Of Dwarvish Ale and the Fairer Sex
by Ariel (email@example.com)
Summary: My attempt at following the incomparable... Aratlithiel's 'Of Dwarvish Ale and Battle Scars' - a scathingly funny and delightful look at how a hobbit can best two of Gondor's finest. A true treat.
This story begins immediately after the events in Aratlithiel's story.
Author's Note: I must blame this one entirely on Aratlithiel . It was her lovely story "Of Dwarvish Ale and Battle Scars" that began it. There I was, minding my own business when she drops this line in my lap... and I quote..."Soooo...I don't suppose you'd be interested in doing a sequel to Ale, eh?"
She's very hard to say no to, you realize?
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, written solely for the love of the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and situations used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises. The author receives no money or other remuneration for presenting this work but the pleasure of enjoying the Professor's creations. This work is the intellectual property of the author and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.
A meal of cold meats and cheeses, warm bread from the oven and a tart apple compote revived the revelers enough to at least get them on their feet. Or at least most of them. Frodo sprang up spryly though he had to check himself as the room swayed and his balance faltered. Aragorn, also restored by the food, stood more warily, using the back of a nearby chair to support himself. Faramir rolled onto his side and looked up at the swaying, disheveled form of Frodo who looked down at him with a perky, flush faced grin. Faramir groaned and tried to raise himself on his hands. It was no use. The world was spinning too fast for him to even consider getting up. He sank back and raised his bleary eyes to Frodo again. The hobbit was looking at him brightly, apparently delighted to see the much larger man brought low by what Frodo seemed to consider a meager amount of ale. Faramir let out a great sigh, conceding defeat.
"You're a cheeky little sod. You know that, don't you?" he slurred and dropped flat on the floor again.
Aragorn howled with laughter and almost lost his grip on the chair. Even Gandalf, waiting to escort the inebriated hobbit back to their dwelling, laughed mightily. Frodo merely grinned more broadly and blinked his glassy eyes trying, and failing miserably, to look as if he were completely in control of himself.
"It is good to see the blood of Numenor produces such doughty men," he quipped. "And now, my dear Gandalf, if you would be so kind?" Frodo motioned towards the nearly empty cask. Gandalf stopped mid-chortle and raised an eyebrow in astonishment. "Well, you don't expect me to carry it do you?" the hobbit continued, choosing that moment to list and only just catching himself against the table. "As you yourself pointed out, I'm not so long out of bed." Frodo smiled smugly and Gandalf chuckled again.
"You have a point there, my dear boy. Though I dare say, I ought to stuff you inside and roll you home in it for all the trouble you have caused!" He stooped, re-stoppered the cask and lifted the now considerably lighter burden onto his shoulder. "Now, back to the house, you rapscallion! And walk before me where I can keep both my eyes on you. If you can do this to the Steward and the King, imagine what mischief you could unleash on some poor soul not familiar with your scandalous ways!" Gandalf tried to glower at him from under his great brows but he could not manage to hide his amusement. The hobbit was trying to straighten his attire, though he seemed not to realize that one of his braces was down around his hip, and his shirttail was hanging out from beneath his unbuttoned waistcoat. He took up his coat and Gandalf tried very hard not to laugh outright at his attempts to look dignified as he struggled into it.
"Have a care, Gandalf," Frodo warned as he tried to pat his collar into place. "You make light of my condition, but I'd be interested to see what state you were in after several mugs of dwarvish brew. I seem to recall Bilbo telling me of a certain inn in the city of Dale…?"
"That will be enough of that, my friend," Gandalf warned. He stepped aside and motioned Frodo to precede him, something the hobbit did with a lurch and a quick recovery. From the floor, Faramir opened an eye and peered at the small retreating back.
"See?" he slurred. "Whad I tell you? Cheeky." And with that, the ale claimed him.
Pippin was already looking hurt and angry when Frodo and Gandalf approached the house. He had apparently been made aware of Gimli's gift and was waiting for his cousin's return to inquire of its whereabouts. Pippin might not have been as worldly wise as his other cousins, but one look at Frodo's stumbling gait, his flushed and rosy cheeks and the cask Gandalf toted under one arm and even the young Took was able to deduce what had happened. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his cousin, his sharp features set with righteous indignation. Frodo tried to keep a straight and serious expression out of respect for Pippin's ire, but the sight of the sullen younger Took preparing to castigate his elder rather than the more usual other way around was more than Frodo could bear. He began to giggle again. Pippin's mouth fell open, then shut again as he worked out whether he should be amused to see Frodo in this rare state or outraged that it was HIS ale that obviously got him that way.
"The least you could have done," Pippin admonished with a pout, "would have been to share it." He looked regretfully at the cask Gandalf set on the step. From the sound of its sloshing contents there wasn't more than a mug or two left in it.
"Hello?" Frodo slurred. "I'll have you know I did share it. With both the Steward and the King! They were delighted with your generosity!" And then he hiccupped. Pippin still looked disgusted.
"Fat lot of good that did me," he scowled.
"Well, Pip, you have to admit, the last time you got your hands on dwarvish ale, you caused quite a stir." Merry came from around the side of the little house and leaned against the pillar that supported the portico. He was sizing up his swaying cousin with growing amusement. "Though I dare say, unless you are planning to bring a stool, the Gondorian ladies are probably safer from you than the lasses back home were."
Pippin blushed at the memory but would not be deterred from his indignation. "I learned my lesson, Merry. I'd have put my mug down before I got that bad this time."
At that comment, three sets of eyebrows raised in astonishment, though Frodo's was accompanied by another fit of giggles.
"Oh, Pip!" he cried at last getting himself under some semblance of control. "I am sorry! I will make it up to you, I promise! You shall have anything I can give you in recompense. I was only trying to spare you from having too much to explain the next morning!" Frodo hiccupped again and stumbled forward to drape a friendly arm around Pippin's shoulder. He looked at said shoulder curiously, as if only then realizing it was a good deal higher off the ground than it had used to be. "Hmmm..." muttered Frodo and Pippin could smell the ale on his breath. "Maybe you wouldn't need a step stool after all."
"He's completely crocked," Pippin said with disgust.
"As are Faramir and Aragorn, from the way they looked when we left them," added Gandalf. The wizard had found a seat next to the freshly planted blue flowered bush, and was sitting back contentedly watching the interplay. He looked mightily amused. "I'd say your gift was greatly enjoyed by all."
"All save the one it was intended for," Pippin grumped.
"What's this?!" Samwise Gamgee entered the small yard carrying a mate to the shrub he had just planted, his fingers and apron still dirty from the setting of the first. He saw the way Frodo was leaning on Pippin and was instantly concerned. Perhaps his master had suffered a relapse of some sort? He started forward but before he'd gotten two steps, Frodo waved at him good-naturedly…
…a little TOO good-naturedly. It was then that Sam noted the over bright smile that was plastered to Frodo's face and the flush that covered his cheeks and nose. "Mr. Frodo, sir? Are you alright?" he asked, confused.
Frodo laughed and nodded so vigorously that he almost lost his balance and had to cling to Pippin for support.
"Never better!" he answered cheerily and Pippin rolled his eyes.
"He's drunk!" exclaimed Sam, restating the plainly obvious and Merry started laughing again.
"Yes, stinking. He's also been engaging in thievery and putting this fine city's king and steward out of commission." Merry looked positively delighted with the whole situation. "I say, Sam, you should keep a better eye on him next time."
Sam scowled at Merry and put the shrub down on the opposite side of the entry. "Mr. Merry, Mr. Frodo's a grown gentlehobbit and if he'd like an ale or two, that's his never mind. It's not my place to say whether or no. Besides," he whispered to Merry from the corner of his mouth. "It was Captain Faramir's turn to watch him." He paused by Frodo's side and returned the bright, glassy eyed grin a bit tentatively. "Thievery?" he asked.
"It was a barrel of dwarvish ale that had been a gift for me!" Pippin snorted indignantly.
"Ah," sighed Sam, taking Frodo's arm and guiding him over towards one of the other benches. "So he was doing us all a favor then."
Pippin's outraged "Sam!" was drowned in the roar of laughter that erupted from the rest of the party. Frodo giggled so uncontrollably that he fell over despite Sam's sturdy arm and lay gasping in hysterics on the grass. Merry and Gandalf, seeing his antics, nearly joined him. Sam smiled with satisfaction but his concern for his master's well being tempered his humor.
"Now, Mr. Frodo, you've barely gotten up from your sickbed," he admonished. "You're not up to be gallivanting around like this. It'll take a powerful toll tomorrow, it will. Mark my words." He helped a gasping, red-faced Frodo to his feet again. "The head's worse when you're run down, I know, but if we get you to bed now and let you sleep it off with some willow bark tea in you, it'll help."
"All right Sam," coughed Frodo, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. "You win. I'll go quietly. I dare say I'm not in a fit state to do much in the way of resisting, at any rate. Lead on!"
Despite Sam's tender care, the head was much worse in the morning. Frodo stumbled down to the dining hall cursing the 'clever' soul who had seen fit to put stairs in a house. They were hard, dangerous devices that tripped up the person trying to traverse them and put you high enough into the air that when you did inevitably stumble, you had quite a ways to fall.
"Good morning, cousin," came Pippin's voice, disgustingly cheerful in its youthful brightness. "Did you sleep well?"
Frodo eyed him dubiously and poured himself a cup of tea from the sideboard. Many of Frodo's favorite foods could not be got in Gondor, but he was ever so grateful that tea, a product of these southern regions anyway, was readily available. He wrapped his fingers around the warm mug and carried it carefully to the table.
"You are uncommonly merry for someone who should by rights be disgusted with me," Frodo's hoarse voice grated into the morning room. "I should have thought you would not be speaking with me today... Or at least not until luncheon."
Pippin looked decidedly mischievous, and far too self satisfied for Frodo's comfort. The older hobbit took a sip of his tea, hoping the steaming liquid would clear the cobwebs in his mind well enough for him to determine what had caused his cousin to become so unexpectedly chipper.
"Oh, I am not upset with you, Frodo," Pippin purred. "You were, after all just looking after me, I do understand." Frodo felt the trap, he just couldn't see it.
"...but?" Frodo prompted, knowing from Pippin's tone there was more he was aching to say.
Pippin did not disappoint him. "But..." he said nodding. "It seems that Captain Faramir has been studying hobbit customs." Pippin's grin broadened with calculated delight. "He also, it seems, felt guilty for depriving me of my present yesterday. So, since today is his birthday, in accordance with our custom, he has seen fit to gift me." Pippin leaned over his empty breakfast dishes staring deep into Frodo's bloodshot blue eyes. He hovered there ominously for a moment, in order to assure himself he had Frodo's undivided, if worried attention. He held two fingers in front of his face and winked from behind them. "Two barrels of dwarvish ale."
Frodo's heart sank. He was in no condition to make off with even one more cask, let alone two. Though the steward's condition this morning had to be worse than Frodo's, Faramir had devised an elegant revenge by providing the young Took with exactly what Frodo had worked so diligently to deny him. For a moment Frodo wondered if he should, out of spite, let Pippin loose on the unwitting citizens of Gondor. He groaned and laid his head on the table. No, that would be too cruel and inhuman a punishment, even for Faramir.
"It's all right, cousin. You can relay your appreciation to the Captain himself at this afternoon's birthday celebration. I am sure he'd be delighted to receive it." Pippin's jolly tone suggested he knew exactly how thankful Frodo was feeling towards Faramir at that moment.
"Oh, believe me," Frodo answered. "I shall. I most certainly shall."
Frodo had felt some perverse satisfaction in noting that Faramir looked far worse than he did. The birthday celebration went well, but while Faramir and Frodo were nursing hangovers, Aragorn looked relatively untouched by his ordeal. He was bright and cheery but there was a wicked gleam in his eye as he sat by his steward and Eowyn. He toasted them repeatedly and made certain Faramir's glass remained full. He also made several special mentions and toasts to Frodo, attending to his goblet in the same manner. Neither Frodo nor Faramir were amused.
The luncheon was blissfully short, by Faramir's expressed design, no doubt, and by mid-afternoon Frodo was back in his own rooms in Gandalf's house. He was desperate for quiet, a lie down and another cup of willow bark tea. He stripped himself of his court finery and found a warm cotton tunic that was only a couple of sizes too large. Most of the wardrobe he had been offered was larger than that but Frodo was unwilling to bother his hosts for better fitting garments. The city was just coming from long privation and siege and many folk were lacking even the barest of essentials. A properly fitting tunic was something Frodo could do without until the basic needs of the people were met.
"Mr. Frodo, sir?" Sam let himself into the room and eyed his master with affectionate concern. "I told Master Pippin and Mr. Merry that you'd be down soon as you'd had a bit of rest. What with parties being such a stress and you not more than a month out of bed…." He frowned. "Is the head no better, sir?" he asked to Frodo's wincing grimace.
"Not much, Sam," he answered. "I could go for a cup of your tea, if I could get it."
"I'll get it straight away, sir." The other hobbit grinned. "Perhaps you should have let Master Pippin have that ale, knowing how youngsters bounce back from these things, and all." Sam laughed. "Then it'd be him that was nursing the sore head."
Frodo grinned wryly. "Yes, and we'd still be paying for the damages! No Sam, I'd rather suffer an aching head than deal with Pippin drunk on dwarvish ale again. You weren't there the last time!" He shuddered. "I've never seen anyone with that much stamina! But now, thanks to the dear steward, we're facing the same problem again!" He waved Sam off. "Oh, we'll think of something. In any event, if Gondor could handle the army of the Dark Lord, it could probably withstand one tipsy Took!"
Sam chuckled and left for the tea. Frodo went to the window and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his back. They had a lovely view of the city from Gandalf's house. The new stonework showed up bright white against the slightly duller original walls. Gardens dotted the encircling city, some neatly tended and others wild and choked with weeds. It would take quite some time before Gondor was prosperous again, but Frodo had no fears for it. Aragorn was a good man, probably the best, and had become a mighty king - even if a world-weary and battered hobbit could still out drink him.
He rubbed his still stubbornly aching head. What he needed was a long brisk walk, or a ride in the countryside to warm his blood and get his body working right again. He was feeling old, far older than his 51 years. By rights he should have been in his prime, but Frodo knew his peak was gone, stolen, sacrificed to the evil of the Ring. His youth, so long artificially preserved by its evil, was now lost to him. His joints were beginning to creak and there were times when weakness washed over him like a flood. He tired quickly and despite being able to drink a man or two under the table, his tolerance for the delectable dwarvish brew was not what it had once been. The signs were there. His trial and the loss of the Ring had aged him more in one year than twenty peaceful ones had in the Shire. He still hoped he could spend the rest of his life in comfort as Bilbo had, but there were things he had wanted, plans he had once made for his future that would now never come to pass. Time had caught him up.
A great weariness began to settle on Frodo and he decided that sleep might serve him even better than the contemplated walk. It was inevitable, he supposed. If he was growing prematurely old, he should expect to have an increasing need for naps. At least answering this call would be a pleasant and easy experience. He climbed into his bed and pulled the covers up tight, delighting in the simple pleasure of clean sheets and being able to rest when he wanted to. He sighed, utterly content. His head eased into the comfort of soft pillows and warm blankets and he was able to relax at last. By the time Sam returned with the tea, he was sound asleep.
Sam placed the cup on the nearby table and discretely placed a hand on his master's brow. No fever and the furrows of pain that had seemed engraved there through the morning were easing. Sam was pleased to see his master resting, but worries continued to plague him. Frodo still looked so tired and worn and yet he seemed unwilling to trouble the other hobbits, even his Sam, with any complaint. 'I'd take less of his regard and more of that burden,' Sam thought. 'If only the poor dear would let me. It still weighs heavy on him even with that blasted ring melted and gone'.'
He'd always loved the Bagginses; they were the best masters a body could hope for, but the trials he and Frodo had endured had drawn them tighter than master and servant, bound them in a way that nothing else could have. Frodo had become more than dear and Sam almost regretted seeing the older hobbit fade back into his habitual and proper reserve. But it was also oddly comforting. Frodo would always be close to his heart, and he close to Frodo's; the bond that had been forged between them was unbreakable, but it was time that things were getting back to normal. Sam straightened the counterpane and drew it up over his master's shoulder. Now that all the adventuring was over with, they needed to get back to the business of living. After a bit of rest in Strider's fine city, he was sure they'd be off home again, back to the Shire. Then everything would be all right. Sam took a last look at Frodo's sleeping face. Still too thin, too worn with care and trial. He didn't think he would be truly satisfied until he had Mr. Frodo back home again and settled, fed up and healthy once more. He smiled and with that hopeful wish firmly etched in his mind, let himself out again.
"It's a splendid idea, Pippin," Gandalf nodded, his pipe in one hand and his tea in another. "I believe it would be very enlightening to see which of you manages to outlast his companions! I've already seen what a Baggins can do against men, but against an opponent of comparable fortitude? That would be interesting indeed."
Frodo's interest piqued at the sound of his name and he stumbled down the hated steps into the dining hall to see what mischief was afoot. Pippin and Gandalf were alone at the table which sported the remains of a supper Frodo's stomach reminded him he had not eaten. He perused the sideboard and found some apples and cheese and brought it and a cup of tea to join his friends.
"Feeling better, Frodo?" Gandalf asked politely.
"Much," the hobbit answered. "As fit as ever thanks to a good rest and Sam's tea. Ready to tackle anything." Over his cup he saw the glance that Gandalf gave Pippin, and wondered if he would regret that comment. "Well, very nearly. What were the two of you discussing just now?"
Pippin's answering smile had the same quality as the one that he had given while gleefully announcing Faramir's gift of two casks of ale. Frodo almost choked on his tea.
"Since you lot are so concerned about me becoming a terror with my ale, I have decided to put your minds to rest. I'm inviting you all to a friendly evening of drink, song and merriment. This evening, if you are up to it, cousin, we will tap those casks and have ourselves a grand time in the confines of Gandalf's house. No ale houses, no accosting of ladies on the street, no barns and no need to worry about Peregrin Took, for he'll be under your watchful eyes all evening."
"This sounds quite suspicious, Gandalf." Frodo looked up at his friend's falsely innocent expression. "Looks it too. Almost like Pippin was blackmailing you?" He looked from one noncommittal face to the other and then fastened on Gandalf's. "Caught you conjuring some of that funny pipe weed again, has he?"
One bushy eyebrow lifted, pulling a corner of the wizard's mouth into a challenging smirk.
"I assure you, my dear Frodo," Gandalf said steadily, "that I've been caught at nothing. I merely saw an opportunity for a jolly time with old friends and good ale. What could possibly be suspicious in that?"
"You're being awfully distrustful, Frodo," Pippin cut in, "The point of my argument was that I was suggesting a way I could enjoy my ale without you lot worrying over me."
"Ah, yes, the point," Frodo agreed. "The point is that a wizard with questionable motives is encouraging my young cousin to indulge in what has, in the past, proven to lower his already scant inhibitions…" Frodo paused and shot a meaningful glare at the Took. "…among other things."
Pippin managed to blush and smirk all at once. Frodo only continued to glare.
Not to be so easily put off, Pippin leaned in and said, "Our dear Gandalf seems to have more faith in Tooks than you do, cousin. And you with all of that Took blood running through your pickled veins. For shame! Perhaps you're a bit worried that a full-blooded Took might prove handier with dwarvish ale than even your legendary capacity. You are, after all," Pippin paused and grinned wickedly at his cousin, "only part Took."
Gauntlet thrown, Pippin sat back, grinning. Reasonable and wise his cousin may be, but there wasn't a Baggins since the line began (with the possible exception of the Sackville branch) who could resist a challenge. He watched his cousin's brows lift and his mouth twitch ever so slightly and Pippin knew that he had won.
Frodo looked dubiously at Gandalf. "Your doors are all able to be locked?" The wizard nodded.
"Windows as well."
Frodo sized up his cousin who was rolling his eyes in mock disgust. "All right, then, Pippin. You may have your fun. We'll settle in for ale and songs after I've had a proper supper. Round up your cousin and Sam and we'll set to. Trapped in this house you can be as wild as you like and it will only serve to entertain us."
"Entertain indeed," added Gandalf his dark eyes twinkling merrily. "I've had the pleasure of many a Took's company at table over the years and it has never failed to provide me with an interesting experience. I can at least count on a laugh though occasionally I find something even more pleasant." He took a puff on his pipe by way of explanation and his eyes positively twinkled. Frodo had to laugh.
"Well, I suppose with you nearby, even Pippin can't get into too much trouble, eh? Why my dear Gandalf, why ever are you looking at me that way?"
And so it was that four hobbits and a wizard found themselves in the dining hall with two casks of ale and plenty of pipeweed; a perfect recipe for merriment. The evening began with Pippin leading the toasts and calling for Frodo to sing. Frodo graciously accepted the charge and, as Gandalf had never heard it, provided the selfsame tune he had sung at the Prancing Pony in Bree. Gandalf was delighted and didn't seem the least disappointed that Frodo opted not to leap at the appropriate parts. Remembering the result of the last such escapade, the ring-bearer decided to save himself both embarrassment and a painful tumble.
Merry sang several songs of Buckland next, and Frodo happily joined him. These were the tunes he had sung as a child and their melodies brought back fond memories of warmth, good food and cheery company. Sam and Pippin listened on, delighted. They both knew the songs well enough to sing them but it didn't seem proper to join in somehow. The songs of Buckland were for Bucklanders and didn't suit the tongues of those who called another part of the Shire home.
At about the third round of ales, the hobbits started in on some of Bilbo's favorite songs. These they all knew, though Frodo was by far the most familiar with them. His clear voice, still strong and youthful, rang out with enthusiasm, coursing over the melodies that reminded him keenly of his beloved uncle. 'Oh, how he would have loved this!' thought Frodo. The merriment, the ale, and the good friends and family gathered round would have filled the old hobbit with delight. For a moment, he faltered, his voice catching. Indeed, Bilbo was the only one missing from this party and Frodo was suddenly aware of how desperately he missed his beloved cousin. Sam leaned forward and laid a hand gently on his master's arm, his eyes questioning.
"They'd understand if you'd a need to bow out, Sir," he whispered. "What with your being so recently sick and from last night, and all." Frodo shook his head.
"It's all right," he assured them. "I was just wishing Bilbo could have been here. He would have admonished us all for butchering his best songs!"
"Hear, hear!" cried Merry. "To cousin Bilbo! A worthy hobbit if there ever was one, and the only person I would have let my dear Frodo leave the bosom of my family for! A toast!" He raised his mug and his friends did likewise. Pippin held up his hand for silence. His face was serious and he looked each one of them in the eye as he spoke.
"Though I didn't know Bilbo well, I can judge his quality by the hobbit he raised as his own son. And since that hobbit is the best I have ever known, I must conclude that Bilbo is also a paragon! A toast to Bilbo AND to Frodo! The two best hobbits in the Shire!" A rousing cheer was raised and Frodo felt his cheeks warming. He would probably have differed with Pippin's assessment. He knew of three more of the best hobbits in the Shire - and they were sharing his table at that very moment.
Sam took a long pull on his ale and wiped the tan froth from his lips. He looked puzzled. "See here," he said slowly as if pondering something of great import. "That's not right, strictly speaking. You can't say 'in the Shire' 'cause neither of them's in the Shire right now..." He looked up to see three sets of eyes staring at him and blushed. "Well, all right," he grumbled sheepishly. "But you can't expect sense outta me after four mugs of that dwarvish brew. It plum chases it right out of your head."
Frodo grinned. "It sounded as if you were being quite logical for four mugs, actually. What say you, Gandalf?" He turned to the corner by the fireplace and was astonished to see the wizard slumped back in his chair. His mug dangled loosely from his hand and his pipe, thankfully unlit, rested in his lap. At just that moment, a loud snore issued from his mouth and the hobbits burst into laughter.
"Well, he's out of the running..." giggled Pippin.
"I've been meaning to ask," prompted Frodo. "However did you manage to get Gandalf to agree to a drinking competition? The way he watches after me I would never have expected him to agree to it."
Pippin cocked an eyebrow at his elder cousin. "I think you surprised him, actually. Gandalf commented on how he was astonished at your capacity, for drink, that is, and said he had never before noted that hobbits had such high tolerances for ale, as compared to men, I would suppose. He also murmured something about being reminded you were your own master." Pippin shrugged. "I told him that your tolerance was legendary, but since I had never been given the chance to display my own abilities, he should reserve his judgment." The tween looked far too inordinately pleased with himself and took a carefully considered sip of his own fourth ale.
"Pippin! You are a scoundrel! Encouraging such irresponsible behavior! You should be ashamed!" Frodo looked over at Gandalf, oblivious in his chair, his mug beginning to spill from his loosening grip. Gandalf had probably not needed much encouragement from Pippin. The wizard enjoyed a mug of ale as much as any hobbit though his lack of resistance to the dwarvish brews was a fact of Baggins family history. Frodo chuckled, feeling a decided dearth of sympathy for his friend's predicament. He of all people should have known better than to compete with a hobbit when ale was involved. Frodo hiccupped. "Besides," he said raising his mug and looking down his nose at his young cousin. "You don't stand a chance of winning."
Sam, who, if he'd been more sober, might have protested his master's competition in such a contest, howled with laughter and nearly fell off his chair. Merry was in the middle of a long pull of ale and nearly spat the foaming liquid across the room at his cousin's comment. Pippin's eyes lit up with a fire that should have terrified Frodo, but the older hobbit was busy draining his own fourth mug.
"We'll just see, cousin, shall we? How about a fifth round? Sam? You are nearest the tap, set us up again."
"Yes," agreed Merry. "Another round. And this time a tribute to good lasses everywhere! Be they brave shieldmaidens or plump and inviting hobbit lasses. To the maidens that inspire us!" He raised his cup, downed the remainder in one gulp and handed it to Sam for refilling.
"To fair maidens everywhere," agreed Frodo and then he added in a sad whisper, "And to the one I never met. Salute!" He studied the last dregs of his mug for a moment and then upended the nearly empty vessel into his mouth. As he handed it to Sam, his friend looked at him with eyes nearly brimming with tears.
"Oh, sir... That's... That's powerful sad," he sniffed. "But you've got plenty of good years left in you, Mr. Frodo. Perhaps once we've got back to the Shire you can find yourself a nice missus and settle down?"
"Oh, Frodo," murmured Merry. "That is sad. I never realized you wanted to marry! I always thought you were like Bilbo. Content with the bachelor life and with no desire for a lady."
At that, Pippin snorted into his ale and succeeded in spilling the remainder of his mug on himself. Frodo leveled a warning glance at him.
"To be honest, Merry, I was never closed to the idea of marriage, but never found anyone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Bilbo, on the other hand, was quite contented with his lot, though considering the arrangements he had with the widow Merriweather, one can hardly say he had no 'desire'."
Merry accepted his refilled mug without even looking at it. His eyes were riveted on Frodo. Pippin was also staring at his cousin in shock.
"The widow Merriweather?" the two asked in chorus.
Sam nodded absently as he filled Frodo's cup. "Yep, every Tuesday, teatime till supper... Went on that way for years!" He looked up, suddenly as if only just realizing he'd spoken aloud. His face flushed crimson. "Oh, dear..." he whispered. "Now I've gone and done it! I'm a ninnyhammer and no mistake."
Frodo's fit of giggles returned, as did his position of the previous day as he began to laugh so hard he fell right off his chair. Pippin and Merry soon joined him, and after a moment, even Sam smiled.
"I guess that was rather funny," he admitted.
"Oh, Sam!" Frodo wheezed. "If you could have seen your expression!" He tried to get up from the floor, but was still laughing far too hard. "It was precious!"
"BILBO?!" Merry finally managed to say between fits of high-pitched giggles. "Oh, now I have heard everything!" He laughed again. "Well, Frodo, at least that was one appetite you didn't inherit from the Baggins side of your family!" He took a sip of his new mug and turned a puzzled eye to Pippin who had begun to laugh hysterically again.
"Oh, Merry!" the young Took snickered. "Oh, my dear, if you only knew!" He dissolved into a fresh set of giggles as Frodo's warning gaze tried to threaten him into silence. It was far too late. Pippin was by now lubricated beyond intimidation. "Frodo Baggins is a Baggins in all respects!" He winked at his Brandybuck cousin.
"Pippin..." Frodo could not have put more venom in his tone. "If you say another word, so help me, I'll box your ears!"
"Oh, Frodo! It's not as if we aren't all blood kin here! And Sam's nearly that after all you two have gone through! We'd not think any less of you to know you'd enjoyed a few ladies in your day. In fact, I can say for myself, that I'd be right glad to hear you'd known the comfort of a fine lass... Other than the ones I already know about, that is."
Merry was not quite so tipsy that he didn't catch the key word in Pippin's commentary.
Even Sam cocked an eyebrow at his master. Bilbo's exploits were not necessarily common knowledge, but he had reached an age and position where he didn't much care what was said of him. The widow Merriweather was of much the same mind and it had always been considered quaint that the two elderly hobbits took such pleasure in each other's company. Most probably assumed that the two of them were too old to have gotten up to much mischief, but having watched the older hobbit move spryly around his home for many years, Sam never doubted he and the widow got up to much more than was popularly assumed.
Frodo, on the other hand had obviously been much more concerned with propriety. Sam already knew about Frodo's long courtship with Pearl Took, a fact that it was reasonable to assume Pippin knew about as well, but beyond that, he knew of no other ladies who had engaged his master's favor. He leaned forward, his ale-fired curiosity piqued.
"Ones, sir? Dear me! Do you mean to tell me you've been meeting with ladies in Bag End all these years? To think of all the gossip I've been missing out on!" he teased.
Frodo looked at his friend for a long moment and Sam was struck by the sudden serious intensity of his gaze. There was love and regret in his eyes. They pierced him and Sam was immediately sorry he had said anything. His master had secrets he would never share, that look had said, not even with his dearest and most beloved friend. Sam looked down, all curiosity about his master's affairs draining away. Whatever it was that Frodo was keeping from him was, he was quite certain, something he would rather not have known anyway.
"Our Frodo is quite the master of discretion," Pippin purred, his tongue now becoming very loose under the ale's influence. "I only know for certain of one other besides my sister, and that was only because I was there at the time!"
This time Merry did spew ale across the table.
He wiped his mouth and his incredulous gaze flitted from Pippin's smug and daring grin to Frodo's beet red and embarrassed face. Even Sam, still feeling admonished for his comment, felt his curiosity stir. Perhaps he did have some interest in Frodo's exploits after all.
"You were THERE?" Merry shook his head as if there was something wrong with his hearing. "Oh, now this I simply must hear! Pippin! How could you have kept such secrets from me, your dearest cousin?"
Frodo's face flushed an even deeper shade of red and he started to shake his head. Pippin, feeling he had the upper hand and savoring the feeling of power, smiled with wicked delight and leaned back confidently in his chair. He knew he had Frodo right where he wanted him. Right where he could make his elder cousin squirm for the theft of Gimli's gift. Right where he was in perfect control…
…And then, with the help of a nudge from Frodo's foot, his chair scooted out from under him! Pippin fell flat on his back still clutching his ale. Gandalf snorted in his dreaming and jumped at the loud crash but after a mumbled word or two settled back into his chair. The other hobbits gasped and scrambled up as quickly as they were able to make certain Pippin was all right. He lay on the floor holding his mug aloft and giggling hysterically. Somehow he'd managed not to spill his drink during the fall but his convulsions of merriment were now sloshing brown liquid all over him. Frodo shook his head and helped the sodden Took back to his righted chair.
"That should teach you," he growled. "Bad intents have bad ends, as Bilbo always said. You should be more charitable."
Pippin was still sniggering too hard to speak, but laid his head down on the table till the fit passed. At last he spoke. "Oh, Frodo! It was worth it! You should have seen your face!" He wiped his eyes and shook his head, his grin still veritably splitting his face. "Oh, I really can't say anything for certain. I was much the worse for the ale, and in any event, all I know is that I left my dearest cousin in the company of the most delectable Miss Violet Briarwood in a state of partial undress!" He winked. "I know what I'd have done in that situation."
Though it hardly seemed possible, Frodo's face turned even redder. He grabbed the ale Sam had given him and downed it in one long gulp, then slammed the mug down on the table and slid it towards his gardener. "Another, Sam," he demanded. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath as if preparing himself to do battle. "I need fortification for this."
Merry clapped his hands. "Oh this sounds like a tale worth the telling! I know some of it, but it seems the more interesting details were left out of the family's version. It 's time the real story came out!" He settled into his chair, all ears. Sam, to whom the events were all new, filled Frodo's mug eagerly and wasted no time returning it to him.
"Well, it all started with dwarvish ale," Frodo began, studying his own serving of the delectable brew as if it could be induced to tell its secrets. He frowned when it wasn't forthcoming, took a small sip and swirled it in his mouth. It must have satisfied him with some sort of response, for he continued. "It was Pippin's 28th year and the family had come to Bywater for the Lithe. Bilbo had always shared his dwarvish brew with Paladin, they both being partial to it, and so I continued the tradition by making certain whenever I had some, I would share it with him. On this occasion, I am not sure how, but Pippin got himself some as well." Frodo sighed and shook his head, but his grin was subtly betraying his humor. "Ah it was a sad day that..." He took another pull on his ale to try and hide his growing smirk. The brew was at last making Frodo feel daring.
"Eglantine Took is a formidable hobbit, by anyone's account," he continued. "And she ruled her brood with an iron will, that is, all except Pearl, who had a spirit to match even hers!" Pippin, his head still on the table smiled when Frodo mentioned his sister. Had he been more sober he would have heard the subtle warmth that colored his cousin's tone and perhaps he would have smiled at that too. "She had heard reports that her son was making off with favors not offered him." Frodo cocked an eyebrow at Pippin and the younger hobbit giggled, remembering. Then he hiccupped. "She was furious! I don't think I have ever seen Eglantine so angry! She wanted to skin him alive and I thought it might be best if I found him first. She might just have done it!" He paused, and giggled again himself, imagining his indomitable aunt chasing after a naked Pippin with a willow switch. He was most definitely feeling the ale now. "I had last seen him speaking to Violet Briarwood and knew she was the one lass my aunt would not have wanted to find him with." He sighed dramatically again. "Alas, I found them, but it was almost too late!"
"Almost?!," protested Pippin sitting up again. "See here, Frodo. What do you mean by 'almost'? My memory of the day might not be very clear, but I…" His previously flushed face began to pale. "You can't mean.... Oh, Frodo! You surely can't possibly mean you were..." He gulped and the flush vanished from his cheeks completely. "Oh, dear..." he whispered.
Frodo leveled a fiercely wicked grin at his cousin. "Yes, Pippin..." he said evenly. "Almost." This time it was Frodo who sat back in his chair, savoring an immanent coup, his eyes bright from the liquid fortitude.
"WHAT!?" Merry shouted when neither of them seemed to be forthcoming. "Frodo, you can't leave the tale there! You must tell us what happened! Pippin?" The younger Took sank back into his arms on the table, hiding his face under a mop of light curls.
"Pippin?" asked Frodo, his voice dripping with victory. "Shall I continue?" The youngster shook his head vigorously in the shelter of his arms. Frodo laughed. "Coward!" he teased and looked back to the remainder of his rapt audience. "Eglantine came into the barn just at that moment. I had no choice but to shove the two of them down in the hay and drop beside them to hide from her. She was in a vile mood, Pippin, and you were in no condition to face her. Especially with a half clothed Violet by your side!" Frodo giggled. "I was trying desperately to be quiet and waited till she left…." His face began to color but the ale had made him brazen. He plunged on. "But I don't think Pippin and Violet had waited a moment! I have never been quite so…so shocked in my life!" Frodo's cheeks were crimson and his head swam, but he could not stop his discourse. "I had always heard of the Took perseverance, but had never seen it expressed in quite that manner!" He turned to Pippin who had not risen from the table and shook his head in amazement. "When one of you really wants something, nothing, not your mother shouting for you nor your cousin hiding beside you in the hay, is going to stop you from getting it!" He cocked an eyebrow at the now furiously blushing Took. "Perhaps you had that the wrong way round, Pippin. You have never 'been there' with me, but I was most certainly 'there' with you!"
There was a moment of stunned silence while Pippin's ears, the only bits visible, turned bright red. Merry broke it with a great roar of laughter that was reinforced by Sam's jovial baritone. The two of them fell about the table and almost knocked over the cask in their hilarity. Frodo, unable to resist their infectious laughter followed suit and soon the little house rang with hearty bellows. At last, Pippin, with no other recourse, chuckled hesitantly.
"I never had any idea... I mean I knew what had happened, but I had no idea you were.... Oh, dear..." he groaned. "Cousin! No wonder you never told me! Oh, my! How can you ever forgive me?"
Frodo wiped tears of mirth from his eyes and threw an arm around his cousin's shoulder. "Oh, I did that long ago, Pippin! But you see why I was reluctant to see you lubricated with dwarvish ale again! We'd be pleading your case to Aragorn while a squadron of angry husbands called for your skin! I only hope you've grown wise enough not to need quite so much looking after!"
Sam snorted into his own ale and giggled as the froth peppered his nose.
"Oh, dear, me..." he snickered. "That WAS a tale! Though definitely not one for repeating!" He wagged a finger at the boy. "But maybe I'll keep it by for the next time you have a taste for two casks of dwarvish ale." He licked his lips, trying to focus. "See here…” he asked turning to Frodo. “It seems to me there's a bit more to this. What happened after? Didn't Master Pippin say a bit about you being left there with the lady?" He frowned. "How did that come about?"
Frodo grinned. "Pippin's memory of the events is not to be trusted, Sam, as you plainly heard." The older hobbit chuckled. "I got Pippin looking somewhat respectable again and slipped out to get some help. Luckily I found Fatty and he was willing to take charge of Pip till he was fit to answer to Eglantine."
"But you did stay there in the barn with Violet," protested Pip. "I know I remember that! And I remember distinctly her not having much on besides her corset and those purple bloomers! Are you going to tell me that I've recalled that incorrectly as well?"
Frodo coughed somewhat nervously into his hand. "Well, no, I did remain there with the lady, but I can assure you, it was only to have a chat with her. I was too angry at that moment to be much taken with her charms and wanted to assure myself that this would not happen again. The future Thain was not a likely prospect for a lady such as Violet." He looked pointedly at Pippin in a way that suggested that the Took should have known that fact as well. "In any case, your memory is correct in that I did remain there with her, but you missed one detail. Her bloomers and corset were blue, not purple." Frodo took a smug pull on his ale.
"No, purple, I am sure of it."
"I was there, Pip… and sober. They were blue."
"Beggin' your pardon sir, but Master Pippin's right, Miss Violet always wore purple bloomers and that's a fact."
Frodo, Merry and after a moment Pippin slowly turned to stare at Sam. The gardener looked back at them confused and then, as if his ale sodden brain had suddenly worked out the import of what he had said, his own face began to flush red. He muttered and sank into his chair in embarrassment. Frodo lost all control and began to howl with laughter. Merry and Pippin soon joined him, which, of course, made Sam blush an even deeper shade of crimson. He pulled his mug to himself sullenly cradling it. "All right then, have your fun…" he sulked.
"Oh, Sam, I am sorry…" cried Frodo holding his side. "But I find I simply must know! How do you know the color of Miss Violet's bloomers?!"
The gardener eyed him skeptically for a moment and jerked his head towards Pippin. "You can be sure I've no tale like Master Pippin's, sir. And like as not, I'll never hear one to match that again in my life." He met each of his companions' focused eyes with dubious attention, almost if he were evaluating a room full of miscreants. Then he sat back, seemingly satisfied that they were no worse than he was and, with a hesitant grin, he spoke. "But it's fair enough to say that I've always found Miss Violet to be a friendly sort…"
That statement naturally induced fresh howls of laughter from the assembled (and conscious) company. Sam was patted on the back and given a fresh pipe full of weed as the other hobbits happily welcomed him into the bosom of the depraved. They were indeed becoming a very merry party. After they had recovered from the outburst the hobbits noticed they had completely emptied the first keg. Pippin heartily agreed they should start on the second and asked Sam to do the honors. When it was tapped and the first round drawn from it, Gandalf stirred and blinked dazedly at them.
"What's this?!" He looked at his empty cup. "Sam, you ruffian, you've left me out of this round!" The wizard's voice was still rough with sleep. He yawned and stretched and then became aware that the others were staring at him with flush faced, knowing grins. "Hmm…" he muttered. "It seems you've left me out of several rounds, haven't you?" He frowned at Frodo who was nearest him, peering over the back of his chair with a bright if devilish grin. "You rascal," he growled. "You're already in a state, aren't you? I'd have thought you'd had enough of dwarvish ale after dispatching two of the city's finest men. Now you've set your devious designs on a poor old wizard. Incorrigible. The lot of you!" He huffed and grumped and scowled till his great brows almost touched in the center of his forehead, but at last held out his cup for Sam to fill. The gardener did so, all the while trying desperately not to giggle. Sam might not have considered himself very wise, but he knew enough not to snigger at someone who could turn you into a toad.
"Very well. Thank you, Sam. Now, where were we?" Gandalf took a sip of his brew and the frown across his brow eased. He sat back in his chair by the fire and studied his companions.
"We were all finding out what depraved and lecherous individuals Tooks are!" laughed Merry. "It has been most enlightening.
"Indeed?" said Gandalf. "I've always noted they were the adventurous strain in hobbit lines." He chuckled. "Puts me in mind of the story of Bandobras Took and why he left Tuckborough."
"Oh?" Pippin frowned curiously, his inherent interest in family histories pushing through a fog of ale. "Tell us, Gandalf! I've not heard this before!"
"Yes, I'd be interested as well," agreed Frodo. "I imagine old Bullroarer was a memorable hobbit and to hear a tale from someone who actually knew him…" Frodo winked. "Knowing what I know of Tooks, I'd believe almost anything you had to say!"
Gandalf chuckled and drew another pull off his ale. The tawny foam stuck to his white mustache and he wiped it off with his sleeve. The immaculate robes seemed to get more soiled with each mug of brew. "You all know of Bullroarer's claim to fame," he began sagely. "He was an impressive hobbit; taller even than Merry and Pippin here have become, and powerfully built. He had a great sword that might have belonged to Isengrim, though none truly knew its lineage. The Battle of Greenfields was a turning point in his life. Prior to it he had been an awkward lad, clumsy and rather out of place. Though he was a son of the Thain, Isumbras favored his elder and future heir rather markedly. I suppose he thought Bandobras had grown too large to be a proper hobbit, but when the goblins invaded the Northfarthing, Isumbras was glad of his second son's imposing stature."
"Afterwards, Bandobras became a changed hobbit. He came into his own and seemed to accept his height and place in hobbit society. He also became one of the most eligible gentlehobbits in the Shire, by the way the lasses attended him. I never saw the like!" Gandalf took another drink and smiled. "There were two in particular who wanted to marry the Bullroarer. Adeline Tunnely and Opaline Goldworthy were both amiable lasses with much to recommend them and Bandobras was as disposed to one as the other. I believe he enjoyed the attention of two such lovely lasses and was unwilling to put an end to the situation by choosing one. Naturally, Isumbras and Fernumbras were outraged at his behavior - and I think more than likely that encouraged him to continue it." Gandalf chuckled again. "Perhaps he never quite forgave his father's favoritism but he kept courting both lasses until it became obvious Isumbras would force him to choose." Gandalf paused then to take a long pull of his ale, emptying the mug and putting a contented, if sleepy smile on his face. He dropped his hand into his lap. His eyelids drooped and his head sank against the backrest. The hobbits looked on, astonished the old wizard would leave them there in the tale, until Frodo approached and took Gandalf's mug from him.
"You're worse than Faramir, Gandalf!" he teased. "But we need the end of this tale so I'm cutting you off till you've finished." A slight snore issued from the bewhiskered sage and Frodo poked him in the shoulder. "Gandalf! Hoy! Have a pity and tell us the rest!" Gandalf snorted and started awake. His dark eyes narrowed on his rosy-cheeked assailant for a moment until he woke further and realized where he was.
"Good gracious!" he said. "Dwarvish ale! I should know better by now. I suppose I'll have to concede my defeat now, for I'll never catch you lot at this rate." He yawned. "Dear me, where were we? Ah, yes… Bandobras." Gandalf sat up in his chair again and Frodo returned to his, swaying just a bit as he reached the table. Sam took that as a sign to top them all off again. "Ah yes. Well, Bandobras was a legend in his own right by then and had a league of followers among the younger Tooks. He decided that instead of choosing one of the ladies as his wife, he would remove with both of them to the Northfarthing! And if that were not enough to infuriate the Thain, there were no less than seven other unmarried lasses who also went with him." Gandalf winked at the hobbits. "Nine lasses for one hobbit. Not bad for the old boy, eh?"
"That's preposterous!" frowned Merry. "He couldn't possibly marry them all. What did he do with them?"
Gandalf shook his head and chuckled. "I don't know for certain, but they were as contented a group of ladies as I ever have seen. Never fought amongst themselves, were always very cordial and gracious. Raised the children most companionably."
"Children!" shouted Pippin, astonished. "Did he finally marry one of them? I know my own family history but am less familiar with the North-tooks. Who finally won him?"
Gandalf's grin broadened though his eyes were beginning to droop again. "Oh, he married at last, but I'd wager that was in name only. It was Adeline who became a Took, if I remember correctly, and her son who was head of the Long Cleeve clan after Bandobras, but I don't think anyone ever 'won' the Bullroarer. He kept nine ladies happy and though he only officially acknowledged his wife's children, his issue fairly repopulated the Northfarthing!"
"Well, I've never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life," snorted Sam. "Imagine that many ladies and one fellow."
Frodo, who had been resting his arm across the back of his chair, glanced sidelong at Sam. His blue eyes twinkled with ale-fired mirth. "Yes, Sam, actually, I have been imagining it." He grinned broadly. "Could be fun…" he snickered.
"Oh, Sir!" Sam shook his head, blushing furiously. "Such a thing can't be true! I've never heard tell of any such thing in the Shire, nor any place else, for that matter. Gandalf is pulling your leg!"
"Of course it's true!" countered the wizard. "It may not be a common arrangement in the Shire, but the Haradrim chiefs have many wives at once. It's called a 'harem', and they think the arrangement quite satisfactory." Gandalf huffed at Sam's disapproving glare and his beard stuck out stiffly in his pique. "Well, I'll not stay to have my account questioned by hooligans. Good evening!" he said, and promptly fell asleep again.
Frodo turned back around and surveyed the others with a smug, self-satisfied grin. Sam shook his head again, though slowly this time. The last effort had been a bit too vigorous after a cask of dwarvish ale and had compromised his balance almost to the point of tipping him off his seat. "Nonsense! I don't know about those Haradrim folk but that's plum unnatural. One good lass is all a body'ed ever need." He grunted at the increasing width of Frodo's smile. "You are a rascal!" he growled disapprovingly. "And you've got brass! What'd you do with a house full of lasses?"
"I'm not sure," Frodo managed, barely containing his laughter. "But I believe I would enjoy finding out…" And then he collapsed in a fit of giggles that nearly toppled his chair over. Pippin did knock his down again and lay gasping in hysterics as much over his cousin's comments as Sam's intensely disapproving expression.
Merry was in much the same state but managed to keep his seat. Through gales of laughter he gasped, "Oh, I can see it! Frodo the nine-fingered and his court of lovelies holed up in CrickHollow! Oh, dear! My father would be beside himself!" and then the shrieks of hilarity began anew and he was completely unable to speak for them. Sam, shaking his head and trying desperately not to fall prey to the lechery and mirth around him, slurped down his ale and topped himself off with another.
"One's all I'll need…" he sulked, and after a moment a grin lit his plain face. He rocked back in his chair. "But she'll be mighty contented, if you take my meaning!" He snickered and raised his mug in salute. "To my Rosie!" he cried. "May she 'ave waited fer me, and may we be married right quick thereafter!"
"Here, here!" agreed Pippin. "To your Rosie, and to the lass who sits still long enough for me to catch her!" He winked and took another slug of ale.
"Now, Pippin!" scolded Frodo standing, or more properly, swaying to his feet. "Tha' s not a proper toast! You must be respectful to win a lady! Right, Sam? Right! Now, here's a toast to a hobbit lass!" He cleared his throat and tried to put one arm behind him but quickly learned it was more prudent to use that hand to aid his balance. "A hobbit lass is as warm as sunshine on a crisp afternoon. Her kiss is sweeter than honey and softer than the downy floss of a newborn lamb. She is the strength of the earth in high summer, fruitful, wise and indulgent, and yet she is fragile and as delicate as a celandine. She is home, and hearth and welcomes. Her arms hold you tight, guide you through tempests and stroke your body after. She is comfort in the long night and cool breezes in the fevered day. She may take the simplest fare and make it a king's feast, fill you to overflowing and yet ever leave you wanting more. I've been the length of Middle-earth and seen the fairest maidens in it, but none of them inspire the hope and serenity I can find in the bounce of joyful curls, and the feel of soft fingers curling protectively over my own..." Frodo's voice caught in his throat and his head felt light. A powerful feeling of homesickness suddenly swelled within him, and he realized that somewhere in his narrative, he had gone from talking about the lasses he had known to the one he still missed more than any other; his mother, Primula. It had been many years since he'd felt her loss so keenly, and though he knew it was the ale, he let the feeling wash through him and bring tears to his eyes. But he smiled amid them, grateful for his memories. As long as he had those, she would never be far from his side. "To hobbit lasses!" he cried raising his mug, and then downed the remainder in one gulp.
"Oh, Frodo… that was…" Merry sniffed and wiped his own tears. "Beautiful! That was just beautiful…"
"See here, Merry," asked Pippin, trying unsuccessfully to focus on him. "We've heard about my exploits, and Sam's and a even a few hints of our elusive Frodo's, but I've yet to hear a tale from you! Surely the future master of Buckland has had some experience too tawdry for polite company."
"In other words, perfect for this bunch," agreed Sam.
Merry nodded vigorously and blinked, looking at his ale in surprise. He hadn't noticed quite when the world started spinning, but it was most certainly doing so and quite vigorously. He started to giggle, and paused, thinking, then giggled again even louder. "Oh, yes! You would think so," he sniggered. "But alas, I've nothing to match the tales I've heard tonight! You'd think my skill of unlacing a bodice with my teeth horribly tame compared to Pippin's hayloft antics! But see here! Have we really, heard all of Frodo's escapades? Seems I've heard but one, and he's denied it!" Merry waggled his finger at his elder cousin. "Something tells me there's much more there than we've heard tell of! What of these famous 'ones' I heard tell of! Pippin! Who else were you speaking of?"
"Well, there's my sister," Pippin quipped brightly, his head weaving slightly as he tried to sit erect. "I've heard all about her exploits, let me tell you!"
Frodo picked his head up from the table where it had been lying and blinked. "What!?" he cried. "You've not heard a peep from me and I refuse to believe Pearl has breathed a word to you!" His eyes were huge and he had trouble focusing on Pippin. "Blasted Took, quit dancing about!"
Sam looked from Pippin to his master curiously. Pippin was sitting quite still, although he was listing somewhat to the side. Then, as he watched, the list became more pronounced and Pippin slid out of his chair. Merry and Frodo both moved to catch him, but their reactions were so slowed that they only stood after he had hit the floor. They stared at each other's empty hands and at the giggling Took sprawled before them. The absurdity of the situation struck them and they howled with laughter. By that point in the festivities, neither could keep his feet under such an onslaught of mirth and they fell in a heap on top of a still cackling Pippin. Sam had watched this whole escapade with a measure of interest, wondering if it were some odd gentrified ritual, but when he saw it was nothing but a pile of potted hobbits, he shrugged and drew himself another mug full. With enough ale in them, the upper crust acted very much like everyone else.
Pippin giggled, a high-pitched affair that was much shriller when it was inches from Frodo's ear. The older hobbit rolled off to the side and found himself staring up at a still sleeping Gandalf. It was astonishing the old sage could sleep through the carousing but Frodo wasn't about to wake him. The impromptu contest was in full swing in Frodo's ale sodden mind and he had every intention of winning it now that he was properly motivated to do so. Merry sat up on the other side of Pippin and leaned against the fireplace.
"You aren't getting out of this so easily," he slurred, waving a finger slowly at the still prone Pippin. "You've let the cat out of the bag now and I won't let you be till I know the whole tale! Our cousin Frodo has remained far too unsullied through this entire evening. I intend to gain some advantage on him."
"And you haven't?" retorted Frodo, still lying on the floor. "All you've confessed to is being able to undress a lass with your teeth!" He sniffed arrogantly. "Most undignified."
"Come on, Pip, what did Pearl tell you?"
The young Took opened his mouth to speak but at that moment, Sam cleared his throat rather inquiringly. The three other hobbits looked over to see him standing by the ale cask, mugs in hand. "If you lot'll want any more, I'll bring one more round but if I set myself down by that there fire, I'll not be getting' up again, I can tell that right now." He filled their mugs and gathered them up, two in each hand to bring them carefully over to the fire. By the time Sam plopped himself down on the felt rug, he was sweating from the effort of keeping the brown ale from sloshing - a difficult proposition in his current state - and was glad of the rest. He took a long drink and sighed. Then let out a belch and slouched back to lie stretched out on the floor.
"I've no doubt this last mug will do me in, Sam," chuckled Frodo. "But if I can manage to gain my feet, I'll pour the next round. You'd be a fair barkeeper, if you put your mind to it."
"Rosie…" Sam muttered. "Lessons…" And the next sound that issued from his mouth was a loud snore that set off a new round of giggles.
"PIPPIN," Merry shouted far too loudly for the room.
Pippin looked at him oddly. "What?" he asked with irritation.
"Pearl! Details!" Merry demanded and Pippin set off to snickering again. Frodo groaned and tried to sit up the rest of the way. It had taken the better part of two barrels, but at last Frodo was reaching the state he had earlier chided Faramir for being in. And he was having a grand time.
"Now, see here!" Frodo argued, his elegant voice sounding gruff under the influence of so much ale. "I'll not have you besmirching the honor of a fine lady like Miss Pearl!" He hiccupped and then giggled at the sound of it.
"Lady?" Pippin asked. "PEARL?" He started bellowing with laughter. He drew his knees up and held his sides but the hysteria that gripped him would not release. Frodo cocked his head at Pippin trying to look insulted.
"I resent that, Peregrin Took," he said in as carefully proper a voice as he could manage. "Pearl IS a lady, and as fine a hobbit lass as any lad could ever wish for! She's just a free spirit, refusing to be chained by the bounds of convention." He hiccupped again. "You just don't know her like I do, and couldn't possibly begin to understand her heart."
Pippin wiped tears of mirth from his eyes and nodded amid his giggles. "You're right, Frodo. I couldn't possibly understand my sister, but I do know something about her that you don't." Pippin paused for effect, but his broadening grin did not prevent errant snorts and guffaws from forcing their way through his teeth. Merry kicked his cousin in the shin.
"What doesn't he know? Mercy, Pip! If you don't spill it soon, then Frodo will kill you and I will never find out the sordid details!"
Frodo kicked him in the other shin and Pippin complained loudly. "Any sordid details would be of his own invention and he'd best not spill any if he knows what's good for him."
Pippin drew his feet up to avoid any future attacks and groped about for his ale. He contemplated sitting up to drink it but giggled instead. "Oh, Frodo," he sighed. "If you only knew…" he snickered conspiratorially. "If you had only known that Pearl kept a journal…."
Utter silence reigned. Frodo blinked once, twice, and then, as if the information had just reached his brain, his blue eyes opened wide with shock. He started to shake his head in denial but Pippin's enthusiastic nodding halted him. Then a flush, deeper than had been seen previously on the ring-bearer's face, started up from his collar. He laid back slowly and groaned. Pippin could not contain his glee and roared with laughter, kicking his feet up in the air in triumph. He had gotten the better of his cousin at last! Merry, in convulsions of laughter, abandoned the vertical and joined his young cousin and the two of them laughed until there was hardly a breath in their bodies. Frodo laid silently at Gandalf's feet the whole time, his arm over his eyes and his other hand holding his ale. Sam snored on.
When the laughter had dissipated and the hobbits had recovered sufficiently to breathe again, Pippin sat up and reached for his ale. He nudged Merry off of him and the other hobbit sat up bleary eyed and grinning. Pippin nodded towards his mug, indicating Merry should pick his up, and raised the cup in gesture of a toast.
"And finally, a toast, to my beloved Frodo," he cried. "The most astounding hobbit in the world. The one to whom kings and princes bow. The one who has saved the world. He has always been an inspiration and a treasure, and to me, though he did not know it, he has been a teacher as well! Through the well written and descriptive pages of Pearl's journal, I have learned more about the act of love than I ever even imagined possible." He raised his cup to his prone cousin and Frodo cringed. "Hear, hear!" he shouted and drank his toast. Beside him, Merry was curiously silent but followed the toast with a besotted grin on his face. He raised his mug and drank but at about the third gulp, his eyes rolled back and the mug clattered to the floor. He hovered for a moment, weaving where he sat and then fell flat on his back, out cold. Pippin cocked an eyebrow at him and grinned.
At last the two combatants faced each other one on one. Youth and vigor pitted against maturity and craft, dark against light and meat and muscle against wit and finesse. The Took faced the Baggins, locked in battle.
It was a combat for the ages.
Frodo had managed to crawl to a sitting position and Pippin, in hardly better shape, was fighting to retain his. Each had a mug in his hand and a determined, if glassy, look in his eye.
"You'll never beat me," rasped Frodo. "I was drinking dwarvish ale when you were still in swaddling clothes."
"Ha!" crowed Pippin. "You're past your prime, cousin! This is a sport for the young and…" he twitched, feeling his still healing ribs creak. "…sound. You've met your match! Admit defeat and I'll let you pass quietly!"
Frodo snorted and had to catch himself before he fell over. "A Took doesn't know the meaning of 'quiet'! I'll never let you beat me! It took a ring of power to break my will and nothing less will even bend it! You are the one who is defeated!"
"We shall see!" Pippin raised his mug. "To the end then?" he asked. Frodo nodded and took up his own ale.
"To the end!"
Both drank what was left in their mugs and when the cups were empty, they set them down and glared at one another. Minutes passed as they stared deep into each other's bloodshot eyes, each willing the other to fail, to succumb and fall. At last, there was a crack in one of the combatants' defenses. Frodo's eyelids drooped and he scrambled frantically to retain his balance. Pippin, sensing triumph, grinned defiantly, but just as he did, his own world shifted with a sickening lurch. He reached out and caught hold of Frodo's sleeve to steady himself. That was all it took. The older hobbit, his balance compromised, dropped forward. A door began to close on Frodo’s senses and the last sight he saw was Pippin's lopsided grin passing swiftly before his eyes. A scathing dwarvish curse came into his mind but by then he had lost the capability to utter it. He was out cold before his face hit Pippin's lap.
Pippin grinned and for a moment gloated over his cousin’s unconscious form, savoring the sweetness of knowing that he had defeated the legendary Frodo Baggins. But his victory celebration was short lived. Almost immediately a roaring filled his ears and a great swell of shadow hushed his mind like a velvet blanket. The newly conquering champion of Shire and City, in the instant of his triumph, fell backwards with an undignified thump and knew no more.