Disclaimer:Lord of the Rings is owned by J.R.R. Tolkien, his family, New Line cinema, etc . I have written this short story purely for my own enjoyment.
This story is a tie-in to 'Concerning Sam.' Reading that may help to understand this, but is not truly necessary.
Much Ado about Mushrooms
Farlibar hummed quietly to himself as he stood before a broad, squat bench in the cooks' tent with his arms up to his elbows in a bucket of soapy water. Another large wooden bucket of warm water was beside it and a stack of fresh towels lay next to that, ready to dry the clean dishes for deposit on the sturdy table nearby where they would be kept for use later that day. Other hobbit cooks and their apprentices milled about cleaning dishes and checking what ingredients were needed for the main meal later that afternoon.
It had been a morning of heady excitement with the arrival of the Big Folk on the Shire's borders - Kings and Elves, Lords and Ladies- and the stocky hobbit cook from the Floating Log was surprised to have made it through the day so far without fainting dead away from the anxiety that he would be directly approached by one of the grand company. Although a confident cook, he was an otherwise shy hobbit and didn't know if his poor nerves could take such excitement.
He had been reticent to come to the Brandywine Bridge to see so many Big Folk - happy to cook the food instead and send it on its way with the other very willing hobbits - but Mistress Goodenough had insisted that he should get out more and be more sociable-like. So he had, albeit reluctantly, carried the great platters of food to the field with the others in the hope he could blend into the background and not catch the attention of the rather intimidating (if well-dressed) giants currently occupying the field across the river.
Fortunately, he had managed to stay out of the way so far, other than delivering the delicious dishes to the long table the King himself would be eating at in the great pavilion which lay just outside the cooks' tent.
The King himself! The sturdy cook shook his dark head in awe. Never in all his life had he thought to be cooking for such a grand and important person! He wouldn't even know how to greet such a one! Was it Your Lordship? Your Kingship? Your Worship? No matter, it wasn't like he'dever meet him.
Farlibar hadn't really believed he existed at all until he showed up on the Brandywine Bridge and bowed at the Mayor of Michel Delving. Bowed at Mayor Sam! And the Queen and all those other important people doing likewise! What on earth had the Mayor done that a King from a foreign land would come all the way down here just to bow at him? What Great Deed could have inspired such admiration from such a lordly figure?
As he washed the never-ending stack of dirty plates he allowed himself to mull over what favour the Mayor could have performed for the King that would have procured such an honourable visit. He wasn't possessed of a particularly vivid imagination (unless it had to do with the preparation of food) so his wonderings were rather limited in their scope to what little he knew of Master Gamgee. Had he helped with planting the Royal Gardens? No, you half-cooked sausage! They'll have plenty of gardeners in their fine city, he admonished himself. It must've been more than that!
He knew that Mayor Sam had spent a while outside the Shire in the King's company while on some kind of adventure, something which he'd always found quite odd. The respectable gardener did not strike him as the kind of flighty hobbit that would pack up and leave his homelands on some undercooked notion of exploring the outside world. He couldn't imagine any sensible hobbit that would do anything of the sort.
Suddenly, an image of the uppity Master of Buckland flashed through his mind and Farlibar's mouth thinned in annoyance, remembering how the well-dressed hobbit had slighted his fare the previous summer. Whereas he was not one to gainsay his betters and always tried to treat the insufferable Master with respect (hard as that was), the memory of their first encounter was still enough to irk the normally reasonable cook. To make things worse, on the (thankfully) rare occasions he had encountered him since, the young Master had still not shown the proper appreciation for his culinary skills!
He'd be exactly the kind of queer person I'd expect to drop everything and leave on some daft journey, he thought rather uncharitably, not our down-to-earth Mayor Gamgee!
Still, it could not be denied that the steady, sensible Master of Bag End had 'done a Mad Baggins' and left the borders of the Shire in his youth. And the previous Master of the Hill had gone with him. Farlibar was convinced that Bag End was cursed and hoped he never had reason to put even one hairy foot in it! Why, if he ever did who knew what could happen? If half of what that cheeky Buckland upstart spouted was true, he could be off riding Oliphaunts in the deserts of the Far Eastern Lands Where Night Never Falls before he knew what had happened to him - and all completely against his better judgement! He shuddered at the thought and returned to his contemplation of Mayor Sam's Great Deeds.
The most famous gardener in the Shire was also known by some to be a fair cook. He had heard the Thain himself mention it during one of his stop-overs in Frogmorton. Well that's it then! He cooked for him on their travels! Great platefuls of mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon and sizzling fried potatoes! Proper hobbit food, the likes of which he never tasted before.
Rinsing a soapy platter in the bucket of warm water, Farlibar felt slightly more satisfied with this answer. He thought it highly plausible that some foreigner had survived on bread and cold meat all their life, waiting for the day a sensible hobbit would come to their rescue and introduce them to the culinary delights of the Shire. It was just the luck of the Mayor that the foreigner he found was a King in disguise! Why, he was probably so grateful to get a proper meal he'd've showered Mayor Sam with gifts and titles! He dried the plate and set it on the table.
Farlibar thought back to a few hours previously when the King had first arrived. He was a tall, dark man with regal features and an air of unspoken command. It was clear that all his company had great respect for him. Or maybe it was fear? Probably scared of him because of all that hair sprouting out his face. It's not natural!
He dipped another dirty plate in the warm soapy water, scrubbing it to remove all the gravy remnants. For all the man's grandeur he had been very thin, compared to a hobbit. He'd probably sought out Mayor Sam all the way to the Shire to get another decent meal! He'd noticed that the strange foreigners didn't eat nearly a healthy amount of food - why, most of them didn't even take second helpings! Farlibar was scandalised at such a thing. How could they live so long and grow so tall on one serving of food at meal times? Didn't these Big Folk have enough sense to at least feed their King properly? He'd waste away to nothing and then what would they do?
Still, he mused, apart from their very odd eating habits, they seemed like a good enough sort of folk - if a bit too grandiose for his comfort. And some of the men as tall as trees! The cook suddenly shivered, feeling a bit ill at the thought of having his head so far away from the ground. That's enough of that Farlibar Barleyburn, he told himself. Your head's exactly where it should be, so just be grateful for it and pay no mind that these Men look like they've been stretched beyond all good reason!
Thankful for his own anatomical correctness and relieved at having stumbled over the cause of the King's gratitude, he continued with the repetitive, but surprisingly soothing, task of dip, scrub, rinseand the mountain of dishes began to dwindle as he lost himself to ruminations of over-stretched hobbits with hairless feet and no appetites.
So lost was he in thought, that he didn't hear the approach of two hobbits until one of them practically coughed in his ear. With a yelp of surprise he stumbled back from the bucket of soapy water and the plate he held slipped from his wet grasp, bouncing off the packed grassy earth the cooks' tent was pitched on and rolling under the bench. Whirling around, he spied two of the objects of his earlier musings standing in front of him - one of them not entirely welcome. That annoying Brandybuck!
And he was not trying very hard to wipe the smirk off his face, although Farlibar reined in his tongue when he saw that the Thain stood by him. The Thain! Of the Shire! Here, in the cooks' tent! Farlibar had a sudden moment of unease. What would bring two such important hobbits (even though one of them was a blight on the landscape) here when there were Lords and Ladies outside waiting to hang off their every word? Was something wrong? He gulped. Had hedone something wrong?
"Mr Thain, Mr Brandybuck, is everything in order sirs?"
The Thain was looking at him in such a solemn manner that Farlibar's unease increased. Hadhe done something? Had he offended one of the Big Folk perhaps? He wracked his brains trying to think what he may have said or done to cause offence, but found nothing. In fact, he had been so intimidated by the tall people roaming the field outside that he'd only left the cooks' tent to deliver food to the King's table before the Royal Party had been seated and had not encountered anyone other than a few guards. Had he managed to slight one of them?
The Thain's green eyes seemed to bore hot holes through his skull and the smirk on the Bucklander's face was not helping matters. Farlibar began to squirm on the spot and finally the head Took spoke.
"Are you the cook from the Inn at Frogmorton?" demanded the authoritative voice of the green-eyed Took.
"Why, yes sir. Farlibar. Farlibar Barleyburn at your service and your family's," he sputtered nervously.
"Hmmph," replied the Thain and Farlibar thought he heard a note of disapproval in the tone.
"And are you responsible for the baked mushrooms served to the King's table earlier this afternoon?"
The Frogmorton cook was thrown by this. His food? What was wrong with his food? He thought he'd offended one of the Royal Guards, but no! The Thain had found fault with his food. He was honestly puzzled by this. He'd prepared those mushrooms himself only an hour and a half before the Big Folk arrived and he'd stuffed them with cheese, chopped tomato and potato shavings before baking them. They had been soft, juicy and oozing with flavour and he'd topped them off with a sprinkling of black pepper. They were one of his better accompaniments!
He raised his head proudly, sure that the Thain could not possibly be here to complain about his superb mushroom dish and said: "That I am Mr Thain, sir. Cooked mostly the meats, certainly, but I couldn't not serve up my best mushroom dish for such a distinguished company." It was amazing how confident he felt in his skill as a cook! Some hobbits found great acclaim in making tobacco or ales - but he, Farlibar Barleyburn, was the best cook in Frogmorton and no one could deny it!
Why, that tone of disapproval he thought he heard from the Thain only a moment ago must have been imagined! He was here to say that the King was greatly impressed by his culinary skills - maybe even more so than Mayor Sam's! Farlibar lost himself temporarily to a wild fantasy of the King bowing before him in delirious gratitude, promising him fancy titles (maybe even one good enough to make that Bucklander buffoon mind his manners!) and Mayor Sam begging himfor tips on food preparation, but before he could come to his good hobbit senses he heard a snort.
He recognised that snort.
Snapping out of his foolish daydreams, he saw the quaking shoulders of the Master of Brandy Hall and flushed at being caught in a flight of fancy by him of all people.
The Thain's next words disconcerted him further. "Best mushroom dish, you say? Are you sure that was your best? And to have served it before Royalty?"
Farlibar's self-assuredness was beginning to leak slowly away at the dubious tone of the Thain, a feeling compounded when the Bucklander added: "That poor, dear child. Sick all over the place."
The cook went rigid at this. Poor, dear child? What poor, dear child? Whose poor, dear child had been sick all …
Suddenly he felt faint. Was the Bucklander referring to the King'spoor, dear child? Had he not cooked his mushrooms properly and made the little Prince ill? No! It couldn't be! He mentally reviewed the process of baking the fungi and couldn't see how he may have contaminated them. They were the very best from Farmer Maggots' fields - special for the occasion - and he was always so careful when cooking! So lost was he in his temporary panic that he missed the sharp look the Thain threw his cousin and the Bucklander's impudent answering wink.
"Er, who was sick, sir?" he asked in a slightly strangled voice, but the Master of Brandy Hall shook his head as if a great tragedy had just occurred mere metres away.
"The Queen had to rush him away to clean him up and lie him down! The King is in an uproar and has left the Royal Pavilion to hunt for the person responsible - he may even be on his way here as we speak."
Farlibar knew a moment of sheer terror as the tent entrance flapped open, but it was not the imposing ruler seeking to vent his wrath for the plight of his heir, only another hobbit bringing a further stack of plates and utensils to be washed. Before the flap closed he tried to see if the King was still at the top of his table, for the pavilion he had dined at was straight across from the cooks' tent and he had a partial sighting of it. But all he caught was a glimpse of Mayor Sam sitting alone and looking around the tent suspiciously, as if searching for a culprit, then the flap closed again leaving him to the attentions of the hobbit gentry and the chaotic tumbling of his suddenly fertile imagination.
The Prince was sick! He was responsible! And even if he wasn't, the King himself thought he was and poor Farlibar was always in such a muddle around dignitaries that he lost the ability to form full sentences. He usually allowed his food to do the talking. But the King thought his food had poisoned his son! He'd never be able to gather his wits enough to convince him that something else must have caused the little Prince's illness. He'd be arrested! Thrown in a dungeon! Hanged or run through with a sword before he could protest his innocence! Or maybe even have his head chopped off! He had heard stories from travellers about such punishments for displeasing Big Folk and was almost weak at the thought. He may not want his head further off the ground than was normal for a hobbit, but he didn't want it rolling on the grass either! Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead and he didn't know whether to wipe them off or enjoy the sensation while he still could.
The Thain addressed him again and Farlibar tried to clear his head enough to listen. "Do you have reason to believe they may not have been up to standard?"
"No sir, Mr Thain sir! I baked them myself using a reliable recipe. Why, you've even had them before yourself, if you don't my saying so sir, and you never got sick!"
The head Took paused at this, as if searching his memory for such an instance and Farlibar waited nervously for validation of his claim. The King couldn't doubt his skills if the Thain himself vouched for him, surely?
But the Tuckborough native frowned. "I've eaten at many Inns over the years Master Farlibar. I don't remember every dish I've ever been served by every cook I've ever encountered. I vaguely recall an apple crumble you have served on occasion that was quite delicious - served it with thick, smooth custard I believe, yes. It was nice and crunchy and creamy….oof!"
The Took was drawn from his dreamy-eyed digression of that particular dish by what seemed to be a poke in the ribs from the Bucklander. Really, that Brandybuck had no manners! What was he all about, disrespecting the Thain when he could have been searching for the very memory that would keep Farlibar's head attached to his shoulders!
"No, sorry, I can't remember any particular mushroom dishes you served," finished the Thain and Farlibar was too vexed by this to catch the glare he threw at the other hobbit while rubbing his chest.
"But Mr Thain…I mean Mr Took…I mean…but sir! You know what a good cook I am! You've eaten at the Floating Log many times and no matter what I make you always like it, don't you? It's never made you ill, has it sir? And Mistress Goodenough can speak to that as well! I've never had any complaints before - you must talk to the King on my behalf sir! Tell him that I'm a decent hobbit! I only use good ingredients, sir, I cook them properly and I always wash my hands before and after! I don't know how the little Prince could have fallen so sick sir, but I'm sure it wasn't at my hand!"
"Be that as it may Master Barleyburn, the child is unwell and it was caused by something he ate," interjected the stuffed dandy at the Thain's side. "What's more, the dishes you prepared were most in evidence. If it wasn't the mushrooms, it must have been the roast pork."
If Farlibar hadn't been so alarmed, then - shy well-mannered hobbit that he normally was aside - he would gladly have stuck the crowing Bucklander's empty head in the dishwater and given it a thorough scrubbing!
But he was alarmed. Very. He was now wringing a damp dish towel between his hands and hopping from one curly-haired foot to another wondering how a respectable hobbit like himself could have incurred the wrath of a King he'd first laid eyes on merely hours before. Mistress Goodenough would be very displeased that he had brought shame on her establishment in this way. He'd have to leave the Floating Log! No one would ever hire him as a cook again if they thought he was a poisoner of children - that is if he ever managed to survive this day with his body as whole as the day his mother had borne him! He'd have to find a position in some other trade - something unheard of for a hobbit almost of age. But he wasn't good at anything other than cooking.
"Mr Thain, sir - what shall I do? How can I convince his Royal Kingship that I never hurt his son?"
The Thain looked uncomfortable at the heartfelt plea and Farlibar wished he didn't sound so desperate, but his reputation - and maybe his very neck - was at stake.
But again, that blasted Bucklander answered before the green-eyed Took could open his mouth. "Perhaps we may be able to intervene for you in some way, if you were to do us a small service…"
"Yes sir, anything! Anything!" Farlibar was beyond caring that he was practically throwing himself at the mercy of his nemesis. He just wanted to make it out of this unfortunate situation in one piece. Never in all his years had his skills been in doubt and this was a very new (and worrying) position to find himself in.
"Well, in order to prove to the King that your mushroom dish is not the culprit, we shall have to test more of it. Do you have any remaining?"
The anxious cook shook his head. "No sir, I don't. All we've got here is the beginnings of a spiced loaf for afternoon tea - we cooked most of the welcome feast before we came, you see." Seeing the frown on both hobbits' faces he hurriedly added: "But more mushrooms are being delivered for the dinner later on. I could see to it that they're brought earlier and start preparing as soon as they get here."
The Thain and the Master regarded him speculatively, then nodded in unison. "As long as you do it as quickly as possible. We shall try to appease His Majesty until you can produce the dish and prove your innocence."
Just then, the tent flap opened again and Farlibar thought his heart would stop. He could see the King outside! He had found him! He was doomed! He was…
The great man entered the tent and spoke to some of the other hobbits there and Farlibar swallowed the huge lump that had appeared in his throat. The gentlehobbits, noting his white complexion, turned to see the cause of his distress and their own faces paled slightly as they saw the King slowly making his way round the hobbits who were clearing the remnants of the feast and preparing a cooking area for the late afternoon meal.
Farlibar thought they were concerned on hisbehalf and would have been grateful if could see anything other than his life flashing before his eyes.
"Erm, perhaps we should leave you to it," said the Thain suddenly and Farlibar snapped out of his stupor.
"No, sir! Don't leave me! He'll find me for sure and what'll I say?" He felt somewhat betrayed by the Took's willingness to abandon him to his fate (though nothing the Bucklander did would surprise him). But the Thain and the Master of Brandy Hall seemed reluctant to dawdle when their regent got closer and would have left the poor cook to his doom if the long legs of the King hadn't delivered him to their company before they were able to depart.
Farlibar closed his eyes and awaited sentence from his executioner as the tall man stood before him. He couldn't bear to look up at his accuser. If he had been one of those queer Bucklanders who wore boots, he'd be quaking in them right this very minute!
But instead of the harsh tones of a furious King, he heard the happy tones of a man greeting friends. He cracked open an eye and saw the dark-haired man grinning at the two hobbits who'd tried to warn him earlier. Why was he smiling? Did he enjoy executions? Was Farlibar's head rolling on the grass to be the afternoon's entertainment, after which the Big Folk would retire for a nap before dinner?
"Oh, hello Strider," he heard the Took say in an unnaturally high voice.
Deciding to meet his fate bravely and defend his honour like any decent hobbit should, he opened his other eye and pulled himself as straight as his knocking knees would allow. He saw a slight frown mar the King's brow as he regarded the gentlehobbits and heard him ask if all was well. This confused Farlibar somewhat. Why was he being so unexpectedly civil when his son, the Prince, was coughing up mushrooms all over the place?
The Master of Buckland quickly replied. "Eh, yes. Everything's fine. We were just discussing the menu for dinner and then Pippin and I were off to see Faramir."
Farlibar gaped at this. What? What on earth was that foolish Bucklander about? They had been doing no such thing!But he had no time to comment on the mistake (nor would he have under the circumstances) because the King turned his steady, grey-eyed gaze upon him and he soon forgot about anything except how tight his collar suddenly was.
"Good day to you my good hobbit. I wanted to meet the cooks who had prepared the food for our welcoming feast and have been directed in particular to yourself by your fellow workers."
Farlibar gulped loudly. Directed to him by his fellow workers, indeed! If everyone knew one of the hobbits had poisoned royalty, he'd bet his best Sunday roast the others couldn't get the King to him fast enough! A curse on them all! He would haunt their kitchens and ruin their dishes after his execution. They would never find joy near a stove again! He would….
"… and to thank you for all the hard work and great effort you have made to make us all feel welcome here."
Had he heard right?
Had the King said 'thank you'? He hadn't heard properly, lost in vengeful fantasies as he'd been. Perhaps the King didn't know he was the chief suspect in poisoning his son? Should he remain quiet and hope to escape imminent exposure in order to redeem himself with producing examples of his mushroom masterpiece? Or should he do the decent thing and make himself known? Perhaps if he threw himself at the King's mercy he'd give him a chance to prove himself?
"'Thank you', your Majesty sir? I'm not sure I understand your Royalness - is the little Prince recovered?"
The other two hobbits were trying to slink away quietly now that the King's attention was fully focussed on Farlibar, but after the cook's rather curious question the man suddenly placed a firm hand on a shoulder of each of them before replying to the cook, effectively halting their escape.
"Recovered? He is in perfect health and has been all day. Indeed my son was in very high spirits when I left him last."
Now Farlibar was really confused. Who was sick then? "Is everyone else in good health your Majesty, sir?"
"Your concern for my party is most kind, dear hobbit, but they are all in very good health. I believe I do not yet know your name, my friend."
Farlibar blushed at his impropriety and bowed, stammering so much in his haste to apologise for his short sightedness that he could barely talk. "F.. F.. Farl… Farlibar! Farlibar Barleyburn at your service…"
"…and your family's." finished the King, smiling comfortingly at him. "Tell me, Master Barleyburn, where did you come upon the idea that my son or any other guest was taken ill?"
"You…you mean they're not your Royal…eh…Royalness?" stammered the cook.
The cook from Frogmorton looked at Master and Thain with dawning comprehension. The two hobbits appeared rather guilty and the King's knuckles paled as he tightened his grip on them.
He wasn't about to meet his doom! His head would stay on his shoulders and he wouldn't disgrace his kindly employer, Mistress Goodenough!
His eyes narrowed. They had been playing a trick on him! Trying to fool him into baking more of his magnificent mushrooms for them! Why of all the cheek! And the Thain in on it too? He'd expect no less from that plague of a Bucklander, but the Thain?
The King had appeared to take stock of the situation and realised his two friends had been up to some mischief. But instead of letting them go as Farlibar had expected due to their obvious bond, his hands remained gripped on their shoulders and his eyes twinkled at Farlibar before surveying the tent.
"Well Master Farlibar, it appears that you have your hands full with all those dishes. In fact, I would say that you have more than you can reasonably handle. Perhaps you would care for some assistance? I know my good friends Merry and Pippin here would be delighted to help you and the others in your efforts to clean up and prepare for afternoon tea?"
Merry and Pippin blanched at the idea of this, having spotted the hot glare the cook sent them. And so they should, he thought. Here's me thinking I half-killed a royal lad, thinking my head's not long for my own shoulders, imagining what grass tastes like and getting myself into a right flap about one of my best meals!His jaw set in determination as they eyed him warily.
"Now that you mention it I'd be glad of some help, your Royal Lordship." His mind whirled as he thought about how he would punish them for their cheek and scaring years off his life.
And maligning his cooking! Again!
"Splendid! Well my friends, I shall leave you all to your busy work for I must make haste to the Royal Tent. I await a meeting with a dear old friend and wish to see to some comforts for him before he arrives." The cook watched as he turned to the gentry.
"Merry, Pippin, please see to it that you follow allof Master Barleyburn's directions for he is the King of this particular realm and you would do well not to cross him." The two hobbits smiled uncertainly in reply and Farlibar felt a thrill of pure satisfaction.
As the King thanked him once more for his delicious repast - a King! Thanking him for his delicious repast! - and turned to leave, Farlibar bowed at him as best he could then straightened himself.
And he smiled wickedly at the remaining hobbits…
Author's Note: Farlibar Barleyburn is (obviously) an OC, his name is entirely fictitious and does not stem from any other family in the Shire. This was (also) supposed to be a oneshot, but now it appears that a second chapter is necessary. Oh well.