The Fellowship of the Conkers
Beta, Additional Material and Plot Consultant: Marigold
Author's Note: If you have never heard of or played Conkers – you may need to read this first – if you have you can cut straight to the story.
Conkers are the hard nut like fruit of the horse chestnut. In America, so Marigold tells me, they would be similar to the buckeye. Conkers, the pastime, is a game of skill and sublimated violence for two players. Each player is equipped with a conker, through which a hole has been drilled to allow a piece of string to be threaded. The string is knotted to prevent the conker coming off, and the game may commence.
Whoever goes first may be decided by coin toss or priority. For example, the owner of a 'sixer' (ie, the victor in six previous games) will have priority over the owner of a mere 'two-er'.
The receiver holds up the hand, dangling the conker on the end of its string.. The other player then attempts to hit the dangling conker as hard as he can with his own conker by swinging it overarm. (Marigold, when I introduced her to the game, claimed this was quite frightening:-)
If he hits, he gets another go. If he misses, play switches and the receiver gets a crack at his opponent. This continues until one or other of the conkers is so damaged that it falls off the string. The winner can then add the loser's conker value to the victory count of their conker, turning the above mentioned sixer into an eighter.
There are many arcane rules of conkers to do with glancing blows, hits on the string, specific techniques and so on, but they are very variable, and so are beyond the scope of this entry.
There are those who mutter darkly about methods of treatment for conkers which are guaranteed to turn even the weediest, most brittle loser into an all-challengers champion twelver. Such methods usually involve things as a week soaking in vinegar or several hours of slow steady baking in a low oven. This Researcher can offer no authoritative advice on this subject other than to encourage players to experiment – but not get caught.
More info: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/conker/archive/conkers.htm
Pictures here: http://www.compulink.co.uk/~l-hodges/wadard/conkerpics.htm
The Fellowship of the Conkers
Legolas walked with the eleven hobbits through the streets of Minas Tirith and closer to the centre until at last they came to the great library. "Here is the place that Gandalf came when first he suspected the truth of the Ring," the elf explained. "Within this place there is a copy of The Red Book which chronicles the Quest and how your forebears played their part in the destruction of the Ring."
"We know this book well." Théodoc said with a smile, "My grandfather worked on part of it also and read it to us many times."
"What we don't know is some of the other things they did." Boromir told the elf. "I can remember our grandfathers talking about things, usually in their cups, and laughing a great deal, but they never told us what was so funny."
"Oh your grandfathers were always making a joke about something – especially in the early days of the Quest." Legolas led the way past the library. "Although sometimes not everybody else shared their humour."
"Oh would you tell us, please." Éowyn loved to hear stories about the Quest, especially the part about her namesake and her Great Grandsire slaying the Witch-King.
"I have to meet my friend, Gimli," Legolas explained, "but he will be in the tavern, 'The Blue Warg'. Perhaps you would all care to join us there and you may hear some stories in comfort and from both our points of view."
Pansy Brandybuck was not accustomed to frequenting ale houses, but the charming elf reassured her that in Minas Tirith it was more of an hotel which also supplied refreshments. So soon the entire contingent had been introduced to Gimli son of Gloin, who was half way through a pint of ale, but stood and shook hands with all the men and kissed the hands of the women.
Then the company were seated with very large mugs of ale – Faramir and Meridydd looked very pleased with themselves – and tea or mead for the lasses.
"So tell us a story about the Quest." Poppy urged impatiently. "A funny one!"
"No an exciting one!" Faramir put in. "An adventure – one that isn't in the book!"
"I'd be more interested to learn something of how our grandfathers got along in the outside world." Holfast quaffed his ale with relish, it was almost as good as Shire ale. "It must have been very strange for them visiting foreign parts for the first time."
"Aye Master Gardner." Gimli agreed, "But your grandfather was very adaptable and accommodating." The dwarf chuckled into his beard. "Like the time he helped us all learn how to play conkers."
"Conkers, I had hoped never to hear that game mentioned again." Legolas said with feeling.
"They taught you to play conkers?" Meridydd's eyes grew wide with surprise. "I thought only lads played that."
"Indeed." Legolas agreed. "But sometimes we all got a little restless."
"Sam please! You don't need all that string." Pippin pleaded, "Let me have some."
"I might need it some time," Samwise was being obdurate, "You only want it to play with, you should have brought your own with you for that Master Took."
"Well I didn't know we'd find this many and I've got an amazing one here – look Sam." Pippin proudly held out a large brown shiny horse chestnut, "I'll wager that's a fifteener at least!"
"Not so sure about that," Sam rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It's a little on the big side, they don't always go so well you know."
"Well there're lots of smaller ones too, Sam." Pippin pointed over to where Merry was foraging about under the large tree. "Merry's still fussing over finding the right one. Bet you can't find one to beat this though!"
"They must be a little old, this time of year." Frodo took the potential champion from Pippin to examine it. "It's a bit dried out Pip."
"Makes it better." Pippin declared. "I know Sam used to bake his to dry 'em out a bit – that's why he was always the champion."
"I did not!" Samwise spluttered indignantly. "That'd be cheating and I'm no cheat Mister Peregrin Took I'll have you know."
"Well why did you always win then?" Pippin challenged, his hands on his hips and a grin on his face. "Did you soak them in vinegar?"
"Skill, pure skill, Pippin," supplied Frodo. "Sam has a very accurate aim and a good eye when it comes to conkers you know."
"Thank you Mr Frodo," Sam looked gratefully at his sponsor, "but it's really just down to practice you know, that and having an eye for the right nut."
"Well why don't you show us now?" Pippin caught Sam and Frodo each by a hand and pulled them towards the tree. Sam suddenly realised that, as usual Pippin had stealthily got his way and that he would now have to relinquish some of his precious string.
"That's a sixer now!" Sam proclaimed triumphantly as his conker split Merry's cleanly across the centre.
"Surely you've only broken four with that one Sam?" Boromir was starting to take an interest in the game in spite of feigning indifference to start with. "How can yours be a sixer?"
"Because," explained Sam patiently, "Merry's conker was a twoer, then mine beat his so I get his twoer as well as the fourer I already had."
"I'm sorry?" Boromir shook his head in confusion and looked over at Aragorn who shrugged his ignorance of the situation. "How does that work?"
"Never mind about that Boromir," Pippin was sorting through the large pile of conkers he had collected, looking for one to replace Merry's recently defeated player. "I wager you couldn't make a hit, let alone score even a oner."
"Uh!" Boromir gasped in indignation. "Come, let me have one of these things. Samwise have you some more string? We'll see what I can hit."
Sam begrudgingly cut yet another length of string from his supply. He had already used four pieces, one each for Merry, Frodo, Pippin and himself, but at least he was winning, as usual. Sam was undefeated conker champion of Hobbiton and at the Harvest Feast always drew a small crowd.
He waited while Boromir carefully selected his conker, watching with approval as the man weighed them in his hand, squeezed them for density and finally chose a promising looking specimen. Sam drilled a hole through the centre for him using a fine spike borrowed from Gandalf that the wizard kept for cleaning his pipe. He threaded the string, tied the knot in the end and beckoned to the Gondorian.
"See Mr Boromir, Sir," Sam wrapped the string around his finger and lifted the conker up with his other hand. "You have to hold it so and then line it up like…" Sam closed one eye as he took the measure of the conker Frodo was holding.
"Yes, yes, I see." Boromir took the string, impatient to start. He had to bend down to level his conker to Frodo's, even though the hobbit held his up as high as he could. Boromir wrapped the string around his finger and pulled the conker back. The other members of the Fellowship all watched now with bated breath.
Boromir's conker whipped through the air faster than a speeding arrow and completely missed Frodo's conker but hit Boromir squarely and painfully in the knee.
Pippin and Merry both erupted with simultaneous laughter, Samwise winced in sympathy and concern that he might get the blame and Frodo put his hand to his mouth to suppress a giggle. Gimli snorted, "Well a pretty poor show you made of that I must say. Just as well we're not relying on you to… to…"
"To what?" Boromir asked rubbing his knee and realising that the dwarf had run out of road with his last comment. "I'd like to see you do it – it's a lot harder than it looks!"
"Surely not." Legolas came over to Pippin's conker pile. The elven archer knew his accuracy with a bow would make this a simple challenge. "Please Pippin, may I?"
"Of course," Pippin nodded eagerly, happy to have more participants for his sport.
The elf carefully selected a sturdy looking horse chestnut still in its casing. He broke it free, drilled a perfectly centred hole with his knife and threaded it with a spare bow string. "Who shall be my first opponent?"
"Well by rights it should be Mr Boromir," Sam adjudicated, "Since he missed last, he gets to take next hit."
"Very well, prepare to have your conker struck, Sir." Legolas gave Boromir a mock bow and the Gondorian sniffed slightly before wrapping his string around his hand and holding the conker out to be hit.
The elf was good and the elf was fast, Sam could not help but notice that he would have some stiff competition. He also noted that Legolas's conker would indeed have struck home had not Boromir moved his at the last moment. Unfortunately for the Gondorian his joke backfired somewhat as Legolas, instead of striking downwards struck across and his conker found its mark, not with Boromir's conker but with its owner.
Once more the man yelped with pain as the elf's conker hit him viciously in the groin.
Merry and Pippin were now giving their impression of topsy-turvy beetles and rolling on the ground in paroxysms of mirth, too helpless to even stand. Sam looked at Frodo and scratched his head in bafflement at the man's lack of skill, while Frodo was torn between sympathising with Boromir and joining his cousins on the ground.
Aragorn sighed and went to help Boromir to straighten himself, "Are you much injured?" he asked as solicitously as he could, whilst keeping a straight face. "I think Boromir you might want to concede defeat at this sport."
"It is a mere children's game!" Boromir snorted, "Hardly a sport of kings."
"Well y-you…huhhhh chuuuuss… can't do it!" Pippin finally managed to stutter out, between his breathless laughter. Merry was crying now and unable to utter a coherent word.
"I don't think perhaps it is a game for gentlemen," Samwise tried diplomatically. "Maybe it's just something we hobbits can do."
"Let me try." Aragorn took Boromir's conker and hefted the object in his hand to test the weight of the missile. "Frodo, may I?"
Frodo obligingly held out his conker for Aragorn to aim at and the ranger sized up the distance and trajectory of his own with great care. Finally ready to split his opponent's target asunder he fired.
The conker must have been a little over ripe Sam thought later or perhaps he should have tied a thicker knot. Aragorn's conker made a whistling sound, so fast did it travel through the air. The forward force of the nut, and possibly the speed, both conspired to fling the missile free of its string and fly through the air like a stone shot from a sling. It was not by design that Boromir happened to be in the way but at least the man prevented the hard nut hitting Gandalf as it struck the Gondorian smartly in the rear.
"Yewch!" Boromir yelped. "Did you do that on purpose?"
"No truly, I'm sorry," Aragorn flinched in horror at what he had done. "Please Boromir, believe me, I would not have."
"Yes, yes," Merry squealed with mirth, "He aimed it at you!"
"It's true!" Pippin gasped, trying to catch his breath, "The king has conkered you Boromir!"
"You're getting good, you've scored three direct hits now!" Frodo had given up trying to be polite and he and Merry were leaning against each other for support.
"Dog's teeth!" exclaimed Gimli, "Two grown men and you can't play a simple child's game. Let me do this and show a dwarf is able to turn his skill to any game or sport."
"Here Gimli," Legolas proffered his conker, possibly as a ruse to take no further part in this dangerous pastime. "Use this one."
"No." Sam was going to be firm about the rules. "Every player should have his own conker, that's the way it's played. Else how can we score?"
"Score!" Gimli spluttered, "You mean there is actually a way to score this nonsense?"
"But of course, Gimli, this is a major sport in The Shire, "Gandalf had been calmly observing from the safety of a rock, a sage smile upon his face as he sucked quietly on his pipe. It was good to see the hobbits teaching the others something for a change. "Sam's right, the player and his conker are a team, you cannot split them up, not until the conker is broken and then a new one must be found. No borrowing or lending – right Samwise?"
"Right Mr Gandalf." Sam disliked people playing higgledy-piggledy with his favourite sport. "Will you be the umpire, Sir?"
"Of course, Samwise," the wizard agreed. It would not be the first time Gandalf had refereed a conkers' match. "and perhaps I'll play the winner."
Sam allowed each contestant a main conker and a reserve. Pippin and Merry had to promise to behave and remain upright whilst in the playing area and the hobbits all conceded the other species could have two hits to their one on the grounds of lack of experience. Gandalf insisted on this as the hobbits had an obvious advantage based on the fact that they could actually play.
Gimli was next up against Pippin. He squared up, muttered a dwarvish charm or curse under his breath, crossed his fingers and his eyes and fired. He missed. Twice.
Pippin then took aim and, infuriatingly for the dwarf, almost casually swung his conker down to split Gimli's failed champion neatly in two. Boromir, standing a safe distance away, applauded Pippin's prowess.
Legolas was next into the centre, drawn by lot against Merry. Each scored several hits against the other but Legolas finally succeeded in splitting Merry's conker and drawing enthusiastic applause from the hobbits and wizard, with grudging concessions from the rest.
Next fate deemed that Aragorn was to meet Boromir. Merry and Pippin nudged each other excitedly, Sam whispered to Frodo about the possible outcome, whilst Gandalf chuckled quietly to himself at the sight of the two splendid, strong and brave warriors squaring up to each other as if they were about to fight a duel of honour but instead of fearsome broadswords or deadly foils they faced one another with conkers dangling on pieces of string.
After six misses each and multiple bruising, Gandalf declared a draw deducted two points each and penalised both Merry and Pippin for undue heckling and unwarranted mirth at the misfortune of others.
In a relatively long bout Sam finally and apologetically beat Frodo with a resounding hit, although neither of the hobbits sustained any physical injuries. Boromir then was called upon to face Sam and this time took the precaution of playing from behind his shield and wearing Gimli's helmet. He claimed later that this was the reason he lost, no one argued, after all he had suffered enough and provided a surfeit of entertainment. The hobbits decided they could allow him that much.
Aragorn finally succeeded in hitting Gimli's conker and eliciting a small tear in the outer casing. The dwarf argued it was not a clean break but Gandalf ruled Aragorn's conker a oner as the other conker was now unplayable and sent the ranger forward to the next heat, although penalizing him one point.
Aragorn was quickly dispatched by Merry in the following round, then lost his second conker almost immediately to the doughty Pippin, whose skill with conkers had been quite an eye opener to all but the hobbits, even Gandalf had not seen him play so well – but it had been some years.
Legolas was proving to be the dark horse. He had already beaten Merry once, taken Frodo's second conker and Sam's first, Boromir's second conker had been child's play and now he was facing Pippin. The hobbit did not flinch, even when the elf insisted he stand on a rock – a strategy that had not occurred to the others – to bring him to a better level for aiming. The manoeuvre actually turned out to be faulty though as Pippin appealed to the umpire that he should remain on the rock while he took his own hit. Gandalf conceded the point to Pippin also deducting a point from Legolas for a tangled string hit and awarding the bout to Pippin when he took out Legolas's conker by using the advantage of extra height and momentum to smash the elf's conker to pieces.
Wagers started to be placed as Merry faced Pippin, the odds now firmly in the younger halfling's favour. But experience won out over youth and the older cousin prevailed, taking Pippin's conker in one hit.
"That makes mine an eleven-er doesn't it Gandalf!" Merry shouted in excitement. "I could finally beat Sam."
"How does this scoring work?" Boromir was totally confused. Aragorn and Gimli could offer little help either, but were not prepared to talk about it. Legolas said nothing.
"Pippin's first conker had three victories," Gandalf explained patiently, "So it was a three-er, but then it triumphed over Legolas's sixer and became a niner. Merry's was already a two-er, bringing it to an eleven-er." Gandalf checked some quick markings in the dust that he had made with his staff. "But Merry you lost a point for foul play in the first round and so did Pippin, which reduces the score off both your conkers at the time, which means that conker may only be a niner in spite of its victories."
"I'm still in the lead though aren't I?" Merry crowed happily.
"It's about as easy to follow as hobbit genealogy," muttered Boromir darkly.
"I wouldn't say it was that straightforward," said Frodo blandly. Boromir had no idea if he was joking or not.
The next round was Sam's novice conker versus Pippin's equally new conker. This time no wagers were made and coins stayed firmly in their owners' pockets. This was a frighteningly even match and no one, not even Frodo or Merry who knew the form, was prepared to risk hard cash on the outcome. Sam won after the fourth hit.
Speculation ran high again as Legolas met Merry once more. Legolas was on his reserve and unused conker now and Merry was wielding the famous niner. Age it seemed was against the experienced conker and, Merry claimed later, it must have been sorely weakened by its earlier exertions. It was defeated by the elf in the third round and Legolas's conker now claimed the title of tenner.
Only Sam was left with an intact conker to face the elf. The pride of The Shire rode on those sturdy shoulders and Frodo gave him a quick pep-talk as Merry massaged his striking hand and Pippin spun Sam's conker on it's string to check for balance and durability. "You can do it Sam," Frodo whispered, "we counting on you, we've seen you take out Bilbo and even Gandalf before now. He's only one elf after all."
"But Mr Frodo – an elf!" Sam was less than calm, but with careful seconding and encouragement drew himself up to meet the challenge.
Legolas smiled engagingly as Samwise stepped into the conker circle which the hobbit suspected was designed to unnerve him more. By right of the superior conker the elf had first strike, which worried Sam greatly. Legolas almost never missed and would keep hitting until his conker was smashed.
Legolas drew back and slammed his conker into Sam's with a mighty crack. The hobbit stood firm and did not flinch, holding his conker out at arm's length.
It was a hit, but Sam's conker had held, so Legolas took another strike. The crowd held it's breath. The elf's conker smashed into Sam's. A sharp crack sounded and two halves of a conker fell to the ground.
But it was not Sam's conker which broke – it was the elf's.
The crowd roared its appreciation. Legolas appealed to the umpire for a re-match. Gandalf declared Sam's conker a twelver and Samwise Gamgee the overall winner!
"So Grandfather Samwise beat everyone?" Holfast exclaimed, "he never told us that story – I wonder why."
"Aye well, he was a modest sort of hobbit." Gimli quaffed his drink with relish. "But he could certainly play conkers."
"But what about the final game?" Meridydd wanted to know. "Did he play Gandalf at the end?"
"I believe I recall that there were no suitable conkers left with which to play." Legolas said furrowing his brow as if trying hard to remember. "I'm not sure why, because there had seemed a great many when we started."
"You must remember Master Elf." Gimli snorted a laugh into his beer. "Boromir had been 'accidentally' dropping them into the campfire, he even collected up the remaining ones from under the tree. Young Peregrin was most disappointed."
"Yes now I recall." Legolas blinked a little, "I wonder why he did that."
Next chapter the Fellowship get into a bit of a hole. Enough of cuteness now. Our next production will be filled with angst, high adventure, blood and terror but very little sex. All right – Marigold just said no sex. I was just trying to get the sex people in – but what can you do?
Shirebound: Writing a chapter such as this would have taken
me much more than "a hard day's weekend"
Llinos: It takes a big nasty stick from Marigold and the threat of no chocolate!
Kookaburra: I can't wait for the next chapter!
Llinos: Well sorry you had to – but you know how it is. Anyway – Marigold is whispering in my ear, "Tell them how the next chapter is going to get exciting!" I'm sorry? What was that!
Jay of Lasgalen: I had no idea you'd started a new story,
and a joint one at that.
M&LL Please tell all your friends – they said as one!
Baylor: I hope we will get to see Gimli, and perhaps Arwen!
Llinos: Well we managed Gimli – and Boromir, Aragorn, Gandalf, the four hobbits as well as Leggie – you can't still need Arwen, with her bosom and all! And they'll all be back in the next chapter too.