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Chapter 9 - "It’s Always The Brown Eyes I Remember..."
Halbarad walked through the barn, prying at a bit of food stuck between his molars. Denlad was still at the butchering but he looked nearly finished. "Is it wholesome, the venison?"
Denlad glanced up as he dropped a slab cut from the shank into one of the pans. "Aye. It’s good meat. Lean but cooked low and slow it should be tender enough, and there are several steaks that I think will be good even if cooked quickly. I’ll ask Flora if she’d like me to get started on it for her."
"Bowen tells me she says the baby might come today."
"So she says." He turned back to the deer and continued carving.
"Denlad, lay aside the knife for a moment and join me. I would talk to you about something." He sat down on a bench against the side of the barn and watched as Denlad carefully set down the knife and wiped his hands on a rag, each movement more deliberate and slow than was his wont, which told Halbarad that though he’d intended to make it sound like a friendly chat, Denlad expected a thorough dressing down. When he finally came over and was seated beside him, staring at the ground between his boots, Halbarad made sure his voice was gentle. "Denlad, what troubles you about Bowen Rushlight?"
"In regards to his care for Strider, nothing. He seems a good–"
"Yes, yes," Halbarad interrupted. So much for gentle handling but he had little patience for hemming and hawing, since Aragorn regularly used up his entire supply. He had none left over for Denlad. "He seems a good man. You said as much last night. Why then do I think that you do not believe what you say?"
Denlad shook his head. "It is the truth."
Denlad picked at a speck of blood on his hand, then rubbed one thumb across the other palm, over and over. "I..."
He cleared his throat. "You know of my upbringing."
"Yes, something of it."
"My mother... sometimes..." He let out a breath, pursed his lips and straightened. "This is difficult for me to talk about. I’ve told no one any of this, not even Strider or Dirhael."
"If it is too hard, you don’t have to say anything."
"No, I must. It’s... I must."
So Halbarad waited, watching as the younger man suffered the return of painful memories. He wished suddenly that Strider were here, for he was far better at sorting out tortured spirits than he. But Strider had his own burdens to bear and could hardly be asked to rise from his sickbed and trot out here to listen to Denlad’s troubles. He winced. A fine respite this was turning into... Denlad was hardly getting his lazy day in the sun, or at least the good night’s rest in Butterbur’s warm inn that Halbarad had wished for him. He then realized in all his self-castigating, he wasn’t paying the least attention to Denlad.
"... was eight, I think. Perhaps seven... no, it was eight, for it was just after that that we moved from the area around Sarn Ford to the farm where you and Strider found us, and I had just turned nine, then." More palm rubbing. Halbarad worried he might rub a blister, but he said nothing. "A man came, as they did in those days. He was from Breeland, somewhere. Short but strong, the hands of a brawler or a farmer, hard to say which. Brown hair. Brown eyes." His voice trailed away, and when he spoke again it was almost a whisper. "It’s always the brown eyes I remember. So cold. Vicious."
Halbarad felt his mouth go dry. He wished more than ever that it was Strider listening, not him. He had no idea what Denlad was about to tell him, but it could not be good, and he would not know a thing to say, that much he knew with stone certainty. He wanted to command Denlad to stop talking, but he quelled the notion. Apparently it was written that today Halbarad would listen to the world’s cares, and as he had leant his shoulder to Aragorn, so would he lend it neither grudging nor flinching to Denlad.
"The first time he came, not much happened, but even so, he frightened me as no other man come to see my mother ever had. He glanced at me, you see, before I could duck out of sight into my little bedroom. His eyes..." He shook his head as he again stopped, and for a long time he sat silent. Then with a quiet sigh, he continued. "To my knowledge, he came and left without incident. But afterward, I could tell my mother was troubled, though she said nothing, which was her way. What she did to earn her keep... it was hardly something a mother could chat with her son about it now, was it." A bitter laugh, then, "Even so, we were all we had, each other, and I loved her dearly. And maybe that love and our isolation made me more attuned to her moods, even so young. Hard to say. I simply remember hoping and praying that the man would never come back."
Another long silence, and finally Halbarad could stand it no longer. "But... he did?"
A nod, slow and painful.
"He hurt my..." He stopped and cleared his throat. "He hurt my mother. I heard her cries, and I rushed in, thinking to help her, but there was not much an eight-year-old boy, thin and small for his age, could do. He chased me out of there, followed me to my bedchamber and beat me until I fell senseless to the floor. When I woke up, he was gone, and my mother was wiping the blood from my face, though she still had blood on her own." He took a deep breath. "She was never the same after that. He broke her, utterly, and she was a long time healing. I nursed her, as much as I could, which wasn’t much. Mostly just bringing her a cup of water or a crust of bread when I could manage to steal a loaf; one kind charwoman actually gave me a whole meat pie. We ate like kings than night. But mostly I had to steal to find food during those months when she couldn’t earn any money, and we were lucky to have a bite one day in three." A crooked smile. "I wasn’t exactly the best of thieves. We survived, somehow, and when she was well enough, we fled to the hills and found that abandoned farm where you and Aragorn found us. It was hard, but we scraped a living out of the fields there. Men still came by, but never as many, and she kept a long knife by her bed and dealt as she saw fit with those who would be cruel." His eyes turned as bleak and cold as the Helcaraxë. "Those that were, we buried in the woods beyond our cottage."
Halbarad didn’t know what to say. Such revelations were beyond anything in his own experience and what words of comfort that came to mind felt trite and meaningless. "I am sorry," he finally said.
Denlad shook himself. "It was long ago. I should not let what is now mere memory so torment me. My life is good these days." He cast a small smile his way. "Very good."
Halbarad nodded, still rather struck dumb. But a question came to mind, one for which he suspected the answer but still could not fathom. "This man who beat your mother, this Breelander... are you saying it was Bowen?"
Denlad laughed, a quiet sound so utterly devoid of any humor that it gave Halbarad a twinge in his chest. "No. How could it be? That was nearly fifteen years ago, and the man had grey in his hair, I remember that much. Bowen is what, thirty, perhaps? Probably not even that. Far too young. It wasn’t him."
"But you fear it might have been his father."
Denlad shrugged. "Even if it was, it is foolish and the worst sort of hypocrisy for me to hold it against Bowen, for I know how it is to have the sins of your parent held against you. Still... I cannot seem to bring myself to look upon him with favor, or friendship."
Halbarad blew out a hard breath. "Denlad, if your suspicions hold true–"
"I said I will not hold what happened against Bowen Rushlight," Denlad snapped. "And I mean that. I may never be able to extend friendship, but I will apologize for my attitude toward him, and see what I may do to help his wife in her childbirth, if she would accept such help as I can give."
"I’m sure she will welcome your care," Halbarad said. Then he added, with a sly grin, "Of course, you realize you will actually have to speak to her if you help her." Denlad, perhaps because of his upbringing, was never keen on speaking to women. Save for Ivorwen, he always seemed at a complete loss. He wasn’t sure Denlad had said a single word to Flora. Nods, yes, and perhaps simple courtesies like please and thank you, but actual words beyond those, Halbarad had heard not a one.
Denlad glared. "As a healer, of course I will speak to her. And in fact, she and I have talked quite a bit about Strider’s care and about other aspects of leechcraft and midwifery. I am not an idiot incapable of holding a conversation."
Chastened, Halbarad fiddled for a moment with a frayed string on his cuff, then stopped when he realized how much it irked him when Aragorn did that. Were they so alike, the two of them? Next thing I’ll be fretting over how to get my throne back and marry an Elf lord’s daughter, he thought. He sighed. "My apologies, Denlad. It was a poorly placed jest. I’m sorry about all of this, really. If I had known this idea of mine to let you have some respite would have turned out so–"
This time Denlad’s laughter was genuine. "Halbarad, listen to yourself! How could you have known?"
"Well, I couldn’t, of course, but–"
Denlad snorted but his smile was affectionate. "Halbarad, what you lack in prescience and tact, you more than make up for in mother henning."
"Here now, there’s no need for insults! I meant what I said."
"Mother hen, indeed," Halbarad muttered. If he were, it was Aragorn’s fault.
"Now it’s my turn at mother henning. How’s your arm, after that hunting?"
Relieved at the turn in the conversation, even if it meant having to talk about his arm, he nodded. "It held up well. Of course, I only took one shot, but it was steady enough."
"Hold out your hand."
"Denlad, there’s no need–"
Iron entered his voice. "I said hold it out."
Halbarad held it out.
"Flex your hand."
He made a fist.
"Now loosen it."
"Denlad, is this entirely necessar–"
"Yes. Do it."
Halbarad scowled, but he opened and closed his hand several times in rapid succession. "See, it’s in perfect working order."
He hesitated. "No."
"All right, there’s some. In my little finger, mostly."
"Grab my hand." He held out his left hand and Halbarad took it. Denlad slapped at it. "Not like I’m some maiden you’re wooing. Grab it."
Halbarad grabbed Denlad’s hand and took great delight in squeezing it until Denlad started to squirm. "All right, all right! That’s enough."
Halbarad grinned as he gave him a last knuckle-creaking squeeze and then dropped Denlad’s hand. "See? Nothing wrong."
"Just be sure to keep resting it," Denlad grumbled as he massaged his fingers.
"Not much I can do but rest, sitting around as we are waiting on Aragorn to get better."
Denlad smiled. "That won’t take long. His fever is gone, and after this long day of napping, he’ll be up and pacing, ready to leave."
"I think before we leave, we need to be sure Flora and the babe are healthy."
"I had the same –" A sudden cry from the courtyard interrupted him. "That sounds like her," he said and leapt to his feet, taking off at a run toward the cottage.
Halbarad hurried after him, catching up in time to see Denlad scoop her off her feet as if she were no more than a child and carry her into the house. Bowen came huffing from the direction of the pasture and gave Halbarad a stricken glance. "It must be her time," he cried in a choked voice, then hurried in after them.
Halbarad’s steps slowed. Memories washed over him in a flood of nostalgia of the times his Miriel had given birth and he had paced endlessly outside, wishing by turns that he could run for the hills or rush in and take her pain away. Elbereth, these are hard times for a man, but still harder for the wife. Awful and wonderful, all at once, and altogether exhausting. He did not envy either of them this day. He looked to the sky. "Elbereth, give them strength."
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