1. "A-tillicking we go!":
"Some more, Masters?"
Young Butterbur stood over the two rangers sitting discreetly tucked away in a shadowy corner; a hint of steam from their drying clothes rose off them in the warm air of the crowded inn. The younger one, a scruffy, bearded youth, looked up, smiled and held out his wooden bowl, scraped clean of food. Butterbur smiled and nodded, he'd recently taken the inn over from his father and was eager to please and prove himself a success at the family business.
"It's good to see an appetite." '…Mind you,' he thought, 'Rangers always seemed to be hungry folk – hard times out on the road, I suppose…'
He ladled out more thick, vegetable potage from the small cauldron he carried round the tables. 'The place was going to be crowded tonight, better see they bring more food through from the kitchen.'
The young one was eagerly spooning hot soup into his mouth even before his companion held out a bowl. Butterbur noted that the hand was pale and narrow, almost a woman's hand, but then he couldn't be – not a woman with as many knives, and a well-used bow, as this one had. Butterbur couldn't see the ranger's face; he kept his hood up and pulled low. The inn-keeper was distracted from ladling the potage by his curiosity and a splash of hot soup hit the stranger's wrist. He gave a soft hiss of surprise and pain.
"Sorry sir! Forgive me for being so clumsy! But I'm all at sixes and sevens – it being Tillicking Night an' all, and what with the extra mouths to feed."
Butterbur rushed his apology, his words falling over each other in his hurry to make amends. These Rangers could be hasty folk! The hooded figure mumbled something and took the bowl, setting it down on the table in front of them, still without looking up. The young one looked him in the eye.
"No offence is taken Master Butterbur – but might we have some more bread? And some to take with us as well please?"
"Certainly, sir. You've… come far have you?"
The Ranger looked at his companion uncertainly, spoon half-way to his mouth. The unseen one merely nodded in reply.
"You're maybe planning to spend the night here – it being so raw outside?" Butterbur continued. "Only, we are a tad full in the main house, but there's fresh hay and blankets in the stable loft – if you don't mind Nob's snoring!"
The concealing hood turned to face the younger ranger, head tipped enquiringly on one side.
"A few hours sleep?" A soft, melodic voice came from within the shadowing grey cloth.
"I can go on…" asserted the young man.
The other shook their head, "Better a little wait while you sleep, than ride your horse off a ravine, Estel."
Butterbur was fascinated, such a beautiful voice, but it couldn't be a woman, could it? His curiosity was piqued – he thought he perhaps knew who… or rather what, this mysterious stranger might be, but he needed to hear a little more to be sure; he wracked his brain for some way to continue the conversation.
Then he heard the sweet piping of children's voices singing outside the main door of the inn. A smile broke over his face as his thoughts were temporarily distracted.
"Ah, they've come a-tillicking…!"
The Ranger nodded in polite interest, but looked puzzled.
"You don't know tillicking?" said Butterbur. "That's why we're full tonight. 'Tis part of the Yule celebrations round here – though I don't know if others keep it. It's what the Little People do – but they make so merry, we sort of adopted it too! You wait, if you've not heard them, they sing as sweet as little birds – you're in for a treat!"
He bustled away to organise the bar and clear a space in the centre of the large room.
"Come on Jem, let them in - don't dawdle!" Butterbur called to the pot-boy.
The inn's customers turned to watch, some with frowns at the interruption to their drinking, most with smiles as the little procession headed into the room. Some dozen hobbit children entered, herded like sheep by four adult hobbits, but them still no bigger than children of Men. All of the youngsters were wrapped up warm against the freezing midwinter air with woollen mufflers, hats and thick shawls, though none of them wore shoes on their hairy feet. All carried horn-lanterns on staves, each enclosing a candle. They stood in a little pool of brightness in the middle of smoky inn.
"Thirsty work, tillicking," said one of the adults pointedly, staring hard at the beer kegs.
Butterbur waved his arm expansively. "Go on then. Wet your whistle while the babs sing. Then a pony of small beer each for you eh?" he winked at the little hobbits who beamed back in cheerful anticipation of their treat. "And I think we've got fresh Honey-cakes to go with it!"
Their small faces almost fell in two from smiling so wide. They unwrapped scarves, and took off hats, before arranged themselves in order as Butterbur threaded his way back to the rangers in the corner carrying a tray with the bread they'd asked for. The two rangers watched the little group shuffle into position; the one called Estel looked up enquiringly at Butterbur as he approached them.
"We serve the beer to them well-watered," Butterbur whispered confidentially, placing the loaded platter of fresh bread on the table, before raising his own tankard in preparation for the toasting.
"Wouldn't want to get them tipsy, especially on Tillicking Night!"
"I have never heard of this… tillicking."
"Oh you must 'ave! No?"
Estel shook his head.
"Well… they do say it's very old… all a bit of nonsense really, I shouldn't wonder..."
The hobbits began some preparatory 'la,la,la's'.
"But you just have a listen, you'll like this, sirs. Off you go then, my babs!" he called to the little hobbits.
The curly-headed youngsters began to sing. Sweet as larks, their voices soared and dipped in complex rounds and descants. After each break they were rewarded with applause; until they reached what was evidently the highlight of their performance. They formed a line one behind the other and began to march around the inn, threading their way through and about the tables as they went. Many of the men passed a hand over the hobbit's lanterns, and then touched their fingertips to their foreheads. Sweetly, the little ones sang as they marched:
Tillicking writ'ns through rain and through snow.
Tillicking writ'ns away we do go.
We sing you our song,
For cakes and for ale,
Tillicking writ'ns for this we wassail.
Wassail, wassail, wassail, wassail.
Tillicking writ'ns, for this we wassail!
Give us some cakes, and we'll sing you a song.
Give us some ale, and we'll not be so long.
Till-tillicking writ'ns, all over the land,
Tillicking writ'ns so here we do stand.
Do stand, do stand, do stand, do stand!
Tillicking writ'ns, right here we do stand!
They'd marched all though the tables and back to the middle of the room by the time they'd got to the final lines. Standing in a row, they stamped their feet in time to the song, firmly folded their arms and looked as fierce as they might never be moved until they'd had their due.
The audience broke out in cheers and clapping; calls of 'tillicking, tillicking!' and much laughter rang through the smoke-hazed room. The little choir broke out into beaming smiles, flushed with success and excitement.
"Tillicking! Tillicking writ'ns!" Butterbur shouted, raising his mug in salute.
He looked down at the rangers, the one looking mildly bemused, the other's face still hidden in shadows.
"You must toast them for luck, good Masters!" he said. And hurried off to organise sweet cakes and mulled ale for the eager young hobbits.
Estel shrugged and reached for his mug of beer.
"I don't understand, but it can't hurt." He turned to his companion. "Loss - shall we?"
The Elf turned to face him with bright eyes and reached out to stay his hand.
"No, let me…"
And raising a tankard of Butterbur's good ale, announced the toast.
"Till the King returns!"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.