A slightly less fluffy holiday themed collection.
Verdigris had the letter in hand, so she’d been warned. However even with time to calm her palpitations at the sheer amount of coin that must have been spent, she was still in shock as item after item pulled up to her rooms at Woodhall.
“She… oh! She already has a nameplate for her stall? Goodness! I can’t accept…”
The pony butted her soft, bristled nose against her palm, and Papa passed her an apple. She whispered, “Oh now…. now… aren’t you just lovely.” And she was. The ponies Verdi had dreamed of owning as she slept on her musty pallet back in Frogmorton were nothing to this creature. She was white like a mistletoe berry with a fine, shimmering mane and tail. Flossy fetlocks brushed over her dainty grey hooves, and her brown eyes were adoring as she munched her apple.
“The girls all chipped in to get you a saddle for her, and the curry comb’s already in the stall. There’s a nice blanket there too, see?”
And she did; verdant green with “Mistletoe” embroidered on one end with holly clusters and “V. P. B.” on the other. “Papa, I can’t! I… ” her face darkened ruddy and her eyes teared up.
“Can’t what, love?” asked Mama as she put a hand on Verdi’s shoulder. She tried to answer, but tears choked hotly in her throat.
“There, now. There. Don’t you like it?”
“I c…can’t! I’ll have to give it all back, don’t you see? Why, I can’t even begin to give anyone more than the mathoms I made up. I p…put all my savings in l..lard futures and I can’t spend it! And my other savings are for emergencies, and the other other savings are for the little ones’ hope funds and… and… I just can’t! But she’s so perfect and I always wanted a pony for years and years, but it wasn’t practical and oh! Mama, you should see everything else! Why, that ciphering machine fair does the budget all by itself! And I can do the expense reports in an afternoon an’ still hae time t’ work on th’ Quickpost zoning! Oh, it ain’t fair!”
Papa pulled her into a big hug as Mama said sensibly, “No need for all that drama, child. Stop seeing numbers for a moment and look at what he’s saying with those gifts.”
Papa smelled of pipeweed and cheddar and dill. It was oddly soothing, and nothing like her memories of Pa. Pa smelled like ale and he only hugged when he was ‘in his cups’. She used to hate those hugs with his sour breath and wobbling feet, but this was nice. So what was Toby saying?
“Well. He thought up things I didnae even know I’d want until I had ’em. And he found just what I’d love most in the world an’ never ask for.”
“I’d bet you’d not even spend your own money on ’em, eh?” Papa’s voice was deep and plummy and soothed her like a purring cat.
“Well, nae. Even if’n I had it, I’d put it tae th’ future.”
“There!” Mama said, as if this fixed everything. “What you have to do is to stop looking at how much coin’s gone into it, and look at what he’s said. Then you find a way to say something just as sweet.”
Verdigris looked longingly at the Pony. That beautiful, beautiful pony who could carry her safely from town to town when she had to do the audits. That pony who could let her visit her family every weekend, and even trek over to Durrow to do Rosie’s quarterlies. That pony she could sneak out to brush when the worry kept her up nights, even though she had real savings and a real job. Worry had got to be a habit, and it was a gnawing weight of one.
“Well… I saw that his cloak’s getting ragged and it ain’t… isn’t half thick enough. I want him to be safe and warm when he goes out. It’s not enough, though. Not with all this!”
Mama patted her hand and said, “He only wants love from you, lass. Will that cloak say you love him?”
Verdi blushed as she admitted, “I hope so.”
Mama bustled on, “So you have a few days, and a holiday! You come on over on your new pony, and we’ll all get together and help you make him a felted cloak with fur inside that’s waterproof and won’t stand out when he has to go quietly. You do a fine job with those braided trims, don’t you?”
“Yes’m.” She used to take the bits and pieces from the weavers’ waste yarns and Grams showed her how to braid them into complicated patterns. Every time the rent ran short, she’d sell her braids in the Bywater market and they’d squeak by another month. Those braids had paid for a leech when Daisy’s ears had got inflamed, and they’d paid for thatch when the storm blew the roof off the hole and the landlord wouldn’t pay to put it back on right.
“Well, we’ll make that cloak together, then you’ll do trim for his Ma and sisters. And that’s all made with loving hands. Can’t buy that, can you?”
Verdigris looked, trembling, at the pony. Could she? Could she take all this without being forever in that sweet, kind bounder’s debt? Would that homemade cloak really be the same in his eyes?
The Bolgers exchanged a look, then Papa said, “Verdi, girl, don’t you know that he’s giving himself a gift too? Think how he’ll feel seeing how much you love his presents.”
Hesitantly, she let herself hug the pony’s neck. It turned its perfect head and whickered at her fondly. Holding her breath, she took a risk and said, “Well. He’d be awful sad if I gave it back, wouldn’t he?”
Mama said softly, “And he’s a fellow who lives to do for other folk. Isn’t he?”
Verdi melted a little and gave the pony a squeeze. “That’s him all over.”
Now, I’ve gone through about twenty ideas for your Yule. I can’t give you just any old Mathom, and I can’t begin to give you near as much as you’ve given me. But I love it all too much to give it up! So this present will be a little different, but bear with me.
I talked to the First Bounder, and I looked at the records. Did you know you’ve got two weeks of paid leave you’ve accrued? And I found that a few of your reports were mis-filed, so you should have gotten twice the Yule bonus you did. And then I dug some more; did you know you should have gotten hazard pay for your Northern patrol? And they forgot to apply the extra ration allowance for working with big people. The Border Act of 1022 clearly states that when working with Big People, a bounder should be given double rations to make up for the unreasonable meal schedules such companies go by. Now, the office seems rightly sorry they’ve miscalculated, and they’re willing to settle with a good bonus if I leave off auditing the rest of the bounders’ records.
I know you’re not much for coin handling, so I’ve made it easy for you. I went back to Bree and invested a tidy lump in a lumber mill. They’re bound to have a busy season with the brigands and fires and newcomers, so I bet you’ll have a tidy profit come next year. The rations, now, was trickier. But I think you’ll like what I went and did. The Ashbottle food stores were all destroyed and it was looking to be a rough winter for the folk who didn’t have relatives to stay with. I went and started up a sort of bank for food there with the Bolgers. We used the rest of your back-pay and my Yule bonus from Rosie to fix up an abandoned hole and collected spare stores from the neighbors, and put your spare rations in there too, courtesy of the Bounders. Even Lobelia gave a ham so she wouldn’t look bad. The Stonybanks Pantry will keep those folk fed and hale to the spring, and my grams will run it so that everybody gets a fair share and nobody feels beholden. There’s extra seed in there too for the Spring, and it’ll turn into the community store-cellar when they’re back on their feet; everybody will have to put a little back in for the next few harvests, then keep the surplus so they can send it to other places that need a little extra. If the idea works, it’ll help us always have a bit put up so hobbits in trouble never need to go hungry.
Now, I know that doesn’t leave you with anything you can hold and have, but I think you won’t mind. But just in case, you go look in your closet and see what’s happened to your old cloak.
Happy Yule, Toby-mine,
Laughter and the smell of spices drifted up from the Hall of fire. He carried her easily up the stairs to the warm, private chair where she could hear the music. He made sure the blankets smelled of Nidhil’s daffodil scent and that the ham stew-broth was thick and ready. She was bird-light and fragile in his arms. All he had gotten from her for days was frantic murmuring about Leofryn. Not for the first time he squashed his anger somewhere deep, deep inside where it boiled like the fires of that mountain the elves were always going on about. He caught himself growling sometimes with the heat of it, but never where she could hear him. Never.
She didn’t know where she was and he hand to keep a hold of her until she settled into the chair. Did she know that people were fighting for her off in the Enedwaith? Not for her, of course. Those Wayfarers didn’t seem to half know she existed, the way they were just smiling and laughing there in Bree and running for office while his Cecibug was dying. He knew he wasn’t being fair, but the anger came anyhow. Even at Wynne. Poor Wynne who came back beaten and burned and more desperate each time. And Arion, who did his best to draw the witch’s attention away from other folk. But the witch was somewhere else, and they were the ones he saw. Every laugh, every smile, every moment they could be happy while his world crumbled…
She could tell he was angry, he knew it. She plucked at her blanket and whimpered, cringing from him as her blank eyes grew shadowed. Stuff it, Broddi. Stuff it. She needs your love, not your rage. Put it deep down and man up. Give her whatever Year-turn you can. His insides boiled as he took her into his gentle arms and folded her against his warm chest. Below, the elven chorus broke into the first song of the night. Haunting melodies interlocked in endless harmony as an orchestra of harp and lute and pipe and tonal drums swelled below.
“Lindir told me what they’re saying. I only understand Silvan, see, but it’s close. They’re singing about the birth of the moon and the sun.”
She settled a little against him, though he couldn’t tell if she heard him, or the music, or anything at all. Her murmuring never ceased, though she had to struggle for breath to fuel it. He had to see to everything now, even the privy. If someone had told him he’d be doing that for her when they married, he’d have run for the hills, or refused to believe it. She had been so strong then, so young. She was still young. But really, now that necessity was upon him, he didn’t mind it. It was the same as he did for himself, after all, just now he wiped and cleaned for them both. That wasn’t the hard part, nor washing her, nor dressing her, nor carrying her, nor feeding her. He clung to it, because when it ended, she’d be gone forever and it would just be him and the anger burning his guts to cinders. She would hate this helplessness. He hoped her mind was too far gone to notice.
“See, they’re singing now about how Morgoth and his girlfriend destroyed the trees that used to light up the world. She belched darkness. I know that sounds sort of … well.” He chuckled, and the boiling rage cooled just a bit with sadness when her laughter didn’t join his. She would have laughed tolerantly at a belch joke once, and rolled her eyes and swatted him. He knew she thought it was funny anyhow. “Now the world was all dark. You can hear how bleak it sounds. They’re talking about how awful it was, how it felt like they’d never be safe again. Because they thought they’d be safe in Valinor, see, but they weren’t.”
She shivered until he pulled another blanket around her. She couldn’t keep warm anymore, and she couldn’t keep food down, whatever food she would take. The elves said that even if her soul-thing got set free, she might still never come back from starvation. She could be weak the rest of her life. Again, the anger boiled, and the song seemed to seethe too with Feanor’s wrath. It felt good to know that other people got this angry, somehow. Like he wasn’t so alone up here.
“Now, some folk went to fight back. They got so angry that they killed innocent folk so they could go after Morgoth and make him pay. But…” The song grew dark and soft, then the drums alone rumbled under Mandos’ doom, “well, they got so caught up in getting even that they made things worse and got themselves cursed. And there still wasn’t any light, so they didn’t fix anything.”
The chorus fell silent, and then a single pure voice bloomed silvery sweet over the hall. “But see, someone bothered to check the trees. And they figured out how to save the last flowers of each. First, they got the silver one, then got a Maia to take it up high into the sky. And it made light not just in the Valar’s island, but all over the world. And that’s the moon.”
A second voice joined the first, tenor and resonant below the first. The soprano faded as the tenor rose, and then the soprano chased the tenor into silence, and back again. Flutes glittered for the night stars, and brass announced the first sunrise. “The golden tree made the sun. And those, Morgoth couldn’t destroy because they were high, where everyone could see. So…” He looked down at the body in his arms, unhearing and racked with sporadic tremors. He made his voice softer and said, “Even if you … you go. She gets you, and your body just won’t… I promise I’ll make something good out of it. I don’t know how or what or…” his voice cracked, as it hadn’t in months. “It will matter that you lived, hear? I’ll make it so folk will know Ceci Carpenter, somehow. I won’t ever turn into a Feanor, no matter how much it hurts. And I’ll be better for loving you. Promise. I promise.”
She didn’t hear him. Her lips formed the words he could read as Wynne had taught him, “No, Miss Leo. No. Please don’t. Don’t.” No matter what he said or did, that’s all he saw from her besides murmurs about fire and doom and blood and death. Within him, the rage settled and seethed until his bones ached and his hair prickled with it. Still, he said, “I promise.” The music faded and he bore her back to her bath.
The battle paused with a blowing gale from the North and she finally took respite. No cooking now, but whatever jerky and cram was left after Huan had his fill. He seemed content to eat warg, though she found it rather off-putting. Better warg than those poor giants. Giants and Panja and people dead because… no. Her head ached. She had to put snow on the lump now. No time to think.
She went to Panja when she could. He couldn’t talk with his throat still raw, but she only needed lips to relay commands, so long as he spoke Westron. She conveyed it all, words of rage included. He deserved the right to be as hostile as he needed to be, so long as he got better. She didn’t want to feel anything right now, not with her heart so hollow. Surely there was a plan. She couldn’t be so poor a judge of character. Kin meant… kin never would hurt kin… on purpose…
A group had drifted near a fire, huddling for warmth. She saw on Alainn’s lips an old year-turn carol from home, and in her mind she remembered the tune from long ago. “I used to sing,” she thought numbly. Her mother loved her singing. She hadn’t even thought of her mother in months. What kind of daughter does that? What kind of sister… what kind of mother… No. Cook something for Panja’s broth, then sleep. She wished she could sing for Arion. He loved music so much.
For an hour, she dreamed that she could sing again. In the morning, she spilled blood on the Yule snow. She moved and fought and worked until she couldn’t possibly think enough to answer her heart’s anguished refrain of “Why? Why?”
Melethannas squirmed and fussed in the cold air as her mother tucked her into the fanciest dress yet; and this was saying something in the stack of ruffles and ribbons and lace that formed the bulk of her wardrobe. This one was made of fancy plaid-woven linen in reds, blues, and greens; tiered ruffles of skirt, black velvet bows tied the waist and cuffs, matching the black velvet cap with its sprigs of Holly. The baby settled as warm stockings and ruffled red bloomers covered her legs, and she cooed sweetly as her furry blanket was tied up around her with a jaunty red bow. A slim book was tucked into her hands, the flyleaf bearing the flowing inscription, “Happy Yule, Ada! Love, Melethannas,” and the contents bearing Aminah’s handwriting, each page alternating a memorized poem from her homeland opposite a Westron translation. The baby chewed a bit on the spine as her mother carried her down the stairs, and smiled her newborn’s half-smile as she came to rest in her father’s arms.
“She is from me, and the book is from her,” said Omi.