To Ask of Father Yule
(Originally published at one of Marigold's Challenges)

Reginard, steward of Tookland, sat in state before the great hearth, accepting slips and folded bits of paper with due gravity. There was quite a queue; all the youngsters in the Great Smials, pretty much all, anyhow, under the age of twenty. There were even a few tweens scattered amongst the younger ones, there to shepherd younger brothers and sisters, perhaps. Some of the wiser ones bore folded papers of their own, all the better to bolster the little ones' faith.

'It'll go direct to Father Yule?' one wide-eyed lass said, hesitating, pulling back her little paper before Regi could accept it from her.

'As direct as can be, Letty,' Regi said. 'Even quicker than if a quick post rider were to take it.'

'But how can Father Yule read it, if it's all in smoke?' Violet's sceptical bigger brother said, his own paper clenched in a grubby fist.

'It's magic--he's magic!' Violet said stoutly, her eyes wider at her brother's words.

'Of course,' Regi said. 'He sends his watcher, the Old Owl, to fly above the chimneys and gather the smoke in his wings, you know, and then the Old Owl brings the smoke to Father Yule and the smoke speaks aloud under the Yulespell, and gives up its secrets.'

'That's why we light the Yule Log at sunset,' Pimpernel said, bringing Regi a much-appreciated mug of tea. 'We couldn't light it any earlier; why, the Old Owl would be abed, and he might miss some of the smoke!'

'Come along, then, Letty; there's people waiting,' the impatient brother scolded.

Letty climbed up in Regi's lap and gave him a hug, then pressed her scrap of paper into his hand. 'I'm hoping for a little sister,' she whispered, but it was the whisper of a little child, and so heard by a number of those around her.

Pimpernel hid a smile, but the big brother scowled. 'Now you've gone and done it!' he said angrily. 'You're not to speak your hopes aloud! Now it'll never come to be!'

Violet burst into tears, and Regi gathered her close, soothing, and whispered something in her ear that made the little one gulp back her tears. 'Really?' she said, her eyes wide and earnest.

Regi nodded. 'Really and truly,' he said.

'Shake on it!' Violet demanded, sliding off his lap. Solemnly, the two shook hands, while Violet's big brother rolled his eyes.

'And now you, Andson,' Regi said, and Violet's big brother, suddenly less certain of himself, hesitated.

Regi looked up to the tween behind them. 'Ah, Peribold! Did you come to bring your wishes for the New Year, for Father Yule to consider?'

Peribold gave a great grin. He might have winked, or he might have simply blinked away a speck of dust. 'That I did!' he said. 'Why, what hope have I of my wishes coming to pass, if I don't send them off to Father Yule in the smoke of the Yule log?' He unfolded his paper as if to peruse it for a last time, and the children waiting nearby saw that it was filled with writing before he restored it to its folds. 'It's quite a lot to ask,' he said. 'I do hope the old fellow will consider at least one or two of my wishes!' He extended the paper to Regi, who took it with appropriate seriousness.

Peribold slapped young Andson on the shoulder. 'Come along, cousin!' he said. 'I hear it's apple tart for tea!'

Andson hastily held out his paper to the steward. Peribold lifted little Violet to his shoulders, and he and Andson hurried away to make ready for teatime. A wash, at the very least, Regi hoped, placing the grubby paper with the rest. He sighed. He could read the signs. Andson was at that age where the magic was fading; soon he'd no longer believe in the Old Owl or the ability of Father Yule to grant wishes for the New Year. When he grew old, of course, he'd learn once more the value of wishes, but he had a long stretch of years of practicality ahead, if he was like any regular hobbit. Regi didn't know of many who'd maintained their capacity for wonder. Bilbo Baggins had been one, his heir Frodo another, at least until he went away and came back a changed hobbit. Thain Peregrin was another...

Perhaps his capacity for wonder was tied to the terrible things he'd seen, in the Outlands. He'd stared death in the face, it was said, and it was Death that blinked and turned away. But nowadays Thain Peregrin was staring death daily in the face, and this time it was all too apparent that it wasn't Death that would be the loser. Pippin had held his own, even with his ruined lungs, for years, indeed he'd gained in health with the care of the Tooks and their healers, but after the accident with the coach he'd been losing ground, slowly but steadily. Still he faced life, and its impending end, with courage and grace and a sense of whimsy that was a wonder to all those around him.

The line brought young Faramir, escorting his tiny brother and sister. On the little ones' papers were mere scribbles, Regi suspected. He accepted their whispers and sticky kisses with a smile, and added their papers to the growing heap in the enormous basket beside his chair.

As Faramir turned away, Regi said, 'But Farry! Where is your list?'

Faramir's hand went to his shirt pocket, and then he flushed and dropped his hand. 'I'm afraid I haven't had time to make a list this year,' he said.

'Do too have a wist,' little Merigrin said, tugging at his brother's shirt, and little Forget-me-not echoed, 'Doo too!'

'Don't either,' Faramir answered. 'Now come along, Regi's got a lot of lists yet to collect before teatime!'

Indeed, the servers were beginning to lay the tables at the far side of the great room. Soon the sun would be kissing the horizon, the lamps would be lit, and Reginard would carefully stuff the myriad lists under and around the Yule log, ready for the lighting ceremony at teatime. The enormous log would burn through the evening, into the night, burning away with last hours of the old year and falling to ashes in the dawning. The tweens and unmarried adults would roast bacon and mushrooms over the fire while talking about their own hopes and dreams for the coming year. The children's custom of writing down their wishes seemed much more sensible to Reginard; at least they went to bed at a decent hour and didn't start the New Year lacking sleep!

Faramir turned away, but Forget-me-not stubbed her toes and fell, wailing. Farry stooped to pick her up, and Merigrin, not to miss this chance, dove his fingers into Farry's shirt pocket, coming out with a much-creased paper.

'Give me that!' Farry said, and Forget-me-not wailed all the louder at his cross tone. Farry was torn between comforting his sister and retrieving the paper, but Merigrin, triumphant, toddled over to the basket with its heaped-up papers and thrust Farry's into the middle.

'There!' he said, dusting his hands as he'd seen the grownups do after accomplishing a worthy task.

Farry looked as if he wanted to swoop upon the papers and ferret out his piece, but stopped at the knowledge that nobody--but nobody!--was to touch the "treasure", save the steward. Regi accepted the papers on the behalf of Father Yule, and he was the one who tucked them under and about the Yule log, and he saw to it that no one read or disturbed the papers and thus the wishes they contained.

Farry also knew that it was the steward who donned a combed-wool beard and hairpiece and played the role of Father Yule, passing out sweets to the children in honour of the holiday, but he would never tell, and spoil the pleasure of the younger children.

'Farry?' Regi said quietly. How he wished the Master of Buckland was here for Yuletide, this year, and not in Edoras. He knew that the lad confided in Merry, things that he did not feel free to discuss with his parents.

Faramir's shoulders slumped suddenly. 'It doesn't matter,' he said, defiance in his tone. 'It's just stupid, anyhow.'

'Farry!' Regi said, but the Thain's eldest scooped up the two tots and hurried away.

When the line ended at last, Regi stood up and stretched.

'Quite a lot of kindling for the Fire this year,' a passing servitor said, a tray of plates and cutlery on his shoulder.

'Quite a lot,' Regi said. 'The Log ought to catch without any trouble!'

'That's a good thing,' the servitor said, and turned away to lay the nearby tables. Indeed, it was considered bad luck if the Log did not catch fire from the wishes, and more kindling had to be added. Regi had avoided trouble, however, for years by piling more substantial kindling, small sticks and wood shavings, behind the Log, unseen, but of great value in getting the Log to catch.

Now the last of the children were bustled out of the room and the great doors were closed as the final preparations were made. Platters of food were coming out of the kitchen now, and soon they'd be putting out the cosied teapots, and then the doors would open and the Tooks would stream into the room, and when all had taken their places the Thain would enter, take his seat, and proclaim the festivities begun.

And Regi would light the Log, and all would hold their breath until it caught, and then the feasting would start.

The steward picked up the basket, stirring the papers within. A goodly amount of kindling it was. For every teen who grew too old for such "nonsense" it seemed another babe or two was born to take up the custom of New Year wishes. Look at Farry; he was on the cusp of not-believing, but his younger brother and sister were just coming into the right age.

Regi bent to his task, occasionally catching glimpses of staggering letters, penned by a small, uncertain hand, or well-formed phrases contributed by one of the helpful tweens. One of the papers looked familiar with its many creases, as if it had been folded and unfolded multiple times, and Regi picked it up from the basket and hesitated, just as he was about to stuff it under the Log. He laid it aside, almost without thought, and continued his work, but at last he opened the paper, hiding the action with his body in case any of the servitors should glance in his direction, and perused the writing there.

i Please, make my Da well. /i

This was crossed out, and underneath was more writing, smudged, as though a tear had dropped upon it.

i Please, let my Da live. /i

A tightness came into Regi's throat, then. Farry knew the hopelessness of his first request. Nothing the healers tried had made any difference. Pippin could walk a little, supported between two cousins, but he walked less and less lately, and on days of dreary winter rain he walked not at all, but suffered himself to be carried wherever he needed to go.

Regi, watching, had seen when he'd given up hope of regaining his health, of ever being "well" again.

He'd not yet given up his fight to cling to life, but in the opinion of the healers, and those who watched him in love and fear, it was only a matter of time.

Regi hastily shoved the paper under the Log and squeezed his eyes shut, wishing himself young and innocent and able to believe in miracles.

i Now you've gone and done it/i he seemed to hear young Andson's accusing voice echo in the back of his mind. i Now it'll never come to be/i

'Please,' Regi whispered to the Log. He knew not whom he addressed. To whom does Father Yule speak his wishes?

A year had gone by, a year of great happenings. There had been deaths, and births; drought, and rain; pestilence, and healing; dearth, and bounty sent from far-away lands. The Shire-folks' crops had died in the dust, but the Kings of Gondor and Rohan had sent food, first by wain and then by ship, food and help, friendship and succour.

But none of these was the greatest happening--it was this: Mayor Samwise returned from a year in the South-lands, bearing with him a bottle filled with wonder from the tree-folk of legend. Thain Peregrin had drunk of the Ent-draught... he'd died of it, some said, and been reborn!

Regi didn't know about the dying part, though he'd heard of the agonies the Thain had suffered. All he knew was that these days Pippin was as vigorous as the tween who'd left the Shire for parts unknown, more than a score of years ago, able to breathe deeply, able to walk, nay, to run... to dance!

Farry had waited his turn in the long queue that stretched from great room hearth to great doors and out into the corridor. Though he was the Thain's son, he didn't feel it necessary to shove his way to the front of the line. Polite, the lad was, and considerate. He'd make a fine Thain someday, following in his father's footsteps.

Now he stood before the steward, flanked by Merigrin and Forget-me-not. Regi accepted each of their papers in turn, and then turned a quizzical eye on Faramir. 'No paper this year?' he said. 'Don't you want to send your wishes to Father Yule on the smoke?'

This year, for the first Yuletide in a long time of Yuletides, Faramir's face was relaxed, and his smile was unforced.

'Don't you have a paper?' Merigrin said, looking up, and Forget-me-not shook her little head in distress.

'Don't need a paper,' Farry said, and he crouched to circle the little ones with his arms as he smiled from one to another, and then at the steward. 'I don't need any wishes at all.'

'Is it 'cause you're too big for wishes?' Mergrin said, troubled. The little lad was too sharp by half, and often heard what he wasn't supposed to understand.

'Nay,' Farry said, as he squeezed his little brother a little tighter. 'It's not that, not at all!' He pulled Forget-me-not a little closer and said, simply, 'It's just that...'

'Just that what?' Regi asked.

The servitors scarcely needed to light the hanging lamps with their long brass poles with the wicks at the end. Farry's smile was bright enough to light the entire great room as he answered.

'Just that I have all I ever wanted,' he said. 'But you can stick this in for me, anyhow. I think that Father Yule just might read it in the smoke.' And he pulled a very small slip of paper from his pocket, and handed it to the steward.

'O' course he will!' Merigrin said.

Farry stood to his feet and tousled Mergrin's curls. 'O' course he will!' he agreed, and taking the little ones' hands he led them singing from the great room.

When the basket was full and the great room was again empty of children, Regi performed his duty of arranging the paper kindling around the Yule Log. He saved Farry's note for last, and holding his breath, he stuffed the slip of paper in the middle of the rest, but not before his eye caught, as if by accident, the writing that was there.

Thank you.