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A White Shell  by Celeritas


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.





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