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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.
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