"Pippin! Where did you get this?" Merry was sitting in a corner of the great hall on his own, curled up on a big cushion, pretending to read a book. In fact he had been watching and listening to his older bigger cousins, but they seemed to be regaling the youngsters with stories of chokolit they had eaten over the years and he did not feel like joining in just now.
"Aunt Emerald found another bit!" the little hobbit lied, "and she asked me to bring it to you. Go on Merry eat it, you'll really like it." Pippin reasoned the sooner he could get his cousin to eat the evidence of his crime, the better.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, eat it quickly, Merry."
"It am yours Merry, really!"
Merry looked at Pippin's worried face and, even as he popped the chokolit in his mouth, he knew it was stolen, almost certainly from Pervinca, but he also knew that Pippin would be deeply hurt if he didn't eat it. "Mmmm! That is lovely Pip – just wonderful. Better than mince pies and plum duff wouldn't you say?"
"Yes – I've got a plan Merry." Pippin's eyes were lit up now. "When I'm big I'm going on an adventure and you can come too, and we're going to find where the chokolit grows and get some, lots and lots of it."
"Oh Pip… I think that…"
Whatever Merry thought was cut short by a similar interruption to the last one. Pervinca was wailing at the top of her lungs again and The Thain was marching determinedly across the hall in Peregrin's direction.
"Pippin!" The hobbit quailed at his father's voice, as precious as he was to his family, Pippin received no special treatment when it came to discipline. "Did you steal Pervinca's chokolit?"
Merry took one look at his little cousin's guilty and panic filled face and stood up from the cushion to face The Thain, "No Sir, Uncle Sir, it was me," Merry lied holding out his chocolate stained fingers as evidence of his guilt. "I'm sorry, I just really wanted to try it, I'm really sorry, I did it."
"Meriadoc! I'm shocked!" Paladin shook his head in disbelief. He caught hold of his own son's hands and examined his fingers for evidence, but there was none. Pippin had kept the melty chocolate in the cloth before giving it to Merry. "I would not have expected this of you! Stealing sweets from a child – what will your father say?"
"I'll tell you what he will say." Saradoc had heard the whole tale, along with most of the other hobbits in the great hall and was now advancing upon his embarrassed son with a very angry look on his face. "Go to my study young man and wait for me!"
"…and the worst of it is, the example you set to Pippin. Stealing! From your little cousin. Meriadoc I can hardly believe my own ears." Saradoc had been talking for about ten minutes now to his silent son. "Have you nothing – nothing at all – to say for yourself?"
"I-I'm sorry sir." Merry could not think of any excuse and therefore was at a loss to explain what had happened. He was certainly not about to tell the truth and get Pippin into trouble.
"Very well," Saradoc sighed. "You leave me no alternative. You're old enough to have known better, so I will have to punish you."
"I know sir," Merry had not doubted for a moment the outcome of this interview. He would have actually preferred to go straight to the beating, the lecture was in many ways more painful. He went to the cupboard where the strap was kept and brought it to his father.
Merry's father waited while his son unhitched his braces and leaned over the chair. Six of the best would not be enough this time obviously; the crime was heinous enough to warrant a dozen strokes at least. Merry managed not to cry although when his father was finished he had trouble standing up and pulling his breeches back on. Saradoc pointedly made no move to help him, in a strange way it pleased him to at least see his son take his punishment without complaint.
"Now go and stand in the corner until I give you leave to go," Saradoc was determined to make this discipline impress itself on his son. He really wanted never to have to do this again.
As Merry limped into the corner and put his hands on his head in the required position, a knock came on the study door. Saradoc walked over and opened it. Paladin was there with a sobbing Peregrin held by one arm. "My son has a confession and an apology to make," he announced.
"Oh Pippin – no!" Merry could not stop himself from calling out.
"You be silent Meriadoc Brandybuck." Paladin warned. "You're in quite enough trouble already."
"What did you do Pippin?" Saradoc asked, already guessing the truth.
"I-I did stealed the chokolit!" the little one sobbed. "…t'weren't Merry t'was me and I did a l-lie to M-Merry and s-sayed it was an extra f-founded piece and then I didn't say it was me and I l-letted Merry get in tr-trouble and I'm sorry Merry."
Saradoc looked at his brother-in-law and shook his head in despair. "What'll we do with them? Turn them over to Thluggul perhaps?" This was the ultimate threat to Shire children. Not only would Thluggul give bad children a piece of charcoal, really wicked children would be taken away by the dragon to his snowy mountain and never be seen again.
"I've already spanked this one." Paladin gave Pippin a little shake. "…and he's promised not to lie any more. Haven't you, Peregrin?"
"Yes Papa." Pippin whispered. "I'se sorry, Papa. Don't give us to Thluggul, please!"
"All right," Saradoc sighed. "Meriadoc, come here, son." Merry limped back over to his father and uncle. "It was noble of you to try and protect Pippin, but you're supposed to be setting him a good example, not teaching him to lie."
"I know, sir," Merry sniffed a little now. "I'm sorry, it all happened so quickly and he looked so frightened."
"Well that's not a bad reaction then." Saradoc conceded, "you were doing your best to protect him, albeit from his own crimes and his own father. Now where do you suppose little Pippin got the idea of stealing in the first place?"
"Oh that's easy!" Pippin brightened up a little as their father's tones grew lighter. "Merry and me practiced on the mince pies in the pantry."
"Pippin!" Merry squawked in horror.
"Oh really?" Saradoc narrowed his eyes at his son, "been in the pantry have we?"
"Yes sir." Merry confessed, "but it was only a couple of…"
"Stop there before you get yourselves into more trouble." Saradoc held up his hand. "Merry I would not expect you to be perfect in every way and I know boys will be boys. Why, Paladin and I have been known to do the odd bit of scrumping in our youth. What I'm trying to tell you is that both you and Pippin have a lot of heavy responsibility ahead of you. One day you will be the Master of Buckland and he will be The Thain."
Paladin took over, "Those are not just empty names, Meriadoc they are both important positions and other hobbits will look to both of you for leadership and guidance, you have to be ready. And you as the oldest should be setting Peregrin a good example, do you understand that is why it is important for you to look to my son and guide him in the best possible way."
"Yes Uncle Paladin," Merry nodded, his head still hung somewhat in shame, "I'll never let you down again and I vow I'll always look after Pippin no matter what."
"That's a big promise to make Merry," Saradoc put his arm on his son's shoulder and lifted his chin up with his other hand. "Don't say it unless you mean it."
"I mean it, sir," Merry looked his father in the eye. "I'll take care of Pippin always, come what may."
Pippin had stopped sobbing and was looking up at his big cousin with a beaming smile.
"All right," Paladin guided Pippin over to his cousin with a hand on his sore rump. "you can start now. For the rest of Yule, you take care of Pippin and keep him out of trouble."
"Off you both go." Saradoc smiled at the pair and ruffled his nephew's hair.
"Merry?" Pippin had decided to move into his cousin's bedroom, it was infinitely preferable to sleeping in with his sisters and Pervinca was not his favourite person at the moment anyway. "I s'pose Thluggul's leaving just now, is he?"
"Yes, I imagine he is Pip." Merry smiled at the memory of waiting for Thluggul. "Are you going to hang your pillowcase up?"
"No – it won't do any good will it?" Pippin sighed as he ran his fingers over the beautiful red and gold stitching. "I've been so bad, all I can hope for is a bit of charcoal. Either that or he'll take me away altogether and put me in the snowy mountain."
"You hang it up Pip," Merry tickled his little cousin under the chin, making him giggle in spite of his melancholy over the dragon. "You know, even though you did a bad thing, you also did a good thing."
"Yes, you owned up and told your Papa, even though you were scared and you got a spanking, so that makes you good again you see."
"Does it?" Pippin perked up immediately. "Do you really think Merry?"
"Oh yes," Merry assured him. "You hang it up and then we'll have a look out of the window and see if we can see him coming."
Pippin balanced his pillowcase neatly over the end of Merry's bed and then they both scrambled to the window, Merry lifting Pippin up onto a chair so he could see out. "Oh Merry! Look! Thluggul's making the snow fly off the mountains."
Sure enough a white blanket of snow was falling across the lawns of Brandy Hall, turning it into a Yuletide picture. "There you see, Pip, I told you Thluggul would forgive you. This snow is just for you because you've been such a precious little hobbit and Thluggul loves you very much."
"Does he Merry?" Pippin frowned. "Are you sure?" Then in the next breath, "Merry! I forgot to put out the wassail for Thluggul – oh Merry what'll I do? He won't love me if I don't put the wassail out."
Merry smiled knowingly. "Don't worry my Pip, I put it out for you. Thluggul will get his wassail."
"Why is he called Thluggul, Merry," Pippin frowned at the strange name. "Did his Papa call him that?"
"No, Frodo explained it to me." Merry furrowed his brow as he pieced the memory together. "It's Sindarin, Elvish that is. Lhûg means 'dragon' or i thlûg and gûl means 'magic' or i ngûl means 'the magic' and hobbits just muddled those words up to make Thluggul."
"Oh Merry," Pippin's eyes were wide as he listened without any understanding to the explanation. "You and Frodo are everso clever. So will Thluggul bring me presents do you think?"
"Of course, Pippin." Merry kissed the curly mop. "But you have to promise to be good from now on."
"I will Merry," Pippin nodded solemnly, "I promsis."
"No more stealing."
"Unless I say so."
"No more fibbing."
"All right Merry."
"Unless I say you can."
"What if I don't have time to ask you?"
"Well you can ask me later."
"Does your bottom still hurt?"
"So does mine!"
A partnership in villainy had been cemented.