest truth. He had nothing of his uncle's yen for trouble in him.

"I know I can. You're as fine a man as I've had the pleasure of knowing, Bowen Rushlight. I will miss you and this farm when we leave."

Bowen ducked his head at the praise. "I would say the same and more for you and your men." It did seem to Bowen that they were Strider's men, subordinate but in every way respectful and loyal. They also seemed to hold great affection and dare he say love for Strider. Bowen had never really seen the like and his unsated curiousity could stand it no longer. "Strider..."

"Speak, Bowen. Let there be no hesitancy between us after all we've been through."

"Well... who are you?"

Strider looked off toward the fields, then back. "I am a Ranger," he finally said.

"That's all? A Ranger? Denlad is a Ranger, Halbarad is a Ranger... but you seem to be sommat different. Sommat higher, if that makes any sense."

Strider's eyes glimmered as if with a wry amusement, but he said nothing. He gathered his sword and shoved it into its scabbard and only then did he speak. "If you will tolerate us for one last meal, we will leave after lunch. That will give us plenty of time to return to Bree before nightfall."

So that was it. He would never know who this strange man really was. A riddle and a knot, that was a Ranger for you, and Strider the tightest, most riddle-y of the lot.

Bowen nodded, but he felt the old mix of misery and relief rising in him. Even though they regularly left him feeling as if he were turned inside out and upside down, he realized from the hollow feeling in his heart that he would miss them terribly. He cleared his throat. "I will tell Owen Estel of you, and of your men. How you saved his life on the day of his birth."

"What, you mean you won't tell him how we invaded your lands and ate our way through your larder?"

Bowen laughed softly. "I'll go easy on those details." He thrust out his hand. "Thank you, Strider. For everything."

Strider shook his hand, then slapped him on the shoulder. "Now for that lunch."

And so they all sat in a jolly group around the table in the house, joined by Flora though Bowen insisted he do all the cooking and serving. The Rangers laughed and teased Bowen over his cooking skills and passed little Owen Estel around, each fussing at the other for taking longer than his turn at holding him, Galadh protesting the loudest of any of them, which seemed to tickle Halbarad no end. Far too soon, the meal was over and the table cleared, the dishes scrubbed by battle-scarred hands and put away in the cupboards according Flora's careful directions - she declared rather tartly that it was all well and good for them to help but she didn't want to have to spend the rest of her days hunting down misplaced bowls. Then as quick as that, it was time for the Rangers to gather their things and mount their horses. Bowen held Owen Estel and Flora stood beside him as they watched them head down the road. Ruddy chased them for a short time, but then turned and trotted back to Bowen, his tail slowly lowering. He flopped at Bowen's feet and laid his head on his paws and let out a quiet whine.

"Aye, Ruddy, I know just how you feel," Bowen said. He cleared his throat noisily. Flora wiped away a tear, and Bowen could stand quietly no longer. "Remember, Strider!" he cried out, "You and your Rangers will always be welcome at Rushlight farm!"

Strider turned and, with a glance toward Halbarad, pulled his sword and held it above his head. Halbarad did the same, and then one by one the others followed suit. Strider kicked at his mount and it reared on its back legs, and so regal he looked, so powerful and noble surrounded by his men with the sun flashing on their bright swords, that Bowen felt he was seeing legends from the mists of time come to life from the old tales and stories to stand right there on his little lane. It was a sight he knew he would remember to his dying day. His throat closing and chin trembling, he lifted his hand toward them, and then they turned as one and galloped around the bend and were gone.

"By wind and by sun, but that's grand," Bowen whispered into the empty silence that fell. He took a deep, shaky breath, feeling for all the world like he'd lost something priceless, never to be seen again. But then the baby in his arms cooed and gurgled and the heaviness eased. He may never see Strider again, but he would tell his son all about how Rangers a'plenty had shown up at his house on the day of his birth and gave him his name and his very life itself.

He bounced Owen Estel a bit as he walked back to the house, remembering his promise to Strider. "It all started, young Owen Estel, when I met a strange man with a stranger name in the Prancing Pony on a rainy day in spring..."

- the end, for now†-

- Book Three of the Rushligh Trilogy to follow in the hopefully not too distant future†-





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