Aldo Pease ran through the main street of Tuckborough, waving his chubby arms. The two old hobbits playing checkers in the shade outside the Cat and Cuckoo, grinned and winked at each other.
"Wot's the old toss-pot seen this time?" one said to the other.
"Who knows," said his friend. "Mayhap he fell in the river and come face to face with a blowfish?"
"Or his own reflection," the other chuckled.
Aldo came puffing up, still waving his arms, tripped on a step just outside the tavern and fell on his substantial belly, and the two old hobbits paused in their game to have a huge grin at his expense.
"I seen something fearful strange!" Aldo said, getting to his feet somehow as passers-by turned to look at him with amused curiosity. His greying curls fairly stood on end, both on head and feet. "One of them walkin' trees ye've heard tell of! I seen one!"
He staggered a little, stumbling into the table and knocking the checkerboard awry.
"Now see wot ye done," Ruben Fairbanks grumbled. "Ye cocked up our game--and I was about to win! There was a chance 'a things goin' smoothly, till you showed up."
"Walkin' trees?" Lysander Belch scoffed. "Wot walkin' trees? Sounds like the only call you answered was the cry of the beer-keg, Aldo Pease."
"Why, I been hearin' tales of walkin' trees ever since't I was a lad," Aldo defended himself and standing up straight. "But I've yet to see aught--until just now! And it's a headed this way!"
"How's it look, Aldo?" asked Ruben.
"Tall--tall, like, well, like a tree," Aldo stammered, holding one hand, palm down, as far above his head as possible. "It held one of its branches in its hand, and hang me for a liar if it wasn't wearin' clothes!"
"Clothes!" Ruben and Lysander looked at each other, then at Aldo. "Wot sort?"
"Not like we wears, at least out-of-doors. This was differnt. A robe, in need of washin' and mendin' I must say, with a robe-belt girtin' the middle, and a hat--blue, and tall and pointy, and a mop comin' out its face, and..."
Lysander interrupted his account with a bellow of laughter, Ruben soon following suit.
"That weren't no tree, ye daffy old rumbucket on duck legs," Lysander gasped when he could get his breath. "That's the one they call Gandalf the Wizard. Tell me he ain't back again!"
"Wizard?" Aldo blinked a few times. "Wot's that?"
"Ye means to tell us ye ain't heard tell of the Wizard?" Ruben said with exaggerated incredulity. "Why, I thought everybody'd heard of Gandalf. Didn't you, Lysander?"
"Wot's a wizard then?" Aldo said scratching his head. "Yer havin' me on, ain't yer?"
"It's a feller wot does magic," Lysander said. "He can turn things into other things. So you better not cross him, Aldo Pease, or he's liable to turn yer into a toad, or a pig, or..."
"Or a fish," Ruben said with a wink. "Ye'd like that, wouldn't yer? If'n the river was made of ale."
"He's friends with the Thain," Lysander said. "I heard he gave him a set of diment cuff-links that opens and closes."
"I didn't see no cufflinks," Aldo said rubbing his nose with his forefinger, then looking at it in puzzlement. "I don't think he was wearin' no shirt. Just that...robe."
The others laughed once more.
"'Twas the Wizard give 'em to Gerontius, not 'tother way around," Lysander gasped. "'Course, I ain't never seen 'em, meself. Never could get up close enough."
"Likely he only wears 'em for special," Ruben noted. "In which case, he'll likely be wearin' em to the Mayfest next week. Do yer know his eldest daughter Belladonna has come of age, and the singin' will be in her honor this year?"
"Aye, and the winner 'll have his chance to sue for her hand in marriage. Wot yer think about that, Aldo?"
"Huh?" He was still thinking about the Wizard.
"Maybe you could try for her, Aldo," Ruben said with a wink. "Yer a fair singer, wot? 'Course, if you was to sing the sort of songs you sing in The Cat and Cuckoo, ye'd get pitched out on yer bum. Ye'd have to come up with somethin' more genteel-like."
"Aye, indeed," Lysander said. "If'n ye was to sing that song ye sung to Flora Knotwise last week, ye might come up missin' a vital part of yer anatomicals, if ye foller my meanin'. I'd take a shot at it meself, but I don't reckon me wife would take it kindly."
"I know wot I seen," Aldo insisted. "And when it gets here, ye'll see wot I mean, and yer won't be so cocky then. Ye...why, 'ere it comes now! Save us!" He began to tremble as he pointed in the distance, where a tall lean figure with a long staff was indeed approaching.
Ruben and Lysander squinted in the direction his chubby finger indicated.
"Why, upon me mother's green plaid shawl and her finest underdrawers," Lysander said. "It IS him. Gandalf the Grey. How long 'as it been since the tall old coot passed this way?"
"Blest if I can remember," Ruben said. "But ye better duck inside the tavern, Aldo. He might not of took kindly to bein' thought of as a walkin' tree. No tellin' wot he's likely to do to yer."
Aldo lost no time taking this sage advice. The other two scarcely even noticed for watching the Wizard.
"He's goin' into Roddy Bunce's pipeweed shop," Ruben noted. "Wot's he got business there fer?"
"He likes his weed same's we do, I reckon," Lysander said taking his own pipe from his vest pocket and studying it fondly. "It sure ain't cuz he's on such friendly terms with Roddy, I should say."
Ruben apparently had no argument with that.
"So," he said, "wot say we finishes our game? Such as 'tis. If we can remember where the pieces go. Remember, I was about to win."
"Might just as well to start over," Lysander said absently, watching until the Wizard disappeared inside the pipeweed shop. "I might even let ye win this un, if'n I'm feelin' generous. But don't count on it."
"Fiddlesticks! Ye stands a better chance of winnin' Miss Belladonna's hand in marriage," Ruben snorted as they collected the scattered checkers.
Roderic Bunce did sell the finest pipeweed in Tuckborough. Which, as far as Gandalf was concerned, was pretty much all he had going for him. That, and the fact that he was a pretty fair hand at making songs. To be sure, most of them were of a rather dubious nature, such as the one with which Aldo had assayed to serenade Miss Knotwise.
"How's about a cup of tea?" he asked as Gandalf paid for the full sweet-smelling pouch. "I got a kettle on the stove right now, and some very nice plum-buns as well."
"Thank you, but I should be on my way," Gandalf said. "I wish to call on an old friend."
"Ah, I bet I know which one," Roddy said, his piggy little eyes twinkling in his fat, ruddy, self-satisfied face. "Old Gerontius, is it?"
"That's the one, and I'd thank you to speak of him with respect," Gandalf said soberly. "He IS the Thain, as you well know."
"Of course he is, and I'll let you in on a little secret," Roddy said lowering his voice, even though there were only the two of them in the room. "He's also my future father-in-law...although he don't know it yet."
He had the audacity to wink. Gandalf drew back, looking at him with distaste.
"Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that you are actually going to try for..."
"That's right," Roddy said with a delighted smirk. "I mean to enter the singing contest this year. And I don't think I'm being too cheeky in saying I've as good a chance to win the fair hand of Miss Belladonna as any other?"
Gandalf looked him over. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about Roderic Bunce's appearance, yet he seemed utterly convinced that he was a fine figure of a hobbit. He did have decent taste in haberdashery, to be sure, and his curls were very neatly combed both upstairs and down. He might even have been fairly agreeable to see, had it not been for the perpetual smirk on his face, but as it was, Gandalf found it hard to look upon him for any length of time.
Surely Belladonna would send him packing, if he ever dared hove into her presence. She was a sensible and spunky lass, and Gandalf was most fond of her. It was with difficulty he repressed a chuckle at the very idea of Roderic Bunce even trying for her hand.
"Well?" Roddy said when no response was forthcoming. "You don't think she could fancy me, do you? Well, wait until you hear the song I've composed for the occasion, and you may just change your mind. I know she likes me already. She doesn't let on, but she's not fooling me any."
"You truly think so?"
"I know so. She looks at me like...like she'd like to cut my throat, but she's not fooling me. She knows it's not ladylike to betray her true feelings, that's all."
Gandalf was set to flounce out the door, but morbid curiosity got the better of him.
"I think I will take you up on your offer of tea, after all," he said.
Soon they were sitting at a small table in back of the room. Gandalf took the opportunity of having a smoke, while the tea brewed in the pot and an elderly hobbitess trotted out a plate of pleasant-smelling pastries.
"So," Roddy said as he took up a bun and bit into it,"what brings you to these parts, Gandalf the Grey? You're not minded to participate in the singing-contest yourself?"
Gandalf spewed the hot tea onto his plum-bun.
"You are joking, right?" he said taking out a handkerchief to wipe up the mess.
"Well, of course I was," Roddy sniggered. "Although, certainly, you could do worse, and you've been cosying up to old--the Thain--for a considerable long time, haven't you? You do think Miss Belladonna right plummy, don't you?"
He actually had a dreamy look on his face as he spoke her name, and Gandalf quickly forgot his outrage at the insinuation in his disbelief at the hobbit's audacity.
"She's a comely lass indeed," Gandalf said, "but I dare say I'm just a bit too tall for her, wouldn't you say?"
"But you're a wizard," Roddy pointed out. "You could make yourself smaller, or her taller, whichever you'd prefer...couldn't you?"
He actually looked at bit worried then, considering the possibility.
"At least on the wedding-night," he amended, "and perhaps...evenings. If you know what I mean."
"I've no intention of marrying any time soon," Gandalf said loftily. "So you needn't fear any competition from me."
"Of course, of course," Roddy got his bearings and poured himself more tea. "So. I've competion already, to be sure. I hear Hugo Boffin is going to try. Did you ever hear such impudence?"
"Why shouldn't he?" Gandalf said. "I'm not acquainted with Hugo Boffin, I fear. Who is he?"
"Why, he's a young tailor," Roddy said, "as come here recently--he's not from these parts. Not rightly sure where he's from, actually. Just not from around here. And he's a young whelp of a feller, too young for her, surely. Not even of age yet. She needs someone older, she does, who can take her in hand when she gets sassy. She likes to have her own way, y'know, and she'd walk all over young Boffin like a rug. He's not in her league at all, let me tell you."
"And you are, I suppose," Gandalf said sipping pensively at his cup. "What of his singing?"
"Oh, it's fair enough," Roddy said, lowering his voice once more. "But I've fixed things. You see, he came to me one day, and asked me if he could run his song by me, and see what I thought of it. Well, he done so, and I made, well, a few suggestions. And he thanked me, and wrote 'em down, and went his way. Ha! He doesn't stand a chance! He doesn't know I'm entering the contest myself!"
And Roddy brought a beefy fist down so hard on the table that his cup fairly jumped out of its saucer, and laughed so shrilly, Gandalf was tempted to cover his ears.
"Hugo Boffin," he said after a long moment, as Roddy pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose rather loudly, without troubling to turn his back. "A tailor, is he? Where is his establishment? I should like to pay him a visit. I've a rent in my robe."
"It's just down the road a piece," Roddy said through handkerchief, which he then stuffed carelessly back into his breeches pocket. "Go a couple blocks, then turn down left at Brown's Lane, and there you are. But don't you want to hear my song first?"
"Some other time, perhaps," Gandalf said rising. "Thank you for tea."
"You'll not tell him what I said, will you?" Roddy said lowering his voice again.
"Not a word," Gandalf said as he brushed the crumbs from his robe. "Perhaps I'll have a new robe made, at that. This one has most definitely seen better days. I need to be better dressed to attend the Mayfest, surely."
"So you're going?" Roddy said. "You'll hear all the songs then. And you'll see what I've been talking about."
"Aye, that I will," the Wizard agreed, and turned to go.
"I suppose I shall have to break it off with Miss Porphyria Button," Roddy said with feigned regret. "I hope she won't take it too much to heart. But one must think of the future, and I can scarcely imagine a future with the likes of a mere barmaid. She's gotten awfully fat anyway, and she was never that good-looking to begin with. She oughtn't to let herself go like that, silly cow--at least not for a good many years yet, after she catches herself a husband. It's lucky she has no father nor brothers for me to deal with, just that bloated old sow of a mother of hers. That's reason enough to break it off with her right there."
She'll be well rid of you, Gandalf thought, yet at the same time turned to look sternly at Roddy.
"Does it not occur to you she has feelings?" he said. Roddy looked startled.
"Why, so we all have," he said. "And she'll find someone else soon enough. Someone more of her sort. There's hobbits common as dirt parading in and out of The Cat and Cuckoo; she'll snag one of 'em some fine day, and I'll not begrudge her. But I must think of the future."
"Well then, I shall leave you to it," Gandalf said, and with that he flurried out the door, resolving to go elsewhere for his pipeweed next time, however inferior it might be.
Hugo Boffin was older than he looked, about thirty-five. He was quite handsome, with his light-brown curls, regular features, and warm brown eyes, and Gandalf took a liking to him at first sight.
"I can have you a new suit of clothes inside of the week, sir," Hugo said with a glance at Gandalf's hat, which the Wizard held down at his side. "It's an unusual order, to be sure, but--"
"I'm sure you could," Gandalf said, "but truly, all I need is a new robe. Very like this one, and of the same color. Do you think you could manage that?"
"I could, and 'twould be far simpler," Hugo said, "but...for Mayfest, wouldn't you like a cheerfuller color? Like green, for instance. I've a new roll of linsey-woolsy in a very nice shade of green. Hobbits rarely wear grey, you understand."
He brought out the bolt of cloth. It was, indeed a pleasing shade of muted green, rather like the mossy water in a forest pool.
"The color becomes you, I think," Hugo said holding the fabric up close to Gandalf's face. "Look over there, in the glass."
"It will do very nicely," Gandalf said after examining his reflection on the round cheval mirror the tailor indicated..
"You will be the best-dressed Wizard there," Hugo joked. Gandalf chuckled.
Hugo had to get a high stool in order to take the Wizard's measurements, and this done, Gandalf saw fit to bring up the subject of the singing-contest.
"Aye, I'm going to enter," the young tailor said. "You don't think it presumptuous of me? Being so new in town and all?"
"Nay, why should I?" Gandalf said. "And you've written a song already?"
"I have," Hugo said. "And I'm most smitten with Miss Took. She's the fairest creature I ever set eyes upon. The birds hush their singing when she speaks, and the stream flows more slowly when she walks beside it, the better to admire her beauty and grace. I can scarcely hope that she would ever bestow a glance upon me...and yet, I can but try. Do you truly think I stand a chance? I sang my song for Roderic Bunce, that chap who owns the pipeweed shop, and he said 'twas wonderful, and she'd fall into my arms the moment she heard it. I think he was exaggerating, but you know he's a pretty fair songwriter himself, and so his praise means something, wouldn't you say?"
"Perhaps you should sing it for me?" Gandalf said drawing his bushy eyebrows close over his beaky nose.
"Oh no sir, I couldn't," Hugo said blushing a little. "Roddy said I shouldn't sing it for anyone but her, for that would, you know, rub off the bloom from it."
Gandalf laid a thoughtful hand over his mouth for a moment. Hugo looked innocent, but not stupid. He surely couldn't believe that braying jackass of a tobacconist had his best interest at heart?
"Well, but you know I am a Wizard," Gandalf said with a careful hint of a smile. "And so if any bloom gets rubbed off, I can surely put it back on for you."
Hugo's boyish face blossomed into a radiant smile. "Let me get my cittern then," he said and disappeared into another room. Soon he returned with the instrument cradled on one arm. He sat down in a large chair and carefully tuned the strings, then cleared his throat.
"You are sure you wish to hear this?" he said.
"Very sure," Gandalf said. "I am no expert in music, but I flatter myself that I could deliver a reasonably well-thought-out criticism of the text."
"I would much appreciate it," Hugo said with becoming modesty. "There's a couple of verses that I will admit am a bit doubtful of. They are the ones Roddy suggested, as a matter of fact."
"You know he's going to enter the contest also, right?" Gandalf said. He had promised Roderic not to tell, but it slipped out, and he was not altogether sorry.
"Is he?" Hugo said, nearly letting the cittern fall from his lap. "I thought he was going to wed Miss Button. He hinted strongly of it to me. You are sure of this?"
"Absolutely," Gandalf said. "Not that he's likely to win. If I know Miss Belladonna Took, she wouldn't spit on him if he were on fire."
"You don't suppose..." Hugo looked puzzled and bewildered.
"Sing me the song," Gandalf said.
"You've heard his?"
"Nay, I haven't. But go ahead and run yours by me."
Hugo picked up the cittern once more, struck a chord, and begin to sing in his agreeable tenor voice:
I've spied a maid most fair
with a fall of night-dark hair
and ring-a-lets to spare
Miss Belladonna Took!
Her cheeks are soft and pink
her skin's like milk to drink
her eyes, stars dipped in ink
Miss Belladonna Took!
Her step is light and airy
she dances like a fairy
my heart beats most contrary
when I upon her look!
"I know it's not a perfect rhyme," Hugo said pausing in his singing, "'look' not quite rhyming with 'Took' but I couldn't come up with many words that would be fitting. Just 'duke' and 'puke' and 'fluke', and you can see why those most certainly wouldn't do. I thought to pronounce it as 'luke' but it sounded rather silly. Do you think she'd mind?"
"Of course not," Gandalf said, "as long as it all comes from the heart. Is that all?"
"There's more," Hugo said and began strumming once again.
I'd fight bravely for her honor
let no slur fall upon her
my peerless Belladonna
She'll never be forsook!
I'd jump right in the river
where I would shake and shiver
before that I would give her
To any other bloke!
"Hold!" Gandalf shouted raising a hand palm outward. "What in the name of..."
"That's the part I had misgivings about," Hugo said blushing once more. "So...you don't think it's good? and that maybe he knew it too, and, and..."
"Misgivings? Hah!" Gandalf snorted. "My dear Master Hugo, you don't look a complete fool, yet you would let that oaf make a laughingstock of you. Could you not see it?"
"Why, that...that...blackguard, that...." Hugo's cheeks grew very red indeed. "So he meant to see to it that I didn't stand a chance? What an idiot I was! Whatever shall I do? I'm so thankful you came by!"
"Sing the rest of it for me," Gandalf said, a slow grin forming on his face. "She'll never give him the time of day, you needn't worry on that score, no matter how good his song may be. But we can get him back, just the same. I have an idea."