Of Bakers and Bears
By Linda Hoyland with grateful thanks to Raksha and Deandra
Aragorn and Faramir get more than they bargained for when they visit a bakery.
Written for the Teitho "Creatures" contest where it was placed third.
The familiar characters and settings are the property of the Tolkien Estate. No profit will be made from this story.
"Have you heard the news?" Faramir asked as he entered Aragorn's study.
"Should I be alarmed or pleased by it, as you appear to be both?" the King asked.
Faramir frowned. "I am uncertain what to make of the tidings. Éowyn told me this morning that her maid told her that two Beorning brothers have opened a shop in the City where they are selling honey cakes."
"Arwen and Eldarion will be pleased by the news," said Aragorn. He smiled and gestured for Faramir to sit down. "They both love honey cakes. Gimli told me that there are no better bakers than Beornings."
Faramir sat down and toyed with a spare quill on the desk. "I do not doubt they are excellent bakers, but is it safe for them to be at large here in the City? I do not wish to appear inhospitable, but I have heard it say they can change into bears at will!"
"They can indeed, but they do not like to draw attention to their abilities," said Aragorn. "I can hardly prevent them opening a shop in Minas Tirith. I have decreed that all who are willing to obey our laws are welcome here. You still look anxious, my friend. What say you if we visit the shop after the Council meeting this afternoon and meet these skin changers ourselves? We can appear as two ordinary customers."
Faramir smiled for the first time that morning. "As ever, my friend, you speak wisely. That is an excellent plan and I shall enjoy the walk. I can surprise my lady and son with a bag of honey cakes this evening."
"It is settled then," said Aragorn. "We had better make our way to the meeting, little though I relish spending the morning debating land taxation, but it must be done."
It was a fine afternoon so King and Steward decided to walk down to the bakery in the fourth circle rather than ride there. Their guards trailed behind them, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible.
"It is a long time since I have tasted Beorning honey cakes," said Aragorn.
"You have met Beornings before, then?" Faramir sounded surprised. "I have heard Mithrandir speak of them , but did not realise you had met any, though I suppose it ought not to surprise me. Do they appear as ordinary men?"
"They dwell in the upper vales of Anduin and also live as woodsmen near the western eaves of Mirkwood. They can be as dark haired as we Dúnedain or as fair as the Rohirrim."
"I have heard Mithrandir tell of Beorn. He said that he was a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard."
"I believe Beorn was exceptional. The Beornings I have met appeared much as other men. Some came to my coronation. Did you not notice them?"
Faramir shook his head. "They must indeed appear as other men, then. I wonder-" He broke off looking slightly uncomfortable.
"You wonder what?"
"It sounds foolish, I know, but I was wondering if any man had died of fright when his friend or drinking companion suddenly turned into a bear!"
Aragorn laughed. "I have not heard of any such thing. I know Bilbo and his companions found Beorn quite remarkable, but then Beorn was a legend, even amongst his own people." He paused in his stride and looked around him. "I think that is the bakery across the street. Trade appears to be brisk."
A small crowd was gathered around a small stall from whence emanated the delicious aroma of freshly baked cakes. Two burly, bearded men were serving their eager customers.
An old lady reached the front of the queue and held out a coin. "Three honey cakes, please, one for each of my grandchildren."
"Don't you want one for yourself, mistress?" asked the slightly taller Beorning. Faramir observed that he looked much as other hard-working bakers; a florid-faced man in his prime, with wide shoulders, strong, well-muscled arms, and a grin for his customers. Neither baker looked likely to change into bears.
"Maybe next week, Master Ragnar. I have used all my coin today. My grandchildren love your cakes. Master Olaf suggested that they try them."
Aragorn and Faramir watched as Ragnar surreptitiously added another cake and smiling, gave the parcel to the old lady with a cheery, "See you again soon, mistress, I hope." Both brothers smiled and waved as the old dame hobbled away.
When Aragorn and Faramir reached the front of the queue, they ordered a dozen cakes each.
"Have you children, good sirs?" asked Ragnar.
"I have a son whose favourite food is honey cakes," said Aragorn. "My wife is partial to them too."
"I will give your little boy a cake if you ever bring him this way," said Ragnar.
"Thank you, I will," said Aragorn. "I am certain he would like to meet you."
"What child does not like honey cakes?" said Faramir. "I have enjoyed them since I was a child and so do my children."
"I hope you enjoy these, good sir," said Olaf. "The honey comes from our own bees."
Aragorn and Faramir were unable to resist the aroma of the freshly baked cakes. They settled themselves on a nearby bench where they continued to watch the Beorning brothers serving their customers.
"Mmm, delicious," said Faramir as he nibbled a cake. "These are the best honey cakes I have ever tasted. Maybe having these Beornings here is a good thing after all."
Aragorn took a bite of his own cake. "I wonder if it is something they feed to their bees that makes the cakes so good?" he mused.
Olaf disappeared into a room at the back of the stall and a few moments later, a comely young woman emerged from behind the counter, carrying a tray of freshly baked cakes, which she placed at the front of the stall.
Just then, a group of rowdy young men emerged from a tavern opposite to the bakery. They ambled over to the cake stall and pushed past a group of middle -aged ladies and children waiting to be served.
"How might I be of service, sirs?" said the young woman. Despite her polite words, she was frowning as she backed towards the stall.
"I can think of a good many ways," said one of the men, causing the woman to blush.
"Give us a kiss, fair maid," said another.
"I think not," said the woman. "Now be on your way if you don't want to buy any cakes."
"Don't be like that," said one of the men.
"We can give you sweeter pleasures than honey cakes," said another. He seized one of her long braids and pulled roughly pulled her towards him roughly. The woman screamed and kicked her assailant.
"Unhand my wife this instant!" cried Ragnar.
"A lusty wench like this deserves better than a great oaf like you," said a third man.
Aragorn and Faramir reached for their swords, but before they could intervene, the man grabbed the woman and pulled her towards him. At the same instant, Ragnar gave a great roar and changed into a great black bear before their eyes, his garments tearing apart and falling from his body as the transformation took place.
The men fled. The bear gave a great leap over the counter and pursued them.
The ladies screamed and jumped out of the way, pulling their children with them.
The louts knocked over a barrow of potatoes in front of a greengrocer's stall, scattering them over the road. Aragorn and Faramir raced after the bear, but stumbled on the potatoes, which slowed them down. Everywhere, folk screamed, panicked, and dived into shops and behind market stalls. One old lady clutched her chest and fell to the ground in a swoon. Other, calmer stallholders grabbed their merchandise and placed it out of harm's way.
Aragorn hesitated, wondering whether to go to the old woman's aid, and then decided that if the bear were not stopped there could be many more casualties. He shouted for help and guards came running from all directions armed with swords, spears and bows and arrows. He kept running in the direction of the bear. Though it was out of sight, the screams and commotion in the street ahead made its presence all too clear.
"Ragnar!" he yelled. "Surrender so you will not get hurt!"
The bear continued its rampage through the City streets. Aragorn spotted the group of louts trying to creep out from an alleyway and called to a nearby guard to arrest them. He kept on running; Faramir was close at his heels.
Suddenly, he spotted the bear a little way ahead. The gate to the third circle had been closed and the bear found itself trapped.
One of the guards drew his bow and nocked an arrow.
"No!" Aragorn cried.
The commotion drowned out his voice though. The guard loosed the arrow. The bear fell to the ground. The crowd gasped. Aragorn ran forward. There was no sign of the bear. Instead, a hirsute, naked man lay on the ground, writhing in agony, an arrow protruding from his back.
The guards ran forward too, their weapons in their hands. They regarded the fallen man in bewilderment.
Several people in the crowd cried out and a woman swooned.
Aragorn knelt beside Ragnar and covered him with his cloak. "Sheathe your weapons!" he cried. "This man must be taken to the Houses of Healing with all haste."
"There is some dark magic here!" cried a man in the crowd. "Have a care, sire!"
"Fear no sorcery, my good man," Aragorn said calmly. "This man is a skin changer. There are others like him in the North."
"Return to your homes," said Faramir, who had now caught up with the King. "There is nothing to see here."
"Disgraceful!" muttered a woman as she turned to walk away. "Whatever is the City coming to?"
Aragorn turned to Faramir. "Would you give my lady a message that I will be delayed as I am going with Ragnar to the Houses of Healing?"
"Gladly, my friend," said Faramir. "And shall I see how the Baker's lady is faring?"
"Thank you," said the King. "Please send word to me at the Houses."
Two guards brought a stretcher and supervised by the King, they lifted Ragnar on to it. This was no easy task as the Beorning was no lightweight who writhed and struggled in their grasp.
Ragnar looked at Aragorn, fear in his eyes.
"Be easy now," said the King. "There is nought more to fear. The guards will take to where your wound can be treated."
Ragnar fell back on the stretcher with a sigh and the small procession set off for the sixth circle."
Several hours later, Aragorn sat at Ragnar's bedside in a small room in the Houses of Healing. Shortly after their arrival there, the King had assisted one of the healers in removing the arrow. The Beorning had been fortunate as the arrow had missed any vital organ and merely shattered the two ribs it had wedged between. An unpleasant, painful injury, but one from which he believed the skin changer should make a full recovery in time.
Ragnar stirred and opened his eyes. "Where am I?" he croaked.
"In the Houses of Healing," said Aragorn. He went over to the bedside table and poured a glass of water, which he held to Ragnar's lips. "You were injured by an arrow and will need to rest a while here to recover."
Ragnar drank then looked wildly around him. "My wife?"
"She is safe and will visit you soon."
They sat in silence for a few moments then the Beorning's eyes came to rest on the guard stationed at the door. "Am I in trouble? Will I be locked up? What will become of poor Astrid? Those creatures- how could they? She is with child."
Aragorn gestured to the guard to step outside before he spoke again. "I think you have been punished enough," said Aragorn. "The guard is here to protect us. We do not have any law forbidding a man becoming a bear, but we do have several laws concerning causing a disturbance and public decency. We cannot have folk turning into bears in the streets. One old lady was taken ill as result and lies here in the Houses too. You were sorely provoked, though, and the miscreants who assaulted your wife will be punished with the full weight of the law."
"I am sorry," said Ragnar. "I meant harm to none save the thugs who assaulted my wife. Our women do not change skins in public or she would have taught them a lesson herself."
"You need to do as the other shopkeepers do and keep a cudgel or a sword behind the counter to brandish at miscreants who threaten you," said Aragorn. "Do I have your word you will not change into a bear in public again?"
Ragnar gave a sign and nodded.
"What you do in the privacy of your home; or alone in the countryside is up to you as long as you do not harm anyone," Aragorn added.
"Skin changing is important to us," said Ragnar. "It plays an important part in our courtship rituals."
Aragorn was briefly amused by the image, in his thoughts, of two bears, one with a wreath of flowers on its head, dancing a harvest reel. He decided it were best not to imagine the courtship any further. He got up to leave. "I need to return home now. You will be well looked after here. The guard will remain, but he is for your safety, not to detain you. You are not under arrest."
Ragnar regarded him curiously. "How can you be so certain? Are you the mayor or something?"
Aragorn smiled. He would not further burden the injured Beorning by revealing his identity. "You could say I am something like a mayor. I do have authority here."
"I suppose we will need to give up our bakery and return home after what happened today," said Ragnar sadly.
"That decision would depend on your customers," said Aragorn. "Now I must bid you farewell."
Several weeks later.
"Can we have a really big bag of cakes?" asked Eldarion.
"I cannot see why not?" said Arwen.
"They are the best cakes ever!" said Eldarion.
"Better than cook's?" asked Elestelle.
"Better even than our cook's," Eldarion replied.
"You must not tell the cook you think that," said Arwen.
"Are they really so good, Naneth?" asked Elestelle.
"You need to taste them and see," said Éowyn.
"Want cake!" demanded little Elboron who was perched on his father's shoulders.
"Why do we have to wait so long?" grumbled Elbeth.
"Because we are not the only ones who like cakes," said Faramir. "Be patient, my brother- daughter!"
"It is almost our turn," said Aragorn.
A woman turned round balancing her shopping bag and a large bag of cakes. She almost collided with Aragorn. "Pardon, my lord!" she cried.
Aragorn recognised her as one of the Healers who tended the women and children at the Houses of Healing. "Be easy, Dame Ivowen," he said. "These cakes are so popular it is no wonder it is crowded here."
Ivorwen curtsied. "I never expected to see you and the Queen and the Steward and his lady queuing for cakes!" she exclaimed.
"We like to walk in the City sometimes and let our sons see how the people live," said Aragorn. "And more than that, we like honey cakes!"
"I always imagined you would have your servants come and buy them for you," said Ivorwen.
"I believe honey cakes taste better after a walk and a wait," said Aragorn.
"I wasn't going to come here after that um- incident a few weeks back," said Ivorwen. "I cannot resist these cakes though and the bakers are good people albeit a little um, unusual."
"Ada!" Eldarion tugged his father's sleeve. "It is our turn now."
"Good day, Mistress, Ivorwen," said Aragorn. "I will see you soon at the Houses." He turned towards the stall to find Ragnar staring at him in astonishment.
"You are the King?" asked the Beorning. He gestured towards Faramir. "And he is the Steward?"
"We are indeed."
"The King at my stall and you were so kind to me!" Ragnar bowed low, as did his wife and brother who had emerged from the room at the back.
"How are you, Ragnar?" asked Aragorn.
"Much improved, my lord. He shook his shaggy head. "The King at my stall?" he repeated.
Aragorn smiled. "Can a King not like cakes? If you wish, you may put up a sign above your stall saying, By Kingly Appointment. Now, I should like a large bag of your best honey cakes."
A/n Wishing all my readers a peaceful and Happy Christmas season.