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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 Rushlight’s conscience smote him.  He couldn’t 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.  “Strider,” he called softly into the gloom.

“Hmmf?”

Bowen fumbled with flint and spark until he got the lamp burning.  He held it over Strider’s face, which immediately caused him to wince and grimace as he threw a hand up against the glare.  “Here now,” he rasped.  “What’s the meaning of this?  Away with that light!”

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

“What?  Why?”

Odd, this fellow hadn’t seemed daft.  “You’re sick and I’m not, that’s why!  You need up here where it’s warm.  In fact, I’m going to get Barliman and see if I can’t get him to make you a poultice and bring up some good hot bath water.  I don’t like the sound of that cough.”

“You need not worry.  I’m perfectly comfortable on the floor, and the cough is not deep within my chest,” 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.  “Don’t need a poultice.”

“Nonsense.  I know a bad cough when I hear it and that’s as bad as anything I’ve ever heard.  The only good thing about it is that it’s still loose, but it’ll tighten up on you if you’re not careful and then you’ll find yourself in the soup.”

Strider grunted, but his eyes didn’t 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 man’s 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.  “Wouldn’t be the first time, me takin’ care of what can’t do for itself,” he grumbled to himself.  “Horses, cows... them I’m used to, but never have I nursed a Ranger.  That’ll be sommat new, but I reckon I can manage, one way or t’other.”

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.  Barliman’s 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, “We’ve no rooms!”  Then the door opened to reveal Barliman wearing his nightshirt, nightcap and a scowl.  The scowl lightened when he realized who was knocking.  “Bowen!  Is something wrong?”

“Aye.  Strider.  He’s getting sicker by the hour.  Have you the means to make a mustard poultice, and can you have Nob bring up hot bath water?”

“I’ve the means, yes, but don’t expect Strider to let you put it anywhere near him.  I tried it one other time when he dragged in here sick and you’d have thought I offered to stab him.”

“But he needs it!”

“Let me tell you something about Strider: he’s as stubborn as they come.  If he takes a notion not to let you do something, you’re not going to do it.  He’ll be polite about it, but you’ve more chance of moving Weathertop to my garden with a spoon.”

“Then give me the makings and I’ll do it myself.  I’ve a feeling I can get him to cooperate.  He doesn’t seem to have much fight in him.”  He hurriedly put out of his mind the memory of Strider’s eyes glaring at him over the incident with the lamp.

Barliman shrugged.  “If fighting hopeless battles suits you, far be it for me to stop you.  I’ll wake Nob.  As for the poultice, you’ll find what you need in the kitchen.”  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, “If it scalds the eyes, him what’s sick ne’er dies.”  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 didn’t 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.  “Strider,” 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.  “No.  Get you gone with that.”

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.  “It’ll help you breathe.”

“It will make me sicker than a dog and feel like I’m going blind.  By Elbereth, did you put onions in it?” Strider protested, then the eyes disappeared back under the blanket.  Bowen heard a poorly stifled cough, then Strider’s voice softened, and bless him, Bowen heard a faint but unmistakably plaintive note amongst all the hoarse rasping.  “I’m sorry, but I can’t stand the smell, and it makes my nose burn and my eyes water and my chest blister... I won’t do it.  I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but, truly, you deem me sicker than I am.”

So he was polite after all.  Bowen sighed and put the poultice down on the bedside table.  “I’m doing no such thing.  I’ve been listening to you cough all night, and I can see plain on your face that you’ve got fever.”

The eyes came back out, already watering.  “If you want to really see sick, you should see me after someone’s put one of those on me.”

“When was the last time you had one?”

Back under the blanket he went.  “I was eleven,” came the reluctant, mumbled reply.

“Eleven!  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 let’s try.”

“It was longer ago than that, but no.”

Bowen let out an incoherent growl of frustration.  It seemed Butterbur was right, but Bowen could be just as stubborn.  “Here now, I’ve given you a spot in my room, and I’ve used up a goodly amount of Butterbur’s 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 hasn’t fallen asleep and into the fire.  The least you can do is let me try it.   You won’t be wearing it but for a little while.  You can surely live through it, and you might not live without it.”

Silence, then a deep sigh interrupted by a racking cough.  The blanket flung back and Strider sat up. “Very well.  I can see that you will give me no rest until I let you try playing at healer at my expense.”  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.   “Do your worst.”  

Bowen smiled.  “There’s the spirit,” he said, then he took a good look at Strider’s chest and his voice trailed off.  “Oh.”

“Yes, yes, I have scars,” he growled.  “Mine has not been a life of ease and safety but that’s no concern of yours.  Now get on with it, if you please.”  He waved his hands vaguely at the folded towels.

“Up in the bed, then.  I’m not squatting down on the floor.”

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.  “Bowen?”

“He’s agreed.”

Strider finally stopped coughing and glared at Barliman.  “But not to having the entire population of the inn looking on!”

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

Bowen nodded.  “No longer, or it might burn him.”

“Good, good.  You know what you’re about, then.  Not to worry, Strider.  I’ve known Bowen many a long year and he’s 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, Nob’s 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 he’ll be bringing ‘em up shortly.  Strider’ll need that bath by the time you’re through.”

“Strider will need a bucket,” 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 hadn’t soaked through the towel where it might touch Strider’s skin, he laid it across his chest.  Strider screwed his eyes shut and made a horrid face, but he didn’t let out a sound.  Bowen backed away quickly, for the fumes were making his own eyes water.

“Phew,” Barliman said.  “I can’t rightly blame him for not wanting one of those laying atop him.  I imagine orcs don’t smell that bad.  I best get Nob moving faster with that bath water.”

Bowen nodded absently, then reached quietly under the bed for the chamber pot.  As fast as Strider’s face was turning green, he had a feeling he’d 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 wasn’t 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 Strider’s pack.  Most importantly, he was breathing much easier, to Bowen’s triumphant relief.   He laid a hand against the sleeping man’s cheek.  A dose of willow bark, again from Strider’s 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 ‘healing’ was overstating it.  Strider was still ill, no doubt about it.  Bowen laid his hand on Strider’s chest.  Yes, there was a still a rattle, and he’d 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 man’s body and had a strong suspicion that, healer or no, Strider wasn’t 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 wouldn’t let that happen.  Other folks hereabouts might not care what happened to a Ranger, but Bowen couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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... he’d 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.





        

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