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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?"
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."
"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.
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