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Mending day dawned rather sullenly – they woke to a steady drip-drip-dripping noise coming from the outside of the little smial, though they were warm and cosy, bundled together before the banked – yes, banked! …for the temperatures remained above freezing, even through the night hours – fire on the hearth. The dripping did not come from rain, but more from the icicles on the eaves, and trees around the yard. Heavy clouds hung low in the sky.
‘Rain likely,’ Hally said. ‘That’ll put paid to the rest of the snowbanks.’
‘Make for heavy travel,’ Rosemary said. ‘Muddy roads, I don’t wonder.’
‘If any hobbits were stirring during the bitter weather, they’d have done best when everything was frozen,’ Hally said. ‘Heavy going, even then, through the snow, but with a sledge it could be done. I hope they got stowed what they needed to get stowed…’
‘I do hope our friends stayed tight inside,’ Rosemary said. ‘I’d hate to think of them out in the cold.’ At the children’s quizzical looks, she nodded significantly and said, ‘Why, don’t you remember how poor Bracken nearly froze himself? I do hope the older Men have talked some sense into him since!’
Hally moved all the bedding back to everyone’s respective beds, with the children’s help, and returning to fetch his wife to their bed, stopped short to see Rosemary on her feet, stirring the porridge he’d measured into the kettle over the newly revived fire.
‘Rose!’ he said severely. ‘You’re not to stir foot…’
‘Stirring the porridge is hardly stirring foot!’ Rosemary said, and made a comical face, wrinkling her nose such that the children shouted with glee. ‘Imagine! Stirring porridge with your foot! Not my idea of nice!’ (That last bit was a common saying of her very proper grandmother’s, who had definite opinions of what was “nice” and what wasn’t.)
‘Think, if your face were to freeze like that,’ Hally said mildly, another of Grandmama’s pieces of wisdom, and Rosemary grimaced at him and then allowed her face to relax in a smile.
‘I’m fine, really I am, Hally, and if I bundle in blankets and tuck myself up, I’m going to grow roots in that bed, surely I am, and you should have to chop me free again!’
‘We wouldn’t want that!’ young Robin said in alarm.
‘No, we wouldn’t,’ Hally said, considering his wife thoughtfully. ‘Well, now,’ he said. ‘If you promise to confine yourself to quiet tasks like stirring porridge, and eating, and feeding the babe, and mending, we’ll let you stay up, at least until nap time.’
Rosemary nodded. ‘I won’t overdo,’ she promised. ‘And you know I always lay myself down when the children do, Hally-love.’
‘I know you do,’ he said with a nod, ‘or I’d sweep you up in these arms, I would, and carry you off to the bed, and hold you there until those roots had a chance to establish themselves!’
‘Hah,’ was Rosemary’s answer, but she didn’t decline the chair he brought over to the hearthside. She sat herself down and continued to stir, while Robin (with much “help” from Buckthorn) set the table for breakfast, and Parsley rocked the cradle to keep the babe sleeping and contented, and played “Peek” with little Lavvy.
Hally went out to see to the goats, bringing in a bucket of foaming fresh milk in one hand and a bucket of fresh, cold spring water in the other, and remarking on the mildness of the day. ‘I didn’t have to chop the spring free of ice this morn! You’d think it was spring outside!’ he said. ‘Robbie, after breakfast we’ll replenish the wood supply, but we’ve enough for the time being. We didn’t burn any at all last night, to keep warm!’
Breakfast was a merry affair, and the washing up after, during which Rosemary sat in the rocking chair and nursed the babe. Then Hally and Robin brought in wood and water, and then it was time to put down Lavender and Buckthorn for their morning nap – and Rosemary, as promised, laid herself down on the big bed with the babe, while Parsley sang Lavvy to sleep (at least, until the older sister fell asleep herself in the process) in the girls’ bed, and Robin told Buckthorn a long, drawn-out story about a rabbit and a mouse, until the little brother fell asleep, smiling around the thumb in his mouth.
Robin emerged from the boys’ room to find his father smoking his pipe and sitting at the table. His eyes lit up to see the hand-carved Kings board and its intricately shaped pieces laid out on the cloth that covered the well-scrubbed table, ready for play. Hally half rose and bowed Robin to the other side of the board. Father and son had quite a satisfying, quiet contest whilst the smial was drowned in silence.
Rosemary emerged, blinking, when the game was drawing to its conclusion. ‘Well done, Robbie!’ she whispered, placing a hand on her oldest son’s shoulder. He beamed at her.
‘He’s come to understand the game quite well,’ Hally said, ‘and furthermore, I can no longer bluff him! He sees through me every time…’
Rosemary nodded. Robin’s talent for truth-sifting was developing at an astonishing rate. It would stand him in good stead, with those who were less than truthful, but made Hally and Rosemary’s chosen path all the more difficult.
‘Well,’ Hally said, making the final move of the game, which Robin accepted with good grace, for he’d come very near to winning this time. ‘Robin, would you put the board away, lad?’ Looking to Rosemary, he added, ‘You’re not the only one who’s fretting about roots…! I think I’ll go out into the Wood and see what might have come down with all the ice and snow. There ought to be some good chopping to be found.’
‘It’s wet out,’ Rosemary said.
Hally nodded. ‘That it is,’ he said. ‘Wet, chilly, a perfect day for a long-simmering stew. I’ll put the pot on before I shoulder my axe, and you may stir it to your heart’s desire, so long as you don’t stick your foot in it!’
‘I’ll be happy to,’ Rosemary said, and when Hally grimaced at her, she added, ‘or not to, as it is.’ She put her hands on her back and stretched, and then moved to the hearth and sat down in the rocking chair. ‘There’s mending to do, as well…’
Hally obligingly brought her the mending basket, and laid her sewing basket on the table next to her chair. There wasn’t much mending to be done, as they’d all stayed so quiet – Rosemary, recovering from her difficult confinement, and everyone else due to the weather. He then made quick work of filling the stewpot, checked the supply of firewood and water, and made ready to go out.
‘Robin,’ he said. ‘If your mum needs anything at all…!’
‘I’ll watch over everything,’ the lad answered, standing as tall as he could. ‘You can count on me, Dad!’
‘And you’re going to stay in that chair, or in the bed,’ Hally said. He received Rosemary’s nod, and pointed a stern finger. ‘I mean it! No floor scrubbing, or…’
‘Of course not, Hally,’ Rosemary said with all sweet reasonableness. ‘Why, that’s for Cleaning day, on the morrow! ‘Twouldn’t be proper at all!’
‘And if any of our friends should stop…’ Hally began.
‘I doubt they will,’ Rosemary said. ‘Baking day is two days off, after all…’
‘We’ve plenty of baking from last week to share,’ Robin said. ‘It hasn’t even gone stale, being frozen, as it was, in the pantry!’
‘We’ll be fine,’ Rosemary said.
Hally shook his head. ‘Robin’s too young to put the kettle on,’ he said, ‘and I don’t want you lifting anything, Rose. If one or more of our friends should stop, you be sure to ask him to fill the kettle and put it on, and take it off again, and fill the teapot. Robin knows, at least, how to pour out, but I don’t want him or yourself doing any of the rest!’
‘We’ll be fine,’ Rosemary repeated, and kissed the cheek he bent to her. ‘Honestly, Hally, you act as if I’ve never had a new babe before…’
They shared a look, for the words they would have said were not safe to say before any of the children, least of all Robin, and then Hally said, ‘Well, then, Robin, see to it that your mum rests herself and doesn’t try and do too much whilst I’m gone.’
‘While the cat’s away…’ Rosemary teased with a little smile to belie her sudden tension at being left alone with the children, Hally out in the woods and ruffians, for all they knew, everywhere about.
‘None of that, now!’ Hally said, shaking a stern finger, and then shouldering his axe, he went out the door and was soon out of sight of Robin, waving from the window.
Hally had left a plate of sliced ham, a basket of breadrolls (still cold, but no longer frozen after sitting in the warm room), apples and pickled vegetables on the sideboard for his family’s noontide meal – he’d packed his own nooning away in a bag that he carried over one shoulder, tied to the haft of his axe for convenience. It was quick work for Robin and Parsley to make up plates for everyone. Robin brought Rosemary’s plate to her, and the children sat upon the hearthrug to eat.
‘Another picnic!’ Rosemary said cheerily. ‘Why, when summer comes, I hope we won’t be too wearied of picnics to have a proper one out-of-doors, and all…’
‘Sitting upon the sawn stumps of trees in a fairy ring,’ Parsley said dreamily, ‘and pretending the Elves will come at any moment to join the feast!’ For Rosemary had heard some of Bilbo’s tales, in her youth, and told them to her family in turn. Indeed, in the soft of a summer evening, when the birds are singing their farewells to the sleep-bound Sun, and the smells of the sun-warmed earth linger in the air, even the Woody End can seem an enchanted place.
There was tea in the pot that Hally had left cosied, and Robin was proud and happy to pour out for the little family, fixing cambric tea for his younger sisters and brother, and making a “proper cup” for himself – though he made a face at the taste, and added more of water and milk until it was halfway between “proper” and “cambric”.
It was turning out to be a merry meal indeed, when a knocking was heard at the door.
Rosemary managed not to spill her tea. ‘Visitors!’ she said, with as broad a smile as she could manage.
Robin put his cup down safely away from little Lavvy’s grasp, plopped the faunt into Parsley’s lap, and jumped up to answer the door, calling in a loud and cheerful voice, ‘Coming! I’m coming!’
He opened the door to find young Bracken-the-Man, and grabbed the Man’s sleeve, to pull him inside. ‘Come in! Don’t let all the heat out…!’
As it was definitely still quite cold outside, if not freezing, the hobbit child’s words made eminent sense. It was no weather to stand and pass the time in the doorway. Bracken entered and pushed the door shut behind him, though he came no further, but stood hesitating.
‘Welcome,’ Rosemary said, setting her own cup down and starting to rise.
Bracken held out a commanding hand. ‘Stay!’ he ordered, his voice cracking on the stern word, though he did his best to hold it steady. He cleared his throat and tried again.
‘Scar sent me to see if all is well with you, and if you needed anything…’
Rosemary did not show her surprise at the latter part of his statement, biting her teeth together rather than letting her jaw drop in astonishment. She looked down at the babe in the cradle at her feet, turned the grimace into a smile, and looked up again, beaming. ‘Why, how thoughtful!’ she said. ‘Such friends… when your father told me we’d be living deep in the Wood, Robin, when he was wooing me, I thought for certain ‘twould be a lonely life… I never imagined…!’
And to the young Man, she said, ‘We are well, truly!’
‘And yourself, Missus?’ Bracken said, ducking his head and blinking a little, as if he felt uncomfortable intruding, especially with Hally absent.
Meanwhile, Robin was pouring out tea into a Man-sized cup, and tucking ham into a breadroll, and he brought these to Bracken at the door. ‘Come now!’ the little lad urged. ‘Come ben!’
The latter was a phrase from the Green Hill country, an old Tookish greeting from happier days, and Rosemary held her breath, but the significance seemed lost on the young Man, and she let the breath out again in a silent sigh. That would have to go…
‘Don’t just stand there in the doorway,’ Robin continued. ‘Sit on the hearthrug with us, and join our picnic! Such hosts as you must think us!’
‘One-hand calls you the souls of hospitality,’ Bracken said, and though he took the food and drink, he stayed just inside the door. ‘My boots are muddy.’
‘Wipe your feet – that’s what the mat is for,’ Robin said. ‘We change it and lay down a new one, when it gets muddy. Or you could take off your boots, entirely, and be a hobbit for the moment!’
Bracken laughed, and then he took a bite of his bread-and-ham. ‘Umm, good,’ he said through the mouthful. ‘But – no more, Robin! I beg you! I cannot stay.’
‘We wouldn’t want to make trouble for Bracken with his Boss,’ Rosemary said. She’d have to teach young Robin that too much hospitality was as bad as grudging welcome. Hally knew just how far to go, in pressing friendship on Lotho’s Men. Too much, from him, would kindle suspicion.
‘No,’ said Bracken, having wolfed down the food and half the cup of warm beverage at a gulp. He was obviously in haste. ‘I was only to ask, if it would be convenient for us to visit on your next Baking Day… but if you are needing more time to recover…’
‘Oh!’ Rosemary said, surprised all over again at this sign of consideration from Lotho’s Men… And yet, it fit with Scar’s obvious care and concern, dating from the birth of the babe. She wondered, and not for the first time, if he’d lost someone he loved in childbirth. A wife? Sister? Mother?
‘Here,’ Bracken said, holding out his empty mug to Robin. ‘And my thanks, Robin!’
‘I’m well!’ Rosemary said. ‘Truly! Hally’s barely let me stir foot from chair or bed, and I swear I shall go mad if I have to sit a week longer!’
‘That’s good news,’ Bracken said. ‘I’ll tell the others.’
Rosemary couldn’t quite get up the nerve to ask him how many she ought to expect… They’d simply bake plenty, along with what they had left, that had frozen in the pantry after the last Baking Day. And of course, the goats could eat up any stale baking, and turn it to milk, butter, and cheese.
But seeing the Man’s red, raw hand as Robin took the mug from him, Rosemary held up her own hand in a staying gesture. ‘But wait! I have a little something…’
She reached down to one side, where her basket of knitting reposed, and pulled out a pair of oversized mittens, brightly striped. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘I’ve been thinking of you, ever since you came to us half-frozen! This winter has been so cold, and here you are, out in the elements without benefit of gloves or…’
‘I can warm my hands in my pockets,’ Bracken said.
‘I beg your pardon, but I don’t think so!’ Rosemary contradicted him, greatly daring, but she wasn’t so afraid of Bracken as some of his cohorts. ‘Take them! For they won’t fit a hobbit’s hands… I’m not certain they’ll fit a Man’s, even, for I made up the pattern as I went… Try them on, at least, and let me see if I need to pull them to pieces and start over again… Robin!’
The little lad trotted over to her to take the mittens from her hand, exchanging these for the Man’s mug, and then back to the door.
‘Try them on… please?’ Rosemary said, allowing a pleading tone to enter her voice, with a look of entreaty.
Sheepishly, Bracken pulled the mittens over his red and chapped hands, and held them up in show. ‘Perfect fit!’ he said, warming to the idea of wearing them. But then he began to pull them off again.
‘No, keep them!’ Rosemary said. ‘They’re of no use to us, and now I know the pattern worked, I can make more for your friends… our friends… You tell them, if they want a certain colour, to be sure and let me know…’
Bracken’s mouth dropped open, for only an instant before he commanded himself again, and then he shook his head. ‘You’re a wonder, Rosie,’ he said.
Rosemary smiled. ‘So my husband is always telling me,’ she said. ‘I suppose there must be some truth in it.’
‘O’ course there is!’ Robin shouted, and Bracken and Rosemary both laughed at this.
The noise wakened the babe, and Bracken made haste to make his farewells as Rosemary picked up his namesake, to feed him.
He was still wearing the mittens as he closed the door behind him.
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