Written for Marigold's Challenge #4, Tales of The Red Book, with the story starter in italics. The Tales of the Red Book archive may be found at http: www.livejournal.com /users/talesofredbook/, with the Challenge #4 stories at http: www.livejournal.com /users/talechallenge04/. This story takes place after "Bribery and Blackmail" and during "Recovery in Rivendell." My thanks to Marigold for the beta.
Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters and settings are the property of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and its licensees. These works were produced with admiration and respect, as fan fiction for entertainment purposes only, not for sale or profit.
Sweets and Secret Ingredients
Merry peered up at the darkening sky anxiously. "I don't like the look of those clouds. Come on, Sam. We'd better try to find some shelter. I don't want to risk Frodo getting wet." He adjusted his arm carefully across his cousin's back, careful not to brush against Frodo's still-tender side. Opposite him, Sam tightened his hold on Frodo's good shoulder, his worried gaze following the younger hobbit's. Frodo leaned back against the support of their arms and raised his eyes from the great piece of creased parchment held open before him.
"Really, Merry, I'm not going to melt," Frodo protested mildly, the ghost of a twinkle in his eyes. Merry looked at him in concern, noting the weariness and pain-stiff posture. "You needn't fuss so," Frodo continued softly, laying his hand on Merry's arm. "I truly am much better."
"You may not melt but you're not to get cold either," Merry shot back, scanning their surroundings for some structure with a good roof and a wall or two. Merry had decided that it might be wise for he and Pippin to make themselves scarce as the Elves repaired the fireplace and set the new door in. Most of the soot from the unfortunate Brewing Incident had already been cleaned off the walls and the burned linens and carpeting had been replaced. He and Pip had watched from the safety of the courtyard as the Elves brought in sagging baskets of bricks and buckets of mortar until Aragorn had appeared and seemed to be looking for them. At that point the two had quietly quit their vantage point behind an azalea bush and decided to check on Frodo. Merry had greeted Frodo's desire to go outside enthusiastically as, Merry thought, the next logical place for Aragorn to look for them was their cousin's room.
Beautiful as Rivendell's architecture was, it leaned towards open gazebos and unroofed courtyards, and provided little relief from inclement weather. As he looked for a likely spot, Merry wondered when he would stop treasuring every word his cousin said, when he would stop fearing every cold breeze or stray raindrop. Frodo had come so close to death. Worse than death, had not Lord Elrond found the shard in time. Unconsciously, his arm tightened around his cousin and Frodo smiled at him, understanding in his shadowed eyes.
Merry had chosen the bench on which they sat for its full exposure to the sun, pale and cold as the late October daylight was. He should have scouted a route beforehand, Merry silently chided himself, and located convenient resting spots and shelters before taking Frodo out. "Lord Elrond said we could only take you for a walk – a short walk – if we kept you warm and didn't let you get tired."
"I feel fine," Frodo grumbled, but even as he protested Merry's concern, Merry saw him shiver. Sam's keen eyes saw it too, and he undid his cloak and wrapped it around his master. Frodo smiled at him in silent thanks, knowing it was useless to object.
"Then I don't want to get the map wet," Merry continued, unerringly finding the lever required to pry obedience out of his stubborn cousin. "Lord Elrond wouldn't be very pleased with us if we did." At Frodo's request, Merry had obtained a map of Middle-earth from their host. They were pouring over it, trying to understand the distance that Frodo had agreed to travel. Pippin had tried to follow his elders' conversation, but he had no head for maps and after growing bored, had wandered off to seek his own amusement.
"I don't want to go back to my room, Merry," Frodo demurred softly. "I can describe each of the carvings in the beams above my bed. Do you know there's one that looks exactly like Gandalf's nose?" When Merry looked at him in disbelief, Frodo sighed mournfully. "I'm tired of being inside."
"Uh-oh," murmured Sam. The others looked up to follow his gaze.
Aragorn was striding swiftly towards them. The Ranger's face was set and angry, and one arm was locked around something held against his hip. The three hobbits stared. The large bundle held under Aragorn's arm resolved into a hobbit, which the Ranger deposited firmly on the end of the bench. Pippin glared up at him then looked sullenly at the others, his arms folded belligerently across his chest.
"Sit," ordered Aragorn tightly. Pippin glowered up at him, his sharp face pale except for two burning spots on his cheeks. Aragorn glared back, his mouth a thin line and his piercing eyes annoyed. Pippin's mouth started to open, and Aragorn shook a finger in his face and scowled at him. "Stay!" With that, Aragorn awarded all of the hobbits a dark look then turned on his heel and strode off, aggravation in every line of his tall body.
The hobbits stared after him, open-mouthed. Then three pairs of shocked eyes turned to the youngest of their number.
"I didn't do it," declared Pippin resentfully.
Merry groaned and dropped his head into his hands, rubbing his forehead. Frodo sighed tiredly and closed his eyes in resignation. Sam darted a quick look at all of them, then plucked the map from Frodo's unresisting grasp and began to fold it carefully, his gaze circumspectly downcast.
"Pippin," Frodo said with granite patience, "what is it you didn't do?" Pippin transferred his glare to his hairy toes and kicked at the air. He mumbled something under his breath, ending in a growl. "I didn't hear you, lad," Frodo said quietly but clearly. Merry tensed, knowing that tone of voice of old. He saw those dark brows quirk then draw together, and Frodo's eyes turned from sun-lit morning glory blooms to glacial ice. Silently, he urged Pippin to 'fess up to whatever crime he had found time to commit in the last few minutes.
"…you were all so busy… I was bored…the Lady Arwen…"
"The Lady Arwen?" Frodo repeated in a horrified whisper. "Peregrin Took, what did you do?"
Pippin smiled dreamily, his expression blank. "She's beautiful, isn't she? She's the most beautiful lady I've ever seen. Her hair is like black silk. In the sunlight, it sparkles with diamonds like dew glinting in the morning."
"And her skin! Moonlight shining through a blossoming lily -"
Pippin jerked and sat up straight. Merry responded to Frodo's voice in the same manner, even though it was not directed at him. "I wrote her a poem. That's all – just a poem. I said she was so pretty, and that I – um… I didn't sign it. I don't know how they figured out it was me."
"Did you write it in Elvish?"
Pippin looked at Frodo in surprise. "Of course not. I don't know Elvish. I wrote it in Westron. And I wrapped it around the prettiest rose I could find and laid it outside her room." Pippin blushed. "Then I knocked on her door and ran."
Frodo closed his eyes again. "And Aragorn?"
More mumbles. Then, "He opened the door." Pippin kicked viciously at a grass stalk. "I think it was highly improper of him to have been in her room, just the two of them, and with the door closed and everything." Pippin looked indignant. "He found my poem and read it! And her name was right there on the envelope!"
"What did the poem say?" Pippin was staring at his feet again, color high in his face. "Pippin," said Frodo evenly. "Answer me, young hobbit."
Pippin flushed even redder. Then he raised his head and stared defiantly into his cousin's horrified eyes. "I said if she were my lady, I wouldn't run off into the Wild and leave her all the time. And I'd bring her all sorts of presents, and I'd -"
"Pippin," Frodo said with careful patience, "aside from the fact that you just insulted Aragorn, what do you think Lord Elrond would think of you propositioning his daughter?"
Pippin gasped. "Frodo! How could you think that? I would never… and Lord Elrond – oh. Oh!"
"Pip-lad," Frodo said more gently, "Lady Arwen and Aragorn are meant for one another. Haven't you seen the way they look at each other? It is as if no one else is in the room. Or on Middle-earth. Your suit hasn't a chance."
"I know that, Frodo," Pippin replied miserably. "I just wanted her to know, that's all."
"I think she is honored by your regard, lad," Frodo said tenderly. Pippin sniffed, rubbing his eyes. Sam was staring neutrally into the middle distance, his expression noncommittal but Merry could feel suspicious quivers through their linked arms. "Now why don't you go inside, and think of a way to apologize."
They watched Pippin trudge dejectedly into the House, shoulders slumped. "I think you broke his heart, Frodo," Merry said.
"He'll survive," Frodo replied firmly. "I am certain the Lady Arwen does not wish to be followed about by a lovesick tweenaged hobbit. Bringing her a rose! I'm surprised Aragorn didn't flatten him."
Pippin stared out into the rain and sighed heavily. That in itself wasn't so unusual, but Pippin had been loudly repeating the sighs every few minutes, ensuring that his cousins and Sam were well aware of the unfairness of it all. Deciding to ignore him, Frodo had retreated to his bed again, dozing lightly to the music of the dancing rain. Sam was sitting quietly by his side, a pair of Pippin's torn breeches in his hands, his sewing kit on the table beside him. Merry, the map spread before him, had watched the needle flash through the cloth until he felt dizzy.
Frodo opened one eye and squinted at Pippin. "What, lad?"
"That wasn't a very intelligent thing to do, was it?"
"No, Pippin," Frodo replied as gently as he could. At the fond sympathy in his cousin's voice, Pippin left the windowsill and climbed up onto Frodo's bed, cuddling against his cousin. Frodo slipped his good arm around Pippin and hugged him, smoothing errant curls out of his face.
"It's just that she's so beautiful, Frodo." Pippin sniffed again, genuinely this time. "I just wanted…" Frodo was silent, waiting him out. "Well… Merry keeps making those moon-calf eyes at Estella Bolger, and Sam has his Rose -"
"Master Pippin!" objected Sam, before Merry could recover from his shock.
"You do," Pippin insisted. "Rosie won't look at another – everyone knows it. And there isn't a lass in the Shire who wouldn't fall at Frodo's feet if he so much as smiled at her." Pippin enjoyed the small triumph of seeing his cousin blush. "Really, Frodo, you should hear them go on." He rolled his eyes and adopted a high falsetto. "'Frodo Baggins is so handsome – Frodo Baggins is so rich, Frodo Baggins is such a gentlehobbit…'" Pippin squirmed in disgust. "And they all gush about your eyes until I think I'll be sick."
"Pippin," Frodo warned.
Called to order, Pippin sighed. "All right, I shouldn't have done it." He lay quietly at his cousin's side, thinking of a way to make amends. "Do you think they would like it if I made them some taffy? Mum has the best taffy recipe, and I know it by heart."
Frodo thought about it for a moment. "Pippin, I think the Lady would like that very much. And you know that Aragorn hides a fondness for sweets."
Pippin beamed, his usual sunny nature restored. "That's it, then! Sam, may I use your pans? Merry can go to the kitchens and get the ingredients, and I'll mix it, and then all three of us can pull." Pippin paused in dispensing orders and regarded his eldest cousin. "Frodo, you can't pull. Not 'til your shoulder's better. You can … you can wrap up the candy!" Pippin beamed, satisfied with his taskmastering. Frodo regarded him with amusement.
"Now hold on, Cousin," Merry objected. "Pulling taffy is a lot of work. And messy."
"Sure would taste good, though," said Sam thoughtfully. "Mistress Eglantine's taffy is famous. Best I've ever tasted and no mistake."
Merry found his mouth watering just at the memory. "Oh, all right," he capitulated gracefully. "It's a bother, but if you think it would make amends with Lady Arwen and Aragorn – and as long as there's a little left over for us." Merry paused for a moment, thinking. "A lot left over for us."
Pippin leaned forward over Sam's deepest kettle and stirred the bubbling mixture carefully. The sugary smell of cooking syrup wafted up from the hearth through the room, and combined with the fresh scent of rain, it was a fragrance sweeter to hobbit-noses than any elven perfume.
Frodo and Sam were absent, Frodo having expressed a need to 'go for a walk.' As if, Merry thought with a private grin, that euphemism didn't mean a trip to the privy. Sam commented that he 'needed a sniff of air' himself, as if that didn't mean he didn't trust his master not to trip and collapse halfway there. Remembering his own concern for his injured cousin, Merry spared a moment to be grateful to Sam for his protectiveness of Frodo.
"What do you think, Merry?" Pippin asked his elder cousin.
Merry took the spoon held out to him and blew on it carefully, then lifted it to his mouth with a look of absolute concentration. He smacked his lips, gaze abstracted. "I don't know, Pip. It just seems to be missing something."
Pippin tasted his own spoonful. "I know. But I'm certain I have the recipe right."
The lad looked so woeful that Merry had to intervene. "Let's try a little flavoring. Run to the kitchens, Pip, and ask them if you might have some extract of lemon. Or mint."
Merry's sharp ears tracked Pippin's progress down the hall until he turned the corner. Certain now that the tweenager would not turn back, Merry dove for his cloak and the small flask he had managed to secret there on his way back from collecting the ingredients. He was heartily glad that Gimli the Dwarf had been agreeable to a little trade – half of the pipe weed in Merry's pouch in exchange for the contents of the flask. Gimli had seemed rather surprised when Merry had proposed the trade, but he had been willing enough when he found out the reason. Promising the Dwarf a share of the sweets, Merry handed over the pipe-weed and pocketed the full, heavy flask.
Merry unscrewed the lid and sniffed, then coughed as his eyes watered. Quickly he poured the entire flask into the bubbling concoction. "That ought to do it," he said to the empty room in satisfaction. "Aunt Eggie never made a better batch herself."
"Of taffy, lad?" Merry whipped around to discover their eldest cousin in the doorway. Ancient or not, Bilbo could still move with hobbit-quietness. "I could smell that delicious aroma down the hall," Bilbo answered in response to Merry's unspoken question. The elderly hobbit tottered over to the pot and inhaled deeply, a grin breaking out on his aged features. "Eggie's recipe, is it? Be a good lad and just check that no one's coming, would you, Merry?"
With a puzzled nod, Merry moved past him to the door and quickly looked both ways down the hall. No sign of Pip or Frodo and Sam yet. He turned around just in time to see Bilbo shaking the last drops from a slim silver flask into the taffy mixture.
"Bilbo!" yelped Merry, shocked, clamping his teeth shut on blurting out his own addition to the mix.
Bilbo stirred the taffy then sniffed approvingly. "I know why Eggie makes the best taffy in the Shire, Merry my lad. And I know our Pippin doesn't know why his mother always takes the blue ribbon at the midsummer Free Fair every year. No need to disabuse the boy of his mum's talent – this is just between us. And absolutely no need to tell Frodo. I love that boy as my own son, but you know he tends to be a tad straight-laced about such things."
Whatever response Merry might have had was lost in the patter of hobbit-feet that ended in a dash to the door. "Mint, Merry!" Pippin crowed, holding up a small vial filled with light green liquid. A second was filled with sunshine yellow. "And lemon! Hullo, Cousin Bilbo!"
"Hullo, lad!" Bilbo responded jovially. Merry noticed that the silver flask had disappeared. "Great idea, this!"
Pippin practically glowed. "Frodo and Sam are on their way back. I told them the taffy needed something, and Frodo said he thought lemon would be splendid." He carefully unstoppered the vial and poured it in a lemon-scented stream of sparkling liquid. The syrup took on an egg-yolk hue, shiny and enticing. Pippin quivered, practically beside himself with joy.
A few moments later, Sam opened the door and ushered in Frodo. After greetings were exchanged, Frodo and Bilbo retired to the corner to put their heads together over Elrond's map, leaving the younger hobbits to concentrate on the boiling pot.
Sam was looking at the syrup with a critical eye. "You are going to clean out my good cooking pot, aren't you, Master Pippin?" he asked rather forbiddenly. "You know how taffy sticks."
Pippin jumped guiltily. "Of course, Sam." He looked injured. "You know I wouldn't leave a mess. Um … I'll just set some water on the hearth to heat, shall I?"
Merry managed not to grin as he watched Pippin select two more of Sam's treasured cooking pots and fill them with water. "Sam," he said as he turned back - and choked. Sam was quietly whacking the bottom of a square bottle, and as Merry watched in dismay, the last drop ran out and into the sweet mixture with a faint 'plop.'
Sam looked at Merry calmly. "I'll wager that's what the taffy was needing, Mr. Merry." Misinterpreting Merry's look of horror, Sam grinned. "No need to thank me, sir. Master Pip's a bit young to know his mum's secret ingredient, but me Gaffer figured it out years ago." Sam stuck the empty bottle back into his pocket and whistling slightly to himself, went to prepare for the next step of taffy-making.
Merry gulped and regarded the steaming mixture warily. It looked all right, if rather frothy. He nudged the wooden mixing spoon carefully. It hadn't dissolved. Perhaps he could manage to 'accidentally' knock over the batch, and they would have to start afresh. Then he could stand guard over it and prevent all well-meaning attempts to 'flavor it up.' Merry winced as he thought of trying to clean up cooling taffy from the beautiful wooden floors of Frodo's room. Likely it would pry up the floorboards –
"Move over, Merry," hissed a voice in his ear. Merry twitched nervously and turned – too late. Pippin was carefully pouring in the last of a dark brown liquid from a tonic-bottle, shielding his actions from Frodo and Bilbo. Belatedly, Merry identified the single surviving bottle of the Gaffer's home brew, their only reward from the short-lived distilling attempt that had damaged their room. He gurgled an inarticulate protest – he had had his own plans for that surviving bottle. "Mum thinks I don't know," Pippin confided with a smirk, "but 'Vinca told me last Yule. Older sisters are good for something, I suppose."
"Pippin – no," Merry whispered but it was already too late. "Where did you get that?"
Pippin glanced at the empty bottle then handed it to Merry. "I ducked into our room, Merry, and got it from where you hid it behind the books in the bookcase. I know you wanted to keep it, but this is a good cause, don't you think? I just hope it's not too strong. Maybe I shouldn't have used the whole bottle. Do you think I shouldn't have used the whole bottle?" Not waiting for an answer, Pippin dug the stirring spoon into the mixture and held it up high, eyeing the sunshine-colored cascade of syrup with a critical eye. "Right!" he barked. "It's ready! Sam, how's that table?"
"Ready, sir," Sam replied. Merry saw that Sam had cleaned the top of the wooden side table and spread butter liberally over its surface. Pippin caught up the sides of the heavy pot with a tea towel and struggled with it over to Sam. The gardener relieved it from him and easily lifted it up to the table, pouring out a great puddle of gleaming syrup.
"Ah, beautiful," murmured Frodo eagerly. He and Bilbo set the map aside and watched as the younger hobbits buttered their hands and then folded the mixture onto itself, trapping air between the two lengths of glistening taffy. Accomplished pullers (which most hobbits are) work quickly, listening for the familiar swish, smack, slap' of the two lengths as they join into one. Expertly and efficiently, Merry, Pippin and Sam pulled and twisted the shining lengths, working in the tiny bubbles that would keep the sweet light and chewy.
When they had a length of sweet rope, smooth and glistening, Pippin proudly carried it to his older cousins and Frodo buttered a small knife to cut it into generously sized pieces. Finding that two hands were needed to twist the wrapper shut, Bilbo volunteered to lay each sweet in a small square of waxed paper and seal both ends.
It was demanding but enjoyable work, and it wasn't long before the pot had been emptied and a great pile of wrapped sweets rose between Bilbo and Frodo. At last Merry handed the final rope to Pippin and examined his hands. Despite his caution, he had acquired a few burns. At least the results would be worth it. He'd best check if anyone else needed burn ointment, starting with…
Frodo smiled at Merry with a slightly vacant expression. Forgetting his hands, Merry's gaze narrowed suspiciously. "Frodo, have you been sampling those sweets?"
Frodo smiled, his eyes unfocused. "Of course, Merry. A most excellent batch. Worthy of Eggie's best, if I do say so myself." He hiccupped and then looked surprised.
Merry waved his hand in front of his cousin's eyes. Frodo blinked and followed the movement with difficulty, then stared at Merry in puzzlement. "Frodo, can you touch the tip of your nose with your finger?"
His cousin stared at him hazily. "Why would I want to do that, lad?" Seeing Merry's implacable gaze, Frodo humored him. "Oh, all right." His out flung arm narrowly missed Merry's nose before Frodo regained control of it. He frowned at his hand then shook a finger and bent his elbow. "Ouch! Drat! Hold still, nose."
Merry collapsed onto one of the divans and groaned. Bilbo was laughing quietly, having deduced the reason for his nephew's lack of coordination. The old hobbit looked around. "All right, lads. 'Fess up. How many of you poured in a little – um, contribution – to Pippin's taffy?" He counted the guilty looks. "Oh dear. Oh, my. Eggie only uses a few drops. I don't think we'd better let anyone else have any of these sweets, lads."
"Why not?" asked Frodo, popping another into his mouth. "They're wonderful." He crinkled up the wrapper, aimed with great concentration, and then hurled it at the small wastebasket set by his bed. It missed by at least a foot. Frodo stared at it in confusion.
"No more for you, either, lad," Bilbo commented, and motioned for Merry to remove the temptations. Frodo watched sadly as his cousin swept the pile into a blanket. Merry tied a knot in the blanket and looped it over his arm, all under his cousin's blinking, mournful gaze.
"They're wunnerful – wond-er-ful, Bilbo," Frodo repeated carefully. "The Lady Argorn … I mean, Lady Arawen … um." Frodo's dark brows drew down as he wondered over his uncooperative tongue. "I think I shall take a nap," he enunciated with great care, sagging back against the pillows.
"Good idea, sir," said Sam smoothly. The stocky gardener glowered at all of them, conveniently forgetting (Merry decided) that he had himself contributed to Frodo's condition. Sam stood up pointedly and stared at them.
Merry sighed and reached over to snag Pippin with his free arm. Bilbo's deep brown eyes sparkled at them, thoroughly enjoying the situation. "I'll just stay with Frodo-lad a bit, my boys. Why don't you check on the repairs in your room?"
Wondering if there was anything taking place in Rivendell that Bilbo didn't know about, Merry dutifully took his leave of his elder cousins, towing a reluctant Pippin behind him. "Come on, Pippin. Let Frodo rest. Let's see if they've finished the fireplace yet."
In the hallway, Pippin pulled his arm free and swung around to face Merry. "What was that all about, Merry? I wanted to stay and make certain that Frodo was all right -"
Merry held up the blanket-sack, which he had managed to keep hidden between his body and Pippin's. It sagged suggestively with the weight of the sweets inside. "We have some amends to make, Pippin-lad," he said gleefully. "I think Lady Arwen and Aragorn and Gimli will like our taffy, right enough."
"But we'll – er - warn them first, won't we?" asked Pippin anxiously.
Briefly Merry considered the amusement that might be gained from not warning them. Then he reconsidered, remembering the size of Gimli's axe and Aragorn's expertise with that long, sharp sword he carried. "I suppose," he said regretfully. Then his smile brightened. "After we've had our fill, that is."
With an answering grin, Pippin reached for the sack.
"Bribery and Blackmail" by Budgielover
Pippin's Taffy Recipe (minus his mum's special ingredient)
2 tbsp. butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 to 1 teaspoon flavoring, if desired (lemon, maple or mint)
3 drops of liquid food coloring, if desired
Spread butter on large platter. In a saucepan, mix sugar, salt, corn syrup and water. Cook until the mixture reaches hard-ball stage. If you have a candy thermometer, the temperature should be 225 degrees. Stir in vanilla and flavorings, add food coloring. Pour mixture onto prepared platter. Caution – mixture will be very hot! Immediately after emptying pan, fill with HOT tap water and allow to sit until taffy dissolves. (Otherwise you will never get it off.) When cool enough to touch, lift edges to middle. Pull candy with buttered fingers until it is stiff and satiny. Pull into a long rope 1/2-inch wide. Cut with buttered scissors or buttered knife into 1-inch pieces. While working one half, place remaining taffy in a 200-degree oven to keep soft. Wrap pieces in waxed paper and twist ends. Makes up in less than 30 minutes and serves many people or a few hobbits.