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Note: Thanks to JoDancingTree's excellent example of an Overlithe Fair; couldn't have written my own description without first having read hers.
Chapter 1. Cast On Stitches
Mid-year Day Fair, S.R. 1418
Peregrin Took stood at the edge of the crowd waiting for the start of the first heat in the annual pony races at Michel Delving. He absently fingered the gold pieces in his pocket as he watched the scene before him.
Ponies milled about on the green, their riders' bright shirts contrasting with their shining coats of black, bay, chestnut, gold, and silver. Music sounded in the background, along with all the other sounds of the Fair, laughter, excited children, scolding mothers. Tantalizing food smells wafted through the air, but Pippin had just eaten heartily and the smells were no more to him than a promise of good things to come.
'Hullo, Pippin, not racing today?' came his cousin Frodo's voice behind him. '...or are you entered in a later heat?'
Pippin turned to meet his cousin's quizzical gaze.
'No,' Frodo went on, thinking aloud, 'You'd be warming up Blaze... where is Blaze?' he asked, his gaze sharpening.
Pippin's eyes threatened to spill over and he turned away to dab surreptitiously at his face. 'Sun's so bright today,' he mumbled. 'Excuse me, Frodo, I seem to have caught a speck of dust in my eye.'
Frodo nodded, saying thoughtfully, 'There's plenty of it about.'
Ponies churned and danced before them as their riders tried to maneuver them into a straight line. Silken tails caught the breeze, ribbons fluttered from manes, heads arched proudly. The crowd cheered their favourites in a pleasing confusion of names. Laughter sounded as one rider lost his stirrups and had to grab the neck of his pony to keep from slipping off. Two other ponies began to face off, whistling challenges, and the starter's assistants had a time of it separating the two and moving them to opposite ends of the line. The crowd roared their approval.
Pippin heard his cousin beside him sigh.
'I wonder if I shall ever see another Mid-year's Day pony race?' Frodo muttered under his breath.
Pippin pretended not to hear. Frodo had been acting awfully peculiar since Spring, wandering more than usual as if saying farewell to all his old haunts. His cousins had had quite a time trying to keep tabs on him.
The young Took wondered if Frodo would ever trust his cousins enough to share his burden with them, or if he would simply disappear one day, despite all of Merry's scheming, the way old Bilbo had seventeen years earlier. Pippin had been quite young at the time, but he still remembered the fireworks and the excitement of the Party. He cast a sidelong glance at his cousin. Frodo's face was sober, as it was all too often these days, but Pippin had confidence in Merry. Merry would see to it that Frodo didn't slip out of his cousins' watchful net quite so easily.
Frodo was fingering something in his pocket; Pippin had a pretty good idea what it was. Pippin's hand cupped the gold coins in his own pocket.
The Thain had been unusually observant--perhaps that was not quite the right term. Pippin's father was extremely observant when it came to shortcomings or oversights on the part of his son and heir, after all. His store of patience lessened, it seemed, the longer he remained Thain, and the closer his only son came to reaching adulthood, as if he anticipated the burden of responsibility that waited to be settled on Pippin's shoulders that day, and as if he considered what would be required of Pippin in the years that would follow. However, being Thain seemed in a fair way of consuming one who had loved the land, who had delighted to follow a plough in the sun and misting rain. He often seemed to be buried in the affairs of the Tookland, these days, as if his own burden grew ever more onerous. And yet, he was honour bound to shoulder it, as would Pippin be, as tradition demanded, after him.
But he had looked up sharply when Pippin came to take his leave on the way to the Mid-year Fair at Michel Delving. The Thain's morning had been taken up with meetings involving visiting Bracegirdles, discussing trade of Tookish wool and weaving for Southfarthing wine and pipe-weed in the coming year. The talk had not gone well, for it seemed the Bracegirdles had other buyers willing to pay more for their wares this year. It would cost the Tooks a pretty penny in the end--if they were to have pipe-weed and wine at all, as matters stood! --and thus the Thain was sourer than usual when his son tapped at the door and then stood silent, waiting for his father's notice.
'What're you so mopey about?' he demanded irritably of his son when at last he looked up from his scowling regard of the paper in his hand, a summary of the Bracegirdles' demands. 'I haven't heard two words together out of you for days.'
'I came to bid you farewell, Father. D'you want anything from the Fair?'
The Thain snorted. 'No use spending good coin on bad trash; we've all we need here in the Great Smials.' He looked piercingly at his son. 'You still fretting over that pony? Like as not, 'twas your own neglect killed it.' Colic. A properly looked-after pony ought not to succumb to such a thing. He knew how wild the tweens of the Great Smials could be. Run races, and then put their ponies away without properly cooling them out. It was a hard lesson, and an expensive one. Good ponies, after all, didn't grow on trees.
Pippin didn't answer, waiting patiently for his father's dismissal. He knew better than to show the misery he felt. His father had no patience for such; he'd had to put his own feelings aside after all, and his son might as well learn now as later to do the same.
The Thain jerked open one of the drawers in his intricately carved desk, fishing out several gold coins. He shoved them across the desktop. 'Here,' he said abruptly. 'Go buy yourself another pony at the Fair.' He snorted again as Pippin silently picked up the coins. 'And try not to kill this one, will you?'
Pippin put the coins in a pocket and stood again at attention, waiting for his father to dismiss him. The Took looked back down at the figures he was writing. After a few moments he looked back up. 'Are you still here?' he barked. 'Out! Don't let me see your face around here again until that waste of time they call a Fair is over.'
There'd be plenty of work to be done, that was for certain, fair or no fair. And with no Tookish ponies running in the All-Shire race, pursuing the purse, well, there was really no reason to take time away from the work, now, was there? The Thain shook his head and turned his glare back to the papers on his desk in pointed dismissal.
'Yes, Sir,' Pippin replied and marched out.
A shout from Frodo brought his thoughts back to the present. 'Merry!' Frodo was calling and waving. 'Over here!'
Pippin saw Merry, on his bright chestnut pony, look up and smile, then move closer to them.
'So what does Bright Nose have to say about this race, Merry?' Frodo called.
Merry laughed. 'He's not saying much!' He patted the shining neck. 'My Bright is a doer, not a talker.'
'Well tell him to do his best; I've a wager on with Sam,' Frodo laughed.
Merry looked down at Pippin compassionately. 'Sorry to hear about Blaze,' he said softly. 'Colic could happen to anyone, Pippin. It wasn't your fault.'
Pippin looked to the ground and swallowed hard.
When he looked up again, Merry and Bright had moved away, and Merry was skillfully guiding his pony into the lineup. Though Bright pranced beneath him, Merry sat deep in the saddle, still as a stone, hands apparently fixed though the pony settled down and obediently moved into place.
'I wish I could ride like that,' Pippin murmured.
Frodo smiled at him. 'Keep working at it,' he said kindly, 'and you will, someday.'
Pippin shook his head. 'I think Merry is part pony.'
Frodo's eyes danced with mischief. 'Which part?'
Pippin didn't return his smile, but continued in a surprisingly sober vein. 'My father wishes I did, too,' he said. Frodo didn't follow him for a minute, but he continued in a flawless imitation of the Thain. 'Why can't you ride like your cousin Meriadoc? Why can't you sing like your cousin Meriadoc? Why can't you be more responsible like...'
Frodo broke in. 'I'm surprised you don't hate him,' he said quietly.
Pippin looked up and laughed in astonishment. 'Hate him?' he said, then shook his head and said more softly. 'No, I'd like to be just like him someday.'
Frodo clapped him on the shoulder. 'You just try to keep on being the best Peregrin Took you can,' he said gently. 'There's not room in the world for two Merrys or two Pippins, for that matter, but one of each seems just about perfect.'
A commotion at the starting line arrested their attention. Most of the ponies had lined up and were awaiting the start. One pony was holding up the race, a young smoke coloured pony with a surly hobbit about Pippin's age on his back. This pony was plunging and dancing, refusing to stay on line. Two starter's assistants grasped either side of the bridle to try to force him into line.
'What do you think of the grey's chances?' Frodo asked in Pippin's ear. 'He looks fast, and eager to run.'
'He might be,' Pippin agreed, 'but he's got too much white showing in his eyes. I don't think much of his rider.'
Frodo looked again to see that Pippin had the right of it.
Finally the ponies were all lined up, ready to go, and the crowd fell relatively quiet in anticipation. The starter's voice boomed out as he raised an arm high. 'Ready!'
Pippin saw Merry sit deeper in the saddle and flex his hands slightly. Bright seemed to crouch as a cat about to spring.
Suddenly, though the starter had not yet dropped his arm, several ponies broke from the line, led by the nervous dapple grey.
'False start!' the starter bellowed. 'Ponies return to the line! Regentine Bracegirdle on 'Smoke' is disqualified!'
'I guess we'll never know, now, how fast he is,' Frodo murmured, but Pippin's attention was fixed on the angry rider who was now having a serious disagreement with his mount, jerking the reins and beating the poor beast when it threw up its head. Bloody foam dripped from its mouth and the whites of its eyes rolled further as it frantically tried to get away from the beating.
There was a murmur of disapproval from the crowd, but Pippin was vaulting the fence and running up to grab the grey's reins.
'Get down!' he said fiercely. 'Get off his back before I knock you off!'
The rider brought his whip down to slash at Pippin but the blow never connected. The young Took's quicker hand grabbed the crop and pulled hard, catapulting the irate rider from his saddle.
The starter and his assistants stepped up, ready to help, but Pippin was doing fine. He stared down at the sprawled rider. 'You hit him again,' he said through his teeth, 'and I'll take your own whip to you.'
'You can't do that!' the rider panted.
'Watch me,' Pippin said, unperturbed.
The unseated rider looked to the starter but found no help there, and his glance at the crowd showed him only grim disapproval. He waited, breathing hard.
'What do you want for the pony?' Pippin asked quietly, his words dropping into the silence like pebbles in a well.
'He's not worth a silver penny!' the rider said hotly. 'Worthless piece of dog meat!'
Pippin reached into his pocket, bringing out a handful of coins. He fished out a silver penny and threw it into the dust. 'There's your price,' he said flatly. He picked up three gold coins and dropped them beside the penny. 'And here's something for your trouble. Now you can't say you were cheated.'
'I'm not selling him!' the rider hissed.
The starter stepped forward. 'I'd say you just did, lad,' he said grimly. He met Pippin's eye. 'You can call on me for a witness if need be.' The starter looked back at the rider who still sat in the dust. 'You've no call for grievance, he paid you twicet what the pony's worth.'
Pippin took the grey pony's reins from the assistants who had jumped to grab the pony when his rider was unseated. 'Thank you,' he said. He looked at the rolling eye, lathered neck, blood flecked mouth, and slowly held out his hand.
'Easy, lad,' he crooned. 'Steady now.' The pony half reared but Pippin didn't try to pull him down, merely let the reins slip through his fingers until the pony resumed four feet again.
He continued to stand motionless, crooning to the frightened beast, until it stood quiet, trembling violently.
The crowd watched in silence, wondering what he'd do next.
Pippin surprised them. Instead of tugging at the reins to lead the pony away, he placed a hand high on its neck to urge the pony to walk with him. 'Come lad,' he encouraged. 'Come along then. You'll race another day.'
Frodo watched in astonishment as the pony meekly followed his cousin from the field, then met Merry's bright grin.
The unseated rider scrambled in the dust for the coins and stalked away.
The starter raised his hands and his voice. 'Right, then! We have a race to run here!' He and his assistants moved back to opposite ends of the waiting line of ponies. He raised his arm again. 'Ready!'
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