Published: August 9, 2018
Arathorn and Argonui had made it past Michel Delving and were passing through the White Downs. Once past those, they would be out on the Great East Road and officially out of the Shire. They were nearly out of the White Downs when a wild cry caught their attention. It was a raw, primal wail, not of physical pain, but pure anguish. Arathorn turned his horse abruptly. There was a hobbit woman struggling through the snow after the two Rangers. She was an older woman, her hair gone nearly as white as the snow and she was frantically waving a blue shawl over her head to attract their attention. Arathorn urged his mount back to her side.
“Little mistress, do you need aid?”
The woman was crying. She gestured to her ear, shook her head and made a few gestures with her hands.
“I think she’s deaf,” Arathorn said as his son dropped off of his own horse into the knee deep snow.
“Maybe she knows hwerme,” Argonui said, offering a few signs.
The woman watched these gestures intently, but shook her head. Whatever handspeech she knew, it wasn’t the one used by elves. She fished a small sheaf of parchment and a pencil out of her apron and wrote:
‘I need to get to Hobbiton! Please help me!’
“It’s nearly a four hour ride to Hobbiton,” Argonui said.
“That’s why she needs help, lad; she’d never make it on foot in this weather at her age.”
Arathorn gently took her pencil and parchment and wrote that they were happy to help, gave their names and then asked for hers.
‘Lily Heathertoes,’ she wrote.
“Don’t tell me she’s already given up on cooking lunch for you?”
Dwalin paused, looking over his shoulder at Thorin. Then he looked back to the cleared off worktable where an impressive stack of wooden boxes held not just one but two meals that his hobbit bride deemed appropriate for a hardworking male of his size. Meaning he probably could have fed a garrison with little trouble.
“What the hell are you on about?”
“She just sent the ingredients and you’re having to cook it yourself!” Thorin said, gesturing to the clay pot in Dwalin’s hands.
“It’s already full of soup, you daft git; Blackberry puts it in a clay pot so I can heat it on the forge and have a hot meal.”
So saying, the big dwarf carefully set the pot among the coals and turned back to his wooden boxes. Thorin chewed on his meat pie and peered curiously into the lacquered boxes. He had thought he was familiar with hobbit cuisine – thick, hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare that left you unable to move for an hour or so after eating it.
Honestly, where did they even get the energy to farm?
But Dwalin’s boxes weren’t filled with sandwiches and meat pies. Aside from the soup, there was breaded and grilled pork, and . . . that was really all Thorin could identify. Who sent their husband’s lunch in boxes, anyway? The wicker baskets Bilba and Blackberry packed their husbands’ lunches in were identical, but where Bilba put her dishes in stoneware pots or wrapped them in tea towels, Blackberry had little black lacquered boxes – the clay pot of soup not withstanding. But these polished boxes/dishes stacked together in a neat tower, the seats of the bowls clicking into grooves in the lids to lock them together.
“Are those pancakes?”
“Bacon and onion hotcakes,” Dwalin answered, taking a bite of one and turning it towards Thorin so he could see the filling.
“What are these?”
“Pork steamed buns.”
“I’ve never heard of steaming bread before.”
Dwalin leaned up and filched through his boxes until he produced small squares of bread with dried fruit embedded in it.
“My dessert; steamed bread with candied fruit.”
Thorin was still blinking at the steamed buns, so Dwalin held the dish out invitingly. It wasn’t as though he didn’t have more. It was like biting into a cloud of the softest, whitest bread imaginable, only to run smack into roasted pork that was still a bit warm in the center. Thorin made a vague noise of delight. Dwalin smirked, pouring a dark liquid from a bottle into a shallow dish.
Thorin was still chewing, but he noted that the box going next to the sauce dish contained deep fried vegetables. Vegetables. Dwalin was eating vegetables. Dwalin. Son of Fundin. Dwalin ignored his king’s baffled expression and took a ring of deep fried onion from the box, dipping it in the dark sauce and popping it in his mouth. It was still fresh enough to crunch.
“Soup’s probably hot,” he said, standing and going back over to the forge.
Thorin waited until his back was turned, stole what looked like a slice of cucumber, dunked it in the sauce and shoved the whole thing in his mouth. How could you fry vegetables and have them still be crisp?! That sauce was rather amazing, too.
“If you ate my sweet potatoes, I’m busting your lip, Durin,” Dwalin promised.
“Cucumber,” Thorin assured him.
“Oh, that’s all right, then.”
“What sort of soup is it?” The King Under the Mountain asked, eyeing the steaming pot.
Dwalin took the lid off.
“Looks like short rib soup.”
Thorin made a appreciative noise in the back of his throat. Then he frowned.
“I’ve lived in Hobbiton for a decade and I’ve never heard of these dishes.”
“This is Stoorish food.”
“Blackberry’s dad was a Stoor. I guess it’s like being a Longbeard vs. a Firebeard or some such. Anyway, he taught her to cook. Says he had a beard, too. I thought hobbits couldn’t grow beards.”
“I’ve heard Stoors can,” Thorin answered. “Only the men, though.”
Dwalin had more questions, but they were left ignored as Blackberry herself breezed through the door, a half-empty shopping basket on her arm.
“There’s a load of goods up from Gladden Fields!” she blurted. “And there’s a lad with the others who is one quarter dwarf!”
Lunch was forgotten. Dwalin rushed out behind his bride, Thorin close behind them. They met Oin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and Nori at the market. Unloading wagons of goods were – well. If Dwalin hadn’t been warned ahead of time they were hobbits, he might have been tricked into thinking they were dwarves.
They were taller than the local hobbits – Harfoots – and much bulkier. Harfoot hobbits tended to carry most of their weight around their middle. Stoors carried theirs through their shoulders. Blackberry said they were river folk, living off of fish and crops that did well in a wet climate – rice, soya, things like that. These lads certainly seemed like they did a lot of rowing. They wore boots, quite sensibly, and even wore beards. In fact, if Dwalin hadn’t noticed the pointed ears peeking through the curls, he would have thought them lightly built dwarves.
“They’re making grilled tofu!” Blackberry yelped, pointing to a small grill just beginning to smoke. “I want some!”
Bombur followed her, full of questions and likely hunger.
“What is tofu?”
“It’s a sort of paste made from soya – you mash it up and let it ferment, like cheese, right?”
The vendor nodded, amused by the audience.
“What does it taste like?”
“Nothing!” Blackberry announced.
Confusion writhed across Bombur’s face.
“Why is that –“
“It has the consistency of mushroom, so it will fill you just as well, but it tastes of whatever you cook it in. Cook it in chicken broth, it will taste of chicken. Cook it in fatback, it will taste of pork. Cook it with beef scraps, it will taste of beef.”
Bombur was so impressed his tonsure shifted on his scalp. A few of the other dwarrow exchanged looks. Though it sounded like elf food on paper, no who had lived through the Wandering Times would turn up their noses at such a miraculous-sounding food.
“Oh, they’re setting up a whole row!” Blackberry exclaimed.
Sure enough, an entire row of grills and stands were being set up. Stoors chopped and grilled and skewered meats and vegetables, slathering them with strange sauces.
“Are you with me, Master Bombur?” she asked in sudden grim resolve.
“To the end, My Lady!” the rotund dwarf announced, saluting her.
The two Rangers galloped into the head Lawkeeper station and put down the deaf hobbit they had picked up. Lily Heathertoes staggered towards the door, gesturing at the two Men. In hindsight, it was likely the sign for ‘thank you’. She stumbled inside. Commander Bilberry stared at her as she ran to the nearest piece of paper and pencil – which happened to be the parole book.
‘I need to see the Thain immediately!’ she wrote. ‘My husband is being illegally held!’
“By whom?!” Commander Bilberry asked, looking over her shoulder.
When Lilly gestured, he wrote his question down.
‘By the Lawkeepers in Michel Delving! They charged him, but they refuse to send him for trial! I haven’t the strength to chop enough wood to last the winter! I’ll die without him!’
“Bellwether, where do you think the Thain is this time of day?!”
“Probably still in his office, Commander,” Erling said. “He might be having tea, but—“
“I think we can interrupt his digestion time for this.”