Title: Out to Play
Theme: 2010 Yule Fic Exchange
Elements: Request: I’d like a sort of “Night before Christmas” storytelling by Paladin Took to his children. The entire family is all cozy and warm by the fire and soon it will be bedtime for the younger children. Pippin is around 7 or 8 years old. Paladin is telling the family a story about his own youth on the farm when something very mysterious happened on the eve of Yule. Just a real family-oriented fic, with maybe a touch of humor!
Author's Notes: Set at the tail end of 1397 S.R. Ages of principal characters are given below in real years and Mannish equivalent.
Paladin = 64 (40)
Pearl = 22 (14)
Pimpernel = 18 (11½)
Pervinca = 12 (7½)
Pippin = 7 (4½)
Summary: When Pippin demands the importation of a Buckland Yule tradition back home, Paladin must reach into memory for a bed-time story.
Word Count: 3,231
Out to Play
“I told you,” said Eglantine, “that spending Yule with the Brandybucks last year was a bad idea.”
“Yes, dear,” said Paladin, “and I believe you’ve told me that a good many times already.”
“Well, I shall keep telling you until you learn not to complain about problems of your own making!”
“Ah, but then, my love, what should we have to talk about?” Paladin snaked an arm around Eglantine’s waist; she, laughing, batted it away and hurried farther down the tunnel to the kitchens of Great Smials.
“Not the children, that’s for sure!” she called out behind her.
“Yes, because clearly you had no say in the matter!” He chuckled to himself, deciding not to rush his way to the kitchen. They would have a very merry Yule, indeed, at this rate! After such grand plans the previous year it was nice to live somewhere that one could sit back and let others do the planning. For now, he reminded himself. Ah, well—best to cherish such small treasures while he might.
The kitchens were more active than they should have been at eight o’clock, on account of the many hobbits wanting to indulge themselves in a little holiday cheer, and on account of the feasts that would be held over the next two days. Still, Eglantine had managed to snag two saucepans, one for the cider and one for the milk, and was presently warming both of them on the hob. It being unkind to interrupt one of the hands with yet another request for one thing or another, Paladin took the opportunity of liberating two trays, six mugs, and a plate of biscuits.
The pans were steaming by the time the trays were in order, and Eglantine did the honours of ladling out the drinks. Paladin leaned his head in to catch a whiff. “What’s this? Cinnamon?”
“One stick for each,” said Eglantine, smiling. “Being Heir Mostly Apparent to the Thain does have its perks, after all. Now, let’s hurry back, but mind the trays! I dread to think what the children have gotten up to!”
“Pearl can mind Pippin perfectly well, you know,” Paladin said mildly. “And they’ll all be on their best behaviour tonight, for they shan’t get a story if they misbehave.”
“Ah—is that what you’re planning on, then?”
“You want them to get into mischief, don’t you?”
“Mr. Paladin, sir?” One of the hands was standing behind them.
Paladin turned to look at him.
“Is there aught you’ll be needing, sir? I can carry one of the trays, if you’d like.”
"Thank you,” said Paladin, “but I’m sure you’re all up to your eyeballs in work already…”
“So much so that some of us want a breather from the kitchen,” he said, smiling wryly.
“Well,” said Paladin, “in that case I can hardly fault you. Please, take that tray from my wife, and I’ll carry the other. We’re going to our family’s apartments.”
The hand smiled and nodded. If Paladin recalled his face aright, he was one of the local tenant’s sons, probably moved into Great Smials to earn a bit of spare coin helping the cooks over the winter. Poor lad must have been not a little overwhelmed.
As they made their way back to the apartment, Paladin reflected once more on what precisely had gotten him into this pickle of a situation. Yule with his sister Esmeralda and her family had seemed such a pleasant idea last year—it had been years since he’d had Yule with her, after all. He had almost forgotten the level of attachment between his youngest child and hers (this despite the fact that Peregrin had babbled about Merry for two weeks nonstop after their visit on Midyear’s Day), and Merry had been only too happy to remind him by filling Pippin’s head with the most fantastic and grotesque of ghost stories on the night before First Yule, all in the name of “Buckland Tradition.” Nor had Pippin forgotten in the intervening year of the great tradition which had sent him, looking like a shade himself in his nightshirt and affrighted eyes, clambering into his parents’ bed for the next three nights. That would have been too good to hope for. Now he was demanding a fresh ghost story from his father—and had been, for the past week—and Paladin was still at a loss as to what he should tell. The Tooklands were snugly in the heart of the Shire, not half in the Wild like Buckland, so there was no reason to tell stories to keep children from venturing into the Old Forest or the Brandywine River on their own, and few hobbits—even Tooks—had the requisite imagination to pull fancies like that from thin air. Once he had asked his cousin Bilbo Baggins how he managed it, but Bilbo had only looked at him quite gravely and told him that one told only what one knew.
Well, Paladin knew no ghosts, so that was of little help, even if he’d had his fair share of strange happenings when he was growing up. But, came the thought, the strange can be accounted for in many ways…
Suddenly, he smiled. “Eglantine,” he said, “I believe the children’s good behaviour may be less unfortunate than I’d thought!”
She opened the door to their parlour and was immediately accosted by Pippin, who, heedless of the fact that he was in a nightshirt entirely too long for him, barrelled straight in between her legs, into Paladin’s, and clasped them so hard that Paladin could not move without kicking him. “Daddy! Is it time yet?”
Paladin reached down to ruffle his hair. “Half a minute, Son. It’ll be longer if you keep us waiting in the doorway.” And with that he reached down further, scooped Pippin up to his shoulder, and stepped inside.
“Daddy, I’m too old to be picked up!”
“Are you too old to be tickled, then?”
“Yes!” said Pippin, but he couldn’t get any more words out as Paladin deftly touched his fingers to the still-soft soles of his feet. “Not fair!” he finally cried, when at last he was set down.
“Oho? And what was fair about demanding me to come up with a ghost story on a week’s notice?”
“You could’ve said ‘no,’” said Pimpernel, piping up from the hearth. Paladin sighed—they had told her many times not to sit so close, lest a spark fly out and light her pretty hair, but she chilled so easily in the cold and no amount of shawls seemed to help. Eglantine pressed a warm mug into her hand and nudged her back to a safer distance.
“I could have, my sweet,” said Paladin, “but you know your old father never backs down from a challenge! At any rate, I have a story now, and I think it’s one you’ll all like.”
“I don’t like scary stories,” said Pervinca, who was blanketed in Eglantine’s rocking chair and had just been woken up by Pearl.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about the ending to this one, for it happened to me and you know I came out all right.”
“Mostly,” said Eglantine with a smile.
“Hush,” said Paladin, and he hoped that that would take care of the worst of any eerie dreams that came from this. He was fairly certain that one of the beastlier ones of Meriadoc’s had ended with “And they never did find the poor fellow’s body!”
“All right,” said Eglantine. “Has everyone got something to drink, then? And we brought some biscuits over, as well…” She turned to the kitchen hand who had helped them and thanked him before relieving him of the last tray. He bowed his head and left, closing the door behind him. “But only one at a time!” Eglantine pulled the plate back from Pearl, who had already reached out a hand to take a second. Pearl fixed her with such a look that Paladin could tell exactly what she was thinking: “I am older than the rest of them and certainly more responsible so I don’t see why I can’t be allowed two!” Eglantine merely smiled and patted her hand, then informed Pervinca that if she’d be so kind as to yield the chair, she could sit on her lap for the whole story.
Paladin pulled his own chair, padded all over in green, closer to the hearth, and took the last mug before settling down. Pippin scampered over and sat on the floor at his feet—too old for laps, indubitably, but not quite old enough to want to be far from family. “Are we all ready?” he said. He smiled at the picture of domesticity—a fire crackling merrily, warm drinks and biscuits, the entire family all cosy (Pearl now had her arm around Pimpernel’s shoulder, both to keep her warm and to keep her from edging closer to the fire). All he wanted was a pipe, but Eglantine had said “not indoors” and he always honoured her wishes.
“Now,” he said, “where to begin? I must have been… oh, nine, maybe ten years old at the time, and we were spending Yule on the farm that year. It was a brutishly cold winter already—the ground was hard as a rock, the ponds and some of the streams were frozen solid, and there was not a chance of snow to liven the dead look of things outside. I couldn’t get to sleep at all, since it was the night before First Yule, and I was thinking about all the lovely gifts I’d receive in the morning, but my sisters were all asleep—we liked to bundle together for warmth on the farm in the winter, since the place is so draughty—and it was draughtier still when I was a lad. So as I lay awake, trying to get to sleep, I kept hearing the wind whistling through the thatch and the chimney, and I thought I could hear a voice in it—Whooooo will come out to plaaaaaaaaay? The more I tried to ignore it, the more I kept thinking about it, until I saw a shaft of moonlight come in through the shutter of the window and I decided to find out what the voice in the wind was.
“I don’t know what I was expecting to find, honestly. I think I wanted to get to sleep more than anything, and your granddad always liked to go for walks outside when he couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d give it a try. But if you’ve ever tried to get dressed in the middle of a winter’s night—moonlit or not—with the wind talking to you—and I hope you haven’t!—you know that nothing is easy. I couldn’t find my coat for a good ten minutes, and all that time I was trying to be silent as a mouse so as not to wake anyone and get in trouble. But the moonlight made strange shadows, and the housecats’ eyes glowed like coals, and the wind kept on calling to me—Whooooo will come out to plaaaaaaaaay?—and so I had gooseflesh all over, even when I was fully bundled up. I suppose I ought to have dashed back to bed and burrowed myself under the covers like any sensible hobbit, but I’d gotten this far and I wanted a walk, and a part of me wanted to know what there was outside on the midnight before Yule. So I slipped out through the back door, walked out the length of the field, and hopped over the stile. I’m sure you know the place I’m talking about—where the trees come up to the hedge and if you follow the footpath for a little while longer you come to the Honeybourne?”
The children nodded.
“That’s just what I did, only the Honeybourne was frozen over—it was that cold a winter—and so I decided to cross it. And there, just on the other side of the river, were two children—a lad and a lass—just my size, though they were terribly thin to my eyes, and pale, too, and their hair didn’t curl the way any hobbit’s ought. The lass had hair the colour of starlight, and the lad’s was the colour of the night-time sky. They were dressed warmly, but not nearly as bundled up as I was, and they wore little leather shoes on their feet. That’s how I could tell they weren’t hobbits.
“They were playing at something before I arrived, but they saw me before I saw them, and I’m afraid I stared at them a good many moments before I remembered my manners. So I walked right up to them, made a neat little bow, and said, ‘Paladin Took at your service.’
“They looked at one another then, and one of them tried to talk to me, but though their language was very pretty I couldn’t understand a word of it and I told them as much. Finally the elf-lad pointed to himself and said, ‘Lindo,’ and the elf-lass pointed to herself and said ‘Silmie,’ and then they pointed down at their toys and asked me a question.
“I thought that they wanted to know if I’d play with them, so I nodded my head, and then I pointed at myself and said ‘Paladin’ for good measure. And that must have been what they meant, for they handed me a toy horse—and it was the prettiest toy horse I’d ever seen—and together we played for quite some time. They got tired of the horses eventually, so I showed them how to make finger hats out of acorn crowns, and beaks out of maple seeds, and all sorts of other things. They were most fascinated by my feet, and I got them to take off their shoes for a little bit and show me theirs—smooth as the backs of your hands, if you can believe it.
“We probably would have kept on playing till dawn, but my stomach growled. The two elf-children looked at each other, then picked up all their pretty toys and walked over to a bush, and they pulled out a basket I hadn’t seen before, put the toys inside, and beckoned for me to follow them inside the forest. I did just that, though I was getting tired now, and cold, too, and I didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t seem to mind how cold it was, though, and I thought that was because their hands were so cold. Finally they came to a little pond, frozen all over, and sat themselves down right in the middle of it and pulled out the things for tea.
“I was terribly hungry, but suddenly I hesitated. The pond was wider than the stream I’d crossed earlier, and sitting down on it, even for tea, was not particularly appealing. But they beckoned me closer, and after all they had been incredibly nice to me earlier, and I thought the pond would hold my weight so I decided to venture it.
“It did, and they pulled out an extra teacup just for me, and somehow the tea they had in the pot there had stayed miraculously warm, and they had the most heavenly bread, and butter, and jam… I must have fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew it was morning, I was blue and shivering, and one of the farmhands was pushing something warm into my hand and another was calling for my father—and there were no elves in sight! I had to spend all of First Yule, and Second Yule, in bed, drinking warm broth and being fretted over. They all wanted to know what I was doing outside so late, and I wanted to know where the elf-children had gone, and Mum was worried sick over me and what could have come over me, and even though I was eventually able to explain it all to my father I don’t think he ever quite fully understood.
“And once I was well enough I was forbidden to go outside and look for Lindo and Silmie, though that hardly stopped me. But I couldn’t find them. Finally, I wrote a letter to Bilbo Baggins telling him of my peculiar adventure, and did he ever go out and visit elves as the rumours said, and had he ever heard of my two friends? He said that yes, he did visit the elves, when they were in the Shire and willing to show themselves to him, but he hadn’t heard of any elf-children going through the Shire before. A few months later, he wrote to me again, and said that he had talked to one of the elves passing through, and asked them about my playmates. The elf said that he had heard of no elf-children in the Shire, save long ago. And this is what the elf had told him:
“Long ago, before hobbits had ever come into the Shire, there was a party of elves going from the Mountains to the Havens, and they had two little elf-children with them, a brother and a sister. One night, they wandered from the camp, and the next morning they were found in a small pond, drowned. But the elf could not tell Bilbo their names.”
Pippin jolted upright against Paladin’s feet. “Were they ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” said Paladin. “I showed the letter to my father, and he said that they were tricky shades that would have drowned me in the pond if it hadn’t been so cold. But when the searchers found me, they found me wrapped in a warm blanket woven finer than I’ve seen any hobbit weave it, and it was such a good blanket that we’ve kept it and used it at the farmhouse ever since.”
“So they weren’t ghosts,” said Pervinca.
“I don’t know,” said Paladin. “Anyhow, that’s my story, and I hope it’s better than anything your cousins may have told you last year, for this one actually happened.” He stood up to signal the end of the tale, and he and Eglantine gathered the empty mugs and plates together and set them on one of the trays. Then they went into the children’s room, where they tucked them all into bed, double-checked that there were enough blankets, and kissed them good-night. Pippin squeezed his father’s hand when Paladin tucked him in, eyes wide. Paladin just smiled and winked at him. “Presents tomorrow,” he said.
They raked the ashes over the dying embers in the hearth, then retired to their own room to get ready for bed.
“That was a good tale for the last minute,” said Eglantine as she rooted around for her nightshift. “Lindo and Silmie—weren’t they your imaginary playmates when you were growing up?”
“My dear,” said Paladin, in his best rendition of the sternly (yet gently) affronted Thain. “Whoever said they were imaginary?”
Meanwhile, Pippin, eyes shut in the hopes of slumber, turned over in his sheets for the eleventh time. The wind was whistling through the window outside, and he thought he could hear a voice in it: Whooooo will come out to plaaaaaaaaay? Sighing, he opened his eyes and looked at the window. The moonlight was streaming through it richly.
Pippin sat up.
I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.