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Chapter Eight - Beating Carpets Was Probably Good For Him
"There, see what you can do with that," Bowen said, placing a tray holding a platter of eggs, sausage, and sliced tomatoes across Striderís lap. He made sure he had the tray settled, then stepped aside to let Denlad set on it the mug of hot tea he carried. "Do you think you can eat some of this?"
"Iím sure I can, yes. My belly is starting to wonder why it must suffer simply because my throat is sore," Aragorn said.
Bowen nodded. "Ďtis a very good sign, that youíre hungry. I always know a horse is going to recover when he starts getting that gleam back in his eye and takes a nibble of hay."
Strider chuckled. "I am glad youíre not feeding me hay, though Iím hungry enough I might happily eat it."
"Do you want anything else? Besides a bale of hay, that is."
"No, Bowen, thank you. This all looks very nice."
Strider still looked terribly pale and weary, but oh, it was good to see a sparkle in his eye and hear him speak more clearly. There were some stray burrs and squeaks still, like rough-cut wood that had yet to be polished, but he sounded much better now than he had yesterday, and he was barely coughing at all. Bowen watched him take his first bite, then glanced at Denlad, who had retreated to the doorway. The young man had watched the proceedings, as he had the preparation of Striderís meal, with a gimlet eye that was growing more and more annoying. Why, it almost seemed as though he expected him to poison Strider! Bowen couldnít understand the manís antipathy. Not that Bowen had done any of this in order to gain anyoneís approval, but at least Halbarad was grateful. Why, he was nearly tripping all over himself thanking Bowen for the care heíd given his cousin. So why this odd suspicion from Denlad? Bowen was sure he had no idea and was beginning not to care one way or another, so he turned back to Strider, who for his part gave him an uncomplicated smile as he happily chewed his way through a bite of sausage. "Enjoy your breakfast, Mr. Strider. Iíll be back later to get the tray out of your way. Can I bring you one of my books?"
Strider swallowed and wiped his mouth on a napkin before replying. "Yes, please. I would like that very much. And thank you again for helping me... you and your wife have shown me kindness beyond duty or expectation. I know I would have been in dire straits had you left me to my own devices."
"Think nothing of it," Bowen said, making sure not to shoot a Ďsee there! Thatís how to show proper mannersí glance toward Denlad. "Iím just glad youíre doing better. Now eat up so you regain your strength. Feed a cold, starve a fever, they say, but I say if you can feed either one, moreís the better. A man needs food to keep up his strength, be he sick or well, so eat up."
"I shall do my best," Strider said with an even wider smile.
Bowen turned to leave, and for a moment Denlad seemed ready to refuse to move from the door to let him pass. A glance back at Strider showed him absorbed in cutting into another sausage, so he simply stepped forward with the expectation that anyone of good manners would get out of the way and thus so would Denlad, and in the end Denlad did just that. Bowen passed him with a nod, which Denlad ignored as he pushed past him to disappear into Striderís room. He shut the door firmly. Bowen stared at it for a moment, scratching his chin. He was a cold one, Denlad, and no mistake.
He shrugged and headed off to get his own breakfast. "Flora?" he called out when he didnít see her at the kitchen table.
He walked out to a pleasant stone courtyard beyond the back door. Heíd laid the stones himself, some years back, to give them a place to sit of a fine morning and enjoy their breakfast up and out of the wet dewy grass. In the center of it stood a small table and two chairs, and Flora was sitting in one of them. She had laid his own breakfast at the other. He gave her a kiss, eyed the spread with approval, and sat himself down. "Striderís better this morning. Much better."
"Oh, Iím glad. No need to subject him to a poultice, then, which will make him more than glad, Iím sure."
Bowen felt his cheeks grow hot, but he jabbed at his eggs and said nothing. Least said, soonest mended, after all. Heíd more than learned his lesson about mustard poultices.
"I was a bit alarmed when Mr. Halbarad and†Mr. Denlad both insisted that I not go near him, but I can see where caution is probably the better part of valor." She patted her swelling stomach. "I wouldnít want to get too sick to have this baby."
"Shall I fetch the midwife from Bree, do you think?"
She rubbed her stomach thoughtfully, then smiled almost shyly. "I donít think youíll have time to, dearest."
Bowen felt his face drain. "Oh my. By wind and by sun... you mean..."
"No, no... nothingís happening yet, but I feel like it must, very soon. Perhaps tonight. Iíve had a few odd pains, and my back aches terribly, and thereíve been a few other signs."
"Other signs? What other signs?"
She reached over and squeezed his hand. "Calm down, love. Signs that only a woman knows, and such signs tell me that all is as it should be. As for right now, Iíve a great urge to be up and getting the house clean, which is one of the signs I can tell you about. Do not stop me, for I will not tire myself. But things need to be ready."
"But what about Strider, and Denlad and Halbarad... the house is full of strange men! They shouldnít be here..."
"Bowen! Take a deep breath and compose yourself! They are men used to the ways of life, I am sure, and two of them are healers. Iím more certain than ever, in fact, that Strider was the one who helped my cousin. They will be no trouble and in fact may find themselves returning the blessing we gave them by caring for Strider."
Bowen took a deep breath as she suggested Ė she was a healer in her own right, after all, and knew these things Ė and tried to think rationally. It was hard, because all sorts of dire and awful stories he had heard of difficulties in childbirth kept bouncing around inside his skull until he felt very near to letting out a shriek and falling sobbing into his wifeís arms. But he took another deep breath, and then, to show Flora that he could be as collected as she, picked up the salt cellar and spooned salt over his egg and tomato. "There. You see? Calm as can be."
"Bowen, dear, you just put sugar on your eggs."
"I did?" Bowen looked blankly at his plate. "Oh dear," he said faintly.
She laughed aloud and took up his plate. "I shall fix you some more. But please, stop fretting so. Everything will be right as rain, youíll see."
"Yes, yes... I know it will. Iím sorry." Another great breath. "Yes, Iím fine now. Here, leave me that sausage." He speared it with his fork as she pulled his plate away. She gave him a kiss atop his head before heading into the kitchen to fix him a fresh egg. He watched her, feeling such a surge of love that he feared he might burst into tears. But instead, he simply reached over and pushed the sugar bowl well out of reach.
The day passed peaceably enough, with no more salt or sugar mishaps on Bowenís part. He or Denlad in turn continually checked on Strider, who, having finally overcome his fever, spent most of the day quietly reading or dozing in an ungainly but peaceful sprawl with the book fallen open face down on his chest, or once, tumbled upside down on the floor. Bowen had carefully picked it up and smoothed the pages and set it on the night stand, and all the while Strider slept on without waking. Fever could surely exhaust a man. He was glad Strider was getting some good, restful sleep.
But Flora! Surely rest would be better for her ordeal ahead, but no, she was an absolute dervish, flying around the house dusting and cleaning and setting out stacks of neatly folded linens and buckets of water ready to heat by the fire. She baked six loaves of bread and started up a huge pot of pease porridge that she said even Bowen couldnít ruin. She also made four batches of shortbread and two dozen buns, plus cleaned enough potatoes to surely feed them all for a week after the porridge ran out. She reminded Bowen to make his cake, for after the birth, which he did, though he wasnít altogether sure it would be edible, what with his lack of baking skills. Heíd been careful with the sugar but he suspected he may have put too much ginger in it. But he at least remembered to pull it out of the oven before it burned.
And so the day went. If either Denlad or Bowen came within earshot, they were put to chores like scrubbing the floors and beating carpets, which Denlad went at with an almost maniacal glee. Their carpet had never been so free from dust as it was by the time he finished. For his part, Bowen tried to avoid Denlad as much as possible, and so he welcomed all the extra chores. When the two of them finally sat down for a bite of lunch, they were too weary to speak beyond a brief exchange about how Strider was doing. Denladís hard eyes had softened finally as he reported that Strider seemed to be much improved and well on the mend. Bowen had nodded, and decided perhaps Denladís pique was due to extreme worry over his friend. He had never seen two men as fretful over another as Halbarad and Denlad. It did make him wonder just what significance Strider held to them or to their people. The family connection he understood, of course, being quite fond of some of his own cousins, but there seemed something more between the three men than mere kinship. Maybe he was some sort of general or captain or chieftain. Or perhaps it was simply that he was a terrific fellow. Bowen certainly could see where that might be the case, despite only knowing him a few days and him not at his best at that. His courtly manners and soft-spoken ways, when fever wasnít making him snappish, spoke well of the man and no mistake. Bowen hoped he would stick around long enough for a proper chat before he made his way back into whatever wilds his whims and responsibilities took him.
Bowen was just sopping up the last of the†porridge with his last bite of bread when he saw a shadow pass across the keeping room window. There was a soft thump outside and then Halbarad came in. Now there was another well-spoken man, Bowen thought. He really would have to readjust his thinking on Rangers. He was finally beginning to understand his daís admiration of them.
"Iíve brought you some meat," Halbarad said as he laid a small handful of kingsfoil leaves on the window sill. Bowen wondered why on earth Halbarad had brought in a handful of weeds, but he didnít have time to ask before Halbarad continued. "Itís not the fattest buck, but it will do to feed us for a few days. Come see."
He and Denlad both hurried outside. "Oh yes," Bowen said. "Thatís a fine one, as good as youíll get this early in spring. Come†out past†the barn and Iíll show you where I do the butchering." He ducked briefly back into the kitchen to snatch up a stack of large tin pans, each nested inside the one below, then†waited while Halbarad swung the buck over his shoulder.† He then led him through the barn and out beyond its rear door to where there stood a sturdy post with a large metal hook attached near the top and some chains hanging on another hook. Beside it stood a table, onto which Bowen set his pans. "For putting the meat in until we smoke it or salt it down," he said. "Hang the buck there, use the chains if you need them. You can stretch the hide when youíre finished on the barn wall there, see those nails? Right there, yes. Iíll bring you the butchering knives; I donít keep them out here, you see."
But Denlad, who had followed quietly behind, brandished a long sharp knife of his own. "Halbarad, you donít need to overwork that arm of yours cleaning that buck. Go get you something to eat. Iíll take care of this."
Halbarad gave him a grateful nod. "Come then, Bowen, and tell me how Strider fares."
"What did Denlad mean by overworking your arm?"
"I wounded it, a while back. It has been slow to heal, but it is nothing, really. Tell me, how is Strider?"
"Heís improving all the time," Bowen said as he hurried after him. He was glad, on the whole, to get well away from Denlad and his knife. "I imagine heíll be back on his feet tomorrow." He strained to get a peek at Halbaradís arm. "How did you wound it?"
Halbarad gave him a look, then tersely said, "Orc attack. What of Flora? Sheís not fallen ill with this, has she?"
Orc...† Bowen felt his jaw hanging. He closed it with a snap and struggled to stifle more questions, because Halbaradís entire demeanor clearly showed he would give no more information on that subject. "Flora ... yes, er, I mean no. Sheís not ill, exactly. But her time is nearly upon her, she says."
Halbarad slowed a step. "It is?"
"So she says. You canít tell it by looking at how sheís working herself to death, though."
Halbarad surprised him with a chuckle. "My wife gets the same way. Has Flora had you beating the carpets yet?"
"Denlad did that."
Halbarad let out a great laugh as he turned to call to Denlad, "Covered in dust, are you?"
Denlad merely scowled, which made Halbarad chuckle again. "Heís in a foul mood, that one. Beating carpets was probably good for him."
"Is he always this grim?" Bowen asked, once they were through the barn and well out of earshot.
"No, which makes it all the more strange that he is now. Heís usually one of the sunniest young men youíd ever care to meet," Halbarad said as they entered the shadowy kitchen. Flora was splashing away at the dishpan, washing all the tin cups they owned and some Bowen had never seen before.
"I canít imagine him smiling." He snatched up one of the clean cups, hauled down the jug of cider from its place on the shelf and poured. He handed it to Halbarad. "Here you go. Iíll have you a plate of food in just a minute, but tell me a little about your young friend whoís usually so sunny. Why do you suppose heís not now? Is it because heís worried about Strider?"
Halbarad looked toward the barn, though of course he couldnít see Denlad at work beyond it. "I cannot be sure, but it might be that his worries have consumed him. Strider is dear to him, almost like a father."
"But Striderís not, is he? Denladís father, I mean?"
"No." Halbarad sat for a moment, seeming lost in thought or perhaps weighing what to say. "Denlad knows not who his father is, and it weighs on him sometimes."
"Oh, I see." He didnít, really, but for once he held his tongue, knowing it to be far too impolite to pry.
"Denlad came to us at the age of nineteen, when his mother died. She was of the same line as our people, but for reasons none of us know turned her back on her heritage. She made choices that were, for lack of a more polite way to put it, unwise. She lived apart, alone, and Denlad suffered for it, I think, though heís never shared much about his upbringing."
Now Bowen was starting to see. "You mean his mother and father never...."
"Nor did she with any other man. She preferred coin to fidelity," he added drily.
"Oh... oh! I see. My goodness. However did Denlad turn out... well, that is to say, I mean... oh, Iím making a right hash of this. Denlad seems cultured and a good man, aside from the scowls. Not someone I would have guessed came from that sort of background."
"Much of that was thanks to Striderís tutelage, and whatever example I and the rest of our people may have set. And truly, his mother apparently shielded him from how she earned her living, as much as Iíve been able to gather. He knew what sort of woman she was, of course, but that knowledge came only as he grew older."
"Did you know her?"
Halbarad glared at him.
"Not in that way!" Bowen squawked. "Good heavens, what do you take me for? I meant were you acquainted with her, before she died."
The fire died down in Halbaradís eyes. "No, not really. Strider and I would stop by their farm about once a year, for Striderís heart was smote by the boyís plight, and the womanís as well, I suppose. But we never stayed longer than to drop off some meat or other provisions for winter. We would have done more, but she was both proud and bitter and barely suffered us to extend even that small kindness, and then only for the sake of her son, Iím sure. Denlad never would talk to us, though Strider tried to coax him into conversation. Heíd call him ĎMighty Warriorí and try everything he could to get him to speak." He smiled fondly, remembering. "But he always hid behind his mother, refusing to come forward but shyly watching us with eyes so filled with longing that it nearly broke my own hard heart. I have sons of my own, you see, and I saw the desperate need in him for a father. But he only looked to Strider, never to me, and eventually, when we arrived during his nineteenth year to find him weeping at his motherís newly laid grave, it was Strider who convinced him to come home to his people. I wasnít so sure, thinking perhaps he might have more of his motherís lesser qualities in him than could be driven out, but he has proven himself true."
"Now thatís a terrible sad story and no mistake," Bowen said. "Iím glad it has a happy ending. Iím sorry he seems to think ill of me, but I can see where a man like that, with that sort of background, would be slow to trust anyone."
Halbarad snorted. "Heís not especially slow to trust, thatís the problem. On the other hand, sometimes in his zeal to defend Strider, heíll get odd notions that need pummeling out."
"Oh mercy, donít hurt the lad! Itís nothing as bad as all that!"
"Fear not, I will only talk to him," Halbarad promised. But from the grim light in his eyes, Bowen couldnít be sure he wouldnít have to deal with three patients by dayís end. Strider, Flora and a battered and bleeding Denlad.
Authorís note: itís an old custom in parts of England for the expectant father to make a cake and present it to those present during childbirth. There are many variations of the custom, but most seem to have the father cut the cake after childbirth, with care not to cut his own fingers, lest the child be stricken with death or some other tragedy. In Yorkshire, the cake is called "Pepper cake" and is spicy, like gingerbread. It is also a custom to provide all in the house with shortbread and buns before they leave, or risk bad luck. Iíve modified those customs a bit to fit Breeland. Source: Encyclopedia of Superstitions 1949, by Edwin Radford, Mona A. Radford, page 70.
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