Calion stared with unabashed interest at the small person who answered the door, and at the other small ones who stood there behind him. He was not quite as tall as Calion himself, and had a shock of dark curls on his head and his feet.
"Good evening, Calembel, Mistress Niriel! Do come in!"
"Master Fredigar! May I present my children-- my son Calion, and my daughter Ivoreth."
Calion gave a polite bow, and Ivoreth made a neat curtsy. Calion listened carefully as his father gave him the hobbits' names. Such funny names, they had!
He looked about him while his parents and Mr. Bolger (what kind of title was Mr., he wondered? It sort of sounded like "Master", which was his father's title as a guildsman.) exchanged polite talk. The rooms were tall and fine. He knew that this building was meant for the King's guests, and he guessed they were grand enough-- but it seemed odd to see the small furniture scattered about-- low benches and tables, they looked like nursery furniture. Then his attention was caught by some delicious smells, and he blushed as his stomach growled. Ivoreth glared at him.
Mr. Bolger laughed. "I see that the youths of Men have one thing in common with the 'tweens of the Shire: their stomachs are quite reliable when it is suppertime! Speaking of which, I do believe all is ready!"
He and the others led Calion and his family up the corridor, past two rooms on either side, to another room to the left. A wide arch opened into a large dining room. It boasted a long table in the center of the room, but oddly, on one side of the table there was a long high bench with a step all along the bottom. At either end were two chairs that reminded Calion of nothing so much as baby chairs: they were small, but high. Along the other side were four ordinary chairs.
But what truly made his eyes grow wide was the sight of the table: it was laden with food, from which the most delicious smells came! He saw at least two platters of roasted chickens; there were baskets of freshly baked breads of several kinds and shapes; there was one platter of roasted vegetables and a bowl of buttery boiled potatoes; there was a platter of stuffed mushrooms (Ivoreth would not touch those, he would be bound); and there was a bowl of cooked greens (he turned up his own nose at the thought of those). On a sideboard at one end of the room, he saw three large apple tarts, steaming hot, and a bowl of clotted cream. There was also a platter of cheese and fruit and more bread rolls. He'd never seen so much food all at one time and in one place in his life. Even the one time he'd been with his family to a feast at the King's Hall of Merethrond, the servants had brought the food one remove at a time.
All of them stood briefly next to the table and observed the Standing Silence. Calion was surprised that these pheriain knew what that was. But perhaps they had been told. That would make sense.
Mr. Bolger sat at one of the high chairs at one end, and Mistress Poppy sat at the other end, and the other hobbits all sat on the long bench. His parents took the chairs at either end of the other side. Ivoreth slipped into the one next to their father and so Calion found himself next to his mother.
He was very hungry. He started to reach for the basket of bread rolls in front of him, and then hesitated. What was the proper thing to do when the food was already on the table? Mr. Bolger smiled at him. "We are serving Shire-style tonight. Take what you want from the food in front of you, and then pass it to the person on your left."
Calion nodded, and placed one of the rolls upon his plate and then handed the basket to his mother. She also took one, and then handed the basket to Mistress Poppy. Calion turned as his sister handed him the platter of stuffed mushrooms. He noted with surprise that she had actually taken one!
In this way, the food was rapidly served, and Calion realised his plate was piled high. He had even taken some of the greens-- just a few-- because they had smelled so good, not at all strong like he was used to. He had half a chicken on his plate, because that was how it came on the platter. Usually he only ate the leg of fowl. But everything tasted so good! Even the greens were good-- sweet and tangy at the same time, with no bitter aftertaste. They had little bits of smoked ham in them, and onion. He honestly could not recall ever having a meal that was so delicious before! He soon realised his plate was empty of every crumb. Mistress Poppy was asking him and Ivoreth if they wanted seconds.
"Oh no, Mistress!" his sister exclaimed, then blushed and put her hand over her mouth.
Calion thought quickly. "It is just that we would like some of that wonderful smelling apple tart," he said, "and we need to leave room for it!"
Mistress Poppy laughed. "You could have said nothing to please me more, young Calion! I made that tart with my own two hands! Viola, since we all seem to be finished with the main course, bring the dessert over here and I will slice it."
For some strange reason her statement made Viola and Mr. Brandybuck blush, and some of the other hobbits sniggered, but Mr. Bolger looked at them sternly.
Miss Viola slipped from her place and brought the tart to her mistress, who carefully divided it up and then turned her attention to the second one Viola placed by her. Mr. Brandybuck had come down from his space on the bench, and he brought a small stack of plates on which Mistress Poppy began to put the slices. Like the food, the dessert plates were passed to the left until everyone had some. Then the bowl of clotted cream was passed around.
Calion turned his attention to the tart, and when it was all gone, and he had decided that if he ate one more bite he would burst, he looked up. His parents' plates and his sister's were empty. The hobbits had finished with their tart, and now were eating bits of cheese and fruit as they talked.
"Fredegar," said his father, "I do not know when I have had such a wonderful meal!"
"Thank you," said the hobbit. "such compliments are music to hobbit ears! We love to please people with food. Meals and hospitality are very important in the Shire."
Niriel asked, "Did the King give you no servants? I was surprised to learn that you cooked all of this, and to see that you served it this way."
Mr. Bolger laughed. "We were given servants, but we gave them the evening off. We wanted the chance to cook, for cooking is one of the prime arts of our land; and this is the way most meals are served in the Shire-- with the food set upon the table, and then passed around."
"Oh." Niriel looked thoughtful. "Is that only among the hobbits of your land? What about the Men?"
"Well, if you are meaning 'the Shire' there really are no Men living there, only hobbits, as it was gifted to our people by the King of Arnor. But if you mean 'Arnor', then I think you will find that the by the time the King's Court is well established the customs will be much as they are here. But the North is a much more rustic place now, and very sparsely populated."
"This is what I have heard from Lord Hiril," said Calembel. "He says that the Dúnedain of the North are scattered and few."
Fredegar nodded. "That's true. Of course, there are other sorts of Men, but they are mostly settled in small villages and towns, also scattered and few. The principal town between the Shire and the Misty Mountains is Bree, and compared to Minas Tirith it is quite small. I should say it is not a third the size of Edoras, if that. Still, once the King rebuilds the capital and the traffic on the Road increases, that may very well change."
Calion listened with interest. If they were to travel there, they would need to know more about it all. It sounded exciting and adventurous, although glancing at his mother's troubled expression, he thought perhaps she might not care much for it. But if they were all there together she'd grow to like it. During the War, his mother, and he and Ivoreth, had been sent off to Ethring in Lebinnen, where they had distant kin. She had not much cared for it there, either, when they arrived. But by the time they left to come home, she was sorry to leave the new friends she made-- though very glad to be reunited with Father, who had been needed in the City for the defenses of the walls. This time Father would be with them, so Calion was sure she would grow to like things sooner.
"Shall we go into the parlour?" said Mr. Bolger. "We'll leave the cleaning up for later."
The front room was large, and scattered with an assortment of chairs and settees meant to accommodate both Big and Small people. His parents sat on either end of a long settee with Calion and Ivoreth between them, and the hobbits made themselves comfortable in various smaller chairs, except for Mr. Brandybuck and Miss Viola, who chose to sit on the edge of the hearth, which was rather higher than most hearths Calion had seen before.
The talk briefly turned to the changes that Minas Tirith had seen since the Dark Lord had been overthrown and the King had returned.
"It seems strange that we are no longer fighting the Enemy. It is good, but still, strange," Calembel said. "Lord Hiril told me there was much fighting in the North as well. How did your people fare?"
Fredegar laughed. "Not well, though not nearly so badly as we thought we did or as badly as it could have been had Frodo not achieved his goal. We were somewhat overrun, but not by any creatures of Sauron-- rather by brigands and rough Men sent our way by Saruman. A few of us tried unsuccessfully to fight back, but we didn't accomplish much until Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam returned."
"Captain Freddy!" Jolly exclaimed, "You did as much as anyone could be expected against the Ruffians and Sharkey!"
"You were a captain of soldiers?" Calion blurted, surprised into speaking in the presence of his elders.
"Not really," he answered, but did not elaborate.
Mr. Brandybuck spoke up from his place on the hearth. "Hobbits don't have soldiers," he said. "Not like you have here, where someone chooses to be a warrior and that's a job. We have what they call the 'Shire Muster', in which the Thain levies hobbits in an emergency. The heart of the muster are the archers of the Tooks, and then others are gathered from elsewhere, the Four Farthings and even Buckland. But during our recent Troubles, the Tooks were besieged and could not call for others. Cousin Freddy here, who's half-Took by the way, managed to gather up a band to harry the Ruffians. But none had the knowledge or experience to be effective until Merry and Pippin and Frodo and Sam came home."
"So hobbits have never had a war?" Calembel's voice was incredulous.
"No." said Berilac. "Forty hobbits of the Shire Muster went to the support of Arvedui Last-King as he's known in our history, though no one knows what happened to them. But the Shire was invaded once, and by goblins-- Orcs as you say-- no less."
"With no army, how were they defeated? Did help come from others?" asked Calembel.
"The Shire Muster was called, and led by the Thain's younger son Bandobras. There is a humorous story about the event, which said that Bandobras used a club to knock the head off the Chief Goblin Golfimbul, which flew into the air and down a rabbit hole, thereby inventing the game of golf." Fredegar snorted.
Calembel laughed. Lord Hiril had told him of the game. The rest of his family simply looked puzzled.
"There were all sorts of fantastical stories about that battle, and most hobbits think it only a myth," Berilac said. "But Frodo told us the real story. He used to tell stories to us younger hobbits at Yuletide, and I especially remember when he told this one:
Chill rain rattled the window of the second parlour at Brandy Hall, which was filled with the younger tweens and the children, all there to carry on the tradition of a Baggins telling stories to little Brandybucks at Yule. The fire crackled in the hearth. Beri and several other cousins were scattered around the floor, though some of the lasses had taken the settee. Merry had the coveted place right next to Frodo's knee, as their older cousin sat in the same armchair Bilbo had occupied for many years. Pippin Took had the most coveted place of all: Frodo's lap. He was nearly eight, and almost too old for laps, but it did not seem to bother him.
"Tonight," Frodo had begun, in his best story-telling voice, "I will tell you of Bandobras Took. Most of you know the story of how he saved the Shire from an invasion of goblins long ago, but I doubt many of you know the true story! There is a book in the library of the Thain in the Great Smials. This book was written by Bandobras' cousin Ferumbold who accompanied him on that mission….