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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.
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.
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