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Chapter 11 - "There Could Be No Better Name."
Bowen stopped at the doorway. Both Denlad and Aragorn blocked his view of the bed, so he quietly tiptoed around them, hoping his knees wouldn't give way. "Flora?" he whispered.
Denlad spun around and actually gave him a smile. "Come, Bowen. Flora has someone she'd like you to meet," he said. Strider, looking even more pale than he had earlier, simply smiled and stepped back out of the way to lean heavily against the doorframe. Bowen cast a worried eye over him, but he shook his head and waved toward the bed.
Bowen, still feeling he must tiptoe, eased to a seat next to Flora, who looked exhausted but joyful all at once. She held a small wrapped bundle in her arms. "Is that..."
She pulled a corner of the swaddling cloth back, and Bowen beheld a small, wrinkled face topped with a fuzzy swatch of dark red hair. The baby had one tiny fist balled up and pressed against his rosy cheek, but he looked peaceful and content. Then the image before Bowen melted into a watery blur, and he covered his face with both hands and wept. It was embarrassing in the extreme, unmanning himself so and in front of Strider and Denlad no less, but there seemed no stopping it.
That he hadn't actually fainted was his sole consolation.
"Bowen, dearest," Flora murmured, and he snuffled and hiccuped and got hold of himself.
"I'm sorry," he said. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. "Halbarad told me I'd do this, and he was right."
"As I usually am," Halbarad said from beside Strider in the doorway. He seemed to be propping Strider up, which worried Bowen in a distant sort of way. "Now go on, quit your bawling and get a proper look at your son. I'm betting Flora will even let you hold him."
He quailed at the thought. "Oh no, I couldn't ... I might drop him or squeeze him too tight or"
"Oh for Elbereth's sake, just pick up your son!" Denlad said. He reached down and Flora gave him the baby. "How do you think you can be a proper father if you never actually hold him? Here. Just watch that you support his head babies' necks wobble. Yes, that's it, that's exactly right." And as quick as that, Bowen was holding his son, and the tears started in again. He blinked them back quickly this time, for his son had his eyes open and was looking at him intently, and it wouldn't do for him to think his old da' was nothing but a blubbering wreck. His eyes were blue, a sort of smoky shade that Bowen knew, even as little as he knew about babies, would likely darken into brown, although he supposed since his own mother had blue eyes, his son might be blue-eyed as well. Time would tell. The red hair he knew would darken to brown; his grandmother had told him once that Rushlight men tend to be born carrot tops. Rowen Rushlight, Owen's brother, had even been so named because of his red mane, although it turned into a right misnomer once his hair darkened to ordinary brown by the time he was three.
Of course, it mattered not a whit what the color of his son's hair was. That he was healthy and sound was all that mattered. He cradled the baby in the crook of his arm and marveled at how easy and right it felt. He also knew that if anyone tried to take him away or do him the least bit of harm, he'd have a fight on his hands.
He reached up a finger and stroked the tiny cheek. It was so soft he almost couldn't feel it. "Hello there, my fine great boy," he crooned. "I'm your da' and very pleased to meet you." He didn't know what to expect, a smile perhaps, but the baby simply kept staring at him until finally his little eyes closed and his mouth opened in a tiny, perfect 'O' as a mighty yawn seemed to shake his entire body. Bowen laughed in delight. What a marvel, having a son!
He then realized that everyone was watching him. He cleared his throat and looked at his wife. "How are you, Flora, now that it's over?"
"Tired and more than a little sore," she said. "But very happy."
Bowen leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss. He had no words to express how much he loved her at this moment, so he simply touched his forehead to hers and sighed with contentment.
There was a stirring near the door and Bowen looked up. Strider was looking more than ever ready to drop, but Halbarad had a firm grip on his arm. "Strider, best you get back to bed!" Bowen cried.
"Worry not, I am merely tired. I do think a rest is in order, but before that, let me congratulate you on your firstborn son," he said, his voice far stronger than his looks would suggest. "He has ten fingers, ten toes and is hale in every way. No doubt he will grow to be a strapping young man someday."
"Thank you," Bowen said softly, then he looked at the other two strangers... no, that was wrong. These men were strangers no longer. He would now dare to call them friends, as much as he could ever call these dark men who were so different and aloof friends. At the very least, he knew without doubt that Rangers were not the murdering rogues they were made out to be, not by a long shot. "Thank you all."
Strider nodded, and the other two gave him smiles, but then Flora interjected softly, "Bowen, what shall we name our son?"
A name! By wind and by sun, he hadn't even given it a thought! He stared at her. "I... what do you think?"
She glanced at the Rangers. "I suppose Bowen Strider Denlad Halbarad is a bit of a mouthful."
Halbarad chuckled. "Pray do not levy the child with so great a burden as all that."
Denlad merely shook his head at the absurdity of the idea.
"How about... Owen. After my old da'?" Bowen suggested. "Or maybe William, after yours?"
"Owen, I think. We might save William for our next son. But I also want to honor these fine men who helped us."
Bowen looked at each Ranger in turn, then finally said, "Then let them choose his second name."
Denlad eyes went blank in panic, and Strider looked startled as he stammered, "I, er..."
But Halbarad smiled. "Estel," he said. "His second name shall be Estel."
Denlad nodded vigorously. "There could be no better name." Strider, for his part, seemed nearly moved to tears but he said nothing.
"Owen Estel. I like the sound of it, a wee bit Elvish but not too outlandish." Halbarad choked on a laugh and Strider actually blushed scarlet, though Bowen couldn't imagine why. "But Estel... what does that mean?"
Strider cleared his throat. "It means 'hope'."
"Hope," Bowen echoed softly. "Aye, we need hope, don't we. Well, little one, what do you make of your name? Owen Estel Rushlight, son of Bowen, grandson of Owen, and the newest citizen of Breeland, born this twenty-fifth day of March, 2995."
Owen Estel yawned again and then fell asleep.
"He doesn't seem over impressed, does he," Bowen chuckled. He sat rocking gently back and forth, staring down at his son. Fancy it being so beguiling to watch a baby do nothing more than sleep. He was barely aware that everyone had left the room.
"I don't know what we would have done without Denlad and Strider," Flora said softly.
Bowen looked up. She had tears in her eyes. He reached over and knuckled away a tear that had fallen down her cheek. "Shh, shhhh... no need for that, lass. You would have done marvelously even without them."
"No, Bowen... but then how could you know..."
"Know? Know what?"
"The babe... Owen Estel. The cord was wrapped around his throat, as sometimes happens. Denlad quickly untangled him, but he was already terribly blue. He wasn't breathing, and Denlad couldn't get him to start."
Bowen might have stopped breathing himself if he weren't holding his very healthy and happily breathing son in his arms at that very moment. "Oh dear. That must be why Denlad came in such a rush to get Strider."
She nodded. "Denlad was nearly in tears, the poor boy. But Strider came in and he... did something. I could not see what, exactly, although he, Strider that is, had his eyes closed and his hand on Owen Estel's little chest and was concentrating so hard he turned nearly grey. And then after what seemed an age but couldn't have been more than half a minute, I heard the tiniest wee gasp, and Owen Estel let out a great wail, and I knew all was well. Strider was pale and shaking by then, and for a moment he seemed lost, almost, like he'd faded from this world to walk in some other. That sounds so ridiculous, saying it straight out like that, but that's how it seemed. Oh! And right before Owen Estel took his first breath, Strider said the oddest thing, in a terrible voice, 'There. You will not win twice!" he cried. I was afraid, to be honest, though of course I knew he wasn't speaking to me or Owen Estel... he was, well, gone, really is the only word that comes to mind. So I wasn't afraid of him, exactly, for if anything he made me feel safe, somehow. But I was afraid of... of whatever it was he said that to, if that makes sense. It was as though he... no, never mind, it's too ridiculous."
"No, Flora, tell me. As though he what?"
"Well, as though he were fighting death itself on our son's behalf," she said with a rush, then her cheeks turned rosy. "Oh listen to me, you'll think me addled because of this baby."
"You could never be addled, love."
"Well, anyway, after Owen Estel let out his first cry, Strider sort of blinked and came to himself again. His gaze was once more kind and warm and just so very ordinary that I dared asked him what he had meant. But he only smiled and said, 'Think not of me, nor of any dark thing; behold your son.' And he handed our baby to me." Her chin wobbled. "Oh, Bowen! When I think what might have been, had these Rangers not been here... dearest, I know in my deepest heart of hearts that you saved your son and no mistake when you brought Strider home."
Bowen felt prickles all up and down his spine, like a goose had walked over his grave. Who was this Strider? What sort of a thing was it that let him apparently call forth life from death like that? Troubled deeply, he looked at his sleeping son, and something settled inside him. The fear abated and he knew that whatever had taken place had been a good thing, however otherworldly it sounded. He took a deep breath and looked toward the doorway where Strider had stood. Even as he watched, Halbarad walked by. "Halbarad! Can you come in for a moment?"
Halbarad glanced back toward Strider's room, but he came in. "Can I get you anything?"
"Strider... is he all right?"
"He needs rest, that is all."
Bowen opened his mouth, then realized he had absolutely no way of asking any of the questions barreling around inside his head. One doesn't just up and ask a man if his kinsman is some sort of wizard or sorcerer or worse. Even if Strider was some sort of dark magician, he seemed to think the Rushlights were on the side of good, so best leave it at that lest he risk changing Strider's opinion. A man what could save a babe from death might as quick as that call down fire on their heads as they slept and roast them to a crisp. No, best leave well enough alone.
"Bowen?" Halbarad asked.
He started. "Oh, yes... that is... there's shortbread, and buns, in the kitchen. And my cake, of course. Do you think he'd like some?"
"I think he'd like that very much, yes."
Bowen's relief was vast. Odd trances and terrible voices were all completely beyond him, but a man tired and hungry, in need of cake, that was something he felt he could handle. "Brilliant! I'll get them ready now." But that meant having to put down the baby and he realized he hadn't the first clue how.
Halbarad saw his dilemma and came forth with a smile. "Like this," he said, and deftly scooped his arm under the baby and handed him over to Flora. "You've much to learn, Bowen. I'm not sure I can teach you everything in the short time we'll be here."
And just like that, worries over Strider's dark arts melted away into a vast hollow in his belly at the thought of him and the others leaving. It was beyond him how, despite their uncanny ways, they could feel so much a natural part of things, even after such a short time. But surely the Rangers had families and lives of their own to get back to, and what would Bowen's own family and neighbors think, them suddenly taking up with Rangers? No, he supposed it was best all around for the three of them to go on their way, but Bowen couldn't help but feel their days would be emptier for it.
He gave Flora another kiss, then ushered Halbarad out of the room and to the kitchen. He pulled out plates and mugs and the shortbread, buns and cake. The tea was now very strong indeed, for they'd all completely forgotten it in the fuss over the arrival of the baby... Owen Estel, he reminded himself. He must get used to calling his son by his rightful name. He poured tea as black as ink into the mugs. "I think even Strider would approve of this," he chuckled.
Halbarad smiled, but it was a worried smile. Bowen slowly put down the tea pot. "Whatever is the matter, Halbarad? Is Strider really all right?"
"He is, he is... or I suppose I should say he will be. He tired himself, though."
"He didn't look too steady on his pins there toward the end. But take him this tea. I could fortify it with a bit of apple brandy if you think that might help."
Halbarad grimaced. "Bowen, that would be vile."
"Here now, Flora's apple brandy is praised from Bree to Buckland, it is!"
"But mixed in tea?"
"Goodness, man, have you never had a hot toddy?"
"Well, yes, but not with apple brandy. My own mother used peach brandy, and even Butterbur makes it with wine or his blackberry brandy. Apples and tea... they just don't go."
Fancy a man being so particular about his toddies! Bowen shook his head, but offered, "If you think it would suit him better, I could pour him some in a small glass, then. Separate."
"I'll ask him." Halbarad picked up mug and plate and disappeared to Strider's room. Barely a beat went by before he returned with the mug. He held it out wordlessly. Bowen didn't bother hiding a smirk as he poured a generous splash of apple brandy into it. Halbarad nodded, not meeting his eyes, and ducked back into Strider's room.
That left Bowen alone with Denlad and blame him if that wasn't more awkward and uncomfortable than being alone with Strider. He put a bun on a plate, and a piece of shortbread and a slice of the cake and handed it to him. "There you are."
Denlad thanked him, then walked to the table. He stood quietly for a moment, looking out the west window, then he sat at the table. In Bowen's seat, but of course he couldn't know that. Still, it irked Bowen a little. He gathered up his own tea and a piece of shortbread and settled down in the third chair, the one that they kept in case of guests. The room seemed all out of shape, looking at it from this chair. In fact, he had the feeling that the world had tipped sideways again, but he took a sip of his tea and it steadied him a might. It was indeed very, very strong. Strider should have no complaints.
"Bowen, I would like to offer my apologies."
Denlad's words came so abruptly that Bowen jumped and splattered tea on the table. "Oh... er, whatever for?" Surely he couldn't have known Bowen was irked about him taking his chair...
"I have been cold to you, and rude."
Well, there was no arguing that. Cold and rude were the bywords for Denlad's behavior and no mistake. Bowen wondered if Denlad would explain himself, should he ask him the reason for it, then decided he probably wouldn't. So Bowen chose to do as his old da' would have and be magnanimous about the whole thing. "Think nothing of it. It has been a stressful time for you and your friends."
"I will not claim that, nor anything else, as an excuse. I only ask your forgiveness and give you my promise not to let it happen again."
"Of course, of course. It's yours. I could hardly hold a grudge after you helped my wife, could I."
Denlad remained somber. "I am glad that the babe is healthy."
"Aye. Flora told me what happened. I feel like I've said thank you so many times it's become meaningless, but I must say again, thank you."
"It was a near thing. If you're to thank anyone, thank Strider."
"I intend to, at first chance."
Denlad fiddled with his fork. "Bowen... might I ask you something?"
"Your father..." He frowned, then shook his head. "Never mind."
"What about him?"
"Did he ever travel beyond Bree?"
An odd question, but Bowen shrugged. "Not to my knowledge. He always said that if it couldn't be found in Bree, it wasn't worth looking for. He was a man who loved his farm and family and saw no need to go rooting around for adventure elsewhere."
A look of relief lightened Denlad's brow. He took a bite of Bowen's cake and for a moment froze as he seemed to stare inwardly, troubled in the way of a man who's bit down on a bone and cracked a tooth. Before Bowen could ask, he blinked, carefully swallowed, and said, "'Tis a good thing, being so settled and happy."
"My da' always knew his blessings, he did. Now his older brother, my uncle, he was cut from altogether rougher cloth. He never did amount to much, that one. His was a misspent life from cradle to grave or at least from the age where he was old enough to make his addlepated choices. Drinking, carrying on in any pub or inn he could stagger to, debauchery and probably worse. He was a right rogue, that one, and cruel besides."
Denlad grew very still. "Did he too stay near to Bree?"
"No, he wandered everywhere, pretty much, and thank goodness for it, since that meant we didn't have much dealings with him. He finally went off to the south, some twenty or twenty-five years ago now it's been, I suppose; I was only about six or seven the last time I saw him on one of his rare visits back to Bree, so yes, it was near that long ago. We never saw him after that, and word finally reached us just this past year, shortly after my old da' passed on, that he'd been knifed in some tavern near Sarn Ford. Turns out he'd been living down there all that time, and I suppose he must have picked a fight with the wrong man or tried to beat the wrong sportin' lady, if you know the type. Oh he was awful in how he treated those poor women...and how he'd boast of it even to me, just a snip of a lad." His words trailed off as he belatedly remembered what Halbarad had said about Denlad's own mother. Denlad seemed not to notice; in fact, he seemed utterly lost in thought, his gaze locked on the tabletop. He waited, but when Denlad said nothing, he went on, "All we got was a note saying they'd found our name on a letter in his pocket so they wrote to tell us they'd buried him in a pauper's grave. By then it had been so long since we'd seen him, he was nobbut a stranger to us. 'Tis a sorry thing to have to say good riddance about your own kin, but there you go. The one good thing about his passing is that my old da' never heard of it; it would have broke his heart, I guess. He always hoped his brother would come around to the good before the end."
Denlad finally looked up to stare closely at Bowen, a deep sadness in his eyes but also a glint of something that looked a little like anger. Bowen dearly hoped it wasn't over his miscue about sporting ladies. "Do you... do you favor your father or uncle?"
"Aye. They say you can tell a man's a Rushlight as easy as knowing an elm is an elm. We all seem to be leaves on the same twig, leastwise until you get to know us. Then you'd never have mistaken Owen for Rowen." Bowen peered at Denlad, struck by a horrid thought. "I say, why are you asking these things? Did you know my uncle?"
Denlad shook his head. "It does not matter." He let out a long, tired sigh. "No, it does not matter," he repeated, almost to himself.
Bowen frowned, but felt he could ask no further questions without prying and putting Denlad in an awkward spot having to talk about things best left in the past. Denlad no doubt hadn't a clue that Halbarad had revealed to Bowen anything about his past, so he daren't say anything more, even if he could think of the words. Blasted secrets! How Bowen hated them. Made life far too complicated, they did, but there you go, some things are best left unsaid. But they made for difficult conversation and no mistake, especially with a Ranger. So many secrets surrounded these quiet men, so many that the only way they seemed able to hand out a bit of truth about themselves was to wrap it in a riddle and tie it in a knot. Determined to keep themselves to themselves, they were, and just try breaking through their iron reserve. Good hearted they may be but Bowen was suddenly weary of it all and dizzy from the struggle. No sense even in trying to make true friends of any of 'em, really. He was grateful beyond words for the help they'd given, but he had to set his world back to rights and these sorts of conversations were too unsettling. "Well, then. Do you mind if I go take a peek at Strider? I want to make sure to thank him."
"By all means. He is tired only, not really ill anymore. Despite Halbarad's worries, he will be fully himself again after a little food and rest."
Bowen nodded and stood, thinking again what a relief it would be to have shut of these Rangers and have his farm and his Flora and his little son all to themselves once more. He glanced at Denlad, though, and saw something in the line of his mouth and the droop of his shoulders that looked a little too much like abject misery, and his pique melted away. He sat back down. "Here now, Denlad... I hold nothing against you, you can be sure of that."
For a moment, Denlad's eyes held only sorrow and uncertainty, a jarring thing to see in such a strong man to be sure, but then he suddenly smiled, genuine and warm without a hint of reserve. "Thank you, Bowen. You are truly a good man, in every sense of the word."
Bowen nodded, too much in a muddle over whether to be happy or entirely vexed by Denlad's sudden change of heart to say much of anything. Oh yes, how much simpler life would be once they'd gone! He shoved a bite of shortbread in his mouth, putting off thanking Strider for the moment. He chewed and swallowed and took another bite as Denlad did the same, and for a long time the two of them simply sat quietly eating, if not in companionable silence then at least in the sort of mutual comradery that two strangers at the Prancing Pony might feel if happenstance thrust them beside each other at the same table. Finally, his plate cleaned - he had put too much ginger in that cake, blast it all - he stood and put it and his empty mug on the counter by the dishpan. "I think I'll go look in on Strider now."
Denlad nodded, and Bowen started toward Strider's bedroom, but a clatter of hooves outside stopped him. Denlad lunged to his feet and hurried to the window, peering out of it from the side as though he expected to be punctured by enemy arrows if he dared show more than one eye and a sliver of his face. Goodness but these Rangers were fey and jumpy! Bowen saw no need for that sort of nonsense. "Here now, Denlad, it's probably just one of the neighbors," Bowen said, and opened the door. He stopped short when he saw two men, tall and fierce and mounted on great shaggy ponies. Bowen suppressed a groan.
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