By Such A Foolish Name
The world and its people belong to Tolkien; the mistakes to me. Written for Teitho "Names" Challenge, 1st Place winner.
A farmer meets a stranger with an even stranger name on a rainy afternoon in Bree...
Bowen Rushlight listened to the rain splatter against the window. He took a sip of his ale – a nice strong stout – and smacked his lips. He would far rather be out in his fields, getting them ready for spring planting, but these rains had turned the entire world into a mud pit. Might as well cast the seeds into the bottom of a well for all the chance they'd have at sprouting in the sodden earth.
He could have spent the day sulking in his house, but far better, he decided, to ride into Bree to his friend Barliman's inn and drown his sorrows in a pint. And when the rains fell heavier and heavier as the afternoon progressed, he decided to indulge himself still further by booking a corner room in the back. It was a rare pleasure, sitting here looking out the window, knowing he wouldn't have to saddle up and ride through the downpour to get home. He sipped again, savoring the hint of molasses. He liked his stout a little bit sweet, he did, and Barliman had got a good turn on this batch. He wiped foam off his upper lip as he looked around the smoky room.
It was crowded, and no mistake. Every room was already booked for the night with travelers of every description, most of whom were now in the public room partaking of the pleasures to be found there. A pair of tinkers sat in the corner, playing at dice; at another table sat the jeweler, the cobbler and the dyer from down the street – too rainy to expect customers, so all three had shut their shop doors in favor of an afternoon of socializing over beer and Barliman's excellent beef and barley stew. Five hobbits sat at one of the smaller booths built just their size. And there was a score or more other folk Bowen had never seen before. He could only guess at their occupations: minstrels, scribes, armorers, maybe even a thief... who knew. They'd all blown into the Prancing Pony like fall leaves before a driving wind, and such was the storm's wrath that being indoors and away from it fostered a rather festive comradery amongst all the strangers. The fire snapped and popped on the hearth, the yeasty smell of ale filled the air, and Barliman Butterbur scurried around the room smiling at everyone, for unlike Bowen and most of the people there, Barliman loved a good stretch of foul weather. Each time the heavens opened, they poured money into his coffers.
The door swung open and the hum of voices lowered save those nearest the door, who loudly and immediately grumbled for the newcomer to shut it before they all drowned. The man, tall, hooded, with a sword in a battered scabbard hanging at his side, slammed the door shut. He shoved the hood back from his head to reveal a shaggy mane of black hair shot through with silver and a face pale and grim, but also, Bowen thought, rather noble if you looked right close, despite the water dripping from his hair into his eyes. And such eyes they were: grey and keen, missing nothing as he carefully surveyed the room before fully entering. But on closer look, Bowen saw those eyes were rimmed in red and so darkly shadowed they looked bruised. The man looked tired, and little wonder, if he'd been walking or riding far in this weather.
Bowen thought he saw a hint of dismay cross the man's face as he took in the crowded tables and booths – not a one empty, unless you counted the seat across from Bowen or the one empty chair at the hobbit's table, which was less than useless to a man as tall as this fellow. His troubled brow smoothed into impassivity, though, as he approached the counter where Barliman was drawing a tray full of ale for the group of merchants. Bowen had lost count, but he thought it might have been the fifth round of drinks for that jolly trio. He made a note to himself not to buy any shoes today–the cobbler especially was so deep in his cups any customer would likely end up with two left shoes of two different colours. But Bowen was not there to buy shoes, nor did he figure it was any business of his to sit in judgment over how drunk the good merchants of Bree got on a rainy midweek afternoon.
The tall man, now... Bowen did make it his business to watch him, for he looked different than most of the men in these parts. They, like Bowen himself, ran to stocky builds, low to the earth and close to the soil, with mud brown hair to match and ready smiles. Not tall and grim like this fellow. Bowen wondered if he was some sort of mercenary, here to cause trouble, but Barliman greeted him as though he knew him, so Bowen relaxed. He watched as the man asked a question, which Barliman answered with a shake of the head and an apologetic wave of his arm at the crowd. Wanting a room, no doubt, poor fellow. The man's shoulders slumped slightly, but he merely nodded as though he hadn't expected a different answer. He pulled out a coin purse and shook it out on the counter. From what Bowen could see, precious little coin clattered out. Nothing but pennies and ha'pennies, from the looks of it. Not a shilling in the lot, that much was certain. Barliman sorted out a ha'penny, shoved the rest back and then proceeded to make the man a hot toddy in one of his biggest mugs.
Now, Bowen knew how much Barliman charged for a hot toddy much smaller than the one he gave this ragged fellow, and it was more than just a ha'penny. But that was Barliman for you. Generous to a fault, especially if he knew you, and especially if he counted you a friend. Apparently this bedraggled customer fit that category. So Bowen watched him a bit sharper, his curiousity truly piqued. As he studied him, he wondered if this man was one of those Rangers he heard whispers about. Though his father had been friendly with some in his day, Bowen had never seen one, not in all his years farming along the Brandywine northeast of the Shire, where even outside the Shire's borders, things were settled and ordinary. The biggest threats to his farm were crows stealing his corn and foxes getting to his hens and the occasional raid on his mushroom patch by wayward hobbit youths from Buckland, whose Fallohidish souls drove them to adventure up the Brandywine at midnight to raid his farm. His quiet fields held no dark secrets and attracted no evil, so far as he knew, so not much call for a fellow with a big sword to come skulking in the hedgerows. Bowen's scarecrow watched over the field and he had a fine hound to chase off the foxes. The hobbit raids he turned a fond and blind eye to, figuring unless they started sending up thieves by the dozen, he could spare a few mushrooms now and then, in the name of being neighborly. His father had done the same thing, after all, even cultivating a special patch just for them to safely find, and they'd managed not to suffer privation for want of mushrooms.
No, Rangers were definitely not needed around his farm.
The man nodded his thanks, picked up his drink and wove his way through the tables until he reached the fireplace. He slid his pack off his shoulders and shoved his sword forward along his leg so he could sit on the hearth itself. He sighed with the deep fatigue of a man who finally takes the weight off aching feet after a long and weary day. He cupped his hands around the mug for a moment, savoring the heat, then he shut his eyes as he took a sip. Bowen was again struck by how tired the man looked. Almost like he was taking on a chill. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw the man suddenly shudder.
Yes, definitely caught a chill, poor bloke. Little wonder, in this weather. Cold for spring, and wet enough to strike everyone down with lung fever.
He continued to watch as the man sat hunched over his drink, his back to the flames. He sat so close that steam rose from his shoulders, but he seemed little bothered by the heat. If anything, he looked like he felt cold enough to crawl into the fireplace and pull the burning logs to his bosom. He took another careful sip of his hot drink, his gaze fixed rather dully on the floor in front of him. He really did look on his last legs. Bowen caught Barliman's eye as he turned away from serving the merchants their round. He jerked his chin and Barliman hurried over.
"Ready for another?"
"Naw, this is more than enough for me. Might bring me some of that stew in a little while. But I want to know... who's the fellow just come in, by the fire?"
"That there's a Ranger, name of ..." The name was lost in a sudden swell of laughter from the merchants' table.
"Spider? What kind of name is Spider?"
"Strider," Barliman corrected.
Bowen let out a soft snort. "That ain't much better. Strider. That's no name for a man. Sure it ain't Bill or Dick or Alder? I knew an Alder once and he was big and tall, just like the tree. That fellow there looks like he could be an Alder."
"If he has another name, Alder or otherwise, I don't know what it is. He goes by Strider, has for years."
That seemed plain wrong to Bowen. A man should have a proper name and Strider was anything but. Might as well call yourself Climber or Faller or Runner or Jumper. Strider was a name for a horse, not a man. Still, if the man went by Strider, wasn't a thing Bowen could say against it, he supposed. "Know him long?"
"Long enough. He's all right, for a Ranger. Keeps himself to himself, mostly, but sometimes when it's a slow night in here and the mood's on him he'll tell a story. Stuff that'll raise the hair on the back of your neck."
"Nah, I doubt it. Mostly stuff about countries so far off that nobody's ever heard of 'em. But to hear him talk, you'd think they were real enough for him to have been there. He tells a good tale, that one. Sings a good song, too, when he's of a mind to, though he'd never make a minstrel."
"Good that he's a Ranger, then. He wanted to stay the night?"
"Yes, but I'm full to the gills. He'd have to sleep on a table in here, which I don't allow. Can't have folks eating off tables that someone's spent the night drooling and snoring or worse all over."
"He looks like he might be comin' down with something. I saw him shiver... could be ague. You surely aren't going to send him back out in the storm, him coming down with ague?"
Barliman shifted uncomfortably. "Well now, it isn't like I enjoy turning away customers, but I can't hardly wave my hands and conjure up more rooms now, can I."
"He can stay in my room," Bowen said, surprising himself.
"And where then will you sleep?"
"In there with him, of course. He can sleep on the floor. There's room."
"You aren't afraid he'll knife you and rob you in your sleep?"
"You said yourself he's an all right sort."
"And he is," Barliman admitted, but he sounded uneasy about it. "For a Ranger, at any rate. I guess I'll tell him you've extended the offer. Don't know that he'll take it. He's a loner, that one. Sometimes comes in with another Ranger, name of Halbarad. But he doesn't ever seem to want to mix much with folks."
"Now Halbarad... there's a proper name for a man. Might be a little Elvish but nothing wrong with that."
"You'd think so, anyway. You always were one for reading them crazy tales of Elves and what not." He looked at Bowen as if he didn't quite approve of such things.
"Makes for a pleasant evening after a hard day farming," Bowen protested. "Those old tales are right entertaining."
"My idea of entertaining and yours are somewhat different," Barliman muttered and moved away to tell Strider the good news.
Strider listened, then looked over at Bowen, and when Bowen felt that keen gaze take his measure he had a moment where he regretted making the offer. By wind and by sun, but that man had himself a set of eyes that could cut straight to the heart of things. Bowen suppressed a shiver and waved his hand in friendly fashion at the empty seat across from him.
Strider stood, gathered his pack and his drink and made his way to the table. "Barliman tells me you are willing to share your room," he said. His voice was deep but hoarse, and above all, cautious.
"I can't see a man having to go back out into that storm, so you're welcome to spread your bedroll on the floor. There's plenty of room."
Strider studied him for a long moment, then nodded decisively. "I will accept your kind offer, with many thanks. I was not looking forward to trying to find a dry spot somewhere in this weather."
"Seemed the hospitable thing to do," Bowen shrugged. Now that he was getting a close view of this Strider fellow, Bowen figured he had spent more than a few nights out in the wet. Weathered was the word that sprang to mind, like an old oaken barn that had withstood the onslaught of the seasons for years beyond count and would continue to do so for untold years to come. Strong as old oak, he was, and seen up close, he had a handsome quality to him just like oak. Nothing flashy, but a sort of quiet dignity, like he might be some sort of wandering prince, exiled from his kingdom. Ach, now, stop flying off on foolish fancies, Bowen immediately chided himself. No Ranger could ever be a king. He stuck out his hand. "Name's Bowen."
"Strider. Well met." He had a firm grip. Bowen found himself warming to this strange fellow with the even stranger name.
He sipped at his stout as he watched Strider pull off his sword belt, balance it carefully atop the pack, and then settle himself on the booth's hard wooden bench, every move accomplished with an economy of motion that implied that here was a man used to handling himself, and handling himself well. Still, there was a certain shakiness to his hands and those shadows under his eyes didn't look any better up close. "If you'll pardon my saying so, you look a bit under the weather."
A faint smile. "If you mean the weather has fallen upon me like the fist of an angry troll, you'd be right."
Bowen almost flinched at the gravel in the man's voice. It sounded painful. "Wet and warm your whistle, Strider. You sound like there's a chorus of bullfrogs in your gullet."
Strider took a long, deep breath, coughed a bit, then downed several swallows of his hot toddy. He shut his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the bench. If anything, he looked even more pale than when he'd come in. He swallowed, his adam's apple bobbing, and then winced and took another sip.
"So tell me... what sort of name is Strider?"
The eyes opened and regarded him and again Bowen felt the urge to squirm, but he didn't. "It suits me as well as any other."
"So your mother, she named you that?" Bowen couldn't imagine any mother looking at her newborn babe and announcing he would be called Strider.
"No, she did not."
"So... you didn't like the name she gave you and that's what you came up with. Because it suits you."
Strider dropped his gaze to his mug and didn't say anything.
"Ah, I've stuck my foot in it. I'm sorry. My old da' always told me I was better at sticking my nose in where it don't belong than anything else I ever put my hand to. Of course it's none of my business what you call yourself. But I've never seen the likes of you, nor ever heard of such a name. Folks around here are more... ordinary like. But you're a whole different cut of cloth, you are."
"Ragged cloth, much patched and faded," Strider murmured. He picked up his drink and took a long pull from it, until the mug was drained. He set it down with a thump, then sat watching the people in the room, his expression unreadable.
Silence stretched until finally Bowen blurted, "Can I buy you some stew?"
Again those eyes seemed to take his measure all the way to his soul. "What sort of name is Bowen?" Strider suddenly asked.
"Bowen? Me da's name was Owen, and I'm his son. Bowen."
A flicker of surprise. "Not Owen Rushlight, surely?"
Bowen beamed. "Aye. You knew him?"
"I know of him. Good man. Good farmer, always keeps the rows straight, not a weed in sight, generous with the overflow from his crops."
"He passed on, last fall. I run the farm now."
Compassion turned the icy grey eyes a warmer shade, almost blue in the smoky lamplight. "I am sorry to hear that. You have my condolences. He was always friendly to my... to me."
Bowen had the thought that Strider was going to say something else, but he let it go. "'Be a friend to all, and all will be friends to you,' my da always said. Seems a good way to live."
"And has it worked out that way? Are all friends with Bowen, son of Owen?"
"So far, anyway. I suppose there might be some that might not be too friendly, but I steer clear of them, if I can. I stick to the folks around here who know me, who know I'm here to help and not harm. That's how my da' raised me, and his da' raised him, and folk hereabouts know that."
"Arda needs more such as you." He sighed then, and his gaze returned to his now-empty mug.
"You never said... do you want some of that stew? I'll be getting some myself."
"I would like that, yes, please. And I thank you." He grimaced. "And I apologize for my foul mood. I am not feeling well, as you surmised. It makes my temper short and my tongue sharp."
"No need to apologize. My wife says I turn into an angry boar when I catch a chill." He grinned and then waved at Barliman, holding up two fingers and miming spooning stew into his mouth. Less than a minute later, Barliman was placing two steaming bowls in front of them. Strider pulled out his coin purse but Bowen waved both hands at him. "No, no. This is on me. To celebrate meeting a man with the name of Strider."
For the first time since he entered the inn, a genuine smile stretched slowly across the man's face. Bowen was amazed at the transformation; Strider seemed almost handsome. "I do thank you, Bowen. You are your father's son, and worthy of the name."
Bowen felt his face flush at the praise. He wished he knew what it was about this Strider fellow that made getting praise from him feel somehow like receiving a boon from a king. Of course, that was nobbut folly.
No king ever born would dare go by such a foolish name as Strider.