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The Proposition  by Lindelea

Chapter 21.

Hally woke to the dawnlight streaming rosy through the frost-covered window, for the watchlamp had burned low and gone out sometime in the night, allowing the frost-faeries to come boldly and ply their brushes in fantastical designs. They’d used too much oil the previous night, was his first thought, for the lamp ought not have run dry. ‘Wash day,’ he muttered, slipping out of the nest of blankets covering his sleeping family, letting in as little cold air as possible. Rosemary slept to one side, the babe snuggled close, and the older children were tumbled together, limp as puppies, safe between mother and father.

Shivering, he moved to the window and scratched at the frost with his fingers, looking out on a world that continued beautiful, but deadly white. ‘Fancy,’ he breathed. He’d scarcely be surprised to see wolves nosing about the yard, white wolves having crossed the frozen Brandywine, but there were none, save in his imagination. Thankfully.

He blew on his fingers as he peeped through the small hole he’d made in the frost. He imagined hauling the copper out from the shed, into the yard, lighting a fire underneath, filling it with… what? Water? He’d likely have to chop the spring free all over again this day, and even at that, what emerged would be a mere trickle of the usual flow. But snow – a bucket full of snow would melt down to a few cups full. It would take many buckets of snow to fill the copper with sufficient snow to melt into enough water to fill the wash and rinse tubs.

Neither did he fancy hauling the water from yard into the smial, opening the door repeatedly to go in and out again, letting out any heat that managed to build up, even with a roaring fire on the hearth.

‘Better to be dirty and smelly, than cold,’ he muttered.

‘Quite so,’ Rosemary said behind him.

He turned quickly, ready to chide, but she had spoken from the blankets, only her face showing, still flushed with sleeping under the warm covers.

‘Let me build up the fire,’ he said. ‘You stay there until I have things a bit warmer.’

‘Lovely thought,’ she said, looking downward, moving a bit under the blankets. Hally realized that the babe had wakened, and Rosemary was seeing to his breakfast. ‘We’ll have to do a little washing,’ she said. ‘Nappies, at least. But we can boil just enough water to fill a couple of buckets, slosh nappies in one, rinse in the other, hang them near the fire to dry…’ Hally nodded, and she continued, ‘We’ve not gotten properly dirty, the last few days, what with scarcely moving from the warm spot before the hearth.’

‘And clothes must be properly dirty, in order to do a proper wash,’ Hally said.

‘Quite proper,’ Rosemary agreed.

Wash day without washing – save nappies for the babe. It was another day of quiet inactivity, just the most basic chores, taking care of the animals, cooking and washing up, keeping the fire burning and hauling wood and snow to melt for water. The melted snow had something of a flat taste, not conducive to quenching thirst, but Hally solved this by stirring up cambric tea for the children – hot water and fresh milk and a splash of tea, which had the additional benefit of being a warming drink, as well as special treat in the little ones’ eyes.

For the most part, the little family nestled before the hearth. After the nappies had been scrubbed, rinsed, and hung up on the rack before the fire, Hally found more stories to tell – there is always another story, it seems – in between the necessities of getting a meal, or clearing away, or melting more snow that they might have water to wash hands and faces and dishes and cups. It was too cold for any of them to go out to the privy, even by daylight, so they must make use of the chamber pots, which added to Hally’s chores. He continued to insist on complete rest for his wife, and so Rosemary tended the babe, snuggled the children and sang songs with them, and even managed to do some knitting while the littlest ones napped.

Truth be told, it was a sleepy day, and they all napped, even Hally, who was not used to such luxuries as a wealthy hobbit might enjoy, no, not even naps. Ah, but the most important work, this day, was to keep the fire burning bright and warm…

Moving about out-of-doors was more difficult this day than the previous one. A crust had formed over the top of the snow, not thick enough to bear Hally’s weight, but thick enough to make walking difficult. He was glad of the paths he’d forged between smial and goat shed and woodshed the previous day. At least when he broke through the crust of snow, it was only part-way to his knees, so long as he walked where he’d already made a path of sorts.

They ate simple meals, slept a great deal, and went early to bed that night, though none of them were tired enough to sleep soundly after that restful day. Hally and Rosemary lay long awake, listening to the crackling of the fire, and though Rosemary did not speak when Hally moved to throw another log on, as the fire burned low, she reached for his hand and squeezed it in silent gratitude when he curled close to her once more.

Hally woke to the dawning of Ironing day – a day with no ironing, as there’d been precious little washing done the previous day, though he’d need to wash another bucket or two of nappies to keep the babe in good supply – to see clearly through the window, to look on a cloudy day. No frost to obscure the view!

The room was perceptibly warmer when he slipped from beneath the blankets. It was still cold enough to see his breath, but not icy cold. He added wood to the fire and hurried to the window. The snow looked softer, somehow, and the long icicles hanging from the eaves of the smial were dripping.

‘It’s warmer,’ he told Rosemary, turning back to their makeshift bed on the hearth. ‘P’rhaps we’ve turned a corner.’

‘P’rhaps,’ she echoed with a smile, though she heaved a sigh. Hally didn’t need to ask what the matter was. He felt much the same way. It was a relief that the weather was loosening its terrible grip. It was a worry to anticipate the return of Lotho’s Men. Still, they’d managed thus far.

The snow was softer this day, slowly melting, and Hally allowed the three oldest children a brief time out-of-doors to play with the stuff. They could pack it together to make balls of snow, to cast at a mark. They could form shapes of the snow – Hally helped the children to create an entire family of snow-hobbits in the yard, with branches for arms, and mufflers wound round their necks, and real buttons from Rosemary’s sewing basket. There were a mother, father, and several children gathered around the parents, and the family was complete with a little dog, sitting up to beg for the snow-apple in the snow-mum’s woody hand.

When they came in, laughing and rosy from the cold, Rosemary scolded them all for staying outside so long and possibly catching their deaths. Then Hally helped her up from the jumble of bedding and escorted her to the window to admire the fruit of their labours, and she took it all back and heaped compliments upon the artists.

The fire on the hearth warmed the room – actually warmed the room! …and when Hally checked the bedrooms, he found the water in the ewers had melted. Ah, it was cold enough to see his breath in the bedrooms, but not freezing cold, at least. ‘One more night upon the hearth,’ he said, emerging again. ‘And then, if this warming continues, we’ll be able to sleep in our beds once more.’

The little Bolgers gave a general moan of disappointment at this, but subsided at their father’s look. ‘Now then,’ he said. ‘T’wouldn’t be a special treat, if we did it every night, now, would it?’

‘S’pose not,’ Robin said, looking down at his toes, echoed by Parsley and Buckthorn’s lisping tones. Little Lavvy crowed and waved her fist and babbled agreement.

‘And we wouldn’t want any special visitors to see our bedding, all laid out on the floor, and think that we lived this way, and didn’t know what was proper,’ Rosemary said.

The children brightened at this. ‘And Scar can finish the story!’ Parsley cried in great glee.

Her father smiled. ‘That he can,’ he said. ‘And most likely start another one. I like that in a friend; a good storyteller. Then I don’t have to say so much.’

‘As if you would,’ Rosemary said fondly. ‘Why, children,’ she went on, beginning a story of her own, one well-known to her family, but beloved for all that. ‘When I first met your father, he could scarcely rub two words together to make a sentence! Let me tell you…’

Do tell!’ cried the children eagerly, and so she did.

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