1. Freak Show
“Merry! Come on, or we’ll be late!” Pippin bounces out ahead of me down the road and I laugh at his eagerness. Typical Pippin, the reason we are late has nothing to do with me, if only he’d admit it, and more to do with Pip’s second breakfast, consumed too late and too eagerly, and then the hunt for his pocketwatch, which he’d sworn he’d left on the dresser and which eventually turned up in the laundry basket. It would have been found, probably by one of the Gamgee lasses, who I think do most of Frodo’s laundry these days, but there was nothing for it but to look for it then and there. Pip wouldn’t hear of leaving without it. I suppose I sympathised, because even as I tutted, I helped him look. After all, it is his first ever watch, and a gift from his father on his birthday besides.
And now? Well, now we are late. The sun is well up, and the morning is half gone, and Frodo is muttering at my side about good for nothing jack-a-napes, sounding quite sour, but I know that is only because he’s been forced to wake earlier than his usual disgraceful habit, and then had to wait about helping Pippin get ready to go. He’ll settle down as soon as we’re at the fair. I know he’s been looking forward to it, after all, for he was the one who invited us to come along. It makes me smile, he looks so sleepy and disgruntled, and the hangover from last night probably isn’t helping his mood either, I’m sure. But if I try to tease him about middle age hobbits no longer able to handle their ale, then he’ll only stay grumpy for longer, so I heroically restrain myself and feel quite proud and grown up. Anyway, it wouldn’t really be fair of me to say such a thing, for Frodo isn’t middle aged at all, not even close. But being his own master at Bag End, and from such a young age, I think has made him much too sensible and adult for his own good. I really believe that without us, and Freddy, he’d quite forget how to be young at all.
So I smile instead, but only to myself, and stride out a bit quicker, trying to catch up to Pippin. It’s a hopeless task, I know, but one that makes me feel the spring in my step, and the blood pounding in my veins, and I take a glorious breath of the summer morning, sweet with new mown grass, and squint a little as I glance sideways at Frodo puffing away at my side. It strikes me anew as the light hits him just so, and as he looks at me with exasperation, because I’ve just speeded our pace, that his eyes are as blue as the sky. I stare up to compare the colours and then swing round in a wide dizzying arc, just because I can, and because the sky is so glorious, and wide and clear, and I can almost feel like I’m floating in it, blown away like a dandelion clock…
There is a glitter in his vision, glinting brighter than the sun, and he turns his head, so very slowly, until he sees the blade held out before him. It shines still, although there is something on it, something that gleams black…
The fair is crowded, but then it is Litheday, and we are late. Matrons with broods of little ones underfoot are everywhere, their fathers doubtless off in the beer tent, or standing with one foot up on the rail at the animal pens trying to sound knowledgeable, comparing the prize beasts of this year with the animals of their youth, and not favourably, I’m sure. I always find it funny to listen to my father’s tales, when he is with his cronies, or at an auction – you would think that the Shire today was filled with sheep that were at death’s door, or that cattle strode ten feet tall once upon a time. I prefer old Bilbo’s tales of Elves and Dragons and Trees of Gold and Silver myself. Even if they are not entirely true – and who’s to say that they are not? – they are far more fun to hear tell of, and I will have to worry about beasts and bloodlines and breeding soon enough, I’m sure, without concerning myself about it all now.
Pippin has already nipped off through the crowd, and Frodo is smiling again, now that we have finally arrived. I crane my neck, trying to keep Pip in sight, and looking for Freddy, who promised us faithfully that he’d meet us here, but there are so many bodies bustling about it is impossible to spot him. There are so many things to see and do, I don’t know where to even start. I nudge Frodo and point to a particularly fine tent of purple brocade embroidered with glittering stars and raise an eyebrow. It proclaims proudly on a sign that Madame Zara will tell our fortune for the princely sum of one farthing, but Frodo smiles and shakes his head. I shrug and move on. Perhaps we can discover our future on another day.
I am becoming anxious that we have lost Pippin, but then I see him over the heads of a pair of tow-headed twins, being bustled along by their mother. He is clutching a cane wound round and round with pink candyfloss, and his mouth is rosy and sticky. It makes me smile – he may be old enough for a beer or three but he is still so much a child, and my heart fills up with a complicated love. I have a horrible desire to ruffle his curls, which I know he hates, but I restrain the urge, in case I get the candy floss used as a weapon of reprisal. My best coat might never survive the attack, I think with amusement. Then I realise that he has stopped to look at something and his eyes are as round as saucers. I grab Frodo’s arm and we start to push our way through the crowd, excusing ourselves as we go, eliciting only a few grumbles and treading on only one or two toes. Pippin is standing open-mouthed in front of a large enclosure, its canvas walls high enough that we can’t even catch a glimpse of what’s inside, and he eagerly turns to greet us as we arrive, panting a little, at his side.
“Oh! We must go in here! Please say you will! It will be so much fun if we all do – Merry, what do you think? Frodo, you will come, won’t you?”
I look at the sign. It is impressively large, full of curly letters, and gold paint. It shines in the sun and I drag my eyes away and rub them slightly – it is so bright today that I think I am starting to get a headache. Then I look again – Trubshaw’s World of Oddities, it declares. In smaller writing, there is a long list of exhibits that Trubshaw (presumably) offers for our delectation and delight, and a few of the more bizarre titles catch my eye. ‘The Amazing Bearded Hobbit’, ‘See the Two-headed Calf’, ‘a Real Live Unicorn’. Frodo laughs and sets his hand on Pippin’s shoulder.
“Surely you don’t want to go in there, do you, Pip? It will be a complete waste of money. Filled with fakes and frauds of all kinds. After all, you don’t really think there is such a thing as the ‘Fantastic Furry Fish of the Frozen North’ do you? This sort of place makes its money from credulous fools who think they will see something special, when all they will actually get is a few stuffed animals stitched together, and that’s if they are lucky.”
Pip is looking downcast now, and as usual I can’t bear to see him unhappy, so I say persuasively, “It’s only a penny, Frodo. Couldn’t we be wasteful for once? I think I’d quite to see how they’ve faked a bearded hobbit.” And Pip looks up, all smiles again, his eyes flashing green sparks of glee, as he seizes Frodo’s hand, and cocks his head a little to one side. “Frodo?”
Even Frodo is hardly immune to Pippin when he looks at him in that way, and I smother a chuckle as he sighs, exaggeratedly, but with a grin already reluctantly tugging at his mouth. “Save us all from impudent Tooks. Get that candy floss away from me, Pip. If I have to pay a whole penny to see a ‘Wild Man of the Woods’, at least I don’t want to pay an extra penny’s cleaning bill!”
And Pippin whoops and turns to go through the canvas doorway. The entrance is covered by a curtain of dangling and sparkling metal beads that tinkle and shimmer as Pip pushes past them, but the tent beyond is gloomy. All I can see is shining metal glinting brightly in the sun and then the hint of something black gleaming from the dark. Suddenly I am inexplicably reluctant, but Pip has already gone in, and I have no choice but to follow him. He might be frightened, I think oddly, he might be sickened, but whatever we will see, I know we will face it together…
He blinks into the sun, blinded now by a red haze obscuring his vision. And he realises he is not alone after all. Large misshapen forms loom silently in the gathering crimson twilight, but even as he fails to clear his eyesight, he can still smell their stench. There is something fetid on the air, rotten and stinking, and it chokes him a little…
It is dark in the tent although some light penetrates through the doorways that presumably lead to other exhibits. Pippin has paid the old hobbit who keeps the gate, an unexpected generosity on his part, and I make a mental note to pay him back, if only in ale. His allowance is not so large that he can afford to be that extravagant, and given that Frodo is the richest hobbit this side of Bywater, and Papa hardly leaves me short, it will be a shame if he ends up owing anyone money at the end of the month, even if it is Lithe, because he wanted to treat his friends.
Frodo is looking around and blinking in the dimness, humming a little to himself. He looks relaxed and interested. I suppose that now he has given in and said yes, he is prepared to settle down and just enjoy himself. No, I am the one who is having second thoughts. There is a surreal quality to the darkness in here, and the air is close and hot. The sun beating down on the tent roof has made it blood-warm and there is a certain sour smell, canvas, and straw, and an underlying chemical stink, that makes it somehow stifling. I cough a little, and Pippin looks over at me and smiles.
“Come on then,” he says, and sets off to look into the first shadowed alcove.
I gamely smile back at him and follow. It is a clever arrangement, I must admit that, allowing each patron exactly the amount of build up that he or she wishes. There are heavy curtains that look like velvet in the dusk, but are probably wool, and a cord that you pull. Pippin, of course, races ahead to yank the first cord, and then stands back with an admiring shout. I come up behind him and tug on his collar to stop him racing off before we are all ready, and take a look into the booth. A torch illuminates the enclosure and a wooden sign covered with more of the impossibly curly writing sits on a stand beside it. ‘The Amazing Bearded Hobbit’, it proclaims, ‘A sight to Frighten the Ladies, and bring the Strongest to his Knees in Pity. Captured beyond the Misty Mountains. Discovered Living Wild in the Forest and Tamed by our Esteemed Mr Trubshaw Himself.’
“Oh,” says Frodo, “The poor thing.”
I can only agree with him. The creature that looks mournfully back at us is certainly bearded, and might be a hobbit. He has been stripped to the waist so that patrons can see the hair that grows bristling on his chin continues down to a thick mat that covers his chest until it runs in a thin line down to his belt buckle. I shudder slightly at the awful sight and begin to wish even more that I had refused to encourage Pippin. It certainly looks real at least, and I swallow dryly, fascinated in spite of myself. Frodo leans over to me and in a heavy undertone, whispers, “It’s a dwarf.” I look at him incredulously and Frodo nudges me. “Look at his feet, that’s where they’ve used the fake hair. I don’t know where they found such a stunted fellow, but I’m almost certain I’m right. That’s a dwarf.” I look at the creature’s feet and begin to see what Frodo means. They look undersized for a hobbit and the hair there is not so luxuriant or so thick, and doesn’t quite match in colour with the hair on his head. I look up and catch the dwarf’s eye. Do I imagine it or does the poor chap shrug a little? I turn away, unwilling to put either of us through this humiliation any longer. I pull the cord and the booth is safely curtained once again.
Pippin is tugging against my hold when I catch Frodo’s eye. He is smiling a little wryly and I think he is being extremely good in not saying I told you so. I grin back and raise my eyebrows, trying to convey resignation and amusement, and glance at Pippin who is dragging us over to the next exhibit. Oh well, I think, I’m sure it won’t be all that bad, and brace myself for the shock of the next ‘oddity’.
Actually, it isn’t that dreadful. As Pip drags us both round, at turns round eyed, or awed, or sometimes laughing, we trail after him, and Frodo whispers to me when he spots each fraud, and once or twice I whisper to him. In spite of the sordid nature of our fun, we are having a thoroughly good time. The ‘Real Live Unicorn’, in one of the outside pens, makes us all laugh. The false horn attached to the white pony is so obviously faked that even Pippin spots it, and the comical snort the beast gives when we suddenly laugh out loud, makes it dip and sway in an alarming manner. We stumble back into the tent giggling madly and take a minute to compose ourselves before we move on.
But the ‘Wild Man of the Woods’ holds us silent. He is bigger than us, but obviously small for a Man, and little and hunched, with thick arms, and stumpy legs, and he glares at us with glittering eyes. He is clad in a skirt made of grass and armed with a bow, although I note there are no arrows left in the cage with him. And this time I sorrowfully think cage, and mean it. The enclosure seems not to be a token confinement this time, as it was with the dwarf, for the bars are thick and there is a stout lock on the door. Frodo looks angry, and I reach for his arm before he marches out to find this Mr Trubshaw right then and there, and I say quietly, “We’ll find the Shirrifs afterwards and have a word. Don’t alarm them now or they might spirit him away before we can do anything.” And Frodo nods determinedly, a glitter in his own eyes shading the cornflower blue gaze to stormy indigo…
His head is hurting, and he sways a little, the sword drooping from his nerveless fingers. Why does his head hurt? He reaches up and brings away fingers that are sticky with blood, and a sudden stab of nameless fear causes him to bring up the sword again. If only he could see…
We are a little more subdued after that. Even Pippin has caught something of the serious mood and barely glances at delights that would have charmed him moments before. My headache appears to be returning and I wrinkle my forehead in an attempt to shake it off, but instead find that the throbbing is setting itself up behind my right temple, and seems determined to stay. The tent feels hotter and closer than ever, and I decide finally that enough is enough.
“Only one more,” Pippin begs, with soulful eyes, as he catches my mood, and I shrug, defeated by him once again. I barely have the strength to argue, as it feels like someone is trying to drive hot pins into my eye, so I agree to just one more. We walk over to a rather large curtain this time, and the chemical stink that has almost been hidden by the hot smell of canvas and sweat gets stronger as we near it. With a flourish Pip pulls the final cord and opens the curtains to reveal an entire tented chamber, looking like a doctor’s surgery or vintner’s shop, but nowhere near as neat or clean or reassuring. There are shelves upon shelves filled with glass jars and enormous bottles. I wrinkle my nose as the smell hits me and I want to draw back, unwilling to face the myriad reflecting shadows, as the torches that illuminate the scene flicker in the faint draft.
But Pip has walked forward, so of course I follow. He is exclaiming as he stares at the contents of the jars, but there are little lights shimmering at the corners of my vision now, and I have to peer to understand what he is seeing so clearly. A huge clouded eye stares back at me, and I jump. A mouth gaping open in death meets my gaze, and a large streamlined body – covered in fur? – with a powerful set of fins and massive tail is revealed lying in a glass tank. I exchange a slightly shamefaced glance with Frodo and presume that we are in the presence of the ‘Fantastic Furry Fish of the Frozen North’. Although on closer inspection, I don’t think it is faked very well.
The ‘Two-headed Calf’ appears to be real however. The poor creature looks as though it is merely asleep instead of pickled in an gigantic jar, and it looks very young, almost as though it is about to be born from a bizarre transparent womb, rather than preserved for gawkers like us to stare at for the price of a penny. I shiver, finding this display more distasteful than the other exhibits, although I cannot exactly decide why this is so. I turn away and rub my eyes, wanting to be gone, wanting this to be over, and so the shock is greater when I come face to face with an evil snarling head, a foul creature about to attack, and I raise my arms to ward it off and stumble away.
“Careful!” says Frodo, and catches me as I trip. I shake my head and look again. It is horrible. There are body parts preserved in these jars. A massive arm, a hand or two, other limbs, part of a torso. The skin of whatever these were is black, and looks diseased, or scabrous, although it is hard to tell if that is the effect of the preservation or part of their natural condition. The head that scared me so looks furious, even in death, and has massive fangs and a gold ring through its nose. A topknot of coarse black hair floats out behind it like particularly venomous waterweed and I avert my eyes. I can feel my gorge rising, and I bring my hand to my mouth.
“That’s quite enough of that,” Frodo declares, looking at my face, which I am sure must be both pallid and green. Somehow he manages to collar Pip, and herding the both of us, we make it outside. My head is really splitting now, and the sunlight is incredibly bright. I squint at Frodo, who is a hazy golden shape at my side, and ask, “What were those things?”
“Goblins, I think,” he answers shortly, “Or bits of them anyway. Recovered from some battlefield or another, I expect.” And I nod in understanding, thinking about the massive snarling head, and the malice and fury I could see in its preserved gaze. I think about the way those limbs must have been chopped off, that someone in the heat of battle must have done that damage, spilt all that blood, and I shudder at the thought of it. I sway a little and reach for Frodo, suddenly glad he is still there at my side, that I am here at the fair with my two best friends, and not having to fight goblins in the wilds, to protect myself and those I love from disaster and death.
“Come on,” says Frodo, and we turn to go. The noise of the fair is loud and cheerful, and the music of the merry-go-round sounds distantly through the crowd. And then we hear Freddy calling us from the beer tent, and I gratefully allow myself to be pulled into the happy hubbub, and to have a mug thrust into my hand, and let the disturbing images in Trubshaw’s World of Oddities drift far away into the edges of my memory…
He squints a little at the massive forms that surround him, and the coppery smell of spilt blood comes to him then, in a nauseating wave. There are hacked off limbs and hands on the ground before him, but the orcs will not come close enough for him to be able to deal the kind of damage he so desperately needs to. He wants to sell their lives as dearly as he can, but his head is pounding, and there is blood in his eyes. Pippin is at his back, he can feel him there, and he so desperately wants to protect him, but he is sick, he can feel it. There are lights flickering at the corners of his eyes, for the last blow caught him squarely on the temple, and he is swaying. He is so scared. Pippin sucks in a little breath as he staggers, and Merry's heart cries out in fear and anguish. No! You shan’t have him… Then as gently as a feather bed, the ground comes up to meet him, and he hears the cruel cackles of the orcs merge with the laughter of the fairground crowd from long ago, and smells the sweetness of candy floss and straw. And as Merry crumples and falls, as this time he lies among limbs he has hewn himself, he somehow remembers Trubshaw’s World of Oddities, and the stare of the dead goblin, and they twist and turn in his mind, until the memories fracture in his head and he doesn’t know which is real and which is not. Revenge, he thinks confusedly. This is the goblin’s revenge. And he sinks into a fearful darkness that is filled with clouded dead eyes, and cold clammy hands, and over it all the echo of Boromir’s horn, like the sound of his despair, rings dimly far away.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.