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Chapter 13 - Good and Ill Oft Travel the Same Roads
Bowen rubbed his sweating hands on the seat of his pants. He glanced nervously around the courtyard, which had been cleared of table and chairs, and then back at Strider. He had just spent an hour with Eledh, firing arrows at a tree trunk, and that had gone well and was even a bit of fun. Eledh was a lighthearted man, full of easy smiles and jests and moreover was a very good archer. Bowen felt it an honor to have him as an instructor, and he had seen his own poor skills improve greatly after just the one session. But this... this was an entirely different affair. "Er, are you quite sure I should be handling that?"
Strider hefted the sword and sliced it through the air. It made a whooshing, whistling sound that set Bowen's belly to quivering. "Of course. A man needs to learn how to handle a sword, for he never knows what may show up at his door. Good and ill oft travel the same roads." He fixed him with a stern look. "And you have a son and a wife to defend."
Bowen nodded. The Rangers, all five of them, had gathered around him early this morning, at breakfast, and Strider had very politely but firmly informed him that he was greatly lacking in skills needed to defend his lands. Bowen had stiffened for just a moment, flinching from the wound to his pride, but in looking around at the hardened men sitting at the table with him, he deflated just as quickly. Bowen could set a snare and shoot an arrow at a hart, but that was about the extent of his prowess. And though he would never admit it aloud to any man, half the time the deer bounded away unharmed; Flora was actually a far better shot than he could ever hope to be, and it was usually she that did the hunting. Of course, that might change now that Eledh had taught him proper technique, but to learn to use a sword! He didn't even own a sword, which fact seemed rather relevant to the matter at hand. "Strider, it's all well and good, you teaching me some sword work, but I don't actually own one."
Strider handed him the one he held, one of two he had brought out into the courtyard with him. "Now you do."
Bowen hesitantly took it, feeling the smoothness of the dark wooden grip and the warmth of it that lingered from Strider's hand. He knew his mouth was hanging open, and he suspected at any moment drool might fall from his lower lip, he was that stupid with astonishment. He finally found his voice. "I can't possibly–"
"You can and you will."
"But this is too fine a gift!"
"It is a good sword, but if you had examined his pack, you'll see that this one of Halbarad's spares, of which he has several because he can't stop himself buying them any time he passes through a village with a swordsmith. He justifies himself with a tale that as a young man on the very eve of his first journey as a warrior, his only sword broke."
"Oh, I can see where that would be very upsetting."
"Aye, especially as it was a journey to rid the area of trolls. He was given another, but then lost it as well in the heat of battle."
"What rotten luck! What happened then?"
"I will leave it for him to tell you that tale, for it is long and harrowing, for he came fully to manhood at that time, and such rarely happens without hardship and sorrow. Suffice now to say that he swore never again to be without a spare. I will admit there is wisdom in that, even if he does carry it a bit too far. At any rate, this particular blade is well made and well balanced, but Halbarad never has liked the feel of it, for he prefers a longer blade. But since you are shorter, he thinks, as do I, that you will find its length perfectly to your liking."
"So he knows you're giving away his things." Bowen could just imagine Halbarad seeing his sword in Bowen's hand and pelting over to pummel him into a smear on the ground for his thieving ways.
"Fear not. Giving it to you was his idea. In fact, had his own injured sword arm not still been in need of rest, it would be he giving you this lesson. The sword is yours, Bowen."
There seemed little else Bowen could offer up as an argument against this folly, short of declaring he was afraid he would slice off his own leg, and though it was the honest truth, it seemed far too cowardly a thing to even contemplate speaking aloud. He took a firmer grip and stepped away from Strider. He held the sword upright and well away from his body. "What do I do, then?"
Strider did a poor job at hiding a smile. "I would suggest relaxing, to begin with. It's not going to bite you."
It might, in my clumsy hands, Bowen thought darkly, but he brought his arm slightly down and in.
Strider nodded, then picked up his own sword from where it rested on the pushed-aside table. It seemed an especially fine one, and Bowen was glad for a chance to see it unsheathed. "I say, that's a right wonder, that blade. Fancy all those etchings on it!"
"This was made in Rivendell, by the Elven swordsmiths there. These are Elvish runes." He held the blade sideways so Bowen could see.
"Is it... is it a magical sword, then?"
"If you mean will it leap from my hand to level mountains or burn through my enemies with a flame eternal, no. Alas, it does not even glow blue when orcs arrive."
"Will swords do that?"
Strider smiled and, as usual, went on as if Bowen hadn't asked anything. "But it is strong and true, and in my hands, can cleave through goblins easily enough, even if I have to rely on my own eyes and ears to detect their approach."
"Oh." Bowen stared at Strider, imagining for a moment him slashing and hacking his way through a horde of goblins in some distant land. He thought of the scars he had seen on Strider's chest, and the thick muscles cording his arms and the fierce light in his eyes and then, oh dear, he pictured Strider doing all that here, in Breeland, and his world tilted utterly off center and his skin prickled up in thousands of goose bumps. "Do you... by sun and by wind... surely you don't mean that you've fought goblins here. I mean, in Breeland."
Strider did not reply.
Bowen swallowed hard. To think... goblins in Bree. Could it really happen? He looked round him at the fields and trees and suddenly knew he would never feel quite as safe again. In fact, so frightened was he that he had to resist a sudden urge to run into the bushes and void his bowels. He took another deep breath instead and the feeling passed. He set his jaw and firmed up his grip on the strange new sword. "I suppose I best learn quickly, then," he said and his voice quavered only the smallest bit.
Strider's expression softened. "Bowen, fear not. It is my hope and indeed my expectation that you will never have to use this sword in defense of life or lands. But I will not deceive you: there are dangers in this world of which the people of Bree know little, nor would believe if told. And though I wish for Breelanders to continue to live happily heedless because there truly is nothing to concern them, I fear it is the height of foolishness to have forgotten the dark foes of the past, for they may yet return. And out here as you are, on the very edge of the tame lands with neither wall nor tower to defend you, I want you to know enough to be cautious. Not paralyzed by fear, but watchful."
Well, said like that, maybe things weren't so bad. Being prepared against foes that will likely never materialize is only common sense, after all. Doesn't mean things are lurking in the bushes even now, sharpening fang and claw and spying on them with goggling red-tinged eyes. Bree was still safe. "So, it's like in the days of the Watchful Peace?"
"You know your history."
Bowen blushed a bit under Strider's approving glance. "Well, you know... those old books I have. And stories my old da' heard from his da', and so on. I know that there's some evil in places and was plenty enough even in these parts at one time, so I suppose it wouldn't be the strangest thing for some of it to sort of spill over our way, so to speak. Nothing wrong in being ready for it, even though it probably won't happen."
"Just so. And now I deem the need for talk is over; let us begin."
Strider proceeded to educate him on the parts of the sword, and showed him how to tell if a sword was well balanced and the blade true, and how to take care of the sword so it stayed that way, showing him the whetstone tucked into a clever pocket attached to the sword belt that he was also giving to Bowen. He showed him how to wear the belt so that the sword's hilt and guard didn't dig into his side. He also showed him how a second little sheath on the side of the scabbard could hold a small utilitarian knife, if Bowen had one. "Because you don't want to have to cut a broken lace from your boot with a great big sword," he said with a quiet smile. "You'd be as apt to cut your entire leg off as not."
Bowen had laughed and relaxed, but then it was onto the dangerous bits. He taught him how to hold the sword firmly, and then he struck it with his own sword to let him feel the way the sword vibrated. He pointed out the spot toward the end of the blade that was the best place to strike an opponent. And then he walked him slowly through all the various stances and thrusts and lunges and swings and parries, explaining the reason behind each and gradually increasing the speed and intensity of the moves until sweat poured down Bowen's face and stinging into his eyes. His ears rang from the loud clashing and his arm trembled with fatigue. Strider, for his part, was barely breathing hard. No sign of illness at all. "By wind and by sun," Bowen gasped as they finally stopped. "But that's hard work. I don't feel this tired after plowing an entire field."
"You are a quick learner, and moreover, you have a grace about you, Bowen. It will serve you well."
Bowen couldn't help it; he beamed with pride.
"Nonetheless," Strider continued rather sternly, "do not be overconfident. You will never be as good a swordsman as one who has practiced from a young age, but keep at it, an hour a day if you can manage between all your farm chores and caring for your family."
"But I have no one to practice with, don't you see? Am I to just spar with empty air and hope I'll prevail against a flesh and blood enemy?"
"Yes and no. Going through the moves every day will train your muscles to move without thought. Mastery of a sword is not something that comes naturally to a man but is accomplished through repetitive movements, over and over until you can do them in your sleep. As for a sparring partner, I will put the word out to all Rangers that they might stop by your farm and provide you some sport in exchange for a hot meal. When word spreads what a good cook Flora is, I suspect you'll have no end of sparring partners."
"Oh, yes. That'd be capital. And I'll give them a warm and dry bed besides. But surely there aren't many that come out this way?"
Strider smiled and again ignored his question. Bowen scowled. Secrets! Always secrets! And this one about his own hedgerows! He didn't know whether to be angry or worried. But Strider went on before he could sort himself out. "It should not take too many days for you to gain enough proficiency, strength and stamina to use the sword to good effect if needs must, with or without a sparring partner. But do not go looking for battle."
"No, sir," Bowen stammered, his pique fading at the realization that Rangers in the hedgerows meant far worse things beyond. He swallowed. "I won't, you can count on that." And that too was the honest truth. He had nothing of his uncle's yen for trouble in him.
"I know I can. You're as fine a man as I've had the pleasure of knowing, Bowen Rushlight. I will miss you and this farm when we leave."
Bowen ducked his head at the praise. "I would say the same and more for you and your men." It did seem to Bowen that they were Strider's men, subordinate but in every way respectful and loyal. They also seemed to hold great affection and dare he say love for Strider. Bowen had never really seen the like and his unsated curiousity could stand it no longer. "Strider..."
"Speak, Bowen. Let there be no hesitancy between us after all we've been through."
"Well... who are you?"
Strider looked off toward the fields, then back. "I am a Ranger," he finally said.
"That's all? A Ranger? Denlad is a Ranger, Halbarad is a Ranger... but you seem to be sommat different. Sommat higher, if that makes any sense."
Strider's eyes glimmered as if with a wry amusement, but he said nothing. He gathered his sword and shoved it into its scabbard and only then did he speak. "If you will tolerate us for one last meal, we will leave after lunch. That will give us plenty of time to return to Bree before nightfall."
So that was it. He would never know who this strange man really was. A riddle and a knot, that was a Ranger for you, and Strider the tightest, most riddle-y of the lot.
Bowen nodded, but he felt the old mix of misery and relief rising in him. Even though they regularly left him feeling as if he were turned inside out and upside down, he realized from the hollow feeling in his heart that he would miss them terribly. He cleared his throat. "I will tell Owen Estel of you, and of your men. How you saved his life on the day of his birth."
"What, you mean you won't tell him how we invaded your lands and ate our way through your larder?"
Bowen laughed softly. "I'll go easy on those details." He thrust out his hand. "Thank you, Strider. For everything."
Strider shook his hand, then slapped him on the shoulder. "Now for that lunch."
And so they all sat in a jolly group around the table in the house, joined by Flora though Bowen insisted he do all the cooking and serving. The Rangers laughed and teased Bowen over his cooking skills and passed little Owen Estel around, each fussing at the other for taking longer than his turn at holding him, Galadh protesting the loudest of any of them, which seemed to tickle Halbarad no end. Far too soon, the meal was over and the table cleared, the dishes scrubbed by battle-scarred hands and put away in the cupboards according Flora's careful directions - she declared rather tartly that it was all well and good for them to help but she didn't want to have to spend the rest of her days hunting down misplaced bowls. Then as quick as that, it was time for the Rangers to gather their things and mount their horses. Bowen held Owen Estel and Flora stood beside him as they watched them head down the road. Ruddy chased them for a short time, but then turned and trotted back to Bowen, his tail slowly lowering. He flopped at Bowen's feet and laid his head on his paws and let out a quiet whine.
"Aye, Ruddy, I know just how you feel," Bowen said. He cleared his throat noisily. Flora wiped away a tear, and Bowen could stand quietly no longer. "Remember, Strider!" he cried out, "You and your Rangers will always be welcome at Rushlight farm!"
Strider turned and, with a glance toward Halbarad, pulled his sword and held it above his head. Halbarad did the same, and then one by one the others followed suit. Strider kicked at his mount and it reared on its back legs, and so regal he looked, so powerful and noble surrounded by his men with the sun flashing on their bright swords, that Bowen felt he was seeing legends from the mists of time come to life from the old tales and stories to stand right there on his little lane. It was a sight he knew he would remember to his dying day. His throat closing and chin trembling, he lifted his hand toward them, and then they turned as one and galloped around the bend and were gone.
"By wind and by sun, but that's grand," Bowen whispered into the empty silence that fell. He took a deep, shaky breath, feeling for all the world like he'd lost something priceless, never to be seen again. But then the baby in his arms cooed and gurgled and the heaviness eased. He may never see Strider again, but he would tell his son all about how Rangers a'plenty had shown up at his house on the day of his birth and gave him his name and his very life itself.
He bounced Owen Estel a bit as he walked back to the house, remembering his promise to Strider. "It all started, young Owen Estel, when I met a strange man with a stranger name in the Prancing Pony on a rainy day in spring..."
- the end, for now -
- Book Three of the Rushligh Trilogy to follow in the hopefully not too distant future -
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