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No Better Name  by Cairistiona

Chapter 7 - Hanging On So Delicate a Thread...

Listening to muffled coughs floating up from the room below, Halbarad rolled over, the straw in the mattress squeaking and crunching beneath him. The ropes stretched across the bed’s narrow frame creaked. "Is he all right, do you think?" Halbarad whispered into the darkness.

"Hard to say. He slept most of the day, which is probably the best thing for him," Denlad replied in equally soft tones from where he lay on the floor beside the bed.

Halbarad nodded, though of course Denlad couldn’t see. The window was on the wrong side of the house to let in the moonlight. Dark as it was, they might as well be deep in Moria instead of tucked up here under the rafters in Bowen’s attic, and it didn’t help Halbarad’s mood any. Ever since they’d arrived and he’d seen Strider laying so pale and still, he’d been fighting off a feeling of sorrow that flirted too closely to despair. He hated that their future seemed always to be hanging on so delicate a thread.

"Should one of us sleep down there with him?" he asked.

"You saw how tiny that bedroom is, Halbarad. We’d have to sleep under his bed, and even that doesn’t have enough clearance; we’d be forever banging our noses on the underside of his mattress. Fear not, for while sounds from him might seem muffled to you up there in that cot, I can hear him plain, through a knothole in this board beside my head. The attic ladder is right outside his door, and I can and will check on him through the night, and if he should have sudden difficulties, Flora’s right there across the hall."

Halbarad sat up, pounded his pillow and laid back down. "Do you think she’s a competent healer?"

Silence for a moment, then, "She’s not as good as Strider."

"Well, who is! But is she capable?"

"She seems to know her way around most healing herbs, at least so far as I can tell from what Strider’s taught me. And there’s no question she has a caring heart and a gentle touch and a knowledge about this illness."

"They seem like good people, the Rushlights."

Silence again from Denlad.

Halbarad leaned further over the edge of the bed, but he couldn’t see Denlad down there in the darkness. "Don’t you think so?"

"He’s in good hands."

Denlad’s tone was so utterly flat that it took no genius to discern that there was much more he was leaving unsaid. "Denlad, what–"

"I said he’s in good hands," Denlad said rather sharply. He sighed and then added, "Never mind me; I’m just tired. Strider has the luck of a widow’s son. He fell in with good people and no doubt will be himself again in no time."

Halbarad didn’t think it was fatigue causing Denlad’s odd mood, but he let it drop. He rolled back over and stared toward the shadowed rafters. "I wonder what Cannagar and the rest of the men will think when we don’t come back tomorrow."

"I imagine they’ll do what we did... ride out looking for us, and for Strider."

"And Butterbur will send them here."

Denlad yawned. "I hope Flora knows how to cook for a crowd," he murmured, then Halbarad heard the rustle of blankets and deep and steady breathing. He couldn’t be sure Denlad wasn’t feigning sleep, but the message was clear: Denlad was done talking.

Halbarad pulled the blanket closer to his chin. It was chilly and a bit drafty, up here under the roof where the cool spring wind found cracks to sneak through. He chewed his lip, thinking about the Rangers who might show up. There was no way to stop them coming, he supposed, short of riding back to Bree to tell Butterbur to send them back to the Chetwood. But he would really rather not let it be widely known where they kept their camp, and telling it to Butterbur would be the same as erecting a sign announcing their location to any and all passers by strolling down Bree’s busy streets. Perhaps he could leave a sealed note for Cannagar with Butterbur. But if it went astray and found itself in the wrong hands... or what if it wasn’t Cannagar who arrived? Would Butterbur know it could be given to Eledh or Galadh? Halbarad couldn’t be certain, so he’d have to list on the envelope every Ranger in the region...

No, it made more sense to simply go out and hunt for a goodly-sized deer to make up for the soon coming depletion of poor Flora’s pantry. He rubbed his arm. It would surely hold up long enough to shoot one arrow, and one arrow was all he ever needed to take down a deer. Still, he wished it were not necessary, putting that strain on his arm. Denlad and Aragorn both had pestered him to give it rest until it healed. But Denlad must stay here, to help with Aragorn, and Bowen had his farm to take care of, and a wife with child. He could hardly be asked to spend who knows how long chasing across the country after a hart.

Ah well, the arm would do what it would, he supposed. Even if he came back with nothing to show for it, going on a good hunt might keep him from worrying so much about Aragorn.


Halbarad tiptoed into Aragorn’s room. A single candle burned low on the table beside the bed. He heard a soft cough, then Aragorn stirred, rolling over onto his side and curling up in a ball. That was never a good sign. When Aragorn was healthy, he slept unmoving, flat on his back with arms sprawled and legs akimbo whether in a bed or on the ground. He never curled up in a ball.

He put a hand to Aragorn’s cheek. It felt warm, but not terribly so. Maybe he was getting better. Halbarad could hope for it, at any rate. He started to turn to leave when Aragorn took a sudden deep breath and coughed. He blinked up at him. "Halbarad?"

Halbarad squatted down beside the low bed so he was closer to eye level. "Hello there, sleepyhead."

Aragorn frowned. He pushed himself upright until he was sitting back against the headboard. Halbarad helped adjust the pillows so he could be more comfortable, then sat down beside Aragorn’s legs. Aragorn blinked a few more times, gathering his wits, and finally squinted toward the window. "What time is it? Why are you here?"

"Not yet dawn, and Butterbur said you’d left with Bowen, sick as can be, so I hunted you down. I’ve been here since mid afternoon yesterday, though you’ve been sleeping and unaware every time I looked in on you."

"But why are you here? I mean, why aren’t you asleep?"

"Because I wanted to check on you before I go hunting."

"Hunting? Why?" He coughed a few times, then shivered. He pulled the blanket closer to his chin and drew his knees up.

"So many questions!" Halbarad laughed. "The fever has stolen your wits, evidently. To fetch back a hart to feed hungry mouths, that’s why. But enough of your questions. Answer one of my own: how do you feel?"

"Like I swallowed a vat of lye and threw myself down a mountainside where I was then tossed and kicked around like a football by stone giants."

"That well?"

"Halbarad, I rarely fall ill, but this thing..." He shook his head. "Though it is better today than yesterday, my throat feels like it’s been flayed."

"It sounds like it, too. However did you get yourself in such a state?"

"Helping a family who were all sick. I don’t know how many times I was coughed on or sneezed at. Or worse," he added grimly. "They had twin babies, maybe two years old. Too young to know to turn their heads when... eh, I shall spare you those details for I don’t like remembering them myself."

"Thank you."

"Had I not come upon that family when I did, I doubt any of them would have survived. For four days I cared for them, barely sleeping and eating only what I could scrape up quickly between tending each one. Admittedly, I may have stretched myself too thin."

"Think you so!" Halbarad gave Aragorn a fondly exasperated look. "When will you ever learn?"

"How long do exiled kings of Númenórean descent generally live?"

Halbarad chuckled. "It will likely take that long."

Aragorn fell silent and started picking at the blanket. Halbarad watched him until he could no longer stand it. "Instead of unraveling Flora’s nice blanket, tell me what else troubles you."

A long pause, then Aragorn said, very softly, "One of the little ones did not survive." He blinked rapidly, then continued. "I did all I could, but I don’t think she was a strong lass to begin with, and she faded quietly away while I was tending her sister. I buried her myself, for the mother and father were still so ill. I... the weather was cold but not cold enough to prevent... she simply had to be buried..." He had to stop then as coughing nearly bent him double.

"Shh. Say no more, Aragorn. Save your strength."

But after recovering, Aragorn continued as if Halbarad hadn’t spoken. "It was the only thing I could have done, but the father... he came out of their cottage as I was digging... it was evening, rainy and cold and I was struggling with the wet, heavy clay. I think even then I was starting to fall ill myself, for my strength was waning with each thrust of the shovel into the ground. I was despairing ever finishing..." More coughs, then, "At first, when he came, I thought it was to help. But he was nearly delirious from fever... and angry, so very angry from his grief. He did not understand why I had to do it, bury her. No matter how I tried to explain, he would not understand..." He stopped and coughed again. "The mother came out, then, though she was still very ill. Had she not, I think he might have tried to put me in that grave instead of his daughter, and by that point I was so low that I might have welcomed it. But she stopped him. She was angry with me as well, but she at least saw the need for it and so held him back until I finished. I was ready to drop, but she demanded that I leave, and so I gathered my things and fled into the night. It seemed as though the father’s curses that I was nothing more than a murderer in ragged cloth chased me all the way to Bree."

"Wet and exhausted, heartsick and forced out into the foul weather. ‘Tis no wonder you fell ill. But you did what you had to. Take no blame."

He sighed as he leaned his head back against the headboard. "I do not, or at least I know I should not, though my heart would try to condemn me. But such a thing I am used to, that false accusal, and though it is not easily set aside, lay it aside I do. I have been a healer long enough to know that not all can be saved. Still, their sorrow weighs heavily." He looked into vistas unseen for a time, then his eyes lightened. "Meeting Bowen was a blessing unlooked for. He gladdened my heart more than he’ll ever know."

"He seems like the type that would."

"He is a good man, much like his father. Full of simple joy and easy cheer that seems far too rare in these days of growing darkness."

Halbarad watched returning sorrow shadow every line of his face, and did the only thing he knew to drive it away: he gave Aragorn’s leg a sharp slap with the back of his hand. Aragorn yelped a protest, but Halbarad was stern. "Then let us fix our minds on men such as he and put sorrow behind, lest your dwelling on things past that cannot be changed and things future that have yet to come to pass drive us both into the pit of despair."

Aragorn pulled his legs ups to his chest, out of reach. He wrapped his arms around them and rested his chin on one knee as he aimed a sullen look at Halbarad. "You’re a hard-hearted wretch, cousin."

"Yes, well... my ears weary of your self-pitying yawping. Besides, you need to rest your voice before you strain yourself. Can I get you anything before I leave? Everyone else is asleep, but I can surely rummage around and come up with some tea and toast if you’d like."

He shook his head. "I'm a little hungry, but it can wait. I am better, you know. This morning I am a regular chatterbox, where yesterday morning I couldn’t speak at all."

"You may think you’re better, but you still have fever, so stay abed."

"I will."

Halbarad gave him a narrow look.

"I promise."

"I suppose that will have to do, although I know how thin and flimsy the fabric of your promises can be when it comes to taking care of yourself."

Aragorn glared at him and changed the subject. "Are you here by yourself?"

"Denlad’s with me."

"Good. Have him take care of me instead of Flora. The less contact she has with me, the better. And tell him absolutely no mustard poultices. Make sure you..." He bent his head to his knees and succumbed to a coughing fit. "Be sure you make it clear to him. No mustard poultices."

Halbarad waited until Aragorn quieted. "I will tell him, fear not. I know how you are with those things. By the way, he's been in to see you several times, through the night."

"He has?"

"You were sleeping."

"I can’t remember." He winced. "Elbereth, I ache like a rheumy old man."

"Have you some willow bark?"

He nodded and gestured toward the table. "I think there’s some in that mug."

Finally, something constructive Halbarad could do for him. Halbarad took it and sniffed. "I can’t tell willow bark from cat piss, but if you say it’s in here, maybe you should drink some."

He obediently sipped when Halbarad held the cup to his mouth. He grimaced. "It tastes about like cat piss."

"Drink cat piss often, do you?"

Aragorn chuckled. "You’re good for me when I’m sick, you know that? Your complete lack of any sort of compassion keeps me from wallowing in self pity."

"Precisely. And I’m good for you no matter what the state of your health and well you know it. You are a right mess without me... just look what happened after little more than a week away from my side. So exhausted yourself that you got sick as a dog, and you a Númenórean who shouldn’t ever fall prey to such things. Hopeless, that’s what you are." Halbarad put the cup back on the table. "Well, you seem to be lively enough and that deer won’t come trotting to the dinner table by itself, so I must leave." He pointed a finger at Aragorn’s nose. "Behave."

"I will. And Halbarad, if you come across any athelas–"

"I’ll pluck you a bouquet and tie it with a red ribbon."

"Just don’t expect a kiss. My heart has been claimed by another."

"Alas, I shall pine the rest of my days." Halbarad sketched a bow and left, Aragorn’s laughter easing his worries quite a bit.

Maybe the thread was not so delicate after all.

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