Thanks to pwsbpanthael, to Frayach and Calanthe for their thoughtful comments.
The spinning song is a British traditional that I've modified slightly.

In the Clear
by Cara J. Loup

There comes a time in winter when the cold gnaws the bone, like a beast. Hamfast Gamgee can feel it from ankle to wrist and sharper in the middle of his back. He steps round the small byre and the shed with his arms so full of rushes, his toes have to grope the way for him. But the snow piles inches thick now, shifting between the soles of his feet and the frozen ground.

Snow falling so smooth before Yule means well for the spring, and everyone knows it. But this snow came on so quick, it's gathered to mounds beside the field, 'tween here and the farmhouse. Though Tom and Jolly went across not ten minutes ago, their footprints have disappeared. Over on the other side, a light gleams from the kitchen window, under a sky like curdled milk. Another hour, and it'll be dark as pitch.

Hamfast can't help wishing but that the weather would clear. He peers at the kitchen light through the snow and the rushes he'll spread along the cottage floor. His hands serve well enough for that, useless as they are for drawing water from the well or milking. He tried one morn when the lasses were off with their washing, on his knees behind the nanny-goat that they keep. But as patient as the wasted creature is, he couldn't bend his fingers close enough to squeeze her teats. Not with all his will pushed into the effort and his eyes watering from the pain.

He leans his shoulder into the door, shoves it open, and pauses a bit for breath, letting the cold rush from his chest. In the kitchen, Marigold is making ready to bake the Yule cakes with the barest pinch of sugar. In years afore, they used to have jars full of dainties saved for the Yule cakes raisin, almond, ginger and lard but not this year.

"Sit yourself down by the fire, Dad," says Marigold, her face aflush. "You're all chilled through."

"In a while, Mari, in a while."

He drops the bundled rushes near the doorstep, shuffling about so Mari won't see how his fingers are frozen to claws. Then he sits on the edge of the bench hard by the hearth. He'll have to hold his hands to the fire ere he can stretch them and do his job.

They've swept out the old rushes after lunch, and the reek of mould and dog-piss with them. Jolly's too soft on the dog, letting the mutt in the house as he does, and Hamfast told him so more than once, but Jolly don't seem to hear. He'll sit at table with one hand falling down to scratch between the dog's ears or feed it morsels from his own plate. As if we had a crumb to waste, Jolly, as if.

Mari's gasp breaks him out of that thought, her face turning from red to ashen in no time. She looks so ill that her father near jumps from his seat. "Here, lass, sit and breathe a minute."

With one hand grasping the table's edge, Mari drops on a stool and gives a little laugh, all out of breath.

"The babe's growing again," says she, her hand pressed to the swelling under her stomach.

"Aye, and you ought to be feeding him proper."

"I do as best I can," answers Marigold, smiling a bit at his anxious look.

But her father can't help worriting that the babe will be born thin and starved, and unfit to live long. If it's a boy for true, he'll herit the farm after Tom, but they'll have more bairns, he and Marigold, and growing up a farmer is close enough to growing up a gardner. Not that it matters, mind. It's to be Sam's son taking up gardening, to learn all that's been passed on from Holman Greenhand to Hamfast and Sam hisself. Surely Sam recollects what he's been taught, neither travelling nor fighting foreigners could have plucked that out of him.

Still Hamfast holds to a hope that he'll live till his grandson's grown enough to start pulling weeds and hear about the many kinds of bloom as his hands can raise from the soil. It used to be a kindly thought, that, the small round face of his grandson like a memory of Sam as a wee lad, but now it's a wish as fierce as thorn in his heart.

Mari heaves from the stool, with colour returned to her cheeks, and Hamfast knows that he's been wandering in his own mind too long. He frowns on all the bowls and jugs she's set out, and the load of work waiting. "Where's that Ivy now?"

"Off to her own folk. Her mother's sick. You know that, Dad."

Aye, he does, but he'd forgotten. He nods his head shortly and rubs his stiff fingers that are now coming unfrozen.

Mari has her good cheer back and sets about her baking with a tune at the tip of her tongue. Her mother used to be like that, bless her, always ready with a song for every piece of work. There's times now when Hamfast can't recollect his Bell's breath in the night, but through all the years he remembered the sweet lilt of her voice filling the kitchen. How will that be in the new hole, with a new kitchen?

The snow's stopped the works up where Bagshot Row used to be, but most rooms in the new smials were dug out afore the frost. Come thawing, it won't be long till Hamfast can return home. Not long, Sam keeps telling him, but the fact is that Sam puts a full deal of work into fixing Bag End.

"There..." Mari sprinkles the batter with a handful of the dried raisins that Tom brought back from market. They're out of the Tookland, he says. The taste collects at the back of Hamfast's gums and he's pressing his tongue to the spot, to that fancy of a sweet smack.

"There's to be a Yule dance in the Marshes' barn," says Marigold with a gleam in her eye.

"Aye, well, they've got the room there now, though not enough ale, I'll warrant."

"Never mind the ale. We'll all be going. Ivy, Rosie and me." Marigold smiles. "If Tom and Jolly won't dance for fear of tripping over their feet, why, they can cheer us along."

"And Sam," says Hamfast. "If he'll spare the time."

"He works like a mule, our Sam." Mari steps near him and picks up a hook to open the door of the small iron oven. The Cottons' gift for the wedding it was, when her own father could but give her good words and well-wishing.

A puff of heat blows from the oven, and Hamfast leans towards it, eager with every bone that's inside him. Mari wipes her hand over her face, leaving a streak of flour on her cheek.

"He's choosing his work as he pleases," says her father. "That's what he does, you mark me."

Mari tugs on her apron with both hands and takes a breath. "Don't be so hard on him, Dad."

"Hard?" He stares at her, and she looks away quick.

I've got eyes on me, Hamfast wants to tell her, though it doesn't take eyes to know. It's not the little scars on Sam that weren't there before, or the weary drag in his gait. It's the manner he's taken up, always watching and slow for words, and his shoulders set as like he's been pulling the plough every spring of his life. It's in his voice, too, in the way he has when he moves about the house, careful to his very breath. Every day, fair or bleared, his father can feel it in him, and it makes him want to weep.

"First they call him dead, and then my own son comes a-walking like some scatterling I never knew!"

"He didn't know," says Marigold, while her spoon clatters against the bowl, round and round. "Sam didn't know aught about the ruffians and the mischief up on the Hill. How could he?"

Hamfast shakes his head. 'Tis easy for Mari to speak of such things. She and Tom, they're young. They went and made a new home for themselves, as is the way of many young folk, and their blessing. What happened to Bagshot Row didn't break Mari's heart, and her father's glad of that. But she can't know what a body of his years has to bear when the world's turned inside out, like an old frock, and then ripped to tatters. There'll be a new Row, aye, but the harm done to the old can't never be mended. Sam knows that, too.

"Hard on him!" repeats Hamfast. "'Tis all the mischief and ruin what's hard on Sam, and them grand old trees gone."

He'll not live enough years to see the new trees grow as tall and hardy, and neither will Sam. 'Tis only natural to wish for children growing, children that'll know life as it ought to be.

"Look at 'ee, Mari, with your fine home and the wee one kicking your stomach," Hamfast carries on. "That's what Sam'll be wanting for happiness."

Mari tips her head to one side and pulls up her shoulders. Good lass as she is elsewise, she's got a stubborn head. "Happiness comes in its own time, and there's no hurrying it. I have that from your own mouth, Dad."

But time's changed its running, it has, and now it's always a leap ahead. Hamfast coughs and tells himself once again that Sam's been out of the Shire over a year. 'Tis no wonder that he's mithered as to what's where and who's what. Still, more than six weeks have passed, and his head ain't where it ought to be, nor his eyes or his hands.

"'T won't come this winter," says Hamfast, "and that's certain."

Mari hangs her head as she dribbles the last of the water from a jug, and then her father's aggrieved for the words spoken in bitterness.

"I'll fetch more," he says ere she can think of it herself.

There's no need for drawing water from the well now, not with all the fresh snow. Hamfast takes the pail out past the croft and shovels it full, though his fingers miss the heat and the joints start their old plaint. But he's back in minutes, with the snow ready to melt by the hearth.

Mari's waving her hands at the steam that wafts from her baking. "I've made sweet rolls. They've visitors over at the farm, did you see?"

He hasn't, and he's wonders who might travel in this weather, and with what sort of tidings.

"There's a waggon in the yard," says Mari. "Mayhap it's Nick come over from Frogmorton."

Aforetimes, folk used to plan a visit proper, and if aught in the deep of winter could fetch them from their holes, it'd be a Yule party, but not this year.

Marigold wraps the rolls in a good piece of cloth and puts them in a basket, one next to the other, like eggs. She means to take them over to the farmhouse herself.

"Let me take 'em, Mari," says Hamfast. "You rest now."

"Not yet." Still, she hands him the basket over. "I've more baking to do, and the dishes won't wait till the morrow either."

"Aye, but if you wear yourself out, you'll be abed ill, and then what'll Tom say?" Hamfast puts a hand on her shoulder and feels the softness of her hair as she turns her head, smiling at him.

"Go on now, Dad. And take your scarf."

'Tis getting dark outside, though the snow's shining all over the stretch from here to the farmhouse. Treacherous it is, too, for it hides the bumps and dips in the ground, and it's covered up most of the dead thistles. Hamfast stalks along the edge of the field and sinks in to his ankles. As a small lad, he used to wonder why something so bright won't give off a smell of its own, but the snow won't do aught but shine.

Ahead of him, the kitchen light wavers like a lantern, dim and foggy to his old eyes. He could go in through the back, but instead he walks round to the yard, for a peep at the waggon. It ain't Nick's cart, that's certain, it's a waggon Hamfast doesn't recollect at all, and that may bode ill this year.

When he opens the front door, voices fill the house from one end to the other. They're all gathered in the kitchen, round the large table: Tom and Lily Cotton, and their sons save Nick, and Mr. Frodo and Sam. But by the fire a couple is sitting with a wee boy on his mother's lap and a lass near Rosie's age tucked to her side. Rosie herself is busy at the spinning wheel.

"Hamfast!" calls Tom Cotton, raising the hand with his pipe. "Step in and have a cup with us."

His wife takes the basket from Hamfast and sighs at the good smell.

"From Marigold," says he and takes a seat beside Tom, across from Sam.

Though Sam murmurs a word or two, his eyes scarce flicker over to his dad, then they're back to the knives he's whetting. Beside him, Mr. Frodo smiles in greeting as he tamps down the leaf in his pipe.

"This is Hamfast Gamgee, Sam's dad, and my second cousin through wedlock, on the father's side." Tom nods to the visitors who look starved and pale, for all that they're sitting in the midst of a homely kitchen. The little lad's cheeks are burning though, as like he might've caught a fever. "Hending and Ruby Harfoot," says Tom to Hamfast, "Ruby being second cousin to Lily's mother. They're come to stay with us till we can find them proper shelter."

"We used to live in Whitwell," puts in Mr. Harfoot. "But we was drove out our home before harvest. Needed storage space, they said, what with our hole dug so nice and deep in the little hillock there."

Tom Cotton snorts, though he must've heard the tale before, and Lily shakes her head whilst she's setting out the bread rolls for everyone.

"After, it looked a pigsty, our home did!" Harfoot is all red in the face, his eyes full of anger. "And with all the building they did on the hillside, the roof fell down."

"We slept in a barn till the weather turned," adds his wife, and he pats her hand.

"Ah, but that won't do at all!" says Tom Cotton. "You should've come to us quicker. Rosie and Withy here can move in the bedroom with us, and you'll have hers."

"'Tis a nice bed, too, with a wool mattress," says Rosie over the whirr of her spinning wheel. There ought to be a song with that, and mayhap the Harfoots would take a bit of comfort from it.

"You lost your home too," says Mrs. Harfoot in a soft voice, so soft that Hamfast has to guess from the movement of her lips.

He nods, but what's to say of it, when he can see the grief in her eyes, clear as day?

Mr. Frodo turns in his chair to give her a kind look. "We'll find a place for you."

Since he were elected Deputy Mayor, he spends a lot of time sending folk and goods to the places where they're most needed, and finding room for everyone.

The Cotton farm will be right crowded now, with all beds taken and some being mere pallets on the floor. Young Tom and Jolly talk about putting up a curtain in their parents' bedroom and screening off a corner, so the two lasses can have some space to themselves.

With the Harfoots about, mayhap Mr. Frodo will leave to live in Michel Delving, in the Mayor's home, if they've room for him. Right and proper that'd be, unlike sharing a bed with Samwise, as if they're family. Brothers will sleep together, and cousins, and 'prentices of a time, but not a Baggins and a Gamgee.

Hamfast looks hard at his son, but Sam's running his thumb along the blade of a knife and won't mark that look. What did I tell 'ee about keeping to your place? Mr. Frodo ought to know it full well, and so should Sam.

"Now where've I put the scissors?" Rosie rises up from her stool and looks about. 'Tis a tough yarn as she's spun, one that fingers won't snap lightly.

"I've got them sharpened for you." Sam picks them out from the stack he's been grinding to the whetstone. "You've spun enough to weave a cloak, if not two," he says as he hands them to her.

Rosie laughs. "A cloak for a cricket maybe!"

She sets the full spindle aside, her hands dark from the wool's grease, looking right pleased. While he's watching, Hamfast remembers a song that goes with the spinning, one that he's heard oft from the maids in the village, though it tells of a lad's fond thoughts.

My young Mari doth mind the dairy,
While I go a-howing and mowing each morn.
Then hey the little spinning wheel
Merrily round and round doth reel
While I'm out singing amidst the corn.

The song hums in the back of his throat and for a space sets his heart at ease. Sam's but taking his time, as he's always done, even when he weren't taller than a hopper. That's all.

Hamfast dips his roll in the bowl of milk and takes a bite. Now that he's not straining his ears, the talk round him dwindles to a low burr. On the other side of the table, young Tom is whittling, and it looks like he might be carving a new ladle from that piece of wood. He takes after his father, he does, never idle, and the good heart peering out from his his eyes.

Such a fine hobbit his father is, straight and true like an oak in the best of years. Hamfast thinks on it as he chews. There were a time last winter, in the dark Afteryule, when he came out to the farm to wish the Cottons all friendly things for the new year. Though the truth of it is that all wishing had gone from his heart as though it were dropped in a barrel of pitch. Not that he could speak of it. Not amidst Lily and Rosie laughing.

The recollection's with him now. So close and vivid, it's as if he's back there on the doorstep, looking out over the darkening field. Once again he sees the ribbons of hardened snow where they lie on the black furrows, and more falling in a drizzle. Once again he hears Tom Cotton's voice, from just a step behind.

"You've a fret in your heart, Ham. I've known 'ee long enough to tell."

How to answer that? Hamfast clears his throat and spits in the snow. "I've heard a piece of news this Trewsday..." His voice is shrunk to a hapless croak. "...about Sam."

"What's it that you heard?" asks Tom Cotton. "Tell me to the word."

It brings ease to speak the darkest trouble, so the saying is, but Hamfast never believed it. Not till this day. "The Thain's family had word from Mr. Bolger of Budgeford," says he, "a letter, I deem, though I don't rightly know. Pansy Brown that works for the Tooks in Great Smials picked up gossip in the kitchen. It's she that told me the tale when she came to visit her folk in Hobbiton."

Tom Cotton waits to hear more, without flinging questions left and right, as others would. With his slow breaths and the stable smells on him, he's patience itself. Hamfast fills his chest of air, cold as it is.

"There was Black Men storming the house in Crickhollow that Mr. Frodo bought. Breaking the door and setting fire in the roof besides, I shouldn't wonder."

"Black Men?"

"I've seen one of 'em up in Bagshot Row," answers Hamfast, though his voice is nigh failing him. "Spoke with 'im, too. He came looking for Mr. Frodo just the day he left." The remembrance runs a chill down his back as it did that day, a harsh cold breathing down from the fellow on the height of his horse, his face hid in the black hood. "They're nowt like us, Tom."

Tom Cotton makes a noise in his throat. There's agreement in it, and no small bit of worry. But he'd never flinch from a threat, Hamfast is thinking. With the courage that he owns, Tom would face even onesuch as that rider.

"It was they that had Mr. Frodo running off into the Old Forest, him and those two cousins of his. And my Sam." Hamfast coughs to loose the knot in his throat. "There's not been word of 'em since." He bites his teeth together and through them steals what he's been thinking all week. "He's dead. My Sam's dead." As the words go out there's not a breath left in his chest.

"Ah, but we don't know that." Tom Cotton puts a hand on his shoulder that lays there calm as comfort. "Like as not, they've found themselves a sheltered spot for the winter. They couldn't go a-travelling in this season, now could they?"

But how would Hamfast know, seeing as how Mr. Frodo's been up to such things as he'd never expected neither. Staying close in his hole with a wizard for weeks first, and then selling Bag End to those Sackville-Baggins cousins of his, as he ought never to have done.

"Come back inside, Ham," says Tom and gives his shoulder a little tug.

The smells of Lily's good cooking fill the kitchen. In the hearth leap flames with nary a worry, and it's all Hamfast can see as he stands there, the bright yellow 'neath the belly of the kettle that should warm him.

"'Tis the drear of winter what turns the mind to aught but grief," says Tom. "It ain't a time to spend by your lonesome, Ham."

The back door opens, and in comes Rosie with an armful of firewood, her shawl sprinkled white and her cheeks aglow like merry apples. She has a smile like spring already blooming when they turn to her. Tom's eye lights up when it falls on his daughter, and the look of them both warms Hamfast to the marrow.

"Shall I make tea?" Rosie's taken the pot and cups off the shelf ere they've answered, spry and light-footed as she is. Tom and Hamfast take their seats.

"Your Sam'll be home in spring, I shouldn't be surprised," says Tom Cotton. They're both watching Rosie who's humming as she swings the kettle back over the fire. When their eyes meet again, Tom's smile is broad and steady. There's a promise in that smile, and what with Rosie humming, it puts the song back in Hamfast's mind.

She's soft as the air,
As morning fair.

Such is Rosie, while Hamfast were given a hope that his own heart couldn't hold. It drove out the blackness that day, and many nights after. It kept him warm when there weren't enough deadwood to be had for a proper fire. Through all the troubles, it kept him.

He's finished eating his roll, and his stomach grumbles for another that it can't have. Hamfast fills his pipe from Tom's own satchel and leans back against a post in the wall as he smokes. Sam is to have the same comfort, and more, come spring.

"Well, the pots are calling!" says Lily, putting her tea down with a smack. She's set her mind to feed them all somehow, even those four added mouths.

As Lily returns to her cooking, the lass Withy wipes crumbs off her skirt and goes to sit by the spinning wheel. Right eager she must be, to do such homely work once again, nigh a steady fire. How the wind must have whistled through that barn where they slept! Hamfast rubs at a shiver that comes creeping down from his elbow. He ought to get up too, instead of idling time away, and see to those rushes. Else Mari might take on the job by herself. He curls his toes to find his feet, warmed through as they are.

"I've set some pickles aside for 'ee," says Lily as Hamfast ties his scarf round his neck, "there by the pantry door."

He thanks her though Lily says that it ain't much for celebrating Yule proper. But the pair of jars are round as a sow's belly, and the first nigh slips from his fingers when Hamfast picks it up.

"Shall I walk with you, Dad?" asks Sam who's followed him. "I'd better carry that for you."

"Don't 'ee worry, I'll take it home later," puts in young Tom, tapping wood-flakes away from the thing shaped like a ladle.

Mr. Frodo's on his feet too, and off to the bedroom with a murmured word that Hamfast don't catch. He looks from the jars to Sam who's still awaiting an answer, and shakes his head. "Tom can bring 'em."

But instead of sitting back down, Sam meets his eye with as keen and stalwart a look as Tom Cotton might give you, and yet naught like it. There's a gloom there as though Sam's been worn to the quick on the road, causing no end of grievance to his father.

Through all his travelling and his business with Black Men, Mr. Frodo's left a mark on Sam. At times Hamfast can nigh smell it. Though it served to keep the Black Men out of the Shire, and a body with his wits about will be grateful for that. There's been enough harm done as it were. As he looks his son in the eye, Hamfast fancies that they both feel what none else in the house does, that the ground under their feet's sore and swollen with cares.

Then Mr. Frodo returns from the bedroom, carrying his cloak, a roll of parchment and a pouch. "Mr. Gamgee," says he, "there is a letter that I need to write, so that the messenger can take it to Michel Delving tomorrow morning..." He gives a glance to the crowded kitchen table. "Do you think I might take it to the cottage?"

"Marigold's in the midst of her baking, sir," begins Hamfast, but he can't tell the Master no, though Mr. Frodo ain't one to be cross about it. "Still and all, we can make a bit of room for you, I'll be bound."

"I would appreciate that," says Mr. Frodo, "if it isn't too much trouble."

Sam takes the pouch and parchment from him, so Mr. Frodo can put on his cloak. He's nimble enough with his crippled hand, and so quick none would notice the gap 'tween his fingers 'less they looked hard.

"It shouldn't take long," says Mr. Frodo, smiling on Sam.

Even Hamfast with his bleared eyes can't miss the smile Sam gives back, free and unawares as a half-grown lad. It stings his father like a fret to the spleen.

His goodbyes said, Hamfast goes straight to the back door, Mr. Frodo following behind. The cold outside wrings a cough from his chest. Hamfast pulls his hands back into his sleeves, halting a moment so his eyes can get used to the gloom. After all the months with the ruffians about, he's still in a habit of glancing round as like something frightful might lurk in the shadows, and straining his ears for any manner of noise. But all's quiet as they start walking across, and the snow's no longer falling. On ahead, the cottage lies under a harsh load collected on the roof, and all the trees' branches are white as bone.

Mr. Frodo casts a glance up to the sky. He's a sight thin and pale, as many are this winter, but there's a look about him of times that puts Hamfast in mind of the Widow Rumble. He can guess what the widow might picture when she wears such a dreaming look, but he can't fancy what's passing through Mr. Frodo's head, who's naught like her after all, and every bit as puzzling as maps and letters to Hamfast Gamgee. All as he knows of travelling is that some come back and some don't.

He's fair certain, too, that Mr. Frodo never meant to take Sam away from his home and folk, not in such a manner as can't be undone. 'Twas Sam's own doing, most of all.

Hamfast shudders in the deeper cold that's settling, now the clouds have broke up. Fretting won't change aught, 'tis as useless as wanting to smell the snow. In his chest the air's hard as glass. Mr. Frodo don't seem to mind the cold though and walks with a slowing tread. They've nigh reached the house when he stops to gaze on the stars showing in the clear. There's a queer look in his eyes then. Far from dreaming, it seems fond and watchful.

Over by the cottage, the dog's started to bark, on its hind legs by the fence, but Hamfast'll be draff ere he lets the nuisance in the house. He swings the gate open, nudging the dog aside with one foot, and turns round to Mr. Frodo. "You'll have your feet froze if you linger on, sir, begging your pardon."

Mr. Frodo stirs from his watching and looks at Hamfast for a spell.

"I am sorry," says he, all in earnest, so that Hamfast wonders what his meaning might be. Mr. Frodo's spoke his regrets after coming back to the Shire, for leaving all to such awful mischief, and mayhap for taking Sam, too. Right aggrieved he was then, but he doesn't look it now.

Hamfast pulls up his shoulders against the frost that's crept under his scarf and collar. "Come inside now, sir."

Perhaps a traveller such as Mr. Frodo can take his comfort from the stars, thinking the new year'll be better by leaps, and there's naught in the world to fear. But it takes a lot of believing.

* * * * *

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