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The Proposition  by Lindelea

Chapter 11. 

Rosemary felt strangely restless upon awakening, after a night of broken sleep. It was always this way, in the last weeks of carrying a babe. She couldn’t find a comfortable position, and woke often, in trying to turn over, or feeling breathless as the babe’s growing weight bore down on her. In addition, her joints grew looser as her time of delivery approached, making her hips especially painful. Still, the changes in her body meant that the time was drawing near when she could hold her little one in her arms -- and put the babe down when she wanted to rest!

It was early -- none of the children had called out in sleep, or even stirred in wakening, or so she ascertained from holding her breath and listening to the silence in the pre-dawn darkness. Hally still slept, snoring lightly.

And then she remembered -- Baking Day! And Lotho’s Men all but invited, no, invited in truth! How many would come? Somehow she thought it might well be more than just the twain who had devoured as many ginger biscuits as they could eat the previous day, and borne away more with them, presumably to share with others.

‘I must be about my business!’ she whispered to herself, and arose from the bed, with difficulty, it must be said, for the babe was a heavy burden.

She lit the lamp above the table in the main room and turned it up high, and then checked the dough she’d set to rise the night before -- slow rising makes for light baking, or so her mother’s cook used to say.

Very nice! ...and ready for the baking, so soon as the oven might be. She built up a fire in the bread oven, blessing Hally all over again for insisting on three ovens when he and his brothers first built the little smial in the Wood. It made baking day so much easier -- to bake risen bread in the one oven, quick breads in the second, and biscuits in the third, and all at the same time, instead of having to fire one oven three times (or more) in order to get all the baking done for the week. Three ovens! Quite as if they were wealthy hobbits living in grand style. But then, Hally was fond of saying, “Nothing’s too good for my Rose-bloom.”

With ruffians -- Men, she corrected herself. Invited guests! -- coming this day, she had made up three times the usual amount of bread dough, having prepared a few days ago by moving her bread starter to a larger crock and feeding it well. She’d whispered to it as she stirred in flour and water, as she always did, crooning her thanks and blessings for its help in keeping her family fed with good bread -- she’d had this starter for years, had brought it to the Woody End from Buckland’s End when Hally had first brought her here as a bride, and it was as an old friend to her. But her whispered blessing had changed: She blessed it as always, but also thanked it for keeping her family safe from harm, as well as hunger.

So she would fire the bread oven three times this day, and have three bakings of bread dough, and hope that it would be enough. And if for some reason the… invited guests did not come this day, why, she’d have enough to share with Gundy’s family, or perhaps another neighbour, before their relations had time to sour, like dough left too long to rise…

She shook herself for indulging in fancies when there was so much work to be done, and went on to stir up the dough for currant buns, and currant scones, and dried cherry scones. Such a wealth of baking!

Hally emerged from the bedroom as she was rubbing fat -- thinking with pleasure of the several small barrels of lard in the pantry -- into the dry ingredients to make the dough for custard tarts (a whole barrel full of preserved eggs resided in her pantry -- such a luxury!) and dried-apple tarts and hand pies. The good smells of baking bread and frying bacon had roused him, with a start -- belated! He usually started the morning fire for breakfast-making, after all.

‘My, my, baking up a storm!’ he said, and bent to steal a piece of bacon from the pan.

‘I certainly hope not!’ Rosemary returned, eyes on her task. ‘If there’s a storm, I’ll have you underfoot all the day, and not just the morning… Leave some of that for breakfast!’

‘Plenty more where that came from,’ Hally said through the mouthful he was chewing as he moved to stand behind her, and laid a greasy kiss on her neck. She shivered, made a sound of mock disgust, and lifted one floury hand to push him away, and he laughed as he turned away to measure the porridge into the pot of water waiting by the fire, and swung it over the fire to begin cooking. He then lifted the steaming teakettle, warmed the teapot and proceeded to make the tea.

Rosemary worked in just the right amount of cold water, fresh and icy from the little spring (Icy cold for flaky gold!, her mother’s cook said in the back of her mind, just as in her childhood when she’d helped form and roll out pastry dough for tarts -- her childish fascination with the kitchen was standing her in good stead now). She kneaded it just until it came together (Don’t beat it to death, dearie! We want it light and flaky as an elf’s petticoat!), then covered the bowl with a damp cloth, and Hally took up the bowl and carried it to the cold box that he’d dug in the pantry and lined with stone, after fashioning a wooden cover for the space.

‘Do Elves wear petticoats, I wonder?’ she said aloud, wiping her floury hands on her apron and then planting them against her back for a good stretch.

Hally’s laugh sounded from the pantry, a little muffled by the lifted cold box cover. ‘I don’t know how you manage to think of such questions! ...but next time I see a passing Elf, I’ll be sure to ask!’

She chuckled at the thought as well, of her dear Hally, quiet and reserved around strange hobbits and Men (at least he had been, though he must force himself to play a role quite unlike himself in future days), inquiring of an Elf about such a delicate matter… and then she was on to more practical things once more. The thought crossed Rosemary’s mind, watching her husband out of the corner of her eye, that the space might be just large enough for a hobbit to hide in, curled up tight -- but it would be awfully cold…

...but the pot of porridge was beginning to steam, and must be moved off the hottest part of the fire, and stirred lest it burn, and then Hally was taking over the cookery whilst Rosemary went in answer to Buckthorn’s sleepy howl and little Lavvy’s morning chirps. First, with not a little difficulty, she picked up Buckthorn, who often awakened with a frown -- the babe kicked against him, as Rose held him close, and his scowl turned to a look of surprise.

Robin’s spot in the bed was empty, and so he must have slipped out while his mother was busy with the porridge, to milk the two goats before breakfast. After breakfast, it would be his task to fetch more wood and water into the smial, while Parsley and Rosemary did the washing up, and his father prepared to go out to the Wood for his day’s labours.

‘Say good morning to your little brother!’ Rosemary told Buckthorn now as they progressed to the girls’ room, and he looked down, patted her protruding middle, and obeyed.

‘Good morning, little birdie!’ she said to Lavender, already being dressed by her older sister, and the little one chortled with glee, raising her arms to be picked up.

‘O no!’ Rosemary said in dismay. ‘I cannot manage the three of you!’ And the children understood that she wasn’t talking of Parsley as the third, but the babe that she must carry at all times, at least for the time being.

‘I’ll take you!’ little Parsley said to her littler sister, and the faunt seemed content enough to be settled on Parsley’s hip, her arms about Parsley’s neck, still babbling away. ‘Come, let’s lay the table!’

Before long, Robin came in with two buckets of milk, everyone washed their hands, and the little family settled to their breakfast. In the middle of breakfast time, Hally took the golden loaves from the bread oven and laid them to cool, all but one. Though the bread couldn’t be sliced until it cooled, he could certainly tear the steaming loaf, and did, distributing a handful of fresh-baked bread to each member of the family, exclaiming at the sting of the hot bread against his palms, though he didn’t seem terribly bothered in truth.

They made a merry breakfast, that little family did, and then there was the clearing away and the washing up and the morning chores, followed by second breakfast of fresh-baked bread and Woodberry jam. At last Hally kissed each one and then took up his axe and went out the door, whistling a sprightly tune. Rosemary was able to work out some of her restlessness by chopping vegetables and setting them to stew with some of the dried meat from the market, and then washing and scrubbing and sweeping, while Parsley dusted and made up the beds, and little Buckthorn and Lavender played together on the clean-swept floor until it was time for their morning nap.

They made good use of the little ones’ sleeping time, Rosemary and the older children did, rolling out dough into circles and forming tarts and hand pies. The  mother delighted in teaching the children the making of custard -- they seldom had eggs enough to stir up a custard, but with a whole barrel of eggs in the pantry…! Such riches!

When the tarts and hand pies were ready and waiting, she built up a good, hot baking fire in the middle oven and checked the temperature in the bread oven. Yes, ready for the next batch of risen bread -- another batch of loaves, and then the last baking would be buns, both plain and studded with currants. She raked out the coals, swabbed the oven, and began loading the pans into the hot oven, with Parsley and Robin’s help. The young hobbits weren’t allowed to put sheets and pans into the oven, nor take them out, but they were a great help in bringing the dough from the table to where Rosemary stood by the oven door, saving her steps and time and oven heat.

‘And next,’ she said softly, ‘the biscuits!’ And the children gave a cheer, for each would have a bowl of good things to stir, and form or plonk onto the baking sheets in delightful globs, to be baked into flat, round, delicious discs.

The baking was piling up almost alarmingly when Hally returned from the Wood for the noontide meal, and of course he insisted on sampling one of each kind of thing, and nearly spoilt his dinner of dried venison and vegetable stew! (The children were much amused at this.) He proclaimed it all delicious, and had Parsley and Robin tie up a few more samples in a cloth for him to take back to the Wood.

There had been no sign of ruffians, er, Men in the Wood where he’d been cutting, and at his inquiring look upon entering the smial for mealtime, Rosemary had shook her head. No Men had come during the morning’s efforts. ‘Well, you can smell the fine smells a mile away!’ Hally said, sitting down to table for the last time, having freshened the teapot for a last cup of tea all round. (Even though the children drank cambric tea, mostly milk with a heaping spoonful of honey and a splash of tea, a new pot was still needed to complete the meal.)

‘I’m glad!’ Rosemary said, and at the children’s inquiring looks, she added, ‘for it’s not likely you’ll lose yourself in the Wood, with the fine smells of baking to lead you homeward again!’

‘Just like in the old tale!’ Robin shouted in excitement, and Lavvy banged her spoon on the table and chortled.

‘O tell it again, Papa, do!’ Parsley begged.

‘We’ll have that story for our bedtime tale, then,’ Hally said, and smiled and shook his head in answer to the children’s pleas. ‘The wood won’t cut itself,’ he added, and rose from the table, to go around and distribute kisses around, starting and ending with his wife. ‘Take a little rest when the children do,’ he murmured in her ear. ‘I fear you’re over-extending yourself, Rose. D’you want me to stay?’

‘The wood won’t cut itself,’ she answered with a smile. ‘Go, do! We’ll be fine here! I have such good helpers, as you know...’ And the two parents smiled on the children, and the older ones preened and smiled in return, while the younger ones beamed in general jollity.

Perhaps an hour after Hally had taken his leave, just after Rosemary had settled the littlest ones for their afternoon nap, waited for them to fall asleep, and was just about to lie herself down (along with Robin and Parsley)...

...the ruffians came.

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