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No Better Name  by Cairistiona

Chapter 10 - Surely†It Must†Be Bad If Denlad Was Being Nice

Bowen ran after Denlad. "In our bedchamber, Denlad. Put her in our bed," he said as he caught up with him.

"No, Denlad! Not yet!" Flora cried. "Bowen, change the sheets and blankets before he puts me down! See those old ones, right there in the corner on the chair?"

"By wind and by sun, wife, why are you worrying about the bedding! Put her down, Denlad, and never mind about the sheets."

Denlad started to, but she threw her arms around his neck and all but hung there, refusing to let go. He staggered but managed to straighten back up without falling and squashing her flat, though it was a near thing. "Bowen," he pleaded. "Just change the bedding, would you?"

Bowen huffed and muttered under his breath, but he yanked away all the perfectly good bedding and grabbed the stacks of muslin and wool blankets and hurled them onto the bed.

"Tuck them in properly!" Flora insisted.

"Tuck them... ! Oh this is a fine turn! Will you have the baby in Denladís arms then, because the bedcorners arenít perfect?"

"Iím a ways yet from that yet, so fix them, please."

Denlad shifted, widening his stance a bit even as he silently pleaded for Bowen to get on with the job. Knowing his wife was no small burden, Bowen hurriedly set things aright. "There! That will have to do because I canít get them any straighter."

"Theyíre perfect, dearest. Oh, and is the knife under the bed?"

Bowen bent to look; he saw it gleaming in the shadows. "Aye, itís there, right where you left it."

"And the window open and the doors unlocked?"

"Aye, Flora... and the catís chased out and I even unstoppered all the bottles of vinegar earlier." Bowen was feeling ever more frantic. "Flora, please..."

"I have to be certain all is ready," Flora said calmly. "And as it seems it is, you may put me down now, Denlad."

With palpable relief, he set her carefully down and this time it was Bowen that had the gimlet eye, but he could find no fault with Denladís gentle handling of her. Flora apparently found nothing to complain about either, for she gave Denlad a smile as she thanked him. He simply nodded and tried to hide a wince as he rubbed his lower back.

Bowen hurried to take her hand. "Iím sorry for snapping at you, love. Iím just that worried about you, I am."

She gave him a smile. "I forgive you. I understand how hard this is for you, and youíre being the sweetest husband ever."

"Is there anything I can get you?"

"No, I just need some quiet and a bit of time to get this job done."

"Job! Listen to you. As if youíre nobbut cleaning the floors," Bowen said. He tried to smile but he could feel that same shriek from breakfast building and building in his chest. It was all but choking him, it was, but he bit it back. No sense worrying her, her with this big job to do. He searched for something to say but finally just squeezed her hand.

Denlad†spoke, rather shyly. "I am no midwife and only an apprentice healer, my lady, and Iím sure you know more about births than I do, but if you feel anything is going amiss, please let me know. I may be able to help."

"I will, thank you. So far things seem normal enough, although I must admit that feeling it for myself is something new." She smiled at Bowen, then grimaced. "Ooh, here comes another one!" She nearly broke every bone in Bowenís hand as she bore down on it in her pain. After what felt like months, she finally relaxed, breathless and gasping.

Bowen cast a stricken glance at Denlad. "Is this normal? Is she all right? Whatís wrong--"

"Peace, Bowen," Denlad said gently. He actually put a hand on Bowenís shoulder, which made Bowen all the more frantic. Surely it must be bad if Denlad was being nice to him...

"Dearest," Flora said after finally catching her breath, "calm yourself! This is all perfectly normal."

"ButĖ"

"Bowen," Denlad said, still gentle and so blasted sympathetic that it set every nerve jangling, "it might be best if you wait outside. She will be perfectly well, and I am right here."

"As am I," came a voice from the doorway.

"Strider!" Bowen cried. "I donít think you should be up!" Indeed, the man looked a shade wobbly on his feet as he leaned against the doorframe.

"Donít worry about me," Strider said. "I am only going to keep an eye on things from here, lest I still be ill enough to sicken your wife or child. Denlad is well able to attend to her needs, and his advice is sound; you might find it easier if you wait outside. Halbarad can keep you company and give you reassurances. He has been through this six times, after all."

"Six! I thought... well, he said that you folk didnít have big families..."

Denlad covered a smile, but Strider didnít bother. "He and his wife are the exception that proves the rule."

Halbaradís face appeared over Striderís shoulder. "Whatís this, disparaging my good name, are you?"

"Only slightly," Strider said. He turned to him. "Did you get your buck?"

"Aye, caught and thanks to Denlad, butchered and ready to cook. Here, you might need this." He handed Strider the handful of kingsfoil. "Sorry thereís no ribbon. And, er, good to see you on your feet finally."

Strider thanked him and turned to Bowen. "Here is a chore to keep you busy: I need some steaming hot water, and a bowl."

"It was you what helped my cousin!" Flora crowed triumphantly from her bed.

Strider raised his eyebrows. "My lady?"

"Tansy Hornbeam is my aunt... her daughter Ivy had a child last fall. Her time came on her suddenly, when she was alone. She had no way to send for me or anyone else, but she said a tall stranger helped her tremendously. She said he used that weed you have there. Kingsfoil."

"Ivy Longhill! Of course! Martin Longhillís wife. Well do I remember her," Strider said with a smile. "She had a beautiful strong son, as I recall."

"Who is doing marvelously well, no little thanks to you."

Strider actually blushed a bit as he ducked his head in thanks.

Well, Bowen thought. It did seem that Flora was in good hands, what with Strider definitely being the one that helped her cousin, and Denlad being a healer trained by Strider. He took a shaky breath. "Flora, if I leave, are you sure you will beĖ"

"I shall be in very good hands, Bowen. And I fear if you stay you will work yourself into a panic, and that will help no one. So go, fetch Strider his hot water, and then talk to Halbarad and ease your mind."

"Come, Bowen!" Halbarad called. "Iíll tell you all about my children and how each one arrived. Youíve nothing to fear."

Bowen looked at him, then at Denlad and Strider one more time, then finally let out a sigh that felt as though it came from his toes. "All right." He leaned down and gave Flora a kiss, then hurried out on shaky legs before his resolve failed him.

Halbarad followed him down the hallway. "It will be all right, truly. She looks to be a strong lass, your Flora."

Bowen took one of the buckets of water Flora had set out earlier and poured it into their iron teakettle. Denlad came in just then and as Bowen finished took the bucket from him to use the water left it in it to scrub his hands. Bowen watched him for a moment, but when Denlad maintained his usual silence, turned away to hang the iron kettle on the hook above the fire before finally replying to Halbarad, "I know she says she is strong, and that she feels all is well with this child, but I can't help but worry.""Of course you canít. Thatís only natural. So you will, over the course of the next few hours, pace and growl and mumble and pray and so work yourself up into a lather that when the babe does come, youíll dissolve into tears. Youíll be lucky, really, if you donít faint away entirely."

"Did you..."

Halbarad grinned. "The first, yes, I did. Face down on the floor and broke my nose, in fact. My eldest sonís first glimpse of me must have been hair-raising, all that blood and gore. My wife thought me completely useless."

Bowen chuckled despite himself. "I pray I wonít do that."

"You may faint, but Iíll try to catch you before you hit the floor nose-first."

Bowen nodded, but he stiffened as Flora let out another long cry. Denlad hurried back to the bedroom, wiping his hands dry on a clean towel as he went. "Oh dear," Bowen whispered, and reached shakily for one of the chairs around the table. He fell into it and stared toward the bedchamber. He felt all hollowed out inside.

Halbarad patted his shoulder. "Steady, Bowen."

Her cry faded, then Strider came into the room. He lowered himself to a seat across the table from Bowen. "Sheís doing well," he said. "Things are moving along quickly."

"Is she really doing all right?" Bowen asked.

Strider nodded. "Sheís strong, and I dared go near for just a moment, to check that the baby was turned aright, and all seems as it should be. Youíll be a father by nightfall or perhaps even sooner, I wager."

"A father..." A tremulous smile wobbled its way onto his face and he nodded. "By wind and by sun... me, a father!"

Strider exchanged an amused glance with Halbarad, then said to Bowen, "Howís the hot water coming along?"

Bowen blinked for a moment, then hurried to the fireplace. "How hot do you need it?"

"As hot as you would use to make tea."

"A minute or two more, then." He sat back down, feeling a little steadier than he had earlier. Strider and Halbarad seemed so utterly calm that surely he had nothing to fear.

Halbarad walked into the kitchen and came back with a loaf of bread and the crock of butter. "You need to eat something, Bowen," he said, and proceeded to slice off a great slab of bread. After slathering a generous amount of butter on it, he handed it to him. He then repeated the process. "You, too, Strider. You look like a stiff breeze could blow you to Rivendell. Eat and regain some strength."

Strider lifted his as if it were a tankard. "To new life," he said, "and the hope it brings."

Bowen grinned broadly and tapped his bread against Striderís. Or at least, he meant it to be a tap. Instead, he knocked it a little too hard and Striderís bread slipped out of his hand to land buttered side down on the table. "Oh dear," Bowen said, and he worried that it was a bad omen and suddenly all the panic he thought behind him surged back.

Strider simply chuckled and picked up the bread. He used his finger to scoop up the butter and smear it back on the bread. "Eat, Bowen. Clumsiness is never a portent, after all."

"No... yes, no... of course not," Bowen said, somewhat hysterically. He shoved the bread into his mouth to stop his idiotic blathering.

Halbarad stood. "Iíve got to see to that meat before flies get to it and it spoils. Bowen, if you need me, come out and get me. In the meantime, I imagine Strider here can offer up some diversions in the way of conversation. Just donít let him bore you nattering on too much about leechcraft."

He left and Bowen cleared his throat, suddenly shy now that they were alone and Strider seemed more himself. "Iím sure you wonít be boring," he finally said.

"Iíll try my best. And since telling my own tale is rather tedious and dull, tell me about this farm instead. How long have Rushlights lived on this land?"

"Oh, for many, many generations. Iím not sure how many, in fact. Probably as long as Men have lived in Bree."

"Which is a very long time, indeed." Strider looked at the ceiling beams and the fireplace. "This house does not seem that old."

"Itís not. My grandfather built it about thirty years ago. The old one burned one winter when the chimney caught fire. They moved into the barn for the rest of that winter and the following summer built thisĖ"

Another cry from the bedroom, followed by loud imprecations, mostly at Bowenís expense, that made Strider chuckle. Flora did not sound happy in the least.

Bowen felt his cheeks burn. "Oh dear... I had no idea she even knew such words...why is she... you must think us cut from the worst sort of cloth..."

"Shh, easy, Bowen. Her cries will come more often; her pains are already quite close together, which is a good sign that things are progressing well. And that her temper is rising is also a sign that the time is nearly at hand. She seems to be one of the fortunate women for whom birth is a quick thing."

"But she sounded so hateful!"

"You should hear Halbaradís wife during such times. She has sworn, with each child, that she will take a knife to Halbarad and put an end to his... how did she put it? ĎOverweening male prideí, I think it was. And with their most recent child, it was, Ďslice into slivers his wee bits of shriveled male prunesí, which threat has transcended into legend among our people, though donít dare say anything about it to Halbarad! Her insults have gotten better with each baby, actually."

Bowen felt the blood drain from his face. He looked askance at the bedroom door. "Oh dear."

"Fear not, Bowen. Just as Miriel has yet to make good on her threats, neither shall your Flora. She will take one look at her child and all anger will simply melt away."

"Have you... have you done this sort of thing much, helping with... well, that is to say, births?"

"Several, yes. And all of them went well."

Which could mean Strider was due a spectacular failure. Bowenís stomach flipped. "Oh dear."

"That does not reassure you?"

"You might be... well, due, if you know what I mean."

"Bowen, I know it is the way of your folk to... do things to ward off evil, the cake and the windows open and the knife under the bed to cut pain and whatnot, but surely youíre not as superstitious as all that."

"No, not exactly... but... the odds, you see... the more you do a thing successfully, the more likely eventually youíll make a hash of it."

Strider stared at him for a moment, then let out a great laugh that quickly dissolved into a coughing fit. But he finally regained control of himself and wiped this streaming eyes. "Seeing as Iím not even in the same room with her, I donít think that Iíll be making a hash of things this day."

"No, Iím sure you wonít, and I didnít mean any insult, truly. My mindís in such a muddle I should probably keep my mouth shut." He got up and checked on the water. "I think this is ready."

"Good. Bring it here." Strider rose and helped himself to a large bowl from the shelf. He put it on the table and had Bowen fill it halfway with the steaming water. He pulled the kingsfoil leaves from his pocket and held them between his hands for a moment, and then he did something Bowen thought rather odd: he seemed to breathe on them. He didnít blow, exactly, nor did he spit... he simply exhaled onto them. Heíd never seen anyone do anything like it and couldnít imagine it making a blind bit of difference in whatever medicine the leaves provided. Rangers really were a rum folk, as strange as news from Bree.

Strider dropped them into the water and within moments the freshest scent Bowen had ever smelled seemed to fill the entire house. Fresh rain on spring crops didnít smell as good.

"Oh, now thatís nice, that is. Thatíll chirk up a manís spirits right enough. How did you know kingsfoil could give off a fragrance like that?" He picked up a leaf that had fallen back to the table and sniffed it, but it just smelled vaguely green, like dandelions or oak leaves or lambsí ear.

Strider merely gave him a smile, then picked up the bowl and disappeared into the bedroom. Bowen thought to follow him, but he looked instead at the leaf. He grabbed one of the tin cups and filled it with hot water, then held the leaf and blew on it just as Strider had. He dropped it in and took a deep breath... and smelled nothing. He grabbed a spoon and swirled the water around a bit, and finally there arose a scent that was fresh enough but nothing like when Strider had done it. Disappointed, Bowen set aside the cup and hurried down the hall and peeked in. Strider had put the bowl beside Flora on the table and was leaning over her, speaking softly. He put his hand on her forehead and Bowen heard her soft sigh, and then Strider gave Denlad a nod as he straightened and turned to leave. He nearly bumped into Bowen as he hurried out of the room. Bowen trotted along after him, but stopped in his tracks when Flora let out yet another cry. This time, at least, she didnít call Bowen any filthy names. That kingsfoil must have really done the trick.

As Strider settled back down at the table, he spied Bowenís abortive attempt at making the kingsfoil aroma. He raised an eyebrow, but saying nothing, reached into the cup with the spoon and pulled out the wet leaf. He again held it, then breathed on it and dropped it back in, and the aroma once again rose fresh and clean. "I suppose I didnít breathe on it long enough," Bowen muttered, scratching his jaw.

"It takes a bit of a knack," Strider said. He gave Bowen a wink, then settled back in his chair, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles.

Bowen was too nervous to sit idly waiting, so he turned away and started to pace. Back and forth he went, from the hearth to the front door, until finally Strider called out, "Bowen. Youíre wearing me out watching you. Sit down."

Bowen meekly dropped back into his chair, but then his left leg, seeming on its own, started bouncing rapidly up and down. Strider sighed. "Get up, then, and pace. Itís your own floor to wear out, after all."

Bowen fairly leapt to his feet. He resumed his pacing, not even stopping when Halbarad came back. Halbarad watched him, smiling. "Did I not tell you?"

Bowen just kept himself from glaring.

Halbarad laughed. He poured water into the washbowl and grabbed a handful of the soft soap that Flora kept in a small pot on the windowsill. As he scrubbed his hands, he looked over at Strider. "So how are you, really?"

Strider twisted in his chair to face him. "Better. Definitely on the mend."

"Glad to hear it."

Bowen watched the two of them, and just as it was between Halbarad and Denlad, an entire conversation without words seemed to pass between them by the time Halbarad dried his hands on a towel and Strider straightened back around in his chair. "Bowen, have you any more tea?" Halbarad asked. "I fancy a cup after all that butchering, but donít trouble yourself; I can make it as easily as you."

"Corner cupboard, top shelf. Youíll see a box of it there, and a tea ball beside it."

"Thank you, kind sir. Either of you for a cuppa?"

Strider, who had straightened back around to resume his indolent lolling, leaned his head back toward the kitchen behind him. "Make it plenty strong."

"When have I not?" He rattled around arranging mugs and teapot.

"The week before I left. You made a pot that was nothing more than colored water."

"That was because we were nearly out of tea!"

"You shouldnít have tried making it, then."

Halbarad straightened, an indignant look on his face. "If I recall, you insisted I make it."

Strider wore a wicked smile that Halbarad couldnít see. He winked at Bowen. "I did no such thing."

Halbarad looked ready to hurl the tea ball at the back of Striderís head. But instead he simply growled under his breath and dropped it into the teapot and poured steaming water from the kettle over it. He carried the pot to the table and plunked it down in front of Strider. "There. You finish the making of it, since youíve become so particular."

They sounded so like a pair of bickering women that Bowen laughed. "You two are mad," he finally said.

"We may very well be," Strider agreed. He checked the depths of the teapot. "Not yet."

"And you may not have realized," Halbarad added, "but thanks to us, you have not once flinched at the sounds from the bedroom."

Bowen blinked. It was true. Heíd been so caught up in their antics that he hadnít noticed anything at all coming from the bedroom. His conscience immediately smote him. How could he have been so heedless during his wifeís hour of tribulation? "Oh," he said miserably, and started to pace again.

"Well done, Halbarad," Strider muttered.

Halbarad started to reply, but Denlad came hurrying into the room. "Strider, could you come?"

Strider immediately rose and disappeared to the bedroom. Bowen watched him, then turned his gaze to Halbarad. "What do you supposeĖ"

"Likely nothing. It could be the baby has been born, in fact, and Denlad merely wants Strider to watch that he finishes things up properly. The cleaning up and such."

Bowen nodded, but he was unconvinced. If the baby was born, surely theyíd be hearing its cries by now. He chewed his lip, trying to tell himself to go back there and see, but he seemed somehow to have lost all feeling in his legs. Quite unintentionally, he heard himself let out the tiniest of moans.

Halbarad squeezed his shoulder. "Would you like me to go check for you?"

Bowen nodded vigorously. "Could you? Please?"

Halbarad disappeared, and after what felt like hours but could only have been a matter of minutes, returned.† He smiled broadly. "You might want to go back there now.

"You mean..."

Just then, the robust bawl of a newborn rent the quiet of the cottage. Bowen felt his knees quiver.

Halbarad gave him a shove. "Go on, then. See your new son!"

_________

Authorís Note: More childbirth superstitions! A knife placed under the bed is meant to cut the pain; people used to think a cat would steal the babyís breath (this may actually be a superstition that, while not literally true, is still a good idea, as we know today that a pregnant woman should never clean a litter box, because of the risk of toxoplasmosis); and windows, doors and all the bottles in a house were opened, to help ease the passage of the baby into the world. Again, Iíve modified them a little to fit Middle-earth.

"As strange as news from Bree", JRR Tolkien, taken from FOTR, "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony".





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