A Merry Old Inn by elwen of the hidden valley

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“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.


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.



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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