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A White Shell  by Celeritas


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.





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