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(Note: Some liberties were taken -- Tolkien never indicates that Merry had been to Bree before, but nor does he say that Merry had not been to Bree before. The Professor does state, however, that Fredegar had never been over the bridge to Buckland, though, quite frankly, I’ve always wondered if that wasn’t a mistake on someone’s part. The card game described is not exactly blackjack, but has the same general idea.)
Brandy Hall, The Winter of 1414
“They’re called,” I paused dramatically and spread my hands wide to better display the goods, “playing cards.”
Pippin’s mouth formed an “O” of admiration, and Freddy drew his eyebrows together in thought.
“But what do we do with them?” Pippin asked a moment later, once the glamour had worn off.
“We play with them, naturally,” Berilac said, grinning. “Sit!”
I “shuffled” the cards and was pleased to see that my practice was paying off. Freddy and Pippin sat, Freddy looking dubious and Pippin looking enthralled. Berilac leaned back in his chair, looking well-pleased and superior.
“Is it a game, Merry?” Pippin asked, watching my hands intently.
“It most certainly is,” I assured him. “Now, pay attention.” Freddy scowled a bit at that, but Pippin was still watching the cards and not looking at me. “Pippin! Are you listening?” I demanded, and his eyes snapped up to mine.
“Yes, Merry,” he answered. “So, how do we play?”
“There are four sets of playing cards to a deck,” I began, but just then we heard voices in the passageway and I stopped. Berilac quietly stood and moved closer to the door, cocking his head to hear better. We were secluded in a small storage room deep within Brandy Hall, a single candle lighting our table. Boxes and barrels and shelves crowded in about us, and everything -- hobbits and ancient mathoms -- seemed to hold their breath until the voices had passed, leaving us undisturbed.
Berilac nodded and sat back down, and I resumed the lesson.
“Four sets of playing cards to a deck,” I repeated, and tossed an example of each down, “each numbered one to ten. And then these,” I tossed down examples of each of the three “face” cards, “all valued at ten.
“The game is easy,” I continued scooping the cards back up. “I’m the dealer. I give each player one card, face down.” I slid them each a card and put one in front of myself. Berilac quickly looked at his before setting it back down, but Freddy and Pippin waited for me to nod to them. “Go ahead,” I said, “see what they are but don’t let anyone else see your card.” They obeyed, and then I slid a second card, face-up, to each of them, and one to myself.
“Very simple,” I said. “Whoever has the highest total value of cards, without going over 21, is the winner.”
“But there’s no skill in that,” Freddy said, frowning. “We’ve not done anything but take cards from you.”
“But we’re not done,” I said smoothly. “Now, figure out where you are right now. Look at the card everyone has showing -- and don’t forget that I’m in, as well. Now, I’ll offer you another card, if you’d like. If you think you’re close enough to 21 to win right now, don’t take another card. If you think you need more cards, take another. But remember, if you go over 21, you lose.”
Now Freddy looked intrigued. I offered another card all around, and everyone took one.
“But Merry,” Pippin said as he looked at his new card -- a nine -- next to his earlier one -- an eight -- “I’ve now got 24 with the other card.”
“Don’t tell us, Pippin,” Berilac said, and I frowned at him.
“It’s all right, Pip,” I said, “we’re just getting the feel of it right now. But you shouldn’t say what you’ve got until we’re all ready to show our cards. Now, does anyone else want another card?”
Freddy and Berilac declined, and when Pippin looked ready to accept (I think he just wanted to look at more cards close-up), Berilac and I both shook our heads at him. I took another card, myself. “Now,” I said, “we all show what we have and see who wins.”
Pip did, indeed, have 24. Berilac had 16, I had 17, and Freddy outdid us all with 19. “Well,” he said, puffing out a bit, “I think I see how this works. But where did you two come across it?”
I gave Freddy a look designed to shut down his inquiry, and Berilac said carelessly, “Does it matter? It’s come to the Shire now, and we’ve not even got to the best part of it.”
Freddy narrowed his eyes at us. “You’ve done it, haven’t you?” he said disapprovingly. “You’ve gone and sneaked off to Bree and brought back all manner of foreign things with you. And now I think I do see how this works -- you intend to set people wagering on this game, don’t you?”
“Just a bit, Freddy,” I said with a conspiratorial smirk. “To make it more interesting.”
“The Shire can’t stay behind the times forever, you know,” Berilac added.
“And it’s all in good fun, just for sport,” I threw in.
“Just for sport?” Freddy asked. “Isn’t that what the two of you told the Thain after you were caught taking wagers on the roopie tournament at the Fair two years ago?”
“And he was most understanding,” Berilac said smoothly.
“Father said no harm done, since you gave back the money,” Pippin chimed in.
“And besides,” I said, “we shall be playing this for pocket-change. You’ve done as much yourself with dominoes here at the Hall many a time.”
Freddy sighed. “Wagering’s not allowed in the Shire proper, you know,” he said, but his tone was defeated.
I grinned, and began reshuffling. “Welcome to Buckland, Freddy,” I said, and dealt.
It wasn’t long before we were ready to take the game down to The Scattered Hare in Bucklebury, where the proprietor, Nat Chubb, an old friend, set us up in the back room. So many people wanted to play, we soon had to begin charging a penny to enter the room, just in order to keep the crowd down. We split it with Nat, of course.
Freddy, for all his earlier reluctance, soon got into the spirit of things and took to keeping order during the games, making sure no one was jostling the players or jumping in ahead of someone else improperly. As the game continued to grow, he soon brought in the Boffin brothers to help him out.
Pippin loved the game, but he’d soon run through all his spending money and wouldn’t have the chance to get more until he returned to the Smials in the spring, and I forbade anyone to loan him out some change. It was no good making a profit off of Pippin -- the less money he had, the more I had to buy him. As it was, it looked like I would be keeping him in ales and market sweets through the end of winter.
I didn’t mind so much, though, as I had plenty of pocket change to keep Pippin satiated. It was a free spending winter -- no one got attention from the lasses at The Scattered Hare like Berilac and I, what with the generous tips we were handing out. And Berilac and I commonly bought a round or two at the end of an evening (usually with the money we had just relieved of many of the patrons, but that’s neither here nor there).
It was an excellent run, but all streaks end sooner or later. I suppose greed is what did us in, and sooner rather than later. The game wasn’t but six weeks along when lads from as far away as Rushy started showing up to play. Soon we didn’t know half of the faces we were dealing to, and that’s when things can go from a friendly game between mates to something of a more serious nature. First it was just the Maggots and their mates from the Marish, which is all fine and good, we’ve been friends for years, but then it was the Longholes from Standelf and the Sandheavers from Rushy.
We should have known then to close up shop, or at least to keep the game within our own circle, but the coin was fair flowing into our pockets, and better yet, it was just so much fun. Who would want that to end?
Cheating. As if a Brandybuck would ever cheat! There’s not much worse one hobbit can say to another, but I suppose when one has been foolish enough to play away money that will be missed back at home -- well, it might lead a hobbit to say rash things.
Still, it didn’t go over well. I wasn’t sure I’d heard it aright the first time, as Tup Sandheaver didn’t quite dare say it aloud, but rather muttered it under his breath.
“I beg your pardon,” I said cooly, and Tup flushed up to the roots of his curls. But now he had not only the attention of our table, but that of a few bystanders as well, and he decided to dig his heels in.
“You heard me, Master Merry,” he said. “I’ve not won one hand this evening, nor last, nor ever. That’s not by chance.”
“Perhaps it is due to lack of skill,” I said flatly, and Tup’s face turned even redder.
“Or mayhap it’s due to something else,” he said, then added, “You’ve dealt to me, every time.”
Pippin had been bounding between my table and Berilac’s all evening, bringing us fresh ales (and helping us drink them), but suddenly he was standing beside me, bristling as only a Took can bristle. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, his accent heavy with drink and anger.
“You know full well what it means,” one of Tup’s cousins said, suddenly popping out from the crowd. I was acutely aware that all eyes were now on us, and that no one was speaking as they waited to see what would happen.
“Or perhaps you don’t,” Tup’s cousin continued, still to Pippin. “I hear the Tooks can sometimes fall a stone or two short,” and he tapped his forehead to emphasize his point.
Now I was on my feet, and could feel my own face turning red. “See here, you’d best watch what you’re saying, and who you’re speaking to,” I said sharply, but Berilac’s hand was suddenly on my arm even as Fredegar caught the Sandheaver cousin by the collar.
“Steady on, Merry,” Berilac said quietly, and Freddy easily began hauling the Sandheaver toward the door. Pippin pressed close to my other side, and from the corner of my eye, I could see that his face was tight and anxious.
“That’s enough from you,” Freddy said shortly, and if the Sandheaver was thinking of protesting, then the emergence of the Boffin brothers shut him down.
“Game’s over for the night, lads,” Berilac called out, and several people groaned. “Come on, we’ve all had enough,” my cousin insisted, then nodded to Tup. “You come on out to the common room and have a drink with us and we’ll see what’s what, and what you do and don’t want to stand by that you just said,” Berilac told him, and Tup nodded. He seemed relieved to have a way out, and I let out a long breath, suddenly aware that I was relieved to have a way out, as well.
“Clear out, clear out,” Berilac said. “First round’s on us.” That earned him a cheer or two, and he smiled, but at the same time he muttered to me, “Nearly out of hand there, wasn’t it, Cousin? We’d best sit down tomorrow and think about how to continue.”
“Aye,” I agreed, and grinned wryly back at him. “Wouldn’t want all this fun to end in a ruckus, now, would we?”
Even as my mouth was forming the words, I heard a noise, growing to a commotion, from the common room. There was the distinct noise of falling objects and breaking glass, over the growing din of raised voices.
“Freddy?” Berilac called nervously, and we began to move toward the door.
“What’s all this?” I asked, poking my head into the other room, but I never saw more than a blurred glimpse of a tangle of hobbits on the floor, a broken table, and a fleeing dog before something solid and heavy bowled me over. Then my vision was taken up with a field of red, and my last thought as the back of my head connected with the floor was, “That’s just the color of Freddy’s shirt.”
“You can just stay put,” my mother said, emphasizing her insistence with a hand to my chest. “And quiet,” she added, then put a cool, damp cloth on my forehead.
It seemed wise to obey, so I did, and in no time at all, the healer was there to poke at my aching head and look at my eyes and prod at my body, which I now realized was sore and bruised all over. During the course of these events, I realized that I was in my own bed, back in Brandy Hall.
Gordo pronounced me “well enough,” and told me to stay quietly in bed for the next several days, then left me with Mum. She thanked Gordo sweetly for his assistance, then shut the door.
I felt the edge of the bed dip, but kept my eyes firmly shut. “Meriadoc,” Mum finally said, and I dared to slit one eye open.
“Yes, Mum?” I said weakly.
“Wagering, Meriadoc,” she stated.
“Yes, Mum,” I answered miserably.
“And sneaking off to Bree.”
“And bringing back all types of Outsider mischief.”
She sighed. “Well, I’d say you’ve learned your lesson, but I’ve no real hope that it’s true,” she said in exasperation. “Though I would think that fall would be enough to knock some sense into anyone’s head.”
“Yes, Mum,” I answered dutifully, then dared to add, “What did happen to me? Is everyone else all right, Berilac and Pippin and Freddy and all?”
Mum’s expression softened a bit, and she fussed with the quilt over me. “None harmed but you, Merry-lad, and, of course, the inside of the Hare is a wreck. Nat made some noise about the family compensating him, but came to agree with your father that the bit of extra he’s had coming from you lads these past weeks will cover the damages. But Berilac and Pippin missed the whole thing, and you, my dear, broke Fredegar’s fall.”
“I did?” I asked, confused and unable to wrap my throbbing head around what she was saying.
Mum laid a gentle hand on my face. “You did,” she said, then softly whispered, “Go to sleep, love, and hear all about it when you wake.”
I wanted to hear all about it then, but my eyes betrayed me and refused to stay open. As I drifted back into sleep, I felt Mum’s hand softly stroking my hair.
“Here you go, my Merry,” he said when he saw I was awake, and helped me drink a glass of water. My hand trembled a bit around the glass, so he steadied it for me, then set it aside and leaned back in his chair.
“Playing cards?” he asked, holding them up, and I nodded, very carefully. To my surprise, Da then shuffled them with quite a bit of skill.
“My uncles brought these back from Bree years and years ago,” he said, and sounded fond of the memory. “Of course, they didn’t bring anything else back from Bree with them, having lost every coin they took with them while they were there. But I always did think the games themselves were a treat, apart from the wagering.”
I nodded, and sighed. “I’m sorry, Da,” I said, and he chuckled.
“Oh, I’m sure you are, and you’ll be sorrier still in the months to come,” he said, and shuffled the cards again. “So,” he said conversationally, “I hear that Berilac stepped in and stopped things from getting ugly, and that no one is making any base accusations about cheating or other such vileness, and so it seems that the worst damage is your head, and Nat’s common room, and Fredegar’s pride.”
“What happened?” I asked, now unbearably curious.
Da had that look on his face that he gets when he knows that something is not amusing, that it is serious, but that he finds very difficult not to be amused by anyway. “It would seem,” he said, clearing his throat, “that the Boffins, after helping Fredegar drag the Sandheaver lad out of your little game room, then decided to have a beer with him, and the three of them began boasting as to who was the strongest, at which point the Boffins claimed that they were jointly strong enough to pick up Fredegar and toss him across the room.”
My eyes opened fully and I felt my mouth drop open. “They didn’t,” I said.
“But they did,” Dad assured me. “Of course, Freddy didn’t just let them pick him up, and in the resulting fracas, one of Nat’s tables was overturned and everything on it smashed to bits. But in the end, they got a good grip on Freddy, and made good on their boasting. Which is, naturally, just when you decided to poke your head out of the other room and see what was going on.”
“Fatty landed on me?” I squeaked.
“Oh, yes,” Da said, and now he could not keep the smile off his face. “You’re quite lucky not to be hurt worse than a lump on your head, Merry-lad.”
I smiled back at him. “I’ll say,” I answered. “No wonder I feel bruised through and through.”
Da winked at me. “Fortunate for us all, me not in the least, for in the course of finding out just how my son came to be so injured, and what exactly the Sandheavers were doing on this side of the River, I was able to find out just how you’ve been occupying yourself this winter,” he said.
I sighed. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, but I knew I didn’t sound very contrite.
“Ah, my Merry,” Da said, and his face was more sober. “Lads will be lads, but their fathers will have to bring them back into line. You’re not keeping a pence of that money, lad -- there are a number of deserving places around Buckland that could use it, and any number of good gaffers and gammers who will benefit from your little enterprise this year.”
I nodded, and obediently said, “Yes, sir.”
“And since you can’t seem to keep yourself properly occupied, there’s any number of projects you’re going to be tackling as soon as you’re back on your feet,” he continued. “Berilac and Fredegar have already started cleaning some of the storage rooms at the back of the smial. That will get the three of you started.”
“Yes, sir,” I repeated, and sighed.
“I sent those Boffins home,” he added, and I nodded. “And Frodo’s coming to pick up Pippin and take him back to Bag End for the remainder of the winter.”
“Oh, Da,” I said, and then I was truly grieved. Pippin was supposed to stay through planting time.
Da shook his head at me. “You’re not going to have time to spend with him anyway, Merry, and aside from that, you’re supposed to be setting a good example for the lad, not teaching him how to fleece his friends and relations,” he said. “He hasn’t a coin left of his spending money for the winter, and I suppose that is punishment enough, at his age. But I’ll feel better knowing that he’s up at Bag End, where Frodo will keep him out of trouble.”
I sighed. “All right, Da,” I said, but I felt wretched to know that I had ruined the rest of the winter for Pip, who had been exuberant to spend the whole season here. (The Thain had been quite enthusiastic about the idea as well, especially after the mess with the barn and the chickens and the roopie game during harvest at the Smials.)
“That’s my good lad,” Da said, and leaned over to kiss my forehead. “Now go back to sleep. I want you strong and hearty so that you can start moving about old furniture and rugs, and shoring up foundations, and repainting rooms, and leveling floors.”
I reached out and tapped the cards still in Da’s hand. “Are we to have no fun at all?” I asked, and he grinned conspiratorially at me.
“I might know a game or two that you and Berilac overlooked,” he whispered. “We shall see how well you set yourself to your new tasks, and if I can recall them.”
“And you wonder where I get these ideas,” I murmured as he pulled the quilt up around my shoulders.
“Not really,” Da said cheerily, and I went to sleep.
“Hullo, Merry!” he whispered. “Are you feeling better?”
I groaned. “Pip, I was sleeping,” I said.
“You’ve been sleeping, for days now,” he said, dropping the whisper. “And I didn’t make a sound, not a peep, so I haven’t gone and woke you, so there.”
I grumbled deep in my throat, but in truth, I felt ready to get out of bed. I stretched, wincing at the various tugs and aches in my bruised body, and sat up.
“Frodo is here,” Pippin said conversationally, and hopped out of bed to bring me a glass of water.
“Already?” I asked, and Pippin rolled his eyes.
“I told you, you’ve been sleeping for days,” he said. “Though I can’t much blame you -- if Fatty Bolger landed on me, I’d probably want to stay abed for days, too.”
I sipped at the water. “Pippin, if Fatty Bolger landed on you, we’d never even be able to find your body,” I said, and he snickered.
I handed him the glass back and then flopped back onto my pillows. Pippin promptly crawled back into bed with me. “So,” I said, slipping an arm around his shoulders, “Frodo is here to spirit you away to Bag End for the winter, is he?”
“Mm-hmm,” Pippin said. “It should be fun enough up there.” He added, mournfully, “Though I’d rather be here with you.”
“I know, Pip,” I said, and hugged him. “I’m sorry we’ve flubbed up your holiday, and taken your spending money to boot. I think I’ve got a bit put away that didn’t come in from the game, so I should be able to give you something to tide you over.”
To my surprise, Pippin giggled, and peeked at me with twinkling eyes. “What?” I asked, frowning.
“Do you want to know a secret, Merry?” Pippin asked in delight, so of course I nodded. He leaned in conspiratorially. “Aunt Esmie was terrible angry, about everything, and told me it was just too bad about my spending money but I’d got what I deserved for being so silly, and I would simply have to go without, but then yesterday, she said she just couldn’t send me off to Frodo’s without so much as a pence, so she gave me a little bit to take along.”
I smiled -- that was so like Mum. “Good, I’m glad,” I said, but Pippin grinned even broader.
“There’s more!” he squeaked. “Then your da pulled me aside and said he was sorry to see my holiday ruined and that he knew I would not have so much fun at Bag End as here at the Hall, and I ought not be deprived of everything, and he gave me a little bit more.”
“Pippin!” I said, and laughed. “Did you bother to tell him that Mum had already lined your pockets?”
“Merry,” Pippin said seriously, “your mum said it was just for us to know, which is why this is very secret.” Then he giggled again, and added, “And do you know what happened this morning, when Frodo got here?”
“Ah, no,” I groaned. “How much did he give you? How much did all of them give you? Surely not as much as what your da sent you down here with!”
Pippin bounced a bit on the bed in delight. “Ever so much more, Merry, and Frodo said we’re to do whatever I like at Bag End, for he doesn’t want me to think it’s a poorer place to go on holiday than Brandy Hall is, and I am so glad that you and Berilac sneaked off to Bree and got into so very much trouble and ruined my whole winter at the Hall, for it’s really turned out splendid for me in the end, don’t you think?”
I groaned and covered my eyes. “And here I was feeling sorry for you!” I exclaimed. “How have you managed to turn it all to your advantage?”
“I don’t know!” Pippin squealed in delight, and bounced on the bed. “But isn’t it wonderful? I’m so lucky I lost all my spending money to you, Mer!” And he gave a delighted little crow before tumbling backward on the mattress.
Da said no more wagering, ever, of course, so I doubt I’ll ever have the chance, but if I were the wagering type, and the opportunity were to present itself, I’d put everything I had on Peregrin Took coming out on top, every time.
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