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A White Shell  by Celeritas

Chapter Four

 

Kira dreamed that night that she was wandering through a library.  But even if it had a vague resemblance to the one at Undertowers, she knew it was one stemming from her fancy, for the shelves reached impossibly high and it was dark and dank, not cosy the way that any Shire library ought to be.  As a matter of fact, “dank” was putting it mildly.  The bottom six inches of the floor were covered in icy cold water, which continued to ooze down from wherever the ceiling was, down through the bookcases, through the books, and in to join the rest of the flood.  The water was not dark, like the island water, though she had half expected it to be.  But it wasso exceedingly cold that she had to lift her right foot higher than normal so that it wouldn’t touch.  The water seeped up the hem of her dress.

“Come on,” she said to the children behind her.  “You’ve got to hold hands; this is a very dangerous place.  “We’ve just got to go find the book, and then we’ll get out of here.”  She looked behind to make sure that the string of children she had led in was still there.  They were all there, holding hands—the first one was holding onto the skirt of her dress.  In that odd fashion of dreams she could not make out who they were, it was so dark.  They were afraid, but they trusted her

She continued past the legion stacks until she found the wall, covered with shelves from floor to the limits of sight, where her path dead-ended.  There, in the centre, was the book she wanted—bound in red leather, but she knew it was only one of the copies.  She reached out to grab it.

The binding, heavy with water, tore out of the book, bounced off her hands, and splashed to the floor.  She tried again, but the wet paper fell off in her hands and she knew it was a trap.

“Turn around,” she said to the children, trying to keep her voice calm.  “We must get out.”  As she turned, her big toe dipped into the water.  She gasped with sudden pain.

“Kira?” said one of the children, turning back.

“I’m all right.  We need to go!”  The water pooled around her good leg.  It was rising.  “Go!  Go for the stairs!”

The littlest one reached the first stair just in time for the water to cover it.  “Go up!” said Kira.  “Can you reach the doorknob?”

“No!” wailed the child, reaching for the handle on tiptoes.

“Just wait, and stay calm.”  The rest of the children had it slower going, because of the water’s increasing depth—it was now swirling about Kira’s knees.  She could not bend her right leg up any farther.

A few more children reached the stairs.  The tallest one opened the door, and the four who had made it rushed outside.

Another step gone.  And the walking was even slower.

“Come on,” she told the remaining children.  “You’ve got to get out of here!”

“What about you?”

“Not till the rest of you are safe.  I’m taller, remem—”  Kira’s speech was cut off as she slipped and her entire right foot was plunged into the icy water.  “I’ll be all right—just go!”  She struggled, on her hands and knees, to fight, to keep moving.  The last child reached the stairs and was beckoning her onward, but it was so hard…

Finally her hands touched the stairs, and she hauled herself up.  Reaching the door, she crawled through it, slammed the door behind her, and fell into slumber.  Time swirled around her, flowed past, like a river, and she lost track.

She was awakened by a kiss, feather-light, brushed across her lips.  Slowly she opened her eyes and found light.

There was a lad there, about her age or older, though she could not see him distinctly.  It was too bright around him, but it did not hurt when she looked at him.  He held in his hand something glowing—what she had always imagined Frodo’s star-glass looked like—only its brightness pulsed, as though it was alive.  He was walking around her, holding the glass out and banishing the darkness as he moved.

“Who—who are you?” she finally stammered out.  “What are you doing?”

Slowly he turned to face her.  He was blurry.  “I’m chasing the shadows out;” he said, “it’s far too dark in here.  And I don’t know.”

A few moments passed before Kira mustered up the nerve to speak again.  “You don’t know what?”

“Who I am.”  The lad sat down opposite her, letting the light in his hands rest upon his knees.  “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“I don’t know either; I only just saw you.  Do I know you?  I mean—if I could see your face, would I recognise it?”

“Maybe you would.  Maybe you wouldn’t.  I don’t know who I am.”

Kira sighed.  “This is a dream, isn’t it?  In which case I just made you up, and you’re probably no one.”  She smiled.  “You’re far too kind to be anyone I know.  And too confusing.”

“I don’t mean to confuse you, Kira,” said the lad, “but I’m so terribly confused myself.”

“It’ll be all right, then, for I’ll wake up and you’ll be out of your confusion.”

The lad sighed.  “I’m just a dream, then?”

“I’m afraid so.  Perhaps you will be real, eventually, but you aren’t now.  And you probably never will be.  I don’t even know if what you did is really what a kiss ought to feel like.”

He shrugged.  “Neither do I, if it’s any consolation.”

“It isn’t,” said Kira, with a wry smile.  “But it isn’t proper, even if you’re just a flight of fancy, to go around kissing girls without so much as a by-your-leave.  It’s a very special thing not to be trifled with.”

“I’m sorry,” said the lad.  “I didn’t know.  I suppose I couldn’t help myself.”

“It’s all right.  I suppose it was my fancy made you do it.”

“I hope not,” said the lad.  “I may not real, but I’d like to think I am.”

“So should I.”

“Do you think I’ll see you again, after you wake up?”

“I don’t know,” said Kira.  “If I get very lonely, maybe I’ll dream of you again.  Or maybe—just maybe—I’ll see you in the flesh, and learn who you’re supposed to be.”

“That’s comforting,” said the lad.

And Kira awoke.

*  *  *

“How’s your foot been?” said Mother at breakfast.

“Well enough.  Why?”

“I’m trying to gauge the weather and see if we can’t plant a little earlier than normal this year.”

“It hasn’t twinged at all lately, if that’s what you mean,” said Kira, biting into a slice of dry toast.  “Not even when I was exhausted at the Party.”

“How long is ‘lately,’ then?”

“The past week, I’d say.  It’s been quite well, considering the time of year.  I don’t think we’ll have foul weather for some time.”

“Then,” said Mother, “I can suppose that means no sudden frosts, either.”

“Even if it were to frost in the middle of the night I’d get at least a day’s warning, Mum, as you well know—and more likely two.  Since the weather’s shifted to springtime I should be able to tell if winter decides to come back to plague us.”

“And it hasn’t frosted outside at night since mid-March.  I think we can risk it.  And that means we’d also best start feeding the plants we’ve already got out.”

Kira groaned.  “And by ‘we,’ you mean ‘me,’ I suppose?”

“It’s only once a week, Kira.”

“Two days out of the week, you mean.”

“A day and a morning—that’s hardly drudgery.  And while you were out yesterday I stopped by all the neighbours to see what they thought about planting.  Since we can plant them back in the pots pretty easily these first few weeks, while there’s still danger, nobody thought there’d be any harm in it.  Anyhow, I talked to the Whitwells, and sure as Shiretalk they’ve got a stable full of manure, so they’ll be sending young Tom over with a sack of it sometime this day so that you can get started.  And in the meantime we’ll both work on getting the new plants in.”

After they had finished eating and cleaned up, they each took some of the potted herbs that had been sitting in the windowsills throughout the smial (but especially in the kitchen, for it was warmest there), and began to plant them in the various plots allotted for them this year.  The soil was indeed getting warm in the sunlight, and Kira felt confident that they had made a good decision in getting an early start this year—and not just because the money was running a little thin.

Such thoughts were pleasant because Kira did not then have to accustom herself once more to being the executrix of the smelliest task in the garden.  Mother swore by the time-honoured trustworthiness of liquid manure, and Kira knew from experience how much good it did the plants, but she still wished that she did not have to prepare and use it each week.

The process was sensible: take a burlap sack filled with manure, and swish it around in a basin full of water.  Swish on and off for one day, then next morning feed all the plants with it and dump the leftovers on the compost (once upon a time Kira had neglected this final step, only to discover on the morrow that the basin had become a breeding-ground for maggots).  This was what kept the Proudfoot herbs strong and healthy, but there was a reason that Kira, as junior in the family, was in charge of it.  It was the same reason that Tom, the youngest in his own family, was delegated with cleaning out his family’s stalls and sending a sack of it Kira’s way.

He came over in the early afternoon, driving a small wain.  Whether it was to show off or simply because he did not want to have to carry the sack in his own hands Kira could not guess, though she suspected it was a little of both.  She looked up from the young basil she was working on and waved a trowel at him as he approached.  “Hullo, Tom!” she called.  “Looking better, I see.”

Tom resolutely looked away until the trap had reached the smial.

“Go on,” Mother told Kira, “do your job.”

Kira sighed, picked up her dirt-encrusted crutch, and futilely wiped her left hand on her skirt in an attempt to clean it.  She went inside and came back out dragging an old laundry tub.

“Right,” she said to Tom, who had by this time dismounted.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Tom, having the use of both his arms, was obliging enough to carry the tub over to the well for Kira.  When they had first had to collaborate on the manufacture of liquid manure, he had tried to draw the water for her, too, but Kira had insisted it was her duty, and since she had a strong right arm she could crank the water up better than he could anyway.  So Kira sat down cross-legged facing the well and turned the handle, and Tom sat on the well and waited, ever so often stealing a glance down at her.

One time she caught him in the act, and was startled to see a most peculiar expression of worry on his face, which quickly melted into a smile that was supposed to be disarming.

“What?” said Kira.

“What?” said Tom.

“You didn’t look too pleased there a moment ago,” said Kira.  “Still suffering from the effects of the Party?  I didn’t realise hangovers lasted that long.  Unless you’ve decided to make the Oak Barrel your second home…”

Tom sighed heavily.  “I shan’t be getting drunk again for a very long time, Kira.”

“Yes, and I’ve just foresworn books.”

It took a stern look on Tom’s part to convince Kira that he was at least somewhat serious.

Kira grinned.  “What, did you do something stupid at the Party?  I mean, that’s a first for you, considering that just about everything you do is stupid, and now you decide to try and stop it.  Wasted effort, if you ask me.”

“Kira—”

Kira turned her attention back to the well and dumped another full bucket into the tub.  “Seriously , what was it?  I mean, to knock some sense into your head it must have been colossal.  And all the more so if the saying holds—how does it go?  Sooth in spirits.  Of course, maybe it was more than a slip of the tongue, maybe you—”

She turned her head back to see if she had struck a nerve or not, but Tom was nowhere to be found.  “Oi!” she called.  “Don’t you run off on me!  How am I supposed to get this basin back here?”

But Tom was nowhere.  Sighing, Kira finished her task and tried as best she could to drag the basin back to the hole without sloshing too much water over the sides.  When she got there, the waggon was gone, and in its place was the sack of dung, placidly sitting by the wayside.

“Where’d he go?”

“He said that they were falling behind work on the farm,” said Mother, “and so he had to leave as soon as he could.”

Kira looked down the pathway leading into town, as if she could still see Tom’s retreat.  “I don’t believe it,” she said to herself.  “I’ve scared him off!”  She trudged back to the sack, lifted it, and set it in the basin, wishing that she did not have so much work to do so that she could get to the bottom of this strange and peculiar new matter.

She was unable to have any leisure time, though, until all the chores after supper were done and it was too dark outside to read.  Nevertheless, when the moon rose she asked if she could call on the Burrowses; she had not been able to see Daffy since the party and now she truly did need another lass’s opinion on a matter that was too tangled for Kira to unravel at the moment.

For some reason seeing the familiar hills and fields of Kira’s homeland under moon and star invariably transformed them in into something older, pure and beautiful.  For short whiles she could imagine herself able to listen to the land, as the Elves did, and hear it sing to her of sleeping in on Thursdays and butter and jam on toast.  Then her fancy would direct her eyes above, to the same stars that had been set in the sky in defiance of the Great Enemy Ages before; and bring back old, early memories of being taught the constellations, and of the chance meeting, sweeter still for its brevity, that had proven to her once and for all that the books were right and everybody else was wrong.

When Kira’s father had died Mother sold their field to a young couple—soon to be family—from Little Delving that had managed through hard work and an unexpected inheritance to get enough money to buy a parcel of land for themselves.  Mr. Burrows himself had built the house, and before Kira’s first winter they had moved in.  Daffy and Roly were born next March.

Twenty-seven years had kept field, cottage, and family in good condition, and had given Kira friendships without which she was fairly certain she would have gone mad (considering that the only other hobbit her age in the vicinity was Tom).  So, after a quick detour to Nienna’s lodging to feed and water her, it was with a high heart that she walked around the back of the Burrows’ house, past the small flower garden, and up the flagstone walkway to the threshold.  She knocked on the door.

Half a minute passed before Kira finally heard a rush of feet and the door opened.  It was Flora, the youngest addition to the family, who was now nearly seventeen years old and who, if she ever decided to have anything to do with her older siblings and their friends, made it her mission in life to annoy them.

“Hello, Floy,” said Kira.  “I’m looking for—”

“We’re all gathered around the hearth,” said Flora.

“Any chance I could have a private word with—”

“None whatsoever!” said Flora, and she led Kira inside to the sitting room.  “It’s Kira,” she announced as they entered the room.

“Kira Proudfoot,” said Mrs. Burrows, craning her head around from the stool where she sat and knitted in order to see her guest.  “What a pleasant surprise!  Goodness me, you look exhausted!”

Daffodil had risen and found a stool, which she pulled into the family circle.  “Do sit down, Kira.”

“Well,” said she, stumping her way over to the stool, “I’ve been in the garden all day, and yesterday I had to go to town to sell a rug, and the day before I had to make the rug, and the day before that was the Party, so I guess I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work and haven’t got much time for rest or reading in edgewise.”

“You poor dear!” said Mrs. Burrows.  “Would you like me to fetch you a cup of tea?”

“Yes, please, Mrs. Burrows,” said Kira with a grateful smile.

“Whatever have you been doing in the garden all day?” said Daffodil as Mrs. Burrows set down her knitting and went into the kitchen.

“Planting.”

“That’s risky,” said Mr. Burrows.

“I know, but we’re counting on my foot to warn us if a frost is about to happen.  It hasn’t bothered me all week, not even at the party.”

“Still shouldn’t be a risk you have to take.”

Kira just shrugged.  “Mum wanted to, and as I said my foot seems to agree with her.”  She sighed.  “I think I’m going to find myself missing winter very soon.”

“Still stuck with the nasty job, Kira?” said Daffodil.

“Yes—actually, I need to have a word with you, Daffy.”

They drew their seats a little away from the group.  It was exactly at this moment that Flora decided to start singing rather loudly and quite off-key.

“Oh, dear, not again,” muttered Daffodil.  “I miss the days when she wasn’t obnoxious.”

Kira snorted.  “Not to worry; she’s just giving us a bit more privacy.  You were right; I’m still stuck with the nasty job, but Tom came over to deliver the manure and he was acting odd.”

Daffodil juggled this bit of information in her mind, but not for long.  “I wouldn’t be too concerned with it.  He is an odd fellow, after all.”

“No, but he was looking at me—in this most peculiar fashion, as if he was trying to read me, or as if he had done something very, very bad.  I didn’t think much of it at first, but once I found him out he wouldn’t answer a single question that I had.”

“He’s acting guilty?  Of what?”

“I don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s something from the Party, for I haven’t seen him since then.  And I also think it was something he did while he was drunk, because I was teasing him about that, and then he just bolted!”

“Bolted?”

“I turned my head and he wasn’t there!  And when I was done filling the basin and lugging it back—all by myself, mind—in the place of the cart was that little sack of dung, looking as innocent as a lamb!  Daffy, I think I scared him off!”

“You can’t have!  He’s… he’s Tom!”

“You did,” said Roly.

Kira blushed and looked up.  Flora had stopped singing long enough ago for him to have gotten the gist of the conversation.

“And that,” hissed Daffodil, “is why I miss the days when she wasn’t obnoxious.”

Kira turned to look at Roly.  “I didn’t mean to scare him.  Do you know anything about this?”

Roly nodded.  “And I promised him not to tell.  It’s not bad or anything,” he added, looking up at his dad and his mum, who had just entered the room with Kira’s tea.  “Well, not terrible.  But I did promise him.”

“So, why did I scare him off?”

“You’re a bright lass, Kira.  You should be able to figure that out.”

Kira gratefully took her cup of tea and sat, letting the conversation lull her as it turned to other things.  But this Tom business was starting to get serious.  Something that she had meant only in the context of their daily verbal sparring had frightened him away, and even before that he had sworn Roly to secrecy about whatever it was.  She had to get to the bottom of it.

Next day was Market Day, so she and Mother went to town in the morning to spend the silver that Kira had made.  Mother also checked the coffers on the off-chance that the Proudfoots’ monthly monetary assistance had shown up early.  Their aid was not always timely.

Tom was nowhere to be seen on the way in, though he might have guessed that Kira would be coming up the lane since it was a Monday, and thus hid, if he was really that frightened.  Kira considered actually leaving town and harassing him when Mother gave her a little free time, but in the end she rejected the idea in favour of attending to the business half of her life.

She continued to ponder the situation when she fed the plants after lunch, and again as she placed more herbs in the earth for the rest of the afternoon.  At night she was too weary to ponder it any longer and just went to sleep.

The next two days brought no answers either, and Kira was not any closer to finding them because they were planting, and planting was harder work than it looked, and when Kira did make free time for herself it was really to go ride Nienna to another house or hole and tell a story.

Finally, Thursday rolled around, and the planting was done, and Kira had no other engagements for the day.  When she finally woke from her exhausted sleep, her back and her knees were fit to kill her, but she had time and daylight now and she’d had enough of this mystery plaguing her mind.  Kira was going to hunt down Tom and find out precisely what was going on.

When she arrived at his home, his mother told her that he had gone into town to meet with some of his city friends, so Kira had to go the rest of the way to Michel Delving.  From there, finding him should have been a difficult matter, but fortunately Kira knew enough about Tom to make an educated guess.  He was in the common room of the Oak Barrel, a plate of food in front of him and a mug in his hand.  She glared at him from the doorway long enough for him to turn and catch her eye, then stalked outside and waited.

After ten minutes he joined her.  “Well?”

“Well, what?” said Kira.

“Why’d you come and bother me?”

“Why’d you leave your friends for a chat with me when all I did was look at you?”

Tom sighed.  “Walk with me.”

They made their way to one of the three bridges that crossed the Ash and paused.  Tom leaned back against the guardrail and studied the hair on his feet.  “All right,” he said.  “I”—his eyes flicked nervously all around, scanning the area for anyone in earshot.  “I’m sorry, Kira.”

Kira gaped at him, but he was not looking at her.

“I’m sorry for what I said to you at the Party, and believe me, I did not mean it, and if you’re rubbing it in maybe you do think it’s just funny, but somehow I doubt that because it was a really stupid thing for me to say and I didn’t mean it.”  He sighed.  “You can gloat now.”  Only now did he turn to look at her in the eye.

“Sorry for what?” said Kira.

The earnest look in his eye made her take half a step backward.  “Kira, I said you don’t have to rub it in!  You may think it’s funny, but it’s actually quite rude!”

“Tom, what did you say to me?”

“You know full well what I said to you, and if you’re trying to get me to repeat it I won’t!”

“Well, it’s not as if you’re ‘saying it again.’  You’re just quoting yourself from when you were drunk.”

“Kira, you’re baiting me, and I’m not going to take it.  There is no way I’m going to repeat something you already know just to make you a little bit happier at my own expense.”

“But I don’t know!”

“Look, you can stop it already—wait, you really don’t know?”

Kira assumed her most guileless look and stared him in the eye.  “As ignorant as a newborn babe.”

Relief slowly spread over Tom’s features.  “Right, then!  Ignore everything I just said; I’m going back to my meal.”

Kira grabbed his wrist.  “Not so fast!  I’m not going to leave here until you explain yourself!”

“I already did—I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“If it’s something bad enough that I’d actually give you a long-winded apology for it, what makes you think I’d tell you if I found out you don’t know?”

Kira thought this statement over.  “Oh, wait… I think I’m remembering something now…”  After mulling it over a few moments more she raised her head again and shifted her grip to his hand.  “You’re blowing the matter out of proportion, Tom, and you didn’t need to say you’re sorry, but since you did I’ll accept the apology.”

Tom peered at her; Kira tried to keep her countenance as frank as possible.  “You’re bluffing, aren’t you?” he said.

“I am not bluffing!  What did you say?”

“You are bluffing, Kira.  But even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t tell you, because then, you’d already know.  So on the off-chance that you end up remembering, I’m sorry, but otherwise just forget the whole thing and leave me alone!”  And with that, Tom Whitwell broke Kira’s grip on his hand, turned around, and stalked back to the Oak Barrel.

Kira stared at him until he turned a corner and was out of sight.  She stayed on the bridge for another ten minutes, trying to wrap her mind around the conversation and what Tom could have said that would make him act this way.

Halfway home, it came to her, like a sack of bricks falling from the sky.  He fancied her.

*  *  *

“Daffy?  Daffy?”  Kira hammered on the windowpane of Daffodil’s bedroom with a pressing urgency.

After thirty seconds Daffodil came into the room and looked at the window.  “Be quiet, won’t you?” she hissed.  “You could wake the dead with that racket—or at least break the glass!”

“Daffodil,” said Kira.  “Stop whatever it is you’re doing.  Meet me outside at the Old Oak.  Now.”

“Give me a few minutes, why don’t you?  What’s wrong?”

“I’ll tell you when you get there.”

Kira told her when they were alone and settled on the roots of the tree.  “Tom fancies me.”

“What?”

“He does!  That’s what he said at the Party, what he was hoping I didn’t hear—well, that, or something to that effect.  I hunted him down today, and without my having any clue what was going on, he apologised to me, and denied whatever it was he said—twice.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before!”

“Are you sure?”

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Daffy, what am I supposed to do?”

“How am I to know?”

Kira sighed and buried her head in her hands.  “It’s all too soon!  I’m barely twenty-seven; I’m not ready to have my first admirer.”

Daffodil, for lack of anything better to do, reached over and set her hand on Kira’s shoulder, patting it a few times.  “Well, it’s not as if he can do anything;” she finally hazarded, “he’s only twenty-eight.  Maybe in two years things will have changed enough that it won’t matter.”

“You mean, maybe he’ll forget about me?”

“Or maybe you’ll return his affection.”

“Faugh!  Daffy, I don’t even want to think about that yet!  I mean, it’s… he’s Tom!”

“I don’t know; it was just a possibility…  Anyway, he can’t do anything about it for two years, so I don’t particularly see what you have to worry about.”

“That’s because it’s me he likes, not you.  Daffy, how am I supposed to even look at him knowing—knowing this?”

“I don’t know.  Same as you always do?  Unless you wanted to use this as another weapon in your war with him.”

Kira simply shook her head.  “No, that’s—that’s playing with fire, and it’s going to make me feel even more horrid than I already am.  The bodices at the party were all good and fine, but that was before I knew.  I don’t want my behaviour to encourage anything.  Daffy, how could he possibly be attracted to me?  I thought I drove him mad with all my book-talk!”

“Well, if neither of us knows the answer to that I doubt that he does.”

Kira sighed, picked up a clod of dirt at her feet, and chucked it.  “It’d better be just a passing fancy, because I don’t know what I’m going to do if it isn’t—I don’t know what I’m going to do if it is, even!”

“At least you have someone who’s sweet on you.  That’s better than I’ve managed.”

“Don’t put it that way!  You think that this is good?”

“I don’t know.  You could settle for a lot worse than Tom, that’s for sure.”

Daffy!  I came here for help in my distress, not for matchmaking!”

“Well, if you really aren’t interested—it’s two years before he can do anything, so you might as well enjoy them while they last.”

“Thanks,” said Kira, though she did not sound particularly heartened by this.  “I’m sorry for unburdening all my knowledge on you, Daffodil, and so quickly.”

“Oh, think nothing of that.  It’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”

For the rest of the daylight hours, Kira distanced herself from the problem by reading the Quenta, which she had not had much time to even look at for a week.  Progress was slow, but it distracted her.

Next day Kira woke up feeling simply awful—she blamed it on the terrible discovery she had made the previous day—so she read as much as she could to keep her mind off things.  It also kept her mind off something that crept upon her unawares—pain that irked her right foot.

It was only when the sun went down that she realised it was there, and it took her another few moments to get herself focused enough on the present to realise that it meant something.  After another minute, she flew out of bed, tugging on her winter robe and snatching her crutch from the floor.  “Mother!” she cried.  “The weather’s changing!”

Mother was at the hearth in the kitchen; in an instant she was up and had her hands on Kira’s shoulders.  “Are you certain, Kira?”

Kira nodded.  “I’m so sorry, Mum; I’ve been reading all day and if I hadn’t been maybe I’d have noticed sooner, but I’ve been feeling so wretched all around lately—”

“You think the warning started earlier?”

“Sometime today, and that’s supposed to mean it’ll happen in a day or two, but what if it happens tonight?”

Mother was going pale, but she set her lips together and steel was in her eyes.  “Never mind that—as soon as the moon’s up we’re going to the garden and moving the plants.  It’s a risk we were willing to take, and now we’re facing the consequences.  Never mind when it frosts; ‘twill be soon enough and we’ll worry about it once it’s happened.  Now get some actual clothes on!”

Kira did as she was bidden, wishing nothing so much as that she could take the day back and start it over.

They only worked an hour that night, for soon it became clear that the waning moonlight was too weak and if they continued on with some of the more rooted plants they would botch the job.  Kira tried to ignore the twinges in her foot as they worked, but whether in actuality or in her panic they only seemed to get worse.  But at least when she crawled in bed that night, her foot did not hurt the way it did during winter.

Next morning Mother woke her up an hour before dawn, and there was hope—it had not frosted at all that night.

As soon as the sun was up they took out the clay pots that Mother had started the plants in, as well as the larger two that they let the rosemary winter in.  They worked with the assumption that the frost would fall tonight, and that anything left in the garden but the hardiest plants would die.  The mulch that saved perennials through many a winter had already been composted and worked into the soil in preparation for spring, and finding and preparing a new load could take more time than they had.

So rather than transplanting all of one herb and moving to the next, Mother had a sequence in mind—get at least one plant of each type saved, then work on the plants that were more in demand and more fragile in cold weather.  They took their meals outdoors.

“Kira,” said Mother, “you must let me know the instant you feel overworked, and by that I don’t mean when you’re so exhausted you really can’t do a thing more.  It’s a hard choice between risking both our livelihood and risking you, and I don’t want you to overtax yourself.”

“Mum,” said Kira, digging around some savoury, “I’m not as weak as I was when I was little.”

“I know that, but you’ve still got your poor father’s heart, and I’m not about to let you go the way he did.”

Kira sighed, but she really had no retort to give to that.  Still, she took as many breaks as Mother did and no more, for she was young and knew that will could suffice when muscles failed.  And indeed, in the morning at least she needed as much will as possible to keep at work.  Two days’ break had only stiffened her sore back and legs further, and this much more labour out of the blue made them quite pained.  Eventually as Kira continued her work they stopped hurting, but even half an hour of sitting for lunch meant that she groaned the moment she got back up.  She almost hoped that the frost would come tonight, for so much work today would only make tomorrow hurt even more.  If it frosted, at least she would be able to stay in bed.

As it was, by sundown they had made as much progress as they could have hoped to, and Kira and her Mother moved the plants indoors, into the kitchen where it was warmest.  Then they parted for the night, wearied by the desperate toil, and headed into their respective rooms.

Kira’s bed called to her, but there was one last thing that she needed to do, that she had not had time to do in all their work.  Expertly opening her window, she climbed out through it and crept towards the abandoned house where Nienna rested.

Usually Kira was able to stop by and feed her at some point in the day when Mother gave her time to herself, but there had been no such luck today.  Now the night air was closing in, and Kira had the ill feeling in her foot that if she did not get out now her pony would be almost wholly unprotected in the impending frost.

She bit her lip as she crawled, then walked over, forcing her aching muscles to move and ignoring her foot as best as she could.  Finally she was there, leaning on the door and panting for breath.  She did not even look at the inviting straw-strewn floor as she set out the oats and drew the water and buried the dung outside.  In her mind the ground was already hardening.

Nienna gave her reproachful looks for her tardiness, but Kira only spoke to her when she was done.  “I’m sorry, girl.”

The wounded stare continued.

“Look, the weather’s going to turn nasty tonight, and if I had time and power I’d ride you back to town so you’d be safe, but I can’t.  You’re just going to have to weather it like me.”

Nienna snorted.

“I’ll leave the door open, so that if you think the roof is going to collapse you can get out of here.  But don’t do it unless you’re sure, and don’t go far.  If you end up running away, well, then, I probably deserve it, so just find somewhere smart and safe and get someone to look after you.  Because you can’t run to me, Nienna.  I can’t have Mother find out about you.  Do you understand?”

Nienna nudged Kira’s shoulder with her head.

“Well, I guess that’s all the response I can get from you, isn’t it?  Good luck to you.”

And good luck to me, too, she thought as she stepped outside.  A chill wind blew, the kind that Kira associated with late fall and against which no clothing was sufficient protection.  It brought the sudden spurts of pain that Kira had last felt in her dream, when her foot had unexpectedly dipped into the cold water; but even when the wind did not gust at her feet and up her skirt it still ached, for change was in the elements and Kira was caught in it.  When she was within sight of home it twinged so badly that she fell to her knees, and she could not suppress the groan that escaped her lips.  She crawled across the field and the lane, only just keeping enough strength to haul herself back through the window into her bedroom.  Barely remembering to shut the window tight, she collapsed on her bed and fell into an exhausted sleep.

In the morning, Mother came in with the news, though Kira did not need to be told.  Her foot had settled into that familiar dullness of winter pain, and hoary fingers of frost clenched at her window.  The ground was half-covered with a thin crust of snow.

“We’ll be lucky if three of the ones out there survive,” said Mother.  “And starting new plants from seed always takes time, and that’s just for the ones that do spread by seed.  We’ll have to wait a year for the rooted ones.”

“What will we do?” said Kira.

“I don’t know,” said Mother.  “There are all those things of your dad’s that we could sell, and your Outfit, as you kept on offering, and as a last resort you know that friends and family could help us out in a pinch, but…”

And Kira understood.  Mathoms weren’t meant to be sold, and she and Mother weren’t meant to beg, even from friends.  If that had been the case, then Mother would have just sold everything, smial, furnishings, and all, after Dad died, and moved back in with her family—the only sign of the marriage her newborn daughter.  “So, things look that hopeless,” said Kira.

And Mother, ashen and grey from the exertions of the week, nodded.  “Hopeless as a frost in spring.”





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