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A White Shell  by Celeritas

Chapter 3

 

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

“Mum, that one’s—was—my favourite!”

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

Kira sighed.

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

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

“I didn’t want to wake you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

“Now, whyever would they—”

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

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

“Well… er… no, not really.”

“None at all?”

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

Mother harrumphed to herself.

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

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

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

“Who?”

“One of my bookish friends.”

“She ‘flagged you down’?  Why?”

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

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

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

“And those other two?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kira was silent.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother was silent.

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

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

“But?”

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

“Are you sure we’ll be fine?”

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

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

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

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

Nienna snorted.

“I told you I was sorry!”

The pony gave no response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

“Mr. Tunnelly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

She hoped she could get it all done in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What for?”

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

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

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

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

“You?  But you sell paper and ink!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like him,” said Iris.

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

“But he’s tall!”

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

“The ones that don’t eat people.”

“What about elves?”

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

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

“He just saved the Travellers’ lives?”

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

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

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

“Hmph,” said Iris.

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

Through them?”

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

“G for Gandalf?”

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

“So he’s not missing, after all!”

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

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

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

 “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

“Why?” said Tuley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“What happened?”

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

“No!”

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

“How is that bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are there any Black Riders now?”

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

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

“That’s excellent news,” said Kira.

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

“Will too,” mumbled Tuley.

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

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

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

“I don’t doubt it,” said Kira.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?  Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you wouldn’t at your age?”

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

“Outdoors.”

“I’ll fetch her,” said Mrs. Twofoot.

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

“Lessons?” said her parents.

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

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

“Why did they leave the Shire?”

“To save it!”

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

“Because the Enemy wanted to destroy it.”

“And was Outside like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never said that!  Now go outside!”

Lilac left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your father, please,” said Kira.

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

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

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

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

“No need to apologise, my dear; I know you do have a life outside of this one and that you’ve got to keep the two nice and apart.  As you already know, you can stop by whenever it’s convenient for you next—no need to force you to make an extra trip out just to see us.”

“And how has Tanto been progressing on his reading?”

“Well, he’s still getting the t’s and c’s mixed up, but all that’s quite natural.  I quite wonder at times who decided it was a good idea for half the letters to be backwards from one another.”

“Not a hobbit, that’s for certain,” said Kira.  “Well, I’m sorry to make the stay so short, but I really must go.  Mother wants me home in time for supper, and I still have to stop by the Post Office and get a letter written.”

“You came all the way over here just to chat for half a minute?”

“Well, I’d stopped by all the other places that I had to cancel appointments for—plus I was hoping I could see your father briefly.”

“And indeed you shall!” said a voice from behind.

Kira turned and half-rose from her chair to see Dr. Grimwig, hobbling on a cane towards her.  “Doctor!”  Picking up her crutch, she went to him and gently placed her arms about his neck.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that, lass,” said Dr. Grimwig.  He ducked out from under Kira’s embrace and beheld her at arm’s length.  “Spring been treating you well, then?  No leg injuries from riding?”

“None indeed—the brace is doing its work just fine.  And business is fine, and planting is fine, and just about everything is fine.”

“How about the change in clothes?”

“Except that.  That is still quite unnerving, especially when every mother I run into feels the need to insinuate that I need to find myself a decent hobbit to get married to.”

“And?”

“Don’t you even start with that!”  There was a pause.  “Meaning no disrespect, of course,” Kira added rather sheepishly.  The doctor just chuckled.  They made their way down the hallway, Kira just barely remembering to bid Mr. Grimwig farewell as they left the study.

“Oh, and I got a new book,” she added.  “I hope it’ll help with everything—keep me well, and all.”

“You’ve never read it before?”

“Not past the first twenty-odd pages.  After that—”

The doctor nodded.

“It’s a very peculiar experience for me, to go back to the legends after all these years.”

“And do you believe them now, eleven years older?”

“Even more.”

Dr. Grimwig shook his head, but he was smiling.  “You’re a right puzzle, Kira, but we’ve known that for a long time, now, haven’t we?  How’s your mind?”

“Teeming with ideas, as usual—most of them die before they’re even half-formed, and the rest can never be to put into action.”

“Except for your storytelling.”

“Yes, except for that, but I’ve had that idea for years.  I am filled with fancy, Doctor, like a jug filled with water, and you’d best not upset me or you’ll find yourself drenched.”

“And again you prove to me why the children love your stories so, if you can come up with phrases like that on the spot.”

“Oh, that’s not on the spot, Doctor.  A good deal of that came to me a week ago and I’ve been itching to put it in conversation ever since.”

Dr. Grimwig sighed.

“I did want to tell you, though—I had another spell at the Party in Hobbiton two days past.”

“What?”

“I mean, it was entirely my own fault, and all, because I overtaxed myself and I put myself in a situation that was bound to make me feel dreary, but….  This time, someone saw me.”

“Who?”

“Some lad—I hardly remember it now, I was so tired, but it frightened me, getting discovered like that.  He asked what was wrong with me.  What could I say?”

“Chronic fatigue?  Of course, the best thing would be if you never had a spell again in your whole life.”

“I know, but it always comes back!  I try to fight it, but it seems so hopeless at times, that I can’t….”

“I don’t know what to say, Kira,” said the doctor.  “You know that your illness is peculiar to you.  It didn’t come from outside, but from within.  If you only looked in the right place, maybe you’d be able to find the cure yourself.”

They had reached the outside of the cottage and were standing on the doorstep.  “I didn’t create it, Doctor; it was brought on by the death of something that I love.  Unless that thing returns from beyond the Sundering Seas, how can I ever be free from the Blackness?”

As Dr. Grimwig sighed, his shoulders sagged, and he seemed immeasurably old.  Kira put an arm around his shoulder.  “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have spoken like that.  I’m sure that if we keep looking we’ll be able to find out more about this, and then, even if we can’t cure it, we can at least make the spells shorter, or something.  Next time I come in I’ll try to get you all the particulars of this case, and you can check my heart and my foot besides.  But I really do need to get going, or Mum’ll find out.”

“Of course, dear,” said the doctor, straightening himself up.  “Good luck with your business!”  And with that, Kira mounted Nienna, who had been waiting patiently this whole while, and rode to the Post Office.

The Post Office was not very far, of course, being in the northern section of Michel Delving right next to the Town Hole, but Kira wished it could be just a little farther so that she could get her thoughts in order.  Business could be just as tiring as a party, except Kira knew she mustn’t let it show.  She could deal with her condition the next time she saw the doctor—and not any sooner.  Briefly she closed her eyes to make sure another spell wasn’t coming on, but it was as she had expected—her successes this day were enough to fight off any feelings of sorrow that even thinking about the Blackness could bring about.  The island flickered but a moment in her mind, then was gone.

So when she dismounted Nienna at the Post Office door, Kira was in good enough spirits to discharge her business promptly.  She greeted the office’s certified letter-taker, who knew a marvellous system of shorthand and used it to great effect, and dictated her letter to the Gardner family, residing at Bag End in Hobbiton.

 

                                                                      April 8, 1552


My dearest Friends and Support among the Powers that Be in the Shire, 

I regret that I was unable to see any of you at the Tree Party two days past, even though I was there and I should have made a point of it since I very rarely get to see anyone in your most illustrious family.  However, I hope you will excuse me the fact when I tell you that a great deal of my time at the party was spent in entertaining the young children of my area in what is commonly known as “Travellers’ Tales.”  Specifically I focused on the merits of your family’s great progenitor, which I hope will suffice by way of apology.

It is actually concerning two of the children that I entertained on the sixth that I wished to write to you.  Mat and Mundo Rumble are distant cousins of some of the children that I regularly tell tales to, and two years ago they listened to the stories that I told at the Free Fair.  They have been listening to them ever since, whenever they get the chance, but unfortunately this is not often because they live in Bywater and so I cannot call on them.  Their interest in the tales is keen, but I cannot satisfy it because of the distance, so I was wondering if someone else could.  I do not know if anyone in your family makes it a habit to tell tales or read stories to the village children, or if anyone  has ever been requested to mind the children of others when their parents have business to attend to; but if that is the case, could somebody please look after these two bright sparks and tell me how they are faring?  I only ask because I know from several of the adults here that Mayor Samwise told the town children stories from the Red Book during his terms, and I thought that given the degree of remembrance shown in your family the tradition may not have died out.  Please let me know.

In addition, there was another child named “Hal” (I don’t have his full name) at the tale-telling.  He looked no more than ten and was quite shy.  I had never seen him before, and because none of the other children seemed to recognise him I must conclude that he stumbled upon the storytelling by accident.  I am mentioning him on the off-chance that any one of you knows who he is or where he lives or anything.  He slipped off sometime in the middle, though, so he probably was not that interested

I am ever in debt to you and yours, of course, for giving voice to the voiceless (me) whenever your great Families talk about books and learning and the like, and for doing so a lot more respectfully than I ever could. I have it on good authority that Brandy Hall is becoming quite willing to lift its ban on lending books, so perhaps with a bit more time your arguments will finally prevail.  Thank you as always for the encouragement; it always heartens me to know that I am not alone in my regard for those things which were great at the end of the Third Age.

                                                Sincerely,
                                                Kira Proudfoot


“It’ll be written out and posted by tonight,” said the letter-taker as Kira paid him from the coins she had taken from her bag.

Kira leaned over and took his hand.  “Thanks so much as always, Master Goodbody.”

The sun was low in the sky as Kira rode back out of town down the lane that led towards home.  She was careful to cast the cloak and hood fully over herself as they came closer and closer to territory where she was in danger of recognition—specifically as they passed the Whitwells’ farm and she saw Tom out working among the livestock.  Just out of sight from her home she stopped and walked Nienna down a side road to an old abandoned house.  One of the harsher winters had made the thatch on one side cave in, but the rest of it was sound as soon as the danger of snow was past.  As such, when Kira had bought Nienna she had determined this place for her summer lodgings and had cleared out a rough storage room to convert it into a stable.

The saddle and blankets went over the back of an old chair, and the bridle went up on a peg.  Inside an old cupboard (Kira had to tug to get the drawer open) were the hoof-pick and currycomb and other sundries which Merina had insisted were absolute necessities to a pony’s well-being.  Kira let force of habit guide her along in the actions of getting Nienna settled in for the night while she mentally prepared herself for home again, and for the notion that she had just spent the last six hours striving to get a rug sold.  She walked a distance to a nearby well (though not so near as the one by home) to draw water for the pony, and set it out in conjunction with some of the oats from the sack. 

Then it was time to settle herself.  Kira opened another drawer of the cupboard, untied her brace, rolled it up, and set it inside.  On top of it went the sack of coins—she only reserved the silver she had earned for Mother and a few pennies for herself: just in case she had to suddenly cancel appointments by Post again.  Finally, off came the cloak and hood.  Kira rolled them together, put them in the drawer, closed it, and with her crutch firmly under the shoulder became once more the lowly herb-seller’s daughter.  The shutting of the abandoned house’s door echoed hollow in the gloaming outside.





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