This story was inspired by a prompt from Shirebound but the tale took twists and turns of its own that I never anticipated when I set out.
The places, main characters and plot base belong to JRR Tolkien. This is fanfic.
A small cart, drawn by two shaggy but obviously well cared for ponies, pulled up beneath the arch of the inn of the Prancing Pony. Meriadoc Brandybuck jumped down and stretched. The journey from Buckland had been long and the suspension on the cart was not what it could have been. Berilac jumped down on the other side and rubbed his own behind, before patting the rump of the pony nearest him and moving forward to scratch behind the ears of both animals.
A slightly dishevelled looking man appeared from the stable block and raised a hand in greeting as he jogged toward them across the wide cobbled yard. Bob grinned as he drew nearer. “Hello, Mister Brandybuck! Tis a long time since you visited.”
Merry waved expansively at the assorted barrels and boxes in the cart. “We thought we’d try Bree Market. The weather’s been good for growing pipeweed these past couple of years so we have a surplus and thought we’d try to sell it. But, where are my manners? This is my cousin, Berilac Brandybuck, but everyone calls him Beri. ”
Beri held out a hand and Bob wiped his own on his breeks before taking it. “Merry tells me you’re the best ostler east of the Shire.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, sir. But I thank you kindly for the words.” Bob patted the neck of the nearest pony and it whickered softly in reply.
“I’m hoping you got our letter and have managed to save room for the ponies and cart,” Merry asked.
“Oh yes, sir. Mister Butterbur showed me the letter as soon as it arrived and I made a point of it. I’ve two stalls right next to each other for the ponies and a nice dry corner for the cart. It’ll be a squeeze and if the cart were bigger we might not have managed but as it is they’ll fit nicely.”
Merry grabbed his pack from under the seat. “It looks as though the market will be busy tomorrow. We saw lots of carts coming up the road in front of us. Some have already set up their tents on the field and look to be spending the night there. I hope they don’t take all the best pitches.”
Beri gave a mock shiver as he glanced up at the pearl grey sky. “I don’t envy them. It looks like rain later. Give me a solid roof, soft beds and a good supper under my belt.” He grabbed his own pack.
Bob began to lead the ponies away. “You’ll always get that at the Pony,” he called over his shoulder.
Merry led the way through the large silvered oak door beneath the arch. Once inside Merry paused to savour the moment. Most of his memories of the Prancing Pony were good ones. Even with the raid on their first visit his overriding memory was of a warmth and welcome. He was pleased to note that things had not changed in the six years since his last stay.
It would seem that, mid afternoon as it was, they had arrived in the lull between luncheon and supper. Aside from a small party of four dwarves in one corner there were only one or two other customers dotted about the common room and a dark haired hobbit was wielding a broom while a rotund man with a florid face was wiping down tables.
Merry dropped his pack with a loud thump. “Hello, Mr Butterbur. Hello Nob. I hope you’ve warmed the beds for us.”
Both turned as they were addressed and two faces broke into broad grins. “Well I never!” Butterbur announced as he dropped his cloth back into a basin of water with a splat. “What brings you here?”
Beri blinked but Merry only chuckled. “The market. Don’t you remember my letter? Bob said that you received it.” He placed his hands on his hips, although he still grinned. “I hope you haven’t let our rooms to someone else.”
“Market? Oh, there I go forgettin’ the day again. Yes, of course I’ve got your rooms ready. I’m afraid you’ll have to share a bedroom but I’ve kept the private parlour free for you. So if you don’t like sharin’, one of you can bed down in there. Nob can bring in a truckle for you.”
“We’re happy to share, Barliman. Don’t worry,” Merry assured their host.
Barli bustled up to them, wiping hands on his apron. “I’ll show you to your room myself, while things is quiet. Will you be wantin’ a bite to eat before supper? It’s a tidy ride from the Shire.”
“No thank you, Barliman. We ate on the way,” Merry advised him.
“And I think I’d rather have a bath . . . if that can be had,” Berry added hopefully.
“Indeed it can, little masters. I’ll send Nob and Bob with the bath and water as soon as may be. We’ve a quiet couple of hours now before the supper crowd arrives.”
Merry scooped up his pack again and the two hobbits followed Barliman down the hallway of the north wing. The innkeeper stopped before a familiar door and swung it open with a flourish, ushering them within.
The little parlour was almost as Merry remembered it. A fire was laid in the grate, just needing a flame to kindle it to warmth. A small round table stood in the centre and several hobbit sized chairs sat about the hearth. But there the similarities ended for the room had clearly recently been refurbished. Fine green brocade curtains hung at the round windows and a large rug was spread before the fire. The walls and ceiling also appeared to have been newly whitewashed.
Merry turned about slowly. “Oh my. You have been busy.”
Butterbur preened. “Well, trade’s been good these past few years so I decided to spend a little on the place. We’ve decorated all the bedrooms and a pretty penny it cost. But with that new inn down by the west gate there’s more competition for trade. And I’ll not have it said the Pony can’t rise to the challenge.”
Beri grinned. “I’d say you rose very well. It reminds me of Brandy Hall or Great Smials.”
“Well, thank you. I’ve not been to neither of them places but I’ve heard tell they’re grand enough.” And Butterbur did sound pleased indeed.
“Grand, but homely too,” Merry commented. “We shall be very comfortable.”
“The bedroom’s just a step across the hallway so I’ll leave you to settle in while I send the lads with your bath. Are you wantin’ supper in here or will you join the company?”
“I must say that I fancy a quiet evening. But a half or two with company after supper would be nice,” Beri answered.
“That suits me too. We shall have supper in here and then come to the common room afterwards,” Merry advised their host.
“That’s settled then.” Barliman bustled away and the last the two hobbits heard of him was. “I’d best be getting back to . . . Now what was it I was doin’?”
Beri grinned at his cousin. “I hope he remembers the bath.”
Barliman did remember the bath, and the supper. And it was a supper any hobbit would have been proud to serve, with pies and roasted fowl, broiled and glazed vegetables, puddings, fruit and cheese . . . all washed down with a large jug of foaming ale that Beri vowed was easily the equal of the Golden Perch back in the Shire.
“Come on, Beri. Time to join the company.” Merry pushed back his chair and patted his tummy.
“I think I’ve filled up all the corners. And I fancy another pint of Barli’s best to go with that company,” agreed Beri as he heaved himself out of the chair with a grin.
Minutes later Beri and Merry were standing on a broad step before the bar while Merry was ordering two halves of beer. It was as Barli was filling the second mug that Merry noticed the branding on the barrel. It was a quartet of B’s. “I understand two B’s . . . Barliman Butterbur . . . but why four?” he asked as Barli set the mugs down on the bar top.
One of the local hobbits jumped up on the step at Beri’s side and grinned as he offered his hand. “The name’s Tom Underhill. Don’t you know the tale? Seven years ago, almost to the day, a wizard was visiting the Pony and he put a spell on Barli’s beer. The four B’s stand for Barliman’s Best Blessed Beer.”
“Aye,” added a man at Merry’s other side. “And he’s had the best beer hereabouts ever since.” He leaned down to whisper. “Of course we’re all waiting to see what happens after seven years and a day.”
Barli snorted. “I’ve always brewed a good ale but it don’t do no harm to business if I spread the word it’s been blessed by a wizard, especially when competition opens up down the road.”
“Ah. We passed the new inn just inside the west gate. Strange name I must say. Mucky Carrot certainly wouldn’t tempt me.” Merry inhaled appreciatively before taking a deep swallow of his beer.
Tom laughed. “It were named after Old Pete. He had a cottage there for years, if you could call it that. It was more of a hovel. He was always drunk and all he could grow in his tatty bit of garden was carrots. There’s folks said his skin was orange beneath all that muck on his face. He died in that bad winter we had two years since. Fell down drunk in the street and they didn’t find him until mornin’.”
Beri set down his own mug. “Well, the name doesn’t make it sound like a very salubrious place.”
Barli shrugged. “Tis clean enough inside and, though it pains me to say it, Mungo Appledore serves decent ale. Although it’s not a patch on mine, though you may think that’s boastin’. Being nigh on the gate they get a lot of trade from travellers and market traders but all the locals still come here.”
“Well, I can assure you that anyone travelling from the Shire will be directed here. The Prancing Pony has a good reputation amongst our folk.”
“Thank you Mr Brandybuck. I’m right pleased to know that. And folk from the Shire will always be welcome at the Pony.” At that point he was called away to another corner of the bar. “Alright, alright. I’m comin’ Ted Coltsfoot. I’m not deaf.”
“You come for the market tomorrow?” asked the man at their side.
“Yes, indeed,” Beri replied, “Mr . . .?”
“The names Bill Thistle. I run the bakery down the lane.” The big man held out his hand and Beri shook it.
“I am Berilac Brandybuck and this is my cousin Meriadoc Brandybuck. But you can call us Beri and Merry.”
“Pleased to meet you, sirs. What are you sellin’? I’ve not heard of Shire folk sellin’ at Bree Market. Though I think some of your kin come buyin’ livestock a times.”
“We’ve brought some of the Shire’s best pipeweed,” Merry replied proudly. “You’ll not smoke better.”
Bill’s face lit up. “Don’t tell me you’ve got Longbottom Leaf with you?”
“We certainly have. And we’ve Old Toby as well.”
“Well, well. I reckon you’ll have plenty of customers for those. I managed to get some Longbottom once from a passin’ ranger. Smoothest pipe I’ve ever had the pleasure of takin’.”
Merry’s ears twitched. “A ranger you say? When was that? Did you get his name? Maybe I know him.”
“We get a lot of ‘em travellin’ the Greenway nowadays. Set up an outpost at Dead Mans Dyke, just north of here they say. In fact, we’ve had so many of them we’ll have to rename the Greenway soon. They’ve worn away the grass with their carts and great horses. They say they’ve got a Kings Justice there. Though he aint taken the time to introduce himself to us Breelanders and he’d do well to keep his nose out of our business if you ask me.” Bill took a long swallow of beer. “I think the ranger was called Herdabrand or some such. I doubt you’ll know him. He came through last year. Only stayed one night then he was off North up the Greenway.”
“I’ve heard of the Kings Justice although, like you, we’ve not seen him in the Shire. I think he’s happy to stay out of things as long as they’re running smoothly,” Beri replied.
“Maybe he can spend his time lookin’ after all the new folk that’s come to settle north of here,” Tom noted with a sniff. “Not that the trade’s not a good thing but we’ve always kept ourselves to ourselves in Breeland.”
“You’ll have a good market for your pipeweed,” Bill interjected. “We grow our own but it can’t compare to your Shire blends. At least you’ll have a good pitch tomorrow. Old Barli has always had the ear of Ferdi Greenlock, and his customers get the best spots. Ferdi’s family has run that market field since before my grandda’s day.”
“That reminds me . . . I aint seen him round here lately,” added Tom.
“Me neither. Maybe his missus has finally got him to cut back on his drinkin’. He was gettin’ as bad as Old Pete,” chuckled Bill.
“More likely Molly’s cut off his money. She knows Barli won’t give her husband no more credit. Not since he picked a fight with that group of dwarves and they bust up the tables. Not that the dwarves didn’t pay for the tables but Barli likes to keep a good natured house.”
Tom stepped down, dropping some coins on the counter. “Then it’s to be hoped Molly is collectin’ the pitch fees tomorrow or Ferdi will drink the lot afore he gets home. Night all,” he called.
There was a general good natured chorus of good nights from the room.
“Do you know what time the market opens tomorrow?” asked Merry.
“Well, it’s supposed to be about seven o’clock but some folk like to get in early for a bargain. Not that they’ll find many. Most who’ve camped all night are still having first breakfast at that time,” Bill replied as he finished his pint and wiped the last drop of foam off his lips. “And I’d best be gettin’ home to my missus or she’ll be takin’ a leaf out of Molly’s book. I’ve got bread to be started. Good night to you little masters. I’ll be seein’ you tomorrow.”
“We’ll keep a few ounces on one side for you Bill. Don’t you worry,” Merry assured him.
“Thank you kindly and good tradin’ to you.” With those words he fastened his coat and, with a wave to the general company, made for the door.
Merry took some coins from his pocket and was about to put them on the bar when Barliman waved his hand away. “No sirs. Settle up when you leave. I know you’re to be trusted.” He scooped up Tom and Bill’s coins. “Now what time do you want water fetchin’ in the mornin’?”
“Would five o’clock be too early?” asked Berilac. “We need time for first breakfast at least and we’ll have to hitch up the cart.”
“Bless you, sirs. Nob will hitch up the ponies for you and bring your cart round to the door when you’re ready and Daffy will be cookin’ breakfast while you wash. It’ll be all ready on the table by the time you’re dressed. I’ll get her to pack up a basket for second breakfast too. You’ll probably find plenty to eat at market for lunch but if not, just one of you pop back and she’ll pack up another for you.”
Merry’s eyebrows shot up. “Who’s Daffy? Don’t tell me you’ve got married since we last visited Barli!”
“Who me? Not me. I don’t need no more company than I got. No. Daffy is Nob’s missus and they’ve been married many a year. When trade picked up I needed an extra set of hands so Nob offered his missus to take over the cookin’ and when their son, Gordi, got to his tweens he came to help in the brew house.”
“That must have taken a lot off your hands,” suggested Beri but Barli only shook his head.
“I wish it had. But we’re so busy with them settlers and rangers movin’ through I’m still run off my feet.” He paused, “Now what was we talkin’ about? Breakfast! That’s it. I reckon six o’clock will be plenty of time for to have breakfast and get to your pitch. You’ll be on the front row, right on the roadside. I’ve made sure of that. My customers have always had pick of the best pitches. Ferdi will see you right.”
“Thank you, Barli. Six o’clock it is, then. Goodnight.”
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