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21
Yuletide Truce

Written for the LOTR Community Yule Fic Exchange. Written for Pearl Took.


~~~

Yuletide Truce


“Yule in the Shire!” Pippin exulted as they turned from the Road toward Tuckborough and the Great Smial. “I wasn’t certain last winter that we’d ever see this again!”

Merry nodded his agreement, reaching forward to scratch Stybba’s neck. “A year ago we were some days’ walk from Rivendell, not certain if we’d even survive the journey we’d undertaken.”

Pippin’s expression grew more solemn. “That’s true enough.” He stretched in the saddle, and Jewel turned her head to consider him briefly before returning her attention to the track ahead. The younger Hobbit continued, “After seeing Frodo recover from such a terrible wound, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we were all in grave danger.”

“Didn’t stop you from dropping a stone down that well, or from peering into that seeing stone,” Merry noted dryly.

Pippin’s mood lightened again. “Well, it appears that no matter how serious the quest, you can’t take the innate foolishness out of a Took. I shan’t fuss myself on those now, seeing that all turned out all right in the end. Better than all right—victorious!” He drummed his heels on Jewel’s flanks, and she willingly quickened her pace and drew ahead of the other pony and rider.

“As if you weren’t scared silly at the time,” Merry muttered to himself, although with fondness. Pippin at least was still capable of being irrepressible, and for that he was very glad. He rejoiced that Pippin was in such good spirits today, what with the visit to the Great Smial and his family and all. Tomorrow, for Second Yule, they’d be heading to Bywater to spend most of the day with Frodo and Sam at the Cotton farm. Not even Uncle Paladin and Aunt Eglantine would deny Pippin that visit, he knew. Hopefully a single afternoon and evening in the company of his parents and their stubborn refusal to accept Pippin’s stories of what they’d done for the past year would not be enough to cause his cousin undue distress.

They soon found themselves in the center of Tuckborough, and the denizens of the Leaping Hare crowded to the doors and windows to hail them as they rode by. Pippin waved back and returned cheerful answers to their questions, not that anyone could really make out what was being said by anyone else, what with all the competing songs from the inn’s common room and all. And Merry was both relieved and a little sad that Pippin didn’t suggest they stop in for a mug or two. Apparently the young Took had decided it would be best to get things over with as soon as possible.

They rode directly into the stable and saw the two ponies settled into their stalls, warming blankets belted over them and their mangers and water buckets full before they grabbed their saddlebags and headed into the Great Smial to face the Thain and Lady. They were met by servants who insisted on taking their things to their rooms, and were led by Posy to the Thain’s private parlor where Pal and Lanti were awaiting them.

“You appear to have made good time from the Floating Log,” Paladin said, hugging them both before turning the two younger Hobbits over to the attentions of Pippin’s mother.

“Actually, we decided to camp out not that far from the Three-farthing Stone,” Merry advised them. “The Floating Log was quite crowded when we stopped for late supper, and one could not hear oneself think while we were there. It was quite a relief to get out of the village and seek out a much quieter place to camp for the night.”

“And why didn’t you stop in and stay the night with some of the Boffins or such along the way?” Lanti demanded. “We have family ties with Hobbits all along the Road, after all.”

“And such folks, in spite of the sharing out of what Lotho and Sharkey’s people gathered to the Brockenbores, still would be hard put to deal with unexpected visitors,” Pippin said, shaking his head. “Since their homes were easily accessible, they tended to be visited regularly by the gatherers and sharers, you know. And it’s not as if we were unaccustomed to sleeping under the stars, after all.”

Truly an understatement, Merry recognized. They’d done little but sleep under the stars for months, both on the journey east and south and on the way back as well. Really, they’d only spent about two and a half months in Minas Tirith in the guesthouse there, and two months in Rivendell before that, and but a fortnight in Rivendell during their return journey. He fixed his cousin’s mother with a steady gaze to reinforce what Pippin had said, and gave an unconscious nod as he saw her blink uncomfortably. “Well,” he said, “we’re here now until first thing tomorrow morning.”

“And I still can’t think why you won’t stay Second Yule as well,” Lanti began, but stopped at a pointed glance from her husband. Apparently the two had spoken extensively of this beforehand and had agreed to display as little argument to Merry and Pippin as possible during their visit. A good thing, or the two of them might decide not to return to the Tooklands in the near future, and both of Pippin’s parents were desperate to reassure themselves that neither Pippin nor Merry should disappear on them again. In spite of their unwillingness to believe what Pippin sought to tell them of the war, they did love their son deeply and had been worried sick during the time the Travelers had been gone from the Shire.

Elevenses were served, and they were joined by Pearl, Pimpernel, and Pervinca and their families. Pimmy and her husband Ferdibrand, who’d been blinded by kicks to the back of his head administered by Lotho’s Big Men, they’d seen but recently, for the two of them had traveled to Buckland to attend Pippin’s birthday party at Crickhollow a week ago. It had been a sore point for Eglantine that Peregrin had refused to celebrate his twenty-ninth birthday here, but he’d insisted on hosting his own party in Buckland as his mother had been planning his guest list and had intended to invite all of the youngest of his Took and Banks cousins, as if he were still a teen rather than someone who’d been treated as an adult for the past year or better. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his younger cousins, but he’d wanted to have mostly those who were in their thirties from all sides, not primarily those Tooks who weren’t even twenty-five as yet! So his parents had not come to his birthday celebration, but his second sister and brother-in-love had.

Ferdibrand was asking after the Brandybucks, Oldbucks, Maggots, and Stockbrooks he’d visited with at the party, and described their brief stop at the Cotton farm in Bywater on the way back. “I must say,” he commented, “that I’ve never seen Frodo so retiring and solemn. We had to almost pry any word he uttered out of him, it seemed.”

“It’s that way with him oftentimes since he woke in Ithilien,” Pippin agreed. “He listens far more than he speaks any more.”

“I don’t understand just what you mean when you say he awoke in Ithilien,” Pervinca said, and was distracted by young Piper seeking to sneak an extra jam tart off her plate. “We’ll have none of that, nephew,” she said, to which the child laughed merrily.

Pippin’s face had lost much of its animation. “Frodo and Sam had become separated from the rest of us. Frodo tried to slip off by himself to finish his task, thinking it would keep us safer if he were to go on alone. Sam managed to keep up with him, but by the time the rest of the Fellowship realized what he’d done we were all rather badly scattered, and there was no way for us to go after him. Frodo and Sam succeeded in their part of the business, but were cut off from escape. Gandalf had to search for them, and apparently found them just in time. The two of them were unconscious when they were found, and Aragorn had to put them into a deep healing sleep for a fortnight. They were both in rather a bad way when Gandalf and the Eagles rescued them.”

Pearl looked up sharply. There had been a time when they were younger when everyone had been certain she and Frodo would marry, and in spite of having thrown him over and married Isumbard instead she apparently still cared for his welfare. “Was he badly hurt?”

Merry answered her gently, “We were all rather badly hurt, Pearl. We’ve all recovered, of course, but Frodo particularly was badly scarred.”

“I didn’t see any scars on him,” Paladin commented stubbornly, adding rather belatedly, “other than the finger being missing, that is.”

Pippin’s laugh was anything but merry. “Do you think, Da, that Frodo Baggins would allow anyone to see his scars? He even tries to hide the fact his finger is missing from us, and we of course know all about how he lost it.”

“Then why don’t you tell us?” asked Pervinca’s husband, Maligar Bolger.

Merry gave his uncle and aunt a sideways look and said privately to Maligar, “It’s not for lack of trying on Pippin’s part, believe me!”

But Pippin was shaking his head, saying to the room at large, “No, I know the subject disturbs you, Mum and Da, so I’ll not discuss it now, not on First Yule. Now, what did you get me?”

This was such a Pippinish question that all suddenly found their humor once more, and the awkward moment passed.

“The question is rather, what did you get anyone?” Pearl demanded. “I don’t see any sign indicating you two brought anything intended as gifts.”

Ferdibrand laughed. “That’s because their gifts have been here for two weeks, Pearl Took! They arrived with a wagonload of ale purchased from Bree.”

Pippin smiled with satisfaction. “That ale is my gift to the whole of those in residence in the Great Smial. I’ll have you know that Gandalf himself laid an enchantment of especial excellence on the ale brewed by the people of the Prancing Pony, and I thought everyone should enjoy the bounty of that spell tonight of all nights!”

“And you knew?” demanded Pearl’s husband Isumbard of Ferdi.

Ferdi shrugged. “As I am the keeper of stores for the Thain, and as I can keep a secret, I was advised to be on the watch for the wagon when it arrived and to see to the careful storage of its contents. Oh, don’t worry, Bard, Maligar—you two will get more than your fair share if I know you! When we’re done with the meal I’ll take these two off so they can see to the retrieval of the other items that came with it. I’ll swear that my aide told me that there was a case, or perhaps he said two, from Dale as well!”

Pearl’s two children and Piper all squealed with delight, and had to be reminded that gifts would be not be distributed until that evening at the earliest, and any complaining would only delay that desired activity.

Soon enough Pippin and Merry were accompanying Ferdibrand to the locked storage room where he’d had the contents of their wagon placed. “I was able to convince Strider to send most of what’s there in a shipment of arms intended for the northern Rangers,” Pippin confided. “I know he was a bit reluctant to take up room for my trifles in the supply wagons, until, that is, I told him that I’d purchased a number of bows and a goodly supply of arrows fit for them to add to the armory here. Your father should be very pleased with them, I’d think.” Ferdi’s father Ferdinand had served as the captain of the Tookland’s archers for several decades. “They begin teaching the lads in Gondor how to use a bow when they’re quite young, so there were a goodly number of bows and arrows suitable for Hobbits available in the marketplaces once the war was over, and they do appear to be quite good ones. I suspect that more than one boy who lived near the river had managed to kill an orc or two even before the city was laid under siege.”

“And was being caught in a siege as terrible as the books say?” Ferdi asked as he found the proper key and fitted it into the lock.

“Worse,” Pippin said grimly. “We were very lucky that it didn’t last more than a few days, as I was told afterwards that when a city is held in siege for prolonged periods, pestilence, hunger, and thirst tend to become commonplace. Lord Denethor had prepared for such a possibility, and there were a fair amount of stores of grain, flour, and dried meats and fruits within the city walls. The problem was that most of the warehouses where it was stored were in the lower city, within the lowest two circles, and that was where the bulk of the damage was from what was thrown over the walls by the Enemy’s catapults. They had some compound they put on balls of wood and wool that would burst into flame when it landed, and it set fire to a lot of structures. Putting out fires in such tight quarters is a serious business, I learned, for it can spread so quickly from one building to another, what with the houses and businesses oftentimes sharing walls with one another. And anyone who was hit by these balls was likely to die from the encounter.”

Ferdi shuddered with revulsion at the thought of it all as he swung the door wide. “I’m glad I wasn’t there. Did the two of you help fight the fires?”

“Merry wasn’t there yet, for he followed after Gandalf and me, riding with the Rohirrim from Rohan to Minas Tirith. Gandalf went ahead to warn of an impending attack and took me with him.”

“And what foolish thing had you done to require you going first?” Ferdi asked, leading the way into the storage room. “There’s supposed to be a lamp just inside the door. You’ll need to light it, I suspect.”

“Ánd just why do you think I was in trouble at the time?” demanded Pippin while Merry got the lamp lit.

“Because I know you, Peregrin Took,” Ferdi answered.

As the wick took, Merry grinned up at their cousin. “He’d just managed to convince the Enemy that he, Peregrin Took, had the weapon the Enemy was most seeking. He didn’t, of course, but the Enemy didn’t know that. Gandalf had to get him to relative safety, not that any of the surrounding lands were truly safe. But it worked to keep the Enemy distracted, trying to get to Minas Tirith to find out if Pippin had carried that weapon there before anyone could figure out how to control It to use It against him.”

“Do you know where this weapon really was?” Ferdi asked, obviously intrigued.

“We didn’t at the time, not for certain. We only knew It was on Its way to Mordor to be destroyed.”

Ferdi had been feeling the barrels in a near corner of the storeroom, hoping to identify the former contents of Pippin’s wagon, but stopped and straightened, turning to the others in dismay. “You said that the Enemy was the Lord of Mordor, didn’t you? Then why send this weapon there? He could have stumbled across the ones trying to get it into the land and gotten it back, couldn’t he?”

“Yes, which was why everything was done to draw his attention away from his own land in the end. But It could only be destroyed where It was made, and that was there in Mordor at the Mountain of Fire. Pippin’s blunder actually helped the ones who were carrying It into Mordor, as did Aragorn directly challenging Sauron using the same device through which the Enemy had become aware of Pippin.” Merry settled the mantle of the lamp into proper place and turned about. “Oh, there they are—the other corner to your left, Ferdi. I see the outline of the pony on the barrels there. And there’s that large gift you bought for your dad there, too, Pip.”

Soon Ferdi was helping to drag the actual gifts back toward the door. “You bought a saddle for your father, Pip? In Gondor?”

“Yes. I saw it in the marketplace in the Third Circle and knew it was perfect for him. And the figure you feel there on the stirrups and the pommel is a falcon!”

“What color is it?”

“The leather has been stained a dark green. And there’s a headstall to match, again with the falcon worked into each cheek piece. And you should see the bolts of silk I bought for Mum—she’ll look so beautiful in dresses made from them!”

“And which package is for me?”

“Merry’s already fetched that out for me. You won’t handle it until this evening.”

Pippin and Merry took as much as they could carry to Pippin’s quarters to prepare for the gifting in the early evening, and Ferdi went to get them help in transporting the larger items and to carry the barrels of ale to the dancing ground where the Yule bonfire would be lit. The two of them ate luncheon while they worked, and did not reappear until almost teatime.

“Are you avoiding us?” asked Eglantine, her tone slightly acid, as they entered the Thain’s parlor.

Merry caught the flinch that Pippin couldn’t completely hide. “We had a good number of presents to finish wrapping,” he said in a voice that was just a touch too hearty. “I’m sorry, but I did want them to be just right for all of you.”

“It’s quite a change from the days when you just hastily put brown paper around whatever you were giving people and loosely tied twine about it. hoping it wouldn’t come open before it got into the hands of whoever it was intended for,” Pervinca noted.

Pippin’s lips thinned. “I have grown up, in case you didn’t notice,” he said, doing his best to keep his tone even. “Strider and his people wrapped most of the items well, but I wanted to be certain that none of it was damaged in transit, after all. I must say that everything came through beautifully, but I’m afraid I’m not quite as handy at rewrapping some items as was whoever prepared them for shipment.”

“Too bad Frodo wasn’t here to help you. He always has his presents so beautifully wrapped.” Pearl sounded a bit wistful.

“It’s a bit harder for him now,” Merry pointed out.

Pearl winced. “Oh, yes—his finger.”

“Yes, his finger,” Pippin said. “Although he is able to do most things fairly easily any more. He worked a good deal on his writing and drawing while we were in Minas Tirith, and purchased a new set of knives that fit his hand particularly well while we were there. I made certain that those were tucked into the bundle that Strider sent for us—I suspect they were very expensive.”

“He needed new knives?”

“Well, remember that he was still just recovering when we were there, and most knives in the outer world are intended for the hands of Big Folk. And it wasn’t until Master Elrond arrived in Minas Tirith that anyone seemed able to ease his hand. The muscles would spasm at odd times, and he found it often very painful. So he went down to the marketplace in the Fourth Circle where many of the best artisans of the City sell their wares in search of a good set that was comfortable for him to use. He’d intended to leave them behind, and that would have been quite a waste, after all.”

“I wish we’d been able to convince him to come here for Yule,” Pimpernel commented.

Merry shook his head. “He wouldn’t do so right now, not that Sam would countenance him riding cross country in the snow anyway. With the ride back and forth to Michel Delving each week, Frodo’s getting all the riding he needs, I suspect. He needs a few days of simple quiet and comfort, and he’s more likely to get that on the Cottons’ farm than he would here or in Buckland.”

“I agree,” Isumbard commented, surprising them all. “He’s been so diligent in seeing to it that every document forwarded to the Council Hole is properly reviewed that he is often exhausted once we convince him to leave the Mayor’s office. If he were to come here he’d have all the faunts hanging on his coat, begging for stories, and would have to try to beg off smoking with the gentlehobbits as gracefully as possible without causing offense, and would be fending off all of the lasses of marriageable age—and their mothers. No, he deserves his days of rest.”

Maligar appeared shocked. “Frodo doesn’t smoke any more?”

“Says that the healers told him he was not to start again—too harsh for his lungs.”

Pippin nodded his agreement. “We had to all smoke downwind of him so it wouldn’t even blow in his face. Aragorn wouldn’t allow him, Sam, or me to smoke at first while we were recovering, and Frodo’s not to do it at all. It has to do with all the ash and smoke he and Sam were forced to breathe while they were in Mordor.”

The others were exchanging glances when the knock came at the door, and Posy entered with the tea things.

“Thank you so, Posy,” Eglantine said. “We will serve ourselves.”

Nodding, the personal maid to the Thain and his Lady set the cart near Eglantine’s chair and left them, softly closing the door behind her. Soon all were served with tongue and pickle on bread rolls, boiled eggs, and apple tarts along with steaming cups of Eglantine’s favorite blend of tea for winter.

“You’re not bolting your food!” Pervinca noted, watching her younger brother with surprise.

“If you’d spent as much time as we did in the King’s court, you wouldn’t be so surprised,” Merry said. “We all learned a good deal of proper protocol and manners while we were in Gondor, after all.”

“Not that Frodo needed any lessoning in it,” Pippin added, once his mouth was empty again. “Bilbo and his Aunt Dora saw that he was properly trained in etiquette.”

Pearl’s daughter Pansy asked, “Where are your presents now, Uncle Pippin?”

“Ferdi had some of the servants carry them down to the Great Hall and put them with the rest,” Pippin explained. “And I certainly hope you like what I bought for you.”

“And mine are there, too,” Merry said. “And you are not to go down there and prod at them, trying to guess what’s in them.”

“I’m too big to do that!” the lass responded primly.

“I’m not!” her younger brother Isumbrand insisted.

“And that’s why you’ll be going with the other youngsters and the lessons master once tea is finished,” his mother said. “I rather wish Frodo had come—his stories would keep the lot of them entranced until the Yule feast is ready.”

“Perhaps next year,” Pippin said vaguely. “Please pass the salt cellar, Pimmie.”

As the evening sky burned increasingly with stars, Pippin gamely worked to remain as civil as possible to his parents and Pervinca, all of whom tended to let slip occasional jibes about those who hadn’t been home last year and how much Pippin must have forgotten during his absence from the Tooklands. By the time all were gathering in the Great Hall for the Yule feast and the exchange of gifts he was looking decidedly frazzled. “I’m so glad,” he murmured to Merry, “that we’re off early tomorrow for Bywater. I love them dearly, but if I hear one more word about how I deprived the family and the Great Smial of the joy of celebrating my birthday with me two years in a row I swear I will scream and run out to the stables to fetch Jewel and head back for the White City!”

Merry gave a slight nod, eyeing his female Took relatives and his uncle warily.

Merry and Pippin’s practice of facing west briefly before sitting down to eat was watched with puzzlement by many of the residents of the Great Smial, and with a degree of disapproving forbearance by his parents. Once the dishes were uncovered, however, all appeared to forget the oddity in the Travelers’ behavior as attention focused on the meal. Soon all were laughing at Pippin’s sallies as his natural good spirits returned. “It’s good to have a proper Yule again this year after the Troubles last year,” old Tobibold Took commented expansively over his goblet of wine. “Not as you two was knowin’ any want,” he added, giving Merry and Pippin a meaningful glance, “what with all your time in Kings’ halls and all.”

“Actually, last Yule we were far from any halls of any kind,” Pippin answered him. “We were walking through a particularly cold stretch of moor with not enough trees to offer us much in the way of firewood, if I recall correctly, although finally we came across a small valley with a wide stream at the bottom of it where at last there were enough trees to offer us some cover. Merry had managed to bring down some hares with stones, and it turned out Master Elrond had actually sent a joint for us to cook for that night. And Bilbo had given Frodo a supply of dried mushrooms he’d gathered in Rivendell to add to the feast. And I do believe we also had some boiled sweets and a whole apple for each of us, and three for Sam’s Bill. That pony doted so on Sam, and on Frodo as well.”

“It was a good meal, at least,” Merry agreed. “But we didn’t get to anything like Kings’ halls until late February.”

“Why didn’t you ride?” asked Hildebrand.

“We were trying to pass unnoticed,” Merry explained. “A cavalcade of horses and ponies would have drawn attention from the very ones we didn’t wish to have know we were moving at all.”

“Where were you heading?” asked Rosamunda Bolger, who was staying in the Great Smial with her husband until their own smial was restored—Lotho’s Big Men had driven the Bolgers out of their hole and had done a good deal of damage, seeking to find any hidden storage holes there might be behind the paneling and plastered walls of Budge Hall.

“South and east toward the Great River and beyond,” Pippin said. “We had to do our best to see the Enemy’s greatest weapon destroyed so that the war could be halted. Had the Enemy found us along the way it would have meant the end of all that is pleasant in this world.”

“And what do Hobbits know of weapons?” demanded one of the Took healers.

Merry and Pippin both shuddered as Pippin answered, “We came to know far more about such things than we felt comfortable with, I assure you. We were fighting a war out there, you know.”

The talk grew more solemn at that, and Paladin gave his son a look of quiet disapproval. Pippin sighed and did his best to ignore the resumed tension, but it was a losing proposition.

Once the meal was over, a Hobbit from each family unit went to the piles of gifts ranged around the room to fetch gifts for their own family, and Pippin went to fetch those gifts intended for the Thain, his wife, children, and their spouses and children. The younger children were seated on the floor, each surrounded by their gifts, and allowed to open their presents with as little aid as was necessary, and soon wrappings were lying everywhere.

Pippin kept bringing presents, starting with those offered by Pearl and Isumbard, then those by Pimpernel and Ferdibrand, then those by Pervinca and Maligar, then those by Paladin and Eglantine. “What’s the problem?” Pervinca finally asked. “Are you ashamed of those gifts you chose?”

It was one jibe too many, and Pippin sighed and straightened. “Merry, will you fill in for me, please? I need to visit the privy.”

Merry turned on Vinca with disgust as Pippin quitted the room. “Can’t you see that he’s wanting for his gifts to be special? Why do you have to keep prodding at him so?” So saying, he deliberately chose out those he’d brought, and all had to admit they were particularly nice ones.

At last there were only those gifts chosen by Pippin left, and as that individual had not returned to the Great Hall, Merry began with those intended for Isumbrand, Pansy, and Piper. Pansy’s eyes grew large as she unwrapped a particularly beautiful doll, carefully carved of wood and beautifully painted. A second parcel for Pansy held clothing for the doll, each garment a work of art in itself. For Piper there was a set of wooden soldiers dressed in the silver and sable of Gondor. Isumbrand received a lovely pony crafted of leather, with real horsehair for the mane and tail. “Oh, look—here’s the saddle and bridle and everything!” the young lad said, pleased beyond measure by his gift. There were wonderful wooden canisters for Aunt Jade, who loved baking, and a beautiful stein of crystal for her husband. Cousins Rosamunda and Odovacar received glass candlesticks that would be beautiful on their dining room dresser, once they were able to return to Budge Hall once more; Ferdi received a silver striker set that was exquisitely decorated with raised flowers; and the jewelry intended for Pearl, Pimmy, and Vinca evoked ahs of wonder.

At last there were but a few presents left, and most of the rest of those who’d attended the feast were watching with interest. Merry looked at his uncle. “Your gift is too big to bring to you at the table—you’ll need to go to it.”

So saying, he took the Thain by the hand and led him to one of the large packages that ranged along the wall. Paladin unwrapped the blankets with which it was wrapped, and shook his head with wonder. “Why, these are saddle blankets!”

“Indeed,” Merry said. “And wrapped in them is----”

Pal stopped, his eyes as wide as Pansy’s as he examined the magnificent saddle that lay before him. He looked in surprise up to meet Merry’s gaze. “Did he choose this himself?” he asked.

“Yes, he did. He especially chose it for the falcons worked into all of the tack. He hoped you’d always think of him when you rode out.”

“Who paid for all of this?” Eglantine asked. “This King of yours?”

Merry’s fists tightened with frustration. “Pippin is a member of the King’s own Guard, Aunt Lanti, and he receives an excellent wage for the service he offers. Plus, all who are known to have killed trolls and the larger creatures that threatened the army both on the Field of the Pelennor and before the Black Gate received a special reward for their courage. Pippin earned the coin for all of this fairly, and at the risk of his life, I’ll have you know. We keep telling you—he is a hero out there, beyond the Bounds of the Shire!”

And when Eglantine found herself the possessor of several bolts of particularly fine cloth of silk and fine-spun cotton, she couldn’t find words to express just how overwhelmed she was by the beauty of the fabrics she’d received.

Pippin was found outside, helping to put the final touches on the great stack for the bonfire. “I’m sorry I didn’t come back,” he said when the family crowded around him. “They needed some help lifting logs onto the pile, and seeing I’m now taller than anyone else, Beligard insisted I help. I do hope you like your gifts.”

Pippin didn’t crowd in as he’d always done before to take one of the first turns at pulling the fire drill, and once the pile was finally alight, he stayed well back from the blaze. “I don’t understand,” Pervinca said in softer tones to Merry. “Usually Da is having to hold Peregrin back when he wants to be one of the first to leap over the coals. What happened?”

“He saw some horrible things,” Merry said only loudly enough for the immediate family to hear. “He’s not afraid of fire, but he couldn’t abide even a camp fire for the first part of our return journey. This bonfire is too large for him to bear right now. It may take some years before he’ll try leaping over the flames again. He’s not as careless as he once was.”

“If he’s afraid of being burned,” began Paladin, but Merry interrupted him.

“No, he wasn’t burned, but he saw at least one person burn to death, and it was a great shock. He can’t stand the smell of burned meat, either, you’ll find.”

It was something to think about.

All noted that Pippin was far less giddy than he’d been before his journey outside the Shire, and most approved of this change. But Pimmy sighed. “It’s not fair that he should have to be so grown up so fast,” she said, watching her brother standing back, listening to the older stable Hobbits talking among themselves.

“As Frodo has commented often enough, life has never been particularly fair, so there’s no point in complaining about how unfair it is,” Merry said dryly.

Vinca sighed, and went to her brother’s side. Merry couldn’t tell what she was saying, but apparently she apologized for her behavior earlier, for Pippin’s face brightened and he pulled her into an embrace. The others followed her, and now they were thanking him for their gifts, and with each honest word of praise Pippin smiled the more.

Merry smiled in sheer relief. At least the magic of Yule was helping thaw them toward Pippin, and that was, after all, as good a beginning toward Pippin feeling at home again as they could hope for. Now, if only they’d work on appreciating just what wonders Sam and Frodo had accomplished….



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