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NOTES ON THIS CHAPTER: In Appendix D Tolkien tells of Yuledays, a time of high feasting and celebration that are six days long. They take place over the last three days of the year and the first three days of the New Year. I’ve played a bit with the canon timeframe, but to fit the season I’m allowing myself a bit of license.
It was very clear and cold, the white moon beginning its ascent into the night sky where a thousand bright stars pierced the blackness. We’d heard wolves earlier, at dusk, and the hobbits had blanched.
"They are far off," Legolas had assured them. "Sound travels long distances in these wild lands of Hollin."
Now all was still. Gandalf sat first watch on a high boulder close by, the glowing red dot of his pipe just visible.
They were unusually quiet, the talkative little ones, more so tonight, although it had been building for several nights now. I sensed the reason, but they soon began talking and confirmed my suspicions, Pippin, of course, starting them off:
"It’s the start of Yuledays back in the Shire," he said in a small voice.
"It’s the start of Yuledays everywhere, Pip," Merry said, cuddling him closer. "It hardly seems like it, though. Not in this lonely place."
"Yuledays," Sam said in a wistful tone. "Mum would be baking now. The whole house smelled spicy and sweet this time of year. Remember, Mister Frodo?"
He glanced down at his master, who lay in what had become his familiar nightly pose, his head in Sam’s lap and one hand curled around his leg. Sam played with Frodo’s dark curls, calming his tension.
His wide eyes focused on the fire, Frodo smiled softly, and said, "Yes, Sam. With all the baking your mother did at this time of year it was a wonder you and I didn’t look like Fatty Bolger."
The hobbits chuckled and the rest of us grinned, enjoying their fun.
"Remember how I’d steal the little mince pies mum left cooling and run out to meet you, and we’d scoot off to our secret place to eat them?" Sam said.
"Stealing, Sam?" Boromir said, adding a ‘tsk-tsk’. He sat on one side of me, Legolas on my other side, all of us pressed closely together.
"Bless me, sir, but my old mum was no fool," Sam replied with a laugh. "She knew. She had eyes in the back of her head."
"Yes, and she expected it of him," Frodo added. "Though nothing was ever said of it. Bilbo was baking the same small mince pies at Bag End, and we could’ve sat right at the table and gobbled them up in front of him --"
"But a pilfered mince pie tastes sweeter," Merry said.
"Aye!" Pippin added. "Lifted food is yummy."
"The wickedness of it makes it special," Merry added.
"I am appalled," Boromir said, chuckling. "We are in the company of thieving scoundrels, Aragorn."
"Aye," Gimli joined in, his eyes crinkling at the edges. "Yer naught but a bunch of incorrigible hooligans."
"That we are, sir," Frodo replied. "Incorrigible hobbit hooligan mince pie-thieving scoundrels!" And he started giggling, a sound which left all of us helpless to do anything but join in with our own laughter.
When the chuckling subsided, Merry spoke up, saying, "At Brandy Hall, the aromas of food would be so thick in the air you could near cut them with a knife."
"Aye," Pip said dreamily. "’Twas the same down in The Great Smials. The Took ovens were so busy a fog of scents hovered over the Green Hills."
"And when you were older," Merry said to Pippin, "you often journeyed north to spend the Yuledays with us at the Hall."
"Aye," Pippin sighed, casting Merry a loving smile. "Aye."
Merry blushed; then he cleared his throat, quickly adding, "We Brandybuck cousins would be sent out into the forest for holly and greens, and then we’d hang swags of pine all over the hall, on every banister, and over the mantelpieces--"
"And the mistletoe," Pippin interrupted, grinning mischievously at Merry, clearly delighted to be embarrassing him. "Remember the mistletoe, dearest Merry?"
Frodo scrambled up, and he and Sam burst into sudden laughter, crying, "The mistletoe! The mistletoe! Tell the Mistletoe Story!"
Merry looked ready to melt into a puddle, but he couldn’t hide his grin. He groaned and lowered his head and muttered something about ‘never living it down’. Pippin, however, was giggling madly. He pulled away from Merry and sat back on his heels and said, "Aye! Of course! The Mistletoe Story! If you insist."
"We insist!" Frodo and Sam shot back.
Merry rolled his eyes. "There’s nothing to tell!" he exclaimed, trying to grab Pippin back into his arms. "Come here and hush, you brat."
Pip, of course, was having none of it. "Now, Merry," he cooed, pushing his cousin away. "I canna deny dear Frodo and Sam’s request, especially not tonight. Besides, Legolas wants to hear the story, too, don’t you, Legolas?"
My elfling, who had been as silent as I during all this, remained serenely unaffected by Pippin’s abrupt question. "I cannot wait," he said in his quiet elvish purr.
Merry winced, but he released Pippin, muttering, "It’s not a story."
"True," Pip said. He glanced around, adding, "We’re making too much of this, and Merry’s right. It’s just a thing that happened, and we like to laugh about it, but it’s not a real story." He glanced down at Merry; then he leaned over and kissed his cheek. "A wee recounting of a fond memory then? A moment that lives on in the heart?"
Master Brandybuck was clearly out of his league. Soundly vanquished by a pair of sweet Tookish eyes and a lilting voice, Merry relented and gave him a lopsided grin and shrugged. "Ah, well, go on then, you silly 'tween."
"Right then." Pippin readied himself. Placing his palms on his thighs, he began: "This happened during the first Yuledays season I spent away from home without my folks along. The Tooks and the Brandybucks often visited back and forth, and as I grew older, I spent a lot of time at Brandy Hall, and soon I near lived there. But, getting back to the story --"
"It’s not a story," Merry said, sighing.
Pippin shot him a frown, then went on: "Getting back to the small anecdote, this happened on the first day of the Yuledays season. Sam and Frodo were there delivering some presents from Bag End, but they were setting out after luncheon to get back to Hobbiton. They’d been out in the woods with us in the morning, helping us cut pine and holly, and --"
"Pip!" Merry sighed again, loudly this time, his forbearance clearly waning. "You’re running on so," he grumbled. "This has nothing to do with the little incident."
"Merry. Please." Pip said in a haughty voice. "Yer interruptin’. I’m setting the scene."
"Merciful might!" Merry muttered.
Pippin cleared his throat. "To continue, a bunch of the older Brandybuck cousins came into the Hall bearing some branches of mistletoe they’d foraged, and they proceeded to hang sprigs of it up over doorways and on the chandeliers, oh, just everywhere."
"Hmmph!" Gimli grunted. "You halflings are an openly amorous lot."
"Oh, indeed we are!" Pippin happily agreed, causing Gimli to grunt again, his wasted jeer completely missing its Tookish mark. Pippin hurried on:
"So there was a crowd of us in the Main Hall, gathered near the punch bowl, and the punch was heavily spiked with spirits."
"And you, my lad, had drunk much of it," Merry now interrupted.
"Aye." Pip grinned. "It was very, very good."
"You’d had a bit yourself, cousin mine," Frodo chimed in.
I glanced at him. Sam had gathered him close, and the Ringbearer rested back against his servant’s solid body. Frodo’s soft smile was relaxed and carefree. He seemed lost in this memory of the past, far away from his recent horrors and present trials. He suddenly looked at me, his smile widening a bit as if inviting me into this place with him, into the warmth of Brandy Hall and the jolly, innocent world of halfling Yuledays. I smiled back at him; then our attention returned to Pippin, who had regained the floor.
"Aye, Merry had imbibed a bit as well, that’s true, Frodo," he said with delight. "Now, for those of you who have never seen Merry when he is happy with drink, let me just say that he is a sight to behold. He loves to sing and dance and he’s forever hauling me into performing with him in front of whatever lot is assembled. I once asked him, ‘Merry,’ I said, ‘why is it you don’t just entertain the crowd yerself?’
"‘I need your strong voice, Pip,’ he replied. ‘Besides, why would I want to perform alone when I have you to make it such jolly fun?’"
Merry snarled. He looked ready to ignite. "Peregrin, I swear, if you don’t get on with it!"
"Right," Pip said glancing at him quickly and then away. "So there we were, a crowd of Brandybuck cousins and some Tooks and guests, mostly young people, ‘tweens and such, and older ones like Frodo --"
Frodo now ‘hummph-ed!’ I grinned. Strange, thinking of Frodo as older than the other halflings, yet, indeed, he was.
"So there we were, and I had picked up a wee lute and was playing along with a few cousins who were making holiday music. I was watching the merriment, and some of the cousins were breaking into dance, some of them in couples and some just dancing alone, and some were laughing in groups over by the table laden with food and drink, and the wee nippers were scurrying about, and the elders were coming and going, the mums and aunts bustling to and fro from the kitchens, and the da’s and uncles off filling the big study with pipe smoke and gossip --"
"Oh, for the love of --!" Merry growled. "Right. That’s it." And he made as if to rise.
"And, and, and --" Pip hurried on. "And into the crowd came half a dozen pre-‘tween lads and lasses, one of them carrying a long branch with a sprig of mistletoe tied to the end of it. And they started going ‘round the room, holding the mistletoe over people, and if they held it over a dancing couple, the couple had to kiss, and if they held it over a single person he, or she, grabbed someone and kissed them, usually someone on whom that person was particularly enamored."
"They KNOW that, Pip!" Merry exclaimed. "They’re four intelligent warriors. I think they reasoned that out."
Pip was so swept up in his own tale he seemed oblivious to Merry’s cry. "Merry didn’t see the mistletoe ‘tweens approaching him. He was dancing around with a group of others who were dancing alone, and my Merry, being the charmer he is, was surrounded by several bright-eyed missies who had designs on him."
Poor Merry gave up. He turned to me with a helpless look; then he shook his head and closed his eyes, resigning himself at last to his misery.
"So before he knew it was happening, Merry looked up and saw the mistletoe hanging right over his head! He laughed, and he glanced around at the hopeful-looking lassies; then he turned and snatched the branch with the mistletoe from the young lad, and Merry raced right over to me and held the mistletoe over us and kissed me soundly in front of all Brandy Hall!"
We warriors were stunned to silence, Gimli and I both pulling our pipes from our mouths in shock. But the little ones, Merry included, took one look at us and fell into peals of laughter.
"It was grand!" Pippin cried. "At first everyone was too surprised to speak!"
"And every mouth fell open!" Merry exclaimed. "They looked just like you!"
"For five whole seconds Brandy Hall was silent!" Frodo said.
"It felt like all the air had been sucked outta the building," Sam added.
The hobbits giggled some more, all of them enjoying the remembered sight immensely.
Legolas squirmed and asked, "And then?"
I grinned. My composed elfling enthralled by this little halfling tale. It was too endearing.
"Then?" Pip asked.
"Why then, sir, the Hall erupted into laughter and cheers," Merry said, his chagrin having flown now that the tale was finally finished. Pippin had indeed dragged out the little narrative beyond what was necessary, but he had built a rich scene for us all and, clearly, for one of us in particular.
Merry now pulled Pippin close and hugged him, and they laughed. He was back in his own Brandy Hall, back in the moment, remembering it all, how it felt to be so open, so surrounded by safety and kin and devotion. Pippin had engulfed him in that strong image, despite Merry’s objections. A gift for his beloved, one we all could share. Clever little Took.
I knew now that Merry’s grumbling hadn’t been because he was ashamed of himself or the story. It wasn’t embarrassment over his actions that made him grumble; it was Merry’s reluctance to be the topic of a story, any story. Mere self-consciousness. But now his gaze flitted over us, and he saw our smiles, and he felt our acceptance as well.
"Well," Gimli rumbled, "I’d call that a fine story, Master Took. No battle scenes, nor butchered orcs, nor axes coated with black blood, but fine nonetheless."
"Thank you." Pippin giggled.
"I especially liked the part about the table of food and drink," Gimli went on. "This business of ‘punch’, however . . . ." He grunted. "We dwarves ne’er waste our time with ‘punch’. On Yuledays we feast on roast venison and pork and beef. We toss back our finest malt beer and open our stores of Dorwinian wine --"
"Dorwinian wine," Legolas murmured dreamily.
"You know of it, elf?" Gimli asked.
"Indeed he does," I answered.
Gimli grinned. "Do I sense another story?"
"NO!" Legolas cried.
Boromir could no longer contain himself. He burst into low chuckles, and I struggled to keep from joining him. Legolas cast us both a frown and said, "There is no story."
"So, the elves do celebrate Yuledays?" Sam asked Legolas. "I mean, seein’ as how they live forever . . . I dunno, I just wondered."
My elfling’s gentle smile returned, aimed at Sam. "Aye, sir," he said. "We do. My father’s halls are decorated in splendor and filled with merrymaking courtiers. Music resounds at all hours, traveling minstrels gathering in camps outside to await the honor of playing for Thranduil. We do not enjoy a spirit-laced punch, but the wines flow, and Dorwinian wine is plentiful."
"I must try this Dorwinian wine sometime," Boromir said. "It clearly is highly prized."
I swear I could feel Legolas blushing.
"You don’t have Dorwinian wine in Gondor, Boromir?" Pippin asked.
"No, little one. I’m afraid we must satisfy our Yuledays thirst with more common wines and ale," my fledgling answered. "But we also celebrate as you, with feasting and merriment, especially so when my grandsire was alive.
"When I was old enough, Damrod, Denethor’s first lieutenant, allowed me to go with the log reaping parties that went out just before Yuledays began. Teams of men would go into the forests and bring back the biggest log they could for the Yuledays fire, one so large that it would last the whole six days through. The logs were massive. A team of horses would drag it from the forest, but the team of men had to be able to bear it on their shoulders through the streets and up all seven levels of Minas Tirith, all the way to the Citadel at the top. The team who won was given the honor of being first in line when the great kegs were tapped and the ale came gushing out." He shrugged and chuckled. "A small reward perhaps, but it was the honor of the win that mattered."
Suddenly Boromir rose and headed off into the darkness. He returned a moment later bearing a large log, which he settled down upon the fire. "There," he said, crossing back to his place beside me. He sat and added, "I found it earlier. We will not be here for six days, but for tonight we have a Yuledays log as well."
Everyone smiled and I gave my fledgling an affectionate nudge. He glanced at me, and I saw much in his eyes – a yearning for the days when he was a boy, the days of Ecthelion, when Gondor still prospered instead of these latter years under Denethor, when all had become so bleak.
I longed to gather Boromir into my arms and hold him, but I could wait until later when he and Legolas and I would move further off on our own and nestle together. My fledgling loved to be held, burrowing against Legolas or me with a hungry need that was heart-wrenching. But I knew he would be uncomfortable with such cosseting in front of the little ones. Later. There would be time later.
"What about you, Aragorn?" Frodo suddenly asked. Four halfling heads turned my way. "How do Rangers celebrate Yuledays?"
I watched them for a moment. They were clearly anxious, wondering how roaming warriors could enjoy themselves at a holiday time usually filled with merriment and warmth and the comforting closeness of kin. It was understandable. All these little ones had ever known was the Shire, home and hearth and safety. Thinking about a group of Rangers out in the wild during such a time troubled them. I was touched by their concern, and I smiled at them softly.
"How do Rangers celebrate Yuledays, Frodo?" I said. "We celebrate in each other’s company. Within each other’s fellowship we find the warmth of a brightly lit hall. Our fare is simple, but game is plentiful, so we do not hunger. Our voices are low and often quiet, and we tell each other tales, some of us weaving wondrous stories out of nothing but the air."
I paused to glance at Legolas, then said, "If we are lucky enough to have a golden-voiced elf in our midst, we have music and a store of elvish song and poetry that is endless. But most of all we have each other, little one. Such are the gifts Rangers share during Yuledays."
"Then you are blessed," Frodo said with his quiet smile. "Those are fine gifts."
"But . . . but, Aragorn . . . ." Pippin drew every eye. He struggled a moment, clearly hesitant to ask something – very unlike him.
"What is it, sweetling?" I murmured.
The endearment loosened his tongue, and he said, "What about all the times you were alone, without the Rangers? What about then?"
The hobbits were instantly fretful again, turning even more intensely worried looks my way. Their compassion truly was moving.
"Aye, what about then?" Sam joined in. "Did you make sure to be back in Rivendell, Strider? Or were you maybe with others somewhere, friends, or people you knew?"
"You weren’t ever really and truly alone during Yuledays, were you, Aragorn?" Pippin asked. "Not . . . not all alone."
I could not see myself lying to them, but they were agitated at merely the thought of such an awful fate. How could I tell them that I had often been by myself in the wild during Yuledays?
I lowered my gaze and considered my words carefully; then I looked up again, and said, "No, Pippin. I was never all alone during Yuledays."
The hobbits all relaxed, breathing out and moving their tensed muscles . . . all but Frodo. He watched me closely, his large blues eyes glistening. "Aragorn," he said in a voice so calm it demanded the attention of all. "Were you ever by yourself during Yuledays?"
"Didn’t ye hear him, Frodo?" Pip asked. "He just said --"
"I know what he said, Pippin," Frodo replied. "He said he was never all alone during Yuledays. I am asking him something different."
Frodo’s penetrating gaze never left mine. I grinned at him. "So you are, Master Underhill. Was I ever by myself during Yuledays? Aye. Indeed I was. Many times."
"What?" Pippin cried. The other three hobbits gasped. "But you just said --"
"Pip," Merry said, watching me. "Shhhhh. Let Aragorn explain."
I knocked my pipe against the heel of my boot; then I looked up and said, "Pippin, I did not lie to you. You asked the wrong question, and Frodo saw it, wise little moppet that he is. You asked if I was ever all alone during Yuledays, and I answered you honestly: No, I was not. Frodo asked if I was ever by myself, and I answered him honestly as well: Aye, indeed, I was. Many times. A mere playing with words and meanings, you might say, but such things carry much weight."
"But . . . ." Pippin looked sadly perplexed. "I don’t understand."
Turning a soft grin to the three bewildered halflings, I said, "Those you love and the memories you carry of other Yuledays are alive within you. Tonight, in the midst of the Hollin wilderness, Pippin brought us Brandy Hall, filled with laughter and warmth and gaiety. And so it is. All that you treasure is ever with you. Your memories stand ready to burst into life and surround you with those you love, cousins and uncles, mothers and fathers. They are not here, but they are indeed here, and they are just as real as we choose to make them.
"All of you were there tonight, in that Hall, watching Merry kiss Pippin in front of everyone. You felt that joy washing through you, a feeling just as real as when you first had it. That, my little friends, is yours to call upon at any time. You may find yourself in a terrible place, and yet, if you can remember something you treasure, call forth a memory of what you hold dear, even if it is something as small as a scent or a taste or a tender voice, that terrible place you are in becomes more bearable."
I dropped my gaze to the fire and went on: "So, you see, it matters not where I am during Yuledays, for I am never all alone. True, I may be by myself. But I carry within me endless glorious memories, ready to join me in whatever place I find myself. And I do call them forth, and they draw me in and enclose me just as warmly as Pippin drew us into Brandy Hall tonight. So, no, Pip, I am never all alone."
The stillness that followed no doubt rivaled the silence in Brandy Hall after Merry’s revealing kiss. But a moment later the little ones smiled, and they were finally calm, and though the hour was late and I knew they had to be tired and I should have insisted upon sleep, I said nothing when the stories continued. Legolas volunteered to keep his ears sharply tuned to the world, and he ran to bring Gandalf back from the watch, back amongst us near the fire.
It was the first night of the Yuledays season, and we were in the wilds of a foreign land, heading into a dangerous unknown, but we were surrounded by our memories, surrounded by those we loved, by hobbits and elves, dwarves and men. We were sharing in their merriment and their tables, tasting the ale and the malt beer and the Dorwinian wine. The lands of Hollin were filled to overflowing with soaring Great Halls bright with music and laughter. We shared each other’s company long into the night, our Fellowship much more than merely a name by which to be known.
When we finally ended our tales and exhaustion overtook us, Pippin yawned and said in a wearily contented voice, "You were right, Frodo. Those gifts of the Rangers, the stories and the sharing of each other’s company, those are fine gifts indeed."
"Mmmm." Frodo murmured, his heavy lids closing. "We are blessed."