A howl of Brandy Hall’s first cook, followed by the deafening clang of a large pan, reveals two things to Frodo in rapid sucession: firstly that his little cousin is up, secondly that the treat they would normally be having for first breakfast they will now have for second breakfast. The young Hobbit puts his book carefully on his bedside table and hurries into the hallway.
A puddle of something warm, yellow and sweet-smelling – the cook’s special Yule custard? – is rapidly flooding the flagstones, and Frodo is only just in time to snatch an expensive rug out of its way. The source of the noise as well as the puddle is, unsurprisingly, the kitchen doorway, and he heads for that.
Before Frodo even reaches the door, it is opened to reveal two of the kitchen maids, shuffling backwards with a toddler in their midst, shielding him from Brandy Hall’s formidable cook, who is brandishing a wooden spoon as if it were a broadsword.
“Hand him over at once, I say!” bellows the cook, whose normally red face has now gone purple. When the lasses pull the little boy closer to them, she seems to swell with indignation. “Well, there we have it! Turned my own girls against me, so the gold-haired little demon has! Just so you know, not everyone around here swoons at the sight of them baby blues, young Hobbit,” she says, pointing the spoon at the toddler covered in skirts and custard, who seems supremely unconcerned about the threat, as his gleeful giggle proves.
Just at that moment Frodo proves her wrong, for, as he steps into the melêe, all three ladies’ faces turn to him and soften ‘at the sight of them baby blues’.
“What seems to be the problem?” he says, smiling pleasantly but with authority in his voice.
“Frodo!” squeals the little lad, and in a quicksilver movement wriggles free of his protectors’ restraining hands and launches himself into his idolised older cousin’s arms.
For a moment, Frodo’s attention turns to his cousin entirely. He checks him over quickly for injuries, then sweeps him into his arms. “Good morning, Meriadoc, you’re a mess!” He kisses his little cousin on the forehead and pinches his nose. “You smell nice, though.”
Turning back to the lasses, who are studying the puddle at their feet and wringing their hands, and the cook, who is still bristling with wrath, he says: “well then, Lavender? Dandelion? Mrs. Mugwort?”
“Well you see, Master Frodo,” begins Dandelion, still watching her feet intently, “young master Meriadoc seemed to have climbed out of his bed early this morning, and Vendy found him wanderin’ the hallways and took him into the kitchen, to keep him out of trouble, like.”
Lavender looks up at Frodo, but he shifts his little cousin on his hip and simply nods. “That was very thoughtful of you, Lavender.” The lass blushes and looks at her toes again.
“And then,” Dandelion continues, “she was called away and asked me to watch him for a bit, and I did too, but then I was playing with him and I saw that the bacon was burnin’ on the stove, and he’d been really good so I went to have a look at it, and that’s when he disappeared.”
Frodo nods again and smiles a little. “Yes, he’s awfully good at that.”
“So we went lookin’ for him, and that was when…” her voice trails off and she looks at the cook guiltily, “when he found the custard coolin’ on the windowsill.”
“Pulled it right down, he did!” roars Mrs. Mugwort. “Why, it’s a miracle he didn’t hurt himself, a heavy pan as it was. But I found him sittin’ in the puddle, lickin’ his fingers and lookin’ mightily pleased with hisself.”
Frodo almost chuckles at the image, but is saved by his aunt, who chooses exactly this moment to turn the corner and freeze at the scene displayed before her. It takes one look at the purple-faced cook, the puddle on the floor, and the custard-covered toddler in Frodo’s arms, to understand the situation, and she sighs in exasperation. “What happened?”
The lasses flush when they see the Mistress: they know they are in trouble now. Frodo senses their anxiety and quickly comes to the rescue.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Esme, I was playing with Meriadoc and he escaped my attention and wandered into the kitchens and, well…” he gestures at the mess. “I’m sorry.”
Esmeralda raises her eyebrows: Frodo is not very good at lying, and the guilty faces of the kitchen maids tell their own story, but she decides she isn’t going to bother and sighs again. “Girls, best you clean this up quick as you can, before anyone slips in it. Don’t worry about breakfast, Mrs. Mugwort, most of the Hobbits are still abed, and I am sure they are willing to wait a bit longer when your delicious Yule breakfast is involved. Frodo, get Meriadoc cleaned up and take him outside before he breaks down the entire hall. He needs some fresh air and exercise, and I believe it has finally stopped snowing.”
Giving Meriadoc a bath takes a long time; as much as the toddler delights in the hot water, he cannot stay still for longer than two seconds, and at the end of it Frodo is of the belief that both he and the floor have gotten wetter than his little cousin has.
The promise of an outing after a week of staying indoors has quieted Meriadoc long enough to let Frodo wrap him up in warm winter clothes, but when he is done there is no stopping him anymore, and Frodo has a hard time keeping the little Hobbit’s hand in his when they step outside, into the white yard.
It rarely snows in their part of the Shire, and when it does, it’s usually the powdery sort the wind whips into faces, the sort which is fine as dust and melts quickly. The snow that has been falling the last week, however, is of the kind that covers everything in a thick blanket of white and makes the world an unrecognizable, almost magical place.
Meriadoc stands in awe for seconds, staring at the yard and the white hills, before squealing in delight and running out into the snow. Frodo follows, smiling.
“Meriadoc,” he calls idly, knowing the child won’t listen.
Frodo has always thought the name was much too long for such a small Hobbitlad, and it appears the child thinks so, too. The long name may be appropriate for the only son of the Master of Buckland, but Meriadoc, at his age, still won’t look up when it’s directed at him. Not because he’s dim-witted, but simply because his attention won’t hold long enough for a word longer than two syllables, or perhaps because he just doesn’t like the name.
Frodo doesn’t really care if his cousin listens to his name or not, as long as he’s within his sight. And Meriadoc has no mind to leave the exiting new world that is the yard. He stops to examine everything, and soon comes running back with a handful of snow.
“Frodo, look!” He unfolds his hand, frowning when he finds it empty and wet. Frodo laughs and scoops up another handful, kneads it into a ball, and throws it at a nearby tree, stripping it of its white coat as it shakes under the impact. Meriadoc, of course, is delighted by this new game, and soon they are throwing snowballs at everything, including each other.
After various meals, Meriadoc almost drags his big cousin back outside, and they play together in the snow for the remainder of the day, rolling around in it, building grotesque figures, and Frodo even manages to make a snowslide.
Then, at one point later in the afternoon, when they are wrestling playfully around, a giggling Meriadoc rolls off his cousin and tumbles right down a slope that Frodo hadn’t seen.
The older Hobbit sighs with relief when he sees the little boy get up where he fell, in front of a patch of pine trees. He slides down the slope himself in his hurry to get to him, but Meriadoc doesn’t notice his cousin; he is looking at the trees with an unusually sad expression on his face, and when Frodo stands next to him he looks up at him. “Hurt,” he says.
Frodo is on his knees at once, checking his little cousin. If Meriadoc is injured because of his momentary inattention, he will never forgive himself. “Where, love? Where do you hurt?”
The lad shakes his head and points. “No. Tree hurts.”
Relief floods Frodo as he sees what Meriadoc points at. One of the pine trees seems to have cracked in the latest snowstorm, and its top, a piece of tree about as high as Frodo is, lies on the ground, half-buried in the snow. Frodo knows how much his little cousin loves trees, and he has to admit it does indeed look quite sad.
“Yes, cousin,” Frodo says. “The wind hurt the tree.”
“Frodo make tree better?” asks Meriadoc, his eyes full of trust in his idol. He still remembers a few weeks ago, when a disoriented sparrow flew into the window, and how his big cousin cradled it in his hands, gave it water and a bit of soaked bread, and how it flew away after.
“I can’t make it better, dear heart, it’s broken.”
The blue eyes fill with tears and the cleft in the little chin quivers. “Please, cousin?”
Meriadoc has only just learned the word ‘cousin’ and it has become his secret weapon to charm Frodo into almost everything. The teary eyes and quivering chin do the rest.
The inhabitants of Brandy Hall look on, in various stages of amusement and bemusement, when a grumbling Frodo Baggins drags a broken pine tree into their home, and their little crown prince looks at them as if he dares them to say something. Esmeralda is equally intrigued when she sees her nephew put the broken tree in a bucket of earth in their living room, while her son looks on in almost alarming silence.
“Don’t ask,” mumbles Frodo when he sees her face, and she has to smile when Meriadoc pets the branches carefully, humming to the tree as if to a sick child.
“Are you taking good care of the tree, lads?” she asks, stroking her son’s hair. He nods earnestly. “Make tree better again, yes Mama?”
“Well if you want it to stay here for Yule, it has to look at its best, just like everyone,” says Esmeralda, smiling. “Might as well make it look nice while it’s here,” she winks at Frodo.
The decorations of Meriadoc’s last birthday party are easily found, and when Saradoc and Rorimac return from their office the tree is completely covered in garlands and other vague ornaments, and Meriadoc sits on Frodo’s lap beside it, still humming softly and looking very satisfied. Esmeralda has moved the Yule presents under the tree to hide the bucket from sight and sits in a nearby chair doing her needlework. The sight is very peaceful and homely.
Meriadoc stops humming and waves at his father and grandfather, then gestures proudly at their artwork. Frodo blushes. Esmeralda just smiles.
“Why, that is a lovely tree you’ve got there, lads,” says Saradoc. “A very cosy sight to come home to, I must say. Esme, how about some tea, and perhaps Gaffer Rory can tell you a story? It certainly looks like a tree to tell tales under.”
A short while later they are all sitting around the decorated tree, the adults in chairs sipping their tea, Frodo and Meriadoc on the floor with a blanket. Outside it has started snowing again, and the candles all around, illuminating the tree, make them feel very snug and warm and light and… home.
Frodo pulls his younger cousin into his lap, wrapping the blanket around them both, and cuddles him. “Merry Yule, cousin,” he whispers into the golden curls.
“Merry?” The little lad frowns for a moment in deep thought, then suddenly his face brightens as if in sudden understanding and he throws his arms around Frodo’s neck. “Frodo Yule, cousin,” he proclaims.
Frodo bursts out laughing. “No, Merry, I meant…”
Then he pauses. “Merry,” he says, as if tasting the name, running his hands through his cousin’s hair.
“Frodo,” says the little boy, ruffling the older Hobbit’s hair, mimicking his movement.
Frodo smiles again, and hugs him closer. “Merry,” he says again, burying his nose in the curls, planting a kiss on the top of the golden head. “Happy Yule, Merry.”
“Happy Yule, Frodo.”
Merry looks thoughtfully at the decorated tree, hardly noticing Estella pressing a mug of tea into his hands. Outside it’s snowing, but here in the candle-lighted living room, it’s snug and warm and light and… home.
A small, warm body settles herself into his lap, and he puts his arms around the toddler, wrapping the blanket around them both. He buries his face in his dozing daughter’s soft curls to hide unbidden tears, as Merry remembers his beloved cousin, and wonders if it is also Yule where Frodo is now.