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My thanks to Dreamflower for allowing me to use her wonderful creation, 'The Bouncing Bunny' inn in Tuckborough, properly named 'The Leaping Hare.'
Minas Tirith. May 1419 SR
"May we join you, gentlemen?"
Four curly heads lifted and four pairs of eyes rested on the two tall men who had approached their table in The White Wizard, an inn on the city's lowest level. One pair of exceptionally blue eyes narrowed slightly in observation.
"What in the Shire are you two doing here? Aren't you afraid you'll be recognised?" Frodo Baggins enquired.
"Who is going to recognise two disreputable looking soldiers like these?" grinned Merry.
"Flattery will get you nowhere, Meriadoc," murmured Aragorn, settling himself beside Frodo and swigging from the massive tankard he was holding.
Faramir sat beside Pippin, who scooted sideways a little to make room. "His Majesty thought it would be pleasant to have a night out with hobbits."
"Let us leave my majesty at the Citadel where it belongs. I'm Strider for the evening, and this is Cirion, a ranger of Ithilien. My friends, this gentleman has not had enough joy in his life lately - although I suspect that will soon be remedied when he weds the lovely Eowyn - and I have prescribed an evening in your company as the best thing to lift the spirits."
Sam glanced at Frodo, but his master seemed happy enough and was obviously delighted that Aragorn was spending time with them. He was still worried about Frodo, who was not eating enough to put the flesh back on his bones, and who still had days when he berated himself or, more commonly, just retreated. There was clearly still much wrong with him but Frodo never liked to burden others and would not speak of the cause of his melancholy.
However, tonight the burdens had been cast aside and Frodo was enjoying himself, drinking ale and laughing. Sam relaxed and decided to make the most of it.
"We spent last evening sorting through piles of documents on etiquette and protocol and deciding which existing laws should remain, so we have earned a night off." Aragorn stretched his long legs out under the table.
Faramir smiled. "Most of the hard work had been done by the time I arrived - although I have to say that my lord's temper had not been improved by reading through all those ridiculous rules. Most of the documents were on the floor and one or two had been flung across the room." He glanced at Aragorn, who looked slightly embarrassed. "Most of those rules were invented by my father, I'm sorry to say."
"What sort of rules?" Frodo asked, intrigued.
"What clothes people of different ranks were allowed to wear, what food they could eat, how many steps they should take before bowing in the presence of the Lord of the City."
The hobbits looked baffled. "You mean there are rules about that sort of thing?" Pippin was astonished. "My father is the Thain, but he doesn't expect people to bow to him. Any Thain expecting that sort of treatment would be a laughing-stock!"
The two men explained about the laws of protocol as they had existed in Gondor for the last twenty years in particular, and the hobbits exchanged glances. They could all imagine Denethor being so obsessed with his honour and dignity.
"Gandalf didn't tell me to bow - or abase myself. I suppose by then Lord Denethor was not so bothered. Everyone had far too much on their minds at that stage."
"Do you have any rules about dress in the Shire?" Faramir asked. Frodo grinned.
"Only to make sure one is respectably covered! Certainly we don't care what materials are worn. And as you can tell, Merry's waistcoats disobey every rule of good taste and colour co-ordination but no-one tells him off about it - except me."
"And telling hobbits what to eat is just asking for trouble," added Merry, ignoring this insult to his sense of style "If our fathers went round telling people they were not allowed this or that they would be told to mind their own damn business! I'm sure Farmer Maggot would have a great deal to say on the subject. We get quite enough bossing from Lobelia Sackville-Baggins!"
Aragorn and Faramir both howled with laughter at these comments. "See - I told you the hobbits are full of native common sense."
"My old Gaffer brought me up to be respectful of my betters, but that don't mean anyone has a right to tell someone what they can eat, or wear. Mister Bilbo never did that, not has Mister Frodo, and they're both proper gentlehobbits. Reckon we'd think anyone who tried to do that was getting a bit above himself, beggin' your pardon, sir."
Faramir smiled. "My lord tells me that you offered him some advice when you spoke to him about the Harad treaty? I shall be out of a job if your advice is always so sound."
Sam turned crimson. "I shouldn't have spoken out of turn, but it all sounds a bit fishy to me. Never trust someone whose eyes are too close together, that's what the Gaffer allus says. That ambassador is about as straight as a corkscrew."
"I'm sure you're right. His intentions are anything but honourable in my opinion, so we shall be wary."
"I think it's time for some more drinks....." said Frodo, peering into his mug and scowling on finding it empty.
"Good idea!" said Merry. "What's that?" He nodded at Aragorn's tankard.
"This is a quart."
"It comes in quarts?" Pippin said excitedly. "Then I'll...........
"You are not going to attempt a quart of ale, young Peregrin. I absolutely forbid it!" said Frodo emphatically.
"Spoilsport! I'm bigger now. I can hold my ale."
"I am the senior member of the family and you are still not of age. You'll drink halves like the rest of us. Besides, we might have to carry these two men home at the end of the evening and I'm not doing that by myself."
Faramir's eyebrows lifted. "You carry us? I hope you're not implying that men of Gondor cannot handle their drink."
"Is that a challenge?" Frodo asked, his eyes bright. "I do believe these men are saying they can out-drink us. Are we going to allow the reputation of the Shire-folk to be so impugned?"
"No!" the other three said with one voice.
"My friend, you don't know what you've started," Aragorn muttered to his Steward. "You've never seen hobbits drink, have you? What have you let us in for?"
"Thumping big hangovers tomorrow, that's what!" said Sam. "I'll get these in, Mister Frodo." He trotted off to the bar, where he was greeted like a long-lost cousin by customers and staff.
"My people have taken you to their hearts, my friends."
Frodo nodded. "Now if I can just persuade Sam to stop calling me Mister Frodo I shall think I've achieved something." He giggled. "He actually forgot himself a couple of times and was mortified afterwards. I think such lapses were just permissable, considering he was rescuing me from an orc garrison at the time!"
"Sam's old Gaffer is such a stickler for propriety - he called me Mr.Pippin when I was about four years old! Even did it when he was chasing me for scrumping fruit - 'You come back 'ere, Mr Pippin!' - or snaffling ale at Shire parties."
"I lived in terror that these two..........," Aragorn indicated Merry and Pip "..............would raid Lord Elrond's wine cellar in Rivendell."
"We wouldn't do anything that impolite," the pair chorused. Frodo looked at them incredulously.
"Of course you would! I gather Bilbo warned Glorfindel and Erestor about you two, and I certainly did when I woke up. Told them to put a guard on the wine cellar."
"Well that's nice! No faith in your own kin!"
"Not where strong drink is concerned!" He turned to the two men. "These two once raided Paladin's cellar, and when they were found they were so drunk they couldn't stand, they had removed most of their clothes.............." Merry groaned and covered his face. "........No, they had removed all their clothes, and painted patterns on each other with Pip's paints! It was a sight to behold!"
Aragorn and Faramir were both choking and snorting but they could not contain their mirth and the inn resounded to the sound of laughter.
"There will be payback for this, Frodo!" Merry muttered.
"Oh I'm sure there will - but for every tale of my youth you can come up with, I have ten concerning yours!"
Merry lit his pipe and puffed thoughtfully. "I seem to remember an occasion when you were stuck to a chair.........."
"That was Pippin's fault," said Frodo grumpily. "He managed to get molasses everywhere, including my chair and I didn't notice before sitting down."
"Because you were wandering about with your nose in a book, as usual." Pip beamed at his cousins as he returned to the table with their tankards.
Merry started to chortle. "You should have seen Fro's face when he realised he couldn't get up!"
Frodo grinned. It was a calculating grin. "I seem to remember you being stranded up a tree, Meriadoc. Your aged cousin Frodo had to climb up and coax you down."
"Hah! That was Pippin's fault too. He persuaded me to climb up there, idiot that I am. Come to think of it, most of the scrapes we have both been in have been Pip's fault." Merry glanced at the unrepentant Took.
"I just wanted to show you that climbing was fun. We Tooks like climbing. Your mother is a Took so I don't know why you don't like it. Da said Aunt Esme was always climbing trees when she was a lass."
"I'm a Brandybuck. We go boating, the Tooks climb trees. Frodo does both, so I don't know what that says about him."
"I'm Mad Baggins' heir - that seems to explain everything." Frodo made room for Sam on the bench beside him.
"Come on then," said Pip to the two Men. "What sort of scrapes did you two get into when you were young?"
Aragorn tried to assume an innocent air. "You think the future Chieftain of the Dunedain was a naughty child?"
"According to the sons of Lord Elrond, you were ..........now what was it they called you.......'a mischievous little bundle who was never out of mud and trouble.' Sounds about right!"
Faramir was openly sniggering by now. "A mischievous little bundle.......," he wheezed, ignoring the pained expression on his King's face.
"I'm pleased to see you've abandoned deference and ceremony at last, Faramir." Aragorn was laughing at his ability to score a point over the young man.
"Pardon me, my lord. The idea of you scampering around Rivendell was too delightful."
"I doubt if Lord Elrond saw it that way. I put a giant toad in his study once. And I happen to know that the Twins regaled the hobbits with many such stories - the stag beetle in poor Glorfindel's empty wine goblet was quite amusing. I was paid back double by these two though. They did unspeakable things to me in Rivendell, and on the early part of the Quest. I discovered that they had short-sheeted my bed, they stitched acorns inside my shirt, put pepper in my wine, thistles in the toes of my boots. Their ingenuity was endless." He gestured at the two smirking hobbits. "Frodo and Sam were blameless, but these two........"
"Actually they weren't blameless. Frodo suggested the thistles. He's not the innocent little hobbit you might think - he wasn't known as the Rascal of Buckland for nothing," said Merry. "He taught me everything I later taught Pip."
"Guilty, guilty!" Frodo held up his hands. "I was scandalously wicked as a lad - Farmer Maggot swore he would kill me after yet another raid on his mushrooms."
"Boromir always took the blame for my worst pranks - mostly because my father forgave him more readily than he did me."
"Esme and Sardoc were very tolerant and understanding. I think I was naughty because I was testing them to see if they would still love me no matter what I did. Thankfully they did, and so did Bilbo." Frodo drank deeply and savoured the taste of good ale.
"I wonder what Mithrandir thinks about an inn being named after him?" Faramir said thoughtfully.
"He loves it! He's been in here three times this week, just to try the ale, or so he says," Pippin chortled.
"What other inn names do you have here in Minas Tirith?" Merry asked Faramir.
"There's The Old Guesthouse, The Eagle, The Ship, The Winepress, The Green Gate, The Tree and Stars and The Black Bear. That one is named after a dancing bear who lived there and was very famous."
"That always seems terribly cruel, making them dance. And bear-baiting sounds even worse." Frodo shuddered. He loathed all cruelty to living creatures.
"Rest assured, Frodo, I shall be outlawing all such so-called sport. We need to re-educate those who would abuse animals for sport or financial gain. Some of the ladies of the city have rescued many of the creatures and are hoping to set up a sanctuary for them in Southern Ithilien."
Frodo smiled. "I'm so pleased. They always look so sad and frightened."
"I imagine the inn names in the Shire are very inventive?" Aragorn leaned forward, keen to learn more about the Shire.
"Goodness, yes. There's so many - The Floating Log, The Golden Perch, The Green Dragon and The Ivy Bush, which stand on the Bywater Road........................."
"Don't forget The Bouncing Bunny! That's in Tuckborough," added Pip excitedly.
"The Bouncing Bunny...........?" The two Men dissolved into laughter.
"Well, it's The Leaping Hare really, but everyone calls it The Bouncing Bunny. Just as The Black Swan at Bucklebury is known as The Dirty Duck, and The Lark and Lapwing in Newbury is called The Peewits ........The Pissed Peewits actually!" Pip went into peals of laughter.
Frodo was giggling. "That was due to Uncle Rory. When Geniality Harfoot took over the place he decided to have a new inn sign painted, but the artist was not terribly good at wildlife and the birds looked slightly odd. It wasn't terribly clear what sort of birds they were and they seem to list slightly. Uncle Rory took one look at the sign and boomed, 'They look like a couple of pissed peewits to me!' and the name stuck."
Merry was almost crying. "Grand-da Rory was the bluntest-speaking hobbit in the Shire. He tried the ale at The Dirty Duck once and told the landlord there was more water in the beer than in the Brandywine."
Sam chuckled. "He was right an'all. There's The Dog and Dumplings in Gamwich, The Fox and Kettle in Oatbarton, The Frog and Nightgown in Nobottle and The Dog and Bonnet in Whitwell. Oh, and The Cat and Fiddle in Tighfield."
"We also have a Winepress in Pincup and a Wheatsheaf at Budge Ford, and a Beehive in Little Delving."
"Not to mention The Pig and Pumpkin and The Holly Bush in Michel Delving."
"I think we should visit the Shire and stop at every inn," said Faramir.
"We'd have to stay six months and we'd be completely pie-eyed. I lost count but if there's at least one inn in every village and two in the larger ones then I'm not sure my head - or my liver - could cope!" Aragorn laughed.
The evening with the hobbits did not disappoint and it had the desired effect on Faramir, who was very cheerful when they left the inn and started their walk up to the Sixth and Seventh Levels.
"I think............," said Aragorn carefully, "..........the drinking contest was an hon............honourabibble draw!"
"Except you're unable to say honourabubble, and we can," Merry pointed out, tripping over the cobbles and clinging to Pippin for support.
"Thass beside the point," murmured Faramir, waving an arm and almost clipping his sovereign round the ear. "Oooops! I beg your pardon, my Lord. I almost took your ear off."
"Thass quite alright," said the King breezily. "I have two!" The pair exploded with mirth.
"I told you they'd all be drunk," Frodo whispered to Sam. "Hope they don't all collapse in a heap before we get there."
"I think we're drunk as well," Sam murmured. "Unless we've got two King Elessars."
"We? You think I'm intoxi......into........intocixa...........drunk?" Frodo tried to look offended but rather spoiled the effect by staggering sideways into Pippin, giggling hysterically.
Gandalf met them at the door and looked the two Men up and down with some amusement. "Drunken hobbits I am used to, but I have to say it has been worth all my labours over the past Age to see you two ........what's the seafaring expression? ................three sheets to the wind!"
"More like six!" muttered Gimli.
"What do the laws of protocol say about the King and his Steward being under the influence?" asked Legolas, trying not to smirk and failing miserably.
"Naughty, naughty!" Aragorn wagged a finger at the bemused Elf. "We have dispensed with protocol and replaced it with alcohol! It's much better, you know."
A Dwarf, and Elf and a Wizard watched the King link arms with his Steward as the two walked off, then turned their attention to a more pressing problem - how to persuade four very tipsy hobbits that cooking mushrooms in the kettle was not a good idea.
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