A Bowl of Mushrooms
Elboron glanced uncertainly over the rim of his cup at the two diminutive individuals seated across from him. They were certainly merry—they consumed more food than he would have expected for creatures as short as himself, and he an eight-year old. They had sampled all the breakfast foods with great delight: Hams and salami from Lebennin; finest cheeses; bread that, Elboron had to admit, smelled quite divine; an impressive display of sausages and egg; porridge; hot milk with honey and cinnamon, which he himself was currently sipping; all sorts of sea-food from Dol Amroth (his Uncle Elphir had recently come for a visit); venison and salad greens. The cook had certainly outdone herself, but it was not everyday that two of his parents' perian friends came to visit.
Éowyn was currently busy with Siliviel, and Faramir had had to go inspect some damage done by an orc raid nearby, but they had greeted their old friends with the greatest warmth and courtesy, and Faramir, bowing, had said regretfully, "I will be back as soon as possible, but in the meantime, old friends, I leave you in the capable hands of my son. Enjoy the morning meal; I will be back by noontime and we will speak properly then."
This announcement had startled Elboron quite as much as anyone else, but he had seen the trust in his father's eyes and did not wish to betray it. So he found himself here in their great dining room, watching the two eat their way steadily through the food.
"Elboron," said one of them—Peregrin, was that his name?—, startling him from his silence. "We were never properly introduced, were we? Your parents are very busy this morning; I'm afraid we came at a bad time. And we—ah, that is to say, my friend here—" and he nudged his companion with his elbow "—was so hungry, we didn't even stop to introduce ourselves!" And he looked quite surprised at his own thoughtlessness.
He sprang from his seat and executed a bow in the Gondorian manner. "Peregrin Took, at your service. But you can call me Pippin," he added, his eyes twinkling.
"And I," said the other one, who had looked greatly offended at being referred to as the only hungry one, "am Meriadoc Brandybuck, but you may call me Merry." He too performed a sweeping bow, but when he straightened up, he gave him a genuine smile.
Elboron felt it only right to do the same—they never had been introduced properly. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Pippin, Lord Merry. I am Elboron." He gave his own grand bow, and felt rightly proud of it.
The two looked scandalized as they seated themselves comfortably once more on their specially high-cushioned chairs. "None of that," said Merry, shaking his head. "Titles are all very well, but not among friends—or sons of friends, for that matter." Pippin assented with a grin.
And suddenly, Elboron realized. "Merry—Pippin!" he cried, causing the two to exchange surprised looks, as if not entirely sure of their young host's sanity. "Of course—how could I have forgotten? Merry—you are the one who saved my mother, the squire to King Théoden! And Pippin—" he turned excitedly to the Halfling "—you are the one who saved my father from burning!"
The two laughed, and Elboron noted that they were easy laughs, not stiff at all. "But of course," said Pippin. "Who else would we be?"
Elboron shook his head, attempting to dislodge other stray thoughts. "It is different," he finally answered, in an awestruck sort of voice that was, nevertheless, musing, "to meet the great ones of bedtime stories in real life. I never thought for a moment that—I mean, your deeds were legendary—and when I met you, I—" The boy blushed.
"Yes," said Merry, nodding sagely. "We don't look as if we were capable of such deeds, do we?"
"I can barely believe we accomplished such things myself. They sound so grand when spoken; they don't feel very grand while you're actually in the act of doing them." And Pippin laughed again.
Elboron barely heard what Pippin said through his own excitement. Real characters out of stories, stories he had enacted as a smaller boy! Legendary characters sitting at his own stone-carved table, calmly eating breakfast with him on their red velvet cushions!
"What was it like?" he asked eagerly. His shyness was overcome by his enthusiasm, and he sat at the edge of his seat, smoky eyes shining.
The Halflings looked blank.
"I mean," Elboron elaborated impatiently—his heroes were proving most uncooperative—, "Your—your adventures—your great deeds."
Merry gave a low chuckle. "Great deeds? You don't think much about the glory or the songs that come after while you're facedown in the mud with the most terrifying creature in the world standing over the niece of a king you loved like a father—"
"In fewer words," interrupted Pippin, "It doesn't feel very special at all—you just do your best, or do what your heart tells you, and hope that you don't get killed in the process." He gave another grin.
Elboron frowned, a little disappointed. "That is what Mama said too."
"Well, there you have it," said Pippin cheerfully, turning towards a servant who was bearing in a great silver tray. "More food!"
Elboron shook his head as the servant carefully settled a beautifully engraved bowl of grapes on the table. "There must be more. You can't just 'do what your heart tells you' and become a hero. Why isn't everyone a hero, then?"
"Well," said Merry, suddenly looking very contemplative, "I suppose not everyone follows their heart."
"Or maybe what their heart tells them is wrong," quipped Pippin, though, as Elboron thought about it, it was a very likely possibility.
"Or there are many unsung heroes." Merry accompanied this statement with a rueful sort of smile, and the glances exchanged around the table confirmed it; they were all thinking of the countless nameless soldiers who had taken part in the War of the Ring. The servant continued to put platters down on the table, laying a plate of sugared ham beside Pippin, who eyed them hungrily.
"But you," Elboron persisted, still unsatisfied, "You are renowned throughout Gondor and Rohan, at the very least, and Arnor too, I don't doubt. You can't deny it. Thank you," he added politely to the servant, who had put his usual bowl of mushrooms beside his goblet—Elboron loved mushrooms, and had them every morning.
Merry frowned; Pippin gave no notice and continued to wolf the slices of sugared ham down. "Well, I suppose we really can't den—are those mushrooms?"
Elboron looked up from the piece he had just speared on his fork a little guiltily; Merry was staring at it as if it had offended him somehow, and even Pippin had halted his frenzied attack to gaze at it. Elboron felt the heat rise up his face. Mushrooms were cooked with many dishes in Gondor, but almost never eaten alone.
"Yes," he stammered, "and I'm sorry if you find it uncivilized or primitive, or if I offended you somehow, but I do so very much love mushr—"
"Uncivilized? Primitive?" Merry looked outraged. "How could we find mushrooms uncivilized or primitive?"
"Mushrooms are heavenly," said Pippin, with a dreamy sort of look in his eye. Elboron had never exactly heard fungi described as heavenly, but decided to accept the description without argument.
"They are good," he said, relieved that they seemed to love mushrooms at least as much as he did, "and I'm sorry I didn't offer you any—I didn't think you would like it. My parents don't think much of it."
Pippin closed his eyes as if he had been offered a great personal insult. "Don't think much of it," he muttered. "Don't think much of it."
Meanwhile, Merry was leaning forward to inspect it carefully. "May I?" he asked, and he poked his own fork into one, lowering it into his mouth. He chewed it meditatively. "It isn't quite as flavorful as our own mushrooms," he finally pronounced. "What do you cook it with?"
Elboron stiffened; he happened to like the way his mushrooms were cooked, thank you very much. "Olive oil, I believe, with some salt."
"Olive oil!" Merry shook his head. "It's time to right a great wrong here, Elboron my friend. Where are your kitchens?"
Elboron blinked, a little disoriented by the quick turn of events. An eight-year old can handle only so much.
"Just down the hall," he said, pointing.
"Well, come along then!" And as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Merry seized his hand and pulled him along the corridor. Pippin trotted behind, clutching the last sliver of ham.
They entered the kitchen, a room made of grey stone, as all the rooms in the house were. As they entered, Elboron's eyes immediately began to water, whether from the many fumes or the different mingled smells that were not thoroughly pleasant, he wasn't entirely sure. It was hot and steamy, but Merry and Pippin made their way through to the chief cook (who they seemed to be able to identify immediately), entirely unaffected.
"Good morning," said Merry courteously, addressing a red-cheeked woman who was tending something delicious-smelling in a frying pan. Her name was Hisaeleth, and she was the head cook. "The breakfast food was excellent. Thank you very much for taking the time to cook it."
Hisaeleth, instead of looking flustered as most women would have, simply beamed. "Thank you for your praise, good sir. It was my pleasure cooking for you."
Pippin, whose last sliver of ham had disappeared a long time ago, decided it was his turn to address her. "The food was brilliant, and I thank you too for it. But milady, we were wondering—would you very much mind if we took a small frying pan, some butter, some pounded garlic, and a few mushrooms?"
It did not take long for Hisaeleth to figure it out. "The mushrooms were not to your liking, sirs?" She glanced at Elboron, who shrugged helplessly; he knew that she knew the mushrooms had only been meant for him.
"No, no, of course not!" Merry was quick to reassure her. "We simply thought we'd introduce our own, tastier method of cooking mushrooms; would you mind very much?"
The Halflings spoke with such simple courtesy that it was hard to refuse them.
"Of course not, good sirs," said Hisaeleth, waving a generous hand. "Take whatever you need."
Elboron and the two guests retreated to a small corner with all the necessary ingredients to do some of their own cooking. Elboron watched, fascinated in spite of his wounded pride when it came to his mushrooms.
"You see, Elboron?" Merry was saying. "You melt the butter, and fry the mushrooms and the garlic in it; it's much tastier than simple olive oil and salt."
Elboron observed as Pippin added the pounded garlic in it, and he soon smelled delicious, golden smells wafting from the small frying pan. He was secretly glad that a kitchen girl hovered nearby, no doubt on Hisaeleth's orders; he knew next to nothing about cooking, but the mushrooms smelled most appetizing and he hoped someone in the kitchens would learn how to cook it that way.
Finally, they were ready. They carefully tipped the mushrooms, melted butter and all, onto a small platter, and proudly carried their deliciously steaming prize back to the dining room. Before they left, Elboron stood uncertainly in the doorway—Merry and Pippin had already waved their cheerful thanks and left. He felt he should say thank you as well, but was not quite sure how.
"Thank you, culinary people," he finally said as courteously as he could, and he left. Once he was gone, Hisaeleth dissolved into laughter and caused one of the lamb chops she was roasting for the noontime meal to burn. It was secretly fed to the dogs later on.
Merry shoved the plate in front of Elboron.
"Eat," he said kindly, no doubt spotting Elboron's ravenous look as he sniffed the mushrooms. Elboron gave him one last, hesitant look, and then tucked in.
Oh, those mushrooms! The smell, the taste! He knew now why Pippin had called them heavenly. He could feel their smooth texture and delectable taste in his mouth—he could go on eating them forever—
He choked, and Pippin laughed, thumping him on the back. "Merry said eat, not inhale," he said, and Elboron himself had to laugh. To think that he was eating mushrooms his own fairytale heroes had cooked for him! Utterly amazing.
By the time noontime rolled around, the three were fast friends. Faramir entered the dining room to find them speaking most animatedly and eating something from blue ceramic bowls. As he stepped closer (he was never taken notice of), he peered behind Elboron's shoulder at the content of the bowls.
Mushrooms! He had heard from the king about the Halflings' passion for mushrooms, and he chuckled as he watched them converse and heartily eat, all seeming to be the same age. He watched his son for a few moments; Elboron's eyes were rather starry.
Faramir smiled, and left the room as quietly as he had entered it, leaving the three to chat over their bowls of mushrooms.
A/N: That was quite enjoyable! I've never written hobbits before; I hope I did them justice.
Now, a few notes: I had Merry and Pippin address Elboron by his name straightaway without going through all the formalities, because I thought an eight-year old boy their height would seem more like an equal to them than the adult "Big People". Pippin, here, is about -does a rapid finger-and-toe calculation- 39 years old. I can't remember Merry's age, and I hope you'll forgive me -- my mother, in a desperate attempt to halt my animated conversation about Lord of the Rings at the dinner table with my youngest brother (he's three) put my books on one of the highest shelves, and hid the ladder.
Thanks for reading this story, and I do hope you enjoyed.
(Oh dear, I completely forgot! The line "Thank you, culinary people" is gratefully borrowed from the movie Princess Diaries 2.)