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The Proposition  by Lindelea

Chapter 20.

At eventides they feasted on bread still steaming from the oven, along with warmed-over stew from the day before -- Hally had made plenty, anticipating the possibility of Men knocking upon their door. The fish soup, simmering over the fire in the largest kettle, was for the morrow. The secret to succulence is in the long, slow simmer, or so Rosemary quoted her mother’s cook as Hally stirred the pot under the children’s keen observation, and then she joined the rest in laughter as Parsley solemnly repeated this sage advice in her best lisp.

The last of the loaves were loaded into the bake ovens, and then Hally spread blankets on the hearthstones. They sat down there, on the floor before the fire, to eat their supper.

‘It’s like a picnic -- in the midst of a snowstorm!’ Robin exclaimed, his face shining with delight.

Rosemary affected a shiver. ‘I’d rather eat here on the hearth, than out there in the snow, thank-you-very-much,’ she said, in the tone she remembered from her prim and proper grandmother. And then she relaxed her stern expression, laughed, and held up her mug of steaming tea in a toast to her son. ‘But it is quite like a picnic, you have the right of it. Why did we never think of doing this before?’

‘We never quite had such bitter weather before,’ Hally said, his face serious. And though he would not say it before the children, in order not to distress them, Rosemary knew he was thinking of Lotho’s Men. Were they out there, even now? Hally nodded, and in the next moment he smiled a little, and said in a brighter tone. ‘D’you think the Brandywine will freeze over this night?’

‘And the white wolves come?’ Robin said in excitement and dread.

We’ve quite enough wolves in the Shire already, Rosemary thought to herself, but then Hally launched into a tale of the Fell Winter, as had been handed down to him by his grandfather, who’d heard it for the first time at his grandfather’s knee. And all the while, the good smell of baking filled the room, and swelled as the last loaves baked and browned to perfection.

The wind roared, flinging snow against the window, and Hally paused in the middle of his storytelling. ‘I should hate to be a traveller, out in this!’ he said. ‘The Mountains must’ve had extra snow, and sent it out to the lowlands.’ It was an old joke; he’d never seen a mountain in his life, and wasn’t likely to. He couldn’t know it, of course, but far away, only that morning, nine travellers had been out in the heart of such wintry weather: two doughty Men forcing a path through drifts of snow; while a Wood Elf ran past them, over the top of the snow, to seek the Sun; and four hobbits, three of them cousins to Rosemary, had waited huddled together under blankets, much as Hally’s little family in the Wood shared their warmth now.

The early winter darkness had fallen before the last of the loaves of risen bread came out of the oven, and the snow whirled white against the windowpane in the main room. Hally shook his head at the thought of using lamp oil to finish the task. And yet… Would a watch lamp be enough to guide a desperate traveller through the storm to safety? Despite the tight, thick walls of the smial he’d built for his loved ones, a chill was slowly creeping inward as the temperature dropped outside and the wind roared through the treetops.

He decided to strike two birds with one stone, building up the fire, and placing the lamp in the window, but leaving it burning brightly instead of turning it down to a dim watchlight. If any ruffians were to come by, demanding why he was using so much oil (as he’d read on the sheet of Rules in the marketplace)… well, they’d likely be so cold, their teeth would be chattering too much to say much of anything, and they’d be too glad of the warmth of the fire on the hearth to penalise him for burning too much wood at one go (another of the Rules).

By the light of the lamp in the window and the fire on the hearth, Hally brought the last of the baking out of the ovens. No need to set the loaves near the windows to cool this night! Away from the heat of the ovens, and the hearth, the room was uncomfortably cool. Hally shivered to think of the chill in the bedrooms, even with all the warm covers they could heap upon the children and themselves. No, but to snuggle before the fire, all of them together, sharing all of the blankets, that was the thing on a night like this one.

Hally roused several times during the night to refresh the fire, blessing the armloads of wood he had brought in before darkness fell. He checked each time to make sure all his family were warmly covered, and when his fire-tending was done, he snuggled close to Rosemary once more, pulled the covers up, and somehow fell asleep while listening to the fury of the storm prowling outside, trying to find its way in, but unable to find entry. Even the chimney offered the storm winds and snow little opportunity to enter, with the roaring fire within. Any flurry of snow that blew down the chimney only hissed briefly in its passing, unable to quench the flames fed by the well-seasoned wood.

For Hally was both carver and woodcutter, and he knew his craft.

Highday dawned -- actually dawned! Hally wakened to the sound of the babe’s suckling. The world was preternaturally still outside -- and inside. He could distinguish the soft breathing of each of his children. The fire snapped, and he opened his eyes, to meet Rosemary’s gaze.

‘Warm, snug, and safe,’ she whispered.

‘Warm, snug, and safe,’ he agreed, parting the covers slightly to lay a kiss upon the baby’s downy head, and then he had a kiss for his beloved, before he eased himself out from under the covers, retaining as much warmth as he might manage for Rosemary and the little ones. Bright light came through the window, and he hurried to blow out the lamp standing on the sill, and stopped to gaze in wonder at a world gone white.

The snow was waist-high to a hobbit, unbroken by footprints of any creature, Man or beast, and pushed into deeper drifts against the side of the goat-shed, nearly to the roof! Broken branches littered the clearing, and Hally breathed thanks that none of the trees or larger branches had come down upon the smial. He’d have a good bit of work to do, over the next few days, just clearing away the windfalls. He cocked an eye at the sky, clear now, promising a glorious, sunny day.

Well then, the day was started, and so must he.

He added wood to the fire and swung the kettle, with its porridge preparations from last night, into place, to cook their breakfast. Just a quick wash, and he’d see to the goats…

They’d closed the doors to the bedrooms before retiring, to keep more heat in the main room, and Hally, opening the door to his and Rosemary’s room, shut it quickly behind himself again with a shudder. Oh, but it was cold! Just a quick wash, and…

The water in the ewer was frozen.

Well, then, there was naught for it but to bring the ewers from the bedrooms, and set them to one side of the hearth to melt their contents. He glanced at the buckets by the fireside, one full and one half-empty. The little spring was likely frozen over, and would have to be chopped free, but then, there was plenty of water at hand, in the form of pure, fresh-fallen snow, that he could gather, if need be, and melt for water.

‘Sponge baths for the children and ourselves, I deem,’ he said, referring to their usual Highday custom, as he returned to Rosemary and sat down on the blankets. ‘If baths at all… The spring is frozen, I should think.’

‘Frozen!’ Rosemary said. ‘Such a winter as we’re having… p’rhaps you ought to take your axe out with you, when you tend to the goats, in case the white wolves have crossed the Brandywine!’

She wasn’t joking.

‘I’ll take my axe, indeed,’ Hally said, ‘for I’ll likely need it,’ and he hastened to add, at seeing his children's alarm, ‘at the least, to break away ice from the spring, that we might have water.’ To help to keep all their spirits up, he sang a lively tune, and then another, and yet another, as he went about the business of warming the smial and laying the table for breakfast, before he braved the freezing air and waist-deep snow to care for the goats.

The rest of the day was a quiet one, quieter than the usual Highday, without the children splashing in the bath, for one thing. Hally, well-bundled up, took care of all the necessary outdoor chores, leaving Robin in charge of tending the fire. The family spent much of the day snuggled close together by the fireside, eating, talking, and napping. They played simple games, and Hally and Rosemary took turns telling stories.

Hally wrapped up each of the younger children in turn, and carried them to the window, one-by-one, to oh and ah at the snow outside. The temperature, this day at least, was too bitter to let them play in the stuff.

He did scoop several buckets full and brought them in to melt, and he let each of the children play with a handful or two, not enough to grow wet and cold, however. For a special treat at teatime, he filled a basin with snow and stirred in fresh goats’ milk and honey.

‘I wish we could have a great snowstorm every day!’ Robin shouted, upon tasting his portion. His parents laughed, and he preened as if he’d said something clever. He was a wise enough child, even at his tender age, to know that snowstorms every day were neither practical nor desirable, but the snow-milk was so very delicious…

No ruffians were to be seen that day, though smoke rose from the chimney in amounts that promised warmth and comfort within. When the Sun sought her bed at the end of the day, the only tracks to be seen in the snow in the yard were those of Hally, and of the goats, from their brief frolics when he’d let them out in the snow while he began the chore of gathering the wind-fallen wood, and of the birds that frequented the clearing. Thinking of the difficulties of being a bird in such weather, he’d scattered seeds for them, and put out shallow bowls of water, that he kept replacing as the water froze.

‘A great snowstorm every day,’ Hally echoed. ‘That would be a sight! And then a warm, fine day would be the treat, would it not?’

‘It would,’ Rosemary said, drawing up her shawl and turning her face to the fire, as the world outside turned rosy with sunset light. ‘It certainly would be a treat, even now!’

‘And then Scar could come, and finish the tale of the dog and the mouse!’ Parsley said, her face bright with anticipation. ‘Oh, I do hope this snow all melts away soon, and our special visitors may come once more!’

Hally and Rosemary exchanged a glance, and then Rosemary said, ‘We’ll have plenty of baking for them when they do come, won’t we?

‘Come now, children,’ she added, ‘it’s time to eat up our eventides, and then to save lamp oil, I think we shall seek our pillows once more.’

‘No need to seek them,’ Robin said, eminently practical. ‘They’re right here, on the hearthstones.’

‘Very good, lad,’ Hally said. ‘Why, the Master of the Hall could himself scarcely be more sensible! There’s a bright future for hobbits of good sense, or so my old dad was fond of saying...’

All of them laughed, even the littlest children who had no idea of what was meant, but Hally and Rosemary exchanged another, more sober glance in the middle of the merriment. What kind of future was to be had in these dark times, even for hobbits of good sense, they wondered?


A/N: Some turns of phrase taken from "The Ring Heads South," from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

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