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The Proposition  by Lindelea

Chapter 18

Hally did not clean as thoroughly that Cleaning Day as they had the previous week. For one thing, no “guests” were expected at any time soon. For another, the weather continued bitterly cold into the afternoon, and a brisk wind began to blow, causing the temperatures to plummet further. There would be no beating of the large carpet that warmed the floor of the main room this day; about all Hally managed was to shake out the smaller rugs: the one before the door, where they wiped their feet on coming in (and this was shaken out each day), and the ones by each bed, that made the cold bedrooms a bit cosier of a cold morning before the renewed fire on the hearth began to warm the smial.

‘I’m glad it’s not Wash Day,’ he said, while bringing Rosemary a cup of late afternoon tea. ‘I don’t care for the trouble of rolling up the carpet that we might do the washing indoors, and then hanging the clothes to dry on lines stretched this way and that until it’s worth my life to walk from hearth to bedroom…!’

‘Hopefully the weather’ll warm again before then,’ Rosemary said. ‘The ones I really feel sorry for are Lotho’s Men, standing watch in this freezing wind. Hear it howling!’

‘Might even snow,’ Hally said. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised. The only good thing is, I doubt any hobbit with a bit of sense would be out in it, and if the Men have any sense they’ll think the same as I do and stay tight indoors, themselves. More tea?’

‘This will do me fine,’ Rosemary answered, holding her nearly full and still-steaming cup.

Hally nodded satisfaction. ‘Well now, stay bundled up, and drink your tea.’

‘I don’t need to bundle quite so warmly,’ Rosemary said. ‘The babe is like a bedwarmer, tucked in next to me!’

‘Good!’ Hally said. ‘Well, everything’s done but the sweeping, and then we’ll have our eventides, and our story, and early to bed! It’ll be good to snuggle under the covers, I’m thinking.’

Next day was Baking Day, and Hally was up early. The wind still whistled in the chimney, and whipped the treetops, and after breakfast the children pressed their noses to the windowpanes in the main room of the smial, exclaiming over the snowflakes whirling lightly in the wind.

‘I don’t know whether it’ll be a heavy snow, though it’s falling steadily, and starting to stick on the ground now,’ Hally said, bringing Rosemary second breakfast on a tray. ‘Still, I’m that glad to be tight indoors and not out in the Wood this day...’ He kissed Rosemary atop her tousled head and added, ‘Twas so cold in the pantry the dough didn’t rise properly in the night… I brought the bowl out and put it on the table, that the warm room might be encouraging.’

‘A goodly thought,’ Rosemary said. ‘Our bread will be late this day, but better late than no bread at all, so I say!’

‘Good thing no visitors are expected,’ Hally said. ‘Nevertheless, it’s a good day to stay indoors and bake… and we’ve plenty in the pantry at the moment, so we might as well put it to good use -- and the ovens will heat the smial nicely into the bargain!’

‘Well then,’ Rosemary said. ‘Once you have the ovens heating, Bracken and I may join you in the rocking chair for a bit. I’m feeling much better… I might even get up and roll out a few biscuits.’

‘Not a hand,’ Hally said, lifting his own in illustration. ‘Violet charged me most earnestly, you are not to lift a...’

‘O you know how she loves to fuss,’ Rosemary said. ‘Naught much wrong with me that a few days’ rest didn’t cure.’

‘You’ve more colour than you had,’ Hally said, eyeing her critically, ‘but you’re still a bit pale, to my eyes. You stay in the bed, and if you’re good, I may let you get up and join us for elevenses, and the noontide meal, and perhaps, if you’re very, very good, for teatime.’

‘Such an exciting prospect,’ Rosemary said. ‘And when the month is out, I’ll think back on these days of rest, and wonder why I ever protested at all...’

Hally laughed. ‘I’ll just get started on those biscuits,’ he said. ‘Parsley’s already scrubbing the table, and Robin’s fetching armloads of wood for the baking, and the little ones are nicely napping...’

Though no ruffians were expected for at least another week, Hally and the children baked more than enough for the little family’s needs. None of it would go to waste; if any Men should drop by, they’d be able to feed the guests to repletion, and if not, what they might be unable to share with neighbours, the goats would happily consume and turn to milk. ‘All to the good!’ Hally told the children, to be echoed by them, ‘All to the good!’ Even little Buckthorn lisped, ‘Aw to da good!’ Hally nodded and smiled his satisfaction.

There were frequent trips to the window to exclaim at the sight of snow -- rare enough in the Shire to be a cause for wonder. Some winters there would be no snow at all, but there were a few occasions in the span of a single hobbit lifetime where heavy snow would fall and last more than a week before melting. The Long Winter and the Fell Winter were two such that had been so noteworthy as to be entered into written history as well as oral.

Hally took pleasure in the mounting snow, for a different reason than the children. He could not imagine any hobbit with sense being out in this storm, nor a ruffian. The latter exhibited too much self-interest to freeze themselves on Lotho’s account, or so Hally opined. He was burning to pass his knowledge and warning on to Gundy, that a rumour might be started to warn the hobbits of Stock and its surroundings. (Hally had decided that a rumour would be the safest course, that the ruffians not be able to point to Gundy as the source, bringing suspicion upon himself and Rosemary.) However, he could not yet in good conscience leave Rosemary. He rather hoped Gundy and Cora, or at least one of them would make a visit to see the new babe, but considering the estrangement they were carefully constructing, it was not very likely.

In any event, he would need to seek out Gundy within the week, to arrange the felling of another tree. It would be a bit tricky, with the two brothers not speaking, but they’d managed it before when Gundy was not speaking to him in truth… At least this time, his brother would not turn a deaf ear to him when they were in private, but only before the eyes of witnesses. Of course, they had to act as if they were being watched at all times, but felling and trimming trees together would give them ample opportunity to bend down with their heads close together while working, giving them a chance at least to whisper.

He was half inclined to leave Robin and Parsley to watch over Rosemary while the littlest ones napped, but in the end he decided against it. After all, Robin and Parsley were accustomed to taking an afternoon nap themselves, and he would not want to rob them of their growing sleep. As it turned out, it was just as well.

Not long before teatime came a knocking at the door.

‘Well well!’ Hally said heartily, hurrying to open to the visitor. ‘Who do you suppose would be out in this weather, and knocking upon our door?’ He called over his shoulder to Robin and Parsley. ‘Parsley! Go and see if Mama needs aught, and make sure she stays in the bed! Snuggle her if need be… And you, Robbie, get the little ones up from their naps and ready for tea!’

He was not surprised to find one of Lotho’s Men, Scar, their leader hereabouts, as a matter of fact.

He affected great surprise, however. ‘Scar!’ he said, throwing the door wide and seizing one of the Man’s sleeves to pull him in, out of the snow. ‘Such an honour, to have you come through all this storm to see us!’

The Man was quick to enter the warm smial, and Hally was as quick to slam the door shut, shivering in the icy air that accompanied the visitor. ‘Come, come,’ the hobbit said. ‘The fire is bright -- come and warm yourself! Some tea, perhaps? I was just about to put the kettle on...’

‘I’m not here for tea,’ the Man said, unwinding a long (well, it would have been long for a hobbit, but was just about right for one of the Big Folk), thick muffler from his neck. Hally thought he recognised Cora’s work in the fine knitting. Gathered or given, he wondered. Most likely gathered. He didn’t think it was Gundy’s -- he’d’ve recognised it at once -- but it was probably a birthday present that Cora had presented to one of the neighbours in better days.

Hally did not ask what the Man was here for, simply maintained a stupidly pleasant, inquiring expression as he poked up the fire and swung the kettle over the hottest part. ‘We’ll have our tea in no time at all,’ he said, as if he hadn’t understood, as if he assumed the Man was here for tea and naught else, such as gathering or spying or what ever ill one of Lotho’s Men might be up to. ‘There’s no bread,’ he added, ‘--it was that cold last night, the dough didn’t rise properly, and it’s just about ready to bake now, but not quite. I thought we’d twist the dough around sticks and bake them over the flames. Go good with Rose’s brambleberry jam and a little butter, it will…!’

The Man did not repeat his protest, but settled on the hearthstones and held his hands out to the fire. They were red with cold, Hally noted. Probably tries to keep them in his pocketses as much as he can, he thought to himself. O’ course hobbit mittens would hardly be worth the gathering!

‘I’m sorry to say we’ve no teacakes this day...’ he began.

‘I’m not here for teacakes,’ Scar said abruptly, his attention on the bright, leaping flames. He looked to Hally, then back to the fire, and cleared his throat. A little gruffly, he continued, ‘I’m here to see how Rosie is doing, and that young one you named for my boy...’

Hally’s eyes opened wide in realisation -- he ought to have noted some family resemblance, but then the scar that marred the ruffian leader’s face drew the eye and one’s attention, and of course out of politeness any well-brought-up hobbit would try his best to avoid staring at the disfigurement. He quickly schooled his expression and said, as if it were of no importance, ‘Little Bracken? He’s growing already! Good eater, that one...’

‘And Rosie?’ the Man said with strange insistence.

Hally’s smile was more genuine as he said, ‘Getting her strength back. I can tell you -- she gave us quite a scare, she did!’

‘You don’t have to tell me,’ the Man said low, as if to himself. He cleared his throat again and looked to Hally with a grin and forced heartiness. ‘Well, that’s good news! So she’ll be up to making us teacakes next Baking Day, I imagine?’

Hally returned the grin. ‘And glad of it!’ he said. ‘She’s growing tired of my cookery, poor as it may be… says she’s like to starve to death, stuck there in the bed and not allowed to lift a finger.’

‘How’s Bracken?’ Robin said at their elbows, standing between them and a little behind, balancing little Buckthorn on his hip. ‘Lavvie’s with Parsley and Mama,’ he added. ‘Parsley wanted Mama to do up their hair properly for tea, seeing as we have an honoured guest.’ And he smiled widely at Scar, and to Hally’s surprise, the Man returned the smile with a warm smile of his own, and reached out to tousle Buckthorn’s curls.

‘Such a fine welcome as you offer us, Hally,’ he said. ‘It’s refreshing, I can tell you -- but I didn’t come for tea...’

Robin’s face took on a look of distress. ‘Aw, but do stay,’ he said. ‘It’s not often we have guests to tea… Usually it’s just us, here in the back of the back o’ the Wood!’

That’ll change, if our scheme is successful, Hally thought to himself, though all he said as he straightened from poking the fire was, ‘You’re always welcome here, you know that, Scar! It’s good to see a friendly face -- and we’re so far from town, poor Rosie must get tired of the same company, day in and day out. I’m not much for conversation...’

‘I wouldn’t have guessed,’ the Man said wryly.

Hally grinned. ‘Never can find much of consequence to say,’ he said. ‘I just rattle on, what ever’s at the top o’ my head. Poor Rosie, she has the patience of a garden snail with me and my prattle...’ He arched his back and rocked back on his heels, preening as if proud of his nonsense.

A right fool you sound, and look, and likely are, Hally-my-lad, he said to himself, maintaining his foolish grin, and feeling a private satisfaction at the derisive twist to the Man’s smile. He thinks you a right fool, at least, and that’s what matters.

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