They had met up in Bree and were planning to travel north to Annuminas together in order to celebrate the New Year there, the new New Year of the Realm, that is—the Shire New Year was past and would not have been such a good time to travel, in any case.
The evening before their departure, the party adjourned to a table in the common-room and, as Merry was there, the conversation turned to the history of Eriador.
‘I remember the inn when it was called The Runaway Horse,’ said Elrohir, reflectively.
‘It was?!’ Nob blurted out. He didn’t usually intrude on the conversations of guests while he was serving beer, but this revelation was startling and even disturbing. ‘I thought it had always been The Prancing Pony, time out mind!’
‘Yes, The Runaway Horse, that was what it was called,’ said Elrohir. ‘until eventually the Butterbur family changed it to The Prancing Pony. It is a more inviting name, isn’t it? More hospitable and reassuring! They also rebuilt the inn on a larger scale and moved it a little bit, from where the stables are now. So, you could argue The Runaway Horse wasn’t really the same inn. It was more of a tavern, really. I never learned the reason behind the original name.’
If this observation was intended to soothe Nob’s feelings, it rather missed its mark. The Prancing Pony had been the centre of the universe for Nob and his family for generations. Learning that not only had it changed its name, but also its shape and even its location came as a bit of a shock. But he guessed he had not reckoned with the length of the memory of elves! It must be a very long time ago, really, but Master Elrohir spoke almost as if it was only yesterday.
Merry, who had been busy scribbling, taking notes in his notebook, looked up.
‘Maybe the earlier tavern was named for an incident like the story about my great-grandmother Mirabella?’ he suggested. ‘If it was, it would have been meant as a lucky name, not an uninviting one—until the circumstances were forgotten, that is.’
‘What kind of story was that, the one about your great-grandmother?’ asked Eowyn. ‘I’m not sure you’ve mentioned her before?’
Merry put down his pen and took a quick sip of beer to wet his throat.
Then he began: ‘When Mirabella was young and newly-married, one day there was a big washing-day at Brandy Hall. And when I say big, I mean really big, all the Brandybucks pitching in, with a lot of noise and to-and-fro, as you may expect. It was spring, as now, and all part of a great spring-cleaning, I guess. Anyway, Mirabella was carrying a very large basket of newly washed clothes back from the river, when suddenly there was a hullaballoo, beyond all the clamour there had been before, which Mirabella barely had time to register, before a stampeding pony bore down on her. But she did not lose her presence of mind! Not only did she manage to sidestep it, to avoid getting trampled, but she spotted the trailing reins and, quick as thought, stepped on them firmly, with one of the heavy wooden clogs she was wearing that day. And she really managed to stop that pony that way, and all without dropping the washing! Great-grandmother Mirabella was strong when she was young! I never heard what had scared the pony; the tale doesn’t tell. But that incident certainly left an impression in Buckland! You could see a place might get named for it; the story has been re-told many times since and people still point out the spot where it happened.
Wasn’t there some kind of similar story about Lalia, too, Pip?’
‘No,’ said Pippin curtly, with unaccustomed sternness.
‘I guess I am mistaken, then,’ said Merry quickly. He should have remembered that the Tooks were still touchy about Lalia. There had been so much gossip, some of it very nasty.
‘I heard a similar story, just recently,’ Faramir cut in. ‘Recent negotiations with the South have opened the routes to other things besides trade. And to my surprise I learned stories of the youth of Queen Beruthiel—before she became Queen, that is—that sounded quite unlike anything I had heard about her later career. One story said that one day a mumak went crazy in the market place, threatening to trample the crowd among the stalls. But Beruthiel courageously stepped in right in front of the huge animal and spoke to it and, lo and behold, the mumak calmed and allowed itself to be led away! Beruthiel was clearly brave and very talented. It is a great pity that she later became embittered and turned aside and failed of her promise. Yet I fear she was not the only one at fault!’
‘She was the lady with the cats, wasn’t she?’ asked Pippin.
‘She was, yes.’
‘It takes no little courage to stand before a raging mumak,’ said Eowyn, remembering her sight of the animals and tales of her people who had tried to attack them on the Fields of the Pelennor.
She smiled at Merry. ‘But a stampeding pony is no joke either!’
‘Even an experienced rider may be trampled,’ she continued. ‘You may have heard how Leod died, Eorl’s father, trying to tame the great horse Felarof. There is another story, of earlier times among the Eotheod in the North. A tamer of horses died. He had grown overconfident and ridden a half-tamed stallion too carelessly too soon. When a dog barked, the horse shied, threw him, kicking him in the head, and tried to escape. But his sister leaped into the saddle as it passed and it ran away with her. Two days her family sought her and waited and it was feared the horse had killed her, too. But finally, at dusk, she returned with the stallion, and her reputation for taming horses became greater than her brother’s had been.’
‘I have heard that Queen Galadwen of Gondor, who had been Vidumavi in her youth in Rhovanion, once rode a horse up a flight of steps in Minas Tirith at need,’ said Imrahil. ‘And she reached the top without doing harm to her horse or any of the people she passed. I have seen those steps and I could hardly believe it.’
‘Are we exchanging tales of great horsewomen now?’ asked Aragorn. ‘Eomer, do you remember the woman in Rhun who drove a heavy wagon as swiftly as others might a war chariot, with a light touch and a sure hand?’
And so the evening passed in stories and reminiscences, not, of course, forgetting the beer.