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No Better Name  by Cairistiona

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 room’s 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 didn’t share Flora’s 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 he’s safe only to be frightened out of his wits when he saw it. He’d 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 hadn’t 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.

He’d finished with the barn and had just shifted the last of the muckheap – and a nasty, smelly hour of work that was – 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 Strider’s, 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 wasn’t Strider’s 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 Strider’s, 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 weren’t murdering rogues. He stepped forward cautiously. "Can I be of help, then, gentlemen?" He had no idea if they were gentlemen, but it wouldn’t hurt to put the idea in their heads in case they weren’t.

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, he’s 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. He’d 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 Pony’s 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?"

"He’s sick, and no mistake. ‘Tis a good thing I got him here where he can get proper care. He has a fever and a terrible bad cough, but my Flora’s a good healer. I’m sure he’ll 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.

"Don’t see why not, as he’s your kinsman. Can I tell him who’s 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 Dúnadan, and this is Denlad."

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

"Nothing good, I’m sure." The man actually smiled back, and like Strider, it changed him completely, though he’d 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. Halbarad’s 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 I’ve a few books with some of the old stories of Men and Elves. Right entertaining they are, although I guess they’re naught but tales and myths."

"Don’t be so sure," Halbarad murmured but before Bowen could ask what on earth he meant by it, he turned to Denlad. "I’ll see to Strider, but I’ve no wish to go armed into this good man’s 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 Halbarad’s sharp glance he merely nodded curtly.

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

"Oh, aye... it’s small and you’ll have to take care not to knock your head on a rafter, but we’ve a room on the top floor – the attic, really – where you’re both welcome to stay until Strider’s better. It’s not really a proper bedroom but there’s a cot for one of you and room on the floor for the other. You can put your things there."

"Thank you, you’re very kind," Halbarad said.

Denlad nodded his own thanks, although his gaze seemed anything but warm. Bowen felt somehow that he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t 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 he’ll be better for a nice nap. That cough worries me, though, but I daren’t 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; there’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t!"

"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 didn’t have any idea it’d 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 didn’t leave it on him longer than thirty minutes. Barliman made sure of that."

"Barliman! He was helping you? And an onion! Goodness, it’s a wonder he’s still alive after all that."

"Now, Flora–"

"No, don’t you ‘now Flora’ 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 you’ll be telling me you put arsenic in his tea – 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 Strider’s, 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 wouldn’t 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. "He’s not well, the poor dear. The soup and the tea helped put a little color back in his cheeks, but he’ll 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; he’s 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 Strider’s chin. Strider stirred, turning his head, but he didn’t wake. Halbarad felt Strider’s 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 – and leaving Bowen very glad he’d banished the spider – 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 he’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t mute after all. He still looked grim as death, though. Bowen stepped back. "Of course. We’ve just been to check on Strider. He’s sleeping. Prop the swords there in the corner, if you’d like, but we’ll take those packs up later, if you don’t mind. Don’t 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 Denlad’s shoulders. Bowen was again struck at how young he seemed. He couldn’t 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 isn’t available," Halbarad explained.

Flora brightened even more, and Bowen couldn’t 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 Halbarad’s 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 Bowen’s keeping room, fell creatures that his keen gaze saw but Bowen’s didn’t. Bowen swallowed. "If you don’t think me too nosy for asking, might you be blood-kin to Strider? You favor him."

"We are cousins. His mother is my father’s 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! I’d never seen the like of that writing. The peddler offered them for a good price because he’d 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! I’ll allow that they’re both a bit damaged, see there on the edges and on the back cover of that one you’re holding? See that blotchy stain, yes, right there. They got wet at some point, and I imagine that’s another reason why the peddler priced them so low. But it’s a lucky stain, if you ask me, because without it, it’s certain they’d have been far out of the reach o’ 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 he’d found them both in an old abandoned farm cottage, away up north and east of Deadman’s 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? How– "

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 table’s edge, and then he leaned back and idly scratched Ruddy’s ears. "Because I lived in it. And I know these books. They were my father’s, 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 Halbarad’s 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 wouldn’t talk in so many riddles. But plain speaking didn’t seem to be his way, so Bowen merely said, "Please take them. I’m not one to steal away a man’s family heirlooms."

Halbarad shook his head. "No, you paid for them, and I can tell they bring you great joy. I hadn’t 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 man’s heirlooms, neither would I strip away a man’s 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 wouldn’t 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?"

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

"Oh by wind and by sun, I’m sorry... I meant no insult. It’s 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 Lómin that he’d 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 I’ll 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?





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