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Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Title: Breetown Yule
Rating: Australian G
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the Lord of the Rings are property of the Tolkien Estate, and are being used without permission in this work of fan fiction. No money is being made or solicited for this work.

Author's notes:

  1. Bree, Barliman Butterbur, Halbarad, and the Rangers of Eriador are all concepts created by JRR Tolkien. The Angle is extrapolated by Michael Martinez. All of these are used without permission in this work of fanfiction.
  2. Everything else is my extrapolation from there.
  3. The song which is scattered through this story is a variation on the "Gloucestershire Wassail". It was the song which came first, the rest of the story more or less fits in around it.
  4. No money is being made from this work. Any money that people want to throw to the Yule-singers would be better off given to your favourite charity anyway. They'll only spend it all on ale!

Bree, Yule, 2977 - 2978.

"Good Yule, Good Yule, all over Bree Town
The snow it is white and the ale it is brown
The bowl it is made from the white maple tree
With the Yule-drinkers bowl we'll drink unto thee"

Yule was a cheerful time of the year in Bree, and Bronwen Breeton (formerly Bronwen Morwensdaughter of the Angle, trainee Ranger of the North) was enjoying the exuberance of the people and hobbits of Bree as they made their preparations. From what she'd heard, both from her husband, Dirk, and from his family, it was going to be a large celebration this year, bigger than any in the past ten. Good harvests, good crops all together, that meant a good celebration.

All so different from what happened up at the Angle, she mused. There, the beginning of a new year meant the beginning of another year of watchfulness, of vigilance. So the new year in the Angle was welcomed in with a vigil, as everyone in the Dúnedain town remained awake for the length of the long night, watching the borders of their homes. The only ones who could sleep that night were those Rangers who would be on first patrol in the morning. Generally, they didn't sleep either, but took keep-awakes to get them through their patrol as well. The underlying mood at the Angle was always one of sombreness, of sobriety. Old tales were told, tales of the fall of Númenor, of the building and collapse of the Northern kingdoms. It was a day for reaffirming their identity as the Dúnedain in many ways.

In Bree, however, Yule combined a laugh in the face of winter with a celebration of the harvest that had been got in and preserved during the past year. It was a time for eating up the last of the perishable food, for slaughtering those beasts that you couldn't afford to feed until spring. So it was a time of feasting, of cheer, and of sharing with families and friends. There was the Yule-gifting, too, which was a custom which had been adopted from the Hobbit-folk. The Yule-log had been chosen (a large white maple, with four planted in its place, so that future years would be so blessed) and the bowl made anew (it was seasoning now in the woodworker's shop). It seemed that the only topic of conversation at the moment anywhere in Bree was that of Yule: what to gift someone with, what to wear to the party, which party were they going to, who else was expected to be there. Bronwen smiled. Her first Yule in Bree was promising to be special, in more than one way.

"Come landlord, and give us a bowl of the best
And we'll pronounce your House a haven for rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then away with the landlord, bowl, and all"

At the Prancing Pony, Jennie Butterbur was in something of a fret over the provisioning of the party. Although she was well aware that the Yule gathering at the Pony was close to traditional by now, it was still worrying to look at the larder and realise that even though she had food enough, she hadn't time to cook it and enjoy the party as well.

Sighing, she resigned herself to another year in the kitchen. Barliman never understood why she wound up so upset at Yule each year, no matter how hard she tried to explain it to him. Of course, he grew tense as well, for the Yule-drinkers would be judging the success of his latest brewing of beer. Each year he was judged to be brewing the best beer and ale in the district, yet each year he appeared to become more worried that he wouldn't succeed at it. Between the two of them, and their resultant bad tempers, Yule wasn't a good time to be at the Pony.

Then, of course, there was the issue of the Yule-gifting. Although by now tradition stated that the giving of a party satisfied the requirement for the Yule-gift on the part of the giver, greed stated that the givers of the party should at least find some small gift for each of their particular friends (or, in other words, each person that they invited to the party). So on top of all of the cooking, cleaning, tidying, and the regular work entailed by regular guests, Jennie had to find the time to sort out gifts for each of the party-goers. It never seemed to stop.

Atop of all of this, there was the aching regret in her heart, for the child she'd been carrying earlier in the year, and lost. She couldn't help but be envious of those women in the town who were carrying a baby at this season. Her child, had it survived to term, would have been a Yule babe, something considered lucky in the town of Bree. Barliman had wept with her, when the babe had been lost, but he soon seemed to recover. It just wasn't fair.

"And here's to the healer who lives in the wood
If you're sick Breelindir shall fix you up good
But if you're not ill, and a man you do be
Then the bite of the healer's dog you shall see!"

Breelindir looked around her cottage. It was all spic, span and tidy, ready for the procession of fools who'd overdo the ale at the Yule party at the Pony. There were also the inevitable women who'd be ready to drop their babies at the Yule party as well. The birthing kit waited by the door, along with packets of calming herbs for both Barliman and Jennie. Both of them seemed to always get into such a pother over the whole business. There must be some way of fixing the whole business.

The diminutive healer was pondering the problem when there was a knock on the door.

"Breelindir, are you there? It's Bronwen."

Breelindir rushed to the door. "Bronwen! How are you doing? How's the baby?"

The taller woman laughed and exchanged a hug with her red-haired friend. "Baby is just fine, save that he seems to dislike the sound of his father's singing. Certainly each time Dirk starts singing any Yule song around me, the baby starts to kick. Most startling."

"Maybe he likes Dirk's singing?" Breelindir suggested, smiling in her turn. "How about yourself?"

"Oh, I like Dirk's singing just fine. My health is good also, Mistress Breelindir. I get a little startled sometimes if I stand quickly - just a touch dizzy, but aside from that, I feel wonderful."

Breelindir nodded, gesturing her friend into the kitchen for a cup of tea. "How do you find Yule in Bree? I suppose it's not much different to what happens up in the Northlands, is it?"

The question drew a laugh from the Northern woman again. "Oh, it is so different, Breelindir. Yule in the North is a solemn business, a renewal of vows and soforth. Yule in Bree is so merry, so very cheerful. I shouldn't say this, and don't let my sister Tang know when she comes a-trading, but I much prefer the Breeland version."

Breelindir grinned. "You'd be surprised just how common that opinion is among your folk, you know," she commented. "There's usually at least one Ranger who's arrived at the Pony just in time for Yule-day, generally more. They seem to enjoy the party, and they've usually some wonderful tales to tell. They last out the whole night as well."

Now what, wondered Breelindir to herself, was there in that to bring such a smile to Bronwen's face? Ah well, probably glad to hear that there'll be those she knows from her home in town as well.

"On the subject of the party at the Pony," Bronwen said, tentatively, "I've been wondering whether there's any expectation on us as guests? I know that back home, were whole families invited into another family's home, there's the expectation that you'll bring a pot of food, or contribute something to the feast. It lifts the cost of the celebration from the one set of shoulders, you see. It also means that everyone enjoys the party. What did I just say to make you look like I've hit you over the head?"

Breelindir came to herself with a start. "Bronwen, you've just solved a big problem for me. Now I know how to calm down Jennie Butterbur, so that she can calm down Barliman."

"I'm still lost here", Bronwen commented. "Tell me from the beginning, please?"

So Breelindir explained the situation: how for the last few years, the party at the Pony had been growing bigger and bigger, so that Jennie Butterbur was spending more and more of her time cooking, and less and less celebrating. Jennie, being a native Breelander, had always expected Yule to be a time of celebration, not one of hard, hard, thankless work, so the loss of her celebration hit her hard. At the same time, Barliman, who was always prone to over-reacting to the least little thing, and worrying needlessly, wound up getting himself into a fret about the ale-judging. Normally, Jennie was able to soothe Barliman down, but with her own upset about Yuletime, they both wound up each upsetting the other more and more.

"Generally, in the week after Yule, I've got one or the other, or more often both of them, over here, weeping on my shoulder about the whole thing. This in addition to the fools who overindulge, and the women who decide that they want a Yule Child. So I wind up tired out and grumpy as well," Breelindir concluded.

"Hmmm." Bronwen's brow furrowed in thought. "I can see what you're getting at. Maybe it would be worth passing the idea around the womenfolk? Particularly the ones who are Jennie's friends. They'd be best suited to start the whole business, after all."

Breelindir nodded. "I'm heading into town tomorrow, just to get some supplies. I'll have a word or two with a few of the women, see whether I can persuade them to do it. You'll probably get told about it from Mistress Breeton. Act surprised when she tells you."

A wry smile was Bronwen's response to that. She knew very well how her sister-in-law tolerated Northern customs, and that was not at all. "Certainly, I shall. Keep my part in it hidden, if you will: I know that the women around here think that I'm strange with all my Northern customs and such."

"Ach, with a lot of 'em it's just plain envy," Breelindir replied. "There's a fair few here who'd wish to be able to don breeches and run about with the men, especially when they're at the age where the menfolk are all they're thinking of. They're thinking that's how you caught Dirk. Not much they can do about that, now is there?"

That brought a smug grin from Bronwen. "Not a thing!" she said, laughing with Breelindir as she gathered up the package of herbs that the woman gave her ("just a few things to keep baby dancing") and took her leave.

"And here's to the mayor and his woman well-born
May Eru grant our land a good crop of corn
With a good crop of corn, then merry we'll be
With the Yule drinking bowl, we'll drink unto thee"

Throughout the next weeks leading up to the Yule days themselves, Bree became a ferment of activity. Those men who were going to be in the Yule-singing and Yule-drinking teams were busy with rehearsing (with all the children of Bree following them to try and find their rehearsal places). The women were all busy chattering among each other, and deciding what each of them would be bringing to the Yule feast. Bronwen carefully hid her foreknowledge of the whole business, when her sister-in-law spoke with her on the matter, and planned to bring in a dish from her own Northern festivities: beans, cooked with a pork hock and spices, slowly and gently in the oven. It was a dish which meant "Yule" to many who came from the Angle, a dish which could be set by the fire and kept for the following day, when all the people would be tired, and need something warming. She hoped it would be appreciated by the Breefolk, but knew it would be appreciated by the Rangers who had just arrived in the town.

For, as predicted by Breelindir, there had been Rangers converging on the town of Bree from all around. Bronwen had hid a smile beneath her hand as she heard the tales of the village women, describing the various strange faces who'd appeared at the Pony, seeking the comfort of its walls and the ale that it bore. From the descriptions, she thought she recognised some of the men she'd grown up with in the North, as well as some of their fathers. A part of her felt sorry for the wives and children left behind at the Angle, to keep the solemn Yule of the Dúnedain, but it was overwhelmed by the anticipation of the Breetown Yuletide celebrations.

Often, she found herself watching the children sneaking out after their fathers or uncles. She wished that she could join them, scouting silently through the fields and the nearby forest. However, the skirts she wore impeded her ability to move quietly, as did the clumsy boots she had been forced to wear since her own ranging boots had worn out. Instead, she smiled at those children who noticed her, winking as they carefully stepped their way through the fields near her house. Once, she had carefully discarded her shoes, walking barefoot along the path behind the youngsters, keeping an eye on them. When one of them turned and saw her, they had all scattered like mice before a large and powerful cat, something which both amused and saddened her. She wished that she could speak to Tangliniwen, her sister. She missed her family, missed them with a deep and powerful longing.

Occasionally, she went into town, down to the Pony, to see the Rangers, but it only made the homesickness worse, in many ways, to see what she might have been. It was such a big change, from the roving life she'd been starting to become used to as a Ranger apprentice, to become a Breetown farmer's wife. To change from roaming from place to place, seeing new things daily, watching the changes in the world about her, on the alert constantly into this stillness, the confinement in the bulk of the farmhouse. Dirk didn't like seeing her carrying a sword or a bow, so she hid these in the thatch of the attic, so that he wouldn't know that she'd persuaded Tang to bring them south on her last visit. Sometimes the itch in her feet, the itch in her heart, the seeking for elsewhere was so strong that it seemed likely to break her in two.

Yet each day, when Dirk came home from the fields, or from the hunt, or from rehearsing his singing with the Yule-singers, she remembered why she'd come so far from her home. It was worth it, she decided. Despite the loneliness, despite the occasional sneers of the more sour women of Bree, despite the barely-hidden shock of her sister-in-law each time she spoke up at a family gathering, it was worth it, just for this man she had found and wed. He was worth it, and baby was worth it also.

"And here's to the maid in the lily-white smock
Who's quick to the door and who pulls back the lock
Who's quick to the door and who pulls back the pin
For to welcome the merry Yule-drinkers in"

When Breelindir had finished passing the plan of each household bringing a pot of stew in to the Yule Party at the Pony around the various wives of Bree, and got assurances from most of them that they'd be in on the notion, she had to give the information on to Jennie and Barliman. She'd been lucky. She'd caught them both at the Pony during a quiet hour and was able to pull them both aside into one of the private parlours.

Barliman, predictably, was affronted by the notion.

"What are you saying? Are you saying that Jennie's cooking isn't good enough for the folk of Bree?" he huffed. Breelindir rolled her eyes heavenward.

"Barliman, I love you like a brother, but sometimes I could sincerely wish that you weren't the muttonheaded fool that you are," she told the innkeeper roundly. "I don't know whether you've noticed at all, but the past couple of years, Jennie's been run off her feet trying to keep up with the Yule party. She barely gets any Yule herself."

"But - " Barliman spluttered, before he was cut off by the tiny woman that he thought of as his sister.

"But nothing!" he was told. "If you spared a moment's thought for your wife, instead of worrying so much about your own prestige that you've no time or energy left over for a thought about anyone else, you'd realise that part of the reason she lost that child this year was because she's overworked."

"But - " Once again, Barliman's attempt at response was cut off by the insistent voice of the herbwife.

"Stop saying that. You've scarce glanced at her, from what I can tell, since about mid-year. Jennie isn't well, and I can see that from a single look. She's pale, she's drawn, and she's been looking right melancholic since that child came too early. Now, you stop worrying so much about your ale! It's best in the district, and you know that. You've known it for years now. Why you keep participating in that silly Yule competition is beyond me - everyone around hereabouts knows that the sole point that's being contested this year is who's going to come second to Barliman Butterbur. It's been that way for ages. Drop out of the competition, give other folks a chance to win. Use the time you're not spending soaking in ale to help Jennie out in running the inn, and give her a bit of extra help. Hire a woman if you have to - Valar know the town's full enough of young lasses who'd be right cheery about a chance to work at the inn for a bit of coin."

At this point, Jennie interjected quietly, "She's right about the ale, Barliman. I've heard it often enough from my own family. In fact, 'tis something that folk are starting to become resentful of."

Barliman looked a little shocked by this. His wife smiled gently at him. "I know how much work you put into it, love. I know how much having good ale means to you, and how much it means to the Pony, but really - does it matter all that much? The folk who come through aren't coming just for your ale. There's my cooking to factor into things, as well as the fact that we're the only place within a day's ride in any direction that offers accommodation. Do we need to push so hard on the ale? Just think on it, will you?"

The innkeeper looked down at his wife. He had to agree with his foster-sister. Jennie was looking tired and a bit drawn these days. He was a fool not to have noticed.

"Well, if that's the way things are turning, Jennie-love," he told her gently, "then I'll take your advice on this one, if you'll take mine. Let the women of Bree give you their Yule gift of the time and the cooking. Breelindir's right: I've been a fool not to notice that you're looking tired."

Jennie smiled up at her husband. "In that case, love, I'll let myself be guided by you."

Gently, hesitantly, as though he was sure that he'd be rebuffed, or as though he were uncertain about whether he'd break her, Barliman reached over and embraced his wife, holding her close.

Neither of them noticed that Breelindir had slipped out of the room a good five minutes earlier. Neither of them guessed that she was now exchanging a grin with young Nob in the taproom, as well as buying herself a mug of cider. After a little while, neither of them cared.

"And here's to the Rangers who range all around
But each year return unto us in Bree Town
We bid them good Yule, and we bid it with glee
With the Yule-drinking bowl, we drink unto thee"

Halbarad looked around the crowded taproom of the Prancing Pony. It was his third Yule at Bree, and from all the indications, this one looked to be the happiest in the twenty or so years that he'd been travelling the district. It had been his sister's insistence that had him in the Breeland patrol at this time of the year. "You've been moping about the Angle for far too long. The Chieftain's off in the south, according to all the accounts those elf-lords keep bringing us, and likely to remain so for a good many years yet. You can't wait here like a lonely hound for him on the off-chance that he's going to turn up for Yule!" So, he'd gone off in the Breeland patrol, although not before getting accosted by Tangliniwen Morwensdaughter and given a bundle of things for her sister Bronwen, who'd married a Breelander lad earlier in the year.

Bronwen was there in the crowd. Easy enough to spot - she had the height of her father, and the colouring typical of the Northlands. She also looked to be carrying a child, which was good. Even though her children could never be Rangers, and never be counted among the Dúnedain, it was good to see that the blood of her family would carry on. He also guessed that it was she who'd brought the spiced pork and beans that sat by the hearth. The smell of it was tantalising, and he knew that he wouldn't be the only one of the rangers going back for seconds. It was a dish that meant Yuletide to them.

There'd been the Yule-singers, passing through the town, singing their verses at each door, some of them personalised for the household, some very much generic. He'd wondered about the origin of the song, and had been told that it had been a Yule-gift itself, from a forest spirit, to a Man of Bree who'd rescued the spirit from a wicked person who wanted to trap it. A pleasant legend, he supposed, although he doubted strongly that there were any such spirits in the forest - the more likely story was that the song came from an elven tune vaguely remembered, although it had nothing of the elven measures in it. Far too sprightly and cheerful, lacking the solemnity of the elven songs that he'd heard.

The Yule-log burned on the hearth - a large tree-bole, cut from a white maple, as it always was, and burned to bring back the summer, so he'd heard. There was much singing and rowdiness in various parts of the tavern (he could see that old ruffian, Angle Ferny, clouting his young ruffian of a son, Joe, over the head for one reason or another - ah, that young lass who appeared to be rubbing her rump resentfully, no doubt), but in general, the gathering was, as always, good tempered and moderate. There was food a-plenty, as each of the womenfolk who was attending the gathering had brought with her a pot of stew, soup, or similar. It was said that this was a gift to Jennie Butterbur, the innkeeper's wife. Children rioted around the edge of the celebration, or clustered in small groups, listening to the storytelling that had started in the quieter corners. Some of them peered covertly over at himself, or at the other rangers in the inn that night - two from the Breetown patrol, and four who'd decided to overnight at Bree "on their way back from the Shire patrol, sir." He'd smiled, and let it go.

He'd been surprised to be included in the Yule-gifting from the peoples of Bree. Generally, the people of Bree tended to view the Rangers with suspicion. But this year, he'd been given a small packet of herbs by the herbwoman (who must have been the person who treated Tharalbad's leg earlier this year). A tiny thing, she was - not quite small enough to be one of the hobbit-folk, but certainly possessing some hobbit blood in there. Unusual hair, too - bright red and curly. He'd also been sought out by Bronwen, who had given him her bow and sword, among a range of gifts to be passed back to Tangliniwen and her family. When he'd queried that gift, she'd told him to hold them in trust for her children. "Maybe one of them will wish to range the world," she told him. "I must learn the ways of Bree."

The innkeeper, Butterbur, looked a lot happier than the last time he'd seen the man. Granted, that had been about seven years past, before the man had married, back when old Mistress Butterbur had been running the Inn, and her son had merely been keeping the tap. Now he was master of the house, and had a plump little wife on his arm, who looked to be enjoying the gathering as much as he was.

What was it Aragorn and those Elf-lords kept reciting? Oh yes: "If simple folk are kept free from care and fear, simple they will be." Looking around him as he took another sip from his ale-mug, he decided that there was a lot to be said for a Yuletide among the simple folk of Bree.

"Good Yule, Good Yule, all over Bree-Town
The snow it is white, and the ale it is brown
The bowl it is made from the white maple tree
With the Yule-drinking bowl, we'll drink unto thee."

(Happy Yule to all my readers, and best wishes for 2003).

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