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29
Archery and Shire Cooking

Archery and Shire Cooking

Many of the Northerners went out after the interrogation of Ankhsarani to the butts to practice at archery once more. This time the Farozi out to observe as well, watching with interest. Two were now attending on An’Elessar, each with bow and quiver over their shoulders as well as sword at hip, the Lord Mablung and Captain Peregrin.

On their arrival the King signed to both Hobbits to go forward first. They went further forward than was usual with Men, but still further from the butts than would boys their size. Each strung his bow, and here the Hobbit Isumbard appeared to be more accustomed to the skill than the small Captain; then checked the wind. Captain Peregrin took his stance, and Isumbard came behind him to look along his side (for the one called Peregrin was considerably taller than his older cousin) and gave him advice on adjusting stance and aim. Isumbard returned to his place, and at a signal from him the two began to let fly at the target. Both were good, although the older Hobbit was plainly better, easily compensating for distance and breeze, now and then advising his cousin on how to adjust his stance or angle to improve his aim.

Amon’osiri, who with his brother had accompanied his father and grandfather out to watch, smiled with delight. “Can you teach me to do that?” he asked Master Isumbard.

On the boy’s father’s translation, the Took looked slightly startled. “I can’t do so all in a day, of course,” he said. “I’ve been using a bow since I was eleven, so have had well over fifty years to become good at it. Pippin here, though, didn’t grow up primarily in the Great Smial, and so didn’t get the regular practice the Smial Tooks have. It’s only been since he returned from the quest he’s shown much interest. In the Shire our primary weapons are thrown stones and our bows. Pippin and Merry are unusual in that they’ve gone in for swords, but that’s mainly because they needed some form of protection as they traveled, and they were traveling among swordsmen predominantly. Not that our Lord Aragorn isn’t good and Prince Legolas superb with a bow. But if you’d really like an introduction, I believe my bow is about the right size for you.”

With the child’s father on hand to translate, the Hobbit led the boy forward to where boys would stand, showed him how to place his feet and turn his body, then the angle to hold the bow, how to nock the arrow and draw.

Amon’osiri was surprised at how difficult it was to draw the bow, and realized the Hobbit was much stronger than he was. It was the first time he’d actually been close to one of the two of them, and he realized this was indeed an adult, and a very kindly and patient one at that. Again and again Isumbard corrected the stance, helped him angle the bow; and at last one of the arrows actually sprang from the bow rather than falling from his clumsy fingers, managing to hit the target. He was elated.

“Very good!” Isumbard said with pleasure. “Now, let me have it.” He took the bow, checked the tension on the string, and taking one of the arrows the child had dropped he nocked it, aimed casually and let fly, his arrow almost in the center of the target. He smiled as he grounded the bow and looked at the still quivering arrow. “Keep up your practice, young Man,” he said with a nod to the boy, “and you will be a good archer one day, and with a much bigger bow than this.”

Ankhrabi asked if he could try the weapon, and after a brief moment of thought, the Hobbit agreed, handing it and another of the arrows he’d scooped from the ground around where the boy had stood to the Man. The bow itself, the Haradri realized, was a thing of beauty, well crafted and intricately decorated, wrapped with what appeared to be horsehair. He tried the draw and was surprised at how much force he needed to use--it was almost what he’d expect from one of the bows he himself used. He thanked the Hobbit for the arrow, nocked it, and took careful aim. His arrow went a bit to the right, and he hadn’t the feeling of control he’d have known from his own weapon; but he was pleased.

“Thank you very much, Master Isumbard,” Ankhrabi said with a bow.

“It is my pleasure,” the Took replied. “You must be good with a bow proper to your stature.”

“I am decent.”

He and Pippin finally went down to the butts to retrieve their arrows, discussing how much better Pippin was doing lately.

Ankhrabi looked after them with interest, and then realized the King stood beside him, watching also after them, fondness in his eyes. An’Elessar turned his gaze, and shared a grin of pleasure with him. “Their bows have quite a draw, don’t they?”

The Haradri nodded. “I’m surprised Amon’osiri did as well as he did. That is a man’s bow for all it is made for a Hobbit.”

The King nodded. “Yes--to realize that the Hobbits had almost a Man’s strength in spite of their size was a bit of a shock when we traveled together through Eriador. And their endurance is beyond belief. They’d tire more quickly than I, but then they’d have been having to take two or even three strides to each of mine when we had to hurry, so I was amazed that they’d go as long as they did before they’d begin to complain. At first glance one thinks ‘children’ with the natural response to treat them as such. But they are not children. Sam could chop wood tirelessly for longer than I; and both Merry’s and Pippin’s determination to learn to wield their swords decently was amazing, and at times almost intimidating. Boromir was always wanting to carry extra equipment for Sam, which of course Sam found to be insulting. All of the Hobbits carried packs almost as heavy as those of us who were much taller, while Sam carried one that even Gimli at times would wonder at. All of them hear things I wouldn’t, and for a Man I have excellent hearing. Frodo would freeze and make just the slightest sign with his hand, and the other three would melt right into the brush as if they’d never been there; and I’d still be straining my ears trying to figure out what he might have heard. And their ability to find foodstuffs, and particularly mushrooms, along the way was amazing.”

“You keep mentioning mushrooms. What are they?”

“A fungus growth that tends to grow in slightly damp soil. Hobbits are experts at recognizing the edible ones from those which are dangerous, and can think up hundreds of ways to prepare them.”

“What about mushrooms?” asked Pippin as he returned.

“He was wondering what they are.”

“I can show him, if he’d like,” Pippin offered.

The King looked surprised. “How did you come up with mushrooms here?”

“Oh, I didn’t find any here, Aragorn. Isumbard and have some dried ones in our trunks. For when we get peckish, you know. We gathered them there in Minas Anor and dried them in our quarters.”

“Where did you find them?”

“Well, you know we told you we’d gather them in the yard of the house that was empty....”

“It’s not empty now.”

“Oh, I know. But we’d slip over there and get some almost every day we were there. The ones who live in the house don’t even realize they’re edible. They’ll never miss them, and it’s a shame to let them go to waste.”

The King was laughing, and Ankhrabi found himself laughing, too.

Mablung, Damrod, and Hildigor went next. Their skill was excellent, and again Ankhrabi asked to try their bows. These were much larger than he’d ever used. He quickly appreciated the suppleness and draw of the weapons, and when he fired that of Mablung he easily found the target. Hildigor’s was lighter than that of the others, but no less deadly. It was curved somewhat differently, but had a good spring to its action.

Prince Faramir, the King, and An’Éomer went next; and it was amazing to watch them. The bow of the Lord of Rohan was smaller than that of the others, a horseman’s bow, Ankhrabi realized, for it was very similar to his own he used from his chariot. But the arrows were longer than those used in Harad and differently fletched. The King’s he’d examined the morning of the hunt, and was intended, he realized, for the hunting of grazing beasts. That of Prince Faramir was similar to those of Mablung and Damrod, but slightly longer and, he realized, older, although superbly maintained. All showed the wear of much use; and remembering the tales of returning soldiers of ambushes in the woods alongside the walls of Mordor, Ankhrabi realized that very likely these very bows had been used on his people, and these very Men had drawn them. It was a sobering thought.

An’Éomer was swift in his nocking and draw, and arrow after arrow he’d send down the course to the butts. Both An’Elessar and Prince Faramir were slower, a bit more thoughtful, but excellent nonetheless.

Then Berevrion, Hardorn, and the Elf Legolas stood on the firing line, and all his admiration for those who’d gone before was forgotten, for there was no question these three were the best of all. All three carried bows that were supremely graceful in spite of their apparent simplicity. “Elven made,” An’Elessar said quietly, as the three paused to discuss how they would shoot. “Berevrion’s and Hardorn’s are from Imladris. That which Legolas uses is of Ghaladrim design and make, a gift to him from the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien. He has again his bow from Mirkwood which he carried through the first part of the quest, for the Lady and Lord Celeborn brought it to Minas Tirith when they accompanied my beloved to our wedding. But he has come to love this bow and all it represents of his heritage within Middle Earth.”

“I am surprised you do not wield an Elven bow, my Lord An’Elessar,” commented Ankhrabi.

“I have three now. Long ago I was given one by the Lady, just after Arwen indicated she would bind herself to me. It is not as great as the one given to Legolas, but is a most elegant and deadly weapon. I have the one made in Imladris that I used before this one, before I came of age. And I have one given to me by Adar before he sailed from Middle Earth, one from Lindor which was his own and had been given him by the great King Gil-galad. I’m not certain why he gave it to me and not to Elrohir or Elladan, but he told me he wished me to have it. But this is the one I’ve ever used most. It has the look of quality, but is not as easily remarked as an Elven bow; and as I ever had to hide myself when I was thought to be only a Ranger, this offered the better disguise, for it is plainly a bow of Men. And, I love it for it is one thing I have and use regularly that was once my father’s.”

“So, four bows you own, then.”

“Oh, no, I have more than that. I have a Rohirric horse bow from when I rode with Éomer’s grandfather, and two bows from Gondor from when I served as a Ranger in Ithilien. I also was given a Rhunic bow when I sojourned there and visited with the Shkatha’s grandfather, although I suspect he was upset I actually bore it away with me. It’s a thing of beauty, but a temperamental weapon, I’ve found.”

“Shall I add a Haradri bird bow to the collection?” asked Ankhrabi.

“I would be honored, Lord Prince,” said the King with a brief bow and a broad smile.

Just then the three carrying the Elven bows finished their discussion, and strung them. At a quiet signal, all three aimed almost casually and three arrows left the string simultaneously, all three points side by side in the target. Again and again they drew and fired. “Aragorn--your ring!” called out his cousin.

“Why is it always my ring you want to use?” the King called back.

“Don’t argue--go down range and throw it up!”

“Use your own!”

“I can’t be down range to toss it up and aim from here at the same time. Even I’m not so swift!”

With a snort of laughter the King turned to his companion. “He likes to show off always with my ring--of course, it has proven a useful ploy in taking some by surprise--we did it with Merdirion’s nephew, in fact.” When Hardorn called out again, he turned. “All right, I’ll go, but if you don’t catch it with the arrow, you’ll have to search for it, if it takes all day in the full Haradri sun!”

He walked in a leisurely manner far down range, removing the emerald ring from his hand. Suddenly the toss was made, so swiftly Ankhrabi almost missed it, and an arrow was loosed--then a second.

Hardorn’s and Legolas’s arrows both went through the circle of the ring at almost the same time, and they fell, their flight disturbed by the sudden intersection of two arrows.

The King fetched the odd tangle back, and it could be seen the Elf’s arrow had reached second and had scored that shot by Hardorn. All examined this as he worked the ring off the two shafts. “This is an awful manner in which to treat an heirloom such as this,” he commented as he finally replaced it on his finger. “From now on, we’ll have to use another ring instead. I do wish it to last to be worn by Eldarion and his son in their turn, you know.”

The last to come forward were the Queen, the Lady Avrieth, and small Melian. The bow given into the child's hands was in keeping with her size, and was gently offered by the Elf Legolas. Yet it was plain this was no toy. She had to have his help getting the loop of the string about it, but checked the tension and draw as would one well accustomed to doing such things. With the Elf kneeling in the dust of the firing line, she received similar instruction to that Master Isumbard had given Amon’osiri, although only one arrow fell from her hand as she went to nock it. Five shots she made, and the Elf proclaimed himself well pleased with each. He then helped her undo the string and replace it in its cloth roll. Once her mother and Lady Avrieth were finished with their practice, which indicated both were also good shots, Melian went with them down the course to recover the spent arrows, gave them into Legolas’s hands so he could check their condition, then saw them replaced in her small quiver.

“I did not know you used a bow, Lady Arwen,” Ankhrabi said as she unstrung her bow and entrusted it to the Elf.

Her smile lit the world as does the light of the star of Osiri when it lifts to shine over the desert. “I have only recently taken it up. Lady Avrieth has convinced me that it is useful to know the use of a distance weapon as well as a blade.”

Captain Peregrin had again taken his place as the King’s escort, and followed respectfully behind as they went back to the palace.

*******

The cooks in the kitchens for the palace looked at the small individuals who, accompanied by a bemused Lord Amonrabi and a very large bag, had found their way into their domain.

“They wish to do what?” asked the head cook.

“They wish to be able to cook a meal.”

The Man looked down at the two visitors from the North and then back to the Farozi's half-brother and steward and shook his head in disbelief. “But they are strangers to our land and visitors to the palace....”

Amonrabi looked sideways at the two, trying to hide his own misgivings. “The Lord Farozi has told me that if they wish to do that which is courteous, we are to be as accommodating as possible. Lord Rustovrid has told me that for their people, the greatest courtesy is to serve fine meals, and apparently they have become convinced that they wish to do this. And Lord Ankhrabi has informed me that Captain Peregrin fixed the food for them while he was recovering and proved to be an excellent cook. It is their way, I understand, of repaying us for our welcome of them and their people.”

“So,” the cook hazarded, “we ought to humor them?”

“Apparently,” the Steward said. “It would not hurt, I suppose.”

“The taster would have to try each dish that they prepare.”

“That is understood. Hopefully it will not be too difficult a trial for him.”

Once they learned that they were being granted the privilege they desired, Pippin and Isumbard smiled. “Now,” Pippin said, “I’ve been able to get some supplies purchased from the market which ought to be arriving about now; can we get some poultry?”

The arrival at that moment of a large quantity of vegetables and several bags of rice not ordered by the cooks threw all into confusion at the door where goods were received, and soon the rest of the kitchens was equally upside down.

After the anxiety of the last several days both the Took cousins had agreed that they needed something familiar to do to help settle them; and Pippin had decided the needful thing to do was to cook up a proper meal. Last night he’d confided his plans to the Lady Éowyn, and had given her the money Aragorn had given him to replace that he’d donated to the needs of the group hiding in An’Sohrabi’s more youthful home, asking her if she would go to a particular stall he’d seen in the market that he’d noted had excellent vegetables and order enough of those he’d written down to serve about fifty people, and to another to purchase sufficient rice. She’d been amazed by his audacity, but had agreed to do as he asked, arranging for them to be taken to the kitchens of the palace.

Then this morning as he was dressing for his duty, Isumbard had pointed out that he’d not taken the precaution to get permission to use the kitchens for the proposed project. Once his duty was over and they’d finished with the noon meal, Pippin, trailed by his older cousin, had sought out Lord Amonrabi to explain the difficulty to him. The Steward had been ready to refuse until he realized that this odd pair had already arranged to purchase at least part of the provender necessary and have it delivered to the kitchens for their use in preparing this proposed meal. Overwhelmed by the situation, he’d finally just led the two of them to the kitchens to deal with the cooks themselves--only to find himself drafted into translating for them.

Once he realized these two actually knew how to work in a kitchen, and that they were willing to allow those who worked there to do their jobs under supervision, the chief cook felt better about it. The Hobbits allowed the kitchen boys to clean the vegetables, and, under Bard’s direction, cut them up properly. Pots were examined and finally one was approved for the fixing of the rice as the Hobbits were accustomed to do; and Pippin found the perfect pot in which to fix a mushroom sauce. When he opened the large bag and exposed the oddly shaped objects with which it was filled, all pulled away with disgust. He looked at them with a pitying expression, popped one of the dried mushrooms into his mouth with all signs of relish, and began asking for various ingredients which the cook found himself surrendering to him out of sheer fascination.

Poultry was roasting in an oven; a salad was being prepared; quantities of loaves of bread were checked and approved of; fruits were attractively cut and displayed on serving dishes; the stewed vegetables were simmering nicely; and with the addition of meat from a fowl previously roasted, the mushroom sauce for the rice was coming along well. The honeycakes prepared earlier in the day by the bakers were added to the menu, and finally came the moment that the Hobbits declared they were satisfied this was ready for the Farozi's table.

An’Sohrabi did employ a taster; but when the Farozi was in his own palace this individual spent his time in his office near the kitchens, mostly watching the preparations of the food there, and tasting dishes as they were prepared to be placed before his lord. Today he stood in the middle of the kitchen watching all with a feeling of unreality. This could not be happening--that the kitchen should be invaded by these foreigners with their high voices and indecipherable language.

Yet order came out of the chaos, and all found themselves watching as the meal was made ready to serve. The two small ones appeared somewhat confused at first as the head cook looked at the dishes and then at the man who had done nothing to assist in the preparation of the meal. Seeing their confusion, Lord Amonrabi leaned down to explain, saw the surprise, then the understanding in the eyes of the taller one.

“What is it, Pippin?” asked Isumbard, uncertain what this latest halt meant.

“It’s their custom--probably because Sauron held power here for so long--but he has to taste everything that goes on the table.”

“To make certain it isn’t overcooked?” Isumbard couldn’t think of another reason for such an employee.

Pippin’s face was solemn. “No, to make certain nothing has been poisoned.”

His older cousin looked appalled. “No one would do that!”

The Thain’s heir turned to look down into Isumbard’s face, a look of sadness in his eyes. “You really think that, Bard? After what I saw he did to the very land itself around Mordor, I would put nothing past him or those he controlled. And the worst he did was to destroy the trust those within the lands have for one another.”

Bard’s face also went solemn. “Yes,” he said quietly, “I can see what you mean. It’s what led to the last few days, the trial and all.”

Pippin reached out and took a platter. He examined the taster’s face and gave him a look of question. With an expression of concern, the Man looked at the food which was laid ready to go to the dining rooms, and slowly he went down the rows and randomly chose samples of each dish. When they got to the rice with the mushroom sauce worked into it, he paused for several moments, certain that if anything might be dangerous to life and health in this meal, it would be this. Finally he nodded his head fatalistically, and Pippin carefully spooned out a portion onto the platter and offered it to him.

The Man took out his eating knife and spoon and fussily poked at the rice to expose one of the bites of mushroom, looked at it sorrowfully, carefully speared it with his eating knife and slowly brought it to his mouth, as reluctantly as if he expected himself to fall dead on the spot once it touched his lips. All took a half step closer, watching the Man with fascination and anxiety; finally he closed his mouth about it, and tasted, opened his eyes in surprise, looked more carefully at his plate, swallowed, and immediately reached forward to take another bite, then another until all was gone.

“Well,” Pippin said with relief, “obviously I haven’t lost my touch for the mushroom sauce.”

Bard gave a snort of laughter and a shake of his head. He turned to the gathered servers, then flapped his hands at them in token all was ready and they should get busy, then carefully removed the linen towel he’d wrapped about his waist as an apron, wiped his face with it, and recognizing a laundry basket when he saw it, dropped it with other used cloths.

Together the Hobbits turned to the head cook and thanked him in their limited Haradri, gave bows of thanks to the rest of the staff, nodded to the taster, and headed off to make a hasty preparation for dinner, thanking Amonrabi once again for his assistance as they left.

*******

The Farozi met the King of Gondor in the room of entertainment where the evening meal would be soon served. “An’Elessar,” he said, “you seek something?”

“I appear to have mislaid Captain Peregrin,” the tall Northerner said. “I’ve not seen him or Master Isumbard for quite some time. I’d thought perhaps they were resting, but their room is empty.”

“I’ve been looking for my steward,” An’Sohrabi commented. “We were to go over the accounts for the stables today, but he did not come at the appointed time. It is most unlike him.”

“When was he last seen?”

But at that moment Amonrabi appeared, wiping his forehead, his face uncharacteristically flustered. “I am sorry, my brother, but the small ones came to ask my assistance, and have kept me so busy I forgot I was to assist you with the accounts.”

“The small ones? Captain Peregrin and Master Isumbard?”

“Yes, great Lord. They wished my aid in the kitchens.”

“The kitchens?” asked the Farozi.

“Yes, my Lord Brother. They wished to prepare tonight’s meal for you and your guests.”

“And Nubiranabri allowed this?” The Farozi sounded totally out of his depth.

“We did not see any way to stop it. They had purchased the vegetables and the rice....”

The King’s expression was arrested, and he stood with his head back, his mouth slightly open, amusement growing behind his eyes. “They took over the kitchen?”

“Yes. And the cook....”

An’Sohrabi was still with the anticipation of a great blow. “Nubiranabri does not seek to leave the service of the palace, does he?” It had taken two years to woo the head cook from the employ of Lord Ghants’pa’amon--his cooking was legendary throughout Thetos.

“Oh, no, Brother--he wishes to get their recipe and find out where he can obtain more of these ‘mushrooms’.”

The laughter of An’Elessar filled the palace of the Farozi of Harad.


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