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“A Shepherd’s Yule”
“Sheep! I’m spending the Yule holidays with a flock of sheep! I could be dancing and drinking and eating with family and friends, but instead I am standing about on a hillside watching sheep graze. I must have been barking mad to volunteer for this!” He paced as he ranted to himself, his hands shoved into his new coat’s deep pockets for warmth and his scarf covering the lower half of his face so that his voice sounded muffled. “That’s just how you are though, isn’t it, Pippin? You have to open your big mouth and let all of your words come pouring out even if you haven’t thought them completely through yet.” He made a low growling sound and one of the sheep dogs lifted its ears for a moment in response. Realizing that there was no wild beast ready to attack the peaceful flock, the dog relaxed and cocked a head toward the pacing hobbit. “I have to be the biggest ninny hammer in the Shire! There I was, unnoticed and forgotten, just sitting about in that big, comfortable armchair in my father’s study when all of the sudden I open up my mouth and say…”
“I can watch them,” Pippin offered getting to his feet for the first time during the entire meeting. “I don’t have any wee ones to see to over the holidays and I’ve watched the sheep plenty of times before.”
The room grew silent then. It was as if someone had pulled all of the sounds out through the keyhole. Everyone was looking at the young lad, the Thain’s heir, the thin, sharp-nosed twenty-five-year-old who had spent the day slouching in a corner chair looking bored beyond endurance while his father conducted business in the study of the Great Smials. Many issues had come before the Thain on this last business day before Yule. There was much to tend to before the New Year arrived and it seemed as if today every hobbit in the Tookland wanted something from the Thain. The lad was on his feet now and offering to do an uncommon kindness. Several of the older hobbits in the room squinted so intently at the young Took that the lad squirmed slightly beneath their gaze but he did not sit back down. He peered at them all out of wide, green eyes and said, “I would be happy to watch the sheep. Someone has to do it and most of you have little ones.” His voice was only slightly shaky as he addressed this group of seasoned Tooks and a few in the back smiled a bit at the lad’s nerve. Not many this age would have had the spine to speak up in such daunting company. All eyes slowly turned to the Thain now to see how he might react.
Paladin Took, who was standing behind his large desk with his hands leaning on its well-worn surface, glazed over at his youngest child and frowned. The Thain had been addressing a request made by the young shepherds that looked after the flocks belonging to the Great Smials. The request had been an earnest one but the Thain had been forced to turn them down. Now, after an afternoon of complete silence, bored looks, a few yawns, and a general restlessness, the Thain’s lad seem to have come awake. Paladin Took said quietly, “Do you realize what you are offering, Peregrin?”
The lad turned toward his father, straightened his shoulders and nodded his head until the words tumbled out of him like marbles from a cloth bag. “I understand. I’d be spending Yule up on the shepherd’s hill watching the sheep so that the shepherds could spend the Yule holidays here at the Great Smials with their children and their wives. I don’t have any children.” Here the lad cleared his throat and grinned cheekily. “And no wife for certain. I’m old enough so that I don’t mind missing Yule really. It is mostly a holiday for wee ones and I’m not a child, you know.” He said this last part with a bit more fervor in his voice and he looked at his father as if daring him to correct the statement.
The Thain still seemed uncertain and so the lad drew in a deep breath and went on. “I could take a rucksack full of provisions and a book or two and settle in for two days. I’ve been meaning to read some of those books that Frodo is always recommending to me. It’s cold enough out so I won’t doze off on my watch and someone could come and relieve me for long enough so that I could sleep for a few hours. Then that someone, whoever he is, could come back for the rest of Yule. I’d only need a wee bit of sleep, maybe three hours or so?” This last was spoken as if hopeful that there would be someone to come while he rested. Yule was two full days long after all and even an energetic lad in his tweens needed a few hours’ sleep.
“You’re offering to miss Yule with your own family, Peregrin,” the Thain said slowly.
“I know,” the lad said. “I always spend Yule with my family. I’ve done so all of my life and I know how important it is for wee ones to have both parents gather around for the gifting. I think that the families of the shepherds should have one Yule at least, don’t you? You’ve wanted me to take some responsibility and so I am taking some now if you’ll allow it.” Pippin rocked on his heels and said with an earnest expression on his young face, “I can do this, Father.”
There was a murmur of assent in the room and the Thain rose up to his full height and put his hands behind his back as he studied the lad. “You couldn’t change your mind once you’d taken over the flock. You’d have to remain with the sheep even if this idea of yours didn’t seem so grand to you after a few hours in the cold on your own,” Paladin Took pointed out.
“I’ve watched the sheep before,” the younger Took insisted. “I did it two days a week all spring this year and I never lost a one of them.”
More murmurs were heard from the assembly. The Thain sighed as if all of this was quite tiring for him and then said, “You are certain about this? You are willing to give up Yule with your sisters and with your cousins in order to allow these two shepherds to spend Yule with their families?” He motioned in the direction of the two hobbits that had come to request this very things from the Thain.
“Yes, sir,” the lad said firmly, head held up high and eyes filled with determination.
“Very well,” the Thain said and he reached out a hand toward his only son.
Startled by this, the lad reached over his own hand and the two shook in the presences of a room full of witnesses to seal the bargain. “You will be spending Yule in the Green Hills with the flock this year, Peregrin,” Paladin Took said and that was when Pippin’s thoughts began to catch up to his run-away mouth but by then it was too late.
It had been two days until the beginning of Yule and his father had planned the rest of the details out for him when it had become apparent that Pippin had only gotten as far in his own planning as making the generous offer.
The shepherds, both of whom had little ones and neither of whom had ever spent their Yule at the Great Smials, had been beyond grateful to Pippin. They had both hurried over to him and clapped him on the back so hard they’d nearly knocked him to the floor with their enthusiasm. They had come before the Thain to ask if they might hire on a couple of local lads in need of cash so that they might spend the holidays with their families. They’d offered to pay for this out of their own earnings but the Thain had refused their request on the grounds that any lads they might hire might not be experienced enough for the job of looking after the sheep. The Tooks couldn’t afford to risk loosing any of the flock to carelessness. Last year during the hardest part of the winter wolves had killed a large part of the flock and it was only just back to reasonable numbers. If they were to have enough wool for the markets this year during shearing season, then the little flock had to be watched carefully.
The Thain had said all of this with regret in his voice but he had been firm about it. That had been when Pippin had come to his feet with the speed of one of the old Wizard, Gandalf’s fireworks and made his offer. The lad had grown up around the flocks and had indeed tended them so experience was not at issue here. In the face of the generous offer and the room full of Tooks, the Thain really didn’t have much choice in the matter. Pippin was a long way from becoming an adult but he wasn’t a child either. If the Thain refused to allow his son to do this task it would appear as if he were coddling the child. Because Pippin was the youngest in his family there was already the occasional complaint that the Thain and his family were spoiling or over-protecting the lad.
Pippin listened in silence as his father set forth a schedule for the two shepherds. Each of them would return to the flock once during the two days of Yule for six hours each so that Pippin could rest. The remaining time the shepherds would be allowed to enjoy the holiday any way they saw fit. Pippin could feel something tightening inside of his stomach as his father mapped out things with the two shepherds. This was Yule he’d just given up and there was no reasonable way to back out of this now. His efforts to impress his father with his maturity and a sudden surge of generosity toward the two young shepherds had plunged Pippin head-long into something that now seemed like his worst idea ever. At what point in his life, Pippin wondered, was he going to learn to count to ten before opening his mouth?
His mother had actually cried! This had horrified Pippin. She had wrapped her arms around him and cried as if he were being led off to the boarders of the Shire and sent to live among Trolls for the rest of his life. She had glared at his father in such a way that her eyes seem to be shooting arrows at him as she had said, “He’s only a lad! He’s barely in his tweens after all. He isn’t old enough to be missing Yule. He should be here with us! How could you allow this?”
Some part of Pippin’s mind hoped that his father would see the wisdom of his mother’s words and refuse to allow him to go through with his wildly spontaneous offer but his mouth, once again refused to remain shut when he heard her calling him ‘only a lad!’ “I’m old enough for this and it was my idea, after all,” he protested. She’d turned her glare on him but she dissolved into tears and merely hugged him tightly, squeezing the air out of his lungs with her strength until his father had gently led her away so that he might discuss things with her quietly.
On the morning of First Yule, as Pippin was mounting his pony with the sun still not up, his father put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him from climbing into the saddle. Pippin turned and looked up at him and waited. His father sighed deeply as he so often did before saying anything to his youngest child. “Build a fire just before the sun sets and keep it going through the night for the warmth. Keep an eye on the dogs. They’ll let you know if there’s to be any trouble from wild animals. Keep your bow at the ready and don’t use it unless you have to, Peregrin.” Pippin knew that his father was concerned that Pippin might actually shoot one of the sheep. Pippin was rather worried about that too. He’d never been a very good shot with a bow in spite of his Took heritage. He was excellent with a sling and none could out-match him when it came to being accurate with a stone but his skill with a bow was sadly lacking. He was grateful when his father didn’t bring this up. After all, they both knew it anyway. “When your relief comes, make good use of it and get as much rest as you can. You’ll have to be able to stay awake without company for a long time and if you’ve not rested well you may find that you’re dozing off when you should be alert.”
Pippin nodded. “I will.”
“You’re doing a great kindness, Peregrin, even if it was rather suddenly offered,” his father said ruefully. “This may give you an idea of what it’s like to be a responsible adult and that may keep you from rushing head-long into it.” He pulled Pippin toward him and hugged him quickly. Then he stepped back and gave Pippin room to mount the pony. “Get on with you, or you’ll be late.”
Unable to speak for fear of betraying his desire to run into the smial and hide underneath his bed, Pippin turned from his father, mounted his pony, and rode from the barn as if something were chasing him.
It was still two hours until his relief would arrive and Pippin was regretting this entire business with all of his heart. He had spent the morning watching after the sheep and singing all of the Yule songs that he could think of and then because he was out of everyone’s hearing, he had sung all of the wicked pub songs that Merry had taught him over the years. The wicked songs were not nearly as entertaining without a proper audience of shocked or amused hobbits but he still put every effort into them. The practice would be good for the next time he and Merry were out with the lads.
He had only been forced to chase down two sheep with the help of the dogs and so it had been a quiet, if lonely, First Yule morning. Pippin had made do with bread and cheese for second breakfast, which he had eaten while remembering his first breakfast of eggs, ham and toasted bread in the warm kitchen. He’d not enjoyed that meal much really because his mum had fussed about so and had been trying not to cry throughout it all. Pippin had felt most of his first breakfast stick in his throat but it had still been better than bread and cheese with the dogs.
When lunch had finally arrived, Pippin had pulled a large package of roasted chicken from his pack and had quickly devoured it in order to avoid drawing the attention of the dogs. Given a chance they seemed to be more than willing to share all of his food if allowed the opportunity. The weather, although chilly, was not too bad for this time of the year. The sun was rather warm and Pippin had his new coat, which was an early Yule gift from his older sister, Pearl. The minute she’d found out that Pippin was going to be spending Yule with the sheep; she’d pulled out the package and insisted that he open it.
“I can open my Yule gifts when I get home,” Pippin had objected. “I’ll only be gone a couple of days, Pearl.”
She had forced the package into his hands and said sternly, “You open that gift this minute, Peregrin Took. I am not about to spend Yule worrying that you might be freezing to death.”
Grinning at her, Pippin had complied and had unwrapped the package to reveal the dark bluish-green coat with the thick, wool lining and deep pockets. “It’s splendid!” he had crowed, holding it up.
From behind him, his father had frowned slightly and said, “It looks very warm but didn’t it come in any other, less startling colours, Pearl?”
“The colour is actually my favorite thing about this coat,” Pippin had said before Pearl could respond. “I’ll be able to find my coat among all the others at parties.”
Pearl had laughed at that and then she’d insisted he try it on. Just now, his favorite thing about his new coat was the wool lining. It had been a long time since lunch and the sun was down now. Dinner was a memory and the only break from the chill was his small campfire and his wool-lined coat.
“I’m missing the Yule feast about now,” Pippin moaned as his stomach rolled and growled unhappily. He had more to eat in his pack but he didn’t dare dip into tomorrow’s meals unless he wanted to spend the next day regretting his actions. Just now, he had more than enough to regret. “There’s likely roast duck, and roast pork, and backed ham, honey-glazed carrots, and mushrooms in butter-sauce, and tomatoes and beats and potatoes and bread and cabbage and hot cider and biscuits of all kinds.” Pippin licked lips getting wool from his scarf on his tongue. He lowered the scarf and spat a few times, looked at his dozing flock of sheep and then continued, “Turnips, jam, beans, pudding, toffee, apples, toffee-apples, pies, cakes, walnuts, peas, candied cherries, pickles, gravy, Aunt Esme’s jam tarts,” Pippin sighed and rubbed his stomach. “What keeps shepherds from dying of hunger?” Pippin blinked and looked out at the sheep and frowned. “Roast lamb, lamb stew.” He shook his head as a tiny lamb ran to its mother and fell beside of her to sleep. “No, no roast lamb. I will not think about roast lamb out here.” One of the dogs whimpered and pushed against Pippin’s leg sniffing at his coat pocket. “Don’t worry. I am not hungry enough to be thinking of roast dog,” Pippin said and handed the dog a bite of cheese from the coat pocket. Pippin always kept treats for the dogs in his pockets along with other items of interest. Pockets were for filling up.
Within the next two hours Pippin was practically asleep on his feet. He had to keep pacing in order to stay awake. He was cold but he moved away from the fire to keep from becoming too warm and comfortable. He knew that he’d fall asleep if he allowed himself to sit by the fire. He passed the time by staring up at the stars and trying to find some of the special stars that Frodo had shown him. He wondered if Frodo was dancing at the Yule celebration or if his older cousin was sharing a pipe and a brandy with Merry and some of the older lads. Pippin wasn’t allowed much brandy but Merry always managed to sneak him a taste or two during Yule celebrations. He supposed that he was going to miss his bit of brandy this year.
“I bet you thought I’d forgot you,” a voice called out and Pippin turned to see the younger of the two shepherds walking up the hill with a sack on his back. “I lost track of the time or I’d have been here an hour ago. I stayed and helped the misses put the little ones to bed.” The shepherd was grinning from ear to ear as he spoke. “I don’t get to do that as often as I’d like but I am sure sorry to be late getting to you after all you’ve done for me.”
Pippin smiled weakly, pulling down his scarf and forgetting his cold nose at the sight of the happy hobbit before him. “I didn’t notice,” Pippin lied. The truth was he’d been counting the minutes until it was time and had counted every minute that the shepherd had been late. Now, that didn’t seem so important. After all, the shepherd was here, wasn’t he? “I’ve just been looking at the stars,” Pippin smiled. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together and yawned.
The shepherd frowned at Pippin’s gloves. “You’ve got no fingers in those gloves, lad. You can have mine if you want. Your hands must be freezing,” the shepherd said.
Pippin held out his hand and shrugged. “I don’t like gloves very much and I can’t abide mittens. I cut the fingers out of all of my gloves. You never know when you’ll need your fingers free for something important. You can’t get a proper grip on things if your gloves have the fingers in them.”
The shepherd scratched his head with one of his own gloved hands. “I like to keep my fingers warm. I’ll take my chances.”
“Not me,” Pippin said. ***He’d never been fond of gloves and as a lad had deliberately lost enough mittens to cover the hands of all of the little hobbit children in the Shire until his Aunt Esmeralda had devised a way to keep the mittens on his hands. She’d tied them about his wrists to make certain that he didn’t lose them. He'd had one rather nasty experience that had almost resulted in disaster because of that idea of his Aunt’s and so as soon as he became old enough for gloves he’d begun cutting the fingers out of them.*** Merry found this a constant source of amusement but Pippin ignored Merry on this issue. Every year at Yule Merry gave Pippin at least one pair of gloves as a joke and Pippin always cut the fingers out of them while Merry watched. Pippin suspected that there was a package back at the Great Smials even now with a new pair of gloves in it from Merry. Pippin yawned.
‘You best go over and crawl into the tent and sleep a bit or you’ll be too tired to stand your watch tomorrow,” the shepherd reminded him. “Anything I should know about the flock before you turn in? Any trouble?”
Pippin smiled tiredly. “No, they’re all there and all fine. I’ve counted them until I know them all on sight.” Pippin yawned again. “You know, counting them actually makes me a bit sleepy. I wonder why that is?”
The shepherd laughed. “I suppose it’s because they all look alike and they don’t really do much of anything interesting, do they?”
Pippin grinned and made his way to the tent. **“Not unless you force them into it,” he mumbled sleepily recalling a time when he and Merry had put one rather reluctant sheep on the top of a barn roof. That had been interesting but it most definitely had not been the sheep’s idea.**
The morning of second Yule Pippin had woken to the smell of sausages cooking. For a second he thought that he might open his eyes and find himself in his own bed but when he opened his eyes he saw the canvas tent above him and felt a small stone poking into his lower back through his bedroll. He sighed. Another entire day alone with the sheep while everyone at home celebrated second Yule without him. Maybe the shepherd would offer to stay today. He’d had one full day of Yule with his family. Maybe he’d offer to let Pippin out of his rash promise in gratitude for that one day. Pippin sat up, stretched and crawled out of his bedroll. At least there was sausage somewhere about.
While Pippin ate pan fried sausages and toast and fired apples the shepherd told Pippin all about spending Yule with his little ones the day before. He told Pippin about dancing with his wife at the Yule celebrations and about drinking with his friends. He told Pippin about singing Yule songs around the fire in the great hall and Pippin knew that the chances that the shepherd meant to let him out of his promise were very slim indeed.
Pippin was just eating his last bite of sausage when the shepherd said, “I know that you’ve had a long, lonely go of it up here yesterday and last night. I want you to know how grateful I am to you and how much my family appreciated it. I also want you to know that Jody is grateful too.” Jody was the other shepherd in charge of the flock. He was older than the shepherd who had cooked Pippin’s breakfast and had been doing this work longer. The two of them would have split the Yule holiday between them, each of them returning to their own little smials for a celebration with their families in their own turn. Neither of them would have made the trip to the Great Smials, which was almost three hours from the meadow on a fast pony. The shepherds would have celebrated quietly with their families and each would have missed a day of Yule to mind the sheep.
Pippin opened his mouth to respond to the grateful shepherd but the Hobbit held up a hand and said, “You’re a young lad and you deserve to be with your family too. I have come prepared to stay today so that you can go on back and be with them for second Yule.” Pippin felt his heart lighten at these words.
“My misses and me talked it over and it’s only fair. Jody and I drew straws on it and I got the short one.” The shepherd grinned. “So you best get your gear together and saddle that pony up.”
Pippin stood, eager to leave but unable to do it when it came down to the actual moment. “You go on,” Pippin said in a much brighter tone then he’d thought he might be able to manage. “I don’t mind sticking around here. I planned it this way, you know. Go on home and be with your children. Today’s the day when the little ones usually put on the Yule play and you don’t want to miss that.” A tiny voice in the back of his mind was insisting that he must be completely insane to pass up a chance to get out of this and back to the Yule celebrations but he pushed it aside the minute he saw the shepherd’s face light up.
“You’re certain about that?”
Pippin nodded. “I have a book that I plan to read this afternoon.” ‘What a complete load of sheep dung, Peregrin! The tiny voice in his head said and it now sounded strangely like Gandalf, which was very unnerving. Gandalf would never say ‘sheep dung’ would he?
The shepherd laughed and for just a split second Pippin thought that the shepherd might have heard the voice too. “We owe you, lad. My family and I owe you a great debt.”
“No, you don’t,” Pippin smiled. “I volunteered and I’m glad really.” The Gandalf voice made a rather rude “harrumph!” noise in Pippin’s head but Pippin continued to ignore this.
The shepherd smiled, patted Pippin on the back roughly and then said, “I almost forgot!” He hurried over to his own pack, which was lying on the ground near the fire and pulled out a small package. “Your Brandybuck cousin, the Master’s son, asked me to give this to you this morning along with your first breakfast. I am sorry that I nearly forgot it.” He extended the package to Pippin and then sighed a bit guiltily. “I hate to rush off but if I hurry I can be back in time for elevenses in the great hall.”
“Thank you for bringing this,” Pippin smiled. He shook the small package even though he knew exactly what was inside of this one.
Pippin waited until the shepherd had ridden off, and he’d taken stock of the sheep and feed the dogs before setting down and opening Merry’s gift. He pulled the card on top out from beneath the ribbon and opened it first.
I hope you like these. I picked them out myself. You can test them the next time you are in Buckland and the river freezes over. These look like they would be excellent for sliding on the ice to me but I can’t be certain until you’ve had a go at it. Don’t put these on any of those sheep. I’ll see you tomorrow morning unless you volunteer for something else, you silly arse.
Enjoy the gloves and Happy Yule!
Your handsome older cousin,
Pippin read the note out loud in his best impression of Merry and then opened the package and pulled out a pair of red and green striped gloves. He smiled and then returned them to their box. He’d wait until he saw Merry to cut the fingers out of them.
The gloves weren’t the only treats that the shepherd had brought. Pippin found that the shepherd had left him a tin of Yule biscuits that his wife had made and a fresh loaf of honey bread, which his own mum had sent along. Pippin enjoyed the biscuits while walking among the sheep that morning and saved the bread for elevenses when everyone up at the Great Smials would be having hot cinnamon buns, ginger bread hobbits, tea cakes, and other holiday treats along with their meal while several of the local story-tellers entertained the diners with tales of Yule’s past. Pippin recalled that Bilbo used to be one of the storytellers. Last Yule Frodo had told a Yule tale and received almost as much applause as Bilbo used to get. “And you, Peregrin Took, have been foolish enough to miss the holiday in favor of spending time among these simple-minded animals!” the Gandalf-voice inside of Pippin’s head said in disgust.
Pippin sighed. He wasn’t enjoying hearing Gandalf’s voice in his head because the old Wizard wasn’t saying anything very nice, but at least it was company of a sort. The sheep were not big on conversation.
It was a very long, very cold, day and Pippin felt the minutes drag by nearly as slowly as they had when he’d been a small child forced to sit still during formal teas or during his lessons. Pippin busied himself with looking after the sheep, feeding the dogs, keeping his little fire burning, eating up the entire loaf of honey bread, and attempting to make up a Yule poem. The Yule poem, which Pippin was calling ‘An Ode To Yule” was beyond dreadful but it was something to do as he paced back and forth. Sheep really didn’t do anything interesting.
“Of all the Yule’s that I recall,
This is the dullest Yule of all!
I stand among a flock of sheep,
When all I want to do is sleep!
I’ve eaten all my honey bread,
I’m sore of foot and long for bed!
The wind is cold! The ground is damp!
I think I have a bad leg cramp.
If I had kept my big mouth shut,
I’d not be here with sheep and mutt.
I’d be at home with plate and bowl,
Chewing on a dinner roll.
Sipping brandy from a glass,
Instead of feeling like an …”
Pippin recited the latest version of his ode for the sheep and they proceeded to ignore it completely and went on doing what sheep do. When he completed his recitation he bowed low and the Gandalf voice in his head announced. “My, but you are long-winded, aren’t you?”
Pippin spent the rest of the afternoon in this way and he managed to keep his spirits up until evening came. That was when he began to really miss his family and to long to be back home celebrating Yule with the others. It was almost over now. There was only the feasting and the parties this evening and then it would be an entire year until it was Yule again. Pippin would have to wait a whole year before he got the chance to eat any Yule pudding or sing any Yule carols. You didn’t go about singing Yule carols when it wasn’t even Yule and so he’d have to wait a whole, long year before he could sing any unless of course he wanted to look like an idiot. He looked up at the darkening sky as he warmed his hands over his little fire and felt sorry for himself.
Pippin was looking out over the sheep listening to his new friend the Gandalf-voice in his head, telling him about everything he was missing at the Great Smials when suddenly he thought he could hear sleigh bells. Pippin put a finger in his ear and shook his head. There wasn’t any snow, thankfully, and so why would anyone be out in a sleigh? Still, the bells persisted and Pippin turned away from the sheep to look for the source of the jingling. Maybe he should get his bow. “Are you thinking that perhaps a sleigh full of wolves is coming to attack the sheep, Peregrin?” the Gandalf-voice chuckled. Spending time alone with sheep could make you lose your mind. He wasn’t certain why he should be hearing the Wizard’s voice. Gandalf was not in the habit of speaking to him directly that often and Pippin had not seen the old Wizard in some time. No question about it, he was going mad out here among the sheep.
Tiny lights were now visible in the night and Pippin watched as whatever it was came closer. It was too dark to see anything beyond the twinkling lights but there was most assuredly something approaching. Pippin glanced over his shoulder at the sheep, found that they were still doing absolutely nothing, and then turned his attention back to the approaching lights. Now a pair of cart ponies came into view, both decorated in holiday harnesses with little bells on their yokes and colored ribbons in their manes. What had sounded like a sleigh was actually a hay wagon adorned with tiny bells and greenery and colorful ribbon. The wagon came to within several feet of where Pippin stood and stopped.
“Where are those new gloves that I gave you?” Merry shouted from his place in the driver’s seat of the wagon. “I go to all of the trouble of sending you a lovely Yule gift and you don’t even have the manners to wear them.”
“Merry!” Pippin shouted, overjoyed. He had started to run toward the wagon but had caught himself after only one step. He didn’t want it to appear that he was desperate for company or anything. He tried to sound casual but his next question came out in a rush. “What are you doing all the way out here?”
“He had to bring me out here, didn’t he?” Frodo inquired as he climbed down from the back of the wagon and walked over to Pippin. “I told Merry that my holiday would not be complete unless he brought me out here so that I could see the sheep.” Frodo draped an arm around Pippin’s shoulders and gave him a hug. “Tell me, have I missed anything?”
Pippin laughed and leaned into his older cousin’s embrace. “It’s been one exciting thing after another. You know how it is with sheep.”
“Well, that is the most pathetic fire that I have ever seen!” Pippin turned to see his older sister Nell approaching and his mouth fell open. “I should think that at your age you’d know how to build a proper fire, Pippin.”
“Nell, what are you doing here?” Pippin asked, his eyes getting even wider now as he watched his older sister walk toward his dwindling campfire. He had been thinking of putting another log or two on it but he’d been rather busy feeling sorry for himself and had not got to it yet.
“The first thing I’m doing is I’m seeing to this poor little fire of yours,” Nell said and she surveyed the wood pile with her hands on her hips.
“Make Merry do that, Nell,” Pervinca objected in her usual bossy tone.
“I drove the wagon, Miss Fuss-budget!” Merry protested calling Pervinca by the pet name that he had bestowed upon her when she had been not quite five. “Why don’t you build a fire?”
Before Pervinca could respond to Merry’s question Fredegar Bolger broke into the conversation.
“I’ll build the fire,” Fredegar grinned, putting an arm around Pervinca. “We Bolgers are known to be hot-blooded and so I am the likely one to stoke up the fire around here.”
“Splendid,” Nell grinned. “You have a go at the fire, Freddy and I will help Pearl get the food out of the wagon.”
“Food?” Pippin said regaining his voice. He had been standing next to Frodo watching as his older sisters, cousins and friends had all climbed out of the wagon. Pippin still couldn’t believe his eyes.
“You can’t celebrate Yule without food, Pippin Took,” Estella called out. She was removing something in a covered bowl from the back of the wagon as she spoke.
“Well I am going to light some lanterns,” Berilac announced. “I can eat in the dark if I have to but I’d rather see my food before it goes down.”
“Don’t set the field on fire,” Merry warned as he tied the ponies’ tether to a small tree. “We have food. We don’t need to roast any sheep.”
“Don’t start anything, Merry,” Berilac warned. “It may be Yule but my cheerful holiday mood will only last so long you know.”
“If this is his cheerful holiday mood then I hate to think what he’s like the rest of the year,” Pervinca snorted.
“Exactly,” Merimas nodded taking a bowl of food from Pervinca. “Now you know what I have to put up with.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a table in the wagon is there, Merry?” Falco ventured.
“No, but if you silly hobbits would simply set those bowl back on the wagon and uncover them then we could load up our plates from there and eat by Freddy’s fire,” Merry suggested.
Everyone looked so stunned that they had not thought of this for themselves while Merry chuckled smugly. Pippin looked out into the night and squinted. “Who all have you brought with you? Is there anyone left at the Great Smials?”
“We left a couple of shepherds and their families back at the Smials. They were enjoying themselves immensely thanks to you. I just brought a few hungry hobbits that wanted to celebrate second Yule and the New Year out in a pasture while looking at the sheep,” Merry grinned walking over to where Pippin was standing with Frodo. “I guess you’re too young to know about this but once every fifteen years or so, it is the Yule custom for large groups of Hobbits to set out by wagon for the nearest sheep pasture with a feast in search of a hungry shepherd.” Having started the tale, Merry nudged Frodo and waited for him to continue.
“Every fifteen years, when the hobbits set out on their search, they travel until they find a likely shepherd in need of Yule cheer, warm food and a better fire,” Frodo said taking up the story. “When they find such a shepherd, they stop by his field, admire his sheep, and then they throw a big Yule party right on the edge of his field. They eat and drink and sing and dance and tell fanciful tales, much like this one, long into the night underneath the stars. All the while they are very careful not to lose any of the sheep in their charge but they enjoy themselves and bring Yule to a shepherd who might have missed it completely because he was doing a great kindness for some other shepherds.”
Pippin blinked back a few tears and then said, “Do these generous hobbits who are out bringing cheer ever bring any Yule pudding with them?”
Merry laughed. “How can they be bringing cheer if they have no Yule pudding, you silly Took?”
“There is Yule pudding, but if you expect to get any of it then you better be quick because Fredegar is already loading up his plate,” Pervinca warned.
Fredegar appeared from behind the wagon. “Not my plate, Pippin’s plate.” He held out the full plate and grinned. “Happy Yule, Pippin-lad. Now come and get this before I change my mind.”
The merry band of hobbits ate, drank, sang, danced and told stories until the early hours just before dawn around Fredegar’s much improved fire. The sheep did what they had been doing and the dogs occasionally came close enough to the celebrating Hobbits to beg a treat. The party would have continued on until dawn if the guest of honor hadn’t fallen asleep.
“Lie down and rest a while, Pip,” Merry had suggested gently as Pippin nearly nodded off for the third time in a row. Merry had taken hold of his cousin’s braces in order to keep him from falling toward the fire.
“I have to watch the sheep, Merry,” Pippin objected trying to shake himself awake.
“I’ll look after them,” Frodo said standing to go over to where he could see the sheep better. “I came all this way just to see these sheep and I haven’t spent any time with them.”
“It’s my job,” Pippin said trying to get to his feet. Merry reached out and snagged Pippin about the waist and pulled him back into a sitting position.
“Not for the next six hours it isn’t,” Frodo said.
“My relief isn’t here yet,” Pippin said trying to get away from Merry.
“Yes he is,” Frodo said, bowing. “I am your relief tonight. I talked the shepherds into letting me do the job this evening.”
“You plied them with ale, you mean,” Pearl said dryly.
Frodo shrugged. “The point of fact is that I am in charge of all of those fat, boring, sheep for the next six hours and you, Peregrin Took, are to take a break and get some sleep because you will have to watch them for a bit in the morning until the shepherds return from the Great Smials.”
“Now, stretch out here on these blankets by the fire and close your eyes,” Merry instructed.
“Are you certain that you know what you’re doing, Frodo?” Pippin frowned.
“I’ve seen sheep before,” Frodo sighed. “I was looking at sheep before you were born.”
“You don’t just look at them,” Pippin objected with a yawn. “You have to see to it that they don’t run off.” He leaned his head against Merry’s shoulder and yawned again.
“I’ll help him,” Nell smiled, standing. “You know perfectly well that I used to help with the sheep on our farm in Whitwell. I know all about sheep.”
“Lie down, Pip,” Merry coaxed and Pippin complied. Merry pulled a heavy blanket over his younger cousin and allowed Pippin to lean his head against his thigh. “Now, close that big mouth of yours and get some sleep. Those sheep aren’t going anywhere unless I decided to take a few of them for a Yule ride in my fancy wagon.”
Pippin’s eyes popped open. “I wonder how many of them would fit in the wagon?”
“Try it, either one of you, and so help me I will make you regret it!” Frodo warned as the others laughed. “These wild animals are my responsibility for the next six hours and I am not about to let the two of you cart them around in that wagon.”
“Wild animals? Are you talking about the sheep, or Merry and Pippin?” Nell asked.
Merry shrugged. “Go to sleep, Pippin. Shepherd’s helper Baggins is in a foul mood.”
Pippin snickered and closed his eyes. Merry looked down and noticed that Pippin was wearing his new gloves, already minus the fingers. As Pippin drifted off to sleep he thought he heard Gandalf say, “You are going to have to revise your ‘Ode to Yule’, Peregrin. This has been one of the finest holidays that you have ever experienced.”
Pippin mumbled something and Merry frowned. “What did he say?” Pervinca whispered leaning over her brother and tucking the blankets underneath his chin.
“I must have heard him wrong,” Merry whispered with a shrug. “I could have sworn that he just said, “Shut up, Gandalf and go to sleep.”
**The story about Merry and Pippin putting a sheep on the barn is posted to “Trust a Brandybuck and A Took” and is called “On A Cloudy Day, You Can See…”
***The reference to Pippin’s dislike for mittens and gloves comes from a story that I wrote for “Trust a Brandybuck and A Took” called “Snow and Ice”.
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