A Merry Old Inn by elwen of the hidden valley

Story Notes:

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.

 

1. Chapter 1 by elwen of the hidden valley

2. Chapter 2 by elwen of the hidden valley

3. Chapter 3 by elwen of the hidden valley

4. Chapter 4 by elwen of the hidden valley

Chapter 1 by elwen of the hidden valley

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.”

 

oOo

 

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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Chapter 2 by elwen of the hidden valley

“Here we are, sirs. There’s nosebags in the back and a bucket for water. There’s a well for the traders use so the ponies should be alright till you come back this evenin’.” Bob let go the pony’s bridle and Merry took up the reins.


“Thanks Bob. And thanks for hitching up the cart for us. I hope you got your own breakfast alright.”


“Don’t you worry none about me, Mr Brandybuck. Daffy sent my breakfast over earlier. Have a good day’s tradin’ sirs.” Bob waved them out of the yard.


It was only five minutes drive to the market field by the south gate but it would have been impossible to walk so far with eight barrels of pipeweed. And at least the wagon would give them shelter if the weather turned. It was difficult to know what the day would bring as the sun had not yet risen and Nob had lit the lanterns on the cart for them.


“Well. Barli said we would be on the front row but I don’t see where. There doesn’t look to be any free space,” murmured Beri as they trundled slowly down the road, sending the occasional early customer scurrying out of their way.


“You’re right. Let’s ask this man with the sheaf of papers. Maybe he’s this Ferdi fellow.” Merry drew rein and shouted down to a scrawny looking man with a pinched face. “Excuse me. Would you be Mr Greenlock?”


“Aye. And what’s it to you? If you’ve come to trade all the best spots is taken but we can squeeze you in somewhere I suppose.”


“My name is Meriadoc Brandybuck and this is my cousin Berilac. We’re staying at the Prancing Pony. Mr Butterbur said you would keep a place for us.”


Ferdi checked the sheaf of dog eared papers. “Nope. Nothin’ listed here for any Brandybucks. From the Shire are you? Well we gets up early in Bree. Tis first come, first served.”


“But Mr Butterbur said he had an agreement with you,” Beri asserted.


“Did he now?” Ferdi sneered. “Well, things change. Now do you want that pitch at the back or not? I aint got all day to be arguin’ with the likes of you.”


Beri half rose from his seat in indignation but Merry stopped him. “What is your price?”


“Two silver pennies.”


“What? That’s daylight robbery. I wouldn’t pay that for a pitch on the front row!” Beri muttered.


Beri didn’t mutter low enough it seemed, for Ferdi Greenlock sneered, “You can always take your cart back to the Shire but the next big market’s not for another month.”


Merry put on his best smile. “We’ll take the pitch, Master Greenlock. Maybe you’re right and next time we’ll camp overnight.” He handed over his silver pennies and steered the cart to the back of the field.


The pitch was cramped but by dropping the one side of the cart they managed to use it as their selling platform and hobbled the ponies behind it. It wasn’t until they had set up their sign and got everything organised that Beri had time to look down the line of pitches.


“Hey, Merry, do you recognise any faces?”


Merry looked up from his examination of the basket Daffy had prepared for them. Now that Beri pointed it out many of the faces on their row did look familiar, although he could not put a name to them. That’s when he realised that he had seen them all in the Prancing Pony the night before.


“Why, they’re all Barliman’s customers. Ferdi has deliberately put us all on the back row. Now why would he do that?”


Merry turned as a voice answered from their left. “’Cause the landlord of the Mucky Carrot has promised him free drinks, that’s why.” The hobbit who had spoken spat before continuing. “He’s been drinking there for weeks. Ever since Butterbur threw him out the Pony.” He held out his hand and Merry and Beri shook it. “Name’s Ham Longhole. Best honey in the four villages.”


“And we are Merry and Beri Brandybuck. Is this his revenge for being thrown out of the Pony, then?” asked Merry as he sat down and returned to examining the basket.


“Tis more to do with Mungo Appledore. He’s been trying to steal customers from the Pony ever since he set up his inn. Ferdi’s brains is too pickled to come up with a trick like this.” Ham pulled out his own picnic basket, clearly also made up by Daffy.


“Let’s hope the weather brightens and we get some trade,” Beri offered as he fastened the last tie on their canvas awning. By now the sun was beginning to rise and Beri blew out the lanterns as all three settled down to share second breakfast.


oOo


Back at the Pony Nob washed his hands and made for the kitchen where, having fed all the customers, Daffy was setting out second breakfast for the staff.


“Come on, Gordi lad. The brew house won’t fall down in the next half hour while you have somethin’ to eat.”


A hobbit tween trotted out of the brew house and followed the ostler into the kitchen.


As soon as the kitchen door was closed a tall, gangly figure slipped about the yard, keeping to the shadows, and disappeared into the brew house. He reappeared a few minutes later and left the yard as furtively as he had arrived.


 


oOo


Despite the poor placement of their pitch it was a triumphant Merry and Beri who drove their cart beneath the Prancing Pony’s arch in the early evening. Bob ran up at once to take the ponies heads as the two hobbits jumped down.


“How did you do, sirs?”


“We sold it all, Bob. And we got some things to take home. My mother is going to be very pleased with the dress material and the honey I found and Beri discovered a dwarf selling the most amazing toys.”


Beri grinned. “My lad is going to be the envy of Brandy Hall for years to come. I spent far more than I should have.”


“Well, I’m right glad to hear that you sold all your wares and I reckon these ponies will be even gladder they don’t have as much weight to haul on the way home,” laughed Bob. “Come on lasses. Let’s get you rubbed down and settled in for the night.” And with that he led them away to the comfort of the Pony’s well appointed stables.


“Don’t know about you Beri, but I could do with a beer before we wash up for supper,” Merry offered as they climbed the broad steps to the entrance to the common room.


“Oh yes. I fancy wetting my whistle after that long day. The ale on sale at the market was decent enough but it wasn’t as good as Barliman’s.” Beri pushed open the heavy oak door and the two were instantly enveloped in a fog of smoke, food and beer.


“That’s because it was provided by the Mucky Carrot. I spotted the name on the side of the barrels. It’s small wonder they don’t get the local trade. Given a choice I’d choose Barliman’s Best Blessed any day.”


They stepped up to the bar and Barliman was with them at once. Before Merry could even open his mouth to order Barli put down two foaming mugs. “Compliments of the house, and I hope you’ll accept them as an apology, sirs. I heard what happened at the market and I’ll be having strong words with Molly Greenlock as soon as may be.”


“I’ll take the beer and thank you. But we sold all our pipeweed so don’t worry about us,” Merry replied. “A friendly hobbit called Ham Longhole sent his son off to the main entrance to direct all your regular customers to our row. So we didn’t lose much, if any trade. But why on earth are you going to speak with Molly? I thought Ferdi ran the market.”


“Aye. Ham came in earlier to let me know. And I’ve told him tonight’s supper is free for his son. The lad earned it. And as for Ferdi . . . he’s been so drunk of late I’ll get more sense from Molly. And I reckon Ferdi will be findin’ his hands full with Molly’s temper as a result soon enough. From what I’ve heard, that lass is a good aim with a fryin’ pan.”


Merry chuckled. “I wonder if she’s been taking lessons from Sam.”


When both Barliman and Beri simply looked confused Merry took a sip of his beer. “Don’t worry. I’ll explain it another time. Suffice it to say that if Molly wields her frying pan half as well as Sam Gamgee poor Ferdi will have a sore head and the other bruises won’t let him sit down for a week.”


“Well, in that case I hope she has,” muttered Barli as he was called away to serve another customer.


Berilac took a swallow of his beer and grimaced. “This is not up to yesterdays' standard.”


“What, the beer? Mine’s alright.” Merry took another deep swig and smacked his lips in appreciation. “Maybe your mug wasn’t cleaned properly.” Merry tried to call Butterbur back but several other customers seemed to be doing likewise and all were eyeing their beer with some disgust.


“Hoy, Barliman. Has that blessin’ run out? This beer’s off,” yelled a scruffy man from the other end of the bar.


“Now, Bert Brackenby, that’s from a new barrel. Nob’s only just tapped it,” Barliman asserted.


Merry picked up his cousin’s beer and sniffed tentatively. Butterscotch. He could definitely smell butterscotch and a hint of sulphur. He tasted it equally tentatively and spit it out at once. “I’m sorry but he’s right Mr Butterbur. I think someone may have misread the dates on your barrels. This one doesn’t seem to have been conditioned for long enough.”


Butterbur frowned and then poured himself a pint from the new keg. As soon as he inhaled his face blackened and he roared, “Nob! Bob! Where are you?”


Nob appeared first, rushing through from the kitchen as fast as his woolly pated feet would carry him. “Yes, Mr Butterbur. Is somethin’ wrong?”


“Wrong? Wrong? I’ve a good mind to make you drink a pint of this.” He waved the pint around so wildly that foam scattered about the immediate area, like a soggy off white snowstorm. Where did you get that barrel from? It’s so young I’d be surprised if it weren’t still warm from the vat.”


Nob dodged, narrowly avoiding being christened by beer foam. “Bob brought it in. But I watched and it’s definitely from the end of the room where we keep the oldest barrels. What’s the date on it?”


Barliman rolled the barrel about to look and Nob leaned in to examine the date chalked on the side. “Says it’s two months old, sir. It should be good to drink.”


“Well it’s not,” Barliman announced. “You’d best get Bob to bring in another.”


Nob ran off at once and Barli turned to assembled customers, who had all stopped to watch the proceedings. Several of the older customers were shaking their heads and began to mutter about failed blessings and the fickle nature of wizards. There were even whispers that perhaps the wizard had now cursed the beer. Barliman brought silence by the expedient of banging a meaty fist upon the bar top.


“I’ve been brewin’ beer for more years than I care to remember. And some of you have been drinkin’ it for the same amount of time. It was good before Gandalf came and it’ll be good when his so called blessin’ is as gone as he is. Tis just a mix up with the markin’ of the dates.”


At that moment Bob strode in with another barrel on his shoulder. He set it down carefully in the cradle and he and Barliman inserted the tap. The company watched with baited breath as Barliman filled a tankard and sniffed.


“Bob! You’ve gone and taken it from the wrong place again. This is as bad as the first. Can’t you get nothin’ right? Let me come out to the brew house and check this time. Seems you won’t get nothin’ right Barli, lest you do it yourself.” With those words Barliman Butterbur left the common room to its mutterings and a rather sheepish Bob followed, like some tender following in the wake of Barli’s galleon in full sail.


Once Barliman left the common room erupted into conversation. Bert Brackenby’s voice was the loudest and he gave a snaggle-toothed grin as he announced to the company in general, “Old Barliman had best rename his beer. Seems that wizard’s blessin’ has worn off. Tis no wonder Old Pointy Hat’s not been seen back here for many a year. Or maybe he has been back and this time he’s cursed it.”


Merry jumped nimbly onto the nearest table, landing neatly between several abandoned tankards. “Now, wait a minute! I can see Gandalf blessing beer but I can never imagine him cursing it. He loved old Barli. And as for not being around, he left for the West with the elves. His work was finished when the Dark Lord fell and he’s earned a rest.”


“And what would you know about wizards? Seen a lot of ‘em, have you?” scoffed Bert as he took the last swallow of his untainted beer.


Merry drew himself up to his full four foot something and adopted the voice he once used to marshal the Shire. “Gentlemen! I travelled with Gandalf the wizard for many weeks and through many perils and never have I heard him utter a mean word. He may bless a beer but he would never, never curse it. This is all some mistake, I am certain.”


As he jumped down Barli returned with Bob, who was carrying another barrel. “Here we are, gentlemen. As good a brew as you’re used to. I’ve tasted it myself. Come along now. Those that have tainted pots come get ‘em refilled . . . on the house.”


Merry ducked out of the way in the general rush for the bar, but not before Barliman leaned in to whisper, “I’d like to speak to you alone later if I may, Master Meriadoc.”


Merry nodded and he and Beri settled into a quiet corner to wait. If some less scrupulous customers claimed the refilling of their empty pots Barliman made no comment and, whilst some speculation continued, most had died down by the end of the evening. Most folk had staggered home or taken to their beds by the time Barliman, Nob and Bob came to join Merry and Beri.


“Thank you for waitin’ up little masters. I wouldn’t normally be botherin’ you, but when you came back from that journey a few years back you struck me as a person who knew a bit about the world and could deal with its blacker side. If you take my meanin’.” Barliman dropped his bulk into a chair and the others settled on benches, leaning close to hear his quiet words.


“What is it Barliman? Is there something you didn’t tell the general company?” Merry straightened, his hazel eyes keen. He considered Barliman as close to family as anyone could be from outside the Shire. And if anyone was hurting his family he was determined to leap to their defence.


“Well. We checked all the barrels in the brew house and they all taste the same. Don’t matter how old they are. And that makes me think it’s nothin’ to do with my brewin’ or any blessin’ neither. I reckon somebody has sneaked in and put somethin’ in my beer.” Barli’s voice rose in indignation with each word and he made a conscious effort to lower it again before continuing. “I’ve never known the like afore. We got our fair share of folks who like to live more in the shadows, as it were. But I can’t see none of ‘em havin’ reason to ruin my beer. Most of ‘em have been drinkin’ it for years.”


Merry did not wait long to reply. “You’ve never had another inn in the town though, have you? What’s this Mungo Appledore like?”


Barliman shrugged. “Nobody knows much about him. He came up from Rohan they say and from his accent I’d say they were right. Didn’t say where he got if from but he had enough money to knock down old Pete’s place and build the Mucky Carrot. Much more I can’t say ‘cause I’m too busy here to offer more than, ‘How do?’ to him.” His face darkened. “But after what I’m told about market today I’m beginnin’ to wonder if he weren’t behind this.” He waved at the almost empty room.


Beri leaned in. “But if all the beer is tainted where did you get the new barrel from?”


Barliman actually smiled at last. “Well now, if it were earlier in the year I would have been caught out but tis only a few weeks to Yule. I don’t know about the Shire but folks round here like to see in the turnin’ of the year with a bit of a celebration. I’ve had Bob and Gordi brewing the extra barrel here and there for months. There was no room in the brew house so I’ve been stockin’ them up in a room down the cellars. Only way in is through that door behind my bar so whoever he was that messed with the brew house won’t get to this.”


“That’s all very well. But if he keeps coming back and tainting the brew house beer you’re going to empty the cellar eventually. Then what are you going to do?” asked Beri.


Barliman’s face dropped. “I hadn’t thought of that. Surely he won’t come back?”


Merry shook his head. “I’m sorry, Barliman. But Beri is right. If your saboteur is willing to do it once it’s likely he’ll keep doing it until he forces you out of business. I suspect Appledore is behind this and I can’t think of anyone else who would profit by it. Can you?”


“No. I reckon it’s him. I’ll just have to set a guard on the brew house I suppose.”


Merry recalled the last time Barliman had set a guard on the Prancing Pony and its effectiveness. “I don’t think that will work. By its nature an inn has strangers in and out of the yard at all hours. Even with guards on the brew house door it’s an easy matter to set up a diversion and slip in when people are looking the other way.” Merry considered. “I think your best path is to try and trap the villain.”


“If I don’t set a guard how am I goin’ to do that?”


 

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Chapter 3 by elwen of the hidden valley

Bert Brackenby set down his pot and smacked his lips. “That were a good pint Butterbur. Seems you’ve been keepin’ the good stuff aside.”

“Tis my usual brew. Nothin’ special. Mayhap it’s the storage that helps. I’ve been moving a few barrels down the cellar of late. Tis easier to bring one up if we run out in the middle of the evenin’.” Barliman refilled Bert’s pot and moved on.

The bar was busy that night but Merry made a point of keeping an eye on Bert and he noticed him giving a keen eye to the cellar door. On Merry’s advice Bob had made a point of emptying and cleaning out the tainted barrels in full view of any passing customer. When the Pony continued to serve beer it was likely that an interested party would ask soon enough where it was coming from. It would probably be a face familiar to the Prancing Pony and Bert Brackenby had not disappointed Merry’s suspicions.

Bert downed his beer swiftly, threw some coins on the bar and wove unsteadily for the door. When Beri entered a few minutes later he reported that their quarry stopped weaving as soon as he turned the corner of the street and had made off swiftly in the direction of the West Gate.

Merry offered a grim smile as he downed the last of his half. “Looks like we’re on duty tonight, cousin. It’s a good job I hid my sword and shield under the seat of the cart. I told you we may need them.”

Beri shuddered. “I’m still hoping we don’t. Could it really come to a fight? Maybe we should wait for a reply from Fornost. From what you’ve told me those rangers are more able to deal with this.”

“It could be days for the note to get to Fornost and as long again for any help to return. It depends on how frequently the rangers check that message point. If there’s one thing I learned in my travels it’s that you should not rely on others to do your fighting for you.” Merry’s face darkened for a moment, then he took a deep breath and threw back his shoulders. “If I can help kill a witch king I can certainly cope with Bert Brackenby or Mungo Appledore.”

“Well, I’m not so certain I’ll cope. How did you know about the message point anyway?” Beri took a fortifying swig of his beer.

“The King sent me a list last year. I wish Aragorn was here now.” Merry replied wistfully as he finished his half.

“Why are you so sure it’s tonight anyway? If they manage to keep spoiling the beer in the brew house they can just wait out old Barli. The stock in the cellar will run out eventually,” Berilac noted quietly as he stepped down from the bar.

“I’ve been thinking about that and I believe someone is in a hurry. Whoever it is didn’t need to upset things at the market as well. I think they want Butterbur to lose his custom quickly. No. There’s a sense of urgency to this.” Merry climbed down as well, steering Beri toward their rooms. “Come on, Cos. We’d better get some sleep. I suspect we’re going to have a busy night.”

-o-

Berilac stamped his frozen feet and swallowed a yelp when Merry gave him a sharp dig in the ribs. His cousin leaned close to whisper, “Shhhhhhhhhhh. I hear something.”

Beri’s heart stopped and half a dozen frogs started leaping about in his chest as he fumbled in his belt for the large kitchen knife Barliman had provided. It felt cold in his fingers and he had to fight the urge to just drop it and run.

Merry turned to wave at Bob, who was crouched behind a pile of barrels near the door and the man waved back. He was wielding a wicked looking belt knife but Beri doubted he’d used it for anything other than cutting leather straps. Still, it was good to know he was there.

Now that he listened closely Beri could hear stealthy feet on the stone steps. They were not light enough to be a hobbit. They were shod and yet not heavy enough to be Barliman. He held his breath as he saw the catch lifting and the heavy old door swung inward.

A tall, spare framed figure slipped in, looking about for a moment before making for the pile of barrels behind which Merry and Beri were hiding. When Beri would have moved Merry held him back with a touch on his arm and they listened to the newcomer tapping deftly at the bung in the lid. The listeners heard it drop into the barrel, followed by the sound of some liquid being poured and then the sound of a new bung being tapped into place.

That’s when Merry yelled, “Now, Bob!”

In a flash Bob slammed the door shut and placed himself in front of it, knife in hand. At the same time Beri opened their shielded lantern and Merry leaped forward, sword at the ready.

Bert Brackenby roared as he raised a large hammer and brought it down hard on Merry’s suddenly waiting shield. His opponent slipped a well honed sword deftly from beneath that shield and scored a line across Bert’s belly, just above the belt. Bert’s roar turned into an alarmed cry of pain and he dropped the hammer to clutch at his stomach.

It was all over that quickly. Bob reached back to open the door to Barliman along with one or two of his more trusted customers and Beri darted forward to retrieve the hammer. Within minutes Bert was sitting, tied to a chair in the kitchen and surrounded by his captors.

“I’m goin’ to bleed to death. I need a doctor. Tis not right. I was only curious.” Bert kept up a litany of wailing complaints until Merry stepped closer, slipping the tip of his still bloody blade beneath the man’s chin. Bert was instantly silent.

“The cut is shallow but if you want to see a doctor you’d better tell us who put you up to this.” He held up a small bottle filled with a pale yellow liquid.

“I don’t know nothin’ about that,” Bert replied stubbornly.

Barliman scowled, as he slapped a soup ladle in his palm. “That’s strange for it was found in your pocket.”

Merry’s hand was rock steady as he kept the blade beneath Bert’s chin. “And I suppose if we open up that top barrel we won’t find the old bung floating inside and the beer smelling of butterscotch?”

Bert swallowed very carefully. “It weren’t my idea.”

Merry lowered his sword, making a point of using a hanky to wipe Bert's blood off the blade before sheathing it. Bert’s eyes followed every move. “Then whose idea was it?” Merry asked as he folded his arms and leaned back casually against the edge of the table.

As though this were a signal everyone drew breath and it was with some relief that Berilac placed knife and hammer on the table, stretching his cramped fingers.

Bert worried at his bottom lip but as soon as Merry made to unfold his arms he blurted, “Mungo Appledore. It were Mungo.”

Barliman still clutched the soup ladle and Bert cringed when the inn keeper waved it in his face to emphasise his words. “Why would Mungo want that and why would you be doin’ it for him

“He’s losin’ money so he was lookin’ to put the Pony out of business and grab your trade.”

Berilac was about to ask a further question but was prevented by a loud banging on the outer door and a strong voice calling, “Open up Master Butterbur. Open in the name of the High King.”

Barliman glanced at Merry, who nodded and Bob ran off to admit them before they had time to break down the door. Moments later two tall, dark haired men shouldered their way into the kitchen, looking all business. They had not drawn weapons but the line of long swords could clearly be seen beneath the folds of their mud splattered cloaks. One of them glanced at the hobbits while the other bent to examine Bert’s wound.

“Which of you is Meriadoc Brandybuck?”

Merry stepped forward. “I am he. But we were not expecting you so soon.”

Merry found himself pinned by steel grey eyes. “I am Herdabrand and this is Dalmad. I have been appointed Kings Justice for this area. When we found your message we decided to act rather than forward it to Fornost Erain. It seems we were still a little too late for the party. What has happened, here?”

Barliman stepped closer, still wielding his soup ladle to punctuate the words. “We’ve gone and caught ourselves a . . . a. . . “

“A saboteur,” Beri provided.

Barli nodded. “Aye. One of them.” He waved the ladle in their captive’s direction. “His name’s Bert Brackenby.”

The other ranger had been busy stuffing one of Barliman’s clean kitchen towels into Bert’s shirt and now he reached aside to gently relieve the innkeeper of his weapon. Barli blinked, as though unaware that he still held the ladle.

“Do you have evidence?” asked Dalmad.

“Caught him in the act, we did. Doctorin’ my beer with this. . .” Barli took the bottle from Merry and held it up to the light. Dalmad relieved him of it before removing the stopper to sniff. He handed it over to Herdabrand who also sniffed lightly.

“Butterleaf. Harmless but it would make any ale taste unconditioned,” Herdabrand observed as he dropped the bottle into a pocket somewhere beneath his cloak. He returned his attention to Merry. “Have you learned ought else?”

“You caught us in the middle of our interrogation but we have learned that he was acting under instruction from Mungo Appledore. He’s the owner of the inn you may have passed at the west gate.”

Herdabrand nodded. “I know it. The Mucky Carrot. But what is his motive for this action? Has the proprietor some grievance with The Prancing Pony?”

“None that I know of, sir,” Butterbur replied. “Although Bert here says he thinks the inn’s not makin’ enough money for Mungo’s likin’.”

“It was quite busy when we passed yester-eve,” Dalmad commented.

“It was the end of a market day so the inn could expect a brisk trade. I wonder what it was like today,” Herdabrand mused. “But I doubt we will gain any more relevant knowledge from Master Brackenby tonight and his injury should be tended.” He turned to Dalmad. “I take it the wound is not serious?”

Dalmad shook his head. “Nothing more than a scratch. Whoever cut him was either very fortunate or very skilled.” He looked pointedly at the sword hanging at Merry’s side.

Merry replied with a grimace. “He was fortunate. I have wielded a blade before but I am not that good.”

“Then I must ask you to keep it sheathed for the moment. We do not want any unfortunate accidents.” Herdabrand did not wait for a reply, turning to Butterbur. “Do you have a secure chamber in which to place your saboteur for the moment?”

“There’s an empty cellar next to the one we caught him in. He’ll be safe enough in there and I can set Bob to guard him if you like.” Barliman’s tone suggested that incarceration was too good for Bert Brackenby.

Slightly overawed by these tall grim men with their hard eyes and long swords, Bert had not spoken since their arrival. Now he gathered his courage. “What about my wound? I need a doctor. I could die in a damp cellar.”

“Not with that injury,” Dalmad assured him but then he turned to Herdabrand. “We should provide some medical care, however. Does this town have a doctor?”

Bill Thistle interrupted. “Doctor Heathertoes lives down by the south gate. The second to last house on the left. Green door.”

Herdabrand nodded. “Very well, Master . . . ?”

“Thistle. Bill Thistle, sir.”

“Thank you Master Thistle. Please be good enough to rouse the doctor and fetch him to attend to our captive. Dalmad and I will pay a visit to this Mungo Appledore. I am certain I can leave the rest of you to attend to the disposition of Mr Brackenby.”

-o-

It was a scant hour later that the rangers returned with a rather sullen Mungo Appledore. They guided him to a seat at the kitchen table, where everyone else was now sitting, sipping tea. For several moments Mungo and Butterbur glowered at each other across the board until Herdabrand gained everyone’s attention by clearing his throat.

“Now, Master Appledore. A serious allegation has been made against you by Master Butterbur. He maintains that you have been tainting his beer with the intention of putting him out of business,” Herdabrand stated calmly.

Mungo bridled at once, spluttering, “That’s an unfounded lie! What proof has he got?”

“We have the word of a man who says you put him up to it. One Bert Brackenby.”

Mungo snorted. “He aint exactly a reliable source. He’ll do anything for the price of a pint.”

Merry interjected. “Just like Ferdi Greenlock.”

Dalmad shrugged when Herdabrand glanced his way. “Who is he and what is his relevance to this matter?”

“Ferdi runs the market and we can produce witnesses who say he was paid to put Barli’s customers in the back row of the field, in an attempt to reduce their trade and encourage them stay at the Mucky Carrot next time.” Merry looked pointedly at Mungo. “Paid by Mungo Appledore.”

“I see.” Herdabrand’s keen grey eyes circled those assembled about the table. “Is there anything else I should know?” When there was general silence he turned back to Mungo.

“You have heard the accusations. I will ask you again and before you reply I will warn you that my people are truth seers.” His face became grim and Merry recognised the distant air of Numenor that he had once seen in the eyes of Aragorn and Boromir. Herdabrand’s next words were spoken with a certainty all within the room instinctively knew was true. “I will know if you lie.”

Mungo seemed to shrink beneath the ranger’s gaze, his skinny frame folding in upon itself. “I needed more trade,” he murmured.

Herdabrand frowned. “You speak truth at last. But your inn was quite busy yester-eve. What extra trade could you obtain?”

Mungo mumbled something and Herdabrand slapped a hand upon the table, making everyone jump. “Speak up! I am growing weary of your procrastination and I am certain all those around this table wish to get some sleep before cock crow. Myself not least.”

Mungo almost shouted his reply. “I thought if I could put Barliman out of business he would sell me the Pony at a reduced price. The Pony’s a bigger place.”

Barliman looked as though he was about to explode. “I’d rather burn the Pony to the ground than sell to you!” He would have said more but Dalmad gripped his shoulder and he fell into obedient silence.

Herdabrand considered for a moment. “Are you truly so enamoured of silver that you would force another out of his livelihood to gain more than you could possibly hope to spend in such a small market town?”

Berilac leaned forward for this was the very avenue of questioning he had wanted to pursue before the ranger’s arrival.

Mungo sighed. “I used to run a small inn on the Entwash in Rohan. It weren’t much of a place and one day a group of travellers arrived. They said times had changed and there were opportunities for folk who wanted to get ahead. They offered me a loan to set up an inn but it had to be in Bree.”

“Who are these people?” Beri asked before Herdabrand could speak.

“They come from down south from their dress and accent.” Mungo looked directly at Herdabrand. “And I don’t mean Gondor. They were from way down south. If you take my meanin’.”

“Haradrim?” Herdabrand asked with raised brows.

“I don’t know what you call ‘em. But I’ve never met their like before and I wish I hadn’t. One of them came to Bree last week. He said things weren’t going the way they’d hoped and they wanted their money back now.” Mungo looked apologetically at Butterbur. “I didn’t want to hurt no-one but I haven’t made enough money yet to repay them, and that fellow made it clear that if I didn’t get it within the month he knew where to find my wife and children.”

“And putting the Pony out of business would drive more trade your way at the least.” Merry glanced at Butterbur whose face had softened as Mungo spoke.

Mungo stared down at his hands upon the table. “Yes. I’m sorry Barliman but I was desperate. I thought if I sold the Carrot and bought the Pony at a low price instead, I could maybe make a small payment to them now and pay the rest in instalments. I reckoned the Pony was a better investment ‘cause you get local trade year round.”

Dalmad had been silent until now. “I doubt you would have found a purchaser so quickly in such a small town,” he commented thoughtfully. “Why did you not seek help from the Rangers or at the least from your local militia?” He glanced aside at Butterbur. “I take it you have one?”

Butterbur cleared his throat apologetically. “We never really needed one. Other than for a bit of a do a couple of years back Bree’s always been quiet. We get the odd brawl but nothin’ knocking a few heads together won’t solve.”

“Then I suggest you gather your people to arrange one for the future. You have more strangers travelling through Bree nowadays and some lost all in the War. Desperation can make men do unpleasant things,” Herdabrand pointed out. “You are fortunate that I and my men patrol the Greenway regularly nowadays. We were camping nearby when Master Brandybuck’s messenger left his note. Had we been nearer Fornost it would have been days before we arrived.”

Merry nodded. “Even the Shire has a militia nowadays, Barli.”

“I’ll see to it, sirs. But what about these Southerners?” Butterbur asked.

Herdabrand stood. “Master Appledore, may I take it that you will have no objection to putting up some of my men in your inn for a while? I would like to ‘meet’ these investors of yours and report their actions to the King. He pardoned all Haradrim but this information may make him reconsider his actions.”

Dalmad joined his captain. “Every barrel has one bad apple.”

“And if it is not to infect the others it needs to be pulled out,” replied Herdabrand.

Mungo was beginning to look hopeful. “You’re very welcome. In fact you can stay here permanent if you like.” Then his eyes grew assessing. “But there’s only two of you and the southerner said he’d be bringing more with him next time.”

“I’m not a warrior but I have been in battle. If you need me I will stay. I can even send Berilac home to fetch some of the Buckland militia if you like.” Merry placed his hand upon the pommel of his sword.

Herdabrand bowed his head. “I thank you for your offer, Esquire of the Rohan. I intend to send Dalmad to fetch reinforcements which will leave only myself to protect the town for several days. I would welcome support from one of the Fellowship but I would not leave your Shire unprotected.”

Merry blinked, unaware until now that this stranger knew of his past. “I can help Barliman organise his militia while we wait. I did it in the Shire. But will it be very long before your men arrive? You said yourself that it would take days to get to and from Fornost. When are these Southerners due to return?”

“He should be back in about three weeks. Tis not long,” Mungo warned.

“Well, I think I can help a bit there.” Butterbur offered. “If Master Dalmad can ride I can supply a horse, maybe even two if you need them.”

Dalmad smiled broadly. “You reputation for hospitality is not unfounded I see. I can ride and if I take you up on that offer I can be at Fornost by tomorrow’s eve.”

“We have horses enough stabled there to return with at least a dozen men. Any more would be too conspicuous in a town of this size. Tell them to arrive in two’s and three’s and to spread themselves between the two inns. I do not trust this southerner’s word about the time of his return, so send them straightway,” Herdabrand instructed his second.

Dalmad gathered up his bow. “Come. Show me these horses, Butterbur. I hope they are strong of wind and limb for I will ride them hard.”

Butterbur ushered him out and could be heard to reply, “Oh, they’ll do. And they could do with a good stretch of the legs,” as the door closed behind him.

Mungo Appledore looked up at the tall ranger. “What will you do with me? Will you lock me up with Bert?”

“No. That would draw attention to our actions. You will return to your inn and act as though nothing were amiss. I shall accompany you as a guest.”

Mungo rose at Herdabrand’s signal but before he departed he turned to those remaining around the scrubbed kitchen table. “I am sorry.”

 

 

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Chapter 4 by elwen of the hidden valley

If Bree had more than its usual quota of tall dark weather-beaten strangers arriving over the next few days, most people had sense enough to make no comment. And said strangers had sense enough to stay in the background.


Berilac left with the cart under some protest. It was not until Merry pointed out that if they did not return within the next few days their family and friends would begin to worry, that Beri finally capitulated. Although he would have preferred his cousin to travel with him Merry assured him that other rangers would be watching over the road until Beri was safely within the borders of the Shire.


For his part, Merry stayed to help organise Bree’s new militia. Barliman called a town meeting at the Prancing Pony and, much to Barli’s relief, Bill Thistle was elected to lead it. It turned out that, unlike Barliman, Bill Thistle had a knack for organisation and within days a rota of patrols was drawn up and a room was set aside at the Prancing Pony for their headquarters. Bert and Mungo were released, on the understanding that they were under the eyes of both rangers and militia, although now that their plot had been exposed they turned into model citizens.


As for Ferdi Greenlock . . . they left him to the not so tender mercies of Molly Greenlock and if he had a black eye next time he was seen about town nobody commented, least of all the militia. Molly let it be known that she would be in charge of the market in future and she also ensured that Ferdi crossed the threshold of neither inn ever again. In that Merry felt a little sorry for him but he had learned long ago to stay out of any business between husband and wife.


Two mornings per week, between second breakfast and luncheon, the Prancing Pony was closed to all but the militia. Tables and benches were cleared aside and Dalmad and Merry drilled their new recruits in the use of arms . . . whatever those may be. Merry developed a keen appreciation of Dalmad’s skill at turning household items into weapons and filed the knowledge away for use when he returned to the Shire. Who knew a teaspoon could cause such injuries?


Barliman was correct when he said that Bree and its surrounding villages were relatively crime free but the introduction of the militia seemed to bring a new sense of pride and within weeks lanes were swept, windows sparkled and doors were painted. The close knit community seemed to grow closer still and there was more laughter in the air.


Over the next three weeks Merry almost forgot the reason for creating the militia as he became deeply involved in training and organising. So it was a dash of cold water when little Tom Underhill came panting into the Pony early one evening and ran up to Merry’s table. “They’re here.”


Taking Tom’s arm Merry hustled him into the militia room where Dalmad was on duty. As was his wont, the ranger wasted no time when he saw the faces of the two hobbits.


“Where are they and how many?” He handed Tom a cup of water and sat him down to catch his breath.


“I didn’t see them but Mungo sent a message through one of his bar lads. He says there’s ten come to the inn but from what one of them said there may be more outside the hedge,” Tom replied after he had taken a few deep breaths and a gulp of water.


Even as he finished speaking Herdabrand and four other rangers entered the room and began checking their weapons. “I watched them arrive but I don’t think they saw us. We left as soon as we saw them settled in. They’re definitely Haradrim. I saw the tribal tattoos on the arm of one although he tried to hide them.” Herdabrand turned to address two Merry had not seen before. “Calmador, Limnir . . . check beyond the fence for the location of the rest. I suspect they will have arrived expecting trouble. They must know that Appledore could not raise the funds they demanded in the time they allowed him. I suspect it was a ruse to gain control of the town via the Carrot all along.”


Merry blinked. Herdabrand had not spoken to him of this or, from the expressions on the faces of all but a couple, to his own folk. It was a credit to his leadership skills that the men did not question, only left to carry out his orders.


Merry was not one of his men, however. “Wait a minute. When did you decide this and why didn’t you tell us sooner? Do we have enough militia to make a fight of it? These are simple townsfolk and they haven’t exactly had much time to train for a pitched battle.”


Herdabrand smiled grimly. “Neither had your Shire folk when they rose up against the ruffians. Mungo Appledore was set up as a front for their arrival in Bree. They always intended to force him out so that they could gain a foothold from which to insinuate themselves into the community. As a market town at the junction of two main roads Bree was ripe for the picking.” He settled his mail coat more comfortably. “I apologise for keeping you in the dark but this is a small town and in my experience small towns are prone to gossip. Add beer to that and what is secret one day is public knowledge the next. I have no doubt that our Haradrim friends have been spying out the land for some days, which is why I hid my other men in the Chetwood.” Buckling on his sword he turned to nod at another ranger who followed the first two out of the door. “Gilderon will take word to them and, if all goes to plan, we and your militia shall only have to deal with those within the gates.”


Bill Thistle chose that moment to arrive, followed by a small group of men and hobbits, all armed with implements that ranged from swords to pitchforks and kitchen knives. Within minutes the small room was filled almost to the rafters and Bill had to rap upon a table to make himself heard over the hubbub. The three remaining rangers took up positions behind Bill as the chatter died down. Merry noticed that Bill’s hand was trembling below the level of the table but his voice was strong and clear.


“Now lads. I know most of you don’t know what this is about but this is where we earn our stripes. There’s some bad folks tryin’ to take over our town and we’re not goin’ to let ‘em.”


As he drew breath one of the hobbits, who seemed to be using a jam pan lid for a shield and carried a hammer and a firewood axe in his belt, spoke up. “Where’ve they come from and why are they here?”


It seemed that Bill had been included in Herdabrand’s little circle of people in the know but now Bill turned nervously and Herdabrand took a step forward, although still one step behind the militia leader. “The return of the High King has brought much stability but there are some who still seek to create their own little kingdoms. The rule of law does not come about overnight and will not come at all unless the common people rise up to support it. Bree is no longer the cosy little backwater it once was and some see its position at the crossroads as a good place to impose tolls and control movement in the whole of Eriador and Arnor. Your market would bring them even more money by way of taxes.”


Many eyebrows rose and the several conversations broke out regarding the legality of taxes. Herdabrand stepped back and Bill Thistle rapped upon the table once more.


“We’re not goin’ to let this happen. This is our town and we like it fine the way it is. We showed a load of ruffians the gate once before; though there weren’t near as many of them. If the Shire can do this so can we and if we all keep our heads we can put these strangers to rights. Now I know some of you weren’t expectin’ to fight so soon so if you don’t have the stomach for it I’ll understand. All I ask is that you stay here until all is settled. We don’t want word to get out accidental like. At the moment everyone thinks it’s another drill and we’d like to keep it that way.”


Bill straightened. “So let’s have a show of hands. Who’s comin’ with me to show these ruffians the other side of the gate?”


It was difficult to tell in such a packed room but it looked to Merry as though every hand went up.


-o-


Bill and Herdabrand consulted for some minutes then the militia was divided into smaller groups, with instructions to wait in the shadows and lanes about the Mucky Carrot until Bill gave the signal to enter. Much discussion was had about who should go in to pass the signal that all the southerners were in the common room. In the end, despite his relatively tall height for a hobbit, it was decided that Merry would be the least threatening to such men. He was also the best experienced to make a fight of it if he had to, even though he would have to leave shield and helm outside. His sword he managed to conceal beneath his cloak.


Merry left with Dalmad’s party and was gratified to see that the militia room was now empty. It seemed Bree housed some stout hearted folk. As his group crept down to the west gate he spotted several militia waiting silently in the shadows, grim faced but determined. At the corner Dalmad squeezed Merry’s shoulder once before slipping away to blend with the shadows of a nearby doorway. Merry took several deep breaths as he resettled his cloak to hide the line of his sword, fixed on a smile and, with a silent prayer to whichever Valar protected reckless hobbits, pushed open the door.


The Mucky Carrot was not as big as the Prancing Pony but its common room was a decent size and at present contained only a dozen patrons, all men. They were scattered about the room in two’s and three’s and looked to be travellers although whether they were the southerners he sought Merry could not tell at first glance. He strolled up to the bar and ordered a half.


Mungo was serving and Merry noticed his hand shaking as he set down the mug. When Mungo glanced to a far corner Merry turned casually to survey the room, as though seeking out companions. At a table in the indicated corner sat three tall men, dark of hair and face. Now that he looked more carefully he could see familiarities to those he had seen held as captives in Ithilien after the great battle. He turned back to the bar.


“A quiet evenin’, Mungo.”


Mungo cleared his throat nervously and made a half hearted attempt to wipe the bar top. “Aye, little master. No doubt it’ll get busy later. Most folks are still eatin’ their supper.”


Merry’s grin widened. “Had mine early tonight. I hankered for a good cup of beer or two before bed.” He took another large gulp and decided that, whilst palatable, it still wasn’t up to snuff. It was potent though and he decided to slow down his consumption. It would not do to be run through because he was in his cups.


Mungo busied himself setting up a large tray with bread, cheese and pickles. From the number of plates it seemed he was serving a party of ten and Merry guessed this was his quarry. If he waited for Mungo to deliver the tray the enemy would hopefully be distracted by their food when the militia made its move. Any advantage for the poorly armed Breelanders would be helpful. He continued to sip at his mug more southerners entered, coming down the stairs from the upper floors one or two at a time, and settling at the long table in the corner. Merry noticed that all wore swords and settled on stools rather than on benches; all the better to rise quickly. From their erect bearing and battered scabbards it was clear these were men much used to swordplay and Merry worried anew for his companions.


When Mungo had delivered jugs of beer and the tray of food Merry set down his half full mug, handed over some coins and bid a trembling Mungo a very pleasant goodnight. Mungo’s fear was contagious and he found it difficult to resist the urge to race for the door, hoping that his saunter was convincing. Once outside he let out a long breath before darting across the empty road to joining Dalmad in the shadows.


To his credit Dalmad allowed him a moment to recover before pressing for information. “Are they all within?”


“Yes. There are ten, as Tom reported. They’re all eating at present, sitting in the farthest corner from the door.” He glanced pointedly at a hobbit wielding nothing but a hammer, in the shadows to their left. “They’re well armed and look to know how to use those weapons. There are also a few more men who do not look to be with them. I do not know which side they will come down on in a fight.”


“Let us hope they come down on ours or at the least, stay out of our way,” Dalmad replied firmly. Then he slipped into an alleyway to their right, with Merry in tow. There, Bill Thistle was waiting and Merry made his report again. Bill nodded once before producing and ancient and rather battered hunting horn. “Ready?” He did not wait for their reply before drawing his rusty sword and putting horn to lips. Three quick blasts and the area about the Mucky Carrot burst into action.


Merry followed Dalmad and Bill Thistle through the front door and into the common room, followed by an assortment of hobbits and men. They were met, half way across the room, by the ten Haradrim, their long and wickedly sharp swords drawn. Somewhere on the periphery of his world Merry was aware of another group of militia, under the supervision of Herdabrand, rushing in from the kitchen. Then he was too busy staying alive to notice much beyond the few feet of space around him.


At first it was a very uneven match, with all the best weapons and most of the skill on the Haradrim’s side. But after a while numbers began to tell. A small group of hobbits began to work as a team to harass one villain and, in a moment of distraction little Tom Underhill leapt forward to bury a pitchfork in the big man’s belly. He fell, taking Tom with him in a tangle of arms and legs.


Merry had no time to help as Bill Thistle’s rusty old sword broke on its first encounter with an enemy blade and it was only Dalmad’s swift intervention that saved Bill from becoming Bree’s next victim. Merry stabbed at the Haradrim’s arm while Bill commandeered the pitchfork and, with a wild roar that Merry would not have thought the kindly baker capable of, thrust it up to its wooden shaft in the man’s chest. For a while Merry teamed up with a battered but functioning Tom Underhill and two more hobbits to overcome another Haradrim and, when he was disarmed and down, moved on to shadow Bill Thistle once more.


How long they fought Merry would never know but gradually he became aware that there were more Breelanders fighting than Haradrim and eventually the two remaining were ringed by the assorted rangers, hobbits and men of Bree’s militia. With a final glance at each other both dropped their swords and raised their hands above their heads in surrender. Dalmad and Herdabrand stepped in at once to tie hands behind their backs and force them to their knees.


Hearing shouts outside Merry ran to the door. He opened it in time to see the West Gate open to admit at least a dozen rangers escorting an equal amount of southerners. From the amount of makeshift bandages on their captives it was very clear that the rangers had given short shrift to these Haradrim. Merry stepped aside to allow them to enter and soon the common room of the Mucky Carrot held more bodies than it had ever seen at one time since the day it opened.


No militia were killed and only two Haradrim. The rest were herded to one end of the room and Herdabrand moved among them, pushing up left shirt sleeves, revealing tattoos on each exposed arm. For the most part the tattoo was a snake but Merry spotted some strange insect drawn on others.


When he had examined all Herdabrand joined the Breelanders and rangers. “Most are of the Cobra clan, with one or two Scorpion clan,” he reported.


“What’s a clan?” asked Bill, and one or two of the militia moved closer to hear the answer.


“It’s a large extended family.” Dalmad nodded toward Merry. “Rather like the Brandybucks, although clan’s are much more important among the Haradrim. When a clan leader makes any decision he expects the rest of the clan to follow him, without question.”


“Aye,” Herdabrand added. “And the Ellessar has been experiencing some difficulties with the Cobra clan. All Haradrim were pardoned after the war but it seems some clans have seen that as a sign of weakness on his part.”


Merry sheathed his sword. “Well, I think they’re going to find out differently when he hears about this.”


Herdabrand smiled. “Yes, indeed, Master Brandybuck.”


For their part, the prisoners were beginning to look a little worried. Finally, one of those who had been staying at the inn spoke up. “What will you do with us? Your king has given us leave to enter your land if we wish. He will not be pleased that you have attacked us.”


Before Herdabrand could speak Bill stepped forward. “The King may give you leave to travel but we Breelanders don’t take kindly to folk who try to take over our town, and we like it even less when they start messin’ with our beer!”


At his last comment Merry noted Dalmad and several of the rangers hiding smiles. No doubt tainting beer was of little concern to them. Merry was with Bill on this occasion, however. Tainting beer was downright evil.


“The Ellessar demanded a parole of good honour from your clan chiefs. You have broken that parole by your intention to break the King’s peace and defraud the innkeeper.” Herdabrand stated firmly before adding hurriedly, “As well as the matter of the beer.”


The Haradrim snorted. “The beer was none of our doing. We cannot be held responsible for the actions of that innkeeper.” Here he nodded disdainfully at Mungo Appledore who was keeping a safe distance from them behind his bar. Merry noted that the remainder of his customers had joined him there, staring wide eyed at the proceedings.


Herdabrand was having none of it, however. “You did not take the action but you were indirectly responsible for it.”


Merry could keep silent no longer. “And your accomplice chose the wrong inn to target. The Ellessar is very fond of the Prancing Pony and will take it very personally that you have caused Barliman Butterbur any distress.”


The leader looked to Herdabrand for confirmation of this strange statement and shuffled a little uncomfortably when the ranger leader nodded. “Enough talk for tonight. Master Appledore I am commandeering your hostelry as a lockup for the night. Tomorrow we will transport these men to Fornost Erain, where we have more suitable accommodations for them. From there we will send word to the King requesting advice on their future disposition.”


Mungo could hardly say, “No” under the circumstances. “But you’ll be staying the night with them?” he asked nervously.


“We shall. You and your legitimate customers will be safe. What the King will have to say with regard to your actions I do not know but for the moment I will not take you into custody.” Herdabrand regarded the Bree militia. “As for you, gentlemen, I am most grateful for your assistance in this matter, and shall be certain to tell the Ellessar of your part in the apprehension of these enemies of the Kingdom. My men and I will take responsibility for them now and I suggest you all return to your homes to let your families know that all is safe.”


-o-


“Well I never,” commented Barliman Butterbur some months later. “That Strider as was has shown up trumps that’s for sure. The Bree Militia is made official representative of the King in Breeland with a special badge and everythin’.” He pointed to a new painted sign above the bar declaring the Prancing Pony to be the official headquarters of “The Kings Bree Militia”.


Merry took a long draught of his pint of Barliman’s Best Blessed Beer then perused the letter the innkeeper had laid before him. “I see he’s pardoned Mungo Appledore.”


Barli nodded. “He learned his lesson and who’s to say any of us wouldn’t have done what he did in the same spot? He says his missus and children will be comin’ up to live here soon. I don’t hold no grudge and he’s welcome to what trade he can honestly get.”


“He looked to be doing well out of the market today,” Merry observed.


“He does well enough, although he aint come out totally free.” Barli tapped the letter with its appended royal seal. “The King has instructed that the loan he was going repay those men is to go to the militia. They have to give it out to any Bree folk with a need.”


“So I heard, from Molly Greenlock today. She’s been one of the first recipients of the money I understand.”


“She has that. And good luck to her. It weren’t none of her fault that drunken sot of a husband of hers up and dropped dead when he heard the news about them Hardimen. I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead you may say, but she’s better off without him. That market aint never been run better now she’s got a free hand,” Butterbur affirmed.


“Haradrim,” Merry corrected absently as he savoured another mouthful of Barli’s best. “I must say that she seemed to know what she was doing and even saved me a pitch right at the front by way of apology for our treatment on the last visit. We did very well again and the Master of Brandy Hall has asked Berilac and me to make this a regular event in future. We’ve plenty of things other than pipeweed to trade.”


“Well, now that’s good to hear. Tis long past time Bree and the Shire got re-acquainted. Although Molly says she’s goin’ to change the pitches about regular so that everyone gets a crack at the best ones. So I’m afraid I can’t slip her a few pennies to get you at the front next time.”


Berilac chuckled. “We don’t mind, Barli. As long as everyone gets a fair turn we can’t ask for more.”


Barliman sighed. “Things change it seems, however much we don’t want ‘em to.”


“Well, I’m pleased to say that Barliman’s Best Blessed Beer isn’t one of them,” Merry replied with a grin as he held up his empty pot for a refill.


 


END


 

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