Title: Stealing Tales From a Yuletide Hearth
Summary: In which the Brandybuck Cousins stay up way past their bedtimes, seven-year-old Peregrin is far too cute for his own good, Cousin Bilbo tells a story, Skybright gives in to the Holiday-fluff-fic plotbunny, and everyone plays a rousing round of "Skybright-uses-massive-amounts-of-Trilogy-foreshadowing-because-she-thinks-it's-frightfully-clever".
Disclaimer: All Hobbits named within -- and, indeed, the very concept of Hobbits -- belong to the Esteemed Professor J.R.R. Tolkien -- in whose mighty company I quite naturally am ashamed.
This fic goes out, with love, to all my own Cousins (some of whom, if they're reading, may recognize themselves mirrored here in certain mannerisms of the Brandybucks).
Eleven O'Clock, P.M.
Brandy Hall, Buckland
"We're goin' t'get caught." Fourteen-year-old Mentha Brandybuck protested. She was answered with a swift, sharp blow from her cousin Pervinca's elbow.
"Only if you keep whimpering." She hissed, pressing her back against the gently curving wall of the hallway. "Now hush."
Mentha rubbed her now-aching ribs. " 'Vinca, you've got sharp elbows!"
"SSHH!" The twelve-year-old Hobbit lass shot her elder cousin a venomous look. Mentha, soft-spoken and cautious by nature, shrugged and lapsed into an uneasy silence.
Pervinca Took was neither the eldest nor the tallest of the small group of Hobbits huddling in the Great Hall of Brandy Hall -- but she was the most headstrong, and arguably the most ill-tempered, of the cousins. That, and her sharp elbows, often made her the de facto leader when mischief was afoot.
Fifteen-year-old Meriadoc Brandybuck glanced over his shoulder, down the corridor to the suite of rooms where his two youngest cousins – Ilberic and Celandine -- still slumbered. "You're makin' more noise than she is, 'Vinca."
"Look, do you all want to hear the After Stories, or not?" Pervinca asked testily. "Because if ye do, we've got to get in there quietly. No squeaking." Pervinca glared at the tiny Hobbit-lad to her right.
"I won't, 'Vinca, I promised!" Peregrin Took, Pervinca's seven-year-old brother, stamped one small foot in protest.
"Then don't, smooth-toes." Pervinca gestured for the five assembled cousins to follow her. "C'mon. We've got to get into the Hearth-Room before everyone's back with the Yule logs." She started to advance along the corridor.
Mentha and her twelve-year-old sister Melilot followed close behind. Eight-year-old Doderic, older brother to the two slumbering Hobbit children down the hall, came next.
And Merry Brandybuck, fifteen years old, future heir to the title of Master of Buckland, found his seven-year-old cousin Pippin clinging like death to his hand. He sighed, fought the urge to roll his eyes, and gave the tiny fingers a reassuring squeeze.
"C'mon, Pip. You're with me."
Pippin nodded solemnly. Then his brow furrowed. "Merry?"
"Are my toes smooth?"
"No, Pippin. Now come on."
Yuletide was a huge affair in Brandy Hall. Not a room in the great, cavernous Hobbit-warren went undecorated, and the always-proficient kitchens worked double-overtime producing the best holiday dainties -- sweet plum puddings and rich custards, great savory pasties full of the best of the year's potatoes and carrots; and, of course, gingerbread-Hobbits, the perennial favorite of Hobbit lads and lasses everywhere.
It was a time for decorating, for feasting, for gift giving, song and merriment. And it was a time for family -- not just the sprawling extended family that always occupied Brandy Hall, but also cousins from elsewhere in the Shire. This year, Paladin Took and his wife Eglantine had brought their three daughters and their only son from Tuckborough in the Westfarthing. And, as a rare treat, Cousin Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo had come down from Hobbiton.
That was the real reason that six Hobbits of varying ages had crept from their beds -- all but Pervinca were in their nightclothes -- and were now in the process of secreting themselves away in the Hearth-Room, ducking behind curtains and under furniture and anywhere else they could hope not to be noticed.
Merry wedged himself (with some difficulty; he'd grown since his hide-and-seek days) behind the suit of armor in the corner nearest the hearth. He'd won many games by crouching silently there.
Little Pippin wormed his way behind the armor as well, settling in before Merry had time to protest. Then he rested his dark, curly head on Merry's shoulder and sighed so contentedly Merry didn't have the heart to make him move. It'd be a tight fit, sure -- but they'd manage.
Now the six cousins waited, tense with anticipation as the clock on the mantel ticked away quietly to itself. Surely they hadn't misjudged time . . .?
But no, there were the voices in the corridor, and the stamp of Hobbit feet in the hall. They could hear the voices of their family members echo, growing nearer and nearer . . .
"Aye, it'll be a good spring, my dear Saradoc." A familiar voice said, as a laughing jumble of voices entered the warm, cozy hall. "A wild Winter makes a sweet Spring, as the Elves say."
"Well, Deep snow makes the crops grow, Bilbo -- and that's Shire-wisdom, not even learned from the Elves." The laughing voice of Merry's father, Saradoc, replied.
"Enough of crops and old saws, you two!" That was Pearl, Pippin's eldest sister. "Come on, Cousin Bilbo. The Yule logs are into the Great Hall -- time for a story, I'd say!"
"A story, Cousin Bilbo!"
Merry took note of the voices. His father and mother were both there, as were Pippin's parents and Mentha's father, Uncle Marmadas. Doderic's parents laughed and moved closer to the fire to warm their hands. There was Cousin Bilbo, of course -- queer, kind Cousin Bilbo, the reason Merry was now wedged so awkwardly in the corner -- and Frodo, one of Merry's eldest cousins, whom Bilbo had adopted as his nephew eight years earlier.
Then there were the elder cousins. Among them were Frodo, of course, and Pearl, as well as Pearl's eighteen-year-old sister Pimpernel. Cousin Berilac warmed himself by the hearth, laughing over his shoulder at his father's latest jest. Then there was Merimas, Mentha and Melilot's sixteen-year-old brother, who was old enough for the first time to sit up with the elders and hear Cousin Bilbo's tales.
Not that the younger cousins didn't hear stories from Bilbo -- far from it. There was a good reason why his visits were such a treat, for nobody could tell tales as Bilbo did. Wherever he went, Bilbo ended up with a huddle of awestruck youngsters at his feet -- and a crowd of older hangers-on, teenagers like Merry and 'tweens like Pearl and Pimpernel. But -- in an (unsuccessful) attempt to keep his relatives from labeling him a troublemaker -- Bilbo always took care that some of his tales not be told to the young ones.
The darker, more perilous tales -- the ones with death and ruin lurking in them, the tales of the great battles and villains, the really good tales -- those were for late evenings, after the youngest Hobbits had been hustled off to bed by chiding parents. Sixteen was the age -- the golden age when a Brandybuck or a Took was deemed old enough to hear Bilbo's late-night stories.
Which, needless to say, chafed fifteen-year-old Merry to no end. Things were made no easier by the fact that no older cousin -- Took, Brandybuck, Proudfoot, or any other relation -- ever divulged the secret glories of those tales to the youngsters. Already Merry's attempts to press Pearl for information had proved useless, as had all attempts at wheedling made by the younger, more adorable, harder-to-resist cousins. The only way that Pervinca, Merry, and the others would hear the After Tales was straight from Bilbo himself.
Thus the ever-worsening cramp in Merry's left foot. He wiggled his toes cautiously, trying to keep the blood flowing through the fuzzy appendage.
Everyone settled in around the Hearth-Room. Merimas came perilously close to stepping on Doderic's toes -- which protruded from behind the floor-length curtain the young Hobbit had taken refuge behind. But otherwise, the hidden cousins remained undetected. Bilbo took a deep draught of mulled cider and set his mug on the mantelpiece, clearing his throat. "Now then, what tale shall it be?"
Suggestions rang out.
"The spiders of Mirkwood!" Merimas said quickly. Merry gritted his teeth -- Pearl had told them that was one of Bilbo's best. Merimas knew Merry had always wanted to hear that one. Tomorrow he'll probably be gloating for having heard it.
"Nay, Cousin!" Saradoc leaned forward. "Let's have a tale from the Elves' old stories, eh?"
Bilbo held up his hands. "Ah, I can hardly do justice to those, Cousin Saradoc."
"Then let's have the Battle of Five Armies, Uncle." Frodo suggested from his chair by the door. His blue eyes sparkled. "It's a long time since we've had that one."
"All right, Frodo, my lad." Bilbo clapped his hands together eagerly, then turned and snuffed out the candles in the tall standing candelabra by the mantle. Bilbo's After-Stories were always told in the dim light of the fire, with only the hearth's golden light and dancing shadows to illuminate the listeners.
"There we were at Erebor, the Dwarves and I; waiting, besieged, by the Lake-men and the Elvenking's forces . . ."
Pippin snuggled closer to Merry's side, eyes wide as Bilbo spun the forbidden tale. In their mind's eyes the two Hobbit lads could almost see the battlefield -- the armies spread out at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, banners caught high in the breeze. Time wore away quickly as Bilbo brought to life the great armies, the sight of the Dwarf-army marching from the East to aid their beleaguered kin. Then, just as the battle seemed joined, the bitter enemies were forced to rally together against their greater, common foe. The lurking shadows at the Hearth-Room's back became the swift-approaching black armies of goblins and wolves. The cramp in his foot long forgotten, Merry listened with rapt attention. A shiver of terror ran up Merry' spine at the thought of his Cousin Bilbo -- watching with near-helplessness as the black host drew nearer and nearer, as the great armies clashed and the tide slowly turned against the Dwarves, Elves, and Men. And then . . .
"I looked up, and there they were! There -- wings stretching to fill the sky, talons reaching, their battle cries echoing in the air -- came the eagles!" Bilbo paused dramatically. Murmurs and whispers among the older cousins. Pippin squirmed and twisted to look into Merry's face.
What then, Merry? He mouthed.
Merry put a finger to his lips. Just listen. He mouthed back.
Bilbo cleared his throat to continue the tale. In doing so, he reached for the mug of mulled cider he'd placed on the mantelpiece -- and jostled the tall, unlit candelabra with his elbow. The lightstand tottered and fell with a heavy crash at Pearl Took's feet. The tweenager shrieked in surprise and threw her hands in the air, scattering her knitting as she did so.
Yarn sailed through the air, and one of Pearl's knitting needles skittered across the floor -- coming to rest right at Doderic's protruding feet. Pearl, crawling along after her needle, looked up in shock. Then she stood and pulled the floor-length curtains aside, revealing a blushing eight-year-old Hobbit.
There was a moment of dead silence. Doderic squirmed and looked up sheepishly at his older cousin. "Hullo, Pearl."
Doderic's mother, Hilda, rose and strode over to grip her son by the ear. "Out of bed at this hour! Doderic Bracegirdle Brandybuck, what are you up to?"
Merry peered anxiously out from behind the armor. Was Doderic going to snitch?
Pippin squirmed next to him, and Merry glanced down. Oh, no . . .. He grasped at the younger Hobbit's wrist, but it was too little and too late. Pippin sprang to his feet, his boundless curiosity getting the better of him. "What then, after the eagles came? Cousin Bilbo, what happened next?"
Bilbo turned, eyebrows raised, and began to chuckle. "Well, well! Young Hobbits springing from the woodwork! Most irregular, that is." He strode over and reached out for Pippin's hand. Then his eyes fell on Merry. "Hello! Young Meriadoc, isn't it? We had better have you out from behind there as well, my lad."
Merry flushed scarlet as he stood and squeezed out from behind the suit of armor. Around him, his aunts, uncles, and older cousins were glancing around.
"Mentha! And Melilot! Out of that sideboard, you young rascals!"
"Come on then, Doderic." His mother hauled the offending boy out of the room by his ear. "It's bed for you, young Hobbit -- and no First Breakfast, either!"
Frodo turned and leaned over the back of his chair. "You might as well come out now, Pervinca."
'Vinca popped up from her hiding-place, eyes wide. "You knew I was there, Cousin Frodo?"
Frodo laughed. "I hardly could overlook you, with your breathing that loud!"
Finally the offending cousins -- minus Doderic -- stood in a sheepish huddle in the middle of the room. Saradoc, Merry's father, faced them gravely. He tapped one wooly foot, his arms crossed. "Well?"
Pervinca did her best to look innocent and sweet. "We wanted to hear the story, too, Uncle Saradoc."
"Indeed?" A wry smile twisted the elder Hobbit's mouth. "After you were all sent to bed?"
"Yes!" Pippin nodded enthusiastically. "We were goin' t'bed, Uncle, and then 'Vinca said . . ."
"Pip!" Pervinca hissed, trying to get her little brother in range of her elbows.
" 'Well why shouldn't we just sneak in and hear the After-Tale?'" Pippin finished, in a dead-on Pervinca impression.
"Ah, I see." Saradoc nodded and glanced at the other assembled Hobbit-parents in the room. "Well, do you think your elders might have had some reason for not allowing you to hear it, Pervinca?"
Pervinca glanced at the tops of her furry feet, not replying. Saradoc cleared his throat and turned to his son. "And you, Meriadoc, should know better than to go along with Pervinca when she's up to such things."
"M'sorry, Da." Merry mumbled. Pippin gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Well, there's no mending it, anyway." Saradoc said gruffly. Then he turned to his wife, Esmeralda. "Well, dear? What do you suggest for these wicked young Hobbits who are out of bed so late? No Breakfasts tomorrow? No Yule-presents? Scrubbing the pudding-dishes instead?"
Merry could see the glint of merriment in his father's eyes. Esmeralda caught it, as well. She tut-tutted and shook her head in mock-seriousness. "After all, Saradoc, it is nearly Yule."
"It is Yule, Sister." Pippin's father responded from his chair. "Half-past Yule, in fact." He gestured at the clock on the mantel.
"Well," Saradoc turned to his wayward young kin. "Seeing as it is Yule." He clapped his hands and gestured at the cousins. "Off then! To bed with you -- and I mean to bed this time! There'll be no Yule Breakfasts for anyone else I catch out of bed tonight!"
The cousins herded out of the Hearth-Room and back down the hallway. Pippin looked up at Merry, clinging tightly to his older cousin's hand. "But Merry," He asked, near tears, "What happened next!?"
The cousins retreated to the Children's Rooms -- a large sitting-room with several bedrooms opening off it. Among them were Mentha and Melilot's rooms, as well as the room that Doderic and his younger siblings slept in and the guest-bedroom where the two youngest Tooks were staying. Mentha tugged on her braided hair and sighed, brushing down the front of her nightdress. "Now we'll never know what happened."
"Thanks to Pearl and that stupid lightstand." Pervinca growled. Then she wheeled on her young brother, who still gripped Merry's hand. "And thanks to Pippin!"
"What?" Pip's eyes widened. " 'Vinca, what'd I do?"
"You had to ask, didn't you? Why do you always have to ask?"
" 'Cos I wanted to know, 'Vinca." Pippin sniffed, shuffling his tiny feet. "Don't be angry."
"I am angry." Pervinca turned her back huffily. "Next time we'll ask Celandine along. She's not a snitch!"
"Neither am I!" Peregrin all but wailed.
"Stop it, 'Vinca."
"No!" Pervinca stamped one foot, utterly furious. She turned back and pointed at Pippin "It's his fault. Now we'll never know what happened after the eagles came, and Uncle Saradoc knows sneaking was my idea! He's a snitch." Then her demeanor changed. Suddenly her voice grew quiet, threatening. "And everyone knows . . ." She leaned in close, bending so her eyes met Pippin's, "The Old Forest takes little snitches!"
Pippin's eyes widened and he buried his face in Merry's side with a wordless cry of horror. Mentha frowned and Melilot's eyes widened disapprovingly -- they all knew that Pippin's greatest terror was the dark, creaking expanse of the Old Forest that bordered Buckland.
"Just like everyone knows," Merry scowled, suddenly raising himself to his full height and gripping Pippin's shoulder protectively, "That trolls take spiteful Hobbit-lasses and eat them in a stew!"
Pervinca straightened, eyes narrowing. "You didn't . . ."
"You heard me, 'Vinca. Now leave Pippin alone." He lowered his voice in a mockery of her earlier, sinister tone, "Or the trolls will get you."
Mentha and Melilot both snickered. Pervinca's eyes widened and she fumbled for words. Finally she let out a wordless growl and turned on her heel, huffing off to the room she and Pippin were staying in.
Melilot nodded. "Nice work, Merry."
Merry grinned. "I thought so." Then he knelt and rubbed Pippin's back soothingly. "C'mon, Pip. S'far past your bedtime." Merry nodded at his cousins. "G'night."
Pippin glanced around wonderingly as Merry led him two door further down the hall. "Where'r we goin', Merry?"
"My room." Merry glanced down at him as he opened the door. "I don't think Pervinca's much going to like having you in with her tonight."
"Oh." Pippin raised his eyebrows. "But where'r you goin' to sleep?"
"Don't worry about me, Pip. There's lots of beds in Brandy Hall." He turned down the covers and smoothed the surface of the pillow before bending down to lift the smaller Hobbit into bed.
"Merry?" Pippin asked as his older cousin lifted him. "Why was 'Vinca so mad about the trolls?"
"Oh, that." Merry laughed brightly. "You know Cousin Bilbo's troll story?"
"Well," Merry pulled up the covers over the small Hobbit's legs, "You're too young to remember, but when Pervinca was your age, she was terrified by that story. Started cryin' whenever anyone even said 'trolls'."
"Really?" Pippin's eyes widened. "But she's not scared now."
"No, just embarrassed about how scared she used to get. You'll be the same way, someday." He patted Pippin's shoulder. "You'll walk right into that Old Forest, bold as brass buttons."
Pippin shuddered. Then he looked sheepishly at his hands. "M'sorry I stopped the story, Merry."
"Don't worry about that, Pippin-lad." Merry did his best to give Pippin a reassuring smile. "There'll be other stories. Cousin Bilbo's always got stories when he comes, you know that."
Pippin nodded, then looked up. "Cousin Bilbo's quite old, isn't he Merry?"
Merry paused. "Well . . . Yes, Pip, I suppose he is."
"But he won't die, will he? Not soon?"
Merry chuckled. "What, Cousin Bilbo? Not hardly. He'll outlive the Old Took, I'll bet."
"Oh, good." Pippin snuggled down under the coverlet. "I should hate to not hear the rest of the stories."
Merry felt a grin tug at the corner of his mouth. "Tell you what, little Pip. Next year I'm old enough to sit up, and if you'll just keep awake," He tweaked the younger lad's ear, "I'll tell you the rest of the stories."
"What?" Young Peregrin sat straight back up in bed, eyes shining with sudden, greedy delight. "But . . . nobody does, not ever! Even Pearl won't tell me, Merry, not even when I beg."
"Then I'll be the first." He straightened and nodded resolutely, trying to tinge his voice with the same tone of mystery Bilbo used to tell his story about sneaking through Thranduil's halls. "The first Brandybuck cousin ever to sneak into the firelit lair and return to tell the tale."
Pippin giggled. "Ach, Merry." He suddenly threw his arms around the older Hobbit's neck. "Promise it, Merry."
"You little fool of a Took." Merry returned the embrace. "I promise it."
Pippin nodded and kissed Merry's forehead. Then he burrowed back into bed. "The battle one first, Merry. Learn the Battle of Five Armies, so's we can finish it."
"All right." He brushed the dark curls away from Pippin's forehead. "Sleep now, Pip."
"M'kay." The seven-year-old yawned. "I should like to be in a battle, Merry."
Merry chuckled. "I think fighting with Pervinca's the only battle you'll ever be in, little one. And that'll be all but done by morning. The Yule gifts'll drive all thought of it straight from her mind."
"Thanks to you, Merry." The Hobbit lad was all but asleep now, but fighting valiantly for awareness. "Merry?"
"More questions, Pippin?" He chuckled.
"Last one, I promise, Merry." Sleepy eyes met his own. "Will you always battle 'longside me, Merry? Like Kili and Fili?"
"That's two questions, Pippin."
"Please, Merry? Promise it?"
The older Hobbit chuckled fondly and ruffled the dark curls once more. "Anything to make you sleep." A pause. Then, "Yes, little one. I promise it."
The dark head nodded, satisfied, and fell into the pillow. The heavy eyes closed. Merry waited for a moment, until soft, even breathing told him that the youngest Took was really asleep. Then he leaned over and kissed the dark, curly head -- so foolish, so sincere, so irritating and yet so very beloved.
"I promise it, Pippin. Happy Yuletide."
Merry started to rise, then thought better of it. He pulled the extra blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around himself, propped his feet up and burrowed in. Then he let the long night claim him.
He thought he heard something then, a voice that may have been Bilbo's down the hall -- or not.
"The eagles! The eagles are coming!"
But whether he dreamed or not was more than he could say.