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Chapter 12 - Rangers A'Plenty
"Do not reprimand me, Halbarad, for I no more regret risking my own health by extending my healing powers than I regret having you as a cousin. However, if you scold me, I may have to change my opinion about the latter."
Halbarad chuckled as he took the empty mug, its apple brandy contents now warming Aragorn's belly and putting a contented but sleepy look in his eye. "Hush, Strider. What could I possibly say? You saved the baby's life."
Aragorn sighed as he nestled into the soft pillow. He shut his eyes. "I did this time, didn't I," he murmured, then smiled and just that quickly fell asleep.
Halbarad sat down on the bed and watched him for a moment, but he seemed to be sleeping easily and comfortably, as was his wont after calling upon his healing powers to any great extent. He reached over to lay the back of his hand against Aragorn's cheek. He wasn't blazing with fever but he did seem a bit warmer than he should be. It could be the brandy, he supposed. Or it could be that it was a normal reaction after healing; Halbarad had never actually checked him for fever after he plied his healing skills. He laid his hand on Aragorn's forehead, with the same ambiguous results. Aragorn, for his part, scarcely stirred, though his eyes fluttered open a bit before dropping shut just as quickly. He muttered something unintelligible that may have been "Stop it!" and rolled away from Halbarad. He jerked the blankets over his head.
Halbarad smiled. He could take a hint as well as the next man, so he stood and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. The long day was beginning to tell on his back and his legs, but he was relieved that his arm wasn't troubling him, despite the hunting. Maybe rest was indeed what it most needed, which was just as well seeing how Aragorn and his healing hands had been busy elsewhere. In his exhausted state, he surely didn't need to be called upon for Halbarad's benefit.
He yawned. Watching someone sleep was hardly scintillating entertainment, plus he likely needed a nap of his own, or given the lateness of the hour, a climb up the ladder to bed for the night. But his mind was buzzing with too many thoughts to let him rest. Seeing Bowen's baby son and the light of joy in Flora's eyes had stirred emotions he tried hard to keep locked at bay. He was happy for them, that was certain enough, but the happiness came with the price of a stinging behind his eyes and an ache in his heart to see his own family, to hold his own children. To kiss his own wife.
He was, to put it plainly, homesick.
He walked to the small window and leaned on the sill, looking out at the evening sunshine slanting down on the pastures behind the cottage. Bowen's fields looked much like the ones surrounding his own home, green with new grass and neatly lined by stone walls here and by the rougher edges of woodland there. He watched the wind dance among the little daffodils blooming along those woody edges, and for the longest time admired a swallow as it swooped and darted through the air, hard at work catching insects. Far off, along the river, the nightly chorus of frogs stirred to life, and farther away still a whip-poor-will began his chant into the twilight.
It was a lovely sight, those cultivated fields of Eriador, and one Halbarad carried like a secret treasure in his heart during all his journeying into danger and darkness. He lived to keep Aragorn safe and regretted not a minute by his king's side, but in these quiet moments he felt keenly the longing for a simple life by his hearth and fields. He had no doubt that someday such peaceful scenes as far as the eye could see and beyond would be the reward for all their hard labors, if not for them then for their children or even their children's children. A world at peace, where men and women tended their farms and raised their families without fear, where little ones like Owen Estel enjoyed a childhood full of small adventures and harmless mischief and bright hopes for the future... how Halbarad coveted such things.
He wondered what mischief his own children were getting up to, and what Miriel was doing right now. Was she thinking of him, or was she so caught up in the myriad affairs of their household that all thoughts of him were driven away until the quiet of night? Did she then ache to hold him as he longed to hold her? He shut his eyes, picturing her, picturing them dancing in the quiet after the children were finally abed, moving together slowly as he hummed in her ear. He had no kind of voice for singing but she loved his off-key attempts nonetheless, and so he always hummed softly, feeling the tickle of her hair, smelling the clean warmth of her skin. He would see her soon, for surely after this sojourn they would head back to their little village hidden beyond Fornost, and then it would not be his imagination comforting him but the warmth of her body and the light in her eyes...
He jumped and opened his eyes to see Bowen, who had suddenly burst into the room without so much as a knock or a by your leave.
"You have more cousins or brothers or some such arriving," Bowen said with a scowl which lightened only slightly when he glanced at Strider asleep in the bed. He lowered his voice but not his pique. "Two Rangers, tall and dark-headed. They're in the yard looking at my farm as though they expect goblins to jump out at them, so you best go out there and help Denlad reassure them before they start shooting arrows into my livestock, my chickens and Ruddy."
Halbarad hurried out, Bowen dogging his heels. He stopped in the doorway and beheld Denlad chatting with Eledh and Galadh, who both looked just as Bowen had described, as if despite the peaceful vista of the farm they expected death and destruction to come flying out at them from every corner. Halbarad noted, however, that Eledh's bow was still slung over his shoulder and Galadh's sword was sheathed, although he did seem especially put out by Bowen's dog, who was barking madly and leaping about, tail wagging. "Here now, that's no way to enter a good man's yard, glowering and looking to mete out death to all that breathes!" Halbarad called. "No wonder Ruddy's upset!"
Galadh glared at him, but Eledh swung down. "Halbarad! Good to find both you and Denlad here."
"I take it Butterbur sent you?"
Bowen hurried forward and pulled Ruddy away, and Galadh gingerly dismounted, keeping a wary eye on the big red hound. Ruddy, for his part, seemed especially fascinated by him. He lunged and yipped and finally broke away from Bowen and hurried to sniff Galadh's boots. Apparently he liked what he smelled, because he sat himself down at his feet to stare adoringly upward at him. Galadh ignored him.
"Come on, Galadh," Halbarad chided. "He just wants a pat on the head."
Galadh's glare softened not a whit. "Where is Strider?"
"He's inside," Halbarad said. He walked to Ruddy and ruffled the hair all around his neck and ears. Ruddy's tail thumped a delighted tattoo on the ground as he switched his adoration from Galadh to Halbarad. Fickle hound. "He's resting after helping Bowen's lovely wife deliver their firstborn son."
Eledh frowned. "Barliman said he was ill."
"He was, but he's more or less recovered. His illness left him more tired than usual, for he had to do a spot of healing after the child was born, but all he needs is rest. I'm afraid you rode all this way for nothing, really. In fact, it's probably best you be on your way back. I don't want us to abuse Bowen's good hospitality, and he's already had Rangers a'plenty with the three of us clogging up his house. He doesn't need more."
"Here now," Bowen protested, his earlier scowl giving way to something approaching half-hearted welcome. "They can stay. We've plenty of food, and they can sleep in the keeping room by the hearth. It's far too late in the day to send them back to Bree, and I won't turn anyone away from my home at nightfall."
Eledh smiled. "Thank you, sir, but I think we'll just check on Strider and be on our way; we are well used to travel at night. Congratulations, of course, on the birth of your son."
"Oh well... thank you," Bowen said. He beamed. "Would you like to see him?"
"Of course." Eledh glanced at Galadh, who shrugged. Galadh would make polite admiring noises but the truth was that he liked babies about as much as he liked talking. Which was to say, not much. Halbarad hid a smile as he trailed behind the three of them into the house. They filed into Flora's bedroom, but Halbarad ducked into Aragorn's.
He was awake and sitting on the side of the bed. "Was that Eledh I heard?" he said as he rubbed his left eye.
"It was. He and Galadh came looking for you. And I suppose looking for Denlad and me if they happened on us, though I hardly think they were much concerned about the two of us."
"Ah." He yawned and arched his back. "How long did I sleep?"
"Half an hour, maybe a bit less. You need more."
"Nay, it was enough, for now. Poor Bowen, he must be beside himself, all these Rangers suddenly invading his quiet farm like dwarves invading Beorn's hall. He's probably regretting ever offering me that chair at his table at the Pony."
"I'm sure he's not, seeing how you saved his son's life." Halbarad sat beside him on the bed. "However, it is probably well past time for us to let them to get on with their lives. Do you think you'll be able to leave come the morn?" He tried to lay his hand on Aragorn's forehead but Aragorn ducked and swatted his hand away.
"Stop that. I'm sure of it. A good night's sleep and I'll be back to my old self, or near enough."
"Why don't you try to get back to sleep now? You didn't end up getting much of a nap and you have great dark circles under your eyes."
"No." He stood. "Time I quit lazing abed like an invalid. The buns were delicious and the cake was... nice." He hesitated only slightly. "But I desire some meat. Is any of that venison available?"
"I'm sure I could fry up a steak for you. And for everyone. Save Bowen having to do it. And there's a very good pease porridge if you'd like some of that."
"I would. So let us away to the hearth."
As Halbarad readied steaks for Aragorn and all the men and stirred up the pease porridge, Aragorn looked out the window toward the as-yet unplowed field, just visible in the dying light of day. "How long before it's ready for turning, do you think?"
"Another day or two of sun should do it, since no rain fell today. It'd be hard going but possible tomorrow, even."
Aragorn chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. "Eledh and Galadh... what are their intentions?"
"To leave right away, as soon as they finish paying respects to Flora and see that you're upright and alive and breathing and all that."
"No. With the venison there is food enough for all, so we will wait at least one more day before we leave, and you and the men will ready Bowen's field for him and do such work as he directs. I'll do what I can, as well."
"'Tis a good enough idea for us, but not for you. If you overextend yourself and fall ill again, we may very well be here long enough to help with the harvest."
"I am not up for plowing," Aragorn admitted, "but I'm sure there are plenty of smaller jobs I could take on. Bowen took a great risk in helping me, a stranger, and I feel as though there cannot be enough we can do to thank him."
"Thank me for what?" Bowen said as he came in and heard the last of Aragorn's words.
"For everything," Aragorn said. "I have told Halbarad that, so long as you are willing to tolerate our company a day or two more, he and the rest of my men will assist you with plowing and planting and anything else you might need."
Bowen turned bright red. "Here now, that's kind of you and all, but there's no need."
"I insist," Aragorn repeated, and his gaze brooked no argument.
But Bowen proved stubborn. "Strider, that's a generous offer and no mistake, but you and your men surely have your own planting to get back to, or your own hunting or whatever it is you do. None of you are farmers and–"
At this, Halbarad cleared his throat. "I, er, have done my share of plowing fields, and still do nearly every year, as a matter of fact."
"He can plow a straight row," Aragorn said. "As can Eledh, Galadh and Denlad."
Halbarad raised an eyebrow. "Eledh? Did you see my cornfield the year he helped me because I was laid up with a broken leg? The only things he makes straight are his arrows."
"Point well taken. He can follow along and drop the seeds in, then."
"He can probably manage that well enough."
Bowen folded his arms. "See here, experienced or no, I won't be having other men doing my work while I sit idle."
"Oh, you won't be idle," Aragorn assured him. "You will be busy getting to know your son. And helping Flora until she's back on her feet. Mopping floors, cooking, laundry, watching the baby while she sleeps... all those things."
Bowen's eyebrows shot up. "But those are all... I'm no good at cooking, and I don't have the first clue about the laundry."
"I'm sure you'll learn," Aragorn said dismissively. He glanced at the spice cake, and though he hid it well, Halbarad saw the wince. Aye, the ginger had flayed Halbarad's tongue when he braved a bite.
Maybe Bowen could start with learning how to make a proper cake.
And so the next day passed, with Halbarad plowing, for he trusted no one to plow as straight a furrow as his own, and Eledh planting, while Denlad and Galadh took upon themselves the task of repairing the stone wall along the ha-ha that divided the sheep pasture from the cow pasture. Aragorn for his part worked at countless small tasks, from cleaning out the dovecote to holding the baby while Flora sorted out the seeds for her vegetable patch. Bowen flew from one group of men to the next, endlessly thanking them until, annoyed, Halbarad bade him cease and go tend to his sagging stile.
At the end of the first day of work, Halbarad sat down with a long sigh at the little table in the brick courtyard beside Aragorn. Aragorn, as was becoming habit already, held a sleeping Owen Estel. "He likes you."
Aragorn smiled but said nothing.
Halbarad leaned closer and brushed the child's cheek. "The field is done, as is the wall repair. I think tomorrow we'll give Flora's vegetable patch a turn, then work on clearing away some brush and saplings that are encroaching on his pasture." He paused, looking around. He was not sure how to go on, for he did not want to alarm Aragorn unduly, but a worry had been growing in his mind. "There is another thing I feel we must do."
Nothing for it but to plow ahead, just as he had out in the field. "Strider, have you seen any weaponry here?"
"I think Bowen may have a bow, a small one for hunting. I saw it hanging in a corner of the kitchen, by the back door."
"I saw it as well, but it is not much of a thing. And such arrows that he has are poorly fletched."
Aragorn looked around at the quiet fields. "These fields may not always be this peaceful," he finally said. "And we may not always be here to defend them."
Halbarad nodded. "We... the Dúnedain, I mean... see so much darkness that I sometimes think perhaps I leap at every harmless shadow."
"And yet last night I had a dream. I saw Eriador, but smoke dimmed the sun and men rode fast down the road, looking over their shoulders, swords at the ready."
"Is it foresight?"
Halbarad studied a blister on his palm. "I cannot say. It could be simply, as I said, my seeing evil at every shadow. Then again..." He shrugged.
"We have seen evil slowly encroach on these lands, so I suppose it takes no special foresight to guess at what the future may hold. The Breelanders are such a unwary folk," Aragorn murmured, frustrated. He looked down at the baby he held and sighed. "Yet with so much to fight for, should it come to that. They are a good people, these men of Bree."
"Yet if we warned them to take up arms, they would never heed us. They would not believe us."
Owen Estel let out a fretful noise and Aragorn put him against his shoulder and patted his back. "There now, little one," he crooned. "Fear not. Your ada will keep you safe enough when we're gone." He looked at Halbarad, and the steel of his sword had nothing on the stern determination of his gaze. "We will see to that."
A/N: A ha-ha is defined by Merriam-Webster as a ditch with a retaining wall used to divide lands without defacing a landscape. Or, in Bowen's case, dividing his two pastures
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