Challenge: Originally written for the Fabled Fellowship waymeet challenge.
Word Count: 3,580
Characters: Sam, Elanor, Frodo, Gandalf
Summary: A Shire retelling of “The Arguing Fruits” fable, which goes like this: A peach and apple were arguing about which was the most beautiful. At their loudest, a berry vine from a nearby hedge spoke up: "Please, cease your argument, at least in my presence." In other words, everyone thinks themselves the best.
“The road’s getting crowded already,” Elanor said. She and Sam were waiting in the cart at the Three Farthing Stone early one summer morning in the year 1450. Sam chucked softly to the ponies, gentling them and pulling lightly on the reins. A line of pony-drawn carts was coming up from the Tookland and merging into the road west. “Do you see Pippin?”
Sam half stood in the cart, his hand cupped over his brow. The day was already bright and warm though it was not even ten in the morning yet. “No, don’t think so.”
“I’ll bet he’s already gone ahead to Michel Delving, to see what trouble he can cause for you when you get there, Mr. Mayor.”
Sam laughed. “As like as not! And he’s hard to miss in all his finery, so he’s not with this group … probably still lying abed in Tuckborough.” He sat down and said a soft word to the ponies after the last straggler passed and the crossing was clear again except for a small cloud of dust raised by cart wheel, pony hoof and hobbit foot. The cart lurched forward and then rolled smoothly along, soon leaving Waymeet behind, village and stone, though Sam let the travelers ahead increase the distance between them. It was too fine a day to get involved in the hurly burly of traveling with a large group, and especially since he knew he’d be surrounded by all and sundry when they reached Michel Delving. So Sam made sure to keep the pace slow enough for them to fall behind. The ponies didn’t seem to mind the leisurely rate, and Sam and Elanor sat together in companionable silence. Every now and then, Eleanor bounced her knees up and down in a fair imitation of the ponies’ gait, perhaps unconsciously urging them to quicken their steps.
“Looking forward to this, Ellie?” Sam tweaked her new pink hair ribbon.
“You know I am.”
“And it won’t be too dull for you after your adventures up at Evendim and down in Gondor with all those grand folk?”
“I think I’ll manage. Anway, you never know what you might see at the fair. I think even those grand folk, as you call them, might see an eye-opener or two if they came.”
“That’s true, Ellie, that’s true …” Sam clucked to the ponies, who were showing an inclination not in just going slowly but downright stopping, not that Sam could blame them. The grass on the sides of the road was bright green and fragrant. “Though I remember one year in particular that I don’t reckon will come again … don’t suppose you want to hear about it?”
“Hmph.” But Elanor settled back with a happy sigh, leaning her head against Sam’s comfortable shoulder. His hair was going white and his face was ruddy and wrinkled from years of sun and work and smiles, but his shoulder was as welcoming as ever. “Is it too selfish of me to be glad Ma and the others aren’t leaving until tomorrow? Don’t get you to myself all that much these days, especially not since I’ve come back from the north.”
“I was thinking just the same thing, my dear. And you’ll be going off again soon, though not so far away this time.”
“That’s not ‘til next year. And I’ll only be in Greenholm, plenty close enough for visits.”
“True, though I do like having you to myself today, selfish or no. Well, if it is selfish, then I think we should enjoy our wicked ways for at least this morning. Shall I start?”
Elanor closed her eyes. “Yes, Sam-dad. Tell me everything.”
Sam closed his eyes, too, and summoned up the Free Fair of 1420, that first miraculous summer back in the Shire after coming through the Great Darkness. That was the year the new Party Tree grew so fast that hobbit children (and a fair number of gaffers and gammers) took bets as to how many inches it would grow in a week. It sprouted that fast, but there was no accounting for Elvish magic, as Sam’s Gaffer said more than once in his most ominous voice. The wonder in his eyes did much to belie the suspicion in his voice.
Sam sighed and then began, his eyes still shut. After all, the ponies knew their way to Michel Delving. Sam had been mayor more than twenty years.
“It should have been the most peaceful Free Fair ever known. And I’m not saying it wasn’t a good one, one of the very best and you know how good the fairs always are. But that was the year Applethorn and Brambleberry finally got what was coming to them. I don’t mind saying that it was a sight to see.”
“Oh, those two. They’re always making trouble.”
“Well, yes, that’s right, though I’m speaking of their fathers.” Sam laughed and waved as the entire Bolger family trotted past at a fast clip, except for Fatty, who no doubt was plodding along a few miles back with two sturdy ponies to draw his cart. “But it is true that the sons are carrying on the family tradition, in a manner of speaking.”
Elanor chortled at that. “Tradition? You mean coming to blows every year at the fair over whose beer is best?”
Sam shook his head. “What else? High point of their year, I expect.”
“And everyone else at the Fair, do you think?”
“Maybe it is. I hope not, though folk do like to see a bit of a fuss kicked up, especially if they’ve seen it played out before so they know how it ends.”
“Except for who wins.”
“Aye, that’s true. So there’s always a little surprise, though never as big a one as the summer of 1420.
Both of them fell silent for a few minutes as they thought back to fairs past and wondered about the ones to come. When Sam spoke again, they were on the White Downs; the land rose and fell in green slopes and the occasional chalk outcrop.
“What did your Ma pack for our second breakfast?”
“Best pull over and let’s find out. There’s a nice tree to sit under. And we’ve only another few miles to go.”
There was more than a nice tree. There was a loud stream flowing to meet them from the crest of the hill they were approaching, and the ponies were glad to see it. Soon they had stopped, spread a clean cloth on the grass and laid out a nice second breakfast of a whole cheese and mushroom pie and big handfuls of dark red cherries bursting with juice. They washed it all down with the stream’s clean water.
They were quiet while they ate, so all they heard (other than their own chewing and swallowing) were the ponies drinking and the brook splashing over stones.
Sam finished first and leaned back against the tree trunk, his hands clasped behind his neck. Elanor moved away a little and lay in the thick grass in the sun, wrinkling her nose appreciatively.
“It happened that first summer after we came back and Rosie was waiting for me,” Sam said in a low and dreamy voice. “Never quite figured out how she knew I was coming back but there it was, she did. Didn’t look a bit surprised to see me.” He shook his head and sat up a little straighter.
Elanor prodded him with her foot. “Go on. I’ve heard that one before.”
He obeyed her but not until he got up and wandered over to the stream to plunge his head into the water. “There, now,” he said when he settled back down beneath the tree, wiping his face and hair with his hands and shaking his head. “Best to be full awake when telling an old story. I think I’ll last now for a bit. Where was I?
“The fair started like all the others. Well, maybe that’s not exactly right since it was Mr. Frodo who was acting Mayor and he presided at the banquet. Well, that’s not exactly right neither since both he and Will Whitfoot took the chair. Mr. Frodo handed back the office to Will that night … though not before things came to a head, you might say, and I don’t just mean there was a good head of foam on all our mugs.”
“Yes, those two. And you’ve got that exactly right, too, Ellie, because those were the words Mr. Frodo said to me when we arrived at the fairgrounds. We were staying at Michel Delving for a few days before the fair started so Mr. Frodo could see to Shire business, but things didn’t really heat up until that Brambleberry arrived the day before the judging and the banquet, just as expected.
“Not that he’d stay at the White Cat, what with it being owned by Applethorn and his father before him and now by his son, it all being tied up tight by the family for as far back as anyone can remember. Not that I’m saying as it should be any different. But as for Brambleberry, he always camped out on the fairgrounds. He said it was on account of his being a simple man, used to the quiet ways of Haysend down by the Withywindle.” Sam snorted. “Everyone said he just wanted to make sure no one tampered with his beer.”
“No!” Elanor had heard that before many times but it still shocked her and Sam still loved to see that innocence reflected on her face.
Sam nodded vigorously. “And they said he wouldn’t set foot in the White Cat though he was eager to tell all and sundry how superior his own Bird and Baby was if they ever found themselves in South Buckland and in need of a tankard of his best.”
It was Elanor’s turn to snort. “I’ve heard his son say that, more than once.”
“And no doubt you’ve heard Applethorn saying the same about the White Cat’s brew. But that summer when Mr. Frodo was still mayor, those two outdid themselves in bragging. I remember it just as if it happened yesterday. Come on now, it’s drawing on to noon. We’d best go on.”
Sam harnessed the ponies and soon they set off again, at a fair clip when going downhill and not so fast when going uphill, but making good time all in all. Eventually, the cart drew up to the crest of a steep hill and there, spread out before them a mile or so in the distance, lay Michel Delving shining in the sun, or so it seemed, hobbit village that it was, if a little larger than most. Today it seemed as though the village was surrounded by a second village, though this one was made up of tents large and small of all colors.
Sam pulled the cart a little to the side of the road to let passersby get around them and then set the brake. “Oh, that’s a sight that always warms my heart though I’ve seen it now near seventy years.” He looked at Elanor. “How does it compare to Minas Tirith?” But Elanor was too busy smiling at the scene below to come up with a smart retort so Sam let it lie and continued with his story.
“I’d best finish now. We won’t have time once we get down there. Well, there they were, shouting to beat the band, those two, when Mr. Frodo and Will Whitfoot and I got to the beer judging area.”
“What were they saying?” Elanor said, her eyes still on Michel Delving. “Not that you really need to tell me. I’ve heard it before.”
“Not quite. When we arrived, Applethorn was saying, ‘Best brew I’ve ever made, and that’s saying a lot! It’s no use you even entering your Withy-water, dirty stuff anyways, I tell ‘ee! And not this year, not when my beer’s the best it’s ever been. Now my beer is always good, none finer, but this year it’s as if it’s had a … a … spell put on it!’
“Now, Brambleberry kept quiet, though his face soon resembled a very ripe brambleberry, dark purple you’d call it. Not a pretty sight. As soon as Applethorn stopped speechifying to take a breath, Brambleberry stepped right in. ‘Spell? Well, then, my friend … we’re right even. I’m sure my beer’s had a mighty enchantment laid on it, and I’ve never tasted a better year, and that’s saying even more than you. What do you think of that?’
“I’m sure Applethorn would have had a lot to say in response and all of it to no point, but Mr. Frodo, being the wise gentlehobbit that he was, stepped in. ‘It looks like the judges will have a stiff challenge this year, my friends. I wish I could have a big tankard of both your brews immediately, but of course I cannot.’ And with that, Mr. Frodo just rambled on and on, soothing both of them while at the same time giving the eye to Will Whitfoot, who somehow understood that Mr. Frodo wanted the two innkeepers separated. So while Mr. Frodo took Brambleberry by the arm and led him off a ways, asking how things were down by the Withywindle, Wil Whitfoot took charge of Applethorn, and so the two were separated for the moment.”
“Surely that didn’t last!”
“Certainly not! Though I must confess I enjoyed it while it was happening. Now, you know I thought the world of Mr. Frodo, but he was not exactly a talkative one all the time, and especially after we came back from our travels. It reminded me of that time at the Prancing Pony when he jumped onto a table and starting singing about the man in the moon.” Sam laughed at the memory.
“Except poor Frodo didn’t have any ring to put on to help him disappear when he fell.”
“No, he didn’t. As it should be. But I can’t help telling you that I enjoyed it. Just a little bit.”
“That’s all right, I’ll keep your secret. That is, as long as you tell me what happened next. Surely that didn’t fix the situation.”
“Well, things stayed relatively quiet until the next day – judging day. Mr. Frodo did not look forward to that. You can’t blame him neither. After all, he’d never judged before, not having been the Mayor or one of the Shiriffs or Bounders as are always on the judging panel. ‘Sam,’ he said to me that morning as we were getting up and washing our faces, ‘I’ve always thought the beer judging system was right and fair. Until now. I don’t mind telling you, I am not looking forward to this, but let’s go. Best get this over and then I won’t have to worry about it next year.’”
Sam stopped for a minute and shook his head, looking down at his hands. “I never did really think what that meant, just thought he meant he wouldn’t be a judge because he wouldn’t be mayor any more. Didn’t think it meant anything else. Took me a while to put two and two together.”
“It’s all right, Sam-dad.” Elanor’s voice was soft, even softer than the hand she rested on Sam’s hand. “Let’s go, and you can tell me the rest on the way.”
“Right.” Sam picked up the reins and guided the ponies back onto the road. “The beer tasting contest was held that afternoon, same as it always was, so we could raise a tankard to the winner during the banquet that night. Things grew heated, as you might say, with that Applethorn and Brambleberry near coming to blows just before Mr. Frodo was going to announce the winner. I can see him now. He was all dressed up in his best embroidered weskit. He kept fishing into one of the pockets but that wasn’t no use to him anymore.
“He said, ‘It is my great honor to announce this year’s beer champion.’ Then he made a mistake, or so I thought at first. He stopped to clear his throat and that gave those two a chance for making a little more noise.
“‘Mine!’ cried Applethorn, stepping up real close to Mr. Frodo. ‘There ain’t no question of it this year, not unlike some other years when the judges weren’t so fair.’
“Mr. Frodo went a little pale at that.
“’What are you talking about?’ Brambleberry shouted, stepping right up to Mr. Frodo on the other side so that poor Mr. Frodo was hemmed in by those two. ‘I tell you, I know I’ve had an enchantment laid down on my beer. Anyway, ‘twould be the best by any judging! That is, when the judging is fair, like it will be this year.’
Sam’s face broke into a bright smile. “We’d all been so busy looking at what those numbskulls were doing and wondering what Mr. Frodo was going to do… not that I’d have let those two harm him, of course you know that.”
Elanor poked Sam. “What then?”
“It was Gandalf. In all the commotion, we hadn’t seen him drive up in a big cart with two big horses pulling it though not Shadowfax. ‘What’s going on here, my friends?’ he said, giving those two his best frightening look. Worked, too, they shut right up and then Gandalf got the story out of Frodo.
“‘Hmm,’ Gandalf said after Mr. Frodo finished. He was still sitting in his cart, way high up so we all had to crane our necks to see him, though a few Tooks were poking around the contents of the cart … full of big barrels it was.”
“That’s right. Gandalf says to Mr. Frodo, ‘I see I might have come too late, but if not, I bring you another contender for the beer competition, with Butterbur’s respects and hopes that it might be acceptable.’ Mr. Gandalf snorted at that, and rightly so, if you remember the enchantment he’d laid on Butterbur’s beer when he’d passed through Bree on me and Mr. Frodo’s trail.
“Gandalf climbed down off the cart and made his way to Mr. Frodo, snorting a little more, this time right at Brambleberry, and muttering, ‘Enchantment on your beer … hmph. I’ll show you enchantment.’
“After a little more tasting and consulting among the judges, Mr. Frodo declared the beer presented by the Prancing Pony was the winner of 1420’s beer competition. And that settled that,” Sam said and slowed down as they approached the outskirts of Michel Delving and all its brightly-colored tents.
“Oh, I would have loved to have seen Applethorn and Brambleberry’s faces when Gandalf showed up!” Elanor said.
“It was a sight, I’ll tell you that. And even more, it shut them up.”
“For how long?”
“Well, at least as long as old Gandalf was about the place, but not for long. Gave them enough fodder to chew on for the next few years, something they could unite on, you might say. Oh they went on and on about the unfairness of 1420’s judging. They almost became friends over it, but eventually they remembered how much they disliked each other and went back to their old ways. I don’t suppose we’ll see such a contest as that one again. Nor any Big People at the Fair, man or wizard.”
Elanor squeezed Sam’s arm and sighed. “I can’t help it. It makes me a little sad that they can’t come here.”
“You didn’t see them back then, when they took over the Shire while Mr. Frodo and I were gone. Rampaging ruffians one and all, as your Ma always says.”
“Not all of them, at least not now.” Elanor’s face flared bright pink to match her hair ribbons.
“That’s right,” Sam said, his voice a little wistful. “But the King is a good man and knew what he was about when he closed the borders to Big Folk.”
Sam pulled up by the Town Hole and set the brake. “Whoa, now … yes, Applethorn and Brambleberry went back to their old ways soon enough and Mr. Frodo was gone by the following year, and Gandalf went with him. I saw them both onto their silver boat.” He turned to Elanor and stroked her pink ribbon. “And now you’ll be going next year when you marry Fastred.”
Elanor’s heart sank. “But not forever, Sam-dad. You know I’d never leave you forever. And I’m only going to the west of the Shire, not west of Middle-earth, at least not unless you go first.”
Sam swung down from the cart and held out his arms to help Elanor. Once they were both on the ground, they embraced for a minute. “I know, my treasure. I know.”
They pulled back and then, linking arms, walked into the Town Hole. Just as they stepped over the threshold, they heard something that made them stop a moment and look back.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times … there ain’t no call for you to be entering the beer contest this year, Applethorn … no call at all! Why, my beer’s as good as it was back in my dad’s day, even better than that year Mad Baggins cheated him out of the title and gave it to that old wanderin’ conjuror …”