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Sam helped Tom, as he affixed the bells to the harness, and checked to make sure that the pony was hitched up properly to the sledge. "There," he said, "I think that's got it."
"Thanks, Sam!" answered his friend. "This is going to be a right treat!"
The two hobbits grinned at one another. It was unusual to have this much snow at Yule. Most of the time snow rarely fell until Afteryule, and even then it often did not accumulate enough to need a sleigh.
"I know," said Sam. "I think the last time we had this much snow at Yuletide was the year Mr. Bilbo fell ill over in Buckland. Must have been, oh, twenty-odd years ago. Mr. Frodo was only about twenty-four at the time."
"I remember. Mr. Bilbo had hired this very sledge off my dad for the journey."
"Well, it's to be hoped there's no such trouble this year for Mr. Frodo. But he's never ill."
Tom got into the driver's seat, and Sam hopped up beside him, and they drove the short distance from the Cotton's barn to the front door of the farmhouse.
Tom's sister Rose, and Sam's sister Marigold stood waiting, bundled up in coats and cloaks and hoods and mittens, and carrying between them a well-filled hamper. Sam got down, and put the hamper in the back of the sleigh, and Marigold took his seat beside Tom. Sam helped Rosie up into the back, and then swung up next to her. If the two young couples were sitting rather close together, well, that was only to be expected, as cold as it was!
From the window, Lily Cotton and the Gaffer watched, as the sleigh drove smartly off. The Gaffer's lips were pursed, and he looked a bit cross.
Lily shot him an amused look. "Don't you say a word, Hamfast! They deserve a bit of a treat and some time for courting! They're sensible lads and lasses, and won't be up to nothing improper, as well you know!"
"Well," growled the Gaffer, "they best be back before teatime's all I got to say on it."
The bells on the pony's harness jingled merrily, as he trotted down the lane. The young hobbits were quiet at first, simply enjoying the brightness of the snowy day. And then Marigold began to hum, and then to sing "It is the Turning of the Year", and soon the others had joined in. They sang it through all together twice, and then again as a merry round. When they got a bit muddled at the end, Sam and Tom not quite finishing together, all of them burst into laughter, before they began to sing another song.
When they tired of singing, Rose leaned into Sam's side. "This is ever so lovely, Sam!"
He put his arm carefully around her shoulders. They had their backs to Tom and Marigold, but Sam was quite sure the other two were sitting just as close.
Soon enough they had come to the Water. The clearing presented a serene picture. The Sun glinted blue off the snow, and the edges of the water were frozen. Snow and icicles decorated the bare branches of the alders growing there. There was an area there often used for picnicking by the hobbits of Hobbiton and Bywater. A couple of fallen logs lay next to a stone ring where small bonfires could be kindled.
While Tom saw to the pony, Sam took the faggot of wood they had brought from the back of the sleigh, and brushing the snow away from the fire ring, he started a fire. In the meantime, the lasses were taking food from the hamper: a stone jar of leek-and-potato soup, wrapped in flannel to keep it hot, and another of mulled cider; sandwiches of smoked pork; apple tarts; a half a round of cheese. While Rose set the food out, Marigold spread a couple of old pony blankets over the logs.
After they had eaten every last bit of the food, they sat together and talked for a while. Soon, Sam stood up.
"Would you like to walk about a bit, Rose?" He held his hand down to her, and the two of them wandered over to the edges of the Water, their backs to Tom and Marigold, who were now sitting much closer together.
Rose bit her lip. "They'll be playing at kissing games."
Sam snorted. "I trust Tom. He won't let Mari get carried away beyond what's decent."
She chuckled. "Your sister's a flirt, you know! I say it though she *is* my best friend."
"You aren't telling me nothing I don't know, Rose. I'm ever so glad it's your brother Tom she loves, for he's a steady sort, and he'll settle her down." He squeezed her hand, and wondered if he might dare steal a brief kiss himself. But he was careful of his Rose, and he had no mind to be anything but proper with her. Time enough and more, once they was betrothed and properly wed. To distract himself, he nodded at the frozen Water.
"You know, Mr. Frodo, he tells me that in Buckland when the water freezes, the lads tie rags about their feet and go a-sliding on the ice! They even play games on the ice!"
Rose's eyes widened. "That sounds ever so dangerous! What if the ice broke and they fell in?"
"Well, of course, them queer Bucklanders know how to swim. But he says they make sure it's froze hard enough, and they keep away from the thin ice at the center." Sam chuckled. "He says Mr. Merry is right good at them sorts of games. But then he would be--Mr. Merry's fond of winning."
Rose shook her head in bemusement. She was right fond of Mr. Frodo herself, and she'd never say a word against him, knowing as how Sam thought he hung the Moon, but she sometimes worried that Mr. Frodo being half Brandybuck might lead him into trouble one of these days--as much as being part Took had done for old Mr. Bilbo.
They talked a bit more, about the small doings of other folk, and then turned back. Tom and Marigold were not sitting quite so closely together as they had been, and their faces were a bit more flushed than just wind and cold would account for.
They did not talk much, but came to an agreement that it was best to get started, if they were to be back at the Cotton's farm before teatime. Soon the fire was doused, and the blankets and hamper back in the sledge. This time, Tom and Marigold sat in the back, and Sam and Rose occupied the driver's seat.
Sam shook the reins, and the pony trotted off, happy to be moving again in the cold. Rose leaned against him as they rode, and the early darkness of winter began to make itself known. The evening stars were beginning to twinkle against a purple sky as they arrived, "and not before time!" as the Gaffer said, when they came in, flushed and rosy from the cold, and glad of the hearth and a warm pot of tea.
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