Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search
swiss replica watches replica watches uk Replica Rolex DateJust Watches

A White Shell  by Celeritas

Disclaimer (which covers all chapters in this tale):

The background of the events described herein is owned by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien and New Line Cinema.  However, I have no idea why New Line would bother me about copyright infringement, since, among other things, my Frodo has brown eyes (gasp!).  Not of course, that Frodo is a character in this fic; he has passed on by then, but he is remembered and has written a smashingly depressing poem which is featured in the second chapter.  Said poem is a direct quotation from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which is not wholly attributed to him in the canonical source but is ambiguous enough for me to get away with saying it’s his.  Anyhow, I mean no offence to the Estate, and would like to thank Christopher Tolkien for his mostly excellent stewardship of the texts.

So, what in this fic belongs to the Professor and his progeny?  Pretty much the whole Third Age, the races and families of hobbits, any descendents of the Travellers that can be found in any canonical source, and the entire realm of Middle-Earth.  Kira and all of her friends and acquaintances are generally mine, and if you’re terribly confused you can always ask me where I got x or y, though you’ll probably get a very, very, very long explanation.

The last name “Grimwig” comes from Dickens, and whoever can figure out which book (without search engines!!!) gets a cookie from me.

This story is not written for profit; the only profit I can gain is the joy in the writing and any constructive, specific feedback I receive (Hint, hint). 



Author’s Note:  The Glories of Sequelhood

This fic is a sequel to my first LotR fic, Keep Alive the Memory.  If you are a newcomer to this particular interpretation of LotR canon, you are at a crossroads.  You may either go back and read KatM, or plunge right into A White Shell.  However, if you plunge right into AWS, expect to learn as background spoilers to the other fic.  These spoilers are very important not only to the characters in AWS, but also to LotR fans in general.  If you do not wish to learn them, do not read beyond this paragraph.  If you do, continue.


























Ready?

The Red Book of Westmarch has been lost, despite being only 120 years old.  Lost as in destroyed.  No complete copies exist in the Shire.  You may angst now.

Now that you have learned this horrifying fact, please do not go back and read KatM to find out how it happened.  You had that chance before you read the spoiler.  You will learn how in this fic as well—just as you can learn the history of Númenor by reading LotR.  Just be patient and glean things here and there, and the experience will be far more gratifying.  You won’t be left in the dark, and this is a much more fascinating way to learn about the protagonist’s character than by starting out with KatM.

Now, to those who followed KatM, don’t feel left out!  Since this takes place approximately eleven years after the conclusion of KatM, a lot of stuff has happened between “then” and “now,” the discovery of which makes up a great deal of the fun of the sequel.  So whether you’ve read KatM or not, you get to do a little bit of piecing when reading this fic.

Enjoy.

~C


Chapter One

 

The dirty inkrag swirled about in Kira Proudfoot’s washbasin a few times before it sank below the surface, leaving behind an expanding pool of dark water.  As the water stilled it cast back a dim reflection of the lass gazing into it—a face pretty enough for a hobbit in her twenty-seventh year, but with the undeniable look of failure written across it.  The rag settled at the bottom.

Sighing, Kira pushed back a tangle of her rich brown hair behind a shoulder and sat up in bed to survey the detritus scattered across it—the results of her ninth attempt at writing.  With fingers smudged in black she picked up the bit of parchment that still lay, in some semblance of order, on the small lap desk that rested across her knees and read it:

            Though what lies before you’s black,
            Never let your spirits slack.
            Even if the Sun should fail,
            Still will Beau—

Here her pen had blobbed quite horribly, ruining any chance for success in her hopes to make one semi-decent copy of Fatty’s poem.  Yet as she viewed the scratches that preceded the spill, Kira knew that an onlooker would not even be able to tell that it was poetry, much less what it was trying to say.

“The whole thing’s quite hopeless,” Kira muttered, balling up all the pennyworth of the sheet and tossing it under her bed.

The sun was beginning to filter through Kira’s shuttered window and onto her bed, which meant that somewhere outside it was eight-o’-clock, and somewhere inside Mother would be up getting breakfast.  The smial where Kira lived with her mother was right next to a well, a field away from Kira’s friends the Burrowses, and a half hour’s walk south of Michel Delving.  This meant that as soon as the first harvest was ready Kira and her mother could ride with their neighbours into town on market days and sell the herbs that they grew directly atop their home—which could be readily started indoors, long before the soil was ready, because of the well.  It was a good system, and a good life—something that Kira supposed should have contented her had her literacy not got in the way.

She thought of it as a kind of veil, one that clung about her most strongly when she was alone, woven in part from innate difference and in part from stubbornly remembering the past that everyone else had forgotten.  Give up reading, give up books, she thought, and the veil that lay between her and most everyone she knew would be lifted—but even if it were possible she knew it wouldn’t work.  For three years after the Ban had been placed on all the Shire libraries Kira had contented herself with reading only signs and the post, but even then the veil had been there—thicker than now, for the wounds had not yet had the time to scar over.

So it was that with a heavy heart Kira got out of bed to hide all traces of her early morning’s activity, and make it look as if the thought of writing had never entered her head in her entire life.  She twisted the inkrag dry, and the dark water she pitched out of her window to keep the worms company.

*  *  *

It was still definitely too early to plant outside, the rational part of Kira decided the moment her foot left the rug and touched the flagstone floor.  Her cleaning done, her hands scrubbed free of stains, and herself clothed, she had picked up her crutch to walk into the main tunnel and see how Mother was doing.  Presently her habitual thump-step could be heard throughout the hole.

“Good morning!” Mother’s cheery voice floated down from the kitchen.

“’Morning, Mum,” said Kira, the germ of a smile tugging at her lips in spite of herself.  She entered the kitchen to find Mother bent over the stove, laying a few rashers of bacon upon a frying pan.

Mother looked up from her work at Kira.  “How did you sleep last night?”

“Well enough,” said Kira, and her stomach rumbled.  “I think my belly must have woken me up, I’m so famished!”

“If you’d like to remedy that, Kira, I’ve got a pot of water over here that should be about to boil—you can pour some for tea and then poach a few eggs in it.”  Mother, Kira suspected, foresaw her arrival in the kitchen, for everything requisite to the tasks she had given her was already placed, quite close by, in what Kira had termed her corner.  It was one of a number of small adaptations that had been made over the years to make tasks every grown hobbit lass was expected to know easier for Kira, for everything, including the nearest hob, was close enough to her that she could set down her crutch and do everything one-legged and two-handed.

Covering her hand with the sleeve of her dress, she lifted the lid from the cast-iron kettle to see how close it was to a boil.  A few bubbles were forming at the sides, and she could see tiny ones, like the ones in beer, rising to the surface from the middle.  Still not quite ready then.  She reached over for the tea caddy and let the fragrance waft up to her nose as the bacon began to spit.  “What do we need to do today for the garden, Mother?”

“Well,” said Mother, “I’ve been thinking a little.  And I believe that we can take a break for today; and walk over to town to get you some fabric for your Party Outfit.  How does that sound?”

Kira’s countenance went through several evolutions of incomprehension, shock, and disbelief before finally settling upon joy.  “You mean I’m getting one after all?”  She picked up her crutch just to take the one step over so that she could hug Mother, tea caddy still in hand.  “Are you certain?”

Mother nodded.  “I’ve thought it over, and I think we can afford it—provided, mind, that you are willing to help out.”

Kira nodded eagerly.  “What will I have to do?”

“You see, Kira, if I’m to make you a proper outfit, I’ll need plenty of time to do it in.  And unfortunately we haven’t got much time before the party.  So I’ll need you to finish readying the garden for planting while I’m inside sewing.”

The words tumbled out before Kira could keep them in check.  “But I can’t do that!”

“Some part of the work, perhaps—but I’ve already raked off the mulch and enriched the soil for the next year, that’s really the only thing you need both feet for.  You’ll need to divide and replant—in a different place, of course—the sage and origanum, and then when it gets a bit drier out, the mint as well.  Then the indoor plants—the rosemary and the new plants we’ve already started—you’ll have to look after them as well.  If you don’t I shan’t have the time to make everything.”

“Couldn’t I just make it mysel—”

No,” said Mother.  “Party outfits are supposed to be gifts, and anyhow you haven’t nearly as much experience as I do in sewing, or fitting, I might add.  I’m afraid it’s this or no outfit at all.”

“All right,” said Kira, even as her mind was tabulating all of the problems this would create.  “When are we going to town?”

“As soon as—”  But just then there was a hiss and a bubbling, and Kira turned back just in time to see the lid to the kettle be lifted by a sea of bubbles, which escaped their metal prison and trickled down the sides just as the lid eased back down.

“Sorry!” cried Kira, and lunged back to unhook the kettle from the burner before more damage was done.  The lid belched a few more times before settling into a state of relative calm.

Kira picked up her crutch from where it had clattered to the floor as she had hugged Mother, careful not to touch anything beyond the wooden handle of the kettle.  Quickly she took one step back to her corner, dumped two scoops of tea into the teapot, filled it to the brim with the water, and hooked the kettle back on the burner to let it return to a boil.  After a second’s thought, she removed the lid, too.

*  *  *

In an hour they were wending their way along the dusty path that led to Michel Delving, past fields and hills and holes—both occupied and empty—and Kira was thinking about the Party that was coming up all the way over in Hobbiton.

She should have been grateful, she supposed, that she’d been able to put this sort of thing off all through this winter.  Mother had given her the Talk on her birthday, as was good and right, which meant that strictly speaking she should have come out in a full bodice and skirt at the party October the first—but traditions could be laid aside for friendships, and Kira had jumped at the chance to wait until Daffodil turned the same age.  Unfortunately this had only put off the inevitable, and now she was beginning to regret her decision.

“Actually, Mum…”

“Yes, Kira?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t do the whole Party Outfit thing.”

Mother brushed aside Kira’s growing apprehension.  “Nonsense.  You’ve been wanting to have one for as long as you knew about it, and if you don’t have one when you really could have, you’ll just regret it in years to come.”

“But, Mum—”

“Kira, outfit or no outfit, you’re going to have to change your entire wardrobe on the sixth, and you know it!  And if you’re having second thoughts about the whole thing, well, so has every other lass in the Shire, and all of them have had to go through it, just as you will.”

Kira nodded her head, though she tugged sadly at the worn green dress she was wearing.  It was one of her favourites.  Of course she could not deny the fact that it was getting old, nor that she had to tie it tightly just below her chest so it wouldn’t look odd—nor that it was getting small in that region.  “But I don’t want to draw attention to myself.”

“If you’re wearing plain clothing to a party, you will be, love.  Anyhow, you should be grateful we’re not well off; otherwise we’d have to throw an entire party just for you on your birthday.”

Kira shuddered at the thought.  “Can’t they make it any more humiliating than that?” she muttered.  She could understand the tradition, but it still made her tremble a little inside.  It was as if all the grown-ups in the Shire were saying, “She’s old enough to be courted now; lads, have at her!”  She reminded herself for the umpteenth time what Mother had told her on her birthday—you can’t even get married until you’re thirty, so don’t make a famine out of a missed meal!  But there was the unspoken addendum that that was really the reason for a lass’s reaching the age of twenty-seven.

There were other things she had been told on her birthday, said and unsaid—she was old enough to dance with the adults, now; only she couldn’t dance with them because she was lame.  And with that went most of her chances of “meeting anyone new,” as Mother called it.  Then there was the revelation of the small sum that Mother had been receiving on her behalf from her father’s family, the Proudfoots, that would cease when she turned thirty.  Mother didn’t think that what remained would be enough for both of them, and Kira doubted that Mum had any sort of secondary plan should Kira fail in getting her hand secured.  This, Kira considered, was quite a silly thing not to think about, considering her two glaringly large disadvantages as matrimonial material—her foot, and her books.

Kira knew that she could support herself, in the likely event that no one fell in love with her by the time she turned thirty; but Mother didn’t, and so Kira had to at least try to make new acquaintances, which she dreaded.  Frustrated, she decided to drop the topic.  All this means is that you’re allowed to fall in love, she told herself.  So let love happens as it wishes.

Still, the outfit made her nervous.

*  *  *

They reached town in good time, only resting once along the way for Kira, and that was very nearly there, too.  Of course, it would have been rude not to rest after her friend (and sometimes enemy) Tom spotted them from the fields where he and his family were working and accosted her.  Blushing to be caught on such a mission, she managed to say something cryptic enough that left him just as ignorant as he was before when they left—and considerably annoyed as well.

Aside from that, however, the journey was uneventful, and Kira and her mother presently found themselves walking along the smooth stones that paved Michel Delving’s thoroughfares.  While the hills south of it may have been in decline, Michel Delving was and had always been alive and full of vigour.  Older smials sat next to, sometimes underneath, cottages, and the very centre, apart from the green, was entirely constructed: something unheard of in the rest of the Shire.  There was a considerable amount of bustle in all of the shops and storefronts, even though market day was not until tomorrow.

Crossing the river on a footbridge, they finally came to the quarter of town whose shops were traditionally labelled as “dry goods stores.”  Kira had been on the main street here many times during market days, mostly just for looking, as the shopkeepers tended to display their wares out in the street and there were so many fine things there to buy.  Her eyes lit upon the fine cloth store, whose glass shone in the morning sun and whose fabrics shone even brighter, but Mother passed it by without a word and they turned down a side street.

“Mum…” Kira managed to get out, but she received no response.

There were a few more side streets after that one, each one getting progressively smaller and less busy, that led to what looked like one of the earliest houses in the town.  But outside its round door had been placed a wooden sign whose paint was peeling, with the old pictures of a needle and thread and a dressmaker’s form barely visible.  Written next to it were the words, “Dina Diggle, Dressmaker.”

Kira gaped a little, but before she could protest verbally her mother spoke.  “Now, don’t be too cross, dear.  Dina’s an old friend, and will sell us just as good a fabric as that other place—and for a proper price.  Besides, most of that frippery is a pain to clean, and good as dead if it ever gets dirty.”

Kira sighed, but in the back of her mind she wondered how out of place she’d feel in such a fine store, with folk pandering to her every whim—and how queer most of those outlandish colours would look on her.  So she was silent as her mother pushed the door open, the bells fixed to it jingling.

The narrowness of the street without and the few lamps within meant that Kira had to blink a few times before she was adjusted to the dim light.  Once inside, she could easily tell that this house doubled as a workplace and a home for Mrs. Diggle—fabric was draped across chairs and tables; completed dresses hung from hangers on a converted coatrack, and in one of the far rooms she could see a stove and fireplace.  From another, a somewhat elderly, bespectacled hobbit lady rose from something she was sewing upon her lap and walked towards them.  As she removed her eyeglasses, letting them hang from a chain around her neck, Kira recognised her as one of their oldest regular customers during market days.

“Rosemary Proudfoot!” the hobbit cried.  “And young Kira, too, I see.  What business brings you here?”

Party business,” said Mother.  “Kira turned twenty-seven last August, and she’ll be making her first appearance as an eligible lass at the Tree Party over in Hobbiton.”

“Ahh,” said Mrs. Diggle, tapping a knowing forefinger upon her nose.  “You’ll be wanting a proper bodice and skirt, then, dearie?”

Kira nodded, fidgeting a little as she felt Mrs. Diggle’s shrewd brown eye cast over her.  She was a kind enough lady at the marketplace, but here, in her element, Kira could tell she was already making measurements.

“Just the fabric, if you please, Dina,” said Mother just as Mrs. Diggle was fishing a measuring string from a nearby basket.  “I’ll be making it for her while she looks after the garden.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Diggle.  “Right along, then—let me see what sorts of fabric I have on hand.  We’ll need something good and stiff for the bodice…”  She began rummaging through a hamper beside the table that was currently suffering from the most fabric, and began weighting it down further by laying neat little bundles of twill and linen atop.  “You’ll be needing warm colours, of course, as any hobbit ought, but nothing plain, for it’s to be a party outfit…”

After much fussing and holding up of fabrics, they finally settled upon a simple goldenrod twill.  It was a common colour, and there was no brocade or fancy weaving, but Kira did not voice her disappointment.  She had been casting her eye over the other fabrics while Mother and Mrs. Diggle were dickering over how fine a cloth had to be in order to be party fabric, and discovered love at first sight.

Not even the fancy fabric shop had it, she was sure, because it was not bright or airy enough.  And by itself it may have been horrible—paired with any other colour it would certainly have been dreary—but with the golden yellow of the bodice and the plain muslin of her shift it was perfect.  “Mother,” she said, as soon as Mum was done settling with Mrs. Diggle on the yardage required.  “You’re going to make my skirt out of that,” and she gestured over to a bolt of fine wool dyed to so dark a hue of purple that it could only be described as “eggplant.”

Mother turned to look at where Kira was pointing, and at the sight of it an audible breath escaped her lips.  “Kira, love, that’s a winter colour!  You shouldn’t be wearing that sort of thing to a spring party!”

“Mum, I take it that this is going to be my only party outfit?”

“Yes…”

“Then it may as well fit as many seasons as possible.  Besides, look—” and she picked up the newly cut twill in one hand and stumped over to the aubergine wool to show the contrast.  “They’re ideal.”

Mother sighed.  “Yes, they may match, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Mum, it’s my outfit.  I’ll be the only one looking bad in it if it looks bad, so I don’t see why you should have any objections…”

She cast a glance at Mrs. Diggle, who was wisely staying out of the conversation.

“Unless, of course, it’s too expensive,” she added.

“It’s on sale,” said Mrs. Diggle immediately.  “I’ve been needing to get rid of it ever since the snow started melting, but no one’s wanted to buy such a dark colour.”

Mother looked with triumph upon Kira, but at the same time there was a gleam in her eye at the thought of it being marked down.  Kira rubbed the wool in between her fingers; she wouldn’t get too hot in it at the spring party.

“How much?” said Mother.

As Mother finally overcame her misgivings and began to haggle, Kira felt quite pleased with herself and began to wander around the rest of the shop.  It was then that she found the small basket, tucked away in a corner of the room, stuffed with what appeared to be rather thin sticks, all cut to the same length.  “What are these?”

Mrs. Diggle glanced over to where Kira was standing.  “Oh, those are just the reeds for boning the bodice, dear.”

“What?”  Kira gingerly pulled one of the sticks out; it was about six inches long and impossible to bend.  “How is this going into the outfit?”

Mrs. Diggle shot Mother a reproachful look, as if she were responsible for her daughter’s ignorance.  “If you keep on growing you’re going to need some support for that chest of yours, Kira.  Your mother will sew those all around the inside of the bodice so that you won’t sag.”

Kira could feel herself going pink at such frank discussion of her bosom.  “Wait, thoseAll around?”

“Yes—in fact, Rosemary, if you can give me your daughter’s measurements I should be able to figure out exactly how many reeds you’ll need.”

Kira tried bending the reed again, and failed miserably.

“Here, let me show you,” said Mrs. Diggle, walking over to the basket.  She pulled out a handful of reeds.  “These will be spread out all around the sides and back of the bodice.  And then this,” and she reached down to the bottom and pulled out a flat, small wooden plank reminiscent of a spoon rest, “is the busk.  It keeps the flat front; it’s very attractive.”

“How am I supposed to move with all… all that in there?” cried Kira, appalled.

“Bend at the hips, dear, not at the waist.  And it may look uncomfortable, but you’ll be glad for the support, believe me.”

“Mum, you wore this when you were my age?”

Mother nodded.  “Your father first saw me in one of those.  Anyhow, it does the same thing as the regular bodice I’ve already made—just better.  We starched all of the layers of fabric in there stiff so that you’d get support, and you didn’t look too horrified then.”

“You can bend in starch!”

“Miss, it’s best not to judge the garment until you’ve tried it on,” said Mrs. Diggle.  She drew a few more reeds from the basket.  “Rosemary, where were you thinking of putting the laces?”

“In the back,” said Mother.

“Good.  Just one moment; I’ve got another set of boning that’s already been oiled.”  Mrs. Diggle went into the room where she had previously been doing her sewing.  Kira walked back to her mother.  “Mum, why didn’t you tell me about the boning?  It’ll feel like armour!”

“Nonsense, Kira.  Boning doesn’t weight you down—it lifts you up.  Anyhow, it’s quite the common fact at parties and I assumed that you already knew about it.  It’s nothing at all to be afraid of; if I’d known that you hadn’t learned it I’d have explained it to you right along with the change in wardrobe.”

“All right,” said Kira, slightly mollified, as Mrs. Diggle came back into the room, boning in hand.

“Is there anything else you’ll be needing, Mrs. Proudfoot?”

“Nothing aside from thread,” said Mother.  “Oh, and plain linen to set the boning in, of course.”

Mrs. Diggle nodded.  She took out a bolt of muslin, unwrapped it to an appropriate length, made a small cut in it with a pair of scissors, and ripped the rest of it all the way across.  The same she did with the wool for the skirt—the main bodice fabric was already about the right size already, so she did not bother cutting that.  Then she laid everything atop the wool, folded the wool over the rest to make a nice package, and pinned it together.  Mother paid for the fabric, and she and Kira left the store together.

“So,” said Mother sprightly along the way back, “what do you think about your new outfit?”

And Kira honestly did not know what to say.  The excitement mingled with dread was almost enough to make her feel ill.

*  *  *

That afternoon they went to the garden, and Mother showed Kira everything she wanted her to do while she was sewing—“and the sooner it’s all done—and done right, I should say—the sooner you can go back to your normal schedule and visit with your friends and all.”  Kira looked at the huge shrubs, and the mint which practically infested the small space allotted to it, and doubted she’d be able to get it all done in time for the party.  But the next day she rose early, armed with a hand shovel and a sharp knife, and met her foe head-on.

Mother had said that the sage would be the hardest, because its stems were thick and went deeper, so Kira decided to tackle that plant first.  They had only two of them, because it was such a potent herb, and not even the most dedicated of housewives ever needed to buy more than one bunch at a time.  And as she dug around the first plant, Kira was suddenly very grateful for that fact.  It was massive, too much, she thought for one hobbit to uproot.

But Mother had done the same for the long years when Kira was too weak to do anything more than weeding, so Kira steeled herself and began to wedge the shovel underneath the small trench she had just made.  When she was done going all around she estimated that only a small circle of dirt remained to anchor the plant to the ground, so Kira stood up, grabbed the shrub by its central stem, and pulled.

Nothing happened.

She pulled again, but to no avail.  Finally Kira twisted the plant, and it shifted beneath her.  But trying to actually lift it out of the ground was too much—it was too heavy.

Still, it was loose in its place, so for the next hour she diligently worked the clods of dirt away from the plant and the roots in which it was entangled.  When almost all of it was gone, she tried lifting the sage bush again, and succeeded.  She set it on its side next to the small crater it left behind, stretched her aching back, and went inside for a bite of something to eat.  Mother had already finished cutting the fabric for the bodice and was working on sewing the boning into the linen, and Kira had to remind herself not to judge the garment until she had tried it on.

“I’m about to divide the first sage plant, Mother,” she said by way of introduction.  “I’m afraid it took me a while to actually get the thing out of the ground.”

Mother nodded from where she was sitting with her needlework.  “Actually, Kira—come here.  I’d like to make sure this is going to fit you right.”  And she wrapped what she had so far around Kira’s chest.  Only a few reeds had been put in, and they smashed up against her skin.  But Mother nodded to herself as if all was good and right, and Kira sat down in the kitchen to eat on her own.

The actual division of the stems was not hard, but it grew tedious after a while.  The central part of the plant’s roots was all wood, and Mother had told her that all of that had to be cut away, and only the part that had green stems should be planted.  All in all, the new planting had to be about a third of the shrub’s size—at least in ground area, for the newest shoots were only just poking out of the ground.  So Kira cut and hacked until she had a sizeable new plant, and moved this over to the new spot that Mother had already cleared out to plant it.

When it was set in the earth and trimmed down, the Shire Post’s cart trotted down the lane by the Proudfoots’ smial.  Kira was about to wave it down, but found to her surprise that the postboy had already stopped and gotten off the cart.

Climbing down off the top of the hill, Kira wiped off her hands on her skirt.  “Good day!” she cried to the postboy.  He was sorting not through his letterbag, but among the parcels stacked upon the cart.  “Good day!” he replied, and drew forth a rather small, rectangular package.  “I have one parcel here for a Miss Kira Proudfoot.”

“Oh!” said Kira.  “I can take that, then.”

“Something you weren’t expecting?”

Kira stumped over to the postboy to take the package from his hand, and looked it over.  “No, not at all.  Say, can you take down a few letters for me?”

“Not out here.  If you could supply me with what you need inside your home, though—”

“I’ll take it out to you.”  And with that Kira turned around and walked into her hole.  “Mother!” she called.  “I got a package!”

Mother looked up from her sewing.  “Really?  I didn’t know you were supposed to be getting one.”

“Me neither!”  But Kira was busy, and her extra task meant that she could not waste time in opening it and discovering what it was.  So she went into her room to set it on her bed, and washed all of the dirt from her hands.  Kneeling down beside her bed, she lifted up the bedspread from where it dusted the burnished wood of her floor, and found what she was looking for.  She slid the lapdesk out from under her bed, and selected three crisp sheets of paper from the neat stack that lay atop it.  Then she retrieved the two bags that housed her quill and ink, and opened her window to drop all of the items outside, where Mother would not see them.  She paused only a moment to grab a copper penny for the postboy, then hastened back to the kitchen where she picked up a watering can for the sage outside.

“Back to work?” said Mother.

Kira nodded, but Mother had turned her eyes back to her own work, so she said, “Yes,” and left the hole.  “Just one moment,” she told the postboy, set down the watering can, and dashed around to the other side of the hole where her writing supplies had tumbled onto the ground outside her open bedroom window.  Attempting to get them all under her left arm without rumpling the paper was a task in itself, but she managed to do it quickly enough that the postboy wasn’t left waiting long.  “Will this do?” she said, handing it over to him.

He checked over everything she had brought him—paper, pen, ink, and writing surface—frowning in thought as he did so, and nodded.  “I don’t see why not.”

Kira peeked back at the smial to see if Mother was visible from the window.  “Good.”

The postboy set the writing desk up on the seat from which he normally drove the cart, and stepped up onto the cart so that he could write more easily.  “How many letters do you need?” he said, taking the ink from its bag and uncorking it.

“Three, if you please.  They’re all rather short, so it won’t take too much of your time.”

“Very well.”  He separated one of the sheets of paper from the rest, and got the quill out, ready to write at Kira’s dictation.

“All right,” said Kira, thinking in advance of what she wanted to say.  “The first one should be addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Tunnelly, of the Tunnelly Farm on Sweetbriar Lane, in the Northern White Downs.”  She waited while the postboy took all of this information down, then flipped the sheet of paper over to write the actual letter.


Dear Mr. and Mrs. Tunnelly,

I regret that I will not be able to keep our scheduled appointment of Tuesday at four o’clock.  Issues of a personal nature have come up and I will be needed at home.  Please give my regrets to Iris and her sister, and I hope that this change in plans has not inconvenienced you too terribly.  I hope that you will be able to find a fitting replacement in due time.

                                                                                                                        Yours,
                                                                                                                        Kira Proudfoot

 

The entire dictation, even with the pauses necessary for the postboy to catch up with Kira’s speech, took less than five minutes.  Two others followed, of a similar nature but with different names and times.  “Thank you,” said Kira when she was done, and she gave him the coins both for his time and for the postage.  And having finished that, she dropped her writing ensemble back inside her room, and returned to the front of the smial to retrieve the watering can and complete what she should have started upon fifteen minutes prior.

The well was about thirty yards from behind home, and just beyond it Kira could see Daffy’s father and brother ploughing their field.  She waved to them before setting down the can and getting to work at retrieving some of the water.

Carrying the full watering can was harder than drawing the bucket up to where she could pour it into the can—for when she was standing at the well, cranking, she could use her “walking arm,” the right one that had carried her crutch for as long as she could walk, and was thus much stronger than the other.  On the way back to the garden water sloshed from both the top and spout all over her dress.

When the budding sage plant was watered into place, Kira took a few moments to survey her work.  It was almost noon.  It wasn’t bad progress, considering, but her back was beginning to hurt, and that was only the first plant.

So Mother showing her the progress on that garment that Kira was beginning to consider an instrument of extreme discomfort (if not actual torture) when she went inside for luncheon did not help Kira’s mood.  Why, oh, why, had she ever welcomed the idea of a Party Outfit?

Mother was actually quite pleased with Kira’s work in the garden, though, so much so (though Kira suspected it was also due to her own foul mood and Mother’s view of her constitution) that she was allowed a half hour to rest and avoid the worst of the heat.

Immediately she dashed to her room and tore the wrapping off her package.  On the top was a letter written in running, slightly squarish letters with her name upon it.  She turned it over and opened it; since it had been enclosed in the package there was no seal.

 

March 29, 1552
The Green Dragon Inn
Bywater

 

Dear Kira,

Greetings to you from the Westfarthing!  I was hoping to get this project finished for you by the twenty-fifth, but things ran late at the last minute.  So perhaps this can be an Elven New Year’s gift to you, instead of a Mannish one.

I apologise about the great delay, and hope that you have not minded the lack of new material in the interim—though I guess it’s hard to beat the First Volume.  It was difficult not only tracking down a copy of the Quenta (we have, I’ve found, but one in the Shire) but managing to get enough access to it to make a copy.  At any rate, if you’re ever down it should cheer you up readily, for I know how starved for books you are over in Michel Delving.  As with your last gift, Sandra helped with the copying—and this time Merina put in a bit of work, too.  All of us here send you our love.

I do hope you will be at the Party on the sixth—you’re twenty-seven now, aren’t you?  I hope that none of that is too crazy on your nerves, though you may have an easier time than some.

If you can make it to the party, I will need you to seek me out immediately.  There is some news of paramount importance that must be given to you in person—of so much importance, in fact, that I shall not even mention it for the remainder of this letter.

I hope you’re holding up well in your part of the Shire.  Remember that if there is anything in our power to help you we will most readily do so.

Until I see you again, I remain fondly—

                                                                                                                         Yours,
                                                                                                                         Kerry Brandybuck

P.S.  Merina wishes to remind you to take excellent care of Nienna, as she will not suffer it if you do otherwise.


Kira reread the letter, then looked at the book, which was bound in a very dusty shade of blue.  She opened it; on the first page read in large letters:

 

The Quenta Silmarillion 

Translated from the Elvish by B. Baggins

and here replicated in its entirety as a gift for Miss Kira Proudfoot from her “bookish friends.”

Nai Anar caluva tiëryanna!

 

“Bless them,” muttered Kira, even as she tsked at the Elvish phrase which they all knew she did not know and was unable to learn.  “Bless them all.”

But before she could start reading, Mother called her, reminding her that the Sun was shining yet and as such she needed to get back to work.  Groaning and stretching her troubled back, she tucked the letter inside the book and shut it, and shouldered her crutch so that she could head back outside for an afternoon’s work.

It was too dark to read when she was finally able to get back to the book, and the next two days played themselves out similarly.  Eventually Kira decided to cancel her weekly tea with Daffodil in order to read—until the unusually large amount of mint stolons choking each other to death made her take up the time teasing them apart from each other instead.  It was hard work, her back threatened to kill her, and every time she stuck her trowel into the earth she dreamed of Elves and stars and jewels that shone with the Light that was before Sun and Moon, and her fingers itched to have paper between them instead of roots and dirt.

Two days before the party, at eleven in the morning, Kira finished her work and watered down the new transplants, peeking bashfully from the brown loam, one last time.  The discarded bits of plant lay on the compost pile in back of the smial.  Wiping the perspiration from her brow with her sleeve, she carried the watering can back inside and sat down heavily upon a stool.

“I’m finished,” she told Mother, and poured herself a cup of water.  “You can go out and take a look at it if you’d like.”

“Not now,” said Mother brightly from her hemming.  “The skirt’s nearly done, but since we have the time…”  She reached behind her into her sewing basket and drew forth the bodice.  “Try it on.”

Kira’s stomach leapt inside her, even as Mother pressed the garment into her hand and began shuttering the windows.  It felt not so much like an article of clothing as a bunch of wood held together by cloth.

“Go on, take off the dress,” said Mother after the last shutter was firmly closed.  Sighing, Kira undid the tie at the back and slipped the dress over her head.  Having been outside recently, standing there in naught but a shift and the necklace she wore beneath was actually quite a relief from the heat of midday, even if it did make her feel a little self-conscious.  She began to pull the bodice over her head, but Mother stopped her.

“Let me do it,” she said.  “You’ve got to make sure the laces are right.”  And taking the bodice from her hands, she tugged at the laces and sides until it was as loose as could be.  “Now you can put it on—the laces go in the back.”

With trepidation she slid the bodice on, and Mother pulled at the strings until it was just snug against Kira’s waist.  She walked around to the front.  “Not bad, but not perfect.”

Kira nodded; she could not deny the certain discomfort her chest was experiencing.

“Hmm,” said Mother.  “You see, a lass’ bodice is supposed to provide support from the waist all the way up to, not smash her into nothing.  You’ll have to adjust.”

Kira turned the instructions over in her head, only realizing what exactly her mother meant as she remembered how everyone she had ever seen wearing one of these had looked.  Reddening, she adjusted her self to fit the bodice, and when she had she suddenly knew why the ladies of the Shire had long ago opted for this instead of the girlish dresses she had been accustomed to wearing.  “Better?” she asked Mother.

“Better, but—dear me, what is that thing around your neck?”

The necklace—which was really no more than a long leather thong with something strung about it—normally safely concealed about the neck, had managed to get positioned so that it was stuck right down the centre of the bodice.  It did not look very seemly, and certainly did not look inconspicuous as intended.  Blushing, Kira fished it out from where it was stuck and let it hang over shift, bodice, and all.  It was nothing more than an oilskin—folded up like a wallet, tied shut, and flattened, so that indeed underneath a normal dress it could not be noticed—but Mother gave a vexed sigh the moment she saw it.  “Oh, that thing.  For heavens’ sakes, Kira, take it off.”

“Mum…”

“Look, it’s not going to disappear while you’re trying this on, is it?”

Grumbling as she did so, Kira removed the thong from about her neck—but tied it around her waist, instead.

“Really, Kira, you can be quite silly at times.”

“Does everything look right now?”                     

“Hum,” said Mother.  “I think it needs the skirt as well.  Let me find out what’s front and what’s back…”  She fiddled around with the heap of fabric that she had left upon her chair, weaving the still-threaded needle in and out of the fabric so it wouldn’t stick at Kira’s feet.  Kira stepped into it and buttoned the closure shut.  It was as if the necklace had never been there, though of course Kira would not forget about it.

Fortunately Mother did, as she surveyed her daughter with pride.  “Perfect,” she said, drawing her into a hug.  “What do you think?”

And Kira surprised herself and smiled.  “I’m sorry I ever doubted tradition!—though, I must wonder why there’s so much difference between this and the plain one you already made.”

“Well,” said Mother, “these sorts of things are marvellous, but they get uncomfortable after a time, and if you don’t want the kind of effect that party bodices generally create then you don’t need all that boning—plus you can get an ample amount of support from a stiff fabric if you tie it right.  And they’re wretched to do any sort of work at all in.  No, dear, this sort of thing is for Special Occasions Only.”

“So,” said Kira.

“So?” said Mother.

“So, when will the skirt be done?”

Mother laughed.  “There’s my girl.  If you’ll be so kind as to take it off so I can get back to work on it, I expect the skirt will be done early tomorrow, so if you wish to try the outfit on properly beforehand you may.  There’s just one rule: absolutely no lads are allowed to see it before the party.”

“Yes, Mum,” said Kira.  “May I keep it on till lunch?  Just the bodice, I mean.”

“I suppose so,” said Mother, “though why you’d want to without a skirt baffles me.”

“Oh, I’ll be all right,” said Kira, and stepped out of the skirt.  Then she tripped as merrily as she could to her room: once inside, she crawled beneath the covers of her bed and began to read.


Chapter Two

Though Hobbiton was quite a distance away from the White Downs, the Tree Party did not really start until the evening. So Kira and the Burrowses (with whom she and Mother would be riding) did not worry about overnight accommodations—the inns were generally full, anyway—but left home at noon, and made it back before dawn. Kira had no idea how Mr. Burrows managed to keep awake to guide the pony back, but rumour had it that this year Roly had been conscripted into service so that he could, for once, catch a quick forty winks.

Because they were not leaving in the morning, Kira decided that she did not have to get ready for the party, outfit or no, until elevenses at least, and could spend ample time continuing her foray into the Elder Days.

That is, until Daffodil came over and started pounding on her window. “Kira?” She slammed her hand—hard, but judging from the sound not using her full strength—against the glass panes of the window. “Kira!”

Kira blinked as her mind returned to the Shire, then opened the window. “What?”

“I need to talk to you!”

“Daffy…”

“And I’ve been needing to talk to you for a week, only you’ve been busy working, except that apparently you weren’t yesterday, and you aren’t this morning, either, and… what were you doing yesterday, anyhow?”

Using her finger to hold her place, Kira snapped the book shut and waved it up at Daffodil.

“Oh, for pity’s sake…”

“It’s a new one,” said Kira, “one that I never finished. Surely you wouldn’t begrudge me reading it, especially since Mother and work have kept me from it for this long.”

“Actually, I would,” said Daffodil, reaching inside and whisking it out from in between Kira’s startled fingers.

“Daffy!”

“And don’t worry, you’ll get it back in due time—I’m not Tom…”

“You made me lose my spot!”

“I’ll see you outside—by the old oak. And get dressed, too!”

Kira sighed, closed and shuttered her window, and put on over her shift one of her dresses—the last time she would ever wear it, she thought ruefully. Then grabbing her crutch and a bite to eat (and not forgetting to apologise to Mother for her disappearance on the way out) she was on her way to the old meeting point.

Even if it was a suitable place for her and Daffodil to talk in private, Kira still could not help but shiver as she approached that old dignitary—only now dropping its brown leaves into the canal below. Casting a wary look at the branches above—I was a fool to ever try climbing that thing—she sat down on a root across from Daffodil, who was drywashing her hands even as Kira approached her. “All right, Daffodil—what’s the matter, and when can I get my book back?”

“I’m nervous, Kira.”

What?” said Kira. “You up and take my book from me just because you’re nervous?”

Daffodil shot her a hurt look. “Have you seen my Party Outfit?”

“No,” said Kira.

“Oh,” said Daffodil. “I must have forgotten to show it to you.”

“You got the fabric from the nice shop, though.”

Daffodil nodded. “And. It looks horrid.”

“It can’t!”

“It does. It’s much finer than anything I’ve ever worn, and I’m going to look a fool in it.”

“Daffy.” Kira sighed and drummed her fingers together, trying to collect her thoughts. “Are you saying that your outfit looks horrid, or that it looks horrid on you?”

“Well,” said Daffodil, “I suppose it’d look half decent on gentry, but—I don’t know how to wear these things right, not at all!”

“What makes you think it’d be any worse for them? It’s not as if they wear bodices before we do. Have you tried it on yet?—the bodice, I mean.”

“No. I’ve been scared to.”

“Then how can you know if it looks right on you or not? Daffy…”

“What, you think I’m an idiot because… well, maybe I am an idiot. It’s just—”

“Daffodil, I didn’t mean that at all. But don’t go around thinking you’re going to look terrible just because you’re wearing something nice. You’ll probably end up looking magnificent, and anyhow, I can assure you that you’ll look better than I.”

“Why?”

“Because my outfit’s made of the same homespun stuff as all the other ones—the bodice is just made differently, and the colours are more interesting. It hardly looks like a Party Outfit at all.”

“Maybe we should trade,” Daffodil mused.

“No, because as normal as mine’ll feel, I’ll look terribly out of place once we get there. And then you’ll feel perfectly comfortable, as you should. Besides, if your outfit’s made of finer fabric, then it’s to match your heart the better.”

“You’re too kind.” Daffodil groaned. “I just can’t believe we’re doing… all of this… tonight. Couldn’t my mother have left it off until next party?”

“No,” said Kira, “because then my mother would have conniptions, because the only reason I was able to keep her from putting me in a bodice in October is because I was waiting for you.”

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Daffodil. “You’ve had more time since the Talk to mull it all over than I have.”

“And that’s done me loads of good, I assure you,” replied Kira, snorting. “More time to analyse the entire situation and tally the things that could—and probably will—go wrong.”

“Dear me. Does it really look that bad for you?”

“Well,” said Kira, “even if I could go about meeting new lads left and right the way you will dancing”—here Daffodil grimaced—“nearly all of them would think I’m daft because I’ve not only read the Travellers’ Tales, I think that they’re true, and even those that either didn’t think that or didn’t care would still have to deal with the fact that I’m little use as a wife because I’m lame. And even if someone loved me enough that none of that would matter, there’d still be the problem of me loving him back. Things, Daffy dear, look as hopeless as a frost in spring.”

“Oh, my,” said Daffodil. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. But if I remain unwed, it won’t come unexpected.”

“Kira, don’t even think of such things! I’m sure you’ll find someone—I hope you do, at least.”

“What about you?”

“Oh, every time I try to think of… of love, and marriage, I can’t. I balk at it. I’m not ready yet.”

“Well, it’ll come a lot easier to you when you are. Once you get to the party, I wager, you’ll love every minute of it. I know you’ve been itching to wear a bodice for years, now.”

“Yes,” said Daffodil, “but it’s not the same. Never in public—I’ll be putting myself on full display.”

“I rather thought that was the point of bodices.”

“Well, I can’t see why. ‘You’ll never know if he likes you for yourself or your bosom,’ Mother said.”

Kira shrugged. “I’ve been doing some experimenting around with mine recently, and if you loosen the laces enough it really doesn’t look that bad. On the other hand, if you pull them exceedingly tight…”

“Kira!”

“I bet I can get your brother to drop a plate.”

“That’s scandalous!”

“Oh, I’d—we’d, if you’ll join me—only be doing it for Roly and Tom, since they’re old friends and they can’t do anything for three years yet—well, two, in Tom’s case. Anyhow, everyone knows that bodices are only shams, and half the Shire lasses have probably done the exact same thing just to see the reaction of the lads.”

“And I’ll bet that most of those lasses that do are Tooks and Brandybucks, or whatever other outlandish folk you know. You and your insufferable audacity, Kira…”

“You’ll join me, though, won’t you?”

Daffodil gave Kira a very sceptical look, which she broke off with a snort. “Yes, of course I will, but we’re loosening those bodices right after we’re done. I think I’m supposed to go dancing with the older lads at some point, anyhow, and I certainly don’t want to give them any ideas.”

“That’s just as well, because breathing can get difficult when you tie them that tightly—believe me. Just remember that I’m to blame if Tom ends up pretending to fall asleep in your lap.”

“I don’t think I’ll have to,” said Daffodil. “He—and Roly—will both be too embarrassed to do anything!”

The two lasses giggled. “There,” said Kira, “now the outfit doesn’t seem so bad, does it?”

Daffodil sighed. “I don’t know. I still don’t like the prospect of… well, of everything, really.”

“Neither do I,” said Kira. “But something my mother said during the Talk was—nobody’s making us do anything. If anything, we’re allowed to do more. And that’s part of growing up.”

Daffodil stuck out her tongue. “Roly’s going to tease me to death when I’m getting ready for the Party, just because the age is so much older for lads and so he doesn’t have to worry about anything yet. Do you want to come over early and lend me some support?”

“Daffy, that’d be marvellous. And then we can be the two prettiest hobbits at the entire party. We’ll have fun, I promise you.”

“Good.” She rose and offered her hand to Kira, who was grateful for the assistance to get on her foot, and they walked back home together.

“May I have my book back, yet?” said Kira.

Daffodil swatted her on the arm.

* * *

Kira did get her book back, but only had the time to set it on her bed when Mother called her over to the sitting room inform her that she would not be accompanying her to the party.

What?” said Kira. “But… this is a big event, isn’t it? This is what you’ve been waiting for!”

“I know, but…” Mother sighed. “Well, you know I always tell you not to overtax yourself, and it seems that I need to follow my own advice. I’ve been doing so much close work these past days, with all the sewing, that now I have the most splitting headache, and tiring myself at a party will only make it worse tomorrow. But I did manage to get you this,” and she handed Kira a thick silk ribbon dyed the same colour as her skirt.

Kira ran her thumb over the soft ribbon in awe. “Is this from…”

“The nice shop? Yes. A miracle they had the right shade—but theirs was on sale, too, which just goes to show that it’s still a winter colour.”

“But a nice one nonetheless?”

“Yes.”

Kira moved around behind the rocking chair that Mother was sitting in to hug her from behind. “Thank you,” she said. “You’re sure you can’t come? After all that work… and on my outfit—oh, I’m so sorry.”

Mother shook her head. “I ought to have made up my mind before you were confined to bed for the winter—then I’d have had plenty of time to work and not make myself ill. This is my own fault here, Kira.”

“Well, then,” said Kira, sighing, “I’m not leaving until you’ve seen Daffy and me in full attire—may I invite her over for elevenses? Because then we can both get ready for the party here, without her brother bothering us, and you can help us if anything looks off.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea, dear—if you’ll run over and invite her I can set an extra place for her.”

* * *

So it was that Kira led Daffodil across the Burrowses’ field, outfit in tow and raised high above the ground so no clods of dirt would fly up to meet it, and after lunch they both readied themselves for the party. Daffodil had been, as Kira expected, dead wrong about her outfit—it was all a very becoming shade of sage green silk, and she’d even gotten a new shift to go along with it, made of exceptionally soft linen and bleached white. Mother sufficiently oohed and ahhed over them, and cosseted them with advice until it was just about time to go: then the lasses rushed back to Kira’s room, to retie the laces of the bodices until they were as tight as possible. Laughing over the indubitable effect that they would have on their lad friends, they threw cloaks over their forms (so that the effect would not be spoilt on Roly during the ride over), and made their way outside and to the cart where the rest of the Burrows were already waiting. Kira made her mother’s apologies, and then, with a crack of a whip, they were off.

When they arrived the eastern sky was fully dark, and the last of the lamps were being hung upon lines raised on poles throughout the field. Sundry tents and pavilions for food and ale were receiving a steady flow of traffic, and the trestle tables were swiftly filling up with the hungry. Kira and Daffodil quickly got in line for food so that they would not starve while making their acquaintances, and then parted.

Kira realised with joy (and then with a twinge of guilt) that Mother’s absence from the party meant that she could actually go and seek out her bookish friends, instead of waiting for them to come upon her. And this was just as well, for Kerry had given her an injunction to seek him out as soon as possible at the party—and though Kira suspected that she could have persuaded Mother to let her do so (because not doing so would be rude, and you couldn’t have that sort of behaviour towards the Families, could you?), it was just as well that she didn’t have to. Did Mum still blame them, she wondered, for instilling all sorts of outlandish ideas in her daughter’s head?

Probably, Kira decided, as she began scanning the field for familiar faces. Mother seemed to be expecting Kira to become normal any day now. Having found the group of hobbits that she wanted, forming near the mallorn, she made her way over there, stopping to greet anyone she knew along the way.

“Merina!” she called to one lass hurrying by. “Merina!”

The lass turned around, eyes lighting up with recognition when she saw her. “Kira!”

“I don’t have time to talk to you just yet; I received an ‘urgent notice’ by post a while back and I had better find out what that’s about first. Where has your brother got off to?”

Merina Brandybuck raised her eyebrows and smiled. Kira wondered if she knew what the cryptic message she had received was about. “My brother, eh? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but he’s back in Buckland. You see, he suffered a convulsion from too much paperwork and other responsible activities, which of course he had voluntee—”

Kira smacked Merina on the arm. “I’d almost believe your story if he hadn’t signed the note from the Green Dragon Inn.”

Merina snorted. “Well, in that case, he’s off over there,” she said, pointing even farther away from the main activity of the party than the mallorn was. “You’d best keep an eye on him; he’s with a certain Fairbairn at the moment.”

“I’ll do that,” said Kira with a laugh. “Thanks; I’ll see you a little bit later.”

She walked up past the mallorn, only briefly brushing its trunk with her hand: there would be time for that later. It was over a small rise that she found them, looking off into the eastern sky. Kerry had his arm around Sandra’s back, and was whispering something into her ear. Sandra tittered a little as she leaned her head into his chest and he turned to her completed the embrace. He pressed his lips to her fair hair, and Kira could hear the muffled laughter welling from both of them.

“Am I interrupting something?” said Kira.

Sandra literally sprung back and looked at Kira, red to the ears. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “Hullo, Kira.”

“Look, I can come back at a different time. It’s just that the note said I had to see Kerry immediately on urgent business.”

“Actually,” said Kerry with a little cough, “I think that Sandra will be able to communicate that business a little better than I.”

Sandra edged towards Kira, almost shyly. She held out her arm for Kira to see the beaded bracelet she was wearing. “He gave these beads to me over winter.”

Kira dropped her jaw, and very nearly her plate as well; for if a lad gave the lass he loved a present–an actual present for no occasion, hand-delivered and not left anonymously for her to find later—it could only mean one thing. “Really? Finally? Have you set a date yet?”

“It was his birthday.”

“Kerry, you low-handed—”

Sandra cut her off before Kira could let out any more imprecations. “He gave me the string to tie them together the day after, though.”

It took a few moments for Kira to react, but presently she had set down her plate and was laughing and flinging her arms around Sandra’s neck. “Oh, Sandra, I’m so happy for you—for both of you!”

“Kira, you don’t even know if I accepted.”

“Well, of course you did, you nincompoop! Now, when are you going to get married?”

“Kira…”

“Fine.” She let go and took a step back, turning to Kerry. “What did she give you?”

Kerry dug something out of his pocket and placed it in Kira’s hand. It was not much, only a small bit of blue-tinted glass, blown to look like a teardrop. “It’s beautiful,” said Kira, “but a mathom if I ever saw one. What is it?”

“It’s a long story, I’m afraid,” said Sandra quietly from behind her, “but it has to do with how I knew I loved him.”

“Oh,” said Kira. She handed the teardrop back to Kerry. “I think the question was on her mind longer—I bet she had that thing stored away in her pocket for a year at least, just in case you asked. What took you so long?”

“Well,” said Kerry, maintaining that remarkable demeanour that Kira had convinced herself was hereditary in all heirs to important Shire positions, “Sandra only just turned thirty-three.”

“And what? Three years ago you weren’t mooning after each other?”

“Kira!” said Sandra. “Three years ago I wasn’t nearly ready enough to leave home, especially with all of the book work to be done. Not to mention that Kerry lives clear on the other side of the Shire, and if that doesn’t make romance difficult I don’t know what does.”

Kira shrugged. “Well, all the same, I had better be invited to the wedding.”

“You certainly shall be, Kira.” They began to make their way back to the main area of the party. “And how do you like your New Year’s Gift?”

“Oh, it’s marvellous! I didn’t get very far along in it before, you know—before…”

“I know,” said Kerry. “But we have copies of it, and that’s what matters, and I’m glad that you’ve finally got the chance to read it.”

“Oh, so am I,” said Kira, “and thank you very much for thinking of me. I’m sure there were more important things—”

“Nonsense! You’re at a disadvantage to the rest of us, and that isn’t right. And you needn’t worry about the ‘more important things,’ either—this was a private project, done and paid for by Sandra and me—though Merina helped out a bit too, as I’d told you.”

“Then I’ll thank you again; I hardly deserve friends like you.”

Someone has to look out for your mind, Kira,” said Sandra. “And I’m glad to help fill that role.”

“But hopefully we won’t have to do as much in the future,” added Kerry. “I’ve been trying to get this discussed for years now, but it hasn’t had much of a chance until now, now that we have enough copies to make it work—the Libraries may be able to start letting out books again.”

“Really?” said Kira. A noise of relief—heavier than a sigh, but not quite enough to qualify as a groan—escaped her lips. “Finally, finally, finally! Kerry, if it’s true, that’s the best news I’ve heard in the past… well, five minutes I suppose, with you being betrothed and all, but… oh, that’d be splendid!”

“Not all of them, mind; at least not yet—only those books that the library has two copies of—one to let and one for the archives. I know my dad’s amenable to the idea, and Brandy Hall certainly has enough double-copies to make it work. But he’ll also want a discussion with the other heads of the Families before anything is done. I’d be just as happy as you’d be if it passed, but you can’t forget the second reason for the Ban.”

“I don’t,” said Kira, a scowl darkening her face.

“I’ve talked to my own father about it,” said Sandra, “and he’s at least willing to listen to the proposal. But I know he was concerned about the welfare of anyone who might be enticed to read, as well, your acquaintance aside.”

“Do you even need a consensus?” said Kira.

“Well, we don’t want to open tensions between everyone,” said Kerry. “Though if it really came down to it Father might go ahead—he only agreed to the Ban because of the danger to the books, after all. I’d rather not find out, though, and of course it’d be best if all of the Libraries let books leave them again, wouldn’t it?”

“Of course it would!” Kira said. “Wait a moment—you’re trying to get me to do something, aren’t you?”

Kerry sighed.

“Couldn’t you at least have waited until after I’d eaten?”

“Well, it’s not asking that much.”

Kira fixed him with a glare.

“Or perhaps it is. It’s just—the library that currently has the fewest copies is the one at the Great Smials. And it also has a lot of books and records in it that aren’t anywhere else—the Tale of Years, the old Yellowskin—I think if there were sufficient copies it might get opened again.”

But Kira had started shaking her head at the words “Great Smials.” “There is absolutely no way I would go to that place, even were I wanted there.”

“Kira,” said Sandra, “what is the exact problem that you have with the Tooks?”

“It’s not the Tooks I have a problem with,” said Kira, still shaking her head. “It’s the Took. And if you think that having some more copies around is going to change the Thain’s mind you’re sorely mistaken. Besides, I can hardly hold a pen correctly. I’m not the hobbit you want.”

“It’s high time that you got yourself properly bookish again, Kira. You’re already so isolated from us, and it’s been doing you a world of hurt.”

Kira snorted. “Maybe I’d be more willing to help you if I were genuinely wanted.”

“Kira,” said Kerry, “we’re asking you to help. You are genuinely wanted.”

She stopped mid-step, forcing them to do the same. “You’re only saying that because it’s true for you—because I’m your friend, not because I’d be of any use. And what could I do? I can’t write, and anywhere I would go to help is so far away as to be impractical.”

“Tuckborough’s closer to you than anywhere else that there’s a library,” said Sandra.

“And we know about Nienna, too;” added Kerry, “and she can go fast, for long amounts of time, so it’s not any more impractical than any of the other larks you do.”

“They aren’t larks, Kerry!” cried Kira, dashing her hand against her eyes to stop the tears that came so swiftly to them. “They’re a lot more than either of you are doing, at any rate!”

“Kira!” they both cried.

“I—I’m sorry,” said Kira. “I didn’t mean that. Really, I’m in both of your debts for all that you’ve done to help…” She drew her hand across her eyes again.

“And I shouldn’t have demeaned you, either,” said Kerry, putting his arm about her shoulder. “You just must understand that a journey to Tookland isn’t that much extra effort on your part, if you want to help us.”

“But I don’t,” said Kira. “Well, I do—just not like that. I said anywhere I would go is too far away, not anywhere I could go, and I wouldn’t go to the Great Smials if the Thain came up to me and summoned me in person. He thinks he knows what’s best for everyone else,” she sniffled, “and if his grandfather could see what he’s been doing he’d likely disown him.”

“Kira…” said Sandra

“And I’m allowed to say that, because I’m not part of the Families.” Kira sighed. “Just keep on preserving the past in your own way, and let me preserve it in mine. Sorry to have dampened your spirits on a night like this; I’ll try to see you again before the Party’s over.” And with that, Kira hobbled back to the food tent, her own spirits considerably dampened by the turns in conversation and the memories of hurts done long before.

* * *

She ran into Daffodil on the way out of the tent, and seeing the cloak still wrapped around her remembered their plan for the day.

“There you are! I was starting to get uncomfortable with this thing,” said Daffodil, twitching the garment.

“I’m sorry,” said Kira. “I’ll blame it on my bookish friends—two of them got betrothed, and I forgot everything else.”

“Well, Roly and Tom are already seated, and they’ve got two spots saved for us, right across from them, so we’d better hurry before they change their mind.

“I suppose we’d better.”

The expressions on Roly and Tom’s faces alone when she and Daffodil shrugged off their cloaks in perfect synchronization were enough to start lifting the fog on Kira’s mood. “Hello, Roly, Tom,” she said as she sat down, acknowledging them with a graceful nod of the head.

Roly did not drop a plate, but he did spew ale all over it. Tom had a little more decorum and was able to get away with a blush and a cough. “I see that you two plan on making the most of the Party tonight,” he said, making a pointed effort not to look at the bosoms of either of the lasses.

“Certainly,” said Daffodil. “I shall be meeting plenty of new folk, when I go to dance with the adults.” The addendum, “and not with you,” was obvious.

“And,” said Roly, “How will you be making the most of the evening, then, Kira?”

“Well, not by dancing with the adults, that’s for sure,” said Kira. “I suppose that you’d have to say that I’m making the most of it right now. If you’re really going to feel Daffy’s absence I suppose I can stay with you and try to cheer you both up.”

Tom snorted. “What makes you think that being with you for more than five minutes at a time wouldn’t make me go mad?”

“It was only a suggestion,” Kira sniffed. “Why, are you afraid I’ll rub off on you?”

The Burrowses were already sighing with exasperation; it seemed that Kira and Tom went through something like this every time they were together.

“No, I’m not. It’s just—”

“Why, maybe you’d start reading for leisure!”

Tom turned a furious shade of red. “Someone has to make the harvest records,” he muttered. Yet his recovery was swift, despite the fact that looking up from the table caused his eyes to rest momentarily upon Kira’s chest. “Speaking of, though—I ran into your mother yesterday while she was on her way to town, and she said something about a book.”

“Oh, really? Why, did you want to borrow it?”

Tom glared. “No, I wanted to know what sort of lunacy you were getting yourself into this time. You were reading it all day, I suppose?”

“Yes—but several days after I got the book in the Post, thank you very much. Until then I had work to do—so no saying that reading breeds idleness.”

“What’s it about?” said Daffodil, impatient to divert the talk away from Kira and Tom’s perpetual warfare.

“It’s myths,” said Kira.

“So, it’s not real,” Roly said.

“I didn’t say that. Not myths as in, not-true myths, but myths as in poetry myths. It explains things like where the Sickle came from, and why we call the Sun a She instead of a He. Most of it,” she added, “tells us where we got this star,” and she pointed West to Eärendil.

“Humph,” said Tom, clearly unimpressed. “I’m going up to get another ale.”

As Tom left the table Kira looked at her two other friends apologetically. “You believe these tales are true, too, then,” said Roly.

She shrugged, studying her food intently and picking at it with a fork. “I suppose so.”

“Well, they sound,” Daffodil fished around for the right word, “interesting, I suppose.”

“Oh, very interesting,” said Kira, “but dry. You see, it was originally written by elves, and since they had a lot more time…” The looks on Daffodil and Roly’s faces made her stop. “Er, right—food. I’m up for seconds if anyone else is.” She bolted the last few bites of food down and rose to refill her plate. The Burrows twins soon followed.

Once in line Kira began to feel her cheeks glow, though it took her a few moments to discern the reason. At least five lads—either seated nearby or in line as well—were staring at her and Daffodil. Just as she was about to turn to her to say something, though, she was tapped upon the shoulder. Kira turned around.

“Can we loosen these bodices yet?” said Daffodil.

Kira nodded vigorously. “Roly,” she said, “Daffy and I are actually going to go to the privy first, if you don’t mind. If you see Tom, could you tell him to make sure that saves a spot for both of us again?”

Roly acquiesced, and Kira and Daffodil walked as quickly as they could to the tents at one end that had been set up to accommodate the calls of nature. Once the bodices had been loosened, both of them sighed with relief—the tautness across the chest and waist had been getting quite uncomfortable, not to mention the strange looks.

When they finally made their way through the food line again, they saw that their old seats had been taken by others, and it took a bit of looking before they spotted Tom in the middle of another table, gesticulating to a group of hobbits that Kira vaguely remembered from market day in town. As he finished speaking laughter broke out from the table.

Roly was sitting down nearer the end, several hobbits away from Tom, but there were two empty spaces next to him. Daffodil and Kira gratefully walked over and took them. “Tom seems to have become the life of the party,” remarked Kira.

“I’m sorry,” said Roly. “By the time I could find him this was the closest seat I could get. It seems that trying to stick together didn’t work this time around.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” said Daffodil. “Tom’s always revelled in attention. And come, he ate his first helping with us—just us—and that would have been unthinkable years ago, back when we didn’t set aside time for this sort of thing.”

Kira snorted. “That was years ago—as you said. He ought to have a little more regard by now, except that he’s Tom, so he won’t.”

“Hey, that’s our friend you’re talking about,” said Roly.

Kira glanced over at Tom, and from his behaviour concluded that he was not even aware of their presence. She shrugged. “Suit yourself. Daffy, are you going to dance after this?”

“Maybe,” said Daffodil. “Why?”

“I was just trying to think of some other people I could talk to if no one catches me first.”

Someone did catch her first, though, about two thirds of the way through Kira’s plate. She was just sinking her teeth into a mushroom pie when she felt an insistent tugging at the edge of her skirt. “Kira Lamefoot! Kira Lamefoot!” piped up a small voice behind her.

Kira twisted around in her seat and looked downward to see a very small hobbit, no older than eight, with jam smeared all over her mouth and into her maple curls. She was now positively thrashing the hem. “Iris!” said Kira. “What are you doing here?”

The child let go of the skirt and planted her fists on her hips. “Want a story,” she said.

Kira sighed. “Where are your parents?”

Iris jerked her thumb towards a distant table on the field.

“Do they know you’re here?”

A shake of the head.

“Why don’t you go back and ask them if it’s all right, find as many of your friends that want a story as you can, and then go to the Tree?”

Iris thought about this, but instead of going away she pouted. “You just want to finish eating.”

“Well, of course there’s that, too, but you really should ask permission. Besides, coming between a hobbit and her food can be dangerous.”

“You’re not dange”—Iris tripped over the word—“dan-jer-us, Kira Lamefoot. That’s Outside. Outside’s mean. You’re nice.”

“Thank you, Iris,” said Kira, ruffling the curls on the child’s head. “Now go and ask your mum and dad if they’ll let you hear a story while I’m finishing my food, there’s a good lass.”

Iris mumbled, “’welcome,” and ran off to find her parents.

The child had attracted some degree of attention from Kira’s end of the table, though not enough that Tom paid heed.

“What was that?” said Daffodil.

“Oh,” Kira said. “That’s Iris Tunnelly, one of the girls that lives north of town.”

“I said ‘what,’ not ‘who.’”

“I tell her stories, Daffy, that’s all. The children of the area seem to be rather fond of them—the younger ones, at least.”

“Oh, I remember that,” said Roly. “That food-acquiring contest or whatever, the one that you cheated at. You still tell stories, then?”

“Yes,” said Kira, “though I didn’t cheat and I’d prefer if you kept quiet about the fact that I do still tell them.”

“Why? She didn’t seem to care.”

“Well, outside of the Party, at least. Mum would have my head.”

“What did she call you, Kira?” said Daffodil.

“What, Lamefoot?”

“Yes—that’s awfully impolite of her, don’t you think?”

Kira pushed the last bit of pie into her mouth. “Doesn’t bother me—and it’s more obvious from their height anyhow.” It took a few more minutes of dedicated eating before Kira got up to keep her appointment with Iris and her friends. She could hardly have known that Tom paid heed to that, for even if she had looked back his eyes only flicked to her retreating form for an instant before he continued the conversation with his far less worrisome friends.

As Kira edged towards the Tree, which shone like a beacon in the field, she found herself being engulfed by a small sea of curly heads at about waist height or lower. Knowing that if she bothered to acknowledge them now there would be no getting to the Tree at all, she purposely ignored them until she could reach out and touch its bark (though it was difficult to ignore those that were already settled about the Tree’s roots as she waded through them). Then she turned, slowly, and sat down cross-legged, settling her skirts over her knees and feet and resting her back against the white bole of the mallorn.

The clamour was nigh on deafening to her ears, and for a moment she wished she could melt right into the tree’s trunk, but the feeling passed and she talked to the hobbit children as they settled themselves nearby. “I’m sorry, Iris, but the lap is off-limits today,” she said, lifting Iris up and planting her firmly on the ground. “Though I will thank you for washing that jam off your face.”

Iris grumbled as Kira scanned the crowd for more familiar faces. “Hello, Mundo!”

“Hello,” said a lad nearer the back who she hadn’t seen since the party in October. “You’ve shrunk!” There was laughter among the children; Kira raised her eyes to the tree’s leaves in mock indignation.

“Lilac, dear, you can move closer if you want to—say, where’s your brother?”

Lilac Twofoot inched closer to Kira’s skirts, clutching a rag doll to her chest. “He said he’s too old for Travellers’ Tales,” she said quietly.

“Oh,” said Kira. “I’m sorry to hear that—but thank you for coming along anyway, even if it was by yourself.”

Most of the children had sat down by this time, but Kira saw one lad lingering at the very edge of the group. She did not recognise him. “Pardon me,” she said, projecting her voice so that he would be sure to hear.

It took a few moments, though, before he realised that she was talking to him. He turned away. “What is your name?”

The boy turned back, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he answered. She had to strain to hear his voice. “Hal,” he said.

“Do your parents know you’re here, Hal?”

He shook his head.

“Well, if you ask them if they’ll let you hear a story, and they say yes, you’re more than welcome to sit and listen.”

Hal looked about ready to turn back, but he stayed. “Actually,” he said. “Actually,” his voice a bit louder this time, if still querulous, “my brother’s supposed to be looking after me right now. But he isn’t. I’m sure no one’d mind, though.”

Kira sighed. “All right, just this once, I suppose—but do make sure that you let your mum and dad know, and that if they have any quarrel they can talk to me.”

“And then Kira can tell them off!” crowed another lad.

“Ludo,” said Kira, “I do not tell anyone off, least of all anybody’s parents. Hal, please make yourself comfortable; as soon as I decide what story to tell I’ll start.”

There was silence for at least a minute as Kira deliberated.

“Well?” said one of the children right in the front.

“Well, what?” said Kira.

“What’s the story going to be about?”

“I don’t know,” said Kira, “at least, not yet. Let’s see… it will have to be about the Travellers tonight, I’m afraid—unless all of you want otherwise.”

“No!” came the cry, almost immediately, with chants of “Travellers! Travellers!” overlapping.

“I want to hear about killing goblins!” cried Ludo.

“No,” said Kira, “I’m afraid tonight’s not a goblin night.”

“Tell us what happened after that Strider chap saved all that Travellers’ lives!” said Iris.

“Iris, not everyone’s in the same point of the story as you are,” said Kira. “No, it’ll have to be something different entirely. Aha!”

“What?”

“I have my idea. Why don’t I tell you a story about a tree?”

Most of the lads in the party groaned. “Trees are boring,” said Mundo.

“I’m afraid a lot of trees would take offence to that,” said Kira, “and not all of them are nice. But this tree is a nice tree, for it’s the one right behind my back, and it’s probably the most well-travelled tree in all of Middle-Earth, barring Ents.”

That quieted up the lads. “This tree has been everywhere in Middle-Earth—enchanted forests, kingdoms, in the middle of the river—even to the Black Land itself, and after all of that travelling decided to settle down in the Shire where it’d be of the most use and would be the most loved. And here is the story of that Tree.”

She took a deep breath. “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful forest, far south and east of here, named Lórien, which means ‘Dream’ in the elf-tongue. And in that forest grew hundreds and hundreds of trees just like this one, and they were beloved by the elves, who dwelt there, so that it truly earned its name, ‘Dream.’ Only if you were to walk there, you’d be doing more than dreaming—it’d be like walking into a picture book, a perfect land, a land in which nothing died and so no one ever had a reason to be sad about anything.

“But the elves were sad, very sad, because they knew that the world was changing around them, and while nothing changed under the eaves of their own forest they could still feel the world pushing in at them from all around. The Lady of that land kept it from changing for as long as she could, but she knew that soon, very soon, her power to do so would be gone, and then Lórien would be no more.

“But the Lady was wise, and she knew that even if Lórien was no more, others would remember it, even after all the elves were gone. So she decided to take a piece of Lórien, and give it to someone who would remember. And that someone was Samwise Gamgee, a lowly gardener of the Shire.

“The Travellers and their companions had come to Lórien because they were sorely hurt—weary and heartsick from the horrors they had witnessed in the Mountains. And Elvish medicine is strong, especially on ailments of the heart, and so the Travellers rested and were able to put aside their hurts as they stayed in the stainless land of Lórien.

“But because the Travellers had a Quest, they knew they had to move on, as much as they wanted to stay in Lórien forever. And since, as I said before, the Lady was wise, she gave them all gifts before they left.

“Some of the gifts were very useful: for example, all of them got cloaks that allowed them to slip into the woods like shadows. Meriadoc and Peregrin received belts made of silver, and Frodo received a phial filled with starlight that shone even in the darkest places. But Sam’s gift did not seem very useful at the time, and yet without it the Shire would not be what it is today. Sam was given this tree.”

At this idea a few of the children muttered, but Kira pressed on. “Of course, it did not look the way it does now, for that would have been very difficult to carry around with you. Back then, it looked like a small nut, set in a very small box amid a fine grey soil that, I’m sorry to say, puts the Shire’s best to shame.

“That’s why this is the most well-travelled tree in Middle-Earth, because Sam took it with him wherever he went on his travels, and even when he had to throw everything else he’d brought with him away, he kept the Lady’s gift. And we needn’t go into all the places that he went, for that’s too dark a tale for a night like this, as long as you know that this tree went with him into Shadow and out of it again.

“And when Sam got back to the Shire, was he ever glad that he had kept the Lady’s gift with him! For that was the time of the Troubles, when Big Folk came into the Shire and tried to take control. And they were cruel to the hobbits, but crueller still to the land, and they cut down all manner of trees and dug up gardens and all sorts of other beautiful things to make room for their ugly square buildings—or sometimes for no reason at all.

“Sam was devastated. All of the Travellers were. And Sam thought, ‘the Shire will never look the way it’s supposed to, not for a hundred years, at least!’ And it probably wouldn’t have. He was so hurt by what the ruffians had done to the Shire that he nearly forgot about his gift, but when he remembered it he was very hopeful and very happy.

“Wherever the ruffians had cut down a tree, Sam planted a new one, along with one grain of dust from the box. And wherever the ruffians had put up a house, the hobbits tore it down and Sam put plants on the places that they had stood. And come next spring the plants came up so fast that if you watched long enough, you could almost see them grow before your eyes, and in a few years the Shire was looking more or less the way it always had.

“The Shire loved Sam for all of this. And even though the Lady’s gift was what made the plants grow so quickly, if any other gardener had done the planting they wouldn’t have done half as well as he did. All of the hobbits in the Shire saw this, and they saw in Sam someone with common sense, rooted firmly by love to all of the land and all of the folk in it—so much so that within eight years he was elected Mayor of the Shire, and re-elected six times after that. Folk today still speak of his memory with love, and it’s no mistake that we now call him by the thing that made him so famous: ‘Gardener.’

“But of course this gets away from the matter of the Tree, though all of you must surely realise that this is the spot that Sam decided to plant it after the Troubles, and that there’s not much left to the story than that.

“And there isn’t. But what’s left is some of the most magical stuff of all. Ask any two people you like where this tree came from, or ask them why we celebrate today, the sixth of April. I guarantee you that you won’t get the same answer to either question, but they’re both tied up with each other. For in the spring of the Shire year fourteen hundred and twenty, this very tree sprung up out of the ground and bloomed the most beautiful blossoms any hobbit had seen, on April the sixth, which is held to be the day that the elves celebrated the coming of the new year. But more interesting is the fact that it was also Sam’s birthday—a final birthday present from the Lady of Lórien to Samwise Gamgee.

“So today we celebrate all three things—the elves, the hobbit, and the Tree that links the two. That’s why my family and I have always called it the Tree Party, and why every April sixth we all sing,

Mallorn, mallorn, elven tree,

Cast a blossom down to me!

As Kira sang the lines, the children gasped and looked upward, expecting to see one of the Tree’s fragrant blooms floating down to them. Instead all they saw was branches, leaves, and stars, but the effect was still lovely. As they looked back at Kira they burst into applause.

“Bravo! Bravo!” cried a new voice from the shadows. An older lad, perhaps twenty, stepped into the light, clapping his hands.

“Rondo!” said Kira. “Children—come on, Rondo, come this way,” and Rondo, a bit abashed, made his way towards Kira. She put her arm around his shoulder. “This is Rondo Grubb, a very fine hobbit and one of the first people I ever told a story to.” The children applauded.

“You’re old,” said Mundo.

“Well,” said Rondo, “I was as old as some of you are now when I first heard a story from Kira. And she was as old as I am now when she told it to me.”

The children looked at him, temporarily stupefied by the mathematics. “Rondo, that gives me a great idea. Why don’t you tell them a really quick story while I get something to drink?”

“What?” said Rondo. “No, I haven’t half the skill you do,” and he began to leave.

“Rondo!”

“What?”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you away!”

Rondo kept walking away, though. He called back, “It’ll take a lot more to frighten me away, I’m afraid—I was just going to get your drink for you.”

“Well,” said Kira, her voice cracking, “you’d best be quick about it!”

Once he was out of earshot Kira explained that Rondo was one of those folk that had decided that he was not and never would betoo old for Travellers’ Tales, and that in fact she had taught him how to read them for himself, which he was doing and enjoying. She received some dubious looks at that, and hastily added that the tutelage was only at his own request and had (of course) to be approved by his parents. She did not say that the tutelage was approved for the express reason of his mother’s wishing to hear the Red Book, which she had heard so many times as a lass from old Sam Gardner, once more.

When Rondo got back, Kira wetted her throat and set to telling a few more tales before it was too late for the children to be up and about. Near the end Iris got the privilege of the lap and dozed off.

The storytelling officially ended when Kira rose from her set on the ground, and told all the children to head back to their mums and dads before they got too worried. Yet it took several minutes before all of them left, for most of them wanted to thank her personally. In the midst of all this she took the time to scan the crowd for the newcomer, but he had either slipped away or was lingering in the shadows and did not want to be found.

Lilac remained, but was silent until there were only two other children left. “Kira Lamefoot?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Why did the elf-forest have to go away?”

“I told you already—the Lady’s power to protect it failed at the end of the Third Age.”

“I know,” said Lilac. “But why?”

Kira could have tried to explain about the tie between the Three and the One, but she knew that this was not what Lilac was asking. “Because things in Middle-Earth change with time, and not even the most powerful Elf can hold that back, even in so small an area as a forest, forever. It wasn’t meant to be that way.”

“Why not?”

Kira sighed. “I don’t know. But if nothing ever changed—why, we didn’t always live in the Shire, and so we’d never get anything that’s in here—home, plenty—the Tree. We may not even be around.”

“That’d be sad,” said Lilac. “But I wish some things would stay the same forever.”

“Some things do, Lilac—they just aren’t things you can see. Good and bad stay the same no matter what, and in the long run, good always wins—those things don’t change at all.”

“Well, then, I wish more things would stay the same forever.”

“So do I, at times,” said Kira. “Say—you aren’t still upset at your brother, are you?”

Lilac shrugged. “It’s not as much fun to listen to your tales without him there.”

“Oh, sweetheart…” she gathered the girl into her skirts and held her close. “I’m so sorry.”

“What if I decide I’m too old for tales?” came Lilac’s voice, muffled by skirt and tears.

“I don’t know—you probably won’t think much of it if you do, but if you don’t want to you don’t have to—or you can always come back to them, like me.”

The child dried her eyes on Kira’s skirt and stepped back. “You were too old, once?”

“Yes,” said Kira, “a very long time ago. It’s never too late to go back to Travellers’ Tales.”

“That makes me feel a little better,” said Lilac.

One of the other children, Ludo, had been getting anxious and was already edging close to Kira even in the midst of Lilac’s tumult. “If it isn’t too late to go back to Travellers’ Tales, why don’t you ever tell any of the grown-ups stories?”

“Well,” said Kira, “they never want to hear them, you see—”

“What if someone wants to hear them and just doesn’t know it yet—like when there’s new food to try?”

He had a point, Kira decided. “Well, if I up and told people that I was telling them a Travellers’ Tale—even mentioned the Travellers by name—most of them would turn up their noses right there. It’d only be asking for disappointment.”

“You wouldn’t have to, though,” said Rondo, who had stayed with Kira through all the thank-yous and farewells. “There are places you can sing a song or recite a poem—and I bet you could tell a story, too, if you just had the nerves to go up there—and you do such a good job with your stories that I’ll bet by the time they figured out it was a Traveller’s Tale they’d be too enthralled to leave.”

“You’re giving me too much credit, Rondo—and underestimating the stubborn necks of hobbits.”

“You’re just too afraid to try—I know a part of you wants to, very badly, but you’re hushing it down.”

“Rondo—”

“What do you think of the idea?” he asked the children. “Who thinks Kira should tell a Travellers’ Tale to the grown-ups?”

All three nodded vigorous assent. “I think it’s capital,” said Roddo.

“I really don’t want to—”

“Please?” said Lilac.

Kira sighed. “Oh, all right—but only because you’re making me! And now I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave this poor hobbit in peace!”

The younger children scattered, but Rondo Grubb stayed. “Rondo…”

“I didn’t want to keep you long,” said Rondo. “Only to tell you that over the winter Mum and I have found twelve more instances of qualities of Master Samwise—or events demonstrating said qualities—that were either omitted or severely downplayed when she first heard the story.”

She laughed, despite the weariness that was beginning to catch up to her. “What does this bring the total to?”

“Sixty-one.”

She shook her head in amazement. “How is your mother, anyhow?”

“Quite well, along with the Dad and the rest. We’ve missed seeing you over the winter—when do you think you’ll be able to stop by?”

“I’ve no idea. I have so many other things to do—minding, and the like, on top of all of the things I must do at home—and unfortunately I’ve already fallen behind. That, and—oh, I haven’t told you! I’ve got another book!”

“Really?”

“It’s the Quenta Silmarillion—a brief history of the Elder Days. Your mother may not like it, but there’s a chance you will, if you don’t mind it reading like a history instead of a story. You can borrow it as soon as I’m done with it, and you’ve returned the other to me.”

“Thank you, Kira—I’ll give it a try, of course, but it’ll still be a while before the other is finished.”

“No hurry, Rondo—just as long as it takes to finish the story.”

Rondo nodded. “And I had probably better stop bothering you, and let you get to thinking up what sort of tale you’re going to tell the adults. I’m not going to let you forget!”

“I know,” said Kira, and went forth in search of more food.

* * *

Alaric’s head swam. He knew, he mused, exactly what kind of swimming it was, too—the kind where you thought you were heading up to the surface for air but you bumped into the ground instead, because that was how distracted the heat and the smoke and the chatter and the ale—above all, the ale—were making you. He would have a headache in the morning, and sharp words from his father, who would be, to understate his mood, concerned.

“Hoy, what’s wrong, Al?” he discerned from the many voices surrounding him. “Are three ales too much for you?”

He blinked a few times. “Leave me alone, Bertram.” An arm came from nowhere and clapped him on the back. “It’s all right,” said Bertram. “We’ve all been there before, my friend—it just takes considerably more beer before we get there.”

Laughter echoed around him. “Come on,” said another voice, “get some food in your system—it’ll help now, and maybe in the long run if it’ll get some more meat on your bones.” There was a little more laughter as a plate was pushed in front of him. He took a bite, and knew that it was supposed to taste good, but he could hardly swallow it. His stomach did not seem to want to obey him.

A few moments more and he knew it would not. “Excuse me,” he muttered, and staggered off to find the bushes.

Alaric allowed himself a few moments to wallow in misery as he retched behind the bushes, well outside the party’s limits. At least he had managed to get well away from everyone, though, unlike a few miscalculated nights at the inn back at home. Food, he thought, trying to avoid speculating how much trouble he was going to be in once Dad and everyone else in his family found out. No, not the stuff the lads set out for me—too rich. Just some bread. Bread. He rose from his hands and knees and stood up, taking gulps of the clean night air and letting his eyes rest on the stars above. His head was not so muddled out here.

Dad had said that he was too old for caning several years ago, but this had gone on long enough that Alaric wondered if he would change his mind. No, likely another tongue-lashing, and a lecture about Duty. Then, Mother—no words from her, just a look of disappointment that hurt him just as much as anything that Father said. But what did any of them know?

Bert came to him from behind and put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you feeling better now?”

Alaric nodded. “Bread,” he said.

“I agree. We can’t have you hungry now,” and he began to lead him back to one of the food lines.

“And water,” Alaric added.

“Bread and water? That’s prisoner’s fare!”

“It’s all I’m up to.”

“For now, maybe. But really, Al, how can you expect the rest of us to be entertained with you sober?”

* * *

Kira sat on the outskirts of the dancing, plate on floor and mug in hand. She was glad of the quiet, and trying to use it to her advantage by thinking up whatever wretched thing she was going to say before all the adults; but all that she wanted to do was crawl away somewhere, far away from any habitation, curl up, and go to sleep. When was the last time she had been alone, or at least left in peace? The ride over, she decided—so few hours, but it felt like days, given the number of people that she had talked to.

Daffy was up there, somewhere, being whirled around by some eligible young lad. It was an uncharitable thought, but Kira hoped that she would not notice her and try to introduce her to him, or to anyone else she may have met. For a few minutes she amused herself in the intricate patterns of the dance, watching the eager and the reluctant, the ones that could lose themselves in dancing and the ones that were intensely focused on not treading on their partner’s toes. Then she saw Merina, spinning by in a lad’s arms, who managed to catch her eye and wink. Though Kira had said, hours earlier, that she would try to talk to the lass, her heart sank.

When the song had ended, Merina walked over and plopped down next to her. “I’m exhausted,” she said. She eyed the food on Kira’s plate. “May I?”

Kira sighed. “Go ahead,” she said, casting a critical eye over Merina. “You don’t look exhausted—you look exuberant.”

Merina grabbed some of the food and began to eat. “You haven’t been dancing for the past ten songs.”

“Ten songs?”

“And the only break I got was because my stomach rumbled right in the middle of a nice quiet tune.”

“Sweet stars, Merina, how many people have asked you to dance?”

“Too many. My family had a party for me, you know, back in October, and it’s been nothing but lads ever since.”

Kira shook her head, horrified.

“Rather flattering, really, but a bit annoying, too.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem to have done you much worse—I thought it took a whole stable of ponies to make you like this.”

“Pshaw,” said Merina. “When I really do get tired of all this, I’ll take all the best ones riding, and see which ones hold up.”

“You mean to lead them a merry chase, then?”

“I wouldn’t call it that… oh, come, Kira, it’s all in good fun.” She took a sidelong glance at her. “Say, you look rather peaked. Are you ill?”

“No, just worn thin.”

“And you haven’t even danced at all, for you can’t! I don’t understand it.”

Heaving her shoulders, Kira said, “You thrive off company, Merina. I drown in it. And now I’m supposed to go in even deeper, even though I’m sure just one more hobbit will kill me outright.”

“Oh, my,” said Merina. “What are you supposed to do?”

“Something really dull that I agreed to. I’m supposed to go to one of the tents where folk recite poetry and such, and tell them all a Traveller’s Tale without letting them know that it’s a Traveller’s Tale.”

“Why?”

“You try telling a sweet little ten-year-old whose brother has just decided that he’s too old for stories ‘no.’”

“Sounds like a pickle if ever there was one.”

“I don’t even know what I’m going to do.”

“Well, I suppose you’ll have to do the same as the rest of them and recite a poem, because people think of stories when they think of the Travellers. But how you’re going to avoid mentioning them by name is anybody’s guess. Maybe if it were from the perspective of one of them? Then you could just say ‘I’ all the time.”

“I can’t make up poetry on the spot!”

“I’m just trying to help. But if you can’t… well, I don’t know of any poems from their point of view that have already been written.”

Kira was about to make some sort of noncommittal remark, when in spite of herself a smile spread over her face. “I do,” she said.

“Really? I mean, I’m not as much of a scholar as Kerry is, but I don’t remember anything…”

“Well, it’s… I’d best not say anything, I guess. It’s not very well known, we’ll put it that way, and I only learned of it by chance.”

Merina gave her a shrewd look. “That’s elf-talk if I ever heard it. Fine, be all secretive if you want. Oh, and what did you think?”

“What did I think? What did I think of what?”

“The betrothal!”

Kira laughed to herself. “I’d nearly forgotten about it, what with everything else going on! I’m happy, very happy. Especially for them.”

“Long overdue?”

“Yes, that, too, to the point that I wonder you didn’t burst from not telling me yourself.”

“Oh, well, both of them were very insistent that you not be spoiled by ‘any sort of connivings on your part,’ I believe they said. They really are perfect for each other, aren’t they?”

“Yes, both of them.” Kira was already thinking back to the poem she had settled on, ignoring the chills that passed over her heart. “Here, you can finish this; if I’m going to drown I may as well drown quickly.” She rose, leaving the plate behind.

“Kira!”

“What?”

“You were my protection from more dance requests!”

“I’m terribly sorry, Merina, but if I keep on talking to you I’ll never have the energy to keep my promise. If you’re ever over to Michel Delving for the livestock market you can talk to me then, and I’ll be a lot more alive, I promise.”

“You just want to see me suffer at the hands of my suitors, don’t you?” said Merina, but she let Kira go. “Poor dear,” she muttered when she thought Kira was out of earshot.

Poor dear indeed, thought Kira as the line in the tent where hobbits stood singing or declaiming grew all too short, all too soon, and she stepped to the front. Instantly all eyes were upon her. “I have a poem to recite,” she said, gripping her crutch tightly in her hand. “So I suppose,” and she gestured towards the musicians sitting in the corner, “that you can get some food if you want, for it’s a long bit of poem, but very beautiful.

“This is Tree Party Day, which has been celebrated here for a long time. We’re supposed to give thanks for all that we have on days like today, and think of how things could have been. But we often don’t do the second part, because we’ve forgotten. And while I don’t mean to make everyone sad by doing that, I still thought I should remind everyone of what all that we have now cost the hobbits of yesteryear—and what it cost one hobbit in particular, who never got to see the Shire as it is today.”

Not daring to look at her audience’s faces, she fixed her eyes on Eärendil, now dipping his prow below the horizon, and began to recite the poem.

* * *

Alaric was back at the table, trying desperately to ignore the laughter at his return that was still bouncing around the table. Even though he had told no one, everyone knew exactly why he had left. He focused on chewing, then swallowing, each bite of bread, and ignored the mug that Brando was pressing on him. Bert, though full of sympathy for his plight, had steered him away before he could find water, or anything, in fact, that didn’t have some sort of spirit in it. He was getting thirsty, but he didn’t think he could handle anything more.

“Come on!” he heard from the table. “One sip won’t hurt!”

Perhaps not. He took a mouthful of the beer and swallowed. So far, so good. Another sip, though, and he knew that continuing was a bad idea. Resolutely he set the mug down and took another bite of bread.

Jeers. Alaric rested his forehead on his hand and suddenly wished the party were over and he were in his bed. He closed his eyes…

And out from the darkness came, like a star piercing through fog, words. How they found him amid the hubbub of the party, he did not know—perhaps because they were quiet, perhaps because they seemed so out of place at such a joyous party as this—but they called to him and they smote his heart. Alaric rose from his seat and listened.

I walked by the sea, and there came to me,
as a star-beam on the wet sand,
a white shell like a sea-bell;
trembling it lay in my wet hand.
In my fingers shaken I heard waken
a din within, by a harbour bar
a buoy swinging, a call ringing
over endless seas, faint now and far.

Then I saw a boat silently float
on the night-tide, empty and grey.
‘It is later than late! Why do we wait?’
I leapt in and cried: ‘Bear me away!’

It bore me away, wetted with spray,
wrapped in a mist, wound in a sleep,
to a forgotten strand in a strange land.
In the twilight beyond the deep
I heard a sea-bell swinging in the swell,
dinging, dinging, and the breakers roar
on the hidden teeth of a perilous reef;
and at last I came to a long shore.
White it glimmered, and the sea simmered
with star-mirrors in a silver net;
cliffs of stone pale as ruel-bone
in the moon-foam were gleaming wet.
Glittering sand slid through my hand,
dust of pearl and jewel-grist,
trumpets of opal, roses of coral,
flutes of green and amethyst.

But under cliff-eaves there were glooming caves,
weed-curtained, dark and grey;
a cold air stirred in my hair,
and the light waned, as I hurried away.

Down from a hill ran a green rill;
its water I drank to my heart’s ease.
Up its fountain-stair to a country fair
of ever-eve I came, far from the seas,
climbing meadows of fluttering shadows:
flowers lay there like fallen stars,
and on a blue pool, glassy and cool,
like floating moons the nenuphars.
Alders were sleeping, and willows weeping
by a slow river of rippling weeds;
gladdon-swords guarded the fords,
and green spears, and arrow-reeds.

There was an echo of song all the evening long
down in the valley; many a thing
running to and fro: hares white as snow,
voles out of holes; moths on the wing
with lantern eyes; in quiet surprise
brocks were staring out of dark doors.
I heard dancing there, music in the air,
feet going quick on the green floors.
But wherever I came it was ever the same:
the feet fled, and all was still;
never a greeting, only the fleeting
pipes, voices, horns on the hill.

Of river leaves and the rush-sheaves
I made me a mantle of jewel-green,
a tall wand to hold, and a flag of gold;
my eyes shone like the star-sheen.
With flowers crowned I stood on a mound,
and shrill as a call at cock-crow
proudly I cried: ‘Why do you hide?
Why do none speak, wherever I go?
Here now I stand, king of this land,
with gladdon-sword and reed-mace.
Answer my call! Come forth all!
Speak to me words! Show me a face!’

Black came a cloud as a night-shroud.
Like a dark mole groping I went,
to the ground falling, on my hands crawling
with eyes blind and my back bent.
I crept to a wood: silent it stood
in its dead leaves; bare were its boughs.
There must I sit, wandering in wit,
while owls snored in their hollow house.
For a year and a day there must I stay:
beetles were tapping in the rotten trees,
spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving
puffballs loomed about my knees.

At last there came light in my long night,
and I saw my hair hanging grey.
‘Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!’ Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt-taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.

Birds came sailing, mewling, wailing;
I heard voices in cold caves,
seals barking, and rocks snarling,
and in spout-holes the gulping of waves.
Winter came fast; into a mist I passed,
to land’s end my years I bore;
snow was in the air, ice in my hair,
darkness was lying on the last shore.

There still afloat waited the boat,
in the tide lifting, its prow tossing.
Weary I lay, as it bore me away,
the waves climbing, the seas crossing,
passing old hulls clustered with gulls
and great ships laden with light,
coming to haven, dark as a raven,
silent as snow, deep in the night.

Houses were shuttered, wind round them muttered,
roads were empty. I sat by a door,
and where drizzling rain poured down a drain
I cast away all that I bore:
in my clutching hand some grains of sand,
and a sea-shell silent and dead.
Never will my ear that bell hear,
never my feet that shore tread,
never again, as in sad lane,
in blind alley and in long street
ragged I walk. To myself I talk;
for still they speak not, men that I meet.

Silence, or rather, noise that slowly filled the gap in sound. The poem was over. Alaric blinked a few times, then sat down heavily.

The lads around him burst into laughter. How long had they been staring at him?

“And that,” said Bertram, laughing, “is why we can’t have you sober, Al.”

But Alaric did not feel muddled, at least, not in the way that he had before he had gotten ill. Instead, his heart felt as if it were soaked in water—as if he had just come from a funeral but had not, despite all his wishing to, been able to cry.

“You didn’t hear it, then?” he said, even though he knew, as the words left his mouth, that he would get even more ridicule.

“Hear what?” said Roggy, another one of the lads.

“The poem. I got up to hear it better.”

“You are drunk,” said Brando.

Maybe he was right, thought Alaric, shaking his head, though he knew he couldn’t have made up a poem like that. He was confused when he was drunk, not maudlin. The cadences echoed in his mind, over and over, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if they ended up running through his dreams. Another bit of bread was halfway to his mouth when the thought struck him—who had been the person reciting that poem? He did not know that a hobbit could sound that sad, and even if it were just because of the poem, it still didn’t feel right that anyone should be that melancholy, much less a lass—for it had been a lass reciting the poem. Again he was reminded of funerals, and he shivered in spite of himself.

Bert was giving him another strange look.

“Sorry,” said Alaric. He turned back to his food.

Alaric was jerked out of another reverie when he heard his name being called from behind. It took him a few moments to notice it: “Al! Al!”

Slowly he turned around in his seat. “Halbarad,” he said, “I thought I told you to leave me alone till I was done eating.”

“You promised Mum and Dad that you were going to play with me!”

Alaric sighed as he let his little brother take his hand and tug him into a standing position. Why couldn’t he realise that a promise made to Mum and Dad was one thing and a promise made to him was another? “Please, will you wait another quarter of an hour?” he said.

“I’ve already waited for two! Play with me, Al!”

He turned his head back to the lads and grimaced by way of apology. Brando chortled.

Alaric ignored him, and let Halbarad lead him away from the table. Now that he had gotten away from his friends he was not as loath for his brother’s company. “All right, Hal, what did you do while I was with my friends?”

Halbarad’s face spread wide into a grin. “Oh, it was the most marvellous thing, Al—I found a storyteller! And she told splendid tales, too, about the Party Tree, and about the Travellers, and she made them all come alive! I’ve never had half as much fun at a party before.”

“A storyteller?”

“Yes, and an excellent one. Much more fun than any of the stuff I have to read at home—you remember when you had to learn it, right?”

“Yes, unfortunately.” Vague half-memories of sunlight, dust motes, and of staring out windows flitted through his mind.

“Well, it was much more fun than that,” said Hal, “but she still didn’t get a single fact wrong, at least, not as far as I can remember. And then afterwards this fellow that she had taught to read and some of the other children convinced her to say a poem for the grownups, and she made that one come alive, too, even though it wasn’t bright and happy like the things she told us.”

“Well, it sounds—” Something in what Halbarad had said niggled in the back of his mind. “Wait, you said she said a sad poem? What was it about?”

“Well, she promised the fellow that it was going to have to do with the Travellers, but what it had to do with them I can’t say. It was very sad—so sad that I couldn’t even catch what sort of thingsit dealt with. Something about a sea-bell…”

Sea-bell… Alaric stopped right where he was standing. Hal, who was still holding onto his hand and actually swinging it back and forth, was forced to stop, too. “What?” said Hal.

Alaric smiled to himself. Apparently he had found his poet. Though what that poem had had to do with the Travellers was anybody’s guess. The Sea… it had to do with the Sea… but none of the Travellers’ Tales he had heard or studied had to do with the Sea—though Frodo Baggins had passed over it at the end of the Third Age, they said. Oh, but that wasn’t the same, for what could some vague hero’s journey have to do with so present, so haunting, so real a despair as that presented in the poem? He shuddered—whoever this storyteller was, there was something strange about her.

“Hal,” he said, “do you know the storyteller’s name?”

Hal nodded vigorously. “Her name’s Kira.”

“Very well, then—I propose an expedition. I’d very much like to meet this Kira person, so why don’t we see if we can find her?”

“Hurrah!” cried Halbarad, and he set off in search of the storyteller with such alacrity that Alaric, even with his longer legs, had to run to keep up.

* * *

Kira sank against the bole of the mallorn, worn thin to heart and bone. I told you so, she thought. There’s no hope in the whole of the matter. Even though the poem was Frodo’s, not hers, it was a part of her that she had just bared to the whole Shire. She should have gotten something for it.

She had gotten the polite applause that was to be expected with these sorts of things, but when the poem was over and she had finally dared to look at her audience’s faces, they showed nothing but confusion and distrust. One question—even one unkind word for being so queer and melancholy—would have made the whole venture worth it, but after she had left another hobbit came up and sang a merry song, and it was all foot-tapping and hand-clapping after that. It was as if she had never been there in the first place.

So many people she had talked to at the party—so much that had happened, and such disappointment. Finally, a night when the veil was lifted—yet all her hopes had failed her.

What could she have done? She was not one to break a promise—but even then, Rondo was right, she had wanted to say the poem, she had wanted to do something but needed someone to make her do it—because otherwise she would never have gotten around the objections that were so forcefully asserting themselves now. But what else could she have said?

She couldn’t have told a story, not to adults so grounded in hobbit sense that they barely saw the stars. If Lilac’s big brother was too old for Traveller’s Tales at the tender age of thirteen, if Kira herself had scoffed at them when she was that age, how could folk in their forties ever see them as more than idle fancy? No, you could not tell adults the truth, at least, not in so open a way. She had thought that something purer, a sensation almost completely peculiar (in the Shire, at least) to the Histories, distilled from the framework of children’s stories, might strike them. But if the haunting sorrow of Frodo’s Dream had not made one of them bat an eye, what would?

It’s useless, she thought. We can’t remember. None of us wants to. And what’s the use of telling, if nobody ever listens? She sank further down, until she was sitting with her back straight up against the tree. The crutch slid to the ground, and she raised her eyes to the maze of leaves and branches above her. Mallorn, mallorn, elven tree, Cast a blossom down to me! she thought, half-hoping that this time her prayer would be heeded. But as always, no flowers came drifting down the air. She closed her eyes, willing the world around her to disappear—the incessant gabbing, the hobbits going about their daily business like ants, never suspecting that there might be something more important, never even entertaining the idea that, in the midst of all this joy, there might yet be heartache…

No! The thought thundered through her head, and she tumbled forward and onto the ground in shock at what had pierced her thoughts. There it was, springing forth from some shadowy lair within her mind: her old foe—the dark island and the blackness that surrounded it, always threatening to engulf her. Again she was on the island, and the waves crashed over her head, snatched at her, tried to draw her away into the mind-numbing desolation that would drown her yet, she knew, even as she tried to bat them away. It was like fighting the tide.

Please! she called to it, though she knew it would offer her no clemency. Go away! Leave me alone! But wave after wave broke over her head, and the dark waters swept her away into oblivion.

* * *

Hal had left Alaric far behind in his merry quest for the storyteller. It had begun innocently enough, over to a tent not far away where a stout middle-aged hobbit was singing an ode to the Southfarthing’s Best, but not finding the lass there Hal wove his way around (and under) several tables of eating hobbits, darted straight through an ale tent, and finally left off all chance of being pursued by ploughing through a crowd of Bracegirdles. Alaric wondered if the mad goose-chase was worth it at all, and was about to turn back when he heard his brother calling his name again. Alaric froze. The last time he had heard Hal like this was when Hal had accidentally broken the inkstand in Dad’s study. He was panicked.

It took a few moments of frantic searching to locate the voice, but Halbarad was waving his arms as he shouted and Alaric sprinted over to him. He was by the Party Tree.

“Hal, what is it?”

“There’s something wrong with her!”

Alaric skidded to a halt next to his brother and knelt down. Halbarad was slapping the face of a very pale, unnaturally still, hobbit. Alaric restrained him with one hand while the other flew to her neck to check her heartbeat. Incredibly, she was alive, but her heartbeat was weak and her breathing faint. He took a few deep breaths, trying to think of what Dad would do in a situation like this.

“Hal, do you remember Dr. Cyril?”

Hal nodded.

“Go and find him, and bring him here. I don’t know what’s wrong with this girl, but she needs help and maybe he can give it to her.”

The child stood up and nodded, worry etched into his face as he looked down at Kira. Then in a flash he was away. Alaric hoped that they would not be too late to save her.

He kept a hand on her neck; her pulse seemed steady enough and it did not weaken. That couldn’t be a bad sign, he decided. Shifting himself so he now sat cross-legged, he took the lass’s cold hand in his and prepared to wait.

She was beautiful, he decided, well-formed and fair of face, though she’d probably look prettier if she weren’t so pale. Then again, she was deathly ill—in fact, she looked quite lifeless—so he could hardly judge. But even if her face was peaceful, she could not be in repose, for she lay as if she had been cringing only a moment before it—whatever had happened to her—had happened. And at the corners of her eyes, now closed as if sleeping, tears half-shed glimmered. The mysteries about you only increase, storyteller, he thought. What could have happened to her?

Before he could ponder the situation more, however, he felt her heartbeat quicken and warm life surge into her hand. A fever? he thought, looking down at her. Her eyes were open.

A jolt ran through his body at seeing her so unexpectedly awake, and he dropped her hand in shock. For a few moments he stared at her, only half hearing himself as he stammered, “Are you well, miss?”

Kira’s eyes took a moment to focus on him, and he tried to read the emotions as they passed over her face: confusion? Bewilderment? Disgust? When she answered, he could tell that her voice was indeed that of the reciter, but it sounded as if it came from far away. “Yes. Yes, quite well.” She sat up and dusted the soil off her skirt, as if none of what she had just gone through was out of the ordinary.

“Well,” he said, fumbling around for words, “you were not well just a few minutes ago. Whatever it was that afflicts—afflicted—you, I think you should speak with a doctor about it.”

She shook her head, her eyes fixed on some vague point in the night sky. “He wouldn’t be able to do anything to help.” She looked over at him, and the sudden focus in her brown eyes startled him. “I’m sorry if I worried you.” Looking away again, she began to cast about on the ground with her eyes. Eventually they lighted on a rather large carven stick some few feet away, and without standing up she reached over to take it.

She rose, again dusting off her clothing, held the stick by a bit that jutted out from the side, and set it beneath her shoulder. With a start he realised that she was injured, if not actually lame. “Thank you for your concern,” she said, and walked away.

Alaric contemplated going after her; he did not think it was healthy to just go off like that without resting for a little bit first; but she did not stumble as he watched her retreating form. Lost in thought, he did not notice the presence of his brother and the doctor until he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, turning around to face Dr. Cyril.

“Where’s the girl?”

“She got up and left.”

“You found her lying on the ground, looking half-dead, and ‘she got up and left’?”

“I tried to detain her…”

Cyril sighed. “Not well, obviously.”

“Do you know what might have been wrong with her? She woke up all sudden-like, and aside from being a little out of sorts there didn’t seem to be any sign of… well, of anything. She was ill one moment and well the next.”

The doctor scratched his balding head. “I can’t think of anything—disease or injury—that would cause something like that. If you wish I could speak with some of my colleagues; perhaps one of them knows, if one of them does not know about her case in particular.”

“You needn’t go to all that trouble. I was just curious, is all. I hope she’s all right.”

“Al?” said Halbarad. “Does this mean I’ll have to wait until the next party to see her?”

Alaric nodded.

“That’s a shame.”

* * *

Kira blushed in frustration as she hobbled away. How late was it? Surely late enough that the Burrows would want to leave soon, wasn’t it? Please?

Her mind flew back to what had just happened. She hated, hated the blackness, and yet it would not go away. It had not come over her all of the winter, so she had—like the fool that she was—hoped that it had gone for good. Now it had not only caught her unawares; she had been seen by an utter stranger who was, by now, completely convinced that she was a weakling with some strange malady that she refused to have treated. The malady she could understand, even though it did not originate in the body, but treating it had failed and that was hardly her fault. Dr. Grimwig had once termed it a “sickness of the heart,” and she knew what it was—the vestiges of the dark winter when she had been tried so hard and nearly failed. But even though that winter had passed long ago, the illness remained to plague her. Was this one of those wounds that would never fully heal?

Then, tonight, she had been seen during the spell. What if that happened again? What if she lost control of it again, and did not come to until she had been brought before a doctor? She trembled at the thought of the thousand probing questions that would attack her then, of how few satisfactory answers she would have.

She should have known better, what with all the fatigue of meeting with and talking to so many people, and then setting herself up for disappointment right on top of that. She should have known, should have been better prepared… She hoped Mother did not find out about this.

“Kira? Oh, dear, you look awful! What’s happened?”

She had not even realised that she had managed to find Daffodil in the midst of her thoughts. Daffy put an arm around her shoulder and repeated her question.

“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” said Kira. “When are we leaving?”

“We were waiting on you, actually. Dad’s driving—he’s furious at Roly because he and Tom, and a bunch of Tom’s city friends, all decided to drink a lot too much, so Dad has to drive once more. For the past fifteen minutes he’s been bemoaning the lack of both his son’s self control and gentle hobbit lasses to hold them back.”

“He’s obviously never tried to reason with Tom, then. He’s incorrigible.”

“Hullo, Kira,” said the incorrigible hobbit in question as he tottered onto the scene, a ridiculous grin plastered on his face.

Kira turned around to face him, and sighed heavily. “Tom, the moment I can walk straighter than you is the moment you’ve had far too much to drink.”

“Hey! I’m s’posed to be looking after you, not t’other way around!”

Kira turned back towards the cart. “Goodnight, Tom,” she called. “I hope your head doesn’t kill you in the morning.”

Tom said something further, almost certainly directed at her, but it was so slurred that all she caught was, “I lik’d rchst”—which she summarily ignored in her efforts to get to the cart without dropping off to sleep prior.

Daffodil got in after her, supporting her brother as he stumbled on his way. She laid her cloak over Roly and settled him on the cart’s floor, then bade Kira lie down as well. “Go ahead, you’re clearly exhausted. We’ll talk about the party when you feel better.”

And she was. Despite the hard wood on the bottom of the cart and the bumps as it travelled along the road, Kira slept soundly till the sun rose and they were back upon the White Downs.

Chapter 3

 

Next afternoon Kira woke to the sound of fabric being ripped.  Blearily she got out from bed, and reached over to open her clothes press for a dress to put on.  It was not there.

Opening her eyes for real, she scanned the entire room for the chest, but she could not find it.  On a stool set next to her bed lay a green workaday skirt, neatly folded, and her everyday bodice on top.  “Drat,” she muttered, only now remembering the requisite change in wardrobe.  Her green dress had been too worn for them to salvage the bottom half, so along with the new bodice that she and Mother had made over the winter they had made this one to replace it.  Muttering to herself, Kira stepped out of bed and tossed the skirt over her head and shift, tying the waistband in a bow at the back.  Afraid of losing her balance in the tangling of getting it over her head and tying the laces properly, she sat back down for the bodice.  It felt much more comfortable than the long hours of last night’s, with all of the boning poking in at her stomach.

“I’m awake, Mother,” she announced as she walked down the hallway to the ripping noise.  “What’s going—Mum!!

Mother was seated at the kitchen table, Kira’s clothes press at her feet, shredding her favourite old green dress into rags.

“What are you doing?”

Mother looked up from her work.  “Kira, there’s no point in keeping any of your dresses around anymore, and this one’s too old to be sold or given away.”

“Mum, that one’s—was—my favourite!”

Mother set down the half-demolished dress.  “I’m sorry, Kira.  I should have told you before, but the new outfit set us back quite a bit and we’re going to have to scrimp.  We need newer rags anyway, and the rest of it can be sold.  Look,” she said, gesturing to the heap of rags that she was adding to.  Beneath the newest layer of green were a few smaller piles of fabric that Kira recognised from her other old dresses.  “Those are the tops from your other ones.  I’ve saved off the skirts from them, and all we’ll have to do are waistbands.”

Kira sighed.

“I know you’re disappointed, dear, but we really don’t have a choice.”

“You could have at least told me before you started tearing it up!”

“I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Then you should have waited.  I don’t want my favourite dress to wipe other people’s noses.”

“You can’t wear it anymore, Kira, and cloth is too useful to just let it sit around and become a mathom.”

“Well,” said Kira, sitting down heavily on a nearby stool, “you’ve already started, so you might as well finish.  I think I’m going to find me something to eat.”

It was difficult to do though, for Kira’s bites were punctuated with the noise of her last remnants of childhood being torn apart.  Finally she got up, bread and cheese only half-finished, and went back to Mother.  “May I have the rags?”

“Kira, what are you going to do with them?”

“I’m going to braid a rug from them, and we can sell that.  It’ll make more money, and nobody will be wiping noses with it.”

Mother tore off a few more strips as she thought.  “Not all of them.  All of the green dress, certainly, but we need some of the money today.  And then you’ll have to get that rug done quickly, by tomorrow at best.”

“Good.”  Kira waited pointedly until Mother was done, and then scooped up most of the rags under her arm and limped triumphantly back to her room to dump them on her bed.  It wouldn’t make a very big rug, but perhaps it could keep some child from getting cold feet when he got out of bed in the morning.  When she returned, she said, “Are we going to town today, then?”

“Yes,” said Mother, “to sell the rags and get a bit more food.  But I do want you to tell me all about the party on the way.”

“Well,” said Kira as Mother shut the door of the smial behind her, “there’s not much to say.  I don’t expect we’ll run into Tom today—he should still be suffering the effects of his decisions last night.”

“Oh?”

“He and Roly decided that they ought to get themselves roaringly drunk.  Mr. Burrows was ready to have a fit.”

“Now, whyever would they—”

“I don’t know—they’re lads, I’d say, and there was a certain lack of feminine companionship to hold them back, since Daffy and I are both twenty-seven—not that we could stop either of them if they put their minds to it.”

Mother sniffed.  “And did you meet any new lads?”

“Well… er… no, not really.”

“None at all?”

Kira did not think that little Hal counted, so for a few moments she was at a bit of a loss.  But memories of acute shame, only half-hidden by the utter exhaustion that had accompanied the sensation, came to her rescue.  “Well, I suppose I did run into one fellow, but it was so very late at the time that I hardly remember anything about him.”

Mother harrumphed to herself.

“What was I supposed to do, Mum, sit at the dancing grounds and wait for someone to take pity on me?”

“Well, something other than what you did.  What did you do, anyhow, Kira, if you didn’t meet anyone new?”

Kira shrugged.  “More or less the same as what I’ve done at every party—ate, talked, little else because I couldn’t do much else.  Yes, I did avoid the dancing grounds, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do.  At any rate, Daffy met a whole slew of lads and I’m sure she’ll introduce them to me next time around.”  Kira thought a moment.  “I actually did sit by the dancing grounds for a moment, but Merina flagged me down before any lads could join me.”

“Who?”

“One of my bookish friends.”

“She ‘flagged you down’?  Why?”

Kira sighed.  “Kerry and Sandra—Kerry’s her older brother—are betrothed now, and I only found it out at the party, and Merina wanted to know what I thought.”

“Kira,” said Mother, stopping in the middle of the path, “I do not like how much you’re associating with these people, especially now that you’re twenty-seven.”

“Mum, I’m not associating with them; they’re associating with me!  Merina came over and sat next to me without my so much as signalling to her.”

“And those other two?”

“Yes!  You’ve been with me to the other parties; you know that they always seek me out regardless of what I do.”

“You’re still planning on reading that book that they sent you, though.”

“Yes, I am,” said Kira, more quietly, “and if that makes me less marriageable, then so be it.  I didn’t have much chance anyway.”

“Kira…”  Mother laid her hand on Kira’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Mum.  I’m probably still cranky from the ride back in the cart last night.”

“No, it’s not that.  Sweetheart, you mustn’t lose hope.  I’m sure that there’s some lad out there who’s waiting to fall in love with you.  But you must understand…”

“I know, Mother, my bookishness isn’t helping my chances any.”  Kira began walking again.

“Oh, if only those meddlesome Brandybucks would leave you alone,” Mother muttered as she came up from behind.

Kira decided to ignore the comment, as she did not think it was intended for her ears.  “I’m sorry that my reading worries you, Mum.  But it really does help me when my foot goes through bad spells—which admittedly isn’t as often as it used to be, but can still be dreadful when it does.”

“Well, I suppose anyone that truly understands your foot will be able to put up with your reading,” said Mother, rather generously, Kira supposed.  They had been over this twice since her last birthday.

“Well, that was the party,” said Kira.  “Tom and Roly reacted rather strangely to the new outfits, but then I guess that could be expected.”

“You tied the bodice tighter than it should go, didn’t you?”

Kira was silent.

“Oh, come, dear—you can’t have thought that you were the only lass in the whole of the Shire to have done that?”

Kira had thought not, but she spluttered at the thought of Mother, with all of her hobbit sense, yanking on the laces of her bodice just to get a bit of extra chest.  “We loosened them after fifteen minutes, Mum!”

“Oh,” said Mother, laughing, “I can believe it—those can get uncomfortable about the waist, which is simply awful when you’re eating.  Still…”

“What?”

Mother was fishing a handkerchief out of her pocket.  “Oh,” she said, dabbing at her eyes (Kira suspected for show), “you must allow me a bit of nostalgia for the days when I was of the age to be courted.  Believe me, I turned several heads back in my day.  But,” and she returned the hankie to its place, “I’m glad you didn’t keep those bodices too tight for long.  A little attention is good, but it’s best if directed to the right place.”

As Kira had predicted, Tom was nowhere to be seen as they passed the Whitwell residence.  Indeed—even for it not being a market day—the whole of Michel Delving was rather peaceful, as peaceful as the Shire’s largest town could ever be.

They wound their way through the main thoroughfares, and into another twisty set of alleys much like the ones that had led them to Mrs. Diggle’s fabric shop.  This time, however, they went into an old smial at the back of a row of buildings—probably one of the first holes dug in the area—with oilcloth windows and a door that was once painted yellow.  There was no sign above it.

“Mother, what is this place?” whispered Kira.

“The rag-sellers’,” said Mother.  “May not be able to keep up very good appearances here at their home, but that’s because they travel to sell their goods on the countryside.  It’s always nice when you can exchange an old, worn rag for a fresher one—especially if you’re using the old one for a potholder and feeling the heat quite keenly.”

“What do they do with the old rags?” said Kira.

“I’m not rightly sure,” said Mother, “but I imagine they must have some use for them.”  She extended a hand and knocked on the door.

After a few minutes and much scampering of feet it was opened by a small, clean-looking lad about the age of thirteen.

“Hello,” said Mother.  “Is your father at home?”

“Half a minute,” said the boy, and turning back he cried, “Dad, there’s some ladies at the front door as want to do business with you!”  Returning to Kira and her mother, he said, “Won’t you please come inside?”

They stepped inside the dirt floor of the hole and sat down on two stools that the lad proffered.  A few minutes later, his father, a stout, middle-aged sort of fellow, came in.  “How may I help you?” he said.

“We have some rags to sell,” said Mother, and she handed him the small bundle that had remained after Kira’s rescue efforts.

The rag-seller looked over the selection carefully, and named a price.  Mother began to haggle.

Ten minutes later, they walked away with two copper pennies.

“Was it really worth all that effort?” said Kira.

Mother was silent.

“Are we that bad off?  Because you didn’t have to buy me that ribbon, you know.  We could sell it—and the party outfit—back.”

Mother whispered.  “Kira, if we can just stick through until the herbs are in season, we’ll be fine.  And the money from your dad’s family should be coming in soon, too.  But…”

“But?”

“In the meantime, you’d better have that rug made and sold within two days.  I’m going to go off and make our purchases if you’d like to run free for a bit.”

“Are you sure we’ll be fine?”

“We’ve been in worse straits before, Kira, though you wouldn’t remember it.  We’ll pull through, and it should only be for a couple of weeks anyhow.  But run you along and I’ll see you in… oh, say three quarters of an hour in the Grocer’s Lane.”

 “Thanks, Mum,” said Kira, and she turned away, turning over the things Mother had said in her mind.

But three quarters of an hour was too short for all the business that Kira wished to perform.  When she was out of Mother’s sight she steeled her resolve, hastened her footsteps, and turned north past the Event Field to the stables.  Once inside, she walked over to one of the stalls in a corner, breathing in the warmth imparted by living flesh and the comforting equine smell that Merina seemed to find so attractive.  Inside the stall was a beautiful Buckland pony, whose ears pricked up at the uneven step of her approach.  The liquid brown eyes caught sight of hers and stared at her reproachfully.

“Hullo, Nienna,” said Kira, reaching out to pat the pony’s muzzle.  “I’m very sorry I’ve had to keep you in here a little bit longer than normal this year.”

Nienna snorted.

“I told you I was sorry!”

The pony gave no response.

“You see, I’ve been very busy all spring thus far, and things don’t look as if they’re going to get much better until the herbs are in full season.”

Nienna tossed her head, almost nonchalant, but shortly she returned to nose Kira’s other hand with considerable force.

“No, no apple either.  Can’t have you living in luxury till Mum and I are back to steady income; it wouldn’t be right.”

Nienna stamped and swished her tail, as if to say that she, at least, thought there was nothing untoward about the idea.

“And none of that sauce, either.  You know that if Mum knew about you I’d sell you right now just so we could get the extra money.  I’m feeling quite guilty about keeping you here as it is.”

Nienna just stared at her, and after a moment Kira sighed and leaned her head into the pony’s neck.  Nienna curled her head around her protectively.

“Well, it’s not much,” said Kira, “but I guess I can give you some of this.”  She picked up a bit of hay that was on the floor nearby and offered it to her pony.  Delicately, Nienna took a bite and munched.

“I’m sorry, girl,” said Kira, wishing she could do more.  She left the stable.

*  *  *

What exactly she was to do next, Kira was not entirely sure.  If Mother had given her a little more time she could have gone forth and called on the Tunnellies, but the distance was too much to take care of everything in so short a time.  As much as Nienna would have liked the romp, saddling and combing her would have used up most of the time she had.

Fortunately, her business was settled for her, when she happened upon the head of the family in the livestock market.  He was examining a couple of ewes, and since he did not look as if he would be buying just yet, she called his name to get his attention.

“Mr. Tunnelly?”

He turned around.  “Ah!  Miss Proudfoot!  We missed you last Tuesday.”  He walked forward and extended a hand; Kira had to lean on her crutch to shake it.

“I know, and I’m very sorry I couldn’t make it.  You got the note?”

“Yes, we did.  Postboy read it to us; completely understandable.  Sometimes things at home come up, and you have to leave work behind.”

“It didn’t put you in too much of a jam, then?”

“No, we just sent them over to the neighbours.  Children didn’t like it much, but they do dote on those tales of yours.”

“Well, I’m sorry to bother you, because it looks like I’m soliciting work, but I realised that normally we figure out if and when I’ll be needed next after you’ve come back, and I didn’t give you a way to get in touch with me.  Are the children going to need minding anytime in the next week?”

“Not exactly,” said Mr. Tunnelly.  “I mean, they’ve rarely actually needed minding, you know.  But Mrs. Tunnelly appreciates it so, especially with the little one on the way, and Iris alone will drive both of us half mad with talking about those stories if she doesn’t get more; so I suppose I’d like it very much if you were able to come over for an hour or two, say tomorrow or Sunday.”

“Tomorrow should work just fine, provided it isn’t too late in the day,” said Kira, and as she did a smile spread across her face.  She held out her hand, and Mr. Tunnelly clasped it.  “Glad that’s all settled, then,” Kira said after a few moments.

“You know, Miss Proudfoot,” said Mr. Tunnelly, “you’re a very sharp lass.  Which I suppose is a good thing, what with your father gone and you inconvenienced by that foot of yours.  I can’t say as I hold much truck at all with those tales of yours, and if you’ve half your wits you don’t either; but the children take such great stock in them, and you’ve gotten them attached to your stories dearer’n life.  I daresay that if you ever had to work for a living you’d never want for a situation, not as long as there’re children in the Shire.”

“Children need to be told tales, sir,” said Kira.  “But thank you very much; you’ve paid me the highest compliment I’ve had in a long time.  Old Mayor Sam Gardner was called half-witted too, you know.  See you tomorrow!”

She walked away as brightly as a cripple could, but as soon as she was out of earshot she laughed and muttered, “If you’ve half your wits indeed!”

If she had thought about it beforehand, she realised, she should have asked Mr. Tunnelly if any of her other patrons were in town.  As it was, Kira did not know if she were short on time, so there was no use in looking for anyone else.  She was a little concerned for the Twofoots; if Lilac was the only one that really wanted to hear stories her parents might just up and decide that she was too old for Travellers’ Tales as well, and forbid Kira’s ever coming there again.

As she made her way to the Grocer’s Lane, Kira wondered about her new guest at the party.  If he lived at all nearby she wouldn’t mind speaking with his parents and learning if they were amenable….  Kira shook her head.  She was getting too hopeful again; she had only seen the lad at the beginning of the tale-telling, he may have slipped off and decided that he had better things to do.  Not to mention, folk from all over the Shire came to these parties, and some of her regular listeners there were too far away to be practically visited, even with Nienna.  Mundo and his little brother Mat were all the way from Bywater, after all!

Bywater….  Kira mulled the place over in her mind for a little bit, and to her head came an idea she couldn’t believe she’d never had before.  In addition to minding the Tunnelly children and calling on the other families she’d had to cancel her appointments with, she would make a stop over at the Post Office.

Mother was already waiting for her at the lane.  In her hands was a small sack of potatoes.  “They’re a bit mealy,” said Mother, “but we’ve got a number of them and that’s what’s important.”

“I’ll start the rug as soon as we get back,” said Kira.

The moon was large that night and would rise early, so Kira worked diligently to have all the strips of cloth sewn together by sundown.  Not too long after, he showed his face and provided just enough luminance that Kira could do all the braiding and get to bed early enough that she wouldn’t feel too tired at sunrise.

By midday it was finished.  “Mother,” said Kira, “if it’s all right I’d like to go to town so I can sell this rug and we can have a bit more money.  Do you want me to buy anything?”

“A few more potatoes, if you can manage,” said Mother.  “Otherwise just bring the rest here.”

“All right,” said Kira.  “I don’t know when I’ll be back.

“Just return before supper; I don’t want you to miss too many meals.”

“Yes, Mum,” said Kira, and with her rug tucked under her left arm and her crutch under her right, Kira set off once more for Michel Delving.

*  *  *

As she walked towards town, Kira began to repeat to herself, over and over in her head, the list of things she had to do.  Too often had she forgotten something, and if she knew she had she’d spend precious minutes trying to remember it.  If she didn’t, she would inevitably remember when she was most of the way home and, unable to turn back and waste even more time, would be forced to postpone it until her next chance to get into town away from Mother.

Sell the rug….  Get Nienna….  Go to the Tunnellies….  Call on the other families….  Post office….  Stable Nienna….   Home.

She hoped she could get it all done in time.

It was too bad their situation was so desperate; otherwise she could have waited two days until Market Day and sold the rug then.  No market made things so much more difficult….

Indeed, Kira found herself quite at a loss as she entered town.  Selling a rug on a day that was not Market Day was a daunting task for one as young as she, which was of course why she could tell Mother that she didn’t know when she’d be back.  But Mother did not know of any of the other things on Kira’s schedule, and what she likely could have taken her time about doing Kira suddenly had to do in an hour at most.  Muttering to herself about the pickle she had gotten herself into, she crossed the Ash to reach the corner of the town in which, traditionally, the dry goods were located.

She would hardly classify the rug as one of those—it was too homely—but during Market Day the finer handicrafts were sold here.  And with no market and hence no large number of people willing to buy from a girl simply hawking her ware on the street, she would have to try for the stores.  A small shop where Kira had seen lace and ribbons out for sale on Market Day seemed to be a nice bet.  She stepped inside the open door.

Hung up right next to the window were such articles that immediately reminded her of Daffodil and her hobbies, though they were far more elaborate than anything that she had seen Daffy make.  And in the centre of the small room was a middle-aged lady stooped over the very familiar pillow-and-pin apparatus that Daffodil used to make lace.  There were also some ribbons hung up, and even a few decorated bonnets, but nothing remotely resembling a rug.  She was about to turn and leave when the lady looked up from her work.  “May I help you, Miss?” she said.

“Er,” said Kira, colouring, “that’s quite all right.  You see, there’s just this small rug I made”—she displayed her craft, which looked crude next to —“and I’m trying to sell it.  You wouldn’t be willing to buy it, would you?”

The lady looked at the rug, and shook her head.  “No, I’m afraid not,” she said.  “Even though my husband usually handles all the buying and selling part of this business, I can tell you that we’ve never sold a thing like that.  You’d be much better off just trying to sell it directly come Monday.”

“I know,” said Kira, “but I need to sell it now.”

“That’s a shame, then,” said the lady, “because it limits you so.  I’m thinking, but I don’t believe I know of a shop in town that would be willing to buy it today.  Usually crafts like that are just sold at market.  I’m quite sorry, lass.”

“It’s all right,” said Kira.  “Thanks for your time.  I’ll try the other shops anyway.”

And she did try the other shops, all the ones that might possibly buy it, from Mrs. Diggle’s dress-shop to the carpenter’s.  She thought about trying the nice fabric shop, but they were far too gentry-like to buy it.  It made no difference.  All of them, even sweet Mrs. Diggle, said no.  Over an hour passed, and Kira began to despair.

I need to read something, she thought, pushing her feelings of frustration to a corner of her mind.  She knew it would waste even more time—this was the very reason she had not taken her copy of the Quenta with her—but this was driving her half mad.  Returning to the main Dry Goods road, she made her way to the stationery shop tucked in opposite the Oak Barrel and entered.  The bell attached to the door jingled.  “Just one moment!” said an elderly voice from the back of the store.

“It’s only me, Mr. Goldworthy,” called Kira.  “You needn’t trouble yourself; I just got the itch to see some writing.”  She stepped into the area in front of the store that had been labelled as the Reading Room, set down the rug next to one of the stools therein, and got off the shelf Mr. Meriadoc’s Herblore.  Mr. Goldworthy came over next to her as she began to pore over one of the pages.

“Oh, dearie me,” he said.  “Something pretty bad must’ve happened to you, Kira, if you needed to come in here and read just to put your thoughts at ease.  And with no book of your own, too.”

Kira looked up from the entry on alecost.  “Oh, Mr. Goldworthy….  I really don’t know what to do.  It’s been a very trying afternoon.”

“What for?”

“I’ve got half a dozen things to do today, but I can’t do any of them!”

Mr. Goldworthy sat down on the stool next to hers; Kira pressed her forehead to the book’s pages.  “That,” said Mr. Goldworthy, “seems just a tad bit over the top, don’t you think?  What’s keeping you?”

 “This rug.”  She gestured over to the rolled-up mat beside her.  “It’s the reason I came into town, and I have to sell it today because the money’s quite tight.  Only no one will buy it, because the people who sell these only come out for business on Market Day.”

The elderly hobbit clapped his arm on her back.  “Well, there’s an easy solution if I’ve never heard one before.  I’ll buy it.”

“You?  But you sell paper and ink!”

“I didn’t say I was going to sell it,” said Mr. Goldworthy.  “I’ve gotten all the furnishings for my little reading room cheap and second-hand, but that’s only a table, a couple of stools, and a shelf.  The place hardly looks snug and homey the way it should.  So, by your leave, I’ll buy your rug, so that anyone who wishes to read may rest his feet on something more comfortable than a hard wood floor.”

“Really?”  Relief and delight fought for control of Kira’s features.

“Certainly!  This place could always use a bit more colour.”

“You aren’t doing this just because I come in here often and I need the money, are you?”

He shook his head solemnly.  “You’ve got more than enough money if you can come in here at least once a month and buy paper, lass, and you know it.  You have a rug, and I’d like to buy it, and if my buying it means that you can get on with the rest of your busy day, so much the better.  Now, I’d say an item like that couldn’t be more than nine coppers, don’t you think?”

Kira smiled in spite of herself and stuck out her chin.  “One silver and three, and not a penny less!”  If Mr. Goldworthy was indeed humouring her, at least he was doing it the proper way and not buying the thing out of pity, though she suspected that his price was far too high for the thing’s worth.  Two minutes later she walked out of the store with a silver penny in her hand and a song on her lips.  She crossed the East-West Road and the Event Field.  It was time to take Nienna for a ride.

*  *  *

Some minutes later Kira entered Nienna’s stall and picked up a mysterious-looking bag.  Emptying its contents on the straw-strewn floor, she rummaged through them—a dark cloak and hood, a dishtowel, some twine, and a most peculiar contraption that consisted of stout strips of wood nailed across two leather thongs—until she found a small drawstring pouch.  Kira smiled to herself the smile of one who, after a dangerous venture into the unknown, was now returning to the safety of habit.  She opened the pouch and took out a number of copper pennies, and after a brief search to see if there was a stable boy around, she stacked them carefully on the crossbar of the empty stall where the feed was stored, so the next one who came in would be sure to find them.  After a moment’s second thought, she added two more pennies to the stack and took a sack of oats back to her supplies.

Next, she sat down on the floor, and pulled back her skirt and shift until almost all of her right leg was exposed.  Looking carefully about her to make sure that no one was going to come in and see her immodesty, she took the dishtowel and wrapped it around her thigh.  Over that went the contraption, the strips of wood lying flush against the inside of her leg, and she firmly knotted the leather straps together against the outside.  Kira stood up once more, letting her skirt fall back over her leg, and led Nienna out of the stall.

After Nienna was properly saddled, a blanket under the saddle and another blanket over, Kira put on her cloak and hood, tied her crutch and bag to the saddle, and mounted, the brace supporting her weak leg and preventing any fractures while riding.  Then she made the familiar kissing noise that Merina had taught her to make, and together they left the stable.

As soon as they were out of town Kira urged Nienna into a canter, and they turned north along one of the side roads to reach the Tunnelly farm.

In five minutes they were there.  Kira dismounted, took out her crutch, and knocked on the front door.

Iris opened it.  A wide grin spread over her face, and she turned and scampered through the halls of the hole.  “Mummy!  Daddy!  Kira Lamefoot’s come!”

Kira laughed to herself as she headed back out to tie Nienna to the farm’s hitching post.  When she was done both Mr. and Mrs. Tunnelly, the latter having grown exceedingly rotund since Kira had seen her last, were out of doors to greet her.

“Hello, Mr. Tunnelly, Mrs. Tunnelly,” Kira said, leaning on her crutch and extending her hand to each of the couple.  “How are you doing?”

“Well enough, I suppose,” said the lady with a weak smile.  “And you, Miss Storyteller—you’re of courting age, now, I see!  Do you have anyone in mind, yet?”

Kira blushed, lowered her gaze, and shook her head.  Mr. Tunnelly came to her rescue.

“My dears, if you want to talk about female things, by all means go ahead; but might I remind you that young Kira here is on business?”

“Oh, right,” said Mrs. Tunnelly.  “Quite sorry, dear, didn’t mean to put you out.”

“How long will you need me to mind the children?” said Kira.

“No more than an hour or two, I should say,” said she.  “We were just going to go into town for a bit without the wee ones and get some business done.”

Kira wondered if some of the business involved would take place at the midwife’s, but unlike Mrs. Tunnelly was loath to talk about any such matters.  “Then,” she said, “if you don’t mind I’ll get some water for my pony, and then you can leave.”

“No need,” said Mr. Tunnelly.  He stepped inside and lifted out a basin filled with water, and then set it before Nienna.

“You are too kind,” said Kira.  “I’ll see you both in a little bit.”  And with that, she stepped inside and was promptly ploughed into by little Iris, who clasped her hands about the storyteller at about brace level.  Kira gently shook the child off and led her to the sitting room.

There, inside a simple wooden construction intended to keep young children away from any dangerous objects (and from getting into too much mischief) sat Iris’ five-year-old sister Tuley, who had been too young to stay up and hear the Travellers’ Tales at the Tree Party.  Kira reached inside, scooped up the small thing in her left arm, and then sat down with the child resting securely on her lap.  Although Tuley had discovered her faculties for language years ago, unlike Iris she was still exceedingly shy about them and thus made no complaint when Iris started pestering Kira about the sacred privilege of the lap.

“Iris,” said Kira, “how many times have I had to tell you that the Lap is reserved for the youngest child in the family?”

“But Tuley doesn’t care, do you, Tuley?”

Tuley said nothing, but screwed her face up into a look of such belligerence that Iris sighed and sat herself down.

“So,” said Kira, “picking up where we left off—the Travellers had just left Bree, guided by Strider.”

“I don’t like him,” said Iris.

Kira sighed.  Usually it took at least five minutes for the lass to get drawn into the story enough to ask questions only when they were truly relevant to the plot.  “Iris, he just saved the Travellers from the Black Riders!”

“But he’s tall!”

“Trees are tall, too, and do you like trees?”

“The ones that don’t eat people.”

“What about elves?”

“Hmph,” said Iris.  “They’re elves.  They’re tall, but they’re not Big Folk.”

“Well, Strider may be Big Folk, but he’s good Big Folk.  And you know why?”

“He just saved the Travellers’ lives?”

“More than that.  He spent a whole bunch of his life making sure that the bad Big Folk didn’t make it into the Shire, and later on he was able to make sure that no Big Folk made it into the Shire.”

“How’d he do that?  He’s just Strider!”

“Iris, do you want the story, or not?”

“Hmph,” said Iris.

“Well,” said Kira, “if we don’t have any more questions, we’ll continue.  Strider was a very skilled Ranger, so for a while he led the Travellers on such tricky paths that they left all their pursuit behind them.  Unfortunately, this meant that they had to go through the Midgewater Marshes—a place which is a lesson in keeping from going mad….”

Through them?”

“Well, yes, because no one in his right mind would pursue them from there, would they?  Dangerous ground, but even worse, hundreds upon hundreds of invisible biting bugs, and Neekerbreekers that keep you awake through all watches of the night.  It was not pleasant.  But this way they kept off the Road, and actually cut off a good deal of ground, even though the soggy terrain meant they had to go slowly.  But the Travellers could not stay hidden forever.”

“Why not?”

“That’s actually a good question.  Remember Gandalf?”

“Of course I remember Gandalf!  Where is he?”  Iris could not bear unresolved problems.

“Well, neither the Travellers nor Strider knew where he was, but they wanted to find him very badly, or at least find some news of him.  And in order to do that, they needed to head off to a landmark, somewhere where they could see the land around them and somewhere that, if Gandalf was around, he would be very likely to go to.  So they headed for Weathertop, a watch-hill from the time of Kings, to get news.

“The farther Outside you go, the older things gets, and this is how it was for Weathertop.  Years upon years ago, there was a fair tower there that the kingdom of Arnor used in its defence, but since the kingdom was gone the tower had fallen down, and all that was left was a henge, all disarrayed like a gaffer’s teeth—some broken, some worn down, some missing and just gums—or dirt, as you might say.  And there they found evidence of a mighty fight.

“There was a cairn in the middle, all blackened from fire, and Strider could tell that the marks were fresh.  So he looked around and found a stone with some scratches on it—G and 3.”

“G for Gandalf?”

“The same.  And the 3 for October the third, which was three days before they’d gotten there.  Because Strider was avoiding the road, Gandalf had actually passed them, and left them a sign in case they should come this way.”

“So he’s not missing, after all!”

“No.  But as soon as Strider found the stone, he realised that they’d spent too much time up there, and that the Riders would see them.”

“How, though?  They’d just be specks from the distance, wouldn’t they?”

“Yes, but Frodo had the Ring, and it called to them.”

 “What happened?”

“Well, they got off the hill, and built a fire, because they knew the Riders were coming and they’d have to put up some sort of defence.  And then they waited, and told stories, and everything was as tense as a bowstring.  And then….

“Then, the Travellers began to get very… uncanny feelings.  Sam was out, and suddenly got the urge to return to the camp, and Merry—he saw a few black shapes, crawling up to where they were.

“And as the Riders got closer and closer, Frodo suddenly got the urge to put on the Ring.”

“No!” cried Iris, but she quickly clamped her hand over her mouth, for fear that Kira would stop.

“Why?” said Tuley.

Kira thought this over.  “You know how when your Mum’s just baked a pie, and’s setting it out to cool, and it smells so good that you want to crawl up on the table and eat some now, even if your head’s telling you that it’ll burn your tongue and besides Mother will find out and give you a dreadful switching?  That’s how the Ring felt to Frodo at that time.  The wraiths coming to him was like a breeze from outdoors, wafting the smell over to you, and you suddenly realise that it’s been three hours since your last meal and if you can’t eat the delicious pie you’ll go mad.

“Only it was a hundred times worse than that for Frodo.  He was afraid of the wraiths, and he wanted to become invisible, so that they would never find him—or the Ring—again.  The wraiths entered the camp, and Strider was out, and Merry and Pippin were so terrified that they cast themselves along the ground.  And the Ring called to Frodo even stronger.  So he put it on.”

“Oh, no,” said Iris.  “Did he get away?”

“No,” said Kira.  “Because the Ring doesn’t just make you invisible—it puts you into the invisible world, where the wraiths are.  They had actually been turned invisible by Rings like his, only less powerful, many many years ago.  Now that Frodo had the Ring on, he could see them as they actually were.  And they were hideous, pale, wicked shapes, Men, unnaturally old, grotesque; and if he could see them, they could see him as well.

“They rushed forward to attack him, but suddenly a great bit of spirit rose up in Frodo, and instead of standing stock-still from fear, as any of us would have done, he drew his sword, and stabbed at the foot of the one nearest to him, calling on the name of the Star-Queen for his aid.

“He was hurt, quite grievously, but if he hadn’t done that the blade would have gone right to his heart and Frodo would have been no more.  Instead, he was wounded in the shoulder, and as the world grew faint around him he finally mustered up enough strength to pull the Ring off his finger and return once more to the world of visible folk.

“He woke from his faint quite a bit later, and said, ‘Where is the pale king?’”

Here Kira stopped, as if this were the end of today’s story, but Iris didn’t believe it.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“What happened?”

“I think I ought to save that for next week; we’ve reached a good stopping point, haven’t we?”

“No!”

“Hum,” Kira said.  “Well, Strider looked over at the blade that stabbed Frodo, and had some very grievous news.  The tip had broken off.”

“How is that bad?”

“Well, it must have broken off in Frodo’s shoulder, which was feeling icy cold all the way down to his arm.  Strider was also a good healer, so he did what he could, but they would need to get to Rivendell and Lord Elrond, the greatest healer in all of Middle-Earth, in order to stop the damage completely.  It was thirteen days to Rivendell, though, and the bit of knife that was so evil was slowly working its way through Frodo’s flesh, reaching towards his heart.  If it struck it, he would turn into a wraith himself.”

“He’s never going to make it!” said Iris.

“Kira, is this why we never hear anything about Frodo ’cept from you?” said Tuley.

“Well, as Strider told Sam, we mustn’t lose hope.  Frodo was a hobbit—just like you and me—and hobbits have this lasting power to them, one that nobody had ever seen before because no one had bothered to try and find out.  And of all the hobbits that ever lived, Frodo had the best lasting power.  If that blade had hit, say, one of the Big Folk, he probably would have fainted and never woken up.  But thirteen days is a very, very long time, and Frodo could never get well as long as that bit of knife was in him.  So they—all five of them, or six, I should say, including Bill the pony—were caught in a deadly race against time.”

“Can’t you tell a happier story?” said Iris.

“If you’d like, yes, but then you’ll never find out what happens to Frodo.  And a lot of the stories out there, I’m sad to say, aren’t happy, just as a lot of life isn’t happy.  If stories were all a walk through a rose garden they wouldn’t feel right.”

“Are there any Black Riders now?”

Kira was sure she had already gone over this the moment the Riders had appeared in the Shire, but she didn’t want to give the children any nightmares.  “No, all the Black Riders have been destroyed, and may we be thankful for that.  They were killed during the War.  You needn’t worry for your safety.  Why don’t we cheer ourselves up a bit with food?”

The party moved into the kitchen, and Kira opened all of the shutters to let in enough daylight to dispel the dark images of the story.  In one of the pantries was a great deal of ready food, so she found some bread and jam and cheese for them to eat.  Both the girls ate quite messily; Kira worked at a more sedate pace and thus took much longer to finish.  While Iris was waiting, she said, “Kira, when I get old enough Mum and Dad said I’d be able to take over the minding Tuley and the baby.”

“That’s excellent news,” said Kira.

“And I’m going to tell them stories just like you do right now, for the baby won’t have heard them and I’ll bet Tuley won’t remember them.”

“Will too,” mumbled Tuley.

Iris ignored her.  “They’ll be the best stories ever, about the Travellers and more besides.  What does happen next?”

“Iris, if Tuley has a mind to it, she can remember the stories better than you do.  I knew of a hobbit who had memories—faint ones, but memories still—from when she was less than a year old, all because she was determined to remember them.  I wouldn’t be half surprised if Tuley started correcting you when you got a bit wrong.”

“They’ll still be the best stories ever.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Kira.

There was cleanup to do, and then quite a bit of playtime until the children’s parents got back.  Kira remained close-lipped as to what would happen next in the story as the girls scampered about her.  It was actually easier to play with these children than it had ever been for her to play with her friends when she was a child, because now she needed to get down on her knees to play, and this allowed her to avoid the difficulty of crutch-work.  If she worried that her leg was still too weak, she had the brace; and at any rate her entire constitution had much improved since her youth.  So when the girls clambered on her back and demanded a “pony ride” around the room Kira was more than willing to oblige.

Still, she was flushed and panting when Mr. and Mrs. Tunnelly returned, and had to put her hair back in place in order to look halfway presentable.  Taking up her crutch and standing up, she shook both parents’ hands, beaming with joy.  Mr. Tunnelly thanked her for her time and paid her.  Mrs. Tunnelly remarked that she would make an excellent mother someday.  They determined that Kira should come over again in a week’s time, and then having hugged the children goodbye, Kira left.

As she rode back into town, Kira felt the euphoria drain out of her through her toes.  There was a great deal of business to be done still, but after those fleeting moments in the Tales the real world seemed harsh and cold as a Ringwraith’s blade.  The colours around her dulled before her very eyes, and she did not know if she wanted to weep, or just take a nap.  But time was not dependent on Kira’s disposition, and she had to get back before supper.  So she decided to get the worst over with, and made her way to the Twofoots’.

The Twofoots lived just off the Road in a snug cottage east of town; and like most of the people Kira did business with, were a relatively young family, with sceptic Willem at age twelve and his sister ten.  There were none younger than Lilac.

When Kira knocked on the door, Mr. Twofoot was out working the fields, but Mrs. Twofoot gave her a cup of tea and some biscuits and remarked that Kira had taken up the bodice.  And since it would be a quarter of an hour still before Mr. Twofoot came back, she had to evade the inevitable questions concerning her matrimonial capacity.  Kira sincerely hoped that the prying would diminish as they got used to the fact that, yes, she was now twenty-seven, and no, that wasn’t likely to change anything at all.  But after a remark concerning how much younger she had been when she first started minding the children, Kira saw an opening and deftly turned the conversation to matters of business.

“It’s true;” she said, “I’ve grown quite a bit since I first started storytelling, but so have your children.  How has Will been?”

The mother laughed gently and shook her head.  “He’s taken to himself the notion that he’s a Big Lad now.  Just the other day he tried taking on a boy that was bigger than him for picking on dear Lilac, instead of telling his father as he ought, and has several bruises to prove it.  His dad was proud of him—but Willem’s still too small to win a fight like that.  I hope he’ll learn a thing or two about how to punch properly soon, I hate seeing him hurt so.”

“Lilac said that he said he was too old for Travellers’ Tales.  I didn’t see him at all at the Party.”

“Did she, now?  That’s mighty strange—seems like just yesterday he was clamouring for the next bit in whatever that Ring story you tell them is.”

“Do you think Lilac’s too old for them, too?”

“Bless, you, no!  Nor Willem.  He just wants everyone to think he’s grown up.  Mark my words, next time you come over and tell them a tale, he’ll be in the next room pretending to play, but he’ll listen with ears wide open.”

“Then that gives me hope, Mrs. Twofoot,” said Kira.  “I was afraid I’d get locked out of hole and home.”

“Not while I have anything to say in the matter, dear; you’re far too sweet a lass.  And even when they are too old, if you’d ever like to come in for a spot of tea you’re always more than welcome to.”

The back door opened, and in walked Mr. Twofoot.  Kira rose to greet him.

“Ah, there’s no need to do that, Miss Kira,” he said, sitting down at the chair to her left and dabbing the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief.  “I was just thinking about you, actually.”

“Really?  Why?”

“Well, my son’s been doing a fine bit of growing up of late—looking out for his sister and all—and I’m wondering if you’re needed here anymore.  Not to be rude, of course!  You’ve done a first-rate job minding the children and no mistake, but he is twelve now and I think he’s old enough to look after Lilac himself.”

Kira took a deep breath before responding.  It was time to venture into the mire once more.  “I wholly understand,” she said finally, “and I’d leave right now if it weren’t that I don’t think Lilac would like the arrangement.  She’s exceedingly fond of the stories I tell, and when I spoke to her last she was very afraid that she would grow out of them.”

“Well, she is a little old, isn’t she?”

“She doesn’t want to grow up yet,” said Mrs. Twofoot, coming to Kira’s defence.  “And Will may want to, but he still has far to go; and while he may be old enough to watch Lilac on his own we mustn’t push him.”

“Well, we can’t baby him, either,” said Mr. Twofoot.

“I can just come over for the tales, if you wish,” said Kira, “and then if Lilac ever decides that she’s too old for them I can stop.”

“I don’t like it,” said Mr. Twofoot.  “Tales and no minding sounds much more like wizard-work than tales and minding, especially on the older ones.”

“I assure you, sir,” said Kira, “that I have no tricks up my sleeve, and I don’t want to put outlandish notions in anyone’s head.”

“Maybe, but there’s still something perilous about those tales of yours.”

“I only tell stories about the Travellers, and all the perils in those come to the Travellers from Outside.  If I were her age I’d vow to stay in the Shire for the rest of my life for fear of what would happen to me.”

“And you wouldn’t at your age?”

“I would, but for a different reason.  Look, there’s a simple way of resolving this.  Where’s Lilac?”

“Outdoors.”

“I’ll fetch her,” said Mrs. Twofoot.

In a few minutes Lilac came bouncing in, breathless from her play and excitement at Kira’s unexpected presence.  “Lilac,” said Kira, “I need you to answer a few questions for me—I need to see how well you’ve learnt your lessons.”

“Lessons?” said her parents.

“Just to make sure she understands the stories.  Lilac, what did the Travellers do?”

“They left the Shire to go Outside and save the world, and then they came back and sent the ruffians packing!”

“Why did they leave the Shire?”

“To save it!”

“Good girl.  But why’d it need saving?”

“Because the Enemy wanted to destroy it.”

“And was Outside like?”

“It was very dangerous and very scary, even if there were beautiful things out there.”

“So if you decided to go Outside for a bit of adventure, what would that say to the Travellers?”

Lilac had to search around in her mind a bit for the proper response, but it came out in good time.  “‘Even though you did all that work and saw all those scary things to make sure I could enjoy the Shire, I Don’t Want To!’”

“Very good, Lilac,” said Kira.  “You got all the questions right.”  She turned to Mr. Twofoot.  “That’s why I’d stay in the Shire.”

“Lilac,” said Mrs. Twofoot, “do you want Kira to keep telling you and your brother stories?”

“Of course I do!  Even if he doesn’t anymore,” she muttered.  Then Lilac looked up with suspicion on her mother.  “Why?”

“Run along outside and play now, there’s a good lass.”

“You want her to stop storytelling, don’t you?”

“I never said that!  Now go outside!”

Lilac left.

“Well,” said Mrs. Twofoot, “I see no problem if Kira keeps telling the young ones stories, at least while Lilac still wants them.”

“If money’s the issue, Mr. Twofoot,” said Kira, “you know I—”

“Don’t be silly.  The tales are the issue, but since I seem to be outnumbered I suppose another year of them won’t do much harm.  Perhaps you could come over in two weeks’ time?”

“I would be honoured,” said Kira.  “Thank you both so much!”

When she left the house, she found that Lilac had run around and was waiting at the doorstep.  She shot Kira an inquiring look.

“It’s all fine, lass,” said Kira.  For now, at least, she added in thought as she mounted her pony and turned back towards town.

If she had had more time she might have stopped in to see the other families whom she sometimes helped, but she had already set appointments with them—appointments that she had not had to cancel—during previous visits.  So instead she made her way directly into the heart of town, to her most faithful and most beloved patrons, the Grimwig family.

Old Doctor Grimwig was now practically retired from work, having reached his century a few years ago, and all of his cases except Kira’s, the particulars of which no one was as well acquainted with as he, had been passed on to the younger practitioner who had moved in from the Southfarthing and briefly trained with him.  But even if none of his own children had followed him into the physician’s art his family was well-established in the area and while not eccentric enough to espouse the radical ideas held by certain Families, certainly valued Story and education more than the average hobbit.  So it was that when Dr. Grimwig learned of Kira’s tale-telling enterprise, he had promptly informed his younger son, a clerical assistant to the Mayoralty, of the numerous opportunities her visits would afford to his children.  Kira had been visiting the family for the past six years.

Tanto, the eldest, was now fourteen, and even though both his father and grandfather were well-versed in the written word, he was learning to read from Kira.  Then there was Mayflower, or as her less than courteous siblings called her, Mayfly, Jolly, Jasper, and now little Larkspur, who could barely get her mouth around her own name and was thus inevitably called Lara.  Not oneof them was too old for stories, and Kira sincerely hoped none of them would ever be.

When Kira got to the cottage, a spacious one right in the middle of town, seven-year-old Jasper answered the door and nearly squealed her delighted surprise before she remembered her manners and calmly asked if Kira wished to see her father or her grandfather.

“Your father, please,” said Kira.

“This way, Miss Proudfoot,” and Jasper led her to her father’s study as if Kira had never been there before.

Mr. Grimwig was copying out some sort of document on a desk strewn with papers.  He looked up from where he was seated as his daughter entered the room and said, “Miss Proudfoot here to see you, sir.”

“Kira!” he said, upon beholding her features.  He rose and extended a hand; Kira shook it.  “Do sit down a moment; we missed you last week.”

Kira did sit down at the chair opposite the desk, but she feared that the nice long chinwag Mr. Grimwig doubtless desired was not going to occur.  “I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry,” she said, “—there are a lot of things I have to get done this afternoon and they’ve all taken longer than I’d planned.  I just wanted to stop by, offer my apologies in person, and see when I’d be needed next.”

“No need to apologise, my dear; I know you do have a life outside of this one and that you’ve got to keep the two nice and apart.  As you already know, you can stop by whenever it’s convenient for you next—no need to force you to make an extra trip out just to see us.”

“And how has Tanto been progressing on his reading?”

“Well, he’s still getting the t’s and c’s mixed up, but all that’s quite natural.  I quite wonder at times who decided it was a good idea for half the letters to be backwards from one another.”

“Not a hobbit, that’s for certain,” said Kira.  “Well, I’m sorry to make the stay so short, but I really must go.  Mother wants me home in time for supper, and I still have to stop by the Post Office and get a letter written.”

“You came all the way over here just to chat for half a minute?”

“Well, I’d stopped by all the other places that I had to cancel appointments for—plus I was hoping I could see your father briefly.”

“And indeed you shall!” said a voice from behind.

Kira turned and half-rose from her chair to see Dr. Grimwig, hobbling on a cane towards her.  “Doctor!”  Picking up her crutch, she went to him and gently placed her arms about his neck.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that, lass,” said Dr. Grimwig.  He ducked out from under Kira’s embrace and beheld her at arm’s length.  “Spring been treating you well, then?  No leg injuries from riding?”

“None indeed—the brace is doing its work just fine.  And business is fine, and planting is fine, and just about everything is fine.”

“How about the change in clothes?”

“Except that.  That is still quite unnerving, especially when every mother I run into feels the need to insinuate that I need to find myself a decent hobbit to get married to.”

“And?”

“Don’t you even start with that!”  There was a pause.  “Meaning no disrespect, of course,” Kira added rather sheepishly.  The doctor just chuckled.  They made their way down the hallway, Kira just barely remembering to bid Mr. Grimwig farewell as they left the study.

“Oh, and I got a new book,” she added.  “I hope it’ll help with everything—keep me well, and all.”

“You’ve never read it before?”

“Not past the first twenty-odd pages.  After that—”

The doctor nodded.

“It’s a very peculiar experience for me, to go back to the legends after all these years.”

“And do you believe them now, eleven years older?”

“Even more.”

Dr. Grimwig shook his head, but he was smiling.  “You’re a right puzzle, Kira, but we’ve known that for a long time, now, haven’t we?  How’s your mind?”

“Teeming with ideas, as usual—most of them die before they’re even half-formed, and the rest can never be to put into action.”

“Except for your storytelling.”

“Yes, except for that, but I’ve had that idea for years.  I am filled with fancy, Doctor, like a jug filled with water, and you’d best not upset me or you’ll find yourself drenched.”

“And again you prove to me why the children love your stories so, if you can come up with phrases like that on the spot.”

“Oh, that’s not on the spot, Doctor.  A good deal of that came to me a week ago and I’ve been itching to put it in conversation ever since.”

Dr. Grimwig sighed.

“I did want to tell you, though—I had another spell at the Party in Hobbiton two days past.”

“What?”

“I mean, it was entirely my own fault, and all, because I overtaxed myself and I put myself in a situation that was bound to make me feel dreary, but….  This time, someone saw me.”

“Who?”

“Some lad—I hardly remember it now, I was so tired, but it frightened me, getting discovered like that.  He asked what was wrong with me.  What could I say?”

“Chronic fatigue?  Of course, the best thing would be if you never had a spell again in your whole life.”

“I know, but it always comes back!  I try to fight it, but it seems so hopeless at times, that I can’t….”

“I don’t know what to say, Kira,” said the doctor.  “You know that your illness is peculiar to you.  It didn’t come from outside, but from within.  If you only looked in the right place, maybe you’d be able to find the cure yourself.”

They had reached the outside of the cottage and were standing on the doorstep.  “I didn’t create it, Doctor; it was brought on by the death of something that I love.  Unless that thing returns from beyond the Sundering Seas, how can I ever be free from the Blackness?”

As Dr. Grimwig sighed, his shoulders sagged, and he seemed immeasurably old.  Kira put an arm around his shoulder.  “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have spoken like that.  I’m sure that if we keep looking we’ll be able to find out more about this, and then, even if we can’t cure it, we can at least make the spells shorter, or something.  Next time I come in I’ll try to get you all the particulars of this case, and you can check my heart and my foot besides.  But I really do need to get going, or Mum’ll find out.”

“Of course, dear,” said the doctor, straightening himself up.  “Good luck with your business!”  And with that, Kira mounted Nienna, who had been waiting patiently this whole while, and rode to the Post Office.

The Post Office was not very far, of course, being in the northern section of Michel Delving right next to the Town Hole, but Kira wished it could be just a little farther so that she could get her thoughts in order.  Business could be just as tiring as a party, except Kira knew she mustn’t let it show.  She could deal with her condition the next time she saw the doctor—and not any sooner.  Briefly she closed her eyes to make sure another spell wasn’t coming on, but it was as she had expected—her successes this day were enough to fight off any feelings of sorrow that even thinking about the Blackness could bring about.  The island flickered but a moment in her mind, then was gone.

So when she dismounted Nienna at the Post Office door, Kira was in good enough spirits to discharge her business promptly.  She greeted the office’s certified letter-taker, who knew a marvellous system of shorthand and used it to great effect, and dictated her letter to the Gardner family, residing at Bag End in Hobbiton.

 

                                                                      April 8, 1552


My dearest Friends and Support among the Powers that Be in the Shire, 

I regret that I was unable to see any of you at the Tree Party two days past, even though I was there and I should have made a point of it since I very rarely get to see anyone in your most illustrious family.  However, I hope you will excuse me the fact when I tell you that a great deal of my time at the party was spent in entertaining the young children of my area in what is commonly known as “Travellers’ Tales.”  Specifically I focused on the merits of your family’s great progenitor, which I hope will suffice by way of apology.

It is actually concerning two of the children that I entertained on the sixth that I wished to write to you.  Mat and Mundo Rumble are distant cousins of some of the children that I regularly tell tales to, and two years ago they listened to the stories that I told at the Free Fair.  They have been listening to them ever since, whenever they get the chance, but unfortunately this is not often because they live in Bywater and so I cannot call on them.  Their interest in the tales is keen, but I cannot satisfy it because of the distance, so I was wondering if someone else could.  I do not know if anyone in your family makes it a habit to tell tales or read stories to the village children, or if anyone  has ever been requested to mind the children of others when their parents have business to attend to; but if that is the case, could somebody please look after these two bright sparks and tell me how they are faring?  I only ask because I know from several of the adults here that Mayor Samwise told the town children stories from the Red Book during his terms, and I thought that given the degree of remembrance shown in your family the tradition may not have died out.  Please let me know.

In addition, there was another child named “Hal” (I don’t have his full name) at the tale-telling.  He looked no more than ten and was quite shy.  I had never seen him before, and because none of the other children seemed to recognise him I must conclude that he stumbled upon the storytelling by accident.  I am mentioning him on the off-chance that any one of you knows who he is or where he lives or anything.  He slipped off sometime in the middle, though, so he probably was not that interested

I am ever in debt to you and yours, of course, for giving voice to the voiceless (me) whenever your great Families talk about books and learning and the like, and for doing so a lot more respectfully than I ever could. I have it on good authority that Brandy Hall is becoming quite willing to lift its ban on lending books, so perhaps with a bit more time your arguments will finally prevail.  Thank you as always for the encouragement; it always heartens me to know that I am not alone in my regard for those things which were great at the end of the Third Age.

                                                Sincerely,
                                                Kira Proudfoot


“It’ll be written out and posted by tonight,” said the letter-taker as Kira paid him from the coins she had taken from her bag.

Kira leaned over and took his hand.  “Thanks so much as always, Master Goodbody.”

The sun was low in the sky as Kira rode back out of town down the lane that led towards home.  She was careful to cast the cloak and hood fully over herself as they came closer and closer to territory where she was in danger of recognition—specifically as they passed the Whitwells’ farm and she saw Tom out working among the livestock.  Just out of sight from her home she stopped and walked Nienna down a side road to an old abandoned house.  One of the harsher winters had made the thatch on one side cave in, but the rest of it was sound as soon as the danger of snow was past.  As such, when Kira had bought Nienna she had determined this place for her summer lodgings and had cleared out a rough storage room to convert it into a stable.

The saddle and blankets went over the back of an old chair, and the bridle went up on a peg.  Inside an old cupboard (Kira had to tug to get the drawer open) were the hoof-pick and currycomb and other sundries which Merina had insisted were absolute necessities to a pony’s well-being.  Kira let force of habit guide her along in the actions of getting Nienna settled in for the night while she mentally prepared herself for home again, and for the notion that she had just spent the last six hours striving to get a rug sold.  She walked a distance to a nearby well (though not so near as the one by home) to draw water for the pony, and set it out in conjunction with some of the oats from the sack. 

Then it was time to settle herself.  Kira opened another drawer of the cupboard, untied her brace, rolled it up, and set it inside.  On top of it went the sack of coins—she only reserved the silver she had earned for Mother and a few pennies for herself: just in case she had to suddenly cancel appointments by Post again.  Finally, off came the cloak and hood.  Kira rolled them together, put them in the drawer, closed it, and with her crutch firmly under the shoulder became once more the lowly herb-seller’s daughter.  The shutting of the abandoned house’s door echoed hollow in the gloaming outside.

Chapter Four

 

Kira dreamed that night that she was wandering through a library.  But even if it had a vague resemblance to the one at Undertowers, she knew it was one stemming from her fancy, for the shelves reached impossibly high and it was dark and dank, not cosy the way that any Shire library ought to be.  As a matter of fact, “dank” was putting it mildly.  The bottom six inches of the floor were covered in icy cold water, which continued to ooze down from wherever the ceiling was, down through the bookcases, through the books, and in to join the rest of the flood.  The water was not dark, like the island water, though she had half expected it to be.  But it wasso exceedingly cold that she had to lift her right foot higher than normal so that it wouldn’t touch.  The water seeped up the hem of her dress.

“Come on,” she said to the children behind her.  “You’ve got to hold hands; this is a very dangerous place.  “We’ve just got to go find the book, and then we’ll get out of here.”  She looked behind to make sure that the string of children she had led in was still there.  They were all there, holding hands—the first one was holding onto the skirt of her dress.  In that odd fashion of dreams she could not make out who they were, it was so dark.  They were afraid, but they trusted her

She continued past the legion stacks until she found the wall, covered with shelves from floor to the limits of sight, where her path dead-ended.  There, in the centre, was the book she wanted—bound in red leather, but she knew it was only one of the copies.  She reached out to grab it.

The binding, heavy with water, tore out of the book, bounced off her hands, and splashed to the floor.  She tried again, but the wet paper fell off in her hands and she knew it was a trap.

“Turn around,” she said to the children, trying to keep her voice calm.  “We must get out.”  As she turned, her big toe dipped into the water.  She gasped with sudden pain.

“Kira?” said one of the children, turning back.

“I’m all right.  We need to go!”  The water pooled around her good leg.  It was rising.  “Go!  Go for the stairs!”

The littlest one reached the first stair just in time for the water to cover it.  “Go up!” said Kira.  “Can you reach the doorknob?”

“No!” wailed the child, reaching for the handle on tiptoes.

“Just wait, and stay calm.”  The rest of the children had it slower going, because of the water’s increasing depth—it was now swirling about Kira’s knees.  She could not bend her right leg up any farther.

A few more children reached the stairs.  The tallest one opened the door, and the four who had made it rushed outside.

Another step gone.  And the walking was even slower.

“Come on,” she told the remaining children.  “You’ve got to get out of here!”

“What about you?”

“Not till the rest of you are safe.  I’m taller, remem—”  Kira’s speech was cut off as she slipped and her entire right foot was plunged into the icy water.  “I’ll be all right—just go!”  She struggled, on her hands and knees, to fight, to keep moving.  The last child reached the stairs and was beckoning her onward, but it was so hard…

Finally her hands touched the stairs, and she hauled herself up.  Reaching the door, she crawled through it, slammed the door behind her, and fell into slumber.  Time swirled around her, flowed past, like a river, and she lost track.

She was awakened by a kiss, feather-light, brushed across her lips.  Slowly she opened her eyes and found light.

There was a lad there, about her age or older, though she could not see him distinctly.  It was too bright around him, but it did not hurt when she looked at him.  He held in his hand something glowing—what she had always imagined Frodo’s star-glass looked like—only its brightness pulsed, as though it was alive.  He was walking around her, holding the glass out and banishing the darkness as he moved.

“Who—who are you?” she finally stammered out.  “What are you doing?”

Slowly he turned to face her.  He was blurry.  “I’m chasing the shadows out;” he said, “it’s far too dark in here.  And I don’t know.”

A few moments passed before Kira mustered up the nerve to speak again.  “You don’t know what?”

“Who I am.”  The lad sat down opposite her, letting the light in his hands rest upon his knees.  “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“I don’t know either; I only just saw you.  Do I know you?  I mean—if I could see your face, would I recognise it?”

“Maybe you would.  Maybe you wouldn’t.  I don’t know who I am.”

Kira sighed.  “This is a dream, isn’t it?  In which case I just made you up, and you’re probably no one.”  She smiled.  “You’re far too kind to be anyone I know.  And too confusing.”

“I don’t mean to confuse you, Kira,” said the lad, “but I’m so terribly confused myself.”

“It’ll be all right, then, for I’ll wake up and you’ll be out of your confusion.”

The lad sighed.  “I’m just a dream, then?”

“I’m afraid so.  Perhaps you will be real, eventually, but you aren’t now.  And you probably never will be.  I don’t even know if what you did is really what a kiss ought to feel like.”

He shrugged.  “Neither do I, if it’s any consolation.”

“It isn’t,” said Kira, with a wry smile.  “But it isn’t proper, even if you’re just a flight of fancy, to go around kissing girls without so much as a by-your-leave.  It’s a very special thing not to be trifled with.”

“I’m sorry,” said the lad.  “I didn’t know.  I suppose I couldn’t help myself.”

“It’s all right.  I suppose it was my fancy made you do it.”

“I hope not,” said the lad.  “I may not real, but I’d like to think I am.”

“So should I.”

“Do you think I’ll see you again, after you wake up?”

“I don’t know,” said Kira.  “If I get very lonely, maybe I’ll dream of you again.  Or maybe—just maybe—I’ll see you in the flesh, and learn who you’re supposed to be.”

“That’s comforting,” said the lad.

And Kira awoke.

*  *  *

“How’s your foot been?” said Mother at breakfast.

“Well enough.  Why?”

“I’m trying to gauge the weather and see if we can’t plant a little earlier than normal this year.”

“It hasn’t twinged at all lately, if that’s what you mean,” said Kira, biting into a slice of dry toast.  “Not even when I was exhausted at the Party.”

“How long is ‘lately,’ then?”

“The past week, I’d say.  It’s been quite well, considering the time of year.  I don’t think we’ll have foul weather for some time.”

“Then,” said Mother, “I can suppose that means no sudden frosts, either.”

“Even if it were to frost in the middle of the night I’d get at least a day’s warning, Mum, as you well know—and more likely two.  Since the weather’s shifted to springtime I should be able to tell if winter decides to come back to plague us.”

“And it hasn’t frosted outside at night since mid-March.  I think we can risk it.  And that means we’d also best start feeding the plants we’ve already got out.”

Kira groaned.  “And by ‘we,’ you mean ‘me,’ I suppose?”

“It’s only once a week, Kira.”

“Two days out of the week, you mean.”

“A day and a morning—that’s hardly drudgery.  And while you were out yesterday I stopped by all the neighbours to see what they thought about planting.  Since we can plant them back in the pots pretty easily these first few weeks, while there’s still danger, nobody thought there’d be any harm in it.  Anyhow, I talked to the Whitwells, and sure as Shiretalk they’ve got a stable full of manure, so they’ll be sending young Tom over with a sack of it sometime this day so that you can get started.  And in the meantime we’ll both work on getting the new plants in.”

After they had finished eating and cleaned up, they each took some of the potted herbs that had been sitting in the windowsills throughout the smial (but especially in the kitchen, for it was warmest there), and began to plant them in the various plots allotted for them this year.  The soil was indeed getting warm in the sunlight, and Kira felt confident that they had made a good decision in getting an early start this year—and not just because the money was running a little thin.

Such thoughts were pleasant because Kira did not then have to accustom herself once more to being the executrix of the smelliest task in the garden.  Mother swore by the time-honoured trustworthiness of liquid manure, and Kira knew from experience how much good it did the plants, but she still wished that she did not have to prepare and use it each week.

The process was sensible: take a burlap sack filled with manure, and swish it around in a basin full of water.  Swish on and off for one day, then next morning feed all the plants with it and dump the leftovers on the compost (once upon a time Kira had neglected this final step, only to discover on the morrow that the basin had become a breeding-ground for maggots).  This was what kept the Proudfoot herbs strong and healthy, but there was a reason that Kira, as junior in the family, was in charge of it.  It was the same reason that Tom, the youngest in his own family, was delegated with cleaning out his family’s stalls and sending a sack of it Kira’s way.

He came over in the early afternoon, driving a small wain.  Whether it was to show off or simply because he did not want to have to carry the sack in his own hands Kira could not guess, though she suspected it was a little of both.  She looked up from the young basil she was working on and waved a trowel at him as he approached.  “Hullo, Tom!” she called.  “Looking better, I see.”

Tom resolutely looked away until the trap had reached the smial.

“Go on,” Mother told Kira, “do your job.”

Kira sighed, picked up her dirt-encrusted crutch, and futilely wiped her left hand on her skirt in an attempt to clean it.  She went inside and came back out dragging an old laundry tub.

“Right,” she said to Tom, who had by this time dismounted.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Tom, having the use of both his arms, was obliging enough to carry the tub over to the well for Kira.  When they had first had to collaborate on the manufacture of liquid manure, he had tried to draw the water for her, too, but Kira had insisted it was her duty, and since she had a strong right arm she could crank the water up better than he could anyway.  So Kira sat down cross-legged facing the well and turned the handle, and Tom sat on the well and waited, ever so often stealing a glance down at her.

One time she caught him in the act, and was startled to see a most peculiar expression of worry on his face, which quickly melted into a smile that was supposed to be disarming.

“What?” said Kira.

“What?” said Tom.

“You didn’t look too pleased there a moment ago,” said Kira.  “Still suffering from the effects of the Party?  I didn’t realise hangovers lasted that long.  Unless you’ve decided to make the Oak Barrel your second home…”

Tom sighed heavily.  “I shan’t be getting drunk again for a very long time, Kira.”

“Yes, and I’ve just foresworn books.”

It took a stern look on Tom’s part to convince Kira that he was at least somewhat serious.

Kira grinned.  “What, did you do something stupid at the Party?  I mean, that’s a first for you, considering that just about everything you do is stupid, and now you decide to try and stop it.  Wasted effort, if you ask me.”

“Kira—”

Kira turned her attention back to the well and dumped another full bucket into the tub.  “Seriously , what was it?  I mean, to knock some sense into your head it must have been colossal.  And all the more so if the saying holds—how does it go?  Sooth in spirits.  Of course, maybe it was more than a slip of the tongue, maybe you—”

She turned her head back to see if she had struck a nerve or not, but Tom was nowhere to be found.  “Oi!” she called.  “Don’t you run off on me!  How am I supposed to get this basin back here?”

But Tom was nowhere.  Sighing, Kira finished her task and tried as best she could to drag the basin back to the hole without sloshing too much water over the sides.  When she got there, the waggon was gone, and in its place was the sack of dung, placidly sitting by the wayside.

“Where’d he go?”

“He said that they were falling behind work on the farm,” said Mother, “and so he had to leave as soon as he could.”

Kira looked down the pathway leading into town, as if she could still see Tom’s retreat.  “I don’t believe it,” she said to herself.  “I’ve scared him off!”  She trudged back to the sack, lifted it, and set it in the basin, wishing that she did not have so much work to do so that she could get to the bottom of this strange and peculiar new matter.

She was unable to have any leisure time, though, until all the chores after supper were done and it was too dark outside to read.  Nevertheless, when the moon rose she asked if she could call on the Burrowses; she had not been able to see Daffy since the party and now she truly did need another lass’s opinion on a matter that was too tangled for Kira to unravel at the moment.

For some reason seeing the familiar hills and fields of Kira’s homeland under moon and star invariably transformed them in into something older, pure and beautiful.  For short whiles she could imagine herself able to listen to the land, as the Elves did, and hear it sing to her of sleeping in on Thursdays and butter and jam on toast.  Then her fancy would direct her eyes above, to the same stars that had been set in the sky in defiance of the Great Enemy Ages before; and bring back old, early memories of being taught the constellations, and of the chance meeting, sweeter still for its brevity, that had proven to her once and for all that the books were right and everybody else was wrong.

When Kira’s father had died Mother sold their field to a young couple—soon to be family—from Little Delving that had managed through hard work and an unexpected inheritance to get enough money to buy a parcel of land for themselves.  Mr. Burrows himself had built the house, and before Kira’s first winter they had moved in.  Daffy and Roly were born next March.

Twenty-seven years had kept field, cottage, and family in good condition, and had given Kira friendships without which she was fairly certain she would have gone mad (considering that the only other hobbit her age in the vicinity was Tom).  So, after a quick detour to Nienna’s lodging to feed and water her, it was with a high heart that she walked around the back of the Burrows’ house, past the small flower garden, and up the flagstone walkway to the threshold.  She knocked on the door.

Half a minute passed before Kira finally heard a rush of feet and the door opened.  It was Flora, the youngest addition to the family, who was now nearly seventeen years old and who, if she ever decided to have anything to do with her older siblings and their friends, made it her mission in life to annoy them.

“Hello, Floy,” said Kira.  “I’m looking for—”

“We’re all gathered around the hearth,” said Flora.

“Any chance I could have a private word with—”

“None whatsoever!” said Flora, and she led Kira inside to the sitting room.  “It’s Kira,” she announced as they entered the room.

“Kira Proudfoot,” said Mrs. Burrows, craning her head around from the stool where she sat and knitted in order to see her guest.  “What a pleasant surprise!  Goodness me, you look exhausted!”

Daffodil had risen and found a stool, which she pulled into the family circle.  “Do sit down, Kira.”

“Well,” said she, stumping her way over to the stool, “I’ve been in the garden all day, and yesterday I had to go to town to sell a rug, and the day before I had to make the rug, and the day before that was the Party, so I guess I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work and haven’t got much time for rest or reading in edgewise.”

“You poor dear!” said Mrs. Burrows.  “Would you like me to fetch you a cup of tea?”

“Yes, please, Mrs. Burrows,” said Kira with a grateful smile.

“Whatever have you been doing in the garden all day?” said Daffodil as Mrs. Burrows set down her knitting and went into the kitchen.

“Planting.”

“That’s risky,” said Mr. Burrows.

“I know, but we’re counting on my foot to warn us if a frost is about to happen.  It hasn’t bothered me all week, not even at the party.”

“Still shouldn’t be a risk you have to take.”

Kira just shrugged.  “Mum wanted to, and as I said my foot seems to agree with her.”  She sighed.  “I think I’m going to find myself missing winter very soon.”

“Still stuck with the nasty job, Kira?” said Daffodil.

“Yes—actually, I need to have a word with you, Daffy.”

They drew their seats a little away from the group.  It was exactly at this moment that Flora decided to start singing rather loudly and quite off-key.

“Oh, dear, not again,” muttered Daffodil.  “I miss the days when she wasn’t obnoxious.”

Kira snorted.  “Not to worry; she’s just giving us a bit more privacy.  You were right; I’m still stuck with the nasty job, but Tom came over to deliver the manure and he was acting odd.”

Daffodil juggled this bit of information in her mind, but not for long.  “I wouldn’t be too concerned with it.  He is an odd fellow, after all.”

“No, but he was looking at me—in this most peculiar fashion, as if he was trying to read me, or as if he had done something very, very bad.  I didn’t think much of it at first, but once I found him out he wouldn’t answer a single question that I had.”

“He’s acting guilty?  Of what?”

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s something from the Party, for I haven’t seen him since then.  And I also think it was something he did while he was drunk, because I was teasing him about that, and then he just bolted!”

“Bolted?”

“I turned my head and he wasn’t there!  And when I was done filling the basin and lugging it back—all by myself, mind—in the place of the cart was that little sack of dung, looking as innocent as a lamb!  Daffy, I think I scared him off!”

“You can’t have!  He’s… he’s Tom!”

“You did,” said Roly.

Kira blushed and looked up.  Flora had stopped singing long enough ago for him to have gotten the gist of the conversation.

“And that,” hissed Daffodil, “is why I miss the days when she wasn’t obnoxious.”

Kira turned to look at Roly.  “I didn’t mean to scare him.  Do you know anything about this?”

Roly nodded.  “And I promised him not to tell.  It’s not bad or anything,” he added, looking up at his dad and his mum, who had just entered the room with Kira’s tea.  “Well, not terrible.  But I did promise him.”

“So, why did I scare him off?”

“You’re a bright lass, Kira.  You should be able to figure that out.”

Kira gratefully took her cup of tea and sat, letting the conversation lull her as it turned to other things.  But this Tom business was starting to get serious.  Something that she had meant only in the context of their daily verbal sparring had frightened him away, and even before that he had sworn Roly to secrecy about whatever it was.  She had to get to the bottom of it.

Next day was Market Day, so she and Mother went to town in the morning to spend the silver that Kira had made.  Mother also checked the coffers on the off-chance that the Proudfoots’ monthly monetary assistance had shown up early.  Their aid was not always timely.

Tom was nowhere to be seen on the way in, though he might have guessed that Kira would be coming up the lane since it was a Monday, and thus hid, if he was really that frightened.  Kira considered actually leaving town and harassing him when Mother gave her a little free time, but in the end she rejected the idea in favour of attending to the business half of her life.

She continued to ponder the situation when she fed the plants after lunch, and again as she placed more herbs in the earth for the rest of the afternoon.  At night she was too weary to ponder it any longer and just went to sleep.

The next two days brought no answers either, and Kira was not any closer to finding them because they were planting, and planting was harder work than it looked, and when Kira did make free time for herself it was really to go ride Nienna to another house or hole and tell a story.

Finally, Thursday rolled around, and the planting was done, and Kira had no other engagements for the day.  When she finally woke from her exhausted sleep, her back and her knees were fit to kill her, but she had time and daylight now and she’d had enough of this mystery plaguing her mind.  Kira was going to hunt down Tom and find out precisely what was going on.

When she arrived at his home, his mother told her that he had gone into town to meet with some of his city friends, so Kira had to go the rest of the way to Michel Delving.  From there, finding him should have been a difficult matter, but fortunately Kira knew enough about Tom to make an educated guess.  He was in the common room of the Oak Barrel, a plate of food in front of him and a mug in his hand.  She glared at him from the doorway long enough for him to turn and catch her eye, then stalked outside and waited.

After ten minutes he joined her.  “Well?”

“Well, what?” said Kira.

“Why’d you come and bother me?”

“Why’d you leave your friends for a chat with me when all I did was look at you?”

Tom sighed.  “Walk with me.”

They made their way to one of the three bridges that crossed the Ash and paused.  Tom leaned back against the guardrail and studied the hair on his feet.  “All right,” he said.  “I”—his eyes flicked nervously all around, scanning the area for anyone in earshot.  “I’m sorry, Kira.”

Kira gaped at him, but he was not looking at her.

“I’m sorry for what I said to you at the Party, and believe me, I did not mean it, and if you’re rubbing it in maybe you do think it’s just funny, but somehow I doubt that because it was a really stupid thing for me to say and I didn’t mean it.”  He sighed.  “You can gloat now.”  Only now did he turn to look at her in the eye.

“Sorry for what?” said Kira.

The earnest look in his eye made her take half a step backward.  “Kira, I said you don’t have to rub it in!  You may think it’s funny, but it’s actually quite rude!”

“Tom, what did you say to me?”

“You know full well what I said to you, and if you’re trying to get me to repeat it I won’t!”

“Well, it’s not as if you’re ‘saying it again.’  You’re just quoting yourself from when you were drunk.”

“Kira, you’re baiting me, and I’m not going to take it.  There is no way I’m going to repeat something you already know just to make you a little bit happier at my own expense.”

“But I don’t know!”

“Look, you can stop it already—wait, you really don’t know?”

Kira assumed her most guileless look and stared him in the eye.  “As ignorant as a newborn babe.”

Relief slowly spread over Tom’s features.  “Right, then!  Ignore everything I just said; I’m going back to my meal.”

Kira grabbed his wrist.  “Not so fast!  I’m not going to leave here until you explain yourself!”

“I already did—I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“If it’s something bad enough that I’d actually give you a long-winded apology for it, what makes you think I’d tell you if I found out you don’t know?”

Kira thought this statement over.  “Oh, wait… I think I’m remembering something now…”  After mulling it over a few moments more she raised her head again and shifted her grip to his hand.  “You’re blowing the matter out of proportion, Tom, and you didn’t need to say you’re sorry, but since you did I’ll accept the apology.”

Tom peered at her; Kira tried to keep her countenance as frank as possible.  “You’re bluffing, aren’t you?” he said.

“I am not bluffing!  What did you say?”

“You are bluffing, Kira.  But even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t tell you, because then, you’d already know.  So on the off-chance that you end up remembering, I’m sorry, but otherwise just forget the whole thing and leave me alone!”  And with that, Tom Whitwell broke Kira’s grip on his hand, turned around, and stalked back to the Oak Barrel.

Kira stared at him until he turned a corner and was out of sight.  She stayed on the bridge for another ten minutes, trying to wrap her mind around the conversation and what Tom could have said that would make him act this way.

Halfway home, it came to her, like a sack of bricks falling from the sky.  He fancied her.

*  *  *

“Daffy?  Daffy?”  Kira hammered on the windowpane of Daffodil’s bedroom with a pressing urgency.

After thirty seconds Daffodil came into the room and looked at the window.  “Be quiet, won’t you?” she hissed.  “You could wake the dead with that racket—or at least break the glass!”

“Daffodil,” said Kira.  “Stop whatever it is you’re doing.  Meet me outside at the Old Oak.  Now.”

“Give me a few minutes, why don’t you?  What’s wrong?”

“I’ll tell you when you get there.”

Kira told her when they were alone and settled on the roots of the tree.  “Tom fancies me.”

“What?”

“He does!  That’s what he said at the Party, what he was hoping I didn’t hear—well, that, or something to that effect.  I hunted him down today, and without my having any clue what was going on, he apologised to me, and denied whatever it was he said—twice.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before!”

“Are you sure?”

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Daffy, what am I supposed to do?”

“How am I to know?”

Kira sighed and buried her head in her hands.  “It’s all too soon!  I’m barely twenty-seven; I’m not ready to have my first admirer.”

Daffodil, for lack of anything better to do, reached over and set her hand on Kira’s shoulder, patting it a few times.  “Well, it’s not as if he can do anything;” she finally hazarded, “he’s only twenty-eight.  Maybe in two years things will have changed enough that it won’t matter.”

“You mean, maybe he’ll forget about me?”

“Or maybe you’ll return his affection.”

“Faugh!  Daffy, I don’t even want to think about that yet!  I mean, it’s… he’s Tom!”

“I don’t know; it was just a possibility…  Anyway, he can’t do anything about it for two years, so I don’t particularly see what you have to worry about.”

“That’s because it’s me he likes, not you.  Daffy, how am I supposed to even look at him knowing—knowing this?”

“I don’t know.  Same as you always do?  Unless you wanted to use this as another weapon in your war with him.”

Kira simply shook her head.  “No, that’s—that’s playing with fire, and it’s going to make me feel even more horrid than I already am.  The bodices at the party were all good and fine, but that was before I knew.  I don’t want my behaviour to encourage anything.  Daffy, how could he possibly be attracted to me?  I thought I drove him mad with all my book-talk!”

“Well, if neither of us knows the answer to that I doubt that he does.”

Kira sighed, picked up a clod of dirt at her feet, and chucked it.  “It’d better be just a passing fancy, because I don’t know what I’m going to do if it isn’t—I don’t know what I’m going to do if it is, even!”

“At least you have someone who’s sweet on you.  That’s better than I’ve managed.”

“Don’t put it that way!  You think that this is good?”

“I don’t know.  You could settle for a lot worse than Tom, that’s for sure.”

Daffy!  I came here for help in my distress, not for matchmaking!”

“Well, if you really aren’t interested—it’s two years before he can do anything, so you might as well enjoy them while they last.”

“Thanks,” said Kira, though she did not sound particularly heartened by this.  “I’m sorry for unburdening all my knowledge on you, Daffodil, and so quickly.”

“Oh, think nothing of that.  It’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”

For the rest of the daylight hours, Kira distanced herself from the problem by reading the Quenta, which she had not had much time to even look at for a week.  Progress was slow, but it distracted her.

Next day Kira woke up feeling simply awful—she blamed it on the terrible discovery she had made the previous day—so she read as much as she could to keep her mind off things.  It also kept her mind off something that crept upon her unawares—pain that irked her right foot.

It was only when the sun went down that she realised it was there, and it took her another few moments to get herself focused enough on the present to realise that it meant something.  After another minute, she flew out of bed, tugging on her winter robe and snatching her crutch from the floor.  “Mother!” she cried.  “The weather’s changing!”

Mother was at the hearth in the kitchen; in an instant she was up and had her hands on Kira’s shoulders.  “Are you certain, Kira?”

Kira nodded.  “I’m so sorry, Mum; I’ve been reading all day and if I hadn’t been maybe I’d have noticed sooner, but I’ve been feeling so wretched all around lately—”

“You think the warning started earlier?”

“Sometime today, and that’s supposed to mean it’ll happen in a day or two, but what if it happens tonight?”

Mother was going pale, but she set her lips together and steel was in her eyes.  “Never mind that—as soon as the moon’s up we’re going to the garden and moving the plants.  It’s a risk we were willing to take, and now we’re facing the consequences.  Never mind when it frosts; ‘twill be soon enough and we’ll worry about it once it’s happened.  Now get some actual clothes on!”

Kira did as she was bidden, wishing nothing so much as that she could take the day back and start it over.

They only worked an hour that night, for soon it became clear that the waning moonlight was too weak and if they continued on with some of the more rooted plants they would botch the job.  Kira tried to ignore the twinges in her foot as they worked, but whether in actuality or in her panic they only seemed to get worse.  But at least when she crawled in bed that night, her foot did not hurt the way it did during winter.

Next morning Mother woke her up an hour before dawn, and there was hope—it had not frosted at all that night.

As soon as the sun was up they took out the clay pots that Mother had started the plants in, as well as the larger two that they let the rosemary winter in.  They worked with the assumption that the frost would fall tonight, and that anything left in the garden but the hardiest plants would die.  The mulch that saved perennials through many a winter had already been composted and worked into the soil in preparation for spring, and finding and preparing a new load could take more time than they had.

So rather than transplanting all of one herb and moving to the next, Mother had a sequence in mind—get at least one plant of each type saved, then work on the plants that were more in demand and more fragile in cold weather.  They took their meals outdoors.

“Kira,” said Mother, “you must let me know the instant you feel overworked, and by that I don’t mean when you’re so exhausted you really can’t do a thing more.  It’s a hard choice between risking both our livelihood and risking you, and I don’t want you to overtax yourself.”

“Mum,” said Kira, digging around some savoury, “I’m not as weak as I was when I was little.”

“I know that, but you’ve still got your poor father’s heart, and I’m not about to let you go the way he did.”

Kira sighed, but she really had no retort to give to that.  Still, she took as many breaks as Mother did and no more, for she was young and knew that will could suffice when muscles failed.  And indeed, in the morning at least she needed as much will as possible to keep at work.  Two days’ break had only stiffened her sore back and legs further, and this much more labour out of the blue made them quite pained.  Eventually as Kira continued her work they stopped hurting, but even half an hour of sitting for lunch meant that she groaned the moment she got back up.  She almost hoped that the frost would come tonight, for so much work today would only make tomorrow hurt even more.  If it frosted, at least she would be able to stay in bed.

As it was, by sundown they had made as much progress as they could have hoped to, and Kira and her Mother moved the plants indoors, into the kitchen where it was warmest.  Then they parted for the night, wearied by the desperate toil, and headed into their respective rooms.

Kira’s bed called to her, but there was one last thing that she needed to do, that she had not had time to do in all their work.  Expertly opening her window, she climbed out through it and crept towards the abandoned house where Nienna rested.

Usually Kira was able to stop by and feed her at some point in the day when Mother gave her time to herself, but there had been no such luck today.  Now the night air was closing in, and Kira had the ill feeling in her foot that if she did not get out now her pony would be almost wholly unprotected in the impending frost.

She bit her lip as she crawled, then walked over, forcing her aching muscles to move and ignoring her foot as best as she could.  Finally she was there, leaning on the door and panting for breath.  She did not even look at the inviting straw-strewn floor as she set out the oats and drew the water and buried the dung outside.  In her mind the ground was already hardening.

Nienna gave her reproachful looks for her tardiness, but Kira only spoke to her when she was done.  “I’m sorry, girl.”

The wounded stare continued.

“Look, the weather’s going to turn nasty tonight, and if I had time and power I’d ride you back to town so you’d be safe, but I can’t.  You’re just going to have to weather it like me.”

Nienna snorted.

“I’ll leave the door open, so that if you think the roof is going to collapse you can get out of here.  But don’t do it unless you’re sure, and don’t go far.  If you end up running away, well, then, I probably deserve it, so just find somewhere smart and safe and get someone to look after you.  Because you can’t run to me, Nienna.  I can’t have Mother find out about you.  Do you understand?”

Nienna nudged Kira’s shoulder with her head.

“Well, I guess that’s all the response I can get from you, isn’t it?  Good luck to you.”

And good luck to me, too, she thought as she stepped outside.  A chill wind blew, the kind that Kira associated with late fall and against which no clothing was sufficient protection.  It brought the sudden spurts of pain that Kira had last felt in her dream, when her foot had unexpectedly dipped into the cold water; but even when the wind did not gust at her feet and up her skirt it still ached, for change was in the elements and Kira was caught in it.  When she was within sight of home it twinged so badly that she fell to her knees, and she could not suppress the groan that escaped her lips.  She crawled across the field and the lane, only just keeping enough strength to haul herself back through the window into her bedroom.  Barely remembering to shut the window tight, she collapsed on her bed and fell into an exhausted sleep.

In the morning, Mother came in with the news, though Kira did not need to be told.  Her foot had settled into that familiar dullness of winter pain, and hoary fingers of frost clenched at her window.  The ground was half-covered with a thin crust of snow.

“We’ll be lucky if three of the ones out there survive,” said Mother.  “And starting new plants from seed always takes time, and that’s just for the ones that do spread by seed.  We’ll have to wait a year for the rooted ones.”

“What will we do?” said Kira.

“I don’t know,” said Mother.  “There are all those things of your dad’s that we could sell, and your Outfit, as you kept on offering, and as a last resort you know that friends and family could help us out in a pinch, but…”

And Kira understood.  Mathoms weren’t meant to be sold, and she and Mother weren’t meant to beg, even from friends.  If that had been the case, then Mother would have just sold everything, smial, furnishings, and all, after Dad died, and moved back in with her family—the only sign of the marriage her newborn daughter.  “So, things look that hopeless,” said Kira.

And Mother, ashen and grey from the exertions of the week, nodded.  “Hopeless as a frost in spring.”

Chapter Five

 

Daffy was kind enough to visit her in her gloom that day.  Everyone in the area knew of the risk that the Proudfoots had taken, and seeing the few plants remaining in the garden on top of their home confirmed the general suspicion that they were now in for a rough year.  Still, no outpouring of charity was forthcoming, though Daffy did bring over a crock of mushroom soup, which Kira and her mother gratefully accepted while making it clear that such assistance should be the exception and not the rule in times to come.

The weather did not warm all day, which meant that Kira was stuck in bed.  It was not that she did not know how to wrap her foot securely with a bit of wool she kept stowed under her bed, so that her foot would become bearable even in the cold, but rather that there was just enough snow on the ground that she would make tracks if she slipped out the window but not enough that she could cover them over.  So she trusted to Daffodil’s lack of tidings about the semi-ruined house down the way that Nienna was safe, and could only hope that she would not be discovered.  She had set enough food out to last until (hopefully) the cold snap passed.

In the meantime she was able to get some much needed rest, and drown the various aches that irked her in epic elvish legends, until Kira was quite certain that she had received enough elves (especially those with names beginning in “Fin”) for a month.  She even practiced, when Mother was out, her writing, so that on the off chance it became suddenly and miraculously legible, she could write out a list of the various historical Noldor and traits that distinguished them one from the other, for it was an awful lot of information coming at her at once.  She had, of course, no such luck.

That morning Kira had tried once more to apologise for her neglect.  Perhaps, if she had not been quite as caught up in her book as she had been, she could have noticed the warning sooner and they could have saved more plants.  But Mother would have none of it.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Kira,” she said.  “Neither of us thought the frost would come, and if we had we wouldn’t have even planted to begin with.  Whosever fault it was, if it was anyone’s, it can’t be helped now.”

Kira protested, but only briefly.  She would have thought that Mother would have leapt on the opportunity to criticise her reading, but somehow with hardship staring them both in the face it wasn’t as important.

Still, Kira kept her spirits up, though she wished the frost would go away so that she could move about.

Next day the cold persisted, which meant ill for those plants that were still alive.  Mother’s face was paler than yesterday when she stopped in with breakfast, but her face had also grown more set, and Kira’s faith that they would weather this was strengthened.

In the early afternoon the post arrived, which considerably enlivened what would otherwise have been a tedious day.  And this was largely because the Proudfoot smial received not one, but two letters, and one of them was addressed to Kira and her mother.

“We have letters,” said Mother when she brought the two in.  “From the Post.  Do you know anything of this?”

“I—I don’t think so,” said Kira.

Mother set the two letters on Kira’s lap as she half sat up in bed.  Kira looked over the addresses on each one.

“This one’s from a bookish friend for me,” she said, waving the one that was addressed only to her.  “Or at least, I think it is—I half recognise the handwriting.  The other…”  She looked over it; it was addressed “to Mrs. Lagro Proudfoot and Daughter” in Master Goodbody the letter-taker’s hand.  “Is addressed to both of us.  I don’t know what to make of it.”  She turned the letter over, as if inspecting it for any other clues that could be revealed without opening the seal.  “There’s something inside it, too—something heavy at the bottom.  May I open it?”

“Yes,” said Mother, sitting down on the bed.  “And you may read it to me, as well.”

Kira broke the seal to the letter and unfolded it.  Immediately a small, shiny key slid off the paper and onto her blanket.  She picked it up and handed it to Mother.

“What’s this?” said Mother.

“I don’t know; it came in the letter.  Maybe there’s an explanation.”

She read the letter aloud.

 

10 April 1552 

Dear Mrs. Proudfoot,

Having recently come into a position of some money—more than I know what to do with—and having always had concern for you and your daughter’s welfare as part of the many families that live in Michel Delving and the White Downs, it occurred to me the other day that I in my plenty ought to set something aside for you, who have continually struggled to eke out a good life from your limited circumstances.

With this in mind, and with admiration for your dedication and tenacity and hard work, I have after much inquiry devised a system for your additional provenance.  Enclosed in this letter is a key to one of the coffers in Michel Delving; I am in possession of an identical one.  Every month, at or around the fifteenth, I will make available to you a small sum, which will be placed in this coffer.  All you need do is, when you are next in town, present the key to one of the clerks working.  He will withdraw the money for you.

This is not done out of pity for you or your daughter, for I know you want none.  It is done out of respect for a mother and child who must not think that their diligence goes unnoticed or unrewarded.

My only request for you is that you do not attempt to learn my identity.  I prefer to remain anonymous in these matters.

                                                Sincerely,

                                                xx

                                               Master Odo Goodbody, 
                                               Official Town Hole Clerk and Letter-Taker for the Shire Post, Michel Delving branch, 
                                               signing for and in presence of the benefactor


Kira set the letter down heavily.  She did not know what to say.

Mother took it up and looked it over, as if she could read the letter’s contents for herself.  “Read it again, Kira.”

Kira took the letter and reread it to Mother.

“You’re sure it says that?” said Mother.

“Yes,” said Kira.

Mother sighed.  “There’s our first bit of charity.”  She practically spat the word out.  “And the thing is I’m half-minded to take it, for your sake.”

Kira looked the letter over again.  “Mother, we would have gotten this letter whether it frosted or not.”

“Truly?  And why do you say that?”

“It’s dated from five days ago.  I don’t know why it took so long to get here, since it was written in town and all, but that’s before anyone knew the weather was going to turn sour.”

“The money would be in the coffer right now, too.  It’s a sore temptation, looking at our situation at the moment.”

“Well, why not take it, then?  The person said it wasn’t supposed to be charity, you know, and we aren’t even supposed to find out who it is that’s helping us.”

“It’s still help, and it implies that we can’t take care of ourselves.”

Kira sighed.  “I guess we don’t have to take it, then.  I thought it was just someone trying to be nice.”

Mother set her head in her hand, picked up the letter, looked at it, set it down.  “Not taking this help would mean we’d either have to sell the mathoms or ask it of others.  I suppose this is the least humbling choice we have.  And since you think we should take it, I suppose I ought to at the very least head into town to see how much there is.  If it is regular, and things start looking up, maybe we could set aside a dowry for you.”

“That’d be nice,” said Kira, smiling weakly.

“Besides,” said Mother, “the Proudfoot money must be in by now, and I haven’t been into town to pick it up.  If you don’t mind my leaving you alone here for an hour or so, I could do both.  Not much else to do, anyhow, with the ground all frozen.”  So Mother took the key, slipped it into a pocket of her skirts, and bade farewell to her daughter.

Once she had left the room, Kira heaved a sigh of relief.

*  *  *

It was only after fifteen minutes had passed that she remembered the other letter.  Here, she reasoned, was the response to the one she had sent out a week ago during her day of business in town.  She opened it and read.

 

April 14, 1552 


My Dear Kira,

How pleasant it was to receive your letter earlier this week!  I hope that you are doing well in your letter-starved portion of the Shire.  However, perhaps you are doing better than could otherwise be expected, for when I spoke to young Kerry and Sandra they said that they had made a copy of the Quenta for you and since the book is rather difficult I expect that you haven’t finished it yet!

Your absence at the party would have been forgiven anyhow, but it is doubly so knowing what you were doing instead!  No doubt our great progenitor himself would have disapproved of the subject matter, but since he is not with us we may exalt his memory as much as we wish.

Thank you for the information concerning Mat and Mundo.  While I know the Rumble family and my children are actually somewhat acquainted with the two, I did not know that they had an interest in books or tales or anything of the like.  When we have the time, I or my father or one of my siblings who still remains in the area will go out into Hobbiton and read some of the shorter pieces from our copy of the Red Book—a family tradition, if you will—to the village children, but since the Rumbles live in Bywater I suppose they haven’t been as aware of that.  When I see them next I shall be sure to invite them to one of these readings.

I do not, nor does anyone else in our household, know of any lad from around here by the name of “Hal.”  I’m sorry I can’t be of greater assistance to you than that, but I will make enquiries as I am able.

Dad is as hopeful as you are that the creation of new copies of our books (especially in Brandy Hall) will result in a reversal of the Ban.  However, much work is still needed if it will ever work, especially concerning the Tooks.  At least you have your own literature to keep you happy in the meantime.

Everyone here sends you love, and whatever support we can offer in a mere letter.  Please take excellent care of yourself, especially of your heart.  You’re a very brave lass to put up with all that you do, and we’re all very proud of your tale-telling in your region of the Shire.

                                                Yours,
                                                Harding of the Hill


Kira smiled as she leaned over the bedside to take out her bundle of letters from underneath and add this one to the pile.  “Dear friends,” she said to herself.  “I wish we had a couple of Gardners in town to cheer things up a bit.”  She tied the letter in with the others and swung herself down again to stuff it under the quilt.

It wouldn’t go all the way in, or at least not far enough that the quilt could safely cover its existence.  Kira pushed harder, and toppled out of the bed.

Fortunately, both her feet remained safely wrapped within the warm covers, which were still tucked into the mattress, but they still bonked into each other and she had to grimace at the contact with her crippled foot.  Sighing heavily, she lifted up the quilt, found a place to put the letters, and set them in.  She looked at the shadowy forms normally hidden by her bedspread—objects of a half-life that instead of being properly on display communed with the dust-bunnies.  Dimly, in the back, she could see a dark rectangle, and though she knew it was useless, she reached in and pulled it out.

Sitting back up and arranging the blankets as best she could, she set the heavy thing on her lap.  It was an old leathern bag, half-shrouded by the dust that clung to it.  Kira wiped it off, and opened it.

Inside was a very old, dear friend—or rather, what was left of it.  She slid it out of the bag—a massive book bound in leather—actually, four volumes sewn together—red, and white.  The black had been washed out long ago.

Kira flipped through the waterlogged pages aimlessly, only half thinking of the old loss and older hurt, just briefly allowing herself to indulge in the wish for things to be not what they were.  “I’m sorry, Frodo,” she said softly, letting her hand linger on a page.  “Even if it wasn’t my fault.”   After a few more minutes she put the book back in the bag, and slid both of them under the bed.

Mother came back in an hour, holding two small bags of coin.  And even if accepting the help of others was supposed to be shaming, the tension was gone on her face and she looked genuinely happy.

Some money!” she said.  “Our mystery hobbit left us gold!”

“Gold?” said Kira.

“Only one piece, mind—and I got it all changed, as that’s more convenient for our purposes.  But I believe it is safe to say that we are on solid footing now, especially if this help continues.  And with what we don’t use, we can set something aside for starting up your own household when you marry.”

“You’ll spend some of it on yourself, I hope!” Kira remonstrated.

“Well, not much, perhaps.  It’s you I’m concerned about, as usual, Kira; and now that I’ve decided to take the help, I think you and I shall find it very beneficial.”

The next day the snow melted, but the ground was still hard through the day.  Kira protested that her foot still could not handle the weather, and then slipped out of the window to visit Nienna.  The pony had been very sensible and not bolted from her house, which was stable as ever, so Kira commended her, replenished her food and water, and promising her a ride out in the country soon, locked her up once more.

The day after that, it was as if the cold snap had never been.  The damage having been fully done, Kira and her mother went out to survey the garden.  The rosemary bush that they had not been able to save was dead.  So was the mint, the basil, and the marjoram.  The parsley was barely clinging onto life, but they had potted most of that so it was of less concern.

Mother had judged the surviving plants quite well, though—the ones that they had only saved one of, just in case.  Burnet, borage, sage, and the gloriously hardy tarragon had taken little damage from the freeze, even though some of them had started to revive prior, and the lovage’s survival ensured good soups all around for the year.

Still, it would take a few more days and a good rain for the survivors to even start growing again, and with the extra money Mother determined not to plant again until May so as to avoid another disaster.  So Kira and her mother were left with a fat lot of nothing to do.  Mother filled the time with mending and sewing, and Kira “called on her friends” (which sometimes was exactly what it said and sometimes was matters of business) as often as she could.

*  *  *

It was at this time that another idea worked its way into Kira’s head—one that would take a good deal of persuasion to let Mother allow it (for she did not think she could pull the enterprise off without her knowledge) but one to which the benefits were so great that it was still worth trying.

“Mum,” she said one day at tea, swallowing the trepidation in her heart, “since there’s no work to do at the moment I’d like to try and visit with my father’s family.”

Mother turned pale and looked straight down into her tea.  She said nothing.

“I know we normally have nothing to do with them, and I know why, but I’d like to think that not all of them were bad.  One or two of them always make it a point to try and talk to us at parties, even if—”

“No,” said Mother.

“Why not?”

“You know why.  They worked your father to—”

“They couldn’t have meant to!”

“In which case they were fools.  Well-intentioned or not, they never understood him—tried to make him something he wasn’t.  I’ll not have you associating with those types of people.”

Kira sighed.  She was hungry, but she thought that she could get her point across better by not eating just yet.  “I still remember the plate,” she said.

“What plate?”

“One of his sisters made it for him—well, painted it, I should say.  It was in the storage room.  I broke it.”  Kira looked up; a sad smile played about her face.  “There was a letter, too, that went with it.  It sounded as if she loved him.”

That plate?” Mother said.

“The very same.  It was a good likeness—of you, at least, since I don’t have anything to compare the other to.  You looked happier than I’d ever seen you.”

Mother shook her head; setting her elbows on the table she let it rest in her hands.

“Foxglove—that was the sister who did it.  She’s married, now; I looked her up in the genealogies at the stationer’s in town.  So she’s not even a Proudfoot anymore.  Please, may I just talk to her?”

“Kira…”  Mother looked up at her; seeing the look in her eyes Kira almost immediately regretted having brought the idea up.  “I’ll think about it.”

“Really?”

Only think.  I won’t make a decision and it may still be no.”

“I understand,” said Kira.  “But I’ve been with only half a family for so long, I hope you’ll see why I asked.”

“I do, lass,” said Mother.  “And I’m very sorry.”

But Mother thought about it for a long time before she said anything—Kira had not the heart to broach it again for at least another two weeks.  May rolled around and it was planting time—and plant-feeding time—once more, which meant that Kira had once more to face the rather pressing topic of Tom, whom she had been able to successfully avoid during her weeks of idleness.  But manure day came, and so did he, and she could elude him no longer.

She managed not to colour at the sight of him (the way she had on a walk into town) when he pulled up, for which she was grateful.  She had the nagging suspicion that if Mother learnt of his affections for her she would be subject to umpteen matchmaking woes, for which she was both unprepared and unwilling.  But when he greeted her in that cocky voice of his she could not bear it, and she turned around and walked to the well, leaving him to drag the tub over.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” he said when he found her working the crank.

“Do I need to be in the sunlight of your presence every day?” she said without looking up.

“No,” he snorted.  “But I was wondering.”

“Maybe I grew tired of your pestering all the time.  Or maybe I finally figured out what you said to me at the Party.”

“Oh, not this again,” muttered Tom, sinking down on the well’s lip where he normally sat.

“You fancy me, don’t you?”

“What?”  Tom started so suddenly that he almost fell into the well.  “Wherever did you get that idea?”

“What else would you so hotly deny—and apologise for?”

“I told you I didn’t mean it!  Whatever I said!”

“Hah!  I knew it!”

“You don’t know what I said!”

“You near admitted it just now.”

“I did not!  Why must you always be so difficult?”

“I’m sorry, but it’s not every day that you find out that the one hobbit you loathe has been madly in love with you for who knows how long.”

“Kira, you must be joking.  Is this just your way of trying to find out what I actually said to you?”

“What?”

“Because I’d have to be a good deal drunker than I was to say anything as stupid as that I love you.”

“Oh,” said Kira, stung by the repulse.  “So, what did you say?”

“I’m not telling.  But it wasn’t that.”

She emptied the bucket into the tub and sent it down again.  “Good.  Because you’re the last hobbit in the Shire that I would marry and I thought you should know that.”

“Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.”  He paused.  “Marriage?  Who put that idea into your head?”

“Sorry,” said Kira.  “I forgot; you’re not thirty yet so you don’t have to worry about such things.  I’m not as lucky as you are, Tom.”

“Lucky?”  He laughed.  “I have to put up with you and you call me lucky?”  Kira had finished filling up the tub; Tom picked it up with both hands and they walked down the hill together.

“Of course!  I have to put up with me all the time!”

Tom set the tub on the ground in back of the smial and brought over the sack of dung from the cart; Kira took it and set it in the water.  He dusted off his hands.  “There, that’s done for the week.”

“For you,” said Kira.

“And no more of this trying to find out what I said to you, do you hear?  It doesn’t bear repeating and I didn’t mean it.  And I don’t fancy you either.”

“Good,” said Kira, and Tom mounted the cart and drove off.  After he had left she stared down the road, wiping two angry tears from her eyes.  “Liar,” she said.

And although she did not believe his passionate denials for one second, somehow they helped her face him the next time she came across him, for if he was able to pretend, even to himself, that made it just a bit easier for her.  But he was lying, there was no doubt about that.  The next day Daffodil reported to her that her brother was acting “unusually frustrated,” and that all that he would say to her was that Tom was being an idiot and that was that.  And though Kira had long known that Tom was an idiot, it took something unusual for Roly to admit the fact; and the very fact that, when questioned on the cause of Tom’s idiocy, Roly shut up like a clam, pointed to the nature of the subject matter.  Kira herself tried cracking him open for information, even though Daffy was usually much more skilled on the matter and she had met with no successes.  The best response she got from him was a desperate avowal of permanent bachelorhood—although that just as well could have been from her and Daffodil’s continual pestering.

Finally the lasses decided to leave Roly alone, and Roly decided to forget about any and all private conversations that he had previously had with Tom concerning the unknown topic, and Tom remained (or at least acted) blissfully ignorant of the whole affair.  Normally Kira would have objected to this since it was exactly what Tom wanted, but the notion of such a fellow actually being attracted to her still daunted her and if he wanted to pretend that that wasn’t the case she’d be glad to as well.  Next manure day she even managed to try out a few of the new insults she’d thought up on him, and he responded in kind.  It was almost like “old times,” if there ever were any “old times” with Tom.

And on May the sixteenth Mother brought up the topic of Aunt Foxglove once more, and without any pushing on Kira’s part.

“This aunt that you wish to see,” she said, “who is she married to?”

“A Cotton,” said Kira.  “Not one of the Cottons, but related.  The genealogy said ‘of Waymoot’.”

“Well, that, at least, is a very respectable family.”

Kira refrained from commenting that, according to most hobbits, so were the Proudfoots.

“Which would imply that she has some good sense.  And—”

“And?” said Kira, hardly daring to hope.

“Well, I know what you’ve said to me many a time about meeting hobbits at parties, and I’m beginning to agree with you.  Not that you couldn’t put in a little more effort, mind—”

Kira grimaced.

“—but you can’t dance by means of an introduction, and everyone’s mind is on dancing at the parties.  So if you can foster as many acquaintances as you can, apart from at parties—”

Ah, that’s what she was driving at.  Inside Kira sighed a little, but if it would get Mother to relent she would go along.

“—I’ll let you send a letter to her, and see how it goes from there.”

“Really, Mum?  Thank you ever so much!”  Kira rose from her work to give her mother a rather dirty hug.

“And, who knows?  Maybe there are some folk on your dad’s side of the family who can help.”

So the next day Kira went into town, double-checked the name and residence in the General Use Genealogy in the stationer’s reading room (she briefly let Mr. Goldworthy know of the good news), and then went to the Postmaster’s office to have a letter taken.

It took five days of nervous waiting, but eventually the postboy came by with a reply, written on fine, white, lilac-scented paper.

 

May 19, 1552

My dear Kira, 

How delighted I was to receive your note of 17 May!  It has been too long since I (or any of us, really), have seen you, and longer still since we have talked.  I would be most pleased to rectify the situation as you suggest.  As you must know, Waymoot is a bit of a distance from Michel Delving but nothing horrid.  It just happens that my husband has business there next Market Day, May the 29th, so it would be no difficulty for me to travel there.  Do you know Winkle’s Bakery?  They lay a marvellous spread for afternoon tea, and if you would care to meet me then at three o’clock in the afternoon we could have tea and a nice long chat there.  Please let me know if this is amenable to you; if not we can make other arrangements.  I look forward to seeing you soon!

                                                                                                                                       Yours with love,
                                                                                                                                       Aunt Foxglove

 

“Mum,” said Kira after she had read the response aloud to her, “will you let me go?”

“I was planning on having you start the selling next week; the plants should be well enough along by then.”

“Please?”

“If you’ll manage for the morning, I’ll take care of the afternoon for you.  That should give you more than enough time to get ready.  And you must be on your best behaviour if you’re to be at a place like the Winkle Shop.”

“Yes, Mum.  Thank you.”  The Winkle Shop, as Perry-the-Winkle’s Bakery was locally known, charged a very pretty penny for its famous goods.  Mother had never taken her there, saying it “wasn’t for our type,” though since Kira had examined her genealogies on both sides of the family she thought Mother was just posturing.  Would her aunt do the same, and be dreadfully disappointed when she learned Kira had none of the little graces expected of her?  For the first time Kira began to have second thoughts about the meeting.

But she still went to town and posted a reply that very afternoon, and while she was there she peeped in at the Winkle Shop’s window to see what sorts of hobbits took their tea within.  It was not a wholly encouraging sight, but at least the diners were not sitting as if their backbones had been starched, the way Kira had always imagined Proper Hobbits at Tea would look.  Swallowing her fears, she returned home to her own tea, and tried not to think too much about the meeting ahead.

During the intervening week Kira made another visit to Lilac Twofoot, and she was (she hoped) able to push everything else on her mind to a small enough corner that she could focus on telling a good story.  She knew Lilac was still smarting over Willem’s sudden leap into maturity (which Kira was of the mind was not terribly mature) and she was the only person who could comfort her.  And Kira, like Lilac’s mother, was not entirely sure that Willem was too old for tales.  So after last visit she had taken especial care in selecting what story she thought would make the best effect.

“Well, Lilac,” she said when all was settled and Will was safely in the next room, “do you mind skipping around in the Story a little bit?”

“I thought you weren’t allowed to skip,” said Lilac.

“I’ll come back to it later,” said Kira.  “But I thought, since it was down to us lasses, we ought to hear a lass’s story, for we know that all those great big heroes in the Tales still went to bed when their wives and mums told them to.”

“Ohhh,” said Lilac.  She craned her head around Kira to look at Willem behind her.  Kira checked the tin mirror in the room to see the lad studiously playing, as if he had just been caught doing otherwise.

“Lilac,” said Kira, lowering her voice to a whisper, “if you want to know if your brother’s listening in you mustn’t make a show of it.  Tell you what—I’ll keep on looking at him in the mirror—he can’t see that—and if it ever looks like he’s not too old for Travellers’ Tales I’ll give you a wink.”  And Kira winked so outrageously that Lilac immediately pitched into a fit of laughter.

Kira checked the mirror.  Willem had stopped playing, so she winked again, then hushed Lilac up before he could realise what was going on.

“Normally,” said Kira, “I tell this tale from the lad’s point of view because lads are thick and they wouldn’t understand the story half as well otherwise.   But since we’re both bright lasses I think we’ll get by with the better version.  But you must promise me first that if you ever tell the tale to anyone else, you must never tell it this way to a lad, for lads are thick and they won’t understand it.  Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

“Very well,” said Kira.  “Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Rohan far to the south, there was a princess.  Her name was Éowyn and she was the niece of the king, and she was beautiful and all loved her.  But she wasn’t an ordinary princess, for she had learned how to ride and fight just like one of their horsemen, and they called women who could do this “shieldmaidens.”  Éowyn loved riding and fighting, and her people’s songs of the great deeds of their forefathers, much more than sewing or weaving or baking.  But she had to stay home while her brother and cousin were out fighting, for the Queen was dead and someone had to keep house.”

“Couldn’t the King have found someone else to do it?”

“Maybe,” said Kira.  She thought a moment.  “I don’t rightly know.  But the King was very old and he liked having family nearby, only his son and nephew were great fighters so they had to be out at war.”

“But you said she was a great fighter, too!”

“So she was, but lads don’t like taking orders from lasses except in the direst situations.”

“Like when she’s his mum?”  Kira was not entirely sure if Lilac understood what “dire” meant.

“Or his wife.  Anyhow, Éowyn had to stay home and she didn’t like it.

“Now, the King had an odious councillor who fancied Éowyn.”

“What’s that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“Oh-dee-us.”

“Loathsome.”

“Loathsome?”

“Lilac, have you ever been to town and seen those lads who like lurking about the Oak Barrel and pretending that they’re old enough to go inside?”

Lilac nodded.

“Think of the ugliest one of them, and imagine him following you around town all day long and leering at you.”

Lilac grimaced.  The mirror showed Willem with a dark look on his face.  Kira winked and then Lilac smiled a little.

“And since Éowyn’s big brother was off fighting for the King,” said Kira a little louder, “he couldn’t beat up the councillor as big brothers ought to do when an unwholesome lad fancies his sister.  Now, Éowyn could take care of herself just fine normally, but the councillor was such an important fellow that she couldn’t do him in without being called traitor and getting locked up, so she had to deal with the fellow day after day.  And since he realised she could take care of herself, and that he was the last man in the world that she would marry willingly, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  He went to the evil wizard Saruman, and promised to make the King very, very weak.  In return, when Saruman took the kingdom over, the councillor could marry Éowyn.”

“How?  She wasn’t going to let him before.”

Kira shivered.  “The King wouldn’t let anyone marry Éowyn that she didn’t want to marry.  With him gone, the evil councillor wouldn’t have to worry about that.  And Éowyn still could have done him in at that point, but men often think they’re stronger than they actually are.  He thought he’d be able to marry her no matter what.”

“Hmm,” said Lilac.

“Anyway, the councillor was true to his word.  The King fell ill—some say due to his poison, and the councillor made everyone believe he was much weaker than he actually was.  It became easier and easier for the King to sit by and let him do all the ruling.  The only person who could actually help him was Éowyn, with her brother and cousin gone, but she did not know what to do as Rohan slipped further and further into decay.  She was as strong as she could be, but she too fell under the councillor’s spells and began to believe that the King was weak, Rohan was weak, and neither would never return to the glory they once had.  It was very hard for her, having to stay at home, watch this and believe it.

“Her brother and cousin could come home from time to time, and when they did, they helped her.  They realised that the councillor was at fault, and they realised what he wanted as well.  Since they were obstacles in the councillor’s path, he worked with Saruman to get rid of them.  So Saruman decided to attack her cousin Théodred’s company, with the express purpose of getting Théodred killed.  Then the councillor tried his best to show that Éowyn’s brother was taking advantage of his cousin’s death, to raise his own power, and was disobeying the King.  And because the King was so weak he decided to punish him, for nothing he had done wrong.  Now Éowyn was left alone out of the three to look after him.  And that’s all I have for today.”

“Her cousin died?”

“Yes.”

“This doesn’t sound like one of your normal stories, Kira.”

“That’s because it isn’t normal,” said Kira.  “It’s about someone who had to stand tall and strong, day after day, against horrible pressures, and what happens when those prove too strong even for her.”

“Hmm,” said Lilac.

“I told you, it’s something lads wouldn’t understand.  They think all the greatest deeds are dashing about and sword-waving.  Think about it for a little while and you’ll understand.  Willem!” she called brightly.  “We’re all done if you want to come back in!”

And if Willem was giving Kira funny looks until his parents returned, she ignored them.

At last the day for the scheduled visit rolled around.  Kira was rather distraught to find that she had nothing suitable to wear, for conservative as her party outfit was, it was still too fancy a thing for a tea-shop.  Yet she feared her everyday clothing was too plain.  Mother said she was being silly and that as long as she looked neat and clean there would be nothing to worry about.  But Kira made sure the skirt she wore to market was one of the ones that had been salvaged from an old dress, so as not to dirty the one she would see her aunt in.

Kira was distracted at the market.  Those customers who did not know already of the failed business venture found out soon enough when the herb-cart was not at its wonted place for a few weeks.  So as soon as word got round that they were back in business she found herself having to explain exactly what had happened.  The enquiries as to how they had got by in the meantime were blissfully discreet, but Kira quickly found that this was one particular story she was not fond of relating.  The imminent meeting only made things worse.

Somehow, however, she managed to muddle her way through the morning, though she returned home right afterwards without going off to buy lunch.  A small part of her, distanced from the things pressing in on her life, observed that she must really be in a state if she was not in the mood for food.  Kira tried to ignore that part of her, though, and focused on getting home and getting herself ready to see her aunt.

Mother was not able to do much more than look over Kira before she had to leave to take over the stall for the afternoon.  So to calm her nerves Kira read in the intervening hours, until she nearly forgot the time that she needed to leave to arrive at the bakery and had to rush out of the house.  Still, she made herself walk back to town slowly.  It would do no good to appear before her aunt in a flustered state.

Perry-the-Winkle’s bakery was a quaint little building set back on the eastern side of the river, with a white stone front, fresh thatch, and an arched window with blue shutters on either side of the door.  Looking in through one of the windows, Kira saw her aunt sitting at the table nearest it, nestled right in under the alcove.  She was wearing some sort of straw hat, covered in flowers that Kira knew could not be in season.  She supposed they must be cloth.  Aunt Foxglove turned her head to look outside; she caught sight of Kira and raised a gloved hand by way of greeting.  Kira blushed and ducked down beneath the window, before realising how utterly ridiculous she must have looked to the people inside.  She shifted away, stood up, and walked to the door and opened it.

The bell on the door tinkled as it shut behind her.  Everything in the shop was neat and orderly, from the little round tables with their crocheted tablecloths to the linen-lined baskets in the back filled with breads and pastries.  It was not the frosty formality that Kira always associated with the Proudfoots’ High Hole, but it did not quite feel like home, either—as if someone in trying to create a homely feeling had tried too hard and failed utterly.   She turned right and made her way to the table near the window.  Aunt Foxglove rose to greet her and held out her arms.

“Kira!” she said.  “It really has been a while, hasn’t it?”

Kira took one step in and tentatively placed her arms around her aunt’s neck.  Foxglove drew her in for a full embrace and patted her a few times on the back.  “Do sit down, won’t you?  I’ll order tea for the both of us.”

Kira pulled out the chair opposite her aunt and sat down.  She pushed it in a few inches; it seemed to her that she must sit up straight and keep her hands nestled softly in her lap.  Foxglove, in the meantime, waved a serving lad over and asked for their full afternoon tea.  “This is my niece,” she said to him, “Kira Proudfoot.  She’s from the area.”  And the serving lad asked Kira “how do you do” and Kira nodded her head once.

“It shouldn’t take them too long,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “I hope you’re not terribly hungry.”

Kira assured her that she wasn’t.

“Well, how have things been around here?  Has life been good to you and your mother?”

“Mostly,” said Kira.  “We’ve started selling our herbs in market, and—”  She glanced briefly down towards her shift and bodice.

“Oh, that’s right!  How old are you now?  Twenty-seven?”

“As of last August.  I didn’t come out until April sixth, though.”

“And?”

“If you’re asking about my prospects I’d rather not talk about them at the moment.”

Two hobbits came over, carrying two trays: one with a steaming teapot and teacups and the other with cream, honey, and a tiered dish filled with little sandwiches cut into shapes.  They set the contents of both on the table and poured them each a cup.  Kira blinked as she looked at the honey pot.  Inside was not honey, but sugar—beautiful translucent crystals sitting placidly in the white bowl.  Next to it, rather than a honey spoon, was a pair of fine silver tongs.  Tentatively she picked up the tongs and placed one of the lumps in her cup.  She had to blow on her tea before it was cool enough to take a sip.  She looked up, caught her aunt’s eye, and smiled.

“Well,” said Aunt Foxglove, reaching for one of the sandwiches, “I suppose I can understand that.  I was almost thirty-two by the time I found my husband and by that point I’d gotten quite tired of everyone’s questions, thank you.”

“It’s been pretty wretched,” said Kira with a rueful smile.  “I think Mother only agreed to letting me meet with you because if I extend my connexions your way I might find more suitors.”

“Is that it?  I had wondered—just curiosity, you understand; I wasn’t trying to think ill of you or yours.”

“That wasn’t why I sent you the letter, though.  I don’t much care for hunting or snaring, especially lads.”

“And why did you send me the letter, if I may ask?”

“Well…”  Kira picked up one of the triangular sandwiches; it seemed to contain some sort of soft cheese with nuts mixed in.  “I always thought it was a shame to cut off half my family just because of the way my father died.  And I wanted to learn more about him.  It still hurts Mum to talk about him, you see, and you always seemed to be nice whenever we talked at parties or family occasions.”  She swallowed.  The sandwich was still in her hand.  “Mother has a room in the storage tunnels in town and there are a lot of old things in it—things from before he died.  I saw the plate you had painted for him—when he married Mum—and the letter you wrote.  I reckoned you couldn’t be all that bad.”

A smile lit up Foxglove’s face.  “I had nearly forgotten about that old thing!  Do you still have it?”

Kira reddened.  “I’m afraid I broke it.  I was so shocked, you see—I’d never seen a likeness of him before and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I dropped it—I was quite young at the time—and as I was trying to leave my crutch hit one of the pieces and crushed it into bits.  It’s one of the things I regret most.”

“Well,” said Foxglove, taking a measured sip of her tea.  “If you went that far through life without even knowing what your father looked like then I must disagree with the way that your mother raised you.  He was a fine hobbit, and to shut out his memory like that—”  She took another sip of her tea.  “Well.  So I imagine you’ve grown up rather ignorant of your family history.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement.”

“Shame, really—if a hobbit doesn’t know her family what is she supposed to know?—but I’ll help you as I can.  And if your mother seems to be so keen on your fostering connexions—well, perhaps I’ll see to it that you get a bit more involved in Proudfoot affairs.  My father did try the first few years, but once it became clear that Rosemary wanted to go it alone—or mostly alone, I should say—he only sent out invitations to the most pressing things: births, deaths, weddings.  So, if your mother’s amenable we might be able to change that around.”

“I’ll certainly ask, but it is hard to involve oneself with a family that’s clear out in Westmarch.”

“I did say ‘perhaps.’  I’m not wholly acquainted with my brother’s affairs but if I’m not mistaken the Proudfoots still do a great deal of business in Michel Delving.  You just have to catch them at the right time, I suppose.”

“Thank you, Aunt.  I can’t say I’ll be keen on the connecting part, but perhaps I can learn a bit more of this side of the family.  So far I’ve had most of my illicit information from the Brandybucks.”

“Brandybucks!” said Aunt Foxglove.  “Pff!  What do they know?”

“Not much about the Proudfoots themselves, I suppose.  But some of my dearest friends are among them.  It was a Brandybuck that first told me about Grandmother Hallie’s father while I was wintering all the way over there.  I suppose if Mother weren’t on such cold terms with all of you I’d have gone to High Hole instead; there was a spell of illness over here and while I was away from home we got snowed up.”

“Oh.  So is that what made you curious—all those great deeds of Meriadoc the Magnificent that those folk love—they put far too much stock in them, by the by.  Because if you want to hear anything along those lines I’m afraid we’re quite dull by comparison.”

“I do appreciate a bit of dullness now and then, much as my mother fears for me, Aunt Foxglove.  But as to your question—well, yes and no.  Of course I wanted to know why Mum wouldn’t tell me I had a hero’s blood in me, though I’d already guessed her reasons.  And anything a Brandybuck says is going to stir the fancy of a child.  But this was all years ago and there wasn’t much I could learn—or learn that I could learn—about my dad.  I didn’t get thinking about that until I saw the mathom room.  I’d always wanted to know.  It was just hard to find out how.”

Kira reached to take another sandwich, when she realised that there were none left.  A serving hobbit whisked the dish away and came back with a plate full of steaming cramson bread, with clotted cream and jam.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure where to start,” said Aunt Foxglove after they had taken one apiece and started eating again.  “What has your mother told you?”

“Not much by way of detail.  That he was a good hobbit and very dear to her.  She has much more to say on the topic of you—by which I mean the rest of his family.”

“Oh?”

“It’s rather what you’d expect—too fine for us, which I know is false, for we may not be our best but we’re still not working class—too caught up with their airs, too cruel to him—”

“What?  Why would she say that about us?”

Kira shook her head.  “It—I don’t know—I mean, I don’t know what terms he was on with the rest of the family before he died.  I’d always thought they’d wanted him to set out on his own, make something of himself, and it was too much for him and—”

“Goodness, no!  If you’re talking about the farm, that was his idea, poor dear!”

“What?”

“Lagro—he wasn’t well all the time, especially when he was young.  We had a doctor look at him and there was something wrong with his heart.  He was never useless—far from it—but he didn’t take to the tasks that would have been best for him.  Father—that’s your grandfather Blanco—always wanted him to go into the law, or something like that, but he didn’t like that sort of thing.  He was always very practical, your father was, and didn’t much care for the niceties of life that are part of High Hole.  But he didn’t want to sit about idly, either.  I think he thought if he worked hard enough he’d be able to overcome his condition.  So he often helped out the farmhands, and always used to bring in the sweetest apples when they were harvesting the orchards, and watched the cider press.  For a time I thought he’d go into brewing—but then he met his match in your mother and things changed.”

“How so?”

“He told me one night when he was courting her that whenever he came back home after seeing her everything felt false—there was too much veneer, he said.”

“What’s veneer?”

“A thin slice of wood, polished fine, laid over a lesser specimen to make it look better.  Not that we had anything veneered at home—Proudfoot money is too old for that—but when I told him that he threw a cushion at me.”  She smiled.  “I didn’t understand him at the time—I was still far too in love with all the fine, little, pretty things—I still am—but when I married Wilcome I began to.

“Anyhow, the more Lagro fell in love with your mother the more he fell out of love with his home.  Finally when he told Father of his plans to marry her he realised he’d dropped all intention to stay anywhere in the Westmarch.  He wanted to go back to the Shire proper, and he wanted to strike out on his own.  Maybe he still did have plans as a ciderer, but an orchard and a press take time and money, more money than I’d imagine Father was willing to put into his prospects if he was going to turn around and try and leave the family behind altogether—which it certainly appeared he would.  So Father offered him the old hole, to the south of Michel Delving, and the field attached to it, for his own; and said that if he wanted to do anything with the money he made from that he was free to, and if he needed help he was free to ask for it.  My brother Sancho didn’t think he’d take the offer, or at least if he did he’d hire help.  But Lagro was unusually stubborn, and I think he was rather tired of being treated as if he couldn’t work hard with his hands.  So he took it, declaring that he and his wife would start a new life together, come what may.  I only saw him twice after he moved to the Westfarthing, and he seemed truly happy, even if he was leading a far harder life than he needed to.  He never came asking for help, either, though he wrote every month or so to let us know how he was doing.”

Kira smiled.  “That’s right—he could read and write, couldn’t he?”

“Yes, he could, though he never saw any reason for it beyond the practical.”

“Mother told me he scoffed at your grandfather’s tales.”

“We all did—secretly—but he was the most sceptic out of all of us.  And I think Polo always squirmed a bit when we did, too.  It was just part of growing up, you see.  Not that they weren’t marvellous tales, but they were so fantastic that it was a little hard for anyone to swallow them except the very young.  We all know now that there’s more to life than just what goes on in the Shire, but how much of the tales were embellished and how much were real I can’t say.  I don’t think old Merry was cracked anymore, even if we liked to think we did then.”

“That’s good.”  Kira lowered her voice to a whisper.  “I’ve got a little side business telling the same tales to the children in the area.  Mother still hasn’t found out, for she’d have my hide if she did.”

Foxglove widened her eyes.  “That’s… very…”

“Uncharacteristic?  I’m afraid that without a father to guide me I looked a few generations back and took my cues from the Magnificent himself.”

“Goodness!  I had no idea that you’d grow up to be so—so…”

“Scandalous, I believe, is the word.  I try to be quiet about it, though.  I grew up with too much order in my life.”

“Well, I can’t say that Lagro would approve of it.  I certainly don’t.  But maybe he’d understand your wanting to do more.  I imagine, that with the way he died, your mother didn’t want you overexerting yourself?”

“Of course not.  She was right, though; I was and still am weak.  But spinning a few idle tales isn’t the same as breaking your back on a farm, is it?”

“I suppose not—still, do be careful, Kira.  I should hate for you to share in your father’s fate.”

“I will.”

The bread course was finished, and to finish Kira and her aunt were treated to fine small sugar cakes, covered in delicate icing.

“I am glad to know that you are well,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “Though perhaps a little different than I’d expected.  There’s nothing you or your mother want, is it?  I can’t imagine life is quite easy gardening for a living.”

“We’re managing,” said Kira.  “I’m sure you know your brother still helps us out a little, and on top of that we’ve started receiving help from a mystery giver.”

“A mystery giver?  Who in the Shire could that be?”

“The letter says if we try to find out we’ll stop getting help.  Which I’m sure would suit Mother’s stubborn neck just fine but I’d rather keep it for now.”

“Someone is sending you money anonymously?”

Kira nodded.

“And you probably have your guesses as to who it is?”

“I do, but I’d rather not have the giver come into the open just yet.  It could be anyone, really.”

“Then I’m glad to know that you have some sort of help.  I’ve often worried about you two, living all alone like that.”

“I do have plenty of friends, and we do visit with her side of the family, you know.”

“Of course.  I do forget these things sometimes.  Still, I’m glad to have gotten to know you a little bit better, Kira.  We shall have to visit again sometime.”

“Will you be here for the Free Fair?”

“Yes, and at least Sancho should be here as well.”

“We should try to visit then.  Though I have a bit of a reputation for visiting those I oughtn’t during the Fair.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, you know—Brandybucks, Fairbairns, Dwarves—”

The look of shock on Aunt Foxglove’s face made Kira wonder if perhaps she should have left off at the “Brandybucks”.  “Well,” said she, “my husband has probably finished with his business for now, which is just as well for I don’t think I could eat another bite.”  There was one cake left on the stand.  Kira took it.

“As I said before, I’m very glad you wrote to me.  I shall have to think of some good stories of your father for the Fair.”

“Thank you, Aunt Foxglove.”  They rose, and Kira embraced her much more willingly than she had at the start of the interview.  Her aunt held the door for her as she left the bakery.  Outside stood a hobbit whom Foxglove introduced as her husband, Wilcome Cotton.  Kira took his hand and shared a few words before bidding farewell to both of them.  But after she had turned a corner, she stayed and peeped back at the couple.

“What do you think of her?” Mr. Cotton said to his wife.

“She’s rather strange,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “But I think I like her, and not just for Lagro’s sake.”

And those words were enough to put Kira in a good mood for the rest of the day.

“How was the meeting?” said Mother when Kira returned to the herb-cart as it was closing for the day.

“It went well.  Aunt Foxglove said I could see some of our relations at the Free Fair if that’s all right with you.”

Mother thought about it, and that was enough for Kira.  Midyear was a month away, and that was more than enough time for her to make up her mind.  Kerry and Sandra and Merina would be there, too, as well as at least some of the Gardners—and the Dwarves!  Kira smiled to herself as she went to sleep that night.  If she could avoid getting found out, this might end up being one of the best Fairs yet!

Chapter Six

 

All the month of June Kira mapped out what she would do over Midyear.  In years past she had usually been able to sneak in at least one meeting with a bookish acquaintance, and she had only overstepped her reach once, eight years ago, when the Dwarves had at last returned and she had been too eager to explain to Fírin how everything made sense now.  She would have to be cautious.

Tale-telling was not uncommon at the Fair; after all, there were so many children running around that they could be up to no good without someone to keep them distracted.  But never had she heard any stories that she herself knew were true—though there were several embellished versions floating around.  The Mad Baggins tales had not yet lost their appeal, and probably never would—as unjust as they were.  Kira would limit her endeavours to the daytime, after she had closed up shop or while Mother was running it.  Mother rarely stayed out at nights anymore, so although Kira expected a thorough questioning on what she had done (and whom she had met) it would not be too difficult to slip off then.

First Lithe none of the Brandybucks or Fairbairns would be in town yet, but Aunt Foxglove would be and quite possibly some of her relations as well.  She remembered her aunt’s account of brother Polo squirming as his siblings roundly denounced the great legends and wondered if he too had fallen to Kira’s blessed curse.

Midyear’s Day was the busiest of the four, though Overlithe came in as a close second.  Perhaps she could claim exhaustion at the party, avoid Daffodil’s well-meaning help at finding her suitors to please Mother (at which request Daffodil had smiled most inconsiderately and asked her why bother since she already had one), and…  but Kira rarely articulated that plan, even to herself.

That left Overlithe and Second Lithe to spend time with the Families and possibly get a few introductions to show her mother.

Her head teemed with ideas surrounding her release.  Once she had thought about telling Daffodil or Roly, but the veil blew against her mouth and dried her tongue.

*  *  *

Help for the month came in from both sources, but the mystery hobbit never reprised the gift of gold.  A few silvers did not go amiss, though.  Kira and her mother once again worked on culling the finest samples for competition and sale within the Fair.

Tom was well enough, which meant he was quite irksome.  Only once she caught him looking at her as she pulled water from the well.  It was only for an instant, but she dumped the bucket on him nonetheless and asked what his head was doing in the clouds rather than firmly planted in the manure where it belonged.  When she was finally alone she could still feel her flesh burn where his gaze had rested.  How, how could such an unbearable ass as he be attracted to her?

A week before the Fair Mother gave her permission to visit with her aunt once more.  Three days prior she received a letter from Mr. Gardner intimating a meeting of extreme importance which she was to make at all costs or suffer the consequences of being Most Impolite.  Mother did not give permission for this meeting, but it was too late to give any response that would reach him on time (so Kira said, so that she could deliver her regrets in person).  On the last day of June she received a fine note in the whitest, softest paper she had ever seen, inscribed upon in gold and silver ink.

Mr. and Mrs. Caradoc Brandybuck                                                                                                                 and Mr. and Mrs. Elfstan Fairbairn

 cordially invite you

to witness the Union

of their Children, 

Kerimac and Sandra,

in Marriage

The Ceremony is to be held in the Party Field in Hobbiton, upon Thursday the Twenty-Second of September at Two O’Clock in the Afternoon.

A Feast will be provided afterwards, featuring Food, Dancing, and General Merriment honouring the new Couple.

Please send Notes of Acceptance or Regret by no later than the Fifteenth of July.

 

“The Warden’s daughter marrying the Master’s son.  It’s the wedding of the decade,” Kira said after she had read it to her mother.

“And if you’re only talking to them for the sake of politeness you’re doing a terrible job of it.  I know who these people are and I know what they want to do with you.  At times like this I’d like to place propriety on a shelf and cut them altogether!”

“You’re invited too, you know.  I wouldn’t be surprised if half the Shire is.  And you know the feast will be—”

“The feast has nothing to do with it!  You want to go to this wedding, don’t you?”

It sounded too much like an accusation.  Kira let the truth out, and cursed herself as she did.  “Of course I do.  They were kind to me, when they didn’t even know me, they gave me a gift—”

“Which did you much good—”

“Which improved my health, and they’ve found joy in each other, joy that they need, and you don’t want me to see them wed?  Let me go at least for them, if not for me!”

Mother sat down next to her and took both her hands.  “Sweetheart, their gift nearly got you killed.”

Tom nearly got me killed.  I don’t see you cutting him, though heavens know it’d help me.”

“Tom may have been rash, but at least he’s got sense in him—”

“And if that’s what you think sense is then I’d rather go mad!”  Kira dropped the invitation on the floor, knocking over her chair with her crutch in her haste to get up, and stalked down the hallway to her bedroom.

“Kira!”

She slammed the door and flounced upon her bed, letting herself cry.

An hour later Mother opened the door a hair and asked to come in.  “I thought you were past this sort of thing,” she said, quietly, regretfully.

“It’s just a wedding.  I’ve tried to bend myself to your will all these years, and you never reward me by—”

“By giving you what you want?  Kira, you know that what you want and what you need aren’t always the same thing.  I’ve seen you with these people, seen what they do to you.  It’s like telling a child not to touch fire.  It may be a sight lovely to look upon, but I can’t bear to see you get burnt.  Only a child learns after he’s touched it once, and you—”

“Mother, if you’d seen the things I’ve seen you’d want to go back, too.”

“Even if you know you’ll get hurt?”

“Even then.  But Kerry and Sandra—they’re not the folks who cause that.”

“That’s funny.  I thought your acquaintance with Kerry is what started all these problems.”

“They wouldn’t have been problems if others hadn’t made them so.”

“Kira, I don’t want us to be at odds with each other.  You know I love you and I’m only looking out for you.”

“I know.”

“And so I have to keep you from these people, if you can’t do it yourself.  They may be nice people, but they’re not what’s best for you.  I can’t let you go to this wedding.”

“I understand,” said Kira, and the worst part was that she did.

She cried again when she went to sleep, but this time her tears were not hot but bitter.

*  *  *

But morning dawned and it was First Lithe and there was work to be done and life to be lived.  The entire walk up to Michel Delving was transformed with carts, tents, and hobbits, and Kira was grateful that she had managed to stable Nienna in town before anyone could discover her.  First they dropped off their entries for judging, then they took the cart out from storage (very difficult, as at the same time other people were trying to set up their own wares in the empty rooms and the tunnels themselves) and wheeled it out, away, to the makeshift bannered avenues west of town.

It was especially hard to keep up business in the grocer’s district, when all kinds of new smells were wafting their way over to one’s nose.  Normally Kira was able to stop thinking about it, but during the Fair sellers from all over the Shire set up shop, and ready-food stands abounded regardless of what was being sold nearby.  Kira thought she would go mad every time the wind blew the smells of freshly frying meat from the nearby sausage cart towards her.

But Kira was an old hand at selling, so she could afford to let herself get a little distracted.  In anticipation of the greater flow of traffic they had dried herbs on the cheap for ready use as well as their regular fresh fare, and semi-dry wreaths and braids for those who wished to buy in bulk.  As the morning drew on she let herself get caught up in the flow of society and the sight of fresh faces, and Mother came by to relieve her much sooner than she had anticipated.

The first thing she did, of course, was go to that infernal sausage stand and relieve her hunger.  They did have less to sell compared to other years, but when Mother checked the till she declared immediately that Business was Good and handed Kira one and a half pennies to spend as she pleased.  After a couple of sausages, an apple, and some sort of griddle cake, she found she had three farthings left and decided to roam the rest of the grocers for strange finds.

For one thing, this was one of the few times that one could find game for sale in a Shire market.  It was not that rabbits and fowls were uncommon fare, but usually friends or family went out a free afternoon to do the work.  And a place as settled as the White Downs held none of the larger game.  So it was that Kira looked forward every year to the stand that held such novelties as cured venison, turkey, or even pheasant.  Fingering her coin in her hand, she stared at the strange meats for sale until, shaking her head, she turned and stumped away.  She did not know what Mother would say if she came back home with a deer haunch and did not fancy finding out.

But there, tucked back among stands of cabbages and greens, was the most peculiar-looking shop she had ever seen.  It was a waggon—a regular cart, even, and one that had seen much use, but only the back was facing the lane and little of that was being used.  On a small stepladder used for loading were a number of small glass jars, and sitting on the waggon itself was a hobbit with a straw hat and a weathered face.  Curious, Kira drew closer to peer at the bottles.  They were filled with what looked like some sort of grain.  She picked up a blue bottle with black kernels and peered at it closer.

“Careful with that,” said the hobbit, “that’s worth at least a silver right there.”

Kira immediately set it down.  “What is it?”

“Pepper,” he said.  “Or at least so’s I’m told.  Not that I don’t trust my merchants, you know, but—”

“You could find out.  There’s an import shop here; I think they sell pepper along with everything else…”

“Oh.”  The hobbit’s face fell.  “And here I was thinking I was the only one selling fancy spices from the Southlands!”

Kira thought quickly.  “I don’t think they had as many different—spices, you said?—there as here, though.  They specialise in other things—sugar, coffee, tea.  I haven’t been in there much.”

“You’re a local, then?”

“You could say that.  I live about an hour’s walk south of here.  Michel Delving’s our main market, my mum and I.”

“Well, I don’t have a market.  I’m normally on the road, I am—”

“Are you a driver?”

“Beg pardon?”

“You take goods across the Shire for those that can’t enter it.”

“In a manner of speaking—”

“Oh, it’s quite all right.  I’m not afraid of you or anything.  I always thought it a little romantic, to tell the truth.”

“Oh, now, don’t be ridiculous, sweet.  It’s just a line of work like any other.  You’d be surprised—Big Folks aren’t terribly different from the rest of us.”

“I’m not, actually.  But what are you doing selling spices?”

“There’s nothing like changing things up a little now and then, I say.  I got a particular fine job a few months back—nice pay, small load—and asked what was so fine in there that they could afford to pay me so good.  Turns out there’s folks beyond the Bounds who’d be willing to pay an arm and a leg for what I’ve got here.  I’ve even heard tell that they use these things for coin outside the King’s realm.  So, I thought to myself, ‘there’s a fair or two coming up, and maybe some folks as would like to try something new,’ and I had the money for it, so I bought me a set off another merchant and decided to try my hand at selling them here.”

Kira picked up another bottle, this one filled with what looked like a very thin bark.  “I’m very impressed,” she said.  “But haven’t you lived here long enough to know that no one ever wants to try anything new here?”

“Well, you have to start sometime!  You can’t tell me that we never built above ground, nor that we always smoked weed, nor that we never used the King’s coin.”

“We don’t.  Usually we just use the same old Dwarven stuff from before the King returned.”

“All right then.  You can’t fault me too much; I didn’t grow up here.”

“You’re a Breelander!”  Kira’s face lit up with delight.  It did explain his accent, which now that Kira thought about it was actually somewhat close to how the Brandybucks spoke.

“Not too loudly, now.  Thought you’d know that, though what with me being a driver and all.”

“I’m sorry to draw unwanted attention, Mr.—”

“Underhill.  It’s all right, though; no harm done.”

Kira set the bottle back down and picked up another.

“Really?”

“Really what?”

“Underhill.”

“Yes, that’s my name, and don’t go knocking it.”

“I wasn’t.  Anyhow, I appreciate your optimism, but I can’t imagine your business has been exceptional so far.”

Mr. Underhill looked left and right.  “You’re the first one that’s come by.”

“You need something bright.  Maybe a yellow tablecloth.  And if you can move the cart farther from sight that might help as well.  And since folk who’d be willing to try something new are more likely to be lettered, you might want a sign as well.  If not, you need to work on your shouting.  Have you ever tried selling at a market before?”

“Well, no, not exactly.”

“People might be curious enough as soon as they see that there’s something to be curious about—well, children, at least.  If you can get them close enough and start talking, then you might be able to get a sell or three.  Especially the gentry; they’re always bent on impressing each other.  See, this I know I haven’t seen at the import shop before.”  She gestured to a jar containing what looked like the wilted remains of black flowers.

“That’s cloves,” he said.  “Smells marvellous if you’ll open it up.”  He uncorked the top; Kira almost took a step back after she caught a whiff of the jar’s contents.

“Right, so tell folk about that.”

“And that ain’t even the half of it!”  Mr. Underhill was starting to warm up.  “Here, take a look at this.”  He drew from his waistcoat pocket a small metal box and opened it.  Inside were a few frail, golden threads of something.  “Most expensive spice out there, very strong, too.”  Kira leaned forward to smell it, but he snapped it shut and put it back.  “Can’t have you blowing it away, now, can I?  There’ve been wars fought over the fields that grow this.”

“So your merchants tell you?”

“Well, yes, but it’s a wondrous colour.”

“It is.  So, what sort of spice are you willing to give me in return for the candid advice I’ve given you?”

“Hum,” said Mr. Underhill.  “I’m afraid you aren’t going to give me a fair deal.”

“Nonsense!  You’ll make it back up in a few hours’ time, I’m sure!  And if you have to deal with Men all the time I’m sure you can haggle for all you’re worth.”

“Then you know I’m not going to give you any of this for free.”

“Ah, but at a discounted price?  And I’d prefer something that can’t be gotten at the import shop, too, if that’s possible.”

“Why don’t you take a look for yourself, then?”

“I take it the yellow thing is off limits?”

“Unless you’ve got silver on you, yes.”

“Right.”  Kira looked through the various spices on the stepladder, until she found one that was most fascinating not because of it looked exotic, but because it looked somewhat familiar.  It was a small, brown seed, around the same shade as caraway or dill, though it was larger and rounder.  “What’s this?”

“I don’t quite recall…  Something like corimanna or coriander…  There’s a name pasted on the bottle.”

Kira looked at it, and found in a rather foreign-looking script the word corneänna.  It looked elvish.  “What if I take an ounce of that?”

“An ounce?  I should think that’d be at least one copper, lass.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!  I did you a favour!  Why, this looks like something I could get anywhere in a gardening shop!”

“Really?”

Kira uncorked it and smelled it.  “I said ‘looks,’ not ‘smells.’  You haven’t been had, but I have to wonder if this isn’t one of the cheaper spices on your list.  Remember, I was asking for you to give me a spice; I’ve already given you something.”

“Half a penny?”

“A farthing.”

“Half a penny.”

“A farthing, and I tell you the tale of Frodo Baggins vanishing into thin air in the Prancing Pony.”

“Hah!  You’re wrong, there!  That was one of my own relations that did that.”

“Was it, now?  Funny what a century will do to fact…”

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood today,” said Mr. Underhill.  “Give me your farthing, and explain to me how I don’t know my own family history.”

And so Kira found herself telling her first tale of the fair to a sceptical driver from Bree.

*  *  *

By the time she was finished three of her regular listeners had scouted her out and were dawdling nearby to hear her tale.  As soon as she walked away one of them darted up and began tugging at her skirts.  “Kira Lamefoot!”

“Hush!” said Kira.  Mother’s stand should not be in earshot, but she did not want to take any risks.  “Mundo Rumble, how kind to see you again!  Are your cousins in town as well?”

“Yes, and we’ve been having a wondrous time!”

“Excellent.  Are you following me because you want another story?”

Mundo grinned.  “Maybe.”

“Imp.”

“How well do you remember the faces of those that were at the Tree Party?”

“Well enough.”

“See if you can find as many as you can, and tell them that if they’d like a story they should talk to their mums and dads and meet in back of the Mathom-house at three o’clock.  The Town Hole’s clock will be chiming to let you know.”

“Right!”

“And no need to mention my name.  Just spread the word that there’ll be stories at three in back of the Museum.”

“Right!  Mat, we’re getting stories from Kira Lamefoot again!”

“Hurrah!” cried a small voice a few feet behind.

Kira sighed.

*  *  *

She found Daffodil and Roly in the press of hobbits leading up to the Event Field, where the races would be starting soon.  Roland was pointing at something in the distance, and she could see—not hear, for the noise of the crowd was too great—Daffodil laughing, her light brown curls bouncing in the air.  For the briefest moment, gazing upon the pair, Kira felt something in her heart surge, but what it was she could not say.  She shook her head and walked up to them.

“Kira!” cried Roly.  “How’s business?”

“Busy,” said Kira, “or at least it was when I got off.  You’d have no idea how exhausting talking to hobbits is—not until you’ve been at it for three hours and finally gotten yourself a break!”

“Have you come to see Tom, too, then?” said Daffy.

“Tom?  Oh, that’s right, he’s in one of the races again, isn’t he?”

“First one of the set.  I’d have thought he’d have told you half a dozen times.”

“Maybe I just wasn’t listening to him.”

“Oh, come, Kira,” said Roly, “that’s not very nice.”

“I’m sorry!  You know how things are strained between us.”

“Oh, not this again,” Roly groaned.

“Just tell me Tom didn’t give you any money to bet on him.”

“He did,” said Roly.  “I put it on Buckland, though.”

“Did you, now?”

“They win over half the time!”

“Roly, Tom is going to have your hide when he finds out.”

“Not when I bring back his earnings, he won’t.”

Daffodil sighed.  “Lads.”

“I quite agree,” said Kira.

“Oh, don’t the both of you look grown up!”

Kira snorted.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing—I was just remembering your face at the Tree Party, when Daffy and I took off—”

“And if my sister ever does that again, I shall box her ears.  You are a terrible influence on her behaviour, Kira.  To think of my own sister debasing herself—”

Daffodil laughed.  “You were as red as a beet, Roly!  And if we want to talk debasement I have a number of good stories which I’m sure Kira, not having a brother herself, would find quite fascinating…”

Roly turned red once more.  Kira only smiled to herself, knowing full well exactly which stories Daffodil was talking about, for of course she had told Kira every one of them when they had happened.  “Let’s get to the field,” said Roly.  “We wouldn’t want to be late, would we?”

But just then they heard from a distance the short, sharp call of a trumpet and a swell of noise as the race began.

“No, we wouldn’t,” said Daffy, and together they pressed their way through.

Kira went first; they had learned long ago that being a cripple, especially one with a pointy crutch, cleared a pathway faster than otherwise.  At last they made their way to the front of the throng, just in time to see Tom go thundering by on his family’s pony.  Daffodil tugged at Kira’s sleeve.  “Maybe you should wave a handkerchief or something.  Might make him go faster!”

Kira whacked Daffy on the arm.

“Or slow him down with distract—ouch!”  Kira had dug her crutch into Daffodil’s right toe.  “What was that for?”  She turned and saw the look on Kira’s face.  “Oh, right.  Sorry.  Just having a little bit of fun.”

“Don’t,” said Kira absently.  “At least, not at my expense.”

“Who’s in the lead?” Daffodil asked her brother.

“Can’t quite tell, they’ve made some laps without us.”  A cluster of ponies galloped by again; Kira had to shut her eyes against the dust.  “Judging by the cheers, though, I’m guessing Buckland’s ahead.”

As Tom came around the bend this time, his pony got a new spurt of speed.  Kira desperately hoped he had not noticed her.  Another two laps, and he was one length behind the rider from Buckland.  The crowd roared.

“That’ll be the last lap,” said Roly.

Despite her brother’s wager Daffodil began cheering Tom on.  So did Roly.  Kira remained silent, and kept her eyes upon the two riders making the final bend in the track.  Thus it was that when a gust of wind pushed the caps of both riders from their heads, she was one of the first to see the long, dark brown locks blown free from Buckland’s rider.  Buckland easily crossed the finish line, with Tom following soon after, but the crowd’s attention was not on the race itself anymore.  Buckland slowed down to a walk, the rider smiling broadly in the exhilaration of victory, when her hand unconsciously went to her cap and found it missing.  Immediately her smiling expression turned to one of shock.

“Merina!” said Kira.

“What?” said Daffodil.

“Who is that?  Do you know her?”

“My ostentatious, scandalous, good-for-nothing, little, cheating vixen of a Brandybuck cousin!”  Kira laughed.  “I don’t know whether to strike her or kiss her!”

“Oh,” said Roly.  “You’re related.”

“Only second cousins,” said Kira.  “Believe me, she makes me look dull by comparison.”

“Clearly,” said Daffodil.  “What happens now?”

“Well, she would have won,” Kira said.  Just then, in the distance, the Mayor took Tom’s hand in his and raised it into the air.  The crowd cheered.  “Of course, since it’s against the rules for a girl to jockey…”

“I paid silver on her!” said Roly.

“Cheer up,” said Kira.  “At least it wasn’t yours.”

Halfway into the next race Tom elbowed his way through the crowd to join them, a small, fat purse in his hand and a wide grin on his face.  First Daffodil hugged him, then Roly, and finally Kira, though she broke free from him as soon as she could.

“It’s a good thing Buckland was cheating this year,” said Tom.  “Though I always said it wasn’t fair for them to enter the contest to begin with.”

“That’s just because they beat you all the time, Tom,” said Kira.

“So they should have their own race!  Anyhow, it all worked well this time, and with that money you put on me, Roly, I should have more than doubled my earnings!”

“Actually…” said Roly.

“And I believe that’s my cue to leave,” said Kira.  “Good job on your winning, Tom!”  And she actually went up on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek before turning and making her way through the crowd to find the stables and Merina.

Already she could feel her face burning as she left the crowd behind.  Idiot, idiot, she thought as she stalked away.  You don’t fancy him, you’ll just encourage him—oh, but if she could have seen the sweet confused expression on his face, added to stunned fury as he realised that Roly had bet on the winning candidate and lost!—No, I said I wouldn’t use this against him, and I shan’t, I shan’t—Kira stood still for a moment to compose herself.  Well.  It was done, and she would have to deal with its consequences later.

Merina was not at the stables, but her pony was, and the hobbit who was caring for him told Kira how her cousin had been marched off to the Town Hole in a huff for her infractions.  So Kira walked the extra distance to Town Hole and was just about to muster up the courage to listen in at the raised voices inside when it swung open and out stalked Merina herself, still in shirt and trousers.  Her eyes were blazing, but there was a certain pride in the way that her mouth twitched and Kira knew that she was enjoying every minute of it.  Without any preamble Kira took her by the hand and said, “I thought you weren’t due to show up till tomorrow.”

Merina was still too overwrought to notice at first that Kira was leading her safely away from where she might make a scene—too overwrought, even, to notice that Kira was there.  With a start she looked over and said, “Hullo!  Where did you come from?”

“From the races, of course, after the whole Shire saw what stunt you pulled!  Whatever will your father say?”

“Oh, I know he’ll have plenty of words for me when he shows up tomorrow.  I left him a note, you see, and he’s had a journey over halfway across the Shire to stew in his wrath.  I honestly expected him to ride up after me and drag me back… you know I’ve always said it’s a shame lasses can’t race.”

“So you left in advance of the others just to—what were you trying to prove, anyhow?”

“Nothing!  I wanted to ride!”

“Merina, honestly, I don’t understand how you can be so bright half the time and so pig-headed the rest!”

“Where are you taking me, anyhow?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“Could we at least head back to the stables?  I have some proper clothing there.”

“I suppose.  Can you try not to create any trouble there?”

“Kira, my dear heart, I never try to do anything.  It’s everyone else’s fault they see me as trouble.”

“And that, O Cousin, is a barefaced lie if I ever heard one!  Everyone knows you do half the things you do for the attention, and mark my words, someday it’s all going to explode in your face like a covered pot.”

Merina laughed.  “Hasn’t happened yet!  Anyhow, I did win, even if I didn’t fetch a prize for it.  Confound that wind!”

“Yes, and I’m sure that as word of your exploits spreads, half the lads in the Shire will call you a shrew and the other half will pine away with heartache.”

“What about the ones who do both?”

Kira sighed.  “Merina.”

“What?”

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that—that you’re juggling firebrands, or torches, or even fireworks, with all this?”

“Hum.  An interesting image.  Anyhow, it shouldn’t matter as long as you only touch the cool ends, should it?”

“Please remind me why we’re friends again.”

“Why, Kira, because all your other friends are far too dull!”

“Right,” said Kira, and she sighed.

The reached the stables, and from the relative privacy of a back stall Merina had Kira unpin the cloth she had used to bind her breasts.  “Ugh,” she said.  “You have no idea how uncomfortable that was getting.  If you’ll look in the saddlebags for me I should have a change of clothes.”

Kira did as she was bid and found neatly folded a shift, skirt and—“Is that thing leather?”

“Oh, you like my bodice, do you?  Very fitting, actually—it’s a nice alternative to all that wood or whalebone.”

“What about starch and canvas?”

“Not nearly interesting enough,” said Merina.  She picked up the shift and flung it over her head.  “I am, after all, the first and only daughter of Buck Hill; someone must set trends.”

“You are going to cause the death of so many perfectly innocent cows—”

“Ah, more steak-and-kidney pies for me, then!  Would you mind lacing me up?”

Kira complied, punctuating each tug at the laces with such epithets as “incorrigible” and “foolhardy.”

“Excellent!” said Merina when she was done.  “Shall we tour the wonders of the Fair together?”

“Actually, no,” said Kira.  “Unlike you, I have something rather constructive planned and I would rather your good-natured interfering didn’t distract me.”

“More tale-telling, then?”

Kira sighed.

“You never did tell me how that mysterious poem of yours went.”

“Terribly, as expected.  I think I’d best stick to children from now on.”

“Right.  Well, I won’t bother you with my good-natured interference if you don’t want it.  But don’t expect to see me the rest of the Fair if my father gets his way!”

*  *  *

In truth Kira was not pressed for time, but something in Merina was unbearably irritating today and she did not know why.  She was afraid, genuinely afraid for her, though it was clear that if anyone could get away with being Merina there was no hobbit better suited to the purpose.  And the tips of Kira’s lips still burned.

She would have to apologise to Tom—but what was there to apologise over if, as he claimed, there was no false hope to give him?  With a sudden moment of clarity she realised exactly what it would sound like—Tom’s own denial of whatever he had said at the Party.  And she knew he was lying then, so what if—

No, no!  She would not think about that.  And anyhow going by Roly’s talk Tom had as much as admitted his feelings for her—just not to Kira herself.  She thought back to the days—strained, but beautiful compared to this madness—when she could loathe Tom safely.

Drat!  Why did lads have to be lads and complicate things?

*  *  *

She was pleasantly surprised at the number of children who were already awaiting her in back of the Mathom-house.  Near the edge of the group lingered a youth whose image skirted about the edges of her memory, with a sort of open-faced goodness about him that she had come to associate with every descendant of Samwise the Stout-hearted.  Curious, she bridged the distance between them.  “I’m sorry—have we met?”

“Some time ago,” said the hobbit, “though never for long.  I understand; there are usually a lot of faces to keep straight in my family.  I’m Alder Gardner.”

“Harding’s eldest?” said Kira.  A smile spread across her face, and she took the hobbit’s hand.  “Well met!  But what are you doing here?  I’m sure that you get more than your fair share of history and tales at home.”

“And if you’re fond of tales not even that’s enough!”  Alder grinned.  “But I’m here more for craft than for learning.  My dad or my gaffer reads your letters aloud to all of us, you see, and I know what you’ve been doing—”

“If you’re talking about my minding other folks’ children, you should know better than to get yourself involved.  I’m only allowed to get away with it because of my pitiable condition and my inherent mothering instincts—neither of which advantages, I fear, you have.”

“Well, there’s that—but I was meaning more of the telling of tales themselves, weaving whole worlds from the power of voice alone…  I spoke to the Rumble brothers after you told us of them.  They say your storytelling’s like none other.”

“That’s very kind—but whyever would you need to spin tales when you’ve already got them laid out for you?  I know your family reads aloud from your copy of the Book.”

“Yes, but that’s only one book, only one story—and it’s all fine when it’s on paper, but when it’s in the air…  Dad read to the Rumbles from the Book and they said that it weren’t half so good as what you gave them from thin air.”

Kira shook her head, horrified.  “I could never compare to the talents of—”

But Alder continued over her.  “And besides, how else can I learn to tell the stories of our time?”

“Our time?  We don’t have any stories.  It’s all dull.”

“Oh, come, Miss Proudfoot!  Someone’s got to write of the tragedy of the Red Book of—”

A shadow fell on Kira’s face.  “Not that, please, I beg of you.  There are some things that are best left mouldering in the recesses of time.”

“If you say so,” said Alder, and his face maintained a certain pluck about it that made Kira want to cry.

“Please, Master Gardner.  If you have any respect for my craft you will leave my tale untold, and not just for my sake.  Posterity should not have to hear of our darkest hour.”

Kira was saved from having to argue further by the distant chiming of the Delving clock—one, two, three.  Composing herself, she swept up her skirts in one hand, her crutch in the other, and sat upon the grass some distance from the children.  There were at least four or five new faces—probably friends and relations of those she normally minded, in town for the holiday.  She would have to speak to them afterwards, if time remained.  She scanned the crowd for the face of the elusive Hal, but he was not there.

“I thought,” she said, “that we’d have a break from tradition today.  I know that normally we talk of such subjects as the Travellers and the heroic things they did to save their beloved Shire from Shadow, but in my press to make known the truth I often set aside other heroes, those who saved the Shire without ever leaving it.

“I am speaking, of course, of the Troubles, when Men entered the Shire and tried to make it their own.  Most of us did not fight back, at least not outright, because we did not know our own strength.  But some of us did, and some of us fought back in subtler ways, too—ways that Men knew and ways that they didn’t.  The latter stories, I’m afraid, have been lost to us—for we’re a quiet, unassuming people, and when we do what’s right we don’t like to parade it that much.  They were often small things—hiding food and sneaking it to those in need, playing at a bad harvest so the Big Folk wouldn’t think we had as much, and wouldn’t think to take more, succouring those who did resist outright.  But whenever Men could find these things out, and they did more often than I’d care to admit, they clapped those hobbits up in chains and put them in the Lockholes—the storage tunnels that we have over across the river.  If you look at where the dry goods are displayed and sold, that’s the burrow where they did it, and you can still see the holes in the doors where Men pounded the giant locks into them.

“So I’d like to tell you the story of some of the hobbits who wound up in the Lockholes—what they did to get there, how they were caught, and how they fared afterwards.  And do understand that since little of this was written down what I tell you may not be true in the way that the Travellers’ Tales are; these stories are gleaned from books but also from hearsay and family legend.

“Today I’d like to tell you the story of old Flourdumpling, the first to stand up against the changes that were happening in the Shire.  ‘Flourdumpling’ was not his right name of course; that was Will Whitfoot, a fine hobbit of Delving who had been Mayor for many years past.  He had gotten his nickname when there was a cave-in at the Town Hole—no one was hurt or anything, but the plaster dust from the walls coated him when they pulled him out of the wreck.  We still call the spot Town Hole here, but it’s actually above ground now, on the spot where the terrible accident happened, so maybe Town House would be a better name.”

She told them of Mayor Whitfoot’s foresightedness, how he was a sharp judge of the true motivations of folks—whether they really meant well or were only looking out for themselves—and how that made him a prime candidate for Mayor early in his life.  They said it was because his heart had been broken when he was young, and up until then he had been so gullible he’d dig straight down if you told him there was a dwarf-tunnel under his feet.  Anyhow it was a fact that he had never married, and when he died his estate passed to his sister and her husband.

So with Flourdumpling’s keen eye for the workings of others, he was the first to notice not only that Lotho Sackville-Baggins was up to no good, but also that his kind of ‘no good’ needed to be stopped, before it got out of control and began harming others.  Not that he could do anything about it until Lotho had actually done something wrong, and there wasn’t anything wrong in buying or selling (even if too much of that sort of thing was a sign of trouble).  Not even when Men came in lounging about the Shire could he do anything, for that was in the days before the Ban.  But “doing” was not the same thing “talking,” and soon Lotho and his hired Men suspected Will of mobilising the Shirriffs against the Shire’s unwanted guests.  To try and discourage him, the ruffians dug a channel to divert the course of the Ash river away from his property—presumably reducing its value, as if hobbits placed a high stock in such things.  Here the Mayor had his chance—for Lotho had been up until now paying back families for any damage that Men did to their property.  But since (as he said) it could not be proved that his Men diverted the river, Lotho refused to pay the Whitfoot family back.  This kind of legal mincing was just the excuse Will needed to put Mr. Sackville-Baggins back in his proper place, and so Will Whitfoot mounted his trusty pony to ride out to Hobbiton.

But sharp as Flourdumpling was, he wasn’t expecting the Men Lotho had let in to get violent, nor to lay hands on him on the road and lock him up tight within the Storage Tunnels.  Will Whitfoot was the first prisoner from the Troubles, and so he was stuck in the Lockholes (as they were soon called) the longest, with little food and less comfort.

Kira went on to explain how despite his age and ill treatment the Mayor survived the Troubles.  Since he had been caught before he could even get up to any mischief he fared better than some prisoners, but he was still quite weak and not fit for his job.  But after Frodo Baggins resigned his post as Deputy Mayor, Will took on another full term, and was gladly elected both for his previous skill and for the hardship he had endured, before he was replaced by his more famous successor Sam Gardner.

The children clapped for her when she was done and clamoured for more, but Kira winked and said that if they wanted more tales they would have to come back the next day.  It was hard disappointing them so, but she wanted them to come back tomorrow and the day after that and maybe bring some new faces along as well.  And the longer a crowd of children was sitting behind a building on the outskirts of town the longer they might be discovered by someone who would report her enterprise back to her mother.

Kira sighed.  This was getting ridiculous.  The more she wanted people to learn of her, the less she wanted to be discovered, and here she was, trying to get both when it was clear she could only have one.  It would almost be easier to run away from home and ramble the countryside telling tales!

She rose, firmly reminded herself of her place in society and family, and sought out Harding’s son for news of his father.

“That was hardly a fair sample of craft!” he cried.

“And the first rule of my craft,” said Kira, “is never to make a story any longer or shorter than it is.  I don’t have much information on old Flourdumpling and I won’t be caught telling the children lies, much as their parents think I do all the time.  At any rate I’ve only whetted the appetite for more tales tomorrow.  Now, if you don’t mind, could you tell me where your father is?  He sent a letter to me earlier…”

“No, I can’t,” said Alder, “but I can show you where we’re all put up for the Fair.  He may not be there now, but he should in the evening.”

I don’t have the evening, thought Kira, but she followed him anyhow.  The Gardners were set up in a large tent on the eastern side of town, not far, in fact, from where Kira had told her tales.  There were few about—a mother and child (one of Harding’s nephews or nieces, she supposed), and an older hobbit (though getting on in years, she would not call him “gaffer”) sitting smoking quietly in the back.  Smiling as Alder split off and began to rummage around in his pack tossed carelessly to the side, she knelt facing the fellow and took his hand in hers.  “Hullo, Mr. Gardner,” she said.

Holfast Gardner opened his eyes.  His face crinkled into a smile.  “Kira Proudfoot!” he said, around the stem of his pipe.  “And how are you doing, my dear?”

“Much the same as usual, I’m afraid.  Up to the same mischief of literacy and that pernicious thing we call ‘education’.”

“That’s very good to hear.  And is it your usual policy to bother old hobbits at rest by entering their abodes?”

“Oh, your grandson invited me in here,” said Kira.

“Alder?  He’s got a good heart.  He’s very fascinated with you, by the by—I’d almost say he idolised you, but he doesn’t know quite enough to decide whether that’s worth his time.  Ever since we ran into those brothers from Bywater…”

“I hope my dropping their names hasn’t been trouble to you!”

“No, no, far from it, bless their hearts.  And bless Alder’s, too!  I can only hope”—here Mr. Gardner took a long pull—“but never mind that.  We’re too stubborn and watchful to let anything like that happen again.”

“I only got Harding’s letter at the last minute,” said Kira.  “I suppose you know what it’s all about?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, whatever meeting it is, Mother won’t let me attend.  I figured I might as well deliver my regrets in person.”

Mr. Gardner chuckled.

“Of course you see right through me!  You know you’d have thought up the exact same tricks in my situation.”

“That’s just as well.  You probably wouldn’t have liked the meeting anyway.”

“Why not?”

“It dealt with the Tooks.”

Kira stiffened.

“Not with them, with them—just the matter of their having a great deal of uncopied material—”

“Which I could certainly help with the copying thereof, if only I could write and actually wanted to.”

“I told you you wouldn’t have liked it.”

“Why even invite me to such a meeting, then?”

“So you could deliver your regrets in person.”

Kira laughed.  “You really have got me figured out, haven’t you?”

“Perhaps.  I do admire your work, Kira, and I think there isn’t a thing you could be doing more than you’re doing already.  Sometimes I think your friends ask too much of you.  Meaning well, of course, but—”

“I know,” said Kira.  “And I won’t even be able to attend the wedding.”

“Oh?”

“I got the invitation but a day ago.”  She sighed.  “Mother said ‘no.’”

“That’s odd.  We got ours early May.  Hum,” said Mr. Gardner, pondering.  “Ah—I think I see what they’re up to.”

“What?”

“Just think—the Brandybucks, the Fairbairns, and you and your mother, all in the same town all at the same time, without any actual planning… that young Kerry is quite a clever fellow—he’ll go far as the Master one of these days.”

“What exactly are you on about, Mr. Gardner?”

“I think—I don’t know, but I think—your friends mean to get their parents, two of the most important hobbits in the entire Shire, to pull your stubborn and rather difficult mother aside one day and have a nice long chat with her.”

“Really?”  For the first time since the previous night Kira felt a bit of hope fluttering in her breast.  She remembered, long ago, when the Master of Buckland had pulled her aunt aside and persuaded her to let her read over the long winter months beyond the River.

“And maybe they won’t be able to accomplish anything with her, but it won’t be for lack of trying.  You do want to see this wedding, don’t you?”

“More than anything.”

“Hmm.”  Mr. Gardner sucked at his pipe.   “I wonder.  They will try, but things may not be easy.  After all, your mother has the final say on what you may and may not do until you come of age.  You may regret what decision they come to.”

“It won’t matter,” said Kira fervently.  “I’ve seen them skirting about each other for years, then courting—if I can see them happy together it will be enough.”

“I hope so.”

They did not talk for much longer, because the afternoon was wearing on and Mother would be closing up shop soon.  But on the way back to the grocers’ lanes she found her aunt Foxglove and promised her that she would see her in the Event Field after dinner.

She and Mother returned home to dine, for which Kira was most grateful.  She ate in complete and utterly glorious silence, savouring the taste of the loaf they had bought at the Fair—no baking on an early day like the Fair!—and the way its flavours mingled with the stew, brimming with the fresh taste of summer greens.  Mother did not appreciate that much, but they had talked all along the walk back home and during their cooking, and she knew her daughter’s habits well enough to let her sit and think if need be.

She had been happy that Kira had already discharged the business of giving the Gardners her regrets.  Of course the tale of Merina’s exploit spread like wildfire, but this time Kira was all too glad to say that she had shaken her cousin off at the nearest opportunity.  She hated to admit it, but sometimes the company she kept really did reflect poorly on her.  Poor Tom had actually been overshadowed in his win!—and Kira did not know whether to feel pity or pleasure at the fact.

Then there was the matter of that evening.  Though nothing formal was planned, hobbits who had not seen each other—sometimes since the year prior—loved to gather before the festivities of Midyear really kicked off.  Those who were skilled at music often brought their instruments with them, and there would be dancing.  Kira had already planned to go so that Daffodil would not feel as terrible being the only eligible lass, but she hoped to get off the hook with permission to see her father’s family.  And Mother had been thinking about the matter for a month now.

She only had to ask, and Mother said yes.  It was like breathing on an ember in her heart.  Maybe it would not be that difficult to attend the wedding, either.  But Kira stilled herself.  No use worrying about things that she had no control over, not yet.  She was only in her room for a few minutes, to compose herself and brush her hair, before kissing her mother and stepping outside again to walk back to town.  For the briefest moment she felt bad, leaving Mother all alone for so many nights in a row, while she went out and spent time—at least tonight—with the people whom Rosemary Proudfoot blamed for her husband’s death.  It took a lot of courage to let her go, she supposed.

She had thought, she thought as she walked over, of telling her Foxglove’s side of the story, but she didn’t think it would make any difference.  After all, Father was dead and there was no changing that, whether he was driving or driven to whatever had set him off.  And, she reminded herself, no one knew if he had been taxed too hard anyway.  She’d asked Dr. Grimwig about it once and learned that sometimes these things just happened.  That wound was too old for Kira to go about opening it again.  All that she could do about the matter was learn more for herself.  Maybe that’s why Mother was letting her go—she had realised that even if grief had silenced her own tongue all those years it didn’t mean Kira couldn’t listen to others.  It was a subtle change, but strong.  What had caused it, she wondered?

Oh, but the Proudfoots were merry folk at a fair!  She had only seen them before at High Hole, really, where all the varnish had gotten to her just as it had gotten to her father.  And she had only been there for solemn occasions, besides.  It was true, they (especially Sancho and his wife and children) were a little “high” at times, in ways that she had long ago expected Brandybucks and Fairbairns to be (and found herself pleasantly proven wrong), but Kira could see that they were polite and kind once she made it clear that she was making an effort to know them.  She did, at one point, see a cousin titter something about “poorer relations,” but he was silenced with so strong a glare from Sancho that she knew at once her uncle was all right.

As were all of them (barring the rude cousin).  Foxglove’s husband had a kind of solidity to him that she would have expected from a Cotton; Sancho’s wife was a bit too fancy for Kira’s tastes, but she was kindly; and Polo—suffice it to say that Kira had always wanted a daft bachelor uncle and was pleasantly surprised to find that she had had one all her life.  Not that he was as daft as her, but he smiled when she told him of her storytelling and even had a few tales to spin himself—personal recollections of The Magnificent and a few others that she tucked away for further use.  She did not hear much about her father, but it did not matter.  She still felt closer to him than she had ever felt before, surrounded by the people he grew up with and loved.  Sancho declared at the end that they must see one another more often and Kira found herself agreeing not just for her father’s sake.  As she walked home in twilight it occurred to Kira that she had spent almost an entire day in the company of others, and had not come out of it any worse for the wear.

Chapter Seven


Midyear’s Day had no clouds in the sky, plenty of birdsong, and Dwarves.  The sun kept Kira awake when they went into town early, and she and her mother spent the morning selling together, talking about the Proudfoots and generally being companionable.  Mother did actually listen to the nicer things Kira had to say about her father’s family, and Kira wondered aloud whether she would perhaps come out on Second Lithe and they could all visit together.  “I don’t know,” said Mother, her eyes growing distant and sad.

Kira squeezed her hand.  “I do appreciate your letting me visit them last night, Mum.  I know they bring back bad memories for you, but I never had those—just good memories, now, of what Dad was like.”

Rosemary squeezed her hand back.  Kira did not dare look at her face.

Part of why they spent the morning together, Kira was sure, was because the Dwarves were about.  It was an understandable precaution to take, Kira thought ruefully, although in this case Mother needn’t have worried.  She had schooled her face into perfect indifference, even when one of them walked up to their stand to procure some herbs.  Mother did not ask for their money.

At last, once all (or almost all) the dwarves had gotten their shopping done in preparation for the night’s feast, Kira was released for lunch and leisure.  She was off like an arrow from a bow.  She ate her meal on foot, looking about her eagerly as she wandered into the town proper.  At last she found one of the faces she was looking for—Kerry Brandybuck, pacing back and forth in front of the fabric shop.

He didn’t notice her until he’d nearly run into her.  “Hullo, Kerry,” Kira said brightly.

“Kira!”  He smiled, then ran his hand through his hair and glanced at the shop door.

“What are you doing?”

“Waiting.  I saw her for five minutes…”

Kira raised her eyebrows.  “Ahh,” she said.

“I haven’t seen her since April.  I knew they were going to use the Fair to plan out the wedding, but I didn’t realise they were starting this morning!”

“You haven’t been out here all day, have you?”

“Not all day—I’ve been wandering about.  But she said they’d be done at noon, and they’re still in there!”

Kira grinned.  “Leaving you, no doubt, to be sweetly tormented by thoughts of kissing her soft lips and running your hands through her hair.”

“Kira!”

“What?”

“You have a wicked, wicked mind!”  He paused.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Walk with me, then.”

“What if they—”

“Kerry, who is in the shop with Sandra?”

“Her mother.  And mine.”

“That’s three ladies in a fabric shop, deciding on material for a wedding.  What makes you think they’ll come out soon?”

“They’ve been there all morning!”

“And nine weeks won’t be enough to make all three of them happy.  Do you want me to go in and check on them?”

“No—no, that’s quite all right.  I’ll walk with you, Kira.”

“Good.”  She laid her hand on his arm.  “It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper chat.  And I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time with Sandra come sundown.”

He smiled ruefully.  “I suppose I can wait that long.”

They began to walk away from the main thoroughfares, to places where word was less likely to get back to Mother.

“Mr. Gardner told me of your clever plan.”

“Eh?”

“Sending the invitation late so you could talk Mother into letting me go to the wedding.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be right not to have you there—though I do have my doubts that we’ll be able to change her mind.  I take it she’s against your going?”

Kira nodded.  “She thinks I’m being far too friendly with you.  But I’ll go see you married—even if I have to run away to do it!”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that!  Dad was going to talk to her today, but he had to deal with a more pressing matter.”

“Merina?”

“The same.”  Kerry sighed.  “Where that lass gets her ideas I’ll never know.”

“The same place I get mine, I’ll imagine,” said Kira.  “Out of thin air!”

“Yes, but you don’t—”

Kira raised her eyebrows.

“You’ve got slightly more sense than she does.”

“By whose definition of sense?”

“Mine,” Kerry said firmly.  “And I should hope most people would agree with me.  Putting on trousers and pretending to be a jockey!”

“What happened to the real one?”

“She bribed him.”

“Oh?”

“With a kiss.”

Kira dropped her jaw.  “Kerry, that’s—”

“Only on the cheek, mind, or so she’s led me to understand.  Not that I wouldn’t expect her to lie to me to keep me off her back.”  He sighed.  “I’m sorry, Kira, but you’ve hit on the one subject that makes my blood boil, just a little.  I’m starting to wonder if I should ask my father to lend me the Magnificent’s sword.”

“Is it that bad?”

He shrugged.  “She’s actually got half of them scared off, for now.  But not for long.  She is very beautiful, and very well-formed, and she has quite an inheritance…”  He shook his head.  “Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only bachelor in the Shire whose head she hasn’t turned.”

“You’re not.”  They had finally reached the edge of the Fair, and they stood on a hill that overlooked pasture shining in the sunlight.  But for the faint noise behind them Kira would have thought they were deep in the countryside.  Kira sat down.  “Tom—Tom Whitwell.  The one that killed the Book.  He—”  Her voice caught.

Kerry was looking at her face, and as it burned she found herself wishing she had said nothing.  He put his arm around her shoulder.  “Kira…”

She gulped.  “And Daffy knows, and I think Roly does, too, but they don’t—they can’t—understand how much I hate the fellow, and I durst not tell Mother because she’ll think it’s good, and…”  Kira sighed.  “But I have made up my mind to enjoy myself, no matter what he thinks of me.”

“That’s probably all you can do.  You don’t think he’ll try anything, do you?”

“Tom?  No, he’s too scared himself.”  She laughed.  “He still hasn’t admitted anything to me—sober, at least—and I wonder how much he’s admitted to himself.”

Kerry laughed, too.  “Kira, when a lad is in love he knows it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this has been going on for years, actually.”

“Years?”

“Think about it—he tried to destroy the one thing that was pulling you away from him and your other friends.”

Did destroy—but that was so long ago!” said Kira.  “Oh, heavens…”  She buried her head in her hands.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything—”

“No, you should have, because that means this is serious!  He’s not going to move on from me in the next two years, not unless I do something—but what?”

Kerry shrugged.  “I’ve never been good at this sort of thing.  I got lucky with Sandra, and as for my sister—”

“Threatening him won’t work, especially since he still hasn’t said anything to me.  That usually only encourages him.  I’d have to break him, the way he nearly broke me, only I could never wish that on anyone, not even Tom.  And I shouldn’t know how to do it anyhow.”

“I shouldn’t want you to find out.  That fellow still needs a comeuppance of some sort, though.”

“Mr. Gardner said he’d do something.  But I never found out if he did, or if he did what it was.”  For a few moments she stared at the fields ahead of her, lost in thought.  “You should have seen the look on his face, though, when he realised he’d been beaten by a girl!”

“He was in the race?”

“Second place—first, when Merina was kicked out.”

“So he won, then?”

“Yes, but everyone’s talking about Merina instead.”  She smiled.  “Tom hates that.”

“That’s good, I suppose.”

“Did you see Merina this morning, or did your father whisk her away before you had the chance?”

“I had five minutes to make my displeasure known.”

“How was she?”

“More upset that she’d gotten caught than anything else.”

Kira nodded.  “Kerry, I—I worry for her.”

“Why?”

“She does these things, with no thought as to what might come of them!  It’s as if she thinks all life’s a sport, and in the end nothing matters.  Am I making sense?”

“I think so,” said Kerry.  “But you’re wrong.”

“Howso?”

“It does matter, to her, in the end.  In Buckland we have this saying: ‘Who laughs much feels more,’ and most people think it’s supposed to encourage you to be happy.  But that’s not what it means.  It means—the people who jest their way through life are actually deadly serious, only they don’t know any other way to deal with all that seriousness, so they have to laugh about it.  Kira, Merina cried when she found out that you had fallen in the river and were perishing with fever, and you know how she hardly knew you back then.  She cried when she learned of the loss of the Book, and she cried on and off for a month, a full two years ago, because she had to wait so long to be courted.  Whatever she does, Merina’s not doing it for attention.  She’s doing it for love.”

Kira shook her head.  “But no one’s going to love her at this rate.  She’s only courting disaster.”

“I know,” said Kerry.

“And you’re not going to try and stop her?”

Kerry sighed.  “I’m getting married in three months, hopefully we’ll be starting a family…  I don’t know if there’s anything I—or anyone else, for that matter—can do.  She’s too stubborn.  So… we just let things take their course, and hope everything works out.”

“The burned hand teaches best,” said Kira, morosely.

“I hope it won’t come to that.”

In the distance they heard the Town Hole clock chime two.

“We should head back…” Kerry said.

“They’re not going to be done!”

“You don’t know that!”

“Fine.  I need to go over my story for today anyhow.”  Kira stood up.

“You’re still telling those?”

“Of course!”  They began to walk back towards the Fair.  “This year it’s about those who fought back during the Troubles.  Do you have any good extra tales about Fatty that I should know?”

“Hmm,” said Kerry.  “The adventure of the echoing caves?”

“Memorised since I was thirteen.”

“How about the torchbearers?”

Twelve.”

“Do you know the full story about how they got caught?”

“They were smoked out.”

“Yes, but first there was a bit of a siege.  The full tale talks about eating bats for a week or two.”

“Bats?”  Kira shuddered.

“Not one to tell the children, I think.”

“Well, you can tell it to me later, and I’ll keep it in my mind for older audiences—if I ever get any.”

They were nearing the fabric shop.  “I’ll get to see both of you later on, won’t I?”

Kerry smiled.  “Maybe.”  He walked to the window and peeked in.  His face lit up.  A minute later and Kira saw why, as the door opened and Sandra stepped out, dressed in a rose-coloured skirt and matching straw hat.  Kerry heaved a sigh of relief.

“We’re almost done,” she said.  “I was just wondering if you could step in a moment, since we need to see which fabric fits your colouring…”

Run, Kira mouthed at Kerry.  He turned and gave her the sort of look she normally saw in snared rabbits.

Sandra followed his eyes.  “Oh, hullo, Kira!  How have you been?”

“Well.  I’ve been keeping him from going mad the past half hour.”  She looked at Kerry urgently.

“I hate to undo all your work, then,” said Sandra, taking her intended by the hand, “but since he didn’t want to elope we’d best be dealing with the consequences.  I’ll find you later, Kira!”  She waved sprightly as she re-entered the shop, but Kira could see just a hint of red about the eyes and was sadly reassured that, as usual, the choosing of fabric was nothing short of war.

*  *  *

The crowd of children was slightly larger this time, and again Alder Gardner sat to the side listening with an academic’s curiosity.  Just as she was about to start Rondo Grubb dashed up, huffing and puffing, and said that he hadn’t heard she was branching into newer material and wanted to hear as much as he could.  She introduced him to Alder and regretted it two seconds later as they launched into an enthusiastic discussion.

“Ladies and gentlehobbits,” she said, rather loudly.  Rondo and Alder immediately quieted, but some of the others giggled.  There wasn’t a face in that group whose father didn’t work for a living, and Kira wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I am glad to see that more of you could make it here today.  Are you enjoying the Free Fair?”

There was a smattering of whoops and hollers.

“How many of you are going to the feast tonight?”

This time everyone cheered.

“Well, true to my word, this is the only story I’m giving today, but if you wait until tomorrow, which is a very special day—who can tell me why it’s special?”

“It only happens every four years!” came a voice from the back.  It sounded like Iris, though that only led Kira to wonder how the girl hadn’t managed push through everyone else and get to the front row.

“That’s one thing.  Is there anything else that makes it special?”

“Dwarves!” said Mat Rumble.

“That’s right,” said Kira.  “They only come once every four years, and tomorrow they’ll be in the Event Field working hard all day to fix your parents’ pots and kettles for free.  And if your parents let you stop by, there are usually a couple with some tricky puzzles for you take home with you to try and solve.  They’re lovely folk so long as you’re not rude—just don’t be over-friendly with them if you don’t want Mum and Dad to get upset.  Can anyone tell me why the Dwarves come here every four years and fix things for free?”

Silence.  The children looked nervously at one another.

“They do this because they appreciate the things our folk did during the War, especially the deeds of Frodo and Samwise.  Now, as I said, if you wait till tomorrow I’ll have another story for all of you, and it’ll be a good and long one.  Today’s story, though, is one that I heard only last night, from my uncle, and it deals with one of my own kin.

“Sancho Proudfoot had a lot less sense when he was a lad than his parents liked.  His family had made its money from the chalk in the hills, so he had reason to be fascinated with excavation, but there’s ‘fascination’ and then there’s ‘folly.’  The story goes that when he was very young he started digging straight down, and when his mother asked him what he was doing he said that he wanted to find out what pulled everything to the ground.  Later he liked to pretend that dragons used to live in the Shire and had buried hoards, and tried to find them even in his family’s garden.

“Sancho grew up, of course, and grew some sense while he was at it, but he still remembered the lessons of his youth and knew a thing or two about digging.  So when he saw Will Whitfoot marched into the storage tunnels and locked up, he got to thinking, and thinking, and thinking.

“The Troubles affected everyone, though, and for a good deal of time Sancho was too scared to do much of anything.  After all, most everyone who spoke so much as a bad word to our unwelcome guests got nothing but grief for it.  But whenever he walked into town he saw the guarded doors to the tunnels, and once he even got up the nerve to peep inside a window and see how the prisoners were being treated, and so he began to think up a plan.  He called on Michel Delving’s two finest diggers, saying that the Proudfoots needed a Man-sized room in his hole so that if anyone important came through they’d be able to offer them hospitality.  But when they were in private, they began to discuss the possibility of digging their way into the Lockholes to set the prisoners free.

“They didn’t still get the nerve to work, though, till Fatty Bolger and his band of rebels were locked in, because Sancho knew they’d be treated terrible for all the grief they’d given the Big Folk.  Sancho had a head for numbers, and he knew the lay of the land well, so he was able to figure out where the tunnel should start and how it should turn if it was to come up in one of the cells.  They dug on and off for a month, nearly surfaced in the wrong place and were only saved by the sound of boots above their head before they dug up.  Finally they broke through, into one of the bigger rooms, and tried to get the rebel locked up in there to make a run for it.

“But the rebel said a funny thing—‘Not till everyone else is out, too.’  And Sancho thought about this, and he suddenly realised something terrible—if they were to let just this one prisoner out, there was a good chance of his getting caught again, and a chance of their getting caught again, too.  So he quickly dashed off, bought a loaf of bread from the bakery, and came back with it to feed the prisoner.  Over the next weeks he and his crew worked out which other places in the Lockholes they could dig to without risking the collapse of the whole hill.  All through the Troubles they kept working to feed the prisoners as best they could, and get to more of them.  They handed small trowels to the ones they had already reached, to make small holes between each chamber and then drop back down the main tunnel if discovery was imminent.  The Travellers returned before they could get to everyone, but they got to a lot, and made sure that no one starved while they were imprisoned.

“After all the ruffians were kicked out Sancho had the tunnels filled back in, and rarely spoke of what he had done.  But some of the places where they dug were filled too loosely, and over the years the ground there has sunk into little dips that you can hide yourself in when the grass is long.”

“Do you know where?” asked one of the lads up front.

“No, for I only heard the story yesterday.  But rest assured that as soon as this Fair is over, I shall begin looking!”  She paused.  “And yes, that is all I have for you today.”

The children clapped for her.  Kira smiled and looked over the group.  Then she started: there, sitting quite on the edge, was the small boyish face of Hal.  He had not been there before, she was sure of it, and she stood up to go to him.

She felt a hand on her arm.  “I think I’ve realised something,” said Alder.  “When you’re telling a story out loud you can actually talk to people, as if you were talking about this year’s flowers.  But when it’s written down you can’t just write what you’d say.  Maybe that’s why your storytelling’s different.”

“You’re probably right,” said Kira, “but if you’ll give me a moment—”  She turned to look back at the children.  Hal was gone.  “I’ll have to think about what you said,” she told Alder, and then she left.

But she could not find Hal, and she had to get back to her mother before she wondered where she was.  At least the lad really had taken an interest in her stories—but who was he?

*  *  *

On her way back to the herb-stand she saw that Mr. Underhill had followed her advice.  His waggon now jutted a little into the pathway, just enough to make people notice, and he’d covered it with a smart linen cloth.  There was still no sign, though—she wondered if he was lettered or not.  Maybe if she had a paintbrush she might be able to control her strokes well enough to make one, though she doubted it’d ever look better than a childish scrawl…

Kira’s hands twitched.  Sometimes she could feel the words, but there was nowhere to let them out.

Returning to the stand she put her arm around her mother’s waist and squeezed.  “Thanks for letting me out for a bit,” she said.

“Luncheon?”

“With Daffodil and Roly.  Tom was off gallivanting with the city lads.”

“Such big words you use, Kira!”

“Sorry, I don’t quite know where I pick them up!”

Mother laughed.  “Well, business has been quite steady in your absence.  I’m thinking we might close early and have supper at the Party while it’s still light.”

“That’s fine.  I know Daffy’s not quite looking forward to more meetings and dancing tonight, so it’d probably be best if I keep her company rather than focus on getting another sound meal.”

“Or if you do both, more like!”

“Well, there are worse ways one can spend an evening.  Come, you’ve been working all day.  Let me have the stand for a bit so you can relax.”

Kira sold herbs until Mother returned at six o’clock to close shop.  Then they made their way to the Event Field, where Kira was disappointed to find Tom already there—and the Burrowses nowhere in sight.  He was eating with his family, something that Kira saw rarely enough, but she did not know when he would finish.  She only glanced at him briefly before hurrying on; he did not look up.

The Burrowses found them and sat with them when they arrived.  Daffodil and Roly, who had not seen her since the races of First Lithe, gave her curious looks, but Kira studiously ignored them and hoped they would not say anything about Tom—at least, not with their parents in earshot.  They did not.  Kira went up for seconds with Daffodil, and promised to keep her company for the first hour of dancing.  “It feels as if I’ve been up since dawn,” she said, “so I don’t think I’ll stay for long.  But it’s not right to let you suffer alone.”

“It’s not entirely suffering, you know,” said Daffodil.  “Some of the dances are quite nice, if you can get yourself a good partner.  And you, Kira, promise me that you aren’t going to run off just to flirt with Tom again.”

Kira shook her head.  “Never in my life.”

When they got back to the table Mother and Mrs. Burrows were chatting; the way Mrs. Burrows glanced up at her and Daffodil Kira could guess the subject.  Suddenly she felt alone, strange, different—not because she was lame, not because she could read, but because there were only two in her family.  Flora was trying to sneak food off of Roly’s plate, and he was pretending not to notice.  She sat down.

“Kira, is everything all right?” said Daffy.

“Quite fine,” Kira replied absently.  She reached across the table to take her mother’s hand.  There was a certain dignity to her smile that came, Kira realised, from being widowed at such a young age.

“You’re distracted,” Daffodil continued.

“I often am,” said Kira.  She turned to look her in the eye.  “It just occurred to me how lonely I’ve been.”

“Well, there’s a party to remedy that!”

But Kira did not stay even her promised hour.  After Mother bade her farewell, telling her to have fun and be sensible, she stayed with Daffodil and talked with whoever stopped by.  Conversation only went on a minute or two before Daffodil was led out into the music, and then Kira was content to watch the weaving forms of hobbits.  Once someone, undoubtedly trying to be polite, failed to see the crutch sitting on Kira’s lap and asked her for a dance; when she showed him that she could not he slunk away in embarrassment.  But after Daffodil accepted two dances in a row from a strapping young lad from the Northfarthing Kira apologised, saying she was tired and needed to head home.  She hated to break a promise, but Daffodil forgave her readily enough.  “Better not to burden you with dead weight, eh?” Kira whispered to her.

“Kira!” said Daffodil.  “don’t say such things about yourself!”  But her eyes were shining and when Kira bade her farewell she said, “Thank you.”

Kira walked away from the Event Field and through the deserted streets of town.  But she did not head home.  Instead, she turned west along the Road and walked past the dim tents until she came upon the fires of the Dwarven camp.

For a minute she stood outside the firelight, suddenly unsure of herself.  Out of the thirty or so who came, she really only knew Fírin, and Dwarves were a strange people.  But, she reasoned, if she did nothing she would regret it for the next four years.  Taking a deep breath, she walked into the camp.

There was only one elderly Dwarf in sight, sitting next to the fire.  Kira cleared her throat and curtseyed low.  “Hullo,” she said.  “My name is Kira Proudfoot, and I should like to speak with Fírin, son of Fólin, if he is here.  He has known me for twelve years and I have not seen him in four.”

The Dwarf looked up at her, and she thought she saw a smile on his lips.  “Hail, Miss Proudfoot,” he said.  “Long has it been since one of your kind has sought us out openly.  You will find Master Fírin near the brook, doing the washing up.”

“Thank you!” said Kira, and hurried towards the creek that she knew flowed into the Ash just north of town.  Then she turned back.  “I thought that the Brandybucks normally cooked for you!”

“They do,” said the Dwarf.  “But they are not ordinary hobbits.”

“And neither, sir,” Kira replied with a small bow, “am I!”

The Dwarf chuckled to himself and returned to looking at the fire.

Kira was somewhat astonished to see the number of Dwarves sitting on either side of the water, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying.  She hung back, trying to study the craggy faces and see if she could find her Dwarf in the lot.

There was no need.  One of them looked up from his work to see her, rose, and said her name.  “Kira!”  He paused.  “You have changed,” he said.

“It’s been four years!” said Kira.

“Ah, but I forget that time passes differently among hobbits!  You must be nearly grown now.”

“Very nearly,” said Kira.  “Might—might I sit with you?”

“Of course!  Come here!”

Kira crossed the brook.  Fírin took her by the hand and raised it.  “My friends,” he said, “This is Kira Proudfoot, a fair-spoken young hobbit with a decided Baggins streak to her.  She would like to get to know us better this night!”

The Dwarves raised a hearty shout that sounded, to Kira, like a small avalanche.

“Really, sirs,” she said, “and ladies, if there are any among you…”  She faltered.  “I should most like to make your acquaintance, but if there’s any extra work that needs to be done I’ll be content to help with that.”

Most fair-spoken,” said one of the Dwarves next to Fírin.  “But I’m afraid the only things left to clean are the larger items.”

“That’s quite all right,” said Kira.  “You’ll be hard at work for us tomorrow; I may as well be hard at work for you tonight.”  The Dwarf nodded and walked to a stack of cast-iron pots and pans to bring some over to her.  They looked heavy, but as sturdy as one could wish and unlikely to undergo any mishaps—just like Dwarves, she supposed.  She turned to Fírin.  “A Baggins streak?”

Fírin merely raised his eyebrows.

“That family’s practically dead in the Shire—especially in Hobbiton.  I’m of little relation and very faint descent.”

“But you are related?”

“Bilbo is my first cousin, five times removed.  And Frodo is my third cousin, four times removed—going with the Proudfoot-Baggins connexion.  If you want to go by Brandybucks—”

“All right, enough!  I had forgotten the dangers of getting you folk on one of your pet subjects.”

The other Dwarf returned with a few pots and Kira readily got to work.  “So,” she said, “do you all have plans for the night?  Or is this just an ordinary night for Dwarves?”

“Oh, no,” said Fírin.  “We do celebrate Midyear.  It is not as important, perhaps, as it is to Hobbits, since we dwell within the earth—but it is important.”

“We live underground, too, you know—or we did, traditionally.”

“That is not the same thing.  I have seen your dwellings and, even if you were all Dwarves, you could not hear the heartbeat of stone from where you live.”

“You can’t grow food from a stone,” Kira said with a smile.

“And that is why our years of greatest glory have been spent in friendship with other peoples.  Would that we had realised this sooner.”

“So, what do you do for Midyear?”

“Not much, especially when we are on the road as we are this year.  But we have brought with us a few casks of our special ale, and there will be music later on—”

“—And dancing!” butted in the other Dwarf.

“I shall be happy to watch,” said Kira.  “And listen.  I would show you some of the dances my people have, but there is only one of me and I have only one serviceable leg.”

“I do recall seeing some of the hobbit dances, before we were rudely banned from the festivities,” said the Dwarf.  “They suited your people, but they suited me little.  You may, therefore, not like ours.”

“We’ll just have to see, won’t we?”

“But there is one thing, at least, that you shall enjoy, Kira!” said Fírin.  “And that is the drink.  We still have tales of how much our famed Burglar liked the stuff.  It’s rumoured his relish for the ale rivalled even a Dwarf’s!”

“Steady on!” said Kira, laughing.  “You can’t generalise one eccentric’s preferences to all hobbits!  But—” she added, smiling coyly, “I shall be more than happy to try.”

“We’d best finish our work, then!” said the other Dwarf.

“I’m sorry,” said Kira, “but what is your name?”

“Tati, son of Tassi.”

“Kira Proudfoot, at your service, sir.”

They finished their work, and then walked back to the camp, where one Dwarf was rolling out a cask of ale and others were tuning their instruments.  Fírin introduced her to many of those present, but Kira had no head for dwarvish names and soon her head was muddled in consonants and foreign sounds.  Then someone poured her a cup of the ale.

She took a small, measured sip.  Beneath the bitterness of the ale was a strange sour taste, and as she swallowed she felt heat spread out to her arms.  “I do not know if I like it yet or not,” she said, slowly.  “It’s a bit stronger than what I’m used to.”  She took another sip.  “I think I like it.  But don’t refill my cup when I’m done, for I’d hate to muddle my head.”

She sat herself down next to one of the fires, and watched in fascination as the musicians began to play.  She recognised some of the instruments, was at a complete loss for others, and was ultimately astonished at the number of ways the Dwarves got sound out of them, familiar and unfamiliar.  They set their fiddles on their knees, turning them this way and that against the bow, tapped at the soundboards, plucked, sawed, and made such music that flowed through her blood right alongside the ale.  On a different stringed instrument, one strummed with his fingers, another struck the strings in time so that they sounded like tuned drums.  If there was a melody or any set order, she could not follow it, but she found her foot tapping along nonetheless.

“Is all your music like this?” she asked Fírin.

“Our songs are more fixed,” he said, “especially when we must work to them, or walk to them.  But when we dance, the only thing that guides our sound is the drumming of our own heart.”

Only two Dwarves entered the clearing at first, and the dancing was as strange and untempered as the music.  As more entered she quickly realised that there were no pairs, nor sets, nor individuals, nor one large group.  It was impossible to follow, so it was better to sit back and just watch.  Almost of their own accord her hands began clapping along—first a steady beat, then variation upon variation that she did not even know that she knew.  One of the musicians—was it Tati?—walked by and pressed a small hand drum into her hands.  She hardly felt the change, content to watch as dwarf after dwarf whirled, jumped, capered past her sight.  Fírin got up from his place beside her and walked around the edges of the camp.

She did not know how much time had gone by before one of them grabbed at her own hand and pulled her, shocked, into standing.  She stumbled and nearly fell to one knee, her crutch abandoned useless at the side, but he caught her by the waist and lifted her into the air.  She was in the air for but a moment before her left foot came in contact with the firm ground, but then another—seemingly at random—came by, and did the same.  Even if she were able, she could not take a step before someone else took her, lifted her, spun her with arms of living steel.  The world twisted around her, her breath came short, and she almost demanded to be set down and restored to something resembling respectability.  She tipped her head back to try and get a breath of fresh air—and then, then, she saw Elbereth’s stars, and laughed aloud, because she was dancing, dancing with dwarves, and this would be the only time she would dance in her life and she would enjoy it.  Her fingers snapped in the air, and when she was on the ground she turned to each partner as if they had been practising this for years and she knew it by heart.

The last one to take her was Fírin, and as the music swelled to a final note, he set her down next to her crutch and the drum she had left behind, and her face was flushed and she was smiling broadly.  “Thank you,” she said.  “That was—that was incredible.”

“Consider it a gift,” he replied.  “You could do anything, Kira, even dance, if you thought about it hard enough to find a way.  I should not be surprised if, twenty years from now, you brought your people to new heights, the highest they have been since the War.”

“You forget how stubborn hobbits are, my friend,” said Kira, sadly.  “They do not rise because they will not.”

“You are not listening to me,” said Fírin.  Kira opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand.  “But I did not praise you for that sort of wisdom, which comes best with age.  You have another sort already in you, one that is rarest in dwarves.”

“What’s that?”

Fírin smiled.  “You are willing to learn—and admit—that you are wrong, when you are wrong.  And you have many, many years ahead of you, to continue learning when you are wrong, and to make those wrongs right.”

Kira blushed.  “I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing, then, although a simple ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

“Thank you, then,” said Kira.

“You’re welcome.  I am glad you liked my present,” said Fírin.  “I am afraid it is one of farewell, for many years.”

“Why?  Are you going back to the Glittering Caves?”

“No.  Indeed, I shall not travel for some time.”

“Why not?”

Fírin took her by the hand and bade her rise.  “There is someone I should like you to meet.  Will you come with me?”

Kira nodded, and picked up her crutch.  Fírin took her to the far end of the camp, where some ponies were tethered to a waggon—one of the covered sorts that the goods-drivers sometimes used.  There had been a vent cut into the top of the cloth, so that smoke trailed from the waggon as if it were a smial with no chimney.  “Go inside,” said Fírin, gesturing to the entrance.

“You’re not coming with?”

“I am not permitted to,” said Fírin.  “I assure you, you won’t come to any harm.”

Reluctantly, Kira climbed the steep steps into the waggon, lifted a flap of the fabric, and stepped inside.

She had to blink a few times before she could adjust her eyes from the cool blackness of the outdoors to the golden, warm haze that now surrounded her.  In the centre of the waggon’s floor was set a shallow, metal bowl, from which a fire crackled merrily and sent smoke within and without.  It smelled more like the furnaces of the dwarves on Overlithe than the campfires she had just left.  Behind it, half obscured by the flames, sat a dwarf, bent over a glass and evidently hard at work.  Kira’s crutch thumped loudly on the hollow wood as she came closer.

The dwarf did not look up until she was only a few feet away.  Kira returned his gaze, until her eyes flicked down and she saw, to her astonishment, that his—her—belly was swollen with life.

“Wh—who are you?” she blurted out.  “What is your name?”

“It would be well for you to return the courtesy, Kira Proudfoot,” said the dwarf.  “But I already know your name, for Fírin has told me of you.  I am called Ása, and I am his wife.”

“Oh,” said Kira.  For a moment she stood there, trying not to stare, dumbstruck.  “I’m sorry for my rudeness,” she finally said, “but I was incredibly surprised.  Dwarf women are only a distant legend among hobbits, and I had not expected to see one so obviously…”

“Be at peace,” said Ása.  “We prefer to keep ourselves hidden, either in tents or in plain sight, for a woman among dwarves is precious beyond jewels.  You have been accorded a great honour to see me thus.”  She bent over the glass again.  Kira looked down through it and saw Ása’s hands, enlarged beyond proportion, tapping away at a bit of stone with a tiny hammer and chisel.  “Only fellow women may see a dwarf with child, and none of these have ever been hobbits, unless there is some tale lost in the annals of time.”

“Thank you, then,” said Kira.  “And why have I been accorded this great honour, when no others have?”

“You are the first to care enough for dwarves to learn.  But I, too, wished to see you, for I have never seen hobbits before, and Fírin told me much of you in particular.  When I quickened I told him that not even my seclusion would keep me from this.  We owe much to your people and I wanted to thank one of you in person.”

“Lady Ása,” said Kira, “that was years ago!”

“Be that as it may, hobbits must be special indeed if they could produce such heroes from such an idle and contented land.  No dwarf could have done what they did, though we are hewn from the mountains themselves.”

“Then on behalf of the Travellers, and in their memory, I accept your thanks.”

“That is well,” said Ása.

“So, who tends for you in here?  Surely you don’t do all your cooking and cleaning here by yourself?”

“A few of my sisters come in to bring me meals and keep me company.  But most of the time I work.”

“And Fírin—he said that he could not come in here.  Surely you don’t wait all these months out without the company of your husband?”

“Do you do things differently?”

Very differently,” said Kira.  “We like to put ourselves on full display—especially when we are with child.  The husband’s only kicked out once labour starts, and as soon as the babe is cleaned up he’s let back in.”

“That last part is the same with dwarves.  But it is odd to think of any men involving themselves with any part of childbearing when it is such a woman’s thing.”

“Don’t you miss his company, though?”

“No more than my mother missed her husband’s, nor her mother before her.  And if Fírin were here, he would not be able to work as hard, and so set aside enough coin for us to raise the child.”

“Is a dwarf-child that difficult to feed?”

“No.  But surely you would not have one parent gone half the time, toiling for bread and neglecting his son’s growth?”

“I would indeed,” said Kira, laughing, “or at least I would if he were a hobbit.  Married hobbits do much the same work whether they have children or not, and we don’t appear to suffer for it—nor our children.”

“And yet you have no father.”

“I don’t,” said Kira.  “Wait, half a minute—how could you have known that?  I don’t recall ever telling Fírin about that—nor any other dwarf, for that matter!”

“Didn’t you?”  Ása set her chisel to the stone and struck it once.  A flake fell off it and onto her lap.  “But dwarven women have always been far-seeing, especially when we carry children.  See this,” she said, gesturing down to her work.  “I do not know what I am making here, only that it is for my son and that it will be his.  We all make birth-gifts for our children, gifts that tell us something about them or what they will do.  Most of us create something we can readily understand—an anvil for a smith, a weapon for a warrior.  It is said there was much weeping among us, in the centuries leading to the Ring War, because our greatmothers made nothing but axes and warhammers; and when, forty years before the War, they began to make levels and chisels, we began to hope.  But sometimes we cannot tell as easily.  It is said that Gimli’s mother made him an axe of steel with a crystal centre, so that if you held it in the sun you could see light pass through it, from blade to haft, and nobody knew what it meant since that axe could not be used in battle, nor even to chop wood.  It was only later, when he proved how great a love of beauty he held beneath his deadly prowess, that he showed us that this birth-gift was indeed a true reflection of his spirit.”

“And what are you making for your son?”

“I already told you: I do not know.  I know what this stone piece needs to look like, and a dozen other pieces like it, but what they are used for I cannot say.”

“Have you finished some of them?”

“They are sitting in the strongbox next to me.”

Ása gestured towards a simple steel box, which Kira opened to find a number of stone blocks, such as the ones children used to build toy houses or line toy holes.  But they were not regular bricks, for parts of them jutted out at strange angles, making them nearly impossible to stack.  Kira tried fitting two of them together.  “They look like a puzzle,” she said.  “Something you try to stack together, to make a wall, or something, only you can’t let there be any gaps anywhere.”

“Do you think I carry a toymaker?”

“No,” said Kira, “unless those are the kinds of toys dwarves play with.  No, I think he’s going to know something, about how to make things—or people—fit together, to put everything in the place where it can work best.  But he’ll have to be very bright, for I can’t solve the puzzle you made myself.”

Ása set down her chisel, took the two blocks from Kira’s hands, and looked at them.  “It is an interesting idea.  If you are right, he will not gain love among dwarves easily.  We prefer accomplishments of the hands to those of the mind.”

“So do we,” said Kira, “but there are always exceptions.”

“Such as you.  I hope that you may know our son, once he is old enough.”

“Will you and Fírin be staying put to raise him, then?”

“We will live at the Lonely Mountain until he is old enough to make the journey himself.  And then he will travel much, much more than most dwarves, and he will understand many people and profit from his understanding.”

Ása returned to her work.  Kira was silent; she had read of prophecy but had never encountered anything close to it first-hand.

“But he will not be a toymaker, of that much am I certain.  He carries too stern a spirit within him.”

The dwarf continued tapping at the stone until Kira had the nerve to speak again.  “So,” she said, “what else do you know about me?”

“Eh?”

“I mean, can you tell me anything else about myself—something I don’t yet know?”

“There is a canker of sorrow in you, eating away at your heart,” said Ása.  “But I suspect you already knew that, and it took no great insight on my part.  Anyone who looked you in the eye could see that it is the case.”

“Maybe,” said Kira, and in spite of the heat she shivered.  “I hope not.  It’s just—I’ve got a lot before me, and sometimes I can feel lost, and you have some insight about you…”

“I cannot give you advice, if that is what you ask for.  And I cannot tell you ‘this will happen’ or ‘this will not.’  Still,” she said, with a smile, “your request was not unkind, and I doubt I shall have another opportunity to see into the heart of one so alien.  Let us see what the wisdom of my foremothers can do.”  She set her tools aside, stood up, and took a small bag from where it sat on a shelf.  She reached inside it, and cast a fistful of something—some kind of herb?—on the fire.  The smoke grew thicker, almost oppressive, and changed in odour.  “Give me your arms,” said Ása.  Kira sat down and held them out.  The dwarf pushed back Kira’s sleeves, and pressed her thumbs into her forearms.  Kira could feel the blood trying to rush past them.  Her heart thudded and her head swam as she looked into the dwarf’s eyes and saw the fire smouldering within them.

“If you were a dwarf and I bore you in my womb,” said Ása, “I would make for you a crystal lamp, such as the Deep-Elves used of old—one that would require no fuel, nor ever be hot to the touch.  And you would use it to bear light to the dark places within, and without, until your land shone like the stars.  But if you were to keep it, and hoard it like a dragon, you would surely die.  Be strong as a mountain, Kira, for you have many enemies about you, and the worst one is the one that would kill you from within.”

Kira breathed slowly and deeply, and suddenly the smoke overpowered her and she doubled over in a fit of coughing.  The spell was gone.  Ása touched her on the back.  “Have I harmed you?”

“I’m sorry,” said Kira, coughing.  “Pipeweed or no, I don’t think I’m as used to smoke as dwarves are!”  Her head swam.

“Step outside, then, and breathe the clean air.  I will await your return.”

Kira did, though it took her a moment to find her crutch, and gulped down the cool night air as if it were water.  The stars looked clearer now, like needles of light piercing the velvet sky.  She smelled grass, and dirt, and summer.

Looking back at the waggon, she saw the smoke tunnelling through the broadcloth roof and almost didn’t turn back.  But the needs of propriety and friendship for this strange dwarf won over any misgivings that she had.  She stepped back inside to make her farewells.

“Thank you,” said Kira.  “I am truly honoured to have met you, and if my time were my own I would stay with you for several days.  But it is late, and my mother thinks I’m sitting around watching hobbits dance, and I must sell more herbs tomorrow.”

“The honour is mine, Child of the Shire,” said Ása.  “I send my blessings upon you.  May we meet again, when earth and stone have need of one another once more.”

“I hope to.  And my blessings, such as they are, upon you and your child.  Goodbye.”

Kira made her round of the camp once more and many farewells, especially to Fírin, and did not have time to think about all that she had experienced until she was alone again, on the walk back home.  Mother was up waiting for her, and she only half-followed her enquiries before protesting weariness and retiring for the night.  But it took her a long time before she could drift into sleep, and when she did she dreamed…

*  *  *

She dreamed she was on a mountain pathway, with one sheer wall going up and one sheer wall going down.  She did not look down, but kept to the reassuring cliffside.  The air was bright, clear, and cold.

She should have been surprised to see him walking next to her, but she was not.  She smiled, stopped, with her back to the wall, and reached out and touched his cheek.  “I’ve been busy today,” she said.

“I’m glad,” said the lad.

“It’s the Fair, and there’s been so much going on, and I was with dwarves today, and—”  She broke off, trying to remember what she was going to say.  “And they had a party and some wonderfully strange ale.  So.  I may not be wholly in control of myself, and so I can get away with doing things that I might regret if I were entirely sober.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You may kiss me,” said Kira, “if you like.  Only once, mind, but—”

He cut her off, placing his lips on hers and cradling the back of her neck with his hand.  “Only once?” he said, a little sadly.

“Did I say ‘once’?  I think I meant—”

He kissed her again.  Her arms were around him, and she found herself kissing him back.

“All right,” she said, “that’s enough for now.”  But he leaned his forehead on hers, so she was staring directly into his eyes, which were of no colour because he was all light, and why, why couldn’t she tell who he was?

Suddenly she felt her stomach drop, like lead, and she held him away at arms’ length now, dreading to speak, as his features solidified before her eyes.  “Tom?” she said, faintly.

Chapter Eight

 

Kira awoke feeling sick to her stomach, her dream still burned into her memory.  “I don’t fancy him!” she told herself.  “I don’t; I don’t!”  But she hadn’t known it was Tom, and, after all, it was only a dream and dreams could be mighty strange at times.  But those kisses had been so soft, and sweet, and—

“Dash it all!” she said.  “You don’t even know if that’s what a kiss should feel like!”  She swung out of bed, picked up her crutch, and stumped over to the clothes press.  “And you’ll probably never find out,” she muttered, opening it with a bang.  She tore through her clothes, looking for her favourite green skirt, and in so doing her hand brushed against the reed-boned bodice, designed so well to lift her up and put all her best features on display as if she were a brood mare at market.  She picked it up and pulled it out, spilling a shift over the edge of the chest onto the floor.  “I hate it,” she said.  “I hate it all!”

She dressed in five minutes, stuffed her spare clothing back into the press, where she was assured they would come out wrinkled tomorrow, and stalked out to the kitchen for breakfast.  Mother already had most of it prepared.

“You’re in a fine mood,” she said.

“Sorry,” said Kira.  “I had a bad dream.  Not a book-dream,” she added, to Mother’s alarmed look.  “Just a bad one.  Still, I’d rather not speak of it.  I had a rather difficult time last night.”

“Did you?  You seemed well enough when you came back.”

“Abstracted, more than anything else.  Daffodil has done very well for herself at the dances.  I have not.”

“Kira…”

“I did get one request for a dance, mind.  But I don’t know how much of that was politeness and how much of it was genuine interest.  I don’t do well talking to strangers, Mum.”

“Well, many hobbits marry people they’ve known all their lives.”

“I know,” said Kira.

“I’m sure you’ll find someone,” said Mother.  “Everyone does.”

Most everyone.”

“Come,” said Mother, sitting down next to her with a platter full of fried eggs.  “There must be something more pleasant we can talk about.”

“I forgot to tell you yesterday,” said Kira.  “I got a set of seeds.”

“Oh?”

“From a spice merchant.  The spice was cheap enough, but it looks like seeds, and I want to see if they’ll grow in the Shire.  Here, I put them with my wallet…”  She reached down into her waistband undo the leather thong tied over her shift, and pulled out a small burlap pouch.  She opened it and rolled a few seeds into her hand.

“I’ve never seen the like before!  You say they come from the Outlands?”

“Yes, and maybe they aren’t seeds, or maybe they won’t grow here.”

Mother picked one up.  “No, it’s a seed, but it’ll grow nothing useful, I’m sure.  We’ve got all the herbs and plants we need right here in the Shire.”

“Still, it couldn’t hurt to see what happens!  I promise, I’ll do all the work myself.”

“Kira, you don’t even know if it needs shade, or sun!  For all you know, it could be poisonous!”

“The seeds aren’t.”

“If you’re to take that spice merchant’s word!  Where was he from, Bree?”

“Well, since I don’t know many Shire hobbits who have the spine to deal with the Big Folk in business…”

“And small wonder!  You know your history well enough to know how the Troubles started—unless those books of yours give some different magical reason for it all!”

“No, they don’t,” said Kira, laughing.  “Well, at any rate, I should still like to try my hand at growing it, and if the rabbits won’t eat it, I won’t either!”

“You do realise that this means you’re not growing it in the plot, though?  Rabbits won’t touch a thing that’s been seasoned with blood.”

“If that means you’re letting me grow it at all, yes!  Are you sure?  I thought that everything from Outside was dangerous!”

Mother thought a moment at this.  “If everything from Outside were dangerous, Kira, we shouldn’t be drinking tea.  I only worry about those things that would cause you harm—taxing your heart or burdening you with unnatural longings.”

“I assure you, Mother, I don’t know what part of Outside this spice comes from.  If it’s to grow at all here, though, it’d have to be as plain and commonsensical as the Shire itself.”

“I suppose I’ll have to let you try growing it, then.  You did buy it with your own pocket-money, after all.”

“Thank you, Mum!”

“But don’t expect anyone to buy it, if ever it comes to that!”

“I shan’t!”

They started late, after all the dwarves had set up their forges in the Event Field.  Daffodil stopped by around eleven o’clock, and, after assuring Mother that she would “keep an eye” on Kira, was permitted to take her friend to luncheon.  “Am I a faunt, now, that I need you pecking over me like a mother hen?” said Kira, as soon as they were out of earshot.

Daffodil snorted, though her eyes were as merry as Kira’s.  “Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.  There are Dwarves in town and if I were your mother I’d keep you on an even stricter leash!”

“Daffy!  You assume that just because there are dwarves in town I’m going to go Tookish on you and insist on having an Adventure!”

“I remember that Dwarf of yours, Kira.  And as hotly as you may deny it, I know that you two are still friends of some sort.  If I hadn’t seen a friend in four years—”

“—I’d make sure that I saw him when there weren’t gossiping hobbits about.”

“Kira!—ah, so that’s why you retired early last night!  You saw the Dwarves, you scandalous little imp!”

“Not so loud, please!  But they aren’t indecent people, really.  They took me dancing!”

“Dancing?  But—”

“They’re very strong folk, and I don’t know how they planned it, but one would lift me by the waist, spin me, and set me down, until I was picked up by another—”

“How many Dwarves did you dance with, Kira?”

“I don’t know.  But it was only one song, and it’s the only chance I’ll ever get to do anything of the sort.”

Daffodil looked at the light shining in Kira’s eyes.  “Well, I suppose I don’t have the heart to reproach you, then.”

“Thanks.  You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

Daffy sighed, but she nodded.  “The Oak Barrel’s got a special on today.”

“Oh?”

“Luncheon is half-price for lasses if they can find a lad willing to pay for her.”

“Ugh!  It’ll be filled with courting couples!  What kind of a place are they trying to turn it into?”

“They’re just trying to add to their custom over the Lithedays!  Everyone knows it’s a lad’s pub at night, anyhow.”

“All right.  And Roly and Tom want us to come along and save a little coin in the process, then?”

Tom does.  Roly went along with it well enough as soon as he explained his logic.”

“All right,” said Kira, “but in that case I’m getting Roly to pay for me, and I’ll pay him back three-fourths of the standard fare, too.”

“This coming from the girl who kissed Tom on the cheek!”

Kira stopped in her tracks, her stomach turning.

“What?”  Daffodil laid her hand on Kira’s arm.  “It was only an innocent bit of flirting.”

“I don’t know why I did it, Daffodil,” said Kira, teeth clenched.  “But if I ever end up returning his regard, kindly punch me in the nose.”

“All right,” said Daffodil, slowly.  “Although I don’t see what would be so terrible about that—returning his regard, not punching you.”

“He nearly killed me, Daffy.”

“That was thirteen years ago.  And he didn’t mean to.”

They walked to the Oak Barrel Inn in silence.

Kira had only been to the Barrel a few times before, and then only for luncheon.  Pub culture was something that eluded most lasses, and Kira herself wanted as little to do with it as possible.  Yet that did not stop her from stepping inside, as naturally as she could manage, with a smile.  She would give few the satisfaction of watching her discomfort.

During the Troubles, the old Oak Barrel Inn was actually torn down, its stone and timbers used to put up one of those horrid square Mannish buildings that Kira had seen only in pictures.  Then-recovering Mayor Whitfoot took the cost of rebuilding it out of his own purse, and spared no expense in its construction.  Some talented builder, now lost to memory, had the brilliant idea of using the spare wood from the ruffians’ felling to make the new common room an actual barrel that hobbits could eat and drink inside.  A false floor was laid on it, of course, to make the tables level, but aside from that there was no real distinction between the walls and the ceiling.   A hearth was in the back, where the spigot would have been, as well as doors that led to the kitchen and the private rooms, which branched off from a central hallway that wrapped around the whole.  It let felt old, dark, and varnished inside, and the false floor above the barrel made hollow thumps every time Kira struck it with her crutch.  It would have been a pleasant place, really, if it weren’t for the company.

Tom and Roly were nowhere to be seen, so Daffodil requested one of the two empty tables left in the pub.

“You know,” Kira said as they sat themselves across from each other, “we could just try to find two other lads to buy for us and not have to worry about all this nonsense.”

Daffodil laughed.  “You’re thinking too much again, Kira.  And the more you worry over this the more likely Tom’s going to notice and start seeing signs that you’re convinced aren’t there.”

I thought we were supposed to be looking at eligible bachelors, anyway,” said Kira, blithely ignoring the jab even as she filed away Daffodil’s advice for future reference.  “You still haven’t told me how it went with that Northfarthing lad of yours.”

“His name is Filbert.”

“Filbert?”  Kira snorted.  “Isn’t that some sort of nut?”

“Don’t poke fun at him!  He’s a very nice fellow—almost a little too shy, just like me.”

“Apparently lads like ‘shy,’ then.”

“More than they like ‘brazen,’ at least,” said Daffodil with a laugh.  “But he’s from so very far away that I doubt we’d ever be able to court.  Still, he made for pleasant company.”

“That’s good.”

“And he stepped on my toes only twice.”

“Only twice?”

“The perfect dancers make me afraid that I’ll mess up.”

“Oh, Daffy, you are such a dear!”

“You’d be just as nervous if you had two working feet.”

“I don’t know,” said Kira.  “But he must have been!”

“He did keep on looking down,” said Daffodil.  “But so was I.”  She lowered her voice.  “His ankles were very well formed.”

“Daffy!”

“What?”

“Oh, dear,” said a familiar voice from the doorway.  “They’re giggling.”

“That’s never good.”  Roly and Tom walked over to the table and sat down like two sacks of grain flung from a waggon.

“Marvellous idea, this,” said Daffodil sprightly.  “I always like a free meal.”

“Did we say we were paying for you?” said Tom.

“You may, if you like, Tom,” said Kira.  “You can’t have spent all your winnings yet.”

“I think you’ll find,” said Tom, “that most people don’t take well to others telling them how they ought to spend their hard-earned money.”

“Yes, it was so hard for you to convince that breeze to blow off the Brandybuck’s cap.  She is my cousin, by the by—I’m sure I told you that earlier.”

Tom’s mouth worked a moment.  “Isn’t every Brandybuck your cousin?” he finally managed.

“Every one descended from the Magnificent, at least.  We tend to take needling you as a common interest, whether we mean to or not.  But,” she added, “you were right and I shouldn’t tell you how to spend your precious coin.  And so,” reaching diagonally to hand Roly some coins, “here is my portion of the bill, Roland, should you care to buy for me.”

Roly met her with a look of exasperation.  She shrugged at him, promising herself to have a chat with him later and apologise once again for dragging him into another one of her little battles.

“What a fine mess!” said Daffodil, with a smile.  “I suppose now Tom has to pay for me, and I have to pay him back!”

“Tom could have paid for all four of us when he had the chance,” said Kira, “or just you, or just me.  But he doesn’t like paying, and I don’t like bickering for five minutes over a bill.”

“Oh?” muttered Roly.  Kira kicked him with her good foot.

“Fine, I’m paying for all!” said Tom, throwing his hands in the air.  “Roly, give Kira her money back.”

“Really?” said Kira.

“Yes, and a fine job you did twisting my arm!”

“I didn’t twist your arm—I genuinely wanted to pay for myself!  Though,” Kira added as Roly slid her money back to her, “I’m not complaining.”

“Good,” said Tom.  “The last thing I need today is more whining.”  He waved a waiter over and placed their orders—roast pork and potatoes, greens, bread, and a large pitcher of ale.

More whining?” said Daffodil.

“His mother,” said Roly.  “And his brother.”

“He won’t ‘settle,’” said Tom.  “And by ‘settle,’ she means court only one lass and, hopefully, marry her.”

“I saw that!” said Daffodil with the sort of shocked smile one normally expected from gossip.  “He was paying court to at least three last night, all through the dancing, and swearing eternal love to every last one of them!”

“I should hope they know he’s being so free with his affections!” said Kira.

“I’d imagine they’re just keeping their options open, as Mum says.  After all, you can’t know who’s courting you for sure till he proposes.”

“Unless he leaves a note.”

“Kira, who would leave a note?”

“Well, if they both can read…”

“Then she’d already know who it is, for who in his right mind would want to court a reader?”

“Tom!” said Daffodil.

“Only someone else who’d want to read, that’s what I say.”

“Can’t you read, Tom?” said Roly.

Kira examined a particularly fascinating knot on the wooden table.  Her cheek was burning, and she could feel Tom’s eyes boring into it.

Can, yes,” said Tom.  “Want to, no.”

“Yes, how exactly did that work out, Tom?” said Daffodil.  “Aside from the ‘overbearing father’ bit.  It makes sense that he’d teach your brother, since he’s to inherit the farm and all, but why you?”

Kira felt, rather than saw, Tom’s gaze leave her, but before she could hear his reply the waiter arrived with the ale and bread.  And despite Kira’s curiosity as to the answer to this question, she was all too happy to change the topic once they began their repast.  Daffodil gave an account of the dancing from the previous night, and Kira mentioned the lad who had not realised she was lame.  Daffodil, bless her heart, did not mention that Kira had slipped off halfway through.  Kira did not bother correcting her.

“What did you get up to, Roly?” said Kira.

“Not much,” he said.  The waiter came with the rest of the food, and Roly waited until he left to continue.  “Tom was out having his bit of fun, and after the seventh of April I promised I wouldn’t get myself into that kind of pickle anytime soon, so I ended up playing draughts with one of the gaffers from town.  He didn’t look like much, but he’s very clever and he slaughtered me each time.  He said he runs a shop in town, so I might stop by sometime on a market day and try him again.”

“I doubt you’ll ever beat him,” said Tom with a laugh.  “Not till you reach a hundred, at least.”

“I’ll bet he can manage a draw, at least,” Daffodil said stoutly.

“Look,” said Roly, laughing, “it’s not about that!  It’s about having something fun to do, and spending time with folk that you wouldn’t see normally.”

“I understand,” said Kira, with a smile that felt warmer than she’d expected.

“Well, I’m glad someone does,” said Tom.

The next few hours passed smoothly, surprisingly so, and when Kira left to do her bit of storytelling she was only dismayed that she had utterly forgotten to slip her fare for lunch into Tom’s pocket when he wasn’t looking.  No matter, she thought, and stepped lightly to the space behind the Museum.  There were already a few children about, familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones that were introduced as various relations of her regular listeners.  The children were telling each other.  That was good.

It was the largest crowd she’d ever had, which made sense because it was an Overlithe.  Even better, Hal was sitting in the middle of the crowd this time and she thought she could track him down if Alder didn’t detain her for too long.  She was determined not to let him.

When the Town Hole’s clock struck three, she began.  She had reserved this tale especially for today.  “I’m sure,” said Kira, “that you all knew this tale was coming.  But not this tale, perhaps—actually, never this tale, for you all know I like stories that most people don’t tell.  This one I heard a few years back from one Fíriel Bolger, who married into that most famous of lines—that of Fredegar Bolger—or, as most of you know him, Good Old Fatty.”

Those of the children who had not known that the tale was coming perked up.

“I know you all know most of the tales that there are to tell about Fatty and his rebel band, and I’m proud to say that most of them are true.  But underneath all of the fighting, there was, in each and every one of those hobbits, a core of fierce love for their land and for their people.

“Those of you who know your genealogies might know of Jessamine Bolger, Fredegar’s wife.  But in the time of the Troubles they were not yet married, though even at this time they loved one another very dearly.  Fíriel told me that Fatty did not want to leave the Shire to accompany Frodo because of Jessamine, but I have my doubts.  Fatty was very rooted in the Shire, and had no love of adventure or elves or anything but the rolling greens and open faces of our land and our people.  As it was, Fatty was courting Jessamine all through the year leading up to Frodo’s departure, and afterwards, through the Troubles.

“Once he knew that there were Men in the Shire—he already knew they were up to no good—Fatty went to Jessamine and warned her of the peril that awaited them all.

“‘I’m worried for you,’ he said, ‘Who knows what blackness lurks in the hearts of these people?’

“Jessamine laughed, though her eyes were troubled.  ‘I’ll be fine,’ she said.  ‘I do have a head about my shoulders.’

“But Fatty was worried, because Jessamine was very pretty, and because he loved her deeply.  He did not believe in keeping secrets, though, so he poured out all his concerns about the Shire to her—yes, even his encounter with the Riders, which he had told hardly anyone.  He would have told her about the Ring, but when he hesitated she told him to say nothing, because in this case she was better off not knowing.  And so he said nothing, though he had a feeling she knew more of what had happened to Frodo than either of them would say.  And as the weeks went on, he kept talking to her about the state of the Shire, and how things were getting more and more dangerous, and finally she said, ‘Well then, Fredegar my love, why don’t you do something about it?’

“‘Me?’ he said.  ‘I can’t do anything; I’m not a hero.’

“‘Yes, you are,’ she told him.  ‘You’ve already faced the Black Riders, and lived to tell the tale.’

“‘I ran away,’ he said.

“‘But you kept your wits about you!  You’re a hero, Fatty, and when we get ourselves and our land out of this mess you’re going to marry me, so don’t tell me you can’t do anything!’

“Well, this was very heartening to Fatty, and when she kissed him afterwards that about settled the matter.”

Some of the lads made faces at this.  Kira ignored them.

“Afterwards, Fatty thought long and hard about it and realised just what Jessamine had roped him into—putting himself in danger, and leaving her.  He protested, then—he found he didn’t mind the danger for himself, not terribly, but he worried what would happen to her heart if he came to harm—but Jessamine insisted that the Shire needed him now far more than she did.  So together they began to pore over maps and family trees until they were pretty sure who would help him fight back in the Shire and who might have to be fought.  Fatty went around, late at night, and began asking some of the local lads what they’d be willing to do to keep their land free from the wretched Men who were making such a nuisance of themselves, and he got himself a band, and they filled in the maps with where they thought all the ruffian camps and strongholds were.

“And Fatty began doing to the ruffians what they were doing to the Shire—being a nuisance.  One time they made off with their food, which was stolen from hobbits; another time they let volleys of pebbles fly on them and made them leave their camp; a third time they stole their horses.  But as wretched as the Men were, Fatty still couldn’t bring himself to actually hurt them, much less kill one of them.

“That all changed, though, very quickly.  Someone was snitching on Fatty, for it soon became clear that they knew who led the rebels, and who was close to that leader.  One morning he woke up to find brand marks on his door, and on the doors of all his twelve-mile cousins—and on Jessamine’s and her family’s.  Fatty became worried, and he stayed up late that night talking with his father about what they should do.  It was too late, Fatty argued, to go back and be meekly robbed time and again—if anything bad happened to the ruffians they’d blame Fatty and who knew what would happen next.  So he agreed that he and his band would go into hiding, and offer safe escort to his family until they were well-hidden and out of reach of the rest of that troop.  Times would be hard for them, but not as hard as they’d be if they kept their association with him.

“All that week he worked to get them out, and remembering his role in the Conspiracy, Fredegar set a few of his comrades in each home to make it appear lived in, until all the houses and holes were vacated.  Finally, there were only two homes left—a spinster aunt’s and Jessamine’s.  Jessamine’s father had a bad back, so Fatty planned to wait until Market Day to move them out.  He was helping his aunt move when he heard the news.

“A young hobbit, not older than fifteen—one of the younger brothers of the rebels—came running up to him.  ‘The last house!” he cried.  “It’s burned down!’

“Fatty was fearstruck, but he couldn’t do anything until his aunt was safe.  As soon as she was safely holed up with another family, though, he rode all the way back home, to Jessamine’s house.

“The sight was terrible.  The house was burned down, and the cellar that was dug into the hill behind it collapsed.  ‘I saw it from a distance,’ said the lad.  ‘They made sure they were all in there, and then they wedged the doors and the windows, and then they and set fire to it.  When it was all burnt down, they turned to go, but I kept watching.  Then there was a loud noise and the hill caved in.’

“Well, Fatty knew that Jessamine’s father kept a fine old barrel of Northfarthing whiskey in there, and he reasoned that it must have caught fire and exploded, caving the hill in.  He went up to the wreck and looked, and what he saw I won’t repeat to you.  Suffice it to say that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jessamine’s parents had been killed in the fire.

“‘Are you sure Jessamine was in here when they started the fire?’ he said, once he was done and returned to the lad.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I didn’t get a look myself—my Mum wouldn’t let me.  But the ruffians made sure that no one escaped, and she was in there when the fire started.’

“Fatty then went back to the hillside, and began to dig—but he stopped himself.  He would not let his happy memories of his beloved be tainted by her end, he told himself, and he still wanted to leave alive the shadow of a hope that she had survived.

“But as the days turned into months, and no word of Jessamine appeared, that hope turned to ash, and Fredegar Bolger was not nearly as unwilling to take blood—or to shed it.  His ventures got more and more daring, for he didn’t care quite so much whether he lived or died, and when at last he was caught he was already a shadow of the hobbit that he used to be.

“That, of course, got worse in the Lockholes, where he was crammed into a tiny cell and given very little to eat or drink.  There, he found himself falling prey, more and more, to that most deadly of dangers to a hobbit’s heart—indifference.

“If he had been in there for too long like that, I’m afraid Fatty would have died.  But about a month into his captivity, Fatty got a visitor.  She was an old hobbit, with a cane, a shawl, and a hunched back.  When the guard opened the door, she spat on his face.  ‘Thankee;’ she told the guard, ‘I’ve allus wanted to do that in person.’  But just then there came a big noise from outside, and the guard dashed away see what was the matter.  Immediately she took from her cloak a loaf of bread, big and round.

“‘I am sorry,’ she said.  ‘I had to do that to get in.’

“Fatty stared at the loaf, and then at the lady.  ‘Who are you?’ he said.

“She made no reply, but laughed, and pulled her shawl down from her hair.  Soon she was kissing him.

“‘Jessamine?’ he said, for it was she.  ‘How are you alive?’

“‘Hush,’ she said.  ‘It doesn’t matter.’

“‘It does!’

“‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘don’t make a scene out of it.  I don’t know how long the distraction will last.’  And as she put her shawl back, Fatty noticed a burn mark on her face.

“‘You were in the fire, after all, then?’ he said.

“‘I was,’ she told him.  She had been getting some roots from the cellar, and the door stuck.  ‘I could hear their jeering as they set fire to it,’ she said, ‘and then something fell across the door.  I had to keep pushing at it, but it didn’t give way for such a long time.’

“You would have died,’ he said, ‘if you’d gotten out sooner.’

“‘I know,’ said Jessamine.  ‘I saw.  But by the time I got out most everything was burned, and they must have turned away.  The door was still burning when I pushed it.  I’m afraid I’m not as pretty as I once was.’

“‘You’re still beautiful.’

“Jessamine laughed at that.  ‘I’m alive, at least.  The cellar collapsed behind me, and I had to wait a good time before I thought it was safe enough to crawl away.  I got help, but I couldn’t have them tell you—as long as they knew I was alive they could hurt you.’

“‘They did.’

“‘Yes,’ she told him, ‘but if you’d have known, you’d have acted differently, and they might have guessed.  Oh, Fatty, do forgive me!’

“‘Of course,’ he said, for when you’re that in love with someone you don’t have to think about these things too hard.  Then he looked down at himself.  ‘I’m not sure if I’ll ever warrant that nickname anymore.’

“‘You will,’ she said.  ‘There’s a file in the bread.  You can use it to get out.’

“‘No,’ said Fatty, and he handed the bread back.  ‘If I get out, I don’t know what they’ll do to retaliate.’

“‘But I can’t leave you locked up in there!’

“‘You can,’ he said, ‘and you will.’

“‘But,’ said Jessamine, ‘what if the Big Folk stay here forever?  What if you never get out?’

“To that, Fatty had the strangest thing to say.  He said, ‘I don’t think that’ll happen.  As long as you’re alive, Jess, I can believe anything.’

“And he was right, of course.  The Travellers came back, and rescued Fredegar Bolger, and as soon as he was well, he and Jessamine were married by Frodo Baggins, Deputy Mayor.  They lived quite happily together, and if you’d like to know the names of their children, you can find that out from just about anyone who knows their genealogy.”

The children stood up when Kira did, and she struggled to keep her eyes on Hal to make her way over to him.  But before she could do much of anything she felt a tug on her skirt.  It was Alder, and he looked somewhat displeased.  “That was not,” he said, “a proper Fatty story!”

“Alder,” said Kira, somewhat testily, “have you ever known me to tell ‘proper’ tales at all?  Because I assure you, to most hobbits, telling children what the Travellers really did Outside is nothing short of pure scandal.”

“Well, it was hardly what I expected.”

“Good.”

“But you could have left some of the kissing out.”

“What, just because Fatty Bolger killed a Man or three, he’s not allowed to be in love?”

“That wasn’t what I—”

“I’m sorry, Alder, I’m looking for someone—”  Kira scanned the crowd.  He could hardly have run off again…

“Kira Lamefoot?”

Kira looked down.  Standing there, right in front of her, was her quarry.  “Hal?”

“I asked my relations if you could come over to my home and tell tales there.  I think some of the other children would like it.”

“Really?” said Kira.  She got down on her knees to get a better look at him.  He was well-dressed, or had been when his mother had last seen him.  “Well, Hal, I should like that very much, but that depends on where your home is.”

“It’s not too far from here.  You can leave after breakfast and arrive in time for tea, if you’re quick about it.”

That was too far, even if Nienna wanted to run—it’d take at least three hours, probably closer to four or five.  “How would I get there?”

“The road’s actually south of here.  You head east on it, past the gnarly old tree, and keep on going till you see it.  It’s the biggest smial for miles around—you can’t miss it.”

“Is there a town nearby?”

Hal screwed his face up, as if thinking.  “Can’t remember.  But I’m late for tea.  Goodbye!”  And with that he darted away, and even without the children still milling around Kira would not have been able to catch up with him.

“Well,” she said to herself, “that was helpful.”

 *  *  *

Daffodil met her shortly afterwards, and escorted her back to Mother.  Both of them readily assured her that there had been No Dwarves, and Kira was grateful to see Daffodil keep her secret for her once more.

It was back to work right after that.  Kira had been gone too long, and even though business was still steady, they had closed early the night prior.  It was not until after most everyone had left the Fair that Kira and her mother returned home for dinner—since the forges had been set up all day in the Event Field, there was no formal feast for Overlithe.  Kira found herself quite weary, though the day had not been too long or too difficult, and she was most grateful when Mother told her that they would be visiting with the Brownlocks tomorrow night and not tonight.

When she retired to her room for the night, Kira reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out something that had been slipped into her hand with some spare change.  It was a small, tightly furled piece of paper.  Unrolling it, she recognised the hand.


My dear Kira—

I should dearly love to visit with you sometime before the Fair is over!  There is so much to show you (fabric and other sundries), and I need an excuse to escape my well-meaning female relations (current and future) for a few hours.  I know you’ve been very busy, and that you’re trying to keep that a secret, so if it doesn’t work out, then it won’t, but—do try!

Yours,
S.F. (soon to be B.)

P.S.  I was poking around back home a little while ago, and found a sketch or three taken from Grandmother’s wedding.  Thought you’d like to see them, as there is a good deal of familiar faces!


Kira’s heart warmed inside her, though she had to shake her head at the postscript.  “If you really didn’t mind my not seeing you, you wouldn’t be bribing me with an old sketch!”  Briefly she thought of slipping out and heading back, to talk to her right then and there, but she was feeling quite tired and Sandra probably wanted to be with her intended at the moment.  She didn’t even know where they would be.

So Kira laid her head down on her pillow and closed her eyes.  Her head was teeming with plans for the next day, but underneath it all was a layer of sorrow that the Lithedays should be over so quickly.  One of these days, she thought, Lithe won’t be nearly so special because I’ll be able to see my friends whenever I want.

 *  *  *

Kira awoke the next morning feeling cold, and small wonder—she had kicked off her sheets, unknowing, in the middle of the night.  She searched her mind for the dreams that would have caused such a violent reaction, but any memory of them had fled.  “I think,” she told Mother, “that I shall sleep for a full day after all this is done.”

“Kira, you know that if it’s too much for you—”

“It isn’t,” said Kira.  “I was exaggerating, just a little.”

The walk over to the Fair was pleasant—there were only a few people about, and there was still a little dew on the ground.  Business was slow for the first hour or so.

At ten o’clock in the morning, the Master of Buckland approached their stand.  For a moment Kira wondered what he was about—but then she remembered the wedding, and she smiled.  He asked to speak with Mother alone.

Kira managed the stand while she was gone, but she could only do so out of habit.  Her heart hammered in her chest, for though she had every bit of faith in the Master and his skills at persuasion, she was nervous—and she had been warned not to get her hopes up.  After fifteen minutes, she kept on jerking her head this way and that, thinking that she’d seen her mother walking towards the stand in various postures of victory and defeat.

After an agonizing hour, Mother returned, and, seeing the look on her face, Kira’s heart sank.  “I can’t go?” she said.

“To the wedding?  Funny that you should guess what that was about, when all you know is that the Master of Buckland asked to speak with me.”

Kira turned red and looked at her skirts.

“I spoke with him, and with Mr. Fairbairn, and I believe we have reached an understanding.  You may go to the wedding of their children.”

“I may?”

“But in return, I have asked both the Master’s family and the Warden’s to cut you.  Since it was only through unfortunate circumstance that they made your acquaintance in the first place, they readily agreed.”  Mother held out a sheet of paper—the official kind that clerks used—detailing that, excepting for the duration of the wedding of Kerimac Brandybuck and Sandra Fairbairn, no one in the direct line of the current Master of Buckland, nor of the Warden of Westmarch, was to have any deliberate contact, whether in person or in writing, with Kira Proudfoot, a minor under the protection of her mother, Rosemary Proudfoot.

There were seven signatures at the bottom, all done in red ink.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Kira had to sit down, had to reread the paper, over and over again, for surely they couldn’t be serious and there was some way out of it.  When she was going over the signatures for the fifth time (both the Master and the Warden had signed) Mother whisked the paper out of her hands.  “I’m assuming it’s done up properly, then?”

“Yes,” said Kira, voice quavering.

“Good.”  Mother paused.  “No thank you for the permission, I presume?”

“I—”

“Kira, I may not know everything that you’re up to, but I’m no fool, and I know enough.”

“They’re my friends!”

“And they’ve done a fine job showing it all these years, getting you to go behind my back and all.”

“It wasn’t them—it was me!  It was all my idea, Mum, the books, the reading, everything; just leave them out of this!”

“I’ll be more than glad to, once you do!”

Kira crumpled on the stool where she sat, her head hanging on her hand.  She wanted to scream like a faunt in a tantrum, but nothing would come out.

“You can stop crying,” said Mother, “when you tell me all that you’ve been doing without telling me.”

To this, Kira did not reply.  She couldn’t.  She stood, picked up her crutch, and ran.

Behind her, Mother watched, took a step towards her, then scrunched her eyes shut to stop the tears and turned away.

 

*  *  *

Mother could have caught up with her if she’d wanted; Kira did not know why she hadn’t followed her, but she was glad.  All around her, the world was reeling, and someone had to set it right, quickly.  “Kerry?” she cried.  “Kerry!  Kerry Brandybuck!”  She stumbled into a nook between two of the shops and sat down, forcing herself to breathe deeply and think things through.  Though the crowd around her was faint against her thoughts, she knew that in reality they were drowning her out, and that wandering witless was no real way to accomplish things.  He’d be with the Brandybucks, or if he wasn’t, someone there would know how to find him.  Quickly, she dried her tears and tried her best to act as if everything was normal.

She found him ducking out of his father’s tent, running a troubled hand through his hair and looking at nothing in particular.

“Kerry?”

It took a moment for him to notice her. “Kira?” he said.  “What are you—you know you’re not supposed to be here!”

To this Kira had no response but a fresh spurt of tears.  Kerry closed the distance between them, took her hand in his, and looked her in the eyes.  “I’m sorry, Kira, but I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore.  You do know that, don’t you?”

Kira nodded.  “Can she really make you do that?”

“I wasn’t there when they signed the agreement, but—”

“You’re well over thirty-three, Kerry, and Sandra’s of legal age—tell me you won’t let this happen!”

“I—I—I’m sorry, Kira—I only just found out myself; I don’t know…”

Kira squeezed her eyes shut and was sickeningly unsurprised to see the dark island there.

She felt Kerry’s arms around her.  His ribs pressed into her face, and his chest hummed as he spoke.  “Shh…  You just have your little cry out, and then we’ll talk things over.  But keep things short if you can—it won’t do to have you in trouble so soon.”

“What did I do wrong?  For the longest time it was only polite to talk with you, right?”

“I think you enjoyed yourself too much, and I think your mother realised that if she couldn’t take care of things on your end she’d be able to on ours.  Quite frankly I’m surprised she didn’t try earlier.”

“You thought she’d do this?”

“Yes—though I wasn’t sure what I should do if she did.  Kira, I’m so sorry, but—”

“You’ll let me be miserable for the rest of my life because of some stupid contract your dad signed.”

“Kira, it’s not for the rest of your life; it’s only six years…”

Kira began to wail.

“Hush!  Kira, if your happiness is dependent on Sandra and me, you must be in a terrible bind indeed.  You’ll be fine, I promise.”

“No, I won’t.  You’re the only friends I’ve got—”

“—That’s not true—”

“—Well, the only ones who actually understand me, and six years is such a terribly long…”  She could not even finish her sentence.  “Do you have to go along with it?”

“Kira, no one has to do anything.  But in this case—in this case—I think breaking the contract would create more problems than it would fix.”

“No, it wouldn’t!”

“Kira—Kira!  You’re not being sensible.  You need to listen to me.”  He took a step back, holding her at arm’s length.  “Your mother already thinks we’re out to get you—to kidnap you and take you somewhere Outside, I don’t know.  We can’t give her any reason to keep on thinking that, and if you do improve—by her standards—or if she sees that your lack of improvement has nothing to do with us—maybe she’ll let the contract slide.”

“She won’t.”

“And if we do break the contract, there’s not much she can do to us, but what she could do to you would be terrible.”

“Ha!  What’s she going to do, throw me in the Lockholes?”

“Worse than that.  She could throw you out of your home.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad.  I’d be able to support myself—”

“No, Kira, you wouldn’t.  Folk are more than willing to help out a widow’s daughter by letting her tell stories to their children.  But no self-respecting mother would trust her children with a disowned tween.  There’s nothing else we can do.”

“You can not get caught.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because, even if you do, I don’t do things that way.”

“Not even when it’s a stupid decision?”

“Not even then.  I’m terribly sorry, Kira, but I’m afraid we have no choice but to cut you.”

“Then that’s a wretched way of doing things!”

“Kira…”

“I’m just asking for a letter, or a book, or anything to let me know you’re thinking of me!  Why can’t you do that?”

“I can’t, because unlike you, I actually respect my parents!”

Kira gasped for air.  The water was rising about her, surging closer…

“Kira, I’m sorry—that came out wrong.  I’m only asking you to try to understand…”

Suddenly Kira doubled over.  The sun’s heat pressed in on her from all sides, and her head felt light, too light to fight anything, much less the sudden wave that attacked her from inside…  Her stomach heaved, and its contents came tumbling out of her.

“Kira!”  Kerry’s hand was on her forehead, around her back, steadying her.  “You’re burning up!  Are you well?”

“Of course I’m not—”  Her stomach churned again.  “Not well!  Who would be?”

“No, Kira, you’re actually ill.  I should take you back to your mother.”         

She shook her head frantically.  “No!  Don’t take me back to Mother, not to her…”

“I think I should.”  His voice was firm.  “You’re not well enough to be out here, and you should be home resting.”

“But—but if she sees you with me, you’ll be in trouble…  I’ll be in trouble… you can’t let her see me…”

“You’re ill, Kira.  Your health matters more than any sort of trouble either of us could get in.  If you’ve caught a fever you need bed rest, and you can’t do that at the fair.”

“You could just take me back to Buckland…”

No.  We’re going to your mother, and that’s final.”  And he scooped her up in his arms, and she was too weak to protest, though she still shook her head all the way back to the herb stand.

“Mrs. Proudfoot?” he said, setting Kira back on the stool where—instead of fighting the island—she was left to fight off alternate bouts of dizziness and nausea.  “Kerry Brandybuck, at your service.  I’m sorry, but Kira came to find me—to say goodbye—and while I was explaining the necessity of my father’s decision she took ill.  I thought it would be best to bring her to you.”

Mother felt her head.  “Thank you,” she said, and Kira could sense the astonishment in her voice.  “You shouldn’t have run, Kira,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” said Kira.

“Now, sit you down for a little while, and if you’re still feeling ill in half an hour we’ll get you home.”

Kira nodded numbly.

“Kerry, if you could get my daughter a cup of cool water from the well I’d be much obliged.”

The afternoon passed abominably.  It all felt like some sort of sweltering nightmare, for a Kerry who was no longer her friend had no business helping Mother take care of her, especially if Mother mistrusted him so.  She was never quite aware of how she got back home and into her bed, but she must have, and time must have passed, for there was Dr. Grimwig checking in on her, and oh! how wretched it felt to be ill over the Midyear!

When she was well enough to stay awake longer than one mealtime, she broached the subject.

“He’s gone, isn’t he?”

“Who?”

“Kerry.”

“Yes.  For three days now.”

“For good?”

“Until the wedding, at least.  He does care for you, that much is certain, though his heart might not be in the right place.”

“So they’re still cutting me, then.”

“I spoke with Kerry for some time.  He agreed with me that it was probably the best thing they could do.”

Kira turned her face to the wall.

But Mother was so assiduous with her care that it wasn’t fair that she should be so terrible to her in other respects.  She let Kira read, as she recovered, and she was at Kira’s bedside so often that Kira knew the garden was suffering—though Daffodil’s coming by to visit helped, Kira knew.

The blackness hit her, but only once.

“It is not,” said Mother, a few days later, “that I don’t want you to have friends, Kira.  I am only concerned about these ones.”

“I know.”

“But, as I said, if it hadn’t been for the pest all those years back, and the heavy snows, they shouldn’t have made your acquaintance at all—and even then, the thing you have in common most is that thing that you lost.  I’m not asking you to forget them.  I’m only asking you to move on.”

And Kira knew exactly what she was getting at, how it would be lovely if all this bookishness were merely a fancy of hers to be outgrown, for she had heard the same litany for years and years, and before she knew it the words were out: “The same way you have with Dad?”

They did not talk much after that, but Kira began to wonder at her mother’s health and whether perhaps the illness had spread to her.  Finally she was well enough one day to get out of bed, and she forthwith told Mother that she should be in hers.  Mother wouldn’t listen, but when the doctor came in the next day to check on Kira, she asked him to see if Mother was well, and he agreed—Mother had caught Kira’s illness—the grippe, he said, though that was rare in the summer.

There was nothing to do, nothing to think, even, for things needed to be managed.  Kira did not have to cancel any appointments, of course—those had already been cut off by her illness, but that meant that she had to keep the garden—which was looking rather neglected—going, for the sake of coin, and do all the cooking and cleaning, and look after Mother, and she was too busy to mope about the contract or the cutting or anything.  She had not realised how much effort Mother had spent in looking after her when she was too young and weak to help out much.  No wonder she can’t understand why I need books! she thought, when, one night, she finally had the time to slip into an exhausted sleep.  Her foot began to pain her.

Fortunately, the doctor stopped by, and told her that the grippe was going around the whole town, if not the Farthing, and that it was nothing to worry about unless you were in poor health already.  He could not stay long, for the pest had pulled him out of retirement for a week, but he wrote out detailed advice for her, and Mother’s fever broke within a day.  Recovery after that was slow, but steady, and Kira could not brook the possibility of giving less than her all, even if it meant losing hours of sleep just to hold her mother’s hand.  Once, when she came back in from weeding the garden, she found her asleep, tangled in her sheets with her arm draped over her pillow.  Kira gently tucked her back in, and when Mother woke up and tried to get out of bed, she told her that she had everything under control.  She was afraid, truth be told, that Mother would try to get up and make herself useful before she was truly well, for Kira herself had done so plenty of times and had to be sent back to bed, exhausted; but perhaps Mother’s greater years had given her a measure of wisdom.

A week later, Dr. Grimwig came back in to tell both Proudfoots that they could go back to living the way they were used to, as long as both of them—and here he gave a protracted look at Kira, who was feeling a little peaked—didn’t overtax themselves.  He took especial care to listen to Kira’s heart.

So, slowly, things went back to normal, or at least what Mother would consider normal, for Kira durst not start with the storytelling again for safety’s sake.  But Mother never asked her again if there were anything else that Kira had been “up to” behind her back.

In a week’s time, the garden was back to where it had been, and that was well, for they were running short on money.  There had been no time to run into town and pick up the help they had from the Proudfoots, and the mystery hobbit’s gift was both late and less than what they had expected.

 

*  *  *

Just as things were settling into a comfortable rhythm again, Mother took Kira into the storage room in Michel Delving.  She walked to the back, to the old dusty window, and threw it open. The sudden rush of air stirred dust that danced in the sun, which poured into the old room unobscured. The smell of decay was chased away by the summer air.

“What are you doing?” said Kira.

“I was thinking,” said Mother, “that these old relics have mouldered away in here long enough.”

“Mum!”

“Most of them probably wouldn’t serve as mathoms anymore, but maybe—”

“Mother, please don’t; I know they mean so much to you. I shouldn’t have said what I said, about you and Dad. I’m sorry I did.”

Mother let her hand rest on the old pitchfork lined up against the wall. “I haven’t moved on,” she said, and she looked very old. “I don’t think anyone can, after a loss like that. But there’s no use keeping perfectly good stuff locked away when other folk, who aren’t weighed down by all the sad memories, might be in need of it. And if I can’t bear looking at the reminders, every day, why should I even have them in the first place?”

Kira went to her mother, drew her arms around her, and kissed her on the brow. “You don’t need to do this, you know.”

“No,” said Mother, “of course I don’t need to, but I ought to, and I ought to have a long while back.” She looked over the room once and nodded. “Anything you want to keep for yourself you may, and you may keep it here or at home. You’re his child, too, after all.”

Kira looked at all the things piled in the room with trepidation. “Do I have to do it all now?”

“Of course not, dear. But perhaps we could get started today.”

“I’ll have to think things over—maybe over luncheon?”

 “All right; we’ll come back in the afternoon.”

“Thank you.”

On their way out of the tunnels, Kira said, “I hope you can bear looking at me.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You’re the reminder I kept.”

 

*  *  *

 

Luncheon was on the green: a loaf of bread, partly hollowed and filled with soft cheese; summer sausage; and hard-cooked eggs.  While they were eating Kira kept her eyes on her mother.  She hated to think that she had been the cause of this, but she could come to no other conclusion.  “We’re not going to sell them, are we?  I mean, the things we don’t keep.”

Mother shook her head.  “No, that wouldn’t be right.  I was planning on going over to the Town Hole, while you were looking through everything, to ask after any families in need.”

“And the other things—the things that are too personal—maybe those should go back to some of the Proudfoots?”

Mother pressed her lips together.  “I suppose there wouldn’t be any other place for them.”  She paused to take a drink of water.  “It seems odd, making peace with them after all these years.”

“If it would help you feel better, I’ll take them for myself, and then give them away.  You wouldn’t have to see them.”

Mother shrugged.

“You know,” said Kira, hesitant even to broach the subject, “Aunt Foxglove had a bit of a different story as to why Dad died.”

“Of course she does.  She’s a Proudfoot.”

Kira pressed on.  “She said that Grandfather Proudfoot had wanted him to go into the law, and that the farm was his idea, not Grandfather’s.”

“Not so,” said Mother.  “He wanted to set up an orchard, and a cider press.  Your grandfather said ‘no.’”

“No?  But I thought they had a press…”

“Yes, and your grandfather didn’t want to fund another.  He wanted Lagro to stay out in Westmarch, where he could be under his father’s thumb.  But Lagro wanted to leave—so his father told him, ‘the farm in Westfarthing, or the press here.’  He knew life out here would be hard, much harder on Lagro than I had ever dreamed.  But in the end, there was only one choice that Lagro could make, and Grandfather knew it.”

“What if he didn’t?”

“Then,” said Mother, “your grandfather did not know his own son.”

After they were finished eating, Kira walked back to the storage room while Mother went to Town Hole.  She sat on the dusty old bed for a moment, resting her chin on her fist.  Then she got up, and started to look around.

She was keeping the spoons, that was for sure.  They were valuable—but more importantly, they had her father’s initials engraved on them.  There was a clock, too, but it was stopped and she did not know how to start it again.  Maybe one of the Proudfoots would know—in which case they could certainly keep it.  The vase, too, would be nice.

She began to look at the crockery.  It was the same stuff they had at home; it was just that with only two in the house they wouldn’t need so much of it.  That, then, was something to give away, but Kira began to wonder what would happen if she ever had to start her own household.  If she ever got married, and the two of them had to set out on their own much the same way her parents had, what would they do then?

Kira sighed.  She’d weed that row when she came to it.

She began to go through the drawers in the chest that stood against the wall opposite the bed.  The bottom three rows were all linens, but the top one was filled with mathoms that told a story she could not hear.  A strange looking rock or three, a few handkerchiefs, a bit of ribbon, a wooden hedgehog, and—impossible!  She reached to the back of the drawer and pulled it out.  A book?

It fit easily in her hand.  She cracked back the old leather and read the first lines, written in a large and clumsy hand in nut-brown ink.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               September 12, 1490

 

It is five o’clock and the sun is getting in my eyes.  Mum and Fox came in with tea at four, and I got them to open the window glass.  It smells like hay and sunshine, which makes me feel a little better.

But a week ago, I would have been out there.

I don’t understand.  It was just a little spell.

“Kira?”

Kira snapped the book shut and turned to the doorway.  “Mum?”

“I got a few names from Mr. Grimwig the clerk—the Burlytoes out in Tooting lost their things in a fire last month…”

“Why didn’t you tell me Father had a diary?”

“What?”

Kira held out the book.

“I’m sorry, Kira.”  She walked to her and took the book from her hands, flipped through it, and handed it back to her.  “He didn’t write in it very often, and I confess I’d quite forgotten about it!”

“I should have liked to have seen it sooner.”

“Well.  You may keep it now.  Did you find anything else?”

And Kira showed her the things she had set aside, and the things that she thought ought to go to one of the Proudfoots.  “Do you know what exactly it is that the family needs?”

“No,” said Mother, “we’ll have to go visit them.  I suppose that means we should limit ourselves to mathoms today.  Did you give any thought to the toy chest?”

“Oh!” said Kira.  “You wanted me to have those, didn’t you?”

“Eventually, yes, unless—”

“Then I’m taking them.”  She paused.  “We should probably wait for the movers for that, though.”

“Right.”  Mother nodded, then looked absently over the whole room.

“I wasn’t entirely sure about the rest of the things in this drawer, here,” said Kira.  There sat the rocks, and the handkerchiefs.  Mother reached inside to pull them out.  “The rocks don’t matter,” she said.  “I think he had those from when he was a child.  The handkerchiefs can go to someone who needs them.  And…”  She picked up the ribbon and rubbed it between her finger and thumb.  She pressed her lips together as she looked down at it.  “I think I’ll hang onto this a little longer,” and she put the ribbon in her pocket.  “I suppose that’s a good enough start.”

Kira nodded, and they walked home together in silence.

When she got to her room, Kira pulled out the diary and continued her reading.  There was another entry on the same page.

                                                                                                                                                                               September 13

 

I suppose I ought to explain how I came by this.

Well, five—six, now—days ago I was outside, running, and I felt a little dizzy and short of breath, and the next thing I knew I was in bed being coddled by Mother and Father.  It’s not the first time I’ve been coddled.  But most times I actually remember getting sick before I’m coddled.

Which doesn’t explain how I came by this.  Polo gave me this diary so I wouldn’t get very bored.  Because nothing says ‘boring’ like a book full of blank pages.  But that is Polo for you.  He was always a little bit daft.

But when you are bored you do whatever you have on hand, and I have this diary on hand now, so I’m writing in it.

The doctor says my heart is weak and I had best take care of it.  Mother is taking that to mean “lie down in bed for a week.”  It has almost been a week.  I had better be let out soon.

And the next page over:

                                                                                                                                                                               September 14

 

To-day I got in trouble.  It’s a week since my spell, so I got up, but Mum said it hasn’t been a week since the doctor visited.

I felt a little dizzy when I got up, but not too bad.

Anyhow, it’s back to bed for me.  Mother says she feels bad for me, but she’s the one keeping me here.  I don’t know why.

 

She closed the book again.  Mum had said she’d inherited her father’s bad health, but it had never really occurred to her that he would have experienced the same things—long hours cooped up inside with nothing to do and no reason why.  Suddenly she was filled with a yearning—so intense she normally associated it with the Histories—to run back in time, catch him, hold on to him, tell him that she understood him and he understood her…

He understood her…

He would have understood her if he’d lived to see her, all grown up and almost-woman, with a hole in her heart filled with not-quite-belonging.  Hadn’t Aunt Foxglove said he’d hated life at High Hole?

Kira sighed.  She did not hate life here, in the quiet hole and garden on the White Downs that her parents had wanted.  And he may have been lettered, but her father was no reader.

The late July sun was pouring heat from the sky.  Kira walked out of her room, out the front door, and to the well.  The sun had baked the well stones warm, and Kira sat down on one, alone to her thoughts.

 

*  *  *

 

The next day was tea with Daffodil—the first tea Kira had had with her since Mother recovered.

“So, you look better,” said Daffodil, once most of the eating was over.

“Not about to collapse with exhaustion, you mean.”

“I was worried, you know.  Everyone knows what happened to your father.”

“The doctor doesn’t think it was all overwork,” said Kira.  “I don’t think I was in any real danger.  How about all of you?”

“We’ve been fine the past ten days.  Roly and Floy got ill around the same time, and they got over it quickly.”

“Well, Mother doesn’t seem to be out of it any the worse for wear,” said Kira.  Except…  “Actually, we’re clearing out the mathom room now.”

“What?  Why?”

“I think I had a few choice words for Mother… I shouldn’t have said them, but she’s made up her mind now.  We’re going to give everything practical that we can away.  There’s a family that lost their things in a fire.”

“I suppose that’s good.  She’s dwelt on her grief so long, I think anything that could help her feel better—”

“I don’t know if it will, though!”

“Maybe not now, but surely it’s better, in the long run, than sitting around for years wishing things could be different.”

“Maybe,” said Kira.  “Mother got Kerry and Sandra to cut me.”

Daffodil’s jaw dropped.  “Your bookish friends?”

“I found out just before I got ill.  I would have told you sooner, only everything else…”

“How did she manage to do that?  One of them’s the Master’s son, right?”

“I said I wanted to go to their wedding more than anything,” said Kira.  “So I get to see them married in September.  But that’s it.”

“Kira, I’m so sorry!”

Kira shrugged.  “They went along with it.”

Daffodil stood, went behind Kira’s chair, and wrapped her arms around her friend’s shoulders.  “You must tell me whenever these terrible things happen.  It isn’t right to keep all of that cooped up inside you.”

“I’ve tried,” said Kira.

But she did not tell Daffodil about the diary, and when Tom came by the next day to deliver the manure, she was even closer around him than normal, to the point that he up and demanded why she was being so short with him.

“Please leave me alone, Tom,” she said; “I’m feeling remarkably tweenish today.”

And he did.

That gave Kira pause when she stopped to think about it.

After supper, in the waning sunlight, she finally had the heart to open her father’s diary again and read.

                                                                                                                                                                               October 17, 1499

 

Goodness!  I had quite forgotten about this.

Not really much more to say than that, is there?

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 20

 

Yes, I’m ill again, and apparently this time I’ve gotten bored enough to whip this old thing out.

I didn’t—we didn’t—understand it before, but now that the doctor’s involved we do.  He comes in and checks on me every few months, whether I’m sick or not.

My heart’s not well—that’s why I get ill more often, longer, for no reason at all sometimes.  And no, there’s nothing we can do about it, except eat well and rest.  Tho’ the doctor’s idea of well is hardly the same as mine!

So here I am.  Again.

I wish I could go outside.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 22

 

Joy.  Father has taken it on himself to teach me Deportment.  As if we haven’t been taught it all our lives!

________________________________

 

Well, there is a lot more to it than what we’ve been taught, apparently.  Atop courtesy, there is tact, which involves being a good deal more devious than just plain old being courteous would suggest.  Atop reading, and writing, and ciphering, there is managing, which is using reading, writing, and ciphering to get other people to do what you want them to.  And there are proper forms of writing letters, and proper forms of writing other things, and even though I know it’s the way things are done I can’t get a straight answer on why they are done this way!

Father says he wants me to go into the law, or into clerking, or something else like that.  He wants to give me skills that fit ‘with the limits of my heart.’  Truth is my heart isn’t terribly happy with forms, or with getting other people to do what you want them to do, or with being devious.  But if the doctor’s right I may not have a choice.

Oh, how wretched this is!

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 25

 

Sancho came and sat with me today, and we talked a bit about Dad and his Deportment.  Sancho told me not to mind Dad—he’s not singling me out, and it’s something we all have to go through.

“Grin and bear it, lad,” he said, “it seems like a waste of time now, but it’s stuff you’ll need to know.”

“But why?” I said.  “Why can’t we just tell people what we think of them up front?”

He laughed at that.  “That wouldn’t be very kind.”

“Then we should be kinder!”  I couldn’t think of anything to say after that, so I said, “There are too many rules.”

To which he replied, “I know, and I hated learning them, too.”  He shrugged at that.  I don’t think Sancho knows why there are so many rules either.  He said we just have to live with them.

It isn’t fair.  He doesn’t have a heart that keeps him at desk jobs.

 

________________________________

 

I complained to Sancho this evening, and he told me he doesn’t have a choice, either.  He’s the eldest, so he has to inherit all our holdings.  Apparently, Dad is setting him on all these accounts—rents paid by tenants, wages given to day labourers, expenses for the harvest home.

So I thought it over, and realised—yes, that is far worse than what I may have to deal with, and I told him so.  Sancho laughed and told me he’d be more than happy to let me do it once I came of age, if I couldn’t find any other suitable line of work.  So that’s a comfort.  I think I’d rather be clerking for my brother than lawyering on my own.

But both of those seem more suited to Polo than to me, really.  He actually likes words and numbers.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 26

 

The doctor thinks I’ll be well enough to get up tomorrow.  Hurrah!

I hope it hasn’t gotten terribly cold out in the meantime.

Fox came to see me today and she picked me a lovely posy.  She said I should press one of the flowers in my diary—she does that all the time, ever since she got hers.  I’m afraid Fox is a lot more regular in writing in her diary than I am.  She also told me to see that I write more often.

 

Kira turned the page; it was a bit stiffer than the others.  There was no flower pressed in it, but she could see the outline of green leaves and blue petals where it had once lain.  The page after it was dated five years later, so she put the diary away.

 

*  *  *

Next morning, she and Mother went in to town again.  After talking things over they had decided to write to the family in Tooting first, to learn when would be a suitable time to call.  Kira had also decided to write to her aunt and uncles to see which mathoms, if any, they wanted.  Only Master Goodbody was in to take letters down, though, so Kira had to sit and listen to Mother try and word an offer of charity tactfully.  When it was Kira’s turn, the clerk smoothly took out another sheet of paper, and winked at her, so quickly that she half thought it was a trick of her eyes.  Staying calm, she began to dictate the letter to her aunt.

About halfway through, Mother rose and told her that since Kira would clearly be a while, she may as well purchase some necessities.  As soon as the door closed behind her, Kira opened her mouth to continue the dictation, but Master Goodbody stayed her with his hand.

“If you please, Miss Kira, I have something for you,” he said.

“I was wondering,” said Kira.  “What is it?”

“A letter,” he said, “and a very curious one at that.”  He walked back to the pile of unsorted mail and picked up a letter sitting neatly beside it.  “It came with express instructions for the office to hold it for you, until you stop by, and then to deliver it to you in person and alone.”

Kira took the letter from his outstretched hand; all over the back in very large red letters were the instructions, along with the words “VERY IMPORTANT.”  She did not recognise the hand.

“It’s very fortunate that I’ve done business with you so often; otherwise I shouldn’t have known who to look for!”

Kira nodded.  There was a glint of curiosity in Master Goodbody’s eye.

“Well,” she said, “thank you for looking out for me.  I’m sure this letter’s important.  In fact,” she added, thinking, “you had better hold any letters that come in and are addressed to me—just to me, mind, not to my mum.  Unless they have the Warden’s or the Master’s or the Mayor’s seal on them, or something.”

“All right,” said Master Goodbody.

“And I hardly know how you got to be clerk if you’re this nosy about other people’s affairs!”

“I’m not nosy!”

Kira slid her thumb under the seal of her acquisition.  “Did you steam this open?”

“Maybe?”

She glared at him, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a coin.  “Satisfy your own curiosity if you must, but keep your judgements to yourself.  If I find out you’ve blabbed my secrets—any of them—to anyone, I’ll report you to the Mayor and you’ll find yourself out of a situation.”  She placed the coin in his palm.

“It was only a little…”

“To you, yes, but to me it’s a lot.”

“All right.”

“I promise I’ll tip you well if you hold my letters for me.”

“And if I don’t blab.”

“Yes.  Now, can I see where I left off so Mother doesn’t come back to find us bickering?”

As it turned out, when Kira was finished and the letter safely stowed between her bodice and her shift, Mother was waiting outside.  “All finished, then?” she said.

Kira nodded and they went home.

All through the walk her heart was thumping, though it was just a letter, after all.  She found herself wishing she had read the letter in the Post Office, or at least asked Master Goodbody who wrote it, or something.  Mother asked her if all was well.  Kira said that the fine weather had distracted her.

When at last she was home and alone in her room, Kira took the letter out, opened it, and flicked her eyes down to the bottom of the page.  “Oh,” she said.

 

July 3, 1552

 

My Dear Kira,

 

As my entire family seems to have gone mad, it falls to me to attempt to restore some sanity to your life and assure you that I, at least, still care about you.  Father told me all about the so-called agreement he and the Warden and your mum came to.  And I think it is utterly vile.  Honestly—and I mean no disrespect to my pig-headed brother and his intended—no amount of weddings is worth cutting a person for no reason other than our so-called corrupting influence on you—and that all on your mother’s word and not ours!  And of course, Kerry would be an ass and go along with it, whether he agrees with it or not.  To be quite frank, sometimes I have to wonder how it is that we’re related.

Well.  Luckily for you, I am not my brother, and I don’t give a fig what my father or your idiot mother says—I won’t cut you, and I will write to you as often as I please, and I don’t care if I get in trouble or not—which I won’t, because I won’t get caught—ha!  And since I’m apparently the only one in either my family or the Warden’s with the nerve to keep in touch with you, I suppose I must tell you all that is going on.

Well, I shall try my best.  I am now somewhat on parole, after that incident at the races, but Father is still very upset with me (I don’t think my telling him what was what about that agreement helped!).  He has told me No Riding for a month, and unfortunately the stablemaster and his sons are in on it, and none of them will budge!  I should have done what you did with Nienna and kept a pony out somewhere secret, but then we have so many more people out here than you do in the White Downs that I’d probably get found out sooner or later.

Mother was furious when she found out, of course.  I think she despairs of me.

Anyhow, I don’t regret a minute of it, and I suppose I shall have to grin and bear my punishment.  The trouble, however, does not seem to have limited my number of suitors.  I have already heard several heartstricken complaints that I was not allowed to any of the parties on Midyear’s, and I have had two visitors already since.  I have sent them away as I am Indisposed at the moment—but I do hope they’ll come back in a month’s time.  So I, at least, am stuck here scheming, and trying somewhat not to be bored!  Kerry told me if I’m really at a loss, I ought to try my hand at copying one of the Magnificent’s linguistic texts, but that stuff is so dry!

Kerry survived all the wedding planning, I am pleased to say, but I think he aged at least three years in the process.  I told him that if he could survive this, Mastering Buckland would be like filling in the corners.  He did not seem to find that particularly funny.

Sandra, on the other hand, was weathering things a lot better when I got to see her—which was not for very long.  I was a bit surprised at the time, but now I think she must just be grateful that they’re finally coming to some decisions.  The wedding’s only three months away, after all, and she’s had to listen to her mum nattering away about it since Yule!

Everyone else here is well, except—oh!  Kerry told me how you’d caught ill!  It sounded dreadful, and I hope you’ve pulled through it all right.  Anyhow, one of my cousins caught it, only we didn’t know he’d caught it till we’d all already come back, and now the doctor’s up to his neck in grippe.  How terrible a summer pest is, and especially at the Fair!  I wonder how it was that you caught it?  At any rate we are all trying to stay well here.  I should like to think that if I were to have caught anything I’d have done it at the Fair—but then I was stuck in our tents most of the time.

Do keep well, and see if you can manage to send word back to me!  I will keep writing to you as long as things are interesting over here—and you know that will be as long as I live here!  And tell your fool mother off for me; the way she’s trying to cage you up makes my blood boil!  I assure you that Kerry and Father have not been hearing the end of it from me!

 

                                                                                                                                                                   Your ever-loving and devoted cousin,

                                                                                                                                                                   Merina Brandybuck

                                                                                                                                                                   Hoyden and Troublemaker at Large

 

P.S.  I never thanked you for putting Nienna in the stables over the fair.  It was pleasant getting to see her again.

 

P.P.S.  I am going to put instructions on this letter so that the Post holds it in the Michel Delving office for you to pick up.  Let me know if it works.

 

P.P.P.S.  Kerry is beginning to look at me suspiciously, for I never write letters.  Perhaps the drawing room was not a good place to start this?

 

P.P.P.P.S.  Maybe I shall start doing some copying.  It should give me an excuse to write to you with no pesky elder brothers!

Kira reread the letter once, then twice.  “It’s not that simple,” she said.  “It never is.  And she’s not an idiot, nor a fool; she just—  Try living my life for half a month, Merina, and then you might understand.”  The letter fell from her hands, tumbled down her skirt, and settled to mingle with the dust on the floor.  Kerry was not an ass, either—well, perhaps he was, but that was a part of him, and you couldn’t wish all his respectability away without wishing for him to be, in some way, other than who he was.  Just as she couldn’t wish that Mother were reasonable… not really, anyway.

She would send word back to Merina—she had to, really, for Merina was trying to be kind, in her own way, but Kira did not know how much she truly wanted to hear from her, especially if she kept carrying on in this vein.  It was all fine and well for Merina to say she wouldn’t get caught, but the most she would receive was a slap on the wrist, whilst Kira…  Briefly she thought of turning the letter over to Mother, telling her that someone at least wasn’t keeping up an end of the bargain.  But as soon as the thought came to her she dismissed it.  The Brandybucks were still her friends, even if she couldn’t talk to them, and she would not hurt them.

She placed the letter under her bed with the others.

 

*  *  *

 

Two days later, Kira and her mother got a reply from the Burlytoes, asking them if they might come by to call on Thursday the third of August.  It being a suitable date, they sent a reply back through the posthobbit letting the family know that they would call sometime in the afternoon.  They worked well into the evening on that day, and the next, so that they could spend most of Thursday travelling to Tooting and back.  The village was a good four hours’ walk north of Michel Delving: not so far that they needed to borrow a pony and cart, but enough to take up most of the day, even for summer.  Wednesday evening was spent baking and bundling enough food for mealtimes.

After a hearty breakfast, they were off.  It was still early enough that the dew got into Kira’s fur and cooled her foot, and she had to place her crutch carefully so it wouldn’t slip on the slick grass.  A mile north of Delving the sun had dried off the dew, and Kira was in the territory of her storytelling work.  Quickly she started telling Mother about her spice seeds, which she had finally managed to plant while they were waiting for the Burlytoes’ letter, hoping that an intense conversation would forestall any farmers’ attempts to speak with her.  She could only hope that there were no children about.

“I’ve done some in sun,” she said, “and others in shade, and I’ve planted them at different depths, to see which ones do best.”

Mother remarked that this may not have been particularly wise, as even if you followed all the rules for each plant they could still fail, and if you didn’t have enough do well you could lose the whole crop—and all the seeds.

“If they are seeds,” said Kira.  “But if I plant them all too deep they could all fail.  I’d just like to see which ones come up for now, though.  I doubt there’s enough of a growing season left for these ones, and I’ve kept half the seeds back.”

“You will have to let me know how it goes,” said Mother, and Kira knew that she did not wholly approve of the endeavour.  Talk turned to the garden in general, and once the land began to grow unfamiliar, with no risk of worrisome interruptions, Kira was happy to let it die.

The rest of the trip was spent in silence and song.  Kira remembered the first time—on a cart trip to her cousin Delphie’s wedding in Buckland—that she mentioned that some of the songs were written out in the book she’d read.  Mother had looked at her with wonder on her face and asked what the point was in writing down a song that everyone already knew.  Kira’d had no good answer for that at the time, but upon a reread she realised that some of the words were different, here and there—due to the differences of space or time, she supposed.  It was strange—when she read the bits and pieces of the Downfall that were set in the Shire she liked to think of the Travellers as living in the same land as she.  But of course they hadn’t had canals or Lockholes or the mallorn then, and there was no Westmarch and her own home had been full of Proudfoots.

If Frodo hadn’t written it all down, she wouldn’t have noticed.

After several hours’ walking, and a number of judicious breaks along the way, they reached the small village of Tooting.  A quick enquiry about the Burlytoes led them to a little smial in one of the hills north of town, with a new wooden door and oilcloth windows.  Mother knocked on the door while Kira stood a respectful step behind.  It was opened by a hobbit who looked about fifty, and behind him Kira could see a slip of a girl, perhaps fifteen, holding the hand of a younger brother who was very clearly staring at them.

“Do I have the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Burlytoe?” said Mother.

The hobbit nodded.  “Are you Mrs. Proudfoot?”

“Yes, and this is my daughter, Kira.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Mr. Burlytoe, nodding twice more.  “Do—will you step inside?”

“Thank you—do come in, Kira.”

Kira stepped in and shut the door behind her.

She did not quite know what to expect, but she realised she had expected worse than what she saw.  The delving was clearly new, but the entire inside, from ceiling to floor, was outfitted in little brown blobby bricks, and the floor was strewn with rag rugs.

“This is quite a neat little hole for one so new,” said Mother.

“Ah!” said Mr. Burlytoe.  “Well, you see, after the accident, the whole village set a week’s end aside, and they worked all the way through to dig us this.  It’s a bit faster work than a cottage.  We tried to help out, but no one would let us, not even to carry any bricks over.  Mr. Toddle, you see, he’s a bricklayer, and those are quite rare, as you know, but his grand-dad picked up the trade from watching—oh, but here I go talking your ear off again!  Mrs. Proudfoot, may I introduce you to my wife, Mrs. Burlytoe, and Salva, dearest, this is Mrs. Proudfoot, and her daughter, Kira.”

Kira murmured a quick greeting to Mrs. Burlytoe, who had a baby in her arms, then cast a questioning look at her mother—she did not know if she was supposed to stay for the grown-up talk or not.

“All right, then,” said Mr. Burlytoe, “why don’t we—”  He looked from room to room—there were only two in the hole, and there was no door between them.

“Mrs. Burlytoe,” said Kira, “would you like me to take the children outside for a bit, so you and your husband can talk with my mum?”

“Oh!  Thank you, dear,” and she walked over and handed the baby (who had been looking a little restless) into Kira’s arms.  For a moment she stared blankly at it, the same stunned look on her face that she imagined all fathers had when presented with their firstborn child.  Then, shrugging to herself, she shifted the babe to her left arm and carefully left the smial.  Behind her, she could hear Mr. Burlytoe instructing the lass and her brother to follow her outside.

Once there, she gingerly sat down and looked at the baby.  She had dealt with faunts before, but infants…

“You can set him down, you know.”  Kira looked up.  The girl was standing in front of her, brother still in hand.  “He’ll crawl, but not very far.  At least, I can catch up with him.”

“Oh.  Thank you.”  She set the baby down in her lap; he almost immediately wriggled out and began investigating the grass.  “What’s your name?” said Kira.

“Celandine—Dina for short.  And Baby is Aldo, and Tam is in the middle.”  Tam turned and buried his face in Dina’s skirt.  “He’s very shy.”

“I’m pleased to meet all of you.”  Kira paused.  “Were you able to get any toys out from the fire?”

“I got my favourite dolly,” said Dina, “but that was it.  Tam didn’t think of grabbing anything until it was too late.  But we have plenty of toys now.  Everyone wanted to give us one after the fire.”

“Yes,” said Kira, “but I’ll bet it’s not the same.”

Dina shrugged.

“Well, if you’d like to have any of mine, I’ve outgrown all of them.  But it sounds as if you don’t need any.”

“No, but thanks.”  The girl sat down.  “Why did you want to help us, anyhow?  You’re not from Tooting.”

“Well,” said Kira.  “We have a lot more things than we need, and we wanted to help someone with them.”

“Most of the help’s already done, unless you have furnishings.  Those are dearer to come by.”

“We have a few,” said Kira.

“Why would you have more furnishings than you need?”

“Because it’s just my mum and me living at my home, and not the family she wanted to have.”

“Oh.  What about your daddy?”

“He died, a long time ago.”

“Oh.”  Dina paused.  The baby was now crawling behind her, so Kira had to crane her head to keep an eye on him.  “I think I’d rather lose my house than my daddy.”

Kira nodded.  “Well, he died before I was born, so I don’t know what it would have been like to have him at all.”

“I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.”

“I don’t know either.”

Kira stood up and went after Aldo before he got too far afield, scooping him up and back into the safety of her arms.

“Miss Kira?” said Dina.

“Yes?”

“If your daddy died so long ago, why didn’t you give his things to other folks then?”

“My mother misses him,” said Kira.  “I don’t quite know why she changed her mind now, but I know it means we get to help you out instead.”

“I’m not that fond of getting help,” said Dina.  “Not anymore.  I want things to get better enough that we can help other people.”

“Me, too,” said Kira.  She sighed.  “Let’s talk about something more cheerful.  Now, I know from experience that most children your age think they’re too old for them, but do you like the Travellers’ Tales?”

“Not really,” said Dina, “but Tam loves them.”

A half an hour later Mother and the Burlytoes came outside and invited them all back in for tea (which the Burlytoes insisted on, even though there weren’t quite enough chairs and Mrs. Proudfoot insisted that they needed nothing), and after much tea and much talk, they took their leave so as to get back home while there was still light.

“You looked quite happy with those children,” Mother said as they left the hills of Tooting behind.  “I think you’ll be a good mum someday—probably a sight better than I’ve been for you.”

“No—you’ve been a great mum,” said Kira.  “All the more so because you’ve had to work, and be more of a dad sometimes since he can’t be here with us.”

“Kira, you don’t think… you don’t think there’s any way that somehow, he’s still…”  Mother sounded worried.

“I think,” said Kira, “that folk who have died stay just a little bit alive, as long as there are people to remember them.”  To think anything more than that was folly, and though her books sometimes brushed at more, the whole idea was so incredible that every time Kira came close to thinking about it her mind skirted round it and fled back to the comfort of reality.  “And we’ll always remember Dad, won’t we?”

Mother placed her arm around Kira’s waist.  “Yes, my lass, we certainly will.”  She sighed.  “They didn’t need much, since the whole town pitched in to help them.  Only furniture—the whole lot of them are sleeping on the floor right now, and that’ll get downright uncomfortable come wintertime, if they don’t already have to deal with bugs and vermin.”

Kira said nothing.

“We’re giving them the bed.”

Kira looked at her, mouth half-open in astonishment.  “But, Mum—”

“I don’t know if I ever told you this, but you were born in that bed.  They managed to get me inside in time, though really I don’t remember too much of that day.”

“Are you sure?”

“They need it, and we don’t, and honestly I’ll be glad if that old thing can make some memories that are happy.”

And Kira did not have the heart to question her any further.

 

*  *  *

Mother did not call for Kira until ten o’clock on Friday—presumably to let her sleep in, but Kira was awake at seven.  Idly she pulled out her writing, and began to practice again, but her efforts were even messier than normal.  The episode with the Burlytoe children had reminded her of how much she loved the Histories, and how much more she loved sharing them, though it had now been a month since she’d had the chance to do it properly.  And Mother had not yet caught her out on that front, and the pressing need to make things known outweighed even the worst consequences.  She would have to start up her business again, and at any rate she needed to get Nienna out from the Delving stables.  She did not think she could afford to board her any longer.  So the next Saturday, when Mother gave her the afternoon off, Kira told her she’d be out walking, and set out for town.

The first stop was the post office—she’d given Merina’s letter a good deal of thought, and she knew exactly what her reply needed to say.  Master Goodbody was in, fortunately, and the first thing he did after saying hullo was hand her a scrap of paper.

“Eh?” she said.

“Postboy was going to give you a message two days ago, but he stopped by here before he headed south and I got him to write it down instead.

“Oh,” said Kira.  “Thank you.  That was very—considerate of you.”  She looked at the paper.

Mr. & Mrs. Twofoot’s children recovering from grippe—they would much like it if you could stop by and mind them in the near future as the farm needs work.

 

“Well,” she said to herself, “considering that this was one of the families I wanted to get in touch with, I daresay that’s a bit of good news.”  She turned the scrap over and handed it back to Master Goodbody.  “Could you make a note that I’ll call on the eighth?  And that I’ve been through the grippe myself so I shouldn’t catch it from the children.”

Master Goodbody sighed.  “This would be much easier if you yourself could write, you know.”

“I know,” said Kira.  “And believe me, it’s not for lack of trying.  Has anything else arrived for me?”

“Not that I know of.”

“All right, then,” said Kira, and she took a deep breath.  “I have a letter to dictate, for Merina Brandybuck of Brandy Hall—and please get it as word-for-word as you can.”

 

                                                                                                                                                                   August 5, 1552

                                                                                                                                                                  

Dear Merina,

 

Thank you for thinking of me and taking the time to write to me.  Obviously I have gotten over the grippe well, but Mother caught it after me so I didn’t even know you had written me until the twenty-ninth.  I hope you didn’t catch it as it went through the Hall; this one put me out for a week.

I hope you have had the time to think over some of the things you put down in your letter.  I certainly have, so I will tell you just once—you do not make my situation any easier when you call my mother names.

In fact, it would probably be better if you simply didn’t write to me altogether.  I know you do not care what would happen to you if you were to be found out, but think then of the rest of your family, and the Fairbairns—and me.  Truth be told, I have the most to lose, and I hope you will not call me a coward for asking you not to engage in any behaviour that could get me in trouble.

I know this is not to your liking.  Please do not take this as a sign of cooling affection for you or yours!  I wish I were as free or as bold to act as you are, but I am not.

I hope that you will think of me as often and as fondly as I do of you, and I hope to see you at the wedding.

 

                                                                                                                                                                   Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                                                   Kira

“Thank you,” said Kira, when she was done.  She swallowed once, paid Master Goodbody the fare, and left the shop.  She had done it—she had cut Merina, and she told herself it was as much for her own good as Kira’s.  But somewhere beneath all that practicality and pragmatics was a small part of her that wondered if she’d done the thing because she thought Mother was right.  Perhaps that was why she felt so low-spirited as she walked to the stables to see Nienna again for the first time in over a month.

The pony still recognised her—that was a start—but she did not look terribly happy.  Quite fit, though—she’d given the stablehobbit permission to take such a fine beast for rides over the winter and once he realised the emergency he must have succumbed to the temptation of riding such a fine pony.  After a quarter hour of coddling (she’d brought a carrot for the occasion), Kira told Nienna that she’d return promptly, and went out looking for the stablehobbit to settle the fare.

He was not near the stables, and she did not know where he lived, so Kira took a guess and made her way to the Oak Barrel Inn.  As it turned out, he was not inside enjoying himself, but was walking a pony from the inn in the direction of the stables.

“Hullo!” said Kira, coming up to him.

“Kira Proudfoot!” he said.  “You’re a sight for sore eyes.  And light pockets.”

Kira blushed.  “I’m terribly sorry about that.  I caught the grippe at the end of the fair, and my mum caught it right after me.  I simply haven’t had the time to check on Nienna till now.”

“No mind, no mind.”  He continued on his way back to the stables, and Kira walked alongside him.  “You weren’t the only one.  There was a gentlehobbit as caught ill just at the end of the fair and had to stay at the inn for four more days before he felt well enough to ride back home.  And we have a good history anyhow, and you have a good pony, and I figured if something truly awful happened I’d catch wind of it.”

“I’ll pay as much as I can now,” said Kira.  “But my own business has suffered this past month, and I may not have enough to pay you in full.  I promise I’ll pay you extra when I get the chance—after all, I had no real way of knowing what you’d do when I didn’t pick her up when we’d planned.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to turn her out.  It’d be a real crime, aside from the fact that she’s yours.  And you, my lass, are in very special circumstances.”

“Thank you, all the same.”

“Now,” he said, “I’ll have to get this new customer settled first, but after that, why don’t we talk over the bill?”

Kira helped him stable the pony, and after that emptied the contents of her purse before him.  It was not enough, but he insisted that she keep two farthings back, in case of emergencies.  Nienna seemed eager to show her steps as Kira rode her out of the stables.  She stopped at the Tunnellies and the Grimwigs to arrange to call the next week, and rode Nienna back to the abandoned cottage and returned home.

The next day Kira had to go into town again.  Mother had paid for two carters to move the bed and other sundries to the Burlytoes, but they needed some additional direction and hands—though Kira couldn’t be of much use for the latter.  So well into the afternoon, they shifted things around in the old mathom room until the carters could take the bed apart and remove it, piece by piece, from the storage tunnels.  After that came a small table, a chest, and half the dishes.  When, at three o’clock, they watched the cart pull out into the road, Kira went back inside to look at the now-skeletal storeroom.  They’d be able to rent a smaller room at the end of the month, and soon that particular tunnel would house someone else’s memories.  As the door shut behind her she wondered if they’d done the right thing.

On the eighth, Kira rode out to see the Twofoots.  The children had recovered sufficiently that they no longer needed to be kept in bed, but Lilac still had a bit of a cough and insisted on remaining abed for further attention.  So, while Willem played games in the next room over (and well within earshot), Kira sat at Lilac’s bedside and continued the story of Éowyn.

“Where was I the last time I told this tale?” said Kira.

“Éowyn was off on her own looking after the people while all the Men went to fight.”

“Right,” said Kira.  “And she was very worried, because her uncle was there, and her brother, and the very nice dark-haired man who was going to take her away after all of this was over.”

“That’s Strider, right?” said Lilac.

“Yes,” said Kira, “and if he were as strong and brave and noble as all the tales say he was, I think I’d fancy him just a little, too.”

“But he’s Big!”

“I said a little.  Anyhow, when the battle was over the King sent a messenger to Éowyn, letting her know three things: that the main host of Saruman was beaten back; that he, her brother, and the Outlanders were safe; and that they would be treating with Saruman at Isengard a few days hence.  So she was able to rest easier for a few days, but nothing could have prepared her for what would come next.

“Strider stopped by, and the Rangers, too, who had come down from the North to help him, but the army of Rohan was nowhere to be seen.  They were taking the hidden paths through the hills, Strider said, but the Rangers had ridden on the open plains because they needed to get where they were going fast.”

“Where were they going?”

“To the Paths of the Dead, which Éowyn knew about all too well.  No one who ever went in there got out alive.”

“Why not?”

“It was haunted.  Thousands of years before, some Men had sworn to help the King fight a great battle.  But when he called for them, they didn’t come, so he cursed them so they’d never have any peace until they helped him—not even after they died.  So their ghosts just lived there, and the few who were foolhardy enough to go after them died.”

“Why did Strider need to go there?”

“Because it was the fastest way to the Sea—and from the Sea he could go up and help Gondor’s biggest city, which would be under siege by the time he got there.  And he knew that because he’d gotten a device that let him see what the Enemy’s plans were, and he knew he was needed down there.”

“My,” said Lilac.

“But all of that’s neither here nor there.  Strider couldn’t tell Éowyn what he knew, because the device was a secret, and she couldn’t know that he’d get through there alive because few remembered why the Dead had gotten cursed in the first place.”

“Why could Strider get through alive?”

“Because he’s the King, silly!  Well, was—his son is, now.”

“But he wasn’t King yet,” said Lilac.

“Right.  Anyhow, all that Éowyn knew was that the man she fancied, who was noble and kind and very good at battle, was going into a land where no one had come out alive before.  So she was very worried, and she had to speak with him all alone.

“She told him what was on her mind, how it was foolish to throw your life away like that, but he said that he would go and hang the consequences.  Then she asked if he could take her along.”

“Oh.”

“Well,” said Kira, “she did fancy him, and it didn’t seem fair that once again he was telling her all the things everyone else had told her—be a good woman, stay home and keep the house because someone’s got to be there to defend these things in case we go off dying in a blaze of glory.  And Éowyn didn’t like that in the least, especially coming from him, especially if he was going to go and throw his life away like that.  And it certainly didn’t seem fair that all of his friends got to follow him into death but she couldn’t come with.  After all, he was supposed to rescue her.

“But Strider said ‘no’ to that, too, and when Éowyn told him that she loved him he said that his heart was already taken.  And Strider left with his men, and Éowyn was left to think over all that had happened.  And she realised that no one was ever going to come to her rescue, and if that was the case, she’d have to do all the rescuing herself.  And she began to think of she ought to do this.

“A few days later, Théoden and his men came along, and along with them, Merry Brandybuck, who had sworn himself into Théoden’s service.  Théoden King laid out his plans for war: there would be a muster the next day, and then he and Éomer would ride to Gondor’s aid.  And that was when Éowyn met Merry, sputtering in indignation because the King would not let him ride along.  She’d already made plans, but she quickly changed them to let Merry in as well.  That night, she put away her dresses and got out a rider’s gear, and she bound up her chest, for she was going to be a soldier now, and she couldn’t get caught.  Then she found Merry, and told him to ride with her—since she was lighter than a man, her horse could bear his weight as well as hers.  But he didn’t recognise her, nor that she was a woman.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” said Kira, “Éowyn was twice as tall as Merry, and he hadn’t seen many Women at all.  And also,” she added, “because he was a lad and lads can be very thick about the silliest things.  Anyhow, they rode out with the rest of the army, and Éowyn was free at last, though it might only be free to die in battle.  And she thought she was happy.”

Was she happy?”

“Well, you’ll have to keep listening to find out.  Next time I come by, though, I’ll tell you all about the battle.  It’s a very good bit of the story, and Merry does something brave enough to excuse all the rest of his thickness.”

“That’s good,” said Lilac.  “Could you make some milk toast for me, please?”  Kira did as she was bid, and while she was at it, she loudly informed Willem that she was done with her taletelling for the day, so he could safely rejoin Lilac without being called a baby.  Willem stuck his tongue out at that.

But when Lilac was eating, she started to ask questions.  “Kira, was Éowyn really that happy?”

“Do you think she was?”

“I mean, if she really was, you’d have said so.  But I was wondering if she was ever happy, before then.”

“I don’t know,” Kira confessed.  “I think it’s harder for Big Folk, especially the ones who are stuck doing something they don’t like, because they don’t have us around to remind them of all the good things in life.  But I promise you, Éowyn will be happy by the end of the tale.”

“Good,” said Lilac, “because it’s not a very happy story.”

And it wasn’t, really.

When the Twofoots came back, they paid her—not much for the visit, mind, but it was money!—and Kira returned home.  Two days later she visited the Tunnellies and the Grimwigs (Tanto still needed his tutoring), and she felt the Shire begin to settle under her foot again.  But there was something else she needed to.

She had to see if she could find Hal.

She still remembered the directions he had given her, vague as they were, and if she left early enough perhaps she could make a trip over there and back, the way she and Mother had for the Burlytoes, and she knew she’d be sore the next day, for she’d be riding, but it would be worth it if she could win a new heart over.

So she worked extra hard at the garden, enough to justify wandering off for a day, and early in the morning on the thirteenth she told Mother she wanted to spend the day out walking, packed herself two spare meals, and set off.

The road heading east was better than Kira had expected, and Nienna was eager to show her paces.  So Kira nudged her into a gallop, and indulged herself in a bit of fancy, pretending she was riding to Gondor and away from all her troubles.  Of course, thought Kira, they didn’t really go away, but she ignored that fact.

After the first stretch Kira slowed Nienna down and had a small snack in the saddle, amazed that so far she had only seen a few holes here and there—hardly anything that would warrant a road this good.  She wished she’d had the chance to see a map at the Fair before she’d gotten ill—she was crossing roads now, and if she were able perhaps she could match them up to where they would be on the East-West road.  And as the sun rose to her zenith she began to wonder if she’d made the right choice.  What if Hal had gotten his directions wrong?

At eleven o’clock she crossed a small stream, and Kira got off to let Nienna drink and to cool her own feet.  After a spate of gentle rolls it was starting to get hilly again—a fine place to dig—and water increased the likelihood of a town’s being nearby.  Nienna was up to the challenge of another ride.

The road turned north, ever so slightly, to make its way between the hills, and Kira began to see more delvings in the hillsides.  It looked promising enough, and when the road began to lead down into a valley nestled into a town she could have whooped for joy.  She had never been so far afield from home before, not on her own, and she walked down into the valley, as slowly as she pleased, to take in the sights.  There was another stream here, too, unless it was the same one bent around among the hills, and it had a nice little bridge going over it.

She looked around her—Hal had said his home was the largest smial for miles.  He might have been exaggerating, but if there were any large ones they were likelier in a town like this than elsewhere.  Otherwise it was time to stop in an inn for a meal, find out where she actually was, and head back.  But nothing appeared out of the ordinary.  “Just one more hill,” she told herself, and rode the road out of the valley.

The next one over had more luck.  The same stream fed here, too, and there was an actual meadow, with children playing in it, and fewer holes.  It looked more like an estate of sorts.  Of course, silly, she told herself, for Hal had been dressed quite well, and if his family lived in a big hole they were in all likelihood gentry…

And there, set in the back of a hill, with terraces and stairs and all, was a hole—and a very large one at that.  Kira got off her pony and began to walk towards it.  As she got closer she saw the number of windows and doors, and tried to calculate—if indeed it was only one smial—how many people could be living in there.  Why, come to think of it, the only home she had seen that was that big was Brandy Hall…

Kira froze in place as she realised exactly where she was.  “No,” she said to herself.  “No, no, no…”

One of the doors opened, and out came a small hobbit with a large hamper in his hands, running down the staircase pell-mell.  He stopped in the middle of the meadow, set the hamper down, and turned back to the smial.  Then his head snapped back to Kira, still standing there with the reins in hand, and waved.  “Kira Lamefoot!” he cried.  “You’ve come!”  And before she could do anything about it, Hal ran up to her and hugged her about the knees.

“Hal!” she said.  “Why didn’t you tell me where you lived?”

“Uncle Holfast didn’t think it a very good idea.  Would you like to meet my parents?”

“Uncle…”  But Hal had already taken off, back towards the smial, to meet a grown hobbit and his wife, and Kira had no choice but to follow.

“Father,” she could hear Hal saying, “This is Kira—”

He’d stopped speaking.  Kira looked up at him to see why.  Hal’s father was staring at her.  Her heart lurched into a race, and she stared right back at him.  The last time she’d seen that face was in the study of Bag End, locking all the books in the Shire away and dooming so much of her life to endless struggle.

Hal was the Thain’s son.

It felt as if all the blood had drained right from her body, down through the sole of her foot into the ground, even though she could feel her heart hammering through her ears.

“Who?” said the Thain’s wife.

“Kira Lamefoot,” said Hal.

“My apologies,” said the Thain.  “Magnolia, this is Kira Proudfoot, the girl who lost the Book all those years ago.”

“Thank you, Mr. Took,” said Kira, bowing her head just a little, “but I am twenty-seven now, hardly a ‘girl,’ and perfectly capable of taking care of myself.  And I apologise for trespassing on your land.  Had I known who you were…”  She stopped, trying to think of something to say that would be neither false nor rude.  “I should have put more thought into coming down here.”

“Well,” said the Thain, “if it is any comfort to you, all that young Halbarad here asked me was whether or not a storyteller could come by at some point in the near future—not a word about your name, or when you would come.  However, since you are here now, your company would be a pleasure—provided, of course, that you are willing to tell stories as my son asked.”

Kira’s eyes glinted.  “Oh, I assure you, Mr. Took, I have plenty of stories to share!”

“Hal,” said the Thain, “would you run inside and see if the cooks can put together another small basket?  And please ask one of the stablehands to come by and tend to the pony.”

“Yes, Dad!” Hal said, and scampered back in the direction of Great Smials.  Mrs. Magnolia Took was unpacking the basket that they had already brought out and unfolding the blanket on the ground.

The Thain gestured for Kira to sit.  “So,” he said, “what sorts of tales do you tell, Miss Proudfoot?”

“True ones,” said Kira.

“Pardon?” said Magnolia.

“I’m sorry,” said Kira, “I thought you'd be aware of the special relationship I have with the Thain.  I tell Travellers’ Tales—real Travellers’ Tales, ma’am, and other pieces of history that I can glean from the countryside, and I don’t varnish them.  I know that some,” she said, giving the Thain a pointed look, “find this activity dangerously subversive, but I can guarantee that none of my listeners, as yet, have gone on any adventures or engaged in any acts of wanton destruction of property.  I hope that by allowing me to come here you haven’t endangered your son by awakening in him such, quite frankly, Tookish desires.”

“Miss Proudfoot,” said the Thain, “I think that’s hardly a concern—”

“Of course, I’d forgotten.  He’s probably already learned about this stuff, since he’s a Took and not one of the great lice-eaten masses who actually works for a living and consequently has no need for learning, much less those sentimental fripperies known as ‘hopes’ and ‘dreams’…”

Miss Proudfoot!  Pray, do not presume what I or anyone else in this smial thinks—much less that you have a so-called special relationship with me because of a decision made twelve years ago!”

“What decision, Auduin?” said Magnolia, laying a hand on his arm.

“I am referring to the decision to keep our books inside their libraries to prevent another such accident as the one in which Kira was involved.  An unfortunate consequence was that she herself no longer had access to those books, which, considering that her initial access to them caused the danger to begin with, was perhaps not as unjust as it, no doubt, felt at the time.”

Kira opened her mouth to make an angry retort, but just then three children came running outside, to the picnic, saying that Hal had bumped into them and told them about the storyteller and where she was.

“Thank you,” said Kira, softening at their arrival, “but as Hal requested me, I think it’s best to wait patiently until he returns, isn’t it?”  The children nodded and withdrew to a distance they thought was polite, while Kira began to eat and attempt to make polite conversation with the Thain and his wife.  Unfortunately, every few minutes she was interrupted by the arrival of another clump of children; until, by the time Hal came back, basket in hand and stablehand in tow, there were two dozen children of varying ages, and Kira had only gotten a dozen bites in.

“Could you tell us a story now, Kira Lamefoot?” said one of the young Tooks.

“Yes,” said Kira, setting down her food and flicking her eyes over at the Thain once more.  “I believe I could manage that.

“Once upon a time, there was a prince of a faraway and noble land who was of the age to marry.  And seeing the number of women in his land both fair and good, he decided that he would marry for nothing less than love itself, and would not limit himself to those of his rank.  So he disguised himself as a beggar and went among the common people for many months.

“Upon his travels he met a farmer’s daughter, plain, but with a sort of spark in her that caught his interest.  So he hired himself at her father’s farm, to be an extra hand, and worked hard and tried to acquaint himself with the entire household.

“The farmer’s daughter did not think much of him, but she still listened to him when he spoke, because no one else would and it was her duty to make all feel at home.  And bit by bit he began to cultivate the spark within her, until it turned into a tiny flame.  She began to appreciate the things that he had to say, and the more they spoke the less he could keep hidden about himself and his true nature.  He told her of his homeland and the good things to be found there, and she believed him.  But her friends and family began to distrust the prince, because he was a stranger and did not carry himself the way an ordinary farmhand should.

“At length the farmer’s daughter returned the prince’s regard, for he had loved her for a long time.  They plighted their troth under the moonlight and promised to return to his home in a week’s time in order to marry.  But on the fifth day her family caught wind of the plan, and tied the prince up in the stables and beat him.  In vain he told them of his name and rank, and the people who would surely seek retribution if he should die.  And the farmer’s daughter, trying to free him, was also caught, bound, and made to watch him in his torment.

“It is not known whether her family meant to kill the prince, or simply beat him until he learned his lesson.  But his wounds were too much for him and he died, and his beloved was inconsolable.

“The farmer’s daughter now packed up her things and ran away from home, to tell the king and the queen what had befallen their son, for none knew where he had gone.  But when she told them the sad news, they were furious, said that she had seduced him for her own gain, and then had had him killed so that she might become the royal household’s only heir.  They returned her to her family, to grow old and die with a people no longer hers, and the next day made a decree that no nobleman should ever court or marry a peasant, lest they suffer the same fate as their son.

“And that is why among Men the nobles marry among each other, and the peasants among each other, and there is to be as little contact between the two as possible, and it is considered lucky if anyone manages to marry for love.

“Now, if anyone can tell me the meaning of this tale I will gladly tell another, happier and truer.  But until then I beg you not to request any more from me, for I shall tell you none.”  And Kira returned to her food in stony silence, and when the children—Hal especially—clamoured for an explanation, or another tale, or anything that was better than what she had just given them, she did not reply.

At length the children scattered, until only Hal mournfully remained—and he, too, left when his parents told him to.

“Only true tales, Kira?” said Magnolia.

“I changed the particulars.  Normally I don’t do that—in fact, this is the first time I’ve tried.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve tried telling the actual tale, and people don’t understand.”  She turned her eyes to the Thain.

“Whether we do understand it or not,” he said, “you are a guest here and I would appreciate it if you afforded us the same respect we afford you.”

“I’ll thank you for the reminder, then, Auduin.”

“Miss Proudfoot.”  Mrs. Took laid a hand upon her arm.  “Would you like a tour of Great Smials?  I assure you there are plenty of things you would find of interest.”

Kira looked at her.  She knew what she was trying to do, and she wanted to protest outright, but she had never been and if Great Smials was anything like Brandy Hall or Bag End (which she somewhat doubted), they’d have ever so many relics of Thain Pippin…  “Thank you, Mrs. Took.  I should like that very much,” she said, and she chided herself for taking the bait.

“Now,” said Magnolia, when they were nearly at the main door.  “Will you tell me what is the matter?”

“Hasn’t your husband already told you?”

Magnolia opened the door for Kira and gestured for her to step inside.  “Yes,” she said, “but I am interested in hearing what you have to say, my dear.”

And somehow being called “dear” by the Thain’s wife did not sting.  Kira flushed red.  “I am sorry,” she said.  “But I hadn’t expected Hal to invite me here, much less that he was your son, and the whole thing’s been such a shock…”

“And what of the decision Auduin alluded to?”

“It broke my heart,” said Kira.  “And in a way, I think I hate him more than my friend who killed the book, because your husband knows the Histories are real.”

“Hate?” said Magnolia, and her eyes were filled with sorrow.

“I’m sorry.” Kira was studying the hem of her skirt.

“If you wish to return to this smial—and I, for one, should like it if you did, for Hal would be so very sad if you didn’t—I suggest you revise your opinion of its people, Miss Proudfoot.”

“That,” Kira said, “is going to prove most difficult, and I’m afraid I haven’t the heart to try.”

“Well, then,” said Magnolia, “if this is to be your only visit here, I had better show you all the sights.  You are rather fond of the Travellers, are you not?”

She showed her the old room—the one that Pippin had spoken of in Fangorn, that was Gerontius’, and hadn’t been changed since he was alive.  Peregrin, she heard Magnolia tell her, had restored it—the furniture had to be repaired, it was true, but it was kept in precisely the same locations.  A few things had been added since then—Pippin’s sword, for example, as well as a magnificent oak cabinet—but all in all, it still looked, and felt, old.  It hadn’t been changed since he retired South, and Kira could tell from the smell alone.  Then, there were a few old fancies in the mathom room, which was almost as extensive as (albeit rather more neglected than) the Museum in Michel Delving.  All throughout, the smial reminded Kira of nothing so much as High Hole, except that all the grandeur seemed almost natural here, as if it were perfectly normal to place a ball-room with a great big chandelier and silver mirrors in the middle of the smial if you were a Took.

“Is there anything else you’d like to see?” Mrs. Took asked her when she was finished.

Kira hesitated.  It was stupid, helplessly stupid even to ask when she knew she would only be able to look, but—“Actually, do you think you could let me see your library?”

“Certainly—oh, why didn’t you say anything earlier?  Please, follow me,” she said, and she led Kira back to the mathom room, but turned aside to a wooden staircase with dark green velvet runners, and led Kira up the stairs.  Beyond them was a set of double doors that arced together at the top, ornamented by two handsome brass doorknobs.  Magnolia held them open, and Kira stepped inside.

The libraries at Brandy Hall and Undertowers were both dark—Undertowers, with its stone walls, torches in sconces, and roaring fireplaces, had the appearance of a dungeon that one wouldn’t mind at all to be locked in, with rocking chairs and blankets so that you could sit down and tell a story.  Brandy Hall’s was studded with candles, and the dark wood of the tables where she had seen Kerry working was muted with spilt wax.  This one, though, was all light—there were no less than five windows in the ceiling, all shining down on five round tables, with small bookshelves placed in between them to lend the reader some privacy.  Then, there was the shelving going all around the circumference of the room—seven shelves, reaching at least as many feet high, and stepladders—stepladders!—that wheeled around on the wall.  Tooks, Kira thought to herself, but she knew she was falling in love.  Drat.

“Do you mind if I have a look around?” she asked Magnolia.  “I—I might be some time.”

Magnolia thought for a moment.  “Tell you what—why don’t I leave you here for a while, and when you’re done, you can go back outside and find me or the Thain, and we’ll see what should happen next then, eh?”

Kira nodded.  “I’d like that very much, Mrs. Took.  Thank you.”

She closed the door behind her, and Kira was left alone in the most beautiful library she had ever seen.  It wasn’t fair, she thought, as she circled the stacks, brushing her knuckles against old leather spines that smelt of dust and bygone eras.  By rights this should be hers, as much as any Took’s, not because she, too, was a scion of a Traveller, but just the simple fact that she could read.  She reached out to a book at random, ready to pull it from its shelf, but her hand stopped an inch away from it.  It would not do to get lost in another world when she was already so far from home.  She sighed, and kept walking, her crutch making an odd thump against the wood of the floor.

So lost in her thoughts was she that she did not notice the hobbit sleeping at one of the tables in the back, clustered among the shelving, until she was nearly upon him.  His arms were sprawled over the desk, and his head lolled over them, so that all she could see of his head was a mop of light brown curls.  Cautiously, she took a step around the table to get a better look at his face, only to find that his eyes were, in fact, wide open, and staring right through her.

She nearly stumbled back in shock.  “Hullo,” she said.

He squinted to focus his eyes on her, then blinked, sat up, and said, “Hullo.”

She paused, unsure of what to say next, then held out her hand.  “My name’s Kira.  What’s yours?”

“I’m Alaric.”  He took her hand and shook it.  “I’m sorry—what are you doing here?”

“The Thain’s wife showed me in.  Am I not supposed to be here?”

“No, no, it’s not that!  I just wasn’t expecting—well, anyone, really.  If I had been—”

“You’d have found a better place to take a nap?”  Kira smiled.

“No, I’d have looked like I was doing something.  I wasn’t napping; I was hiding.”

“Hiding?”

“Well, half hiding, half nursing a headache, and half punishing myself so I won’t have to be punished by someone else, but mostly hiding.”

Kira pursed her lips together.  “This doesn’t seem like a particularly good place to hide.”

“Oh, it’s marvellous!  Hardly anyone ever comes up here, and if they do, I can pull out a book and make it look like I’m reading, and then—lo, I’m doing something productive and I get a pat on the head and I get left alone again.  Probably my favourite spot to go to.”

“Hmm.  Somehow I don’t think that’s what Peregrin had in mind when he dug this room.”

“What’s that to you?”

“Oh, nothing, only I’m standing in the most gorgeous collection of books I’ve ever seen and apparently the only person in this hole who ever comes here comes here to hide.  I hope you at least read one of these every once in a while!”

“No.  Why should I?”

“They’re books!  Books are meant to be read!”

“Then let someone else read them!  I’ve tried, and they’re all dull!”

Kira made a little noise of disgust.  “Fine,” she said.  She trudged around the bookshelves, taking especial care to slam her crutch into the floorboards, until she found one that stuck out to her: a small, weathered-looking volume bound in brown leather.  She jerked it from its place, for it would not come out of the shelf easily.  The leather was stiff, there was some sort of a bird embossed on the cover, and it smelled peculiar, especially when she opened it up, and found, to her delight, that the book was filled with poems.  Resisting the urge to sit down and read it right there, though, she made a point of returning to Alaric and sitting across from him before she began to read. 

Have you ever gone to bed at night a-tasting the sea-air,
And woken up to salt encrusted all through your foot-hair,
And there’s naught above but sky,
And the wind blows where it will,
And the bent world rolls beneath you
But the ship stays still?

 

Have you ever rowed in waters that are governed by the moon,
Till your hand becomes a blister and your toe becomes a prune,
And the daytime is a blaze,
And the nighttime is a chill,
And the bent world rolls beneath you
But the ship stays still?

 

Have you ever stood atop the nest when dawn is near at hand,
And heard the cries of sea-gulls as they herald you to land,
And your eyes are staring open,
And your ears take in their fill,
And your mind, it is a-racing,
But your heart stands still?

“You’re not a Took.”

“Eh?”  Kira looked up from the book to find Alaric looking at her.

“I said, ‘You’re not a Took.’”

“No,” said Kira.  “I’m not.  How very astute of you.”  She turned the page in her book.

“What is your family name, then, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“It’s Proudfoot, as in ‘The Proudfoots of High Hole, Westmarch.’  But I hail from the White Downs, just south of Michel Delving, where my mother and I run a little herb garden, my father having died twenty-seven years before.  Oh, and I was born this way, and no, it isn’t an inconvenience; it just hurts a little over the cold months.  Is there anything else you’d like to know about me?”

“Yes.  Why do you like reading so much?”

“Why don’t you?”

“I told you.  It’s dull.”

“Alaric,” said Kira, “have you tried reading every single book in this library?”

“No.”

“Then I hardly think you can state that reading is dull.  Here,” she said, and she read aloud the poem for him.  “Is that dull?”

“That’s poetry.  It’s different.”

“All right, then.  ‘He drew Sting and ran towards the open gate.  But just as he was about to pass under its great arch he felt a shock: as if he had run into some web like Shelob’s, only invisible.  He could see no obstacle, but something too strong for his will to overcome barred the way.’  Not, poetry, prose, and pure history.”

“Did that really happen?” said Alaric.

Sting,” said Kira.  “Sitting on the mantelpiece in Bag End.  Or did your mum not see fit to teach you that?”

“Oh.”  Alaric paused.  “Travellers’ Tales?” he hazarded.

Histories,” said Kira, “but yes.  It’s from when Sam’s trying to rescue Frodo.”

“Hmm,” he said.  “From that orc-tower, right?”

Kira nodded.

“See?  I haven’t forgot it all!”

“I’m glad to hear you learnt it in the first place,” Kira said drily.

Oh, yes,” said Alaric.  “Had to read the entire Downfall when I was taking lessons.  The schoolmaster made me write an essay, actually, on that bit where Frodo’s supposedly dead, defending Sam for taking the Ring from him.”  He grimaced.  “I just remember wondering why he couldn’t have made up his mind earlier and spared me a few pages of agnonising monologue.”

Kira gaped at him.  “Well, Master Took,I’m terribly sorry that Sam Gamgee was too preoccupied with his own conflicted feelings to give any thought to the concerns of posterity as they sat idling away the hours in the nursery!”

“No, it’s not that—I just don’t see why I had to read all that in the first place!  I mean, it happened so long ago, and I’m sure it mattered to him when it happened, but he’s dead and gone…”

“Yes, and so are your great-grandparents, but that doesn’t mean you don’t keep up the family stories!”

“Ugh!  I am sick and tired of hearing about my great-grandparents!”  Alaric stood and began to walk towards the library door.

“Alaric,” said Kira.

He stopped.

“I’m sorry.  Did you know your great-grandparents?”

“No,” he said, without turning around.

“I didn’t either.  What about grandparents?  Have any of them passed on?”

“All of them but one.”

“Do you have any good memories of them?”

He nodded.  “Grandfather was the one who told me I should go here, instead of my room, if I got myself in trouble.  Said it’d do me more good.  Don’t know if it has, but it’s a prettier place to go.”

“And you shouldn’t recall that he said that, just because he’s not around to say it to you again?”

“Look, it’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?”

“I—I don’t know.”

Kira stood up, followed him, and reached up to touch him lightly on the shoulder.

“Try reading the histories next time you run up here.”  She sighed and walked to the library door.

When she was three feet away, though, it opened, and in stepped a short, elderly hobbit with crows-feet around her eyes and her snow-white hair pulled back into a bun.  “Pardon me,” she said.  “Are you Miss Proudfoot?”

“I am,” said Kira.

“Good.  I have an answer to your riddle.  The prince is the Red Book of Westmarch, his parents are those who were charged to look after it, and the poor farmer’s daughter who got caught up in the whole mess is you, you silly thing.”  She smiled, and not unkindly, to soften the smart of her words.  “And if that answer suffices, perhaps you can act like a grown hobbit and stop dragging the children of this good smial into your petty squabbles with my son.”

Kira blinked.  “That is indeed the answer to my story.  But who are you, madam, and how did you know?”

“I am Goldilocks Took, Miss Proudfoot, and I know because I listen, and I have known of you since that accident all those years before.  Young Halbarad came to me, after your little lark outside.  He was most upset by the tale; it wasn’t what he was expecting at all.  It wasn’t too hard to put two and two together—in fact, I suspect Auduin did, but he didn’t respond.  Quite right, too, after such a callous insult to him in his own home.  If you thought you were being clever, perhaps you were, but you were not particularly subtle.”

Kira sighed, but she held her chin up.  “I wasn’t trying to be subtle.  I was trying to get everyone to understand.”

“What made you think that no one understood before?”

“Well, if someone did, surely I’d be treated with a little more kindness!”

“Kindness?  You came here unannounced, but you were fed, and your pony was stabled, and you were permitted—nay, asked—to tell your stories here.  When, in response, you were so rude as to insult the master of this hole, in front of his wife and all the children, you were given a walking-tour of the grounds, and even allowed to wander this library at your leisure.  I think you will find, Miss Proudfoot, that there is a difference between kindness and getting exactly what you want.  Perhaps you would do well to improve your own understanding of this smial and the people who live here, before you match our supposed unkindness with your own.”

Her words sank in.  “I am sorry,” said Kira.  “I’m afraid I hold grudges too well for my own good.  You must all think I’m an awful person, or at least that I’m uncouth.”

“I think you’re young,” said Goldilocks, “and that you don’t yet know how to respond with grace to those who disagree with you.  It is not such a terrible thing, to be unpractised in such matters.  I can recall many times that I did the same.”

“What do I do now, then?”

“That, my dear, is entirely up to you.  But if you are asking for my advice, I suggest that you do the right thing, and apologise to all those you have offended—but especially Hal, who, after all, did not know who you were when he invited you, and all the children, who do not yet deserve to be involved in a struggle not of their own making.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Took,” said Kira.  “Truly, I didn’t realise what I was doing, especially to Hal.”

“Oh, don’t think I did this for your benefit,” said Goldilocks, with a smile.  “I came to speak to you because Hal was hurting, and I’d be a bad grandmother if I didn’t do all I could to stop it.  The same goes for you, Alaric,” she added.  He was standing ten feet behind Kira, half hidden by the bookshelves, his thumb jammed between two pages of the poetry book that Kira had been reading.  She hadn’t even realised he was lingering there, but Goldilocks must have.  “Quit your moping and come downstairs.  If I’m not mistaken, you may get to hear Miss Proudfoot spin a proper tale.”  She looked to Kira for confirmation; Kira gave one unsteady nod.  Goldilocks Took opened the door to the library, and the three of them descended the stairs together.

“Where is Hal?” Kira asked Goldilocks once they were at the bottom of the stairs.

“In the parlour of the Thain’s apartments, I believe—oh, but you wouldn’t know where that is—Al, do be a dear and fetch your brother, would you?”

Alaric nodded and set off down the hallway.

“His brother?” said Kira.

“Yes,” said Goldilocks.  “Is there a reason for your concern?”

“No, only if I’d known I daresay I would’ve been a little more respectful.”

“Really?  You afford the Thain himself so little respect; why should you afford it his son?”

“Because,” said Kira, “look at his father!”  She smiled a little, but faltered when she saw the look on Goldilocks’ face.  “I’m sorry.  That was rude of me.”

“Where were you thinking of doing your bit of tale-telling?”

“Oh, outdoors, again, I suppose—actually, no.  Do you think I could use the old room?  You know, the one that was the Old Took’s and then Thain Peregrin’s?”

“You’ve already turned Great Smials on its end today; I don’t see why a little more damage wouldn’t hurt.  But that room was never really Pippin’s.  As I recall, he just used it from time to time, when he felt like it.”

“Oh… right,” Kira said faintly.  She was relieved to see Alaric coming back down the hallway, although Hal was not with him.

“Hal’s coming,” he said, “but he wanted to fetch all the other children, first.”

Kira widened her eyes.  She didn’t think they’d all come.

“He asked,” Alaric added, looking at Kira, “whether you were going to tell a real Travellers’ Tale this time.  I said, ‘yes.’”

“You were right to,” said Kira.  “I already have a Travellers’ Tale picked out.  Now, I don’t fancy being caught by a horde of children in the hallway, so if you don’t mind I’ll move to Gerontius’ room now.”

“Gerontius’ room?” said Alaric.

“Yes,” said his grandmother.  “Why not?”

“I’ll have to let someone know, then.”  And with that, Alaric was off again, and Kira and Goldilocks began to make her way to the old Thain’s room.

“So,” said Kira, her voice quavering, “if you don’t mind my asking, what were they like?  The Travellers, I mean.”

Goldilocks chuckled.  “Like any other hobbits.”  She laughed again, when she saw Kira’s querulous look.  “Oh, they were all remarkable, don’t get me wrong!  I used to think my father never slept, he worked so hard.  But they still liked their meals as much as any other—more, even, if that were possible.  Of course,” she added, looking off down the hallway, “I can’t tell you much about the fourth.”

“I know that,” said Kira.  They made the rest of the way to the room in silence.

When they got there, Kira had a good look around for a place to sit and gather.  It would be good to elevate herself, so that she could see everyone’s faces, but if one wasn’t supposed to move the furniture that included the chair at the desk.  There were a couple of armchairs near the cold hearth, but there were no rugs nearby.  Walking farther into the room, she noticed that one of the walls fell back to reveal the largest bed she’d ever seen.

The mattress was at the level of her eyes, and above it, the bedposts soared up, right up to the ceiling, which had been raised, she was sure of it, just to accommodate the canopy, which was the colour of leaves in the summer.  The bedcurtains, fixed neatly to the posts with ties of the same, were the colour of sunshine, and the coverlet and bedskirt continued in the same vein, richly ornamented by embroidery and cream-coloured ribbons.  Then, the bedposts themselves, and the head and foot, were carven all over with blossoms and bees and the season’s first ripening fruits, not dull like the bed lately of the Lockholes (which now seemed but a pale imitation of this one) but polished till they shone.  The whole thing was so large that she was certain it would accommodate the entire population of children at Great Smials, and still leave room to sneeze.

Behind her, Kira heard the door to the room open and the voices of children murmuring.  She cast a questioning look at Goldilocks.

“Why are you looking at me?” she said.  “It’s not my room, it’s Gerontius’.”

Kira did not know much of the Old Took, but she knew from her pedigrees that he had had a great many children, and he must have loved them all.  So reasoning, she found the step-stool at the side of the bed, clambered onto it, and invited the children after her, seating herself on two pillows.  Goldilocks, meanwhile, hung back, and she could see Alaric, too, standing half in the shadows.

Hal was the first one up.

“Hal!” she called out.  “You invited me here!  Would you like the honour of the lap?”

Hal wrinkled his nose.  “I’m too old for laps,” he said.

“Are you certain?  I don’t think you too old for laps, but the next time I see you, I may!”

“‘Course I’m certain!” he cried.

“Very well,” said Kira.  “You may bestow the honour of the lap on another worthy hobbit, if you wish.”

“Hmm.”  Hal looked around him, then selected a tiny faunt, picked him up, and placed him on Kira’s lap.

She looked around her.  There were not as many children as there had been last time.  Kira grimaced—that was probably her fault, and it was gracious that those who were here were giving her a second chance.

“All right,” she said.  “First of all, I apologise for that first story I told you.  It wasn’t at all the sort of story that I’d led you to believe I’d tell, it’s not the sort of story Hal’s heard me tell and that he invited me for, and it’s likely not the sort of story you’d like to hear.  And on top of that, it wasn’t a very good story.  So I’ll say I’m sorry, and I promise I’ll never tell you a story like that again.  And I’m even more sorry that I stopped telling stories before I should’ve, and I shan’t do that again either.

“So—let’s start everything all over.  My name is Kira Proudfoot, I’m a story-teller, and I’m very happy to be here today with all of you.  Normally I tell Travellers’ Tales—true ones, mind, as they were written by those who’d been there.  But sometimes I branch out and tell other histories—of hobbits, or even Men and Dwarves and Elves—all real, and all true.  I don’t pretend to know every tale, but I know a lot of them, and I will try my best to honour requests.  And I shall be taking requests, after I’ve given you this first tale that I hope you will all be happy to hear.

“It’s a Travellers’ Tale, and seeing as you’re all Tooks, it ought to be about the Took who travelled at the end of the Third Age, Peregrin Took, called Pippin, whom I’m sure your grandparents remember as Thain.  And so it is—for today, I’d like to tell you about some of the peculiarly Tookish things that Pippin did Outside, and how they saved him and his cousin Merry Brandbuck from certain peril.”

She told them the tale of the orc captivity—Pippin’s “chapter,” as Merry had so quaintly put it (and she imagined that Frodo must have been quite willing to oblige)—and how Pippin’s quick thinking in a tight pinch had gotten them out of trouble and given their friends hope.  He’d had no idea, she said, if anyone was even left alive to follow him and Merry, but he’d acted anyway, because doing something was better than doing nothing.  What he’d done was risky, true, but if he’d thought it through, maybe he wouldn’t have done it, or maybe he’d have spent so much time deciding that the opportunity to act would have passed.  “But he didn’t let that happen—he thought, made up his mind, and acted, and if he hadn’t acted, when help did come, he and Merry wouldn’t have been able to avail themselves of it.”

Most of the girls cringed at Kira’s lurid descriptions of the orcs, but the boys were clearly relishing it in that perverse way of theirs.

“Sure,” said Kira, when the story was at a suitable point for interruption.  “Wink and leer if you like.  But wait till you’re strapped to one of those foul creature’s backs, so close that you can’t help but smell rank flesh every time you breathe, so close that you’re practically kissing them, and no way to let them know that you’re hungry, or thirsty, or that you need the chamber pot, with home and a nice warm bed leagues upon leagues away, and no way to get there.  Make no mistake—it was harrowing.  And that’s what makes Pippin’s ability to do something about it even more remarkable.”

She left Pippin and Merry safe under the eaves of Fangorn, and then began to take requests.  She was pleased to note that the children here at least were willing to range further afield—requests at parties, among the uninformed, usually went no further than the Barrow-downs.  They also had a working knowledge of what was fact and what was fiction—no questions about Mad Baggins, and some of them at least knew about the Ring.  But there were no requests for tales of Frodo himself, so Kira had to work him in as best she could.

When her throat began to tire and her stomach to rumble, Kira called off the tale-telling and shooed the children from the great big bed.  Halbarad Took’s face was shining as he climbed down, and immediately he ran to Alaric and began chattering away at him.  Alaric’s face lit up as he bent down to scoop his brother into his arms, and Kira was taken aback by the transformation.  As she climbed down the bed, she looked at the doorway to the room and saw the Thain and his wife standing there, as well as a few other adults she did not recognise.

She swallowed.  “I hope you don’t mind my invading the room and rumpling up the bed.  Mrs. Goldilocks Took did invite me.”

“I did not invite her,” said Goldilocks, who had taken a seat in the chair behind the old Thain’s desk.  “I merely stated that, given the havoc she had already wrought, using Gerontius’ room would hardly make matters worse.”

“Ah,” said the Thain.

“I also wanted to apologise for my conduct earlier,” said Kira.  “It was rude, disrespectful, and entirely unwarranted, and I would thoroughly deserve it if you never let me set foot in this smial again.”

“I’m glad to see you’ve come to your senses, Miss Proudfoot.”

Kira bit back a retort.  Goldilocks was looking at her.  “Of course, if you can pardon my earlier offense, I would be happy to return here at your invitation.  I think the children liked my stories, and I know I liked them as an audience.”

“We shall see about that,” said the Thain.

“I hope you understand if I don’t stay any longer.  My pony may be fast, but it’s quite a ride to Michel Delving.  Thank you for having me here.”  She held out her hand to the Thain, heart pounding.  He hesitated before taking it firmly in his own.

Rather than wait for a hand to bring Nienna out, Kira asked for directions to the stable and walked there herself.  Nienna was comfortably settled in one of the stalls, which were almost as well-apportioned as the ones at Brandy Hall, and looked much better than she had when Kira had arrived at Great Smials hours earlier.  “Fancy another ride, dear?” she asked, letting Nienna snuffle her hair.  She probably smelled of dust and faunt.

It did not take long to get ready to ride.  Kira had left her brace on for the duration of her stay, and despite the linen it was starting to chafe, but that could hardly be helped now.  Just as she was about to lead Nienna from the stall, though, she heard her name from behind.

It was Hal, and he had a small bundle in his hand, and Alaric was standing behind him.  He put the bundle in her hands, and said, “Thank you for coming here and telling stories, Kira Lamefoot.”

Kira eyed the bundle curiously.

“It’s a bit of food for the road,” said Alaric.  “Hal was getting hungry, and then he thought you might be too, so I asked the cooks to make you something.”

“Oh,” said Kira.  “Thank you both; that was very thoughtful.”

“Is it all right if I still call you Kira Lamefoot?” said Hal.

“Of course it is!  That’s how most children know me.”

“Good,” said Hal.

“I guess this is good-bye for now, then.  I hope to see you again soon.”

“Good-bye, Kira Lamefoot,” said Hal.  Alaric looked as if he wanted to say something, but said nothing.  Kira led Nienna from the stable and then mounted her.

*  *  *

She looked back.  Alaric had followed her.

“What is it?” she said.

“Nothing,” said Alaric.  “Only I wanted to let you know I enjoyed your stories,” and then he looked down at his feet as if that were something to be ashamed of.

“He was your great-grandfather, you know,” said Kira, as if the idea had just occurred to her.

“What?”

“Sam Gamgee.  Up in the tower, breaking his heart out over duty and love.  He was your great-grandfather, and you couldn’t summon up a shred of sympathy for him.”

Alaric shrugged.

“Good-bye, Alaric.”  Kira nudged Nienna into a walk, and left Great Smials and the Tooklands behind her.

Alaric looked at her for a half a minute before turning around and heading inside.

“You smell like horse,” said Mother, when Kira hugged her, hungry and weary, that evening.

“Pony,” Kira absently corrected, and when Mother cast her a querulous glance, she said, “I was at Tom’s barn,” as if that would explain everything.

“Oh?” said Mother, raising her eyebrows, and Kira blushed as she realised that, perhaps, it might explain everything.  Staring down at the hem of her skirt, she reddened even more and began to think very quickly.  “I wasn’t there all day, thank you, I went out walking first.  I just must have lost track of the time.”

“Kira,” Mother said softly, and Kira was reminded of nothing so much as when she had had that discussion with her on her last birthday, “I know Tom’s a dear friend and all, but I do hope at least his brother was there to keep an eye on you…”

“He wasn’t,” said Kira, “but he’d make a terrible chaperone anyway.  For heavens’ sakes, Mum, Tom isn’t thirty; he can’t yet do anything…”

“Perhaps not, but he can certainly think about it.  And even if he didn’t mean for you to fall in the canal, you must admit he tends to mischief.”

She did have to bring that up, didn’t she?  “He didn’t do anything!” she said, and if she was shouting, so much the better.

“I’m sure he didn’t,” said Mother.  “Just keep an eye on yourself when you’re around him, all right?”

“Well, I won’t see him again, if it matters so much to you!”  Kira ran into her room, before she could betray herself even more.  She knew what Mother was thinking, and she knew it would work, and what was worse, Mother probably approved of the match on some level.  What if…

What if she spoke to Tom?

Kira began to cry, and if Mother was listening in, she was thinking it was something else entirely, and that made it so much worse.

 *  *  *

Next morning was Monday, which meant that Kira had a halfway decent chance of managing to talk to Tom in private, and hopefully before Mother got a word in with him, too.  She begged the first two hours of the morning off, and tried not to wince when Mother fixed her with a shrewd look that meant who knew what.  Tom she found with the livestock, morosely eying a young pig that she thought she recognized from walks to town.

Kira hobbled up to him, and said, without any preamble, “Tom, I’m in a pickle.”

Tom blinked at the sound of her voice, then turned to look at her.  It took him a few moments to come up with a response.  “I’m sure you’re the only one surprised by that.”

She folded her arms.

“Why are you telling me, then?”

He knew exactly why she was telling him, bother it all!  “I might need your help getting out of it,” she said.  “Also, it involves you either way.”

“What?”

“I know,” said Kira, “I shouldn’t have involved you at all, but I was thinking on short notice, and—”

“No, it’s not that,” said Tom.  “You’re asking me for help, is all, and I don’t see any reason why I should think to grant it.”

“Hasn’t helping me been the only thing you’ve ever done, Tom, even when you’re trying to kill me?”

“Kira!”  Tom rounded on her, his face twisted in anger and… hurt?

Kira took a step back.  “All right, I’m sorry.  That was a little petty of me, I guess.”

“It very much was,” Tom muttered.  He sighed, and dashed his hand against his face.  “What happened?”

“Let’s sit somewhere apart, please,” said Kira.  Tom nodded, and while they walked away, she kept her eyes on the grass, which had gone yellow in the August heat.  As soon as they were out of earshot, she began talking.  “You know I tell stories to the children,” she said.

“Yes,” said Tom.

“And you know that Mother doesn’t know.”

“Yes.”

Kira briefly wondered, for not the first time, why he hadn’t told Mother what she was up to, but tamped it down before she could be inclined to say anything.  “That’s what I was doing yesterday.  Telling stories, I mean, at—at a child’s home.”  She took the opportunity to pause, choosing her words carefully, by sitting down on the grass.  Tom sat a foot away from her, eying her warily.  She looked up at him.  “They had a barn, and the lad wanted me to see their horses, and Mum noticed the smell, so I said I was with you.  And… and you can well imagine how she took that…”

“How did she take it?” said Tom.

Tom.

“What?—Oh!”  Tom reddened.

“So you see I involved you, and I shouldn’t have, and I’m very sorry for it, especially as you’ve told me time and again that any such…takings… are completely unfounded in truth.  I promise I shan’t do it again.”

“So,” said Tom, “what am I supposed to do?”

“Nothing, if you like.  Just don’t be surprised if Mum comes by and asks what we were doing in your barn for three hours.”

“Three hours?”  His mouth worked for a few seconds.  “What—what does she think—”

“I told her we didn’t… get up to anything… which we didn’t, and even if either of us had wanted to, we couldn’t, since you’re twenty-eight, but now she thinks we might want to, and I tried telling her we didn’t…”

“This—this is terrible!”  Tom stood up.  “I’d better set things to rights myself!”

“Yes, you better had!” said Kira.

“Right, then,” said Tom.  “I shall!”  He stalked off, looking as determined as she had ever seen him.  As soon as he was out of sight, she heaved a sigh of relief—though the danger was not fully past, she supposed.  Tom could change his mind, or realize how much power over her this gave him, or—most likely—decide that part of “setting things to rights” meant telling Mother!  Her heart began to beat more quickly, but she wouldn’t run after him as if she needed him…

She needed his help, though, and it rankled within her.  Please, Tom, she thought desperately, don’t let her know…

Well, if she wasn’t going to go after him, she had best gather herself and go about the rest of her business.  She hadn’t been by the post since she’d sent off Merina’s letter, and it would be well if she checked and made sure her cousin hadn’t tried to write her again.  So, trying not to think about things, she made her way to the Post Office to find Master Goodbody there.

“Have you any mail for me?” she said.

“Yes, actually,” he said, and handed her four crisp letters.  “Two of them arrived for you the day after you last stopped in, and I’ve been holding them for you ever since, as you asked.”

Not from Merina, then.  That was Aunt Foxglove’s writing on one—why would she write to Kira?

Oh, right, thought Kira.  Because I wrote to her first.  Abashed, she sat down on the age-polished bench next the door, and opened the letters one after another.


Dear Kira, 

I am in receipt of your letter as of this Wednesday, August 2.  Thank you for letting me know.  I didn’t realise that your mother had held onto so many of Lagro’s things over the years, and I hope that most of the items have found a new home.  I would love to see any mementos that you have saved, and take whatever ones you are willing to give.

This is probably something best settled among the rest of the family.  I assume you’ve gotten in touch with Foxglove and Polo, so I’ll send them a note and we’ll see when we might all be free to come to Delving.

Cordially,

Sancho Proudfoot


Foxglove and Polo had both written to say that they would be delighted to come down, and asked if she would be free on dates which, Kira was embarrassed to note, had already passed.  Her aunt also enquired whether Mother was well, if she was giving Father’s things away at last, and hoped that she was.  The final letter, fortunately, was from her uncle Sancho again, requesting if they could meet on August 16th—two days hence.  It would take time to travel there, though, and—did the post even run that fast?

“Drat,” Kira muttered to herself.  She’d really put her foot in things this time.

She’d have to send a letter to each of them, with her apologies for rudely leaving her correspondence unanswered.  Was there even a point in giving them a reason?  “I’m having the post hold my mail in case my outlandish Brandybuck cousin decides to contact me again and get us both in trouble” just didn’t seem to suit the matter.  In the end, she decided against it—she was still only twenty-seven, after all, and could be allowed some moments of irresponsibility.

“I can be free any time you choose,” she had Master Goodbody write.  “Mother and I rarely leave Michel Delving, so if you could decide on a date and send it to me, I’ll be more than happy to meet with you.  I don’t know if Mother will, but I’ll talk to her about it.”

Thinking about responsible, adult things that she had neglected to do reminded her that she still hadn’t completely repaid the stable for Nienna’s extended boarding, so she found the stable lad and made another payment.  Then, wondering who else she had failed to visit in the past months, she made her way to the stationer’s to call on Mr. Goldworthy.

She was shocked to see him, not minding the shop in the back, but sitting in the reading room bent over a draughts board opposite Roland Burrows.  Kira immediately entered the shop and rounded on them.

“Hullo, Kira!” said Mr. Goldworthy, while Roly, draught in hand, looked on in surprise.

“Hullo, Mr. Goldworthy!” said Kira.  “Roly, I’ve told you about this shop before, there’s no reason to look so startled.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Goldworthy, “so you two know each other?”

“We grew up together,” said Roly.  “Kira, it’s not anything, I just didn’t expect you to come in like that.”

“And I didn’t expect to see you here!  However did you get the nerve to set foot in a stationer’s?”

“I told you about Mr. Goldworthy, didn’t I?” said Roly.  “At the Free Fair.  We played a round of draughts together, and he said if I wanted to try and challenge him again, he owned a shop in town.  And so—here I am!”

“I do recall that, now that you said it,” said Kira.  “I just didn’t realise it was Mr. Goldworthy!”

Mr. Goldworthy cast a shrewd eye at Kira.  “Have your friends something against stationers?”

Roly laughed.  “No, not at all—only Tom, and half of that’s from sheer stubbornness.  I saw him, by the by, running past here, not half an hour ago—like the Riders were at his tail!  Do you know whatever could be the matter?”

“Yes,” said Kira cautiously, “but if you want that story you’ll have to wait.  I was just dropping in, really, to say ‘hullo’ to the two of you.”

“No purchases today, Kira?” said Mr. Goldworthy.

Roly gave her a funny look.

“No,” said Kira.  “I haven’t the money.  Maybe next time, though.  I’ll see you both later, I’m sure.”  She turned to go.

“Kira?” said Roly.

“What is it?”

“You weren’t going to tell Tom I was in here, right?”

“Of course not,” said Kira, “though if you really want to make sure he doesn’t notice, I’d play somewhere other than the Reading Room.”

“Roland,” said Mr. Goldworthy, “if you’re ashamed of my company—”

“It’s not that at all!” said Roly.  “It’s just… Tom—well, he’s a little strange, and it wouldn’t matter much, except that he trusts me.”

“And consorting with a stationer would betray that trust?”

“Consorting with a stationer that Kira considers her friend, yes.  Look, this is what I started playing draughts to avoid, while they’re all caught up being tweenish—”

“—Hoy!” said Kira.  “Mr. Goldworthy, I can explain it all later if you’d like, if Roly doesn’t want to.”

“Thank you,” Roly said pointedly.  “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to know what Tom was dashing about for.”

“Of course not!” said Kira.  “Till then!” she added, and the bell over the door tinkled as she made her way out.

Mother looked worryingly cheerful when Kira returned to the herb-cart.  Granted, Kira doubted that if Tom had spoiled all about her storytelling operation, Mother would look that cheerful, but what could he have told her?

“What did you tell him?” said Mother, mirth in her voice, as Kira stepped behind the cart.

“Eh?”

“I had a very interesting discussion with young Tom just now, and I’m sure you were behind it.  What did you tell him?”

“Nothing much,” said Kira.  “Just that we had spoken for a good while, and you knew about it and were beginning to assume things about us.”

“It’s not assuming,” said Mother.  “Merely observing.”

Kira looked sidelong at her mother.  Should she risk it?  “What did he tell you?” she said.

“He assured me that his intentions toward you are pure, if that is what you are wondering.”

“Good,” said Kira.  She paused.  “Why are you smiling, then?”

“He assured me rather more times than were strictly necessary.”

“Well, that’s Tom all over,” said Kira.  But somehow she felt that Mother wasn’t giving her the whole story, and she didn’t know if she had the heart to ask.

 *  *  *

Kira did not receive her uncle’s reply for another two weeks, though she made a point of checking with the Post Office whenever she was in town.  Each time, she recalled the difficulty of arranging such a meeting by post, and felt especially bad for making Sancho Proudfoot do it a second time.  In the meantime, she tried not to imagine the upcoming meeting—it made her nervous—and spent the approaching weeks as if they did not mean anything special.

They did, though—August always filled her with a bright, mad-eyed sort of melancholy—and her birthday was approaching.  They gardened, cooked, cleaned, ate, slept—and Kira went on telling stories, teaching, and reading.

One day, when she had to put the Quenta down to keep herself from yelling at Túrin, she picked up her father’s diary once more and read.


                                                                                                                                                                               March 13, 1504

I hate everyone and I hate everything!!!

 

The rest of the page was filled with a prodigious amount of scribbles and dark lines.  Kira turned the page.

                                                                                                           

Well—that is almost entirely untrue, but it felt good to write it.  And of course, you can’t go around saying things that aren’t true, so this is the only other way I can think of saying them anyway, barring going off somewhere alone, which Mother never likes.  How I hate being the baby!

So, perhaps I have finally found a use for this diary, if I can just go on writing things that aren’t really true but feel good to write anyway.

I wanted to help the workers prune the orchard today, so I was, but then Mum saw me on the ladder and had words with me, which turned into Father having more words with me, about how even if I didn’t have a bad heart (never mind that I haven’t had a spell in years!) I still shouldn’t be doing such things, especially at my age, because they didn’t befit my station.  Which is a load of tripe, and he knows it, for didn’t the Thain—the Thain himself—marry a gardener’s daughter?  I’ve only been to Great Smials once, mind, but even then I was rather under the impression that they had different ideas about what the gentry could and couldn’t do.  And granted, the Tooks are all cracked, but if the Thain himself

Normally, when Dad gets on me for things like this, I can go to Mum, because apparently they did things a little differently in Buckland, too, but she’s cross with me for putting myself into danger, and when Mum gets cross over my help, I can normally go to Dad.

No such luck today—

Bloody splendid!

 

The next several pages were filled with similar entries, all variations on the same theme, all painfully tweenish.  There was one idle fantasy of going off and marrying a tavern lass just to spite his father, which Kira found amusing until she recalled that it was her own father going into great detail on exactly how attractive such a lass would have to be for him to get the nerve to up and do it.

Then, abruptly, the florid entries cut short, and, a page later, were followed by a solitary note.


                                                                                                                                                                               January 19, 1508

 Well, I suppose there is no more use wishing for something else.

I spoke with my father today, and unless I wish to run away and possibly be disowned (which I don’t), there simply is no way I shall be able to farm, or orchard, or garden, or anything with my hands that does not also involve a pen.  He won’t allow it, and I don’t wish to make him.  I know it’s my own well-being he has in mind, anyhow.

So, I spoke with him further, and he is all right with me clerking for Sancho.  I suspect I shall be doing it for the rest of my life.

I am quite fond of being dull, but I would rather it be my kind of dull and not my parents’.  But it seems I don’t have any choice.

 

There were more entries, but they were so many pages ahead, and if they were like these?

Yelling at Túrin was preferable.

 *  *  *

The day before Kira’s birthday, she and Mother went on a long walk south along the Ash River, until they came to a yellow field with mounds and a few stone markers.  Sometime shortly after her father’s death, Blanco Proudfoot had come by and put a headstone by his grave—the Proudfoots hadn’t been able to make it to the burial in time, and Mother refused to see them anyway.  Later, visiting his grave, she found it there, along with a posy already fading.  Kira had picked one along their walk today, and now she laid it across the dry turf.  “I’ll go on for a bit now,” she told Mother, when she was done paying her respects.  Kira did not need to wonder that a wound could still feel fresh after all those years.

The river was low, and the water was pleasant, not icy-cold the way it was when the weather was turning and the ink floated off the page…

Kira stopped, blinked, and stared at the surface of the water.  Nothing there, of course, but she still looked away and tried not to listen to the dark water swirling round her ankle, soaking up the hem of her skirt.  She should have moved away from the sound of the river, but she couldn’t, it was as if her crutch had gotten stuck in pitch-black mud and now it was worming its way in between her toes and freezing them in.  She shut her eyes and wept darkness as she vainly tried to face the rising tide alone.

 *  *  *

Mother found her, mud smeared into her hair and on her face, on the river’s bank, and the look on her face was old and sad.  “You might be glad the river’s so low,” she said, wiping the mud from Kira’s cheek.  “If it hadn’t been, you’d have fallen right in.”

I did, thought Kira.

 *  *  *

Mother must have grieved well that day, though, because the next day it was like nothing had happened.  They put a stew with chicken and apples—funded in part by the mystery hobbit—together in the morning, and let it simmer all day for supper, so that Mother could make a spread for tea that would rival the Winkle Shop.  That was when Kira handed out her gifts, and although the tea did not quite match the Winkle Shop’s standards, it was made with twice the love so she hardly minded.  Daffodil she gave a packet of pins, for her lace-making, Roly a new set of draughts, and Mother a new set of shears for the garden.  Tom, of course, received his customary gift—a quill, this time, and an inkwell.  Other years she had given him paper, sand, and once (when she was quite pressed for pocket-money) a rag that she had informed him was for wiping his pen.  Tom glared at her.

“What?” said Kira.  “They’re both of the finest quality, I assure you.”

“Roly,” said Tom, “remind Kira that you’re only supposed to give folk presents they actually want.”

“Well, if you threw your last quill away, then clearly you are wanting a new one, aren’t you?”

At that moment Mother reentered the room, so (before Daffy could put her oar in) Tom gritted his teeth and politely thanked Kira for her gift.

Kira nodded graciously and swiftly changed the topic of conversation, offering to play draughts with Roly the next time he wanted practice.  Neither of them mentioned who, exactly, his elderly opponent was.

At supper that night, she asked Mother if they were going to talk about her prospects at all.  “I’m afraid they haven’t much improved,” said Kira, “though perhaps, if I can keep getting to know Uncle Sancho better, I can buy us a little more time.”

“Maybe,” said Mother.  “Or maybe you won’t need it.”

“I’m not sure how,” said Kira, “considering that most hobbits court by dancing, and I can’t even—”

“Stop worrying,” said Mother, “and have a little more faith in yourself.  If you keep on thinking less of yourself, the lads will think less of you, and they won’t even notice you.  Or maybe someone already has, and you just don’t know it yet.”

I wish I didn’t know it, thought Kira, wondering how much Mother had guessed about Tom.

 *  *  *

The next day, when they went into town, Uncle Sancho’s letter was awaiting Kira in the Post Office, asking if he and Polo and Foxglove could call on the seventeenth of September.  After obtaining Mother’s consent, she had Master Goodbody dash off a reply—then, thinking better of things, also wrote to her other uncle and aunt letting them know that she’d be happy to see them then.  “I wonder what they’d say if they knew you were trying to get them to keep supporting you past thirty,” Mother said on the way out.

“That’s not the only reason I’ve gotten in touch with them,” said Kira.  “Twenty-eight years is far too long to be punished for one hobbit’s death, and besides, Uncle Sancho had nothing to do with it.  In fact, if Father’s diary is correct, he used to clerk—”

“—and he hated it,” said Mother.  “Goodness!  If you want to hear what really happened, you might as well talk to someone who was there—and who understood him, mind, not like his family.”

“Would you really tell me, Mum?  I mean, all of it—your courtship, the plans you had together.”

Mother sighed, and looped her arm in Kira’s.  “For you?  Yes, I should do.  And I shall, just—not now, please.”

Kira nodded.  “I’ll take ‘not now,’ as long as it means ‘eventually.’”

 *  *  *

The seventeenth was close enough to the wedding that Kira was already made of jitters; knowing that her kin were coming down to look at the last of her dead father’s things only made matters worse.  She and Mother had agreed that they ought to entertain them at home, for reasons of cost if nothing else, and then Kira and her aunt and uncles would travel to the storage tunnels together and go through those things of her father’s that remained.  They had bought a salted ham for the purpose, which they soaked through the night, then roasted in the oven with honey, and stewed apples, and potatoes and turnips.  Mother worked on the last touches to luncheon while Kira chatted with her relations around the dining table.  Conversation during lunch was mostly limited to the weather and the harvest around the Westfarthing and March.

Afterwards, when they had reached the Lockholes, Kira showed her relations the things of her father’s that she had set aside.

“Heavens!” said Uncle Sancho.  “I remember this!”  He picked up the wooden hedgehog.  “I whittled this for Lagro while he was sick!”

“You can take it,” said Kira.  She took it from her uncle, peered it over, and handed it back.  “I don’t think he mentioned this in his diary.”

“No,” said her uncle.  “This was when he was still learning his letters.  I’m afraid he got a splinter afterwards, though—probably not the best idea of a gift for an eight-year-old.  You were sickly as a child, too, weren’t you, Kira?”

“Sancho!” said Aunt Foxglove.

Kira reddened a little.  “I did get ill, yes,” she said.  “Sometimes I still do.  I don’t know if it was as bad for me as it was for my father.  Mum tried to send me away when we knew a bit of pest was coming.”

“Father probably ought to have tried that,” said Polo, “but then Lagro would have gotten so lonely.  Most of our relations were living in High Hole at the time, and Buckland was so far away!”

“I suppose we could have sent him to the Aunties,” Foxglove said, “but I think being well around them would be far worse than being sick at home.  Especially for him!”

“Who were the Aunties?” said Kira.

“Our father’s eldest sisters—they lived in your smial before your parents moved in.  Stuck the lads in starched collars, and taught us all our manners.”

“It was an unpleasant experience for all of us,” said Sancho.  “Your father especially.”  He paused.  “Do you want the hedgehog?  Since you still get ill, I mean.”

“No,” said Kira.  “It means much more to you than it does to me, and I’ve already taken my own mementos out of the lot.”

“All right, then,” said Uncle Sancho, and he wrapped the carving in a handkerchief.  “It seems you inherited your father’s heart, lass.  Not just in the way of getting ill, either.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Kira.  “He seemed so rooted in the earth, and sometimes I fear a gust of wind will take me up to the clouds and I shan’t fall down.  I think he would have worried about me.”

“No more than any parent worries about his child,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “However else he felt about things, he knew all kinds of things about feeling out of place.”

“Tell me, Kira,” said Sancho, “is everything well between you and your mother?”

“What are you implying?” said Kira.

“It was a conversation we were having some time back, after the fair.  You are still family—and she is, as well, and—”

“We get by,” said Kira, sticking her chin up.  “Very well.  We’ve had few to rely on but each other for most of my life.”

“We had discussed that—and how we wish, now, that we could have been involved more.  It can’t be good, growing up with only one parent to rely on, and little family, for so much of your life.”

“And what of her family?  And our friends?  We’ve managed—very well, considering the circumstances, and if you don’t think my mother did a good job raising me, you should tell her yourself.”

“We didn’t say that—nor did we mean to.  Polo had just mentioned how lonely you seemed, and we wondered.”

“My loneliness, such that I have, is my fault entirely, and not my mother’s.  I love her—very much, and I refuse to cast her off the same way she did to you—or my father did to my grandparents.”

“That is very, very good, then,” said Polo.  “There are so few problems that are in our power to fix.  I don’t know if the cold relations between us and your mother are one of them, but the least that can be done is to ensure that they will not be passed on in the future.  As for Rosemary—if Kira says that all is well, I suggest that we believe her.  She’s hardly the first hobbit to have lost a father so young.  Now, Kira, you mentioned a diary of your father’s.  If that is among your offerings for us, then I should be quite happy to take it.”

“It isn’t,” said Kira.  “If you don’t mind, of course.  Only I found it, and I know so little about him still, I thought I should like to read about him in his own words.”

“Of course,” said Uncle Polo.  “What are these, then?”  He pointed to the rocks Kira had found at the bottom of a dresser drawer.

“They’re rocks,” Kira said slowly.  “Of course they are.  I don’t know how important they are.”

“Polo, really!” said Aunt Foxglove.  “You should remember!  You and he used to go for walks and find them.”

“Why… so we did!  I honestly did more of the finding than he did, though.  He preferred to drag his feet through the grass and the dirt and get as much stuff clogged in his fur as he could.”

Foxglove shuddered.  “I remember one time, when the maid was on holiday, and Mum made me wash them out!  Said it was ‘a lesson in patience.’”

“Good lessons, mind you,” said Sancho, “She made us all learn them, at one point or another.”

Kira sighed.  There’d never been an opportunity to learn these sorts of lessons deliberately—life itself saw to that.

“Except for Lagro,” said Uncle Polo.  “Poor fellow had to learn patience, being in the sick bed all the time.”

“Not very easily, I’d imagine,” said Kira.

“No,” he said.  “I’d imagine not.  Well, then, since these rocks seem to have the strongest association with me, I suppose I should be the one taking them!”

“And what about you, Aunt Foxglove?” said Kira.

“There must be something in here that Lagro took to remember me by.”

“I don’t think Mum took all the handkerchiefs.”

“You’re right—yes, this is one of the ones I used to embroider—see, there’s my nameflower on the corner.  And a button!  This was—oh, heavens!”  Kira’s aunt turned her face away briefly and dashed her hand at her eyes.

“What is it?” said Kira.

“His wedding.  I sewed on one of his waistcoat buttons, in case one fell off.  I hadn’t imagined—!”

“Take it, then,” said Kira.  “He obviously kept it for your sake.”

“Yes,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “I think I shall.  You should know, Kira—he was very happy.  They both were, together.”

“I know,” said Kira.  “Mother misses him every day.”

“I hope,” said Uncle Polo, “that, in time we can learn to understand one another, then.  We do miss him, as well.”

“I’d imagine,” said Kira.  “And believe me, I want to fix this as well.  But I don’t know how to fix people, and I don’t know if I can.”

They made their way back to Kira’s home mostly in silence, and parted shortly after.  Kira sat up late in her room afterwards, staring at her father’s diary but not opening it.  How could a situation, where once there had been so much love, have ended so poorly?

It wasn’t until she awoke the next morning that she remembered, with a mixture of anticipation and dread, that Kerry and Sandra’s wedding was in four days.





Home     Search     Chapter List