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A White Shell  by Celeritas

Chapter Five

 

Daffy was kind enough to visit her in her gloom that day.  Everyone in the area knew of the risk that the Proudfoots had taken, and seeing the few plants remaining in the garden on top of their home confirmed the general suspicion that they were now in for a rough year.  Still, no outpouring of charity was forthcoming, though Daffy did bring over a crock of mushroom soup, which Kira and her mother gratefully accepted while making it clear that such assistance should be the exception and not the rule in times to come.

The weather did not warm all day, which meant that Kira was stuck in bed.  It was not that she did not know how to wrap her foot securely with a bit of wool she kept stowed under her bed, so that her foot would become bearable even in the cold, but rather that there was just enough snow on the ground that she would make tracks if she slipped out the window but not enough that she could cover them over.  So she trusted to Daffodil’s lack of tidings about the semi-ruined house down the way that Nienna was safe, and could only hope that she would not be discovered.  She had set enough food out to last until (hopefully) the cold snap passed.

In the meantime she was able to get some much needed rest, and drown the various aches that irked her in epic elvish legends, until Kira was quite certain that she had received enough elves (especially those with names beginning in “Fin”) for a month.  She even practiced, when Mother was out, her writing, so that on the off chance it became suddenly and miraculously legible, she could write out a list of the various historical Noldor and traits that distinguished them one from the other, for it was an awful lot of information coming at her at once.  She had, of course, no such luck.

That morning Kira had tried once more to apologise for her neglect.  Perhaps, if she had not been quite as caught up in her book as she had been, she could have noticed the warning sooner and they could have saved more plants.  But Mother would have none of it.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Kira,” she said.  “Neither of us thought the frost would come, and if we had we wouldn’t have even planted to begin with.  Whosever fault it was, if it was anyone’s, it can’t be helped now.”

Kira protested, but only briefly.  She would have thought that Mother would have leapt on the opportunity to criticise her reading, but somehow with hardship staring them both in the face it wasn’t as important.

Still, Kira kept her spirits up, though she wished the frost would go away so that she could move about.

Next day the cold persisted, which meant ill for those plants that were still alive.  Mother’s face was paler than yesterday when she stopped in with breakfast, but her face had also grown more set, and Kira’s faith that they would weather this was strengthened.

In the early afternoon the post arrived, which considerably enlivened what would otherwise have been a tedious day.  And this was largely because the Proudfoot smial received not one, but two letters, and one of them was addressed to Kira and her mother.

“We have letters,” said Mother when she brought the two in.  “From the Post.  Do you know anything of this?”

“I—I don’t think so,” said Kira.

Mother set the two letters on Kira’s lap as she half sat up in bed.  Kira looked over the addresses on each one.

“This one’s from a bookish friend for me,” she said, waving the one that was addressed only to her.  “Or at least, I think it is—I half recognise the handwriting.  The other…”  She looked over it; it was addressed “to Mrs. Lagro Proudfoot and Daughter” in Master Goodbody the letter-taker’s hand.  “Is addressed to both of us.  I don’t know what to make of it.”  She turned the letter over, as if inspecting it for any other clues that could be revealed without opening the seal.  “There’s something inside it, too—something heavy at the bottom.  May I open it?”

“Yes,” said Mother, sitting down on the bed.  “And you may read it to me, as well.”

Kira broke the seal to the letter and unfolded it.  Immediately a small, shiny key slid off the paper and onto her blanket.  She picked it up and handed it to Mother.

“What’s this?” said Mother.

“I don’t know; it came in the letter.  Maybe there’s an explanation.”

She read the letter aloud.

 

10 April 1552 

Dear Mrs. Proudfoot,

Having recently come into a position of some money—more than I know what to do with—and having always had concern for you and your daughter’s welfare as part of the many families that live in Michel Delving and the White Downs, it occurred to me the other day that I in my plenty ought to set something aside for you, who have continually struggled to eke out a good life from your limited circumstances.

With this in mind, and with admiration for your dedication and tenacity and hard work, I have after much inquiry devised a system for your additional provenance.  Enclosed in this letter is a key to one of the coffers in Michel Delving; I am in possession of an identical one.  Every month, at or around the fifteenth, I will make available to you a small sum, which will be placed in this coffer.  All you need do is, when you are next in town, present the key to one of the clerks working.  He will withdraw the money for you.

This is not done out of pity for you or your daughter, for I know you want none.  It is done out of respect for a mother and child who must not think that their diligence goes unnoticed or unrewarded.

My only request for you is that you do not attempt to learn my identity.  I prefer to remain anonymous in these matters.

                                                Sincerely,

                                                xx

                                               Master Odo Goodbody, 
                                               Official Town Hole Clerk and Letter-Taker for the Shire Post, Michel Delving branch, 
                                               signing for and in presence of the benefactor


Kira set the letter down heavily.  She did not know what to say.

Mother took it up and looked it over, as if she could read the letter’s contents for herself.  “Read it again, Kira.”

Kira took the letter and reread it to Mother.

“You’re sure it says that?” said Mother.

“Yes,” said Kira.

Mother sighed.  “There’s our first bit of charity.”  She practically spat the word out.  “And the thing is I’m half-minded to take it, for your sake.”

Kira looked the letter over again.  “Mother, we would have gotten this letter whether it frosted or not.”

“Truly?  And why do you say that?”

“It’s dated from five days ago.  I don’t know why it took so long to get here, since it was written in town and all, but that’s before anyone knew the weather was going to turn sour.”

“The money would be in the coffer right now, too.  It’s a sore temptation, looking at our situation at the moment.”

“Well, why not take it, then?  The person said it wasn’t supposed to be charity, you know, and we aren’t even supposed to find out who it is that’s helping us.”

“It’s still help, and it implies that we can’t take care of ourselves.”

Kira sighed.  “I guess we don’t have to take it, then.  I thought it was just someone trying to be nice.”

Mother set her head in her hand, picked up the letter, looked at it, set it down.  “Not taking this help would mean we’d either have to sell the mathoms or ask it of others.  I suppose this is the least humbling choice we have.  And since you think we should take it, I suppose I ought to at the very least head into town to see how much there is.  If it is regular, and things start looking up, maybe we could set aside a dowry for you.”

“That’d be nice,” said Kira, smiling weakly.

“Besides,” said Mother, “the Proudfoot money must be in by now, and I haven’t been into town to pick it up.  If you don’t mind my leaving you alone here for an hour or so, I could do both.  Not much else to do, anyhow, with the ground all frozen.”  So Mother took the key, slipped it into a pocket of her skirts, and bade farewell to her daughter.

Once she had left the room, Kira heaved a sigh of relief.

*  *  *

It was only after fifteen minutes had passed that she remembered the other letter.  Here, she reasoned, was the response to the one she had sent out a week ago during her day of business in town.  She opened it and read.

 

April 14, 1552 


My Dear Kira,

How pleasant it was to receive your letter earlier this week!  I hope that you are doing well in your letter-starved portion of the Shire.  However, perhaps you are doing better than could otherwise be expected, for when I spoke to young Kerry and Sandra they said that they had made a copy of the Quenta for you and since the book is rather difficult I expect that you haven’t finished it yet!

Your absence at the party would have been forgiven anyhow, but it is doubly so knowing what you were doing instead!  No doubt our great progenitor himself would have disapproved of the subject matter, but since he is not with us we may exalt his memory as much as we wish.

Thank you for the information concerning Mat and Mundo.  While I know the Rumble family and my children are actually somewhat acquainted with the two, I did not know that they had an interest in books or tales or anything of the like.  When we have the time, I or my father or one of my siblings who still remains in the area will go out into Hobbiton and read some of the shorter pieces from our copy of the Red Book—a family tradition, if you will—to the village children, but since the Rumbles live in Bywater I suppose they haven’t been as aware of that.  When I see them next I shall be sure to invite them to one of these readings.

I do not, nor does anyone else in our household, know of any lad from around here by the name of “Hal.”  I’m sorry I can’t be of greater assistance to you than that, but I will make enquiries as I am able.

Dad is as hopeful as you are that the creation of new copies of our books (especially in Brandy Hall) will result in a reversal of the Ban.  However, much work is still needed if it will ever work, especially concerning the Tooks.  At least you have your own literature to keep you happy in the meantime.

Everyone here sends you love, and whatever support we can offer in a mere letter.  Please take excellent care of yourself, especially of your heart.  You’re a very brave lass to put up with all that you do, and we’re all very proud of your tale-telling in your region of the Shire.

                                                Yours,
                                                Harding of the Hill


Kira smiled as she leaned over the bedside to take out her bundle of letters from underneath and add this one to the pile.  “Dear friends,” she said to herself.  “I wish we had a couple of Gardners in town to cheer things up a bit.”  She tied the letter in with the others and swung herself down again to stuff it under the quilt.

It wouldn’t go all the way in, or at least not far enough that the quilt could safely cover its existence.  Kira pushed harder, and toppled out of the bed.

Fortunately, both her feet remained safely wrapped within the warm covers, which were still tucked into the mattress, but they still bonked into each other and she had to grimace at the contact with her crippled foot.  Sighing heavily, she lifted up the quilt, found a place to put the letters, and set them in.  She looked at the shadowy forms normally hidden by her bedspread—objects of a half-life that instead of being properly on display communed with the dust-bunnies.  Dimly, in the back, she could see a dark rectangle, and though she knew it was useless, she reached in and pulled it out.

Sitting back up and arranging the blankets as best she could, she set the heavy thing on her lap.  It was an old leathern bag, half-shrouded by the dust that clung to it.  Kira wiped it off, and opened it.

Inside was a very old, dear friend—or rather, what was left of it.  She slid it out of the bag—a massive book bound in leather—actually, four volumes sewn together—red, and white.  The black had been washed out long ago.

Kira flipped through the waterlogged pages aimlessly, only half thinking of the old loss and older hurt, just briefly allowing herself to indulge in the wish for things to be not what they were.  “I’m sorry, Frodo,” she said softly, letting her hand linger on a page.  “Even if it wasn’t my fault.”   After a few more minutes she put the book back in the bag, and slid both of them under the bed.

Mother came back in an hour, holding two small bags of coin.  And even if accepting the help of others was supposed to be shaming, the tension was gone on her face and she looked genuinely happy.

Some money!” she said.  “Our mystery hobbit left us gold!”

“Gold?” said Kira.

“Only one piece, mind—and I got it all changed, as that’s more convenient for our purposes.  But I believe it is safe to say that we are on solid footing now, especially if this help continues.  And with what we don’t use, we can set something aside for starting up your own household when you marry.”

“You’ll spend some of it on yourself, I hope!” Kira remonstrated.

“Well, not much, perhaps.  It’s you I’m concerned about, as usual, Kira; and now that I’ve decided to take the help, I think you and I shall find it very beneficial.”

The next day the snow melted, but the ground was still hard through the day.  Kira protested that her foot still could not handle the weather, and then slipped out of the window to visit Nienna.  The pony had been very sensible and not bolted from her house, which was stable as ever, so Kira commended her, replenished her food and water, and promising her a ride out in the country soon, locked her up once more.

The day after that, it was as if the cold snap had never been.  The damage having been fully done, Kira and her mother went out to survey the garden.  The rosemary bush that they had not been able to save was dead.  So was the mint, the basil, and the marjoram.  The parsley was barely clinging onto life, but they had potted most of that so it was of less concern.

Mother had judged the surviving plants quite well, though—the ones that they had only saved one of, just in case.  Burnet, borage, sage, and the gloriously hardy tarragon had taken little damage from the freeze, even though some of them had started to revive prior, and the lovage’s survival ensured good soups all around for the year.

Still, it would take a few more days and a good rain for the survivors to even start growing again, and with the extra money Mother determined not to plant again until May so as to avoid another disaster.  So Kira and her mother were left with a fat lot of nothing to do.  Mother filled the time with mending and sewing, and Kira “called on her friends” (which sometimes was exactly what it said and sometimes was matters of business) as often as she could.

*  *  *

It was at this time that another idea worked its way into Kira’s head—one that would take a good deal of persuasion to let Mother allow it (for she did not think she could pull the enterprise off without her knowledge) but one to which the benefits were so great that it was still worth trying.

“Mum,” she said one day at tea, swallowing the trepidation in her heart, “since there’s no work to do at the moment I’d like to try and visit with my father’s family.”

Mother turned pale and looked straight down into her tea.  She said nothing.

“I know we normally have nothing to do with them, and I know why, but I’d like to think that not all of them were bad.  One or two of them always make it a point to try and talk to us at parties, even if—”

“No,” said Mother.

“Why not?”

“You know why.  They worked your father to—”

“They couldn’t have meant to!”

“In which case they were fools.  Well-intentioned or not, they never understood him—tried to make him something he wasn’t.  I’ll not have you associating with those types of people.”

Kira sighed.  She was hungry, but she thought that she could get her point across better by not eating just yet.  “I still remember the plate,” she said.

“What plate?”

“One of his sisters made it for him—well, painted it, I should say.  It was in the storage room.  I broke it.”  Kira looked up; a sad smile played about her face.  “There was a letter, too, that went with it.  It sounded as if she loved him.”

That plate?” Mother said.

“The very same.  It was a good likeness—of you, at least, since I don’t have anything to compare the other to.  You looked happier than I’d ever seen you.”

Mother shook her head; setting her elbows on the table she let it rest in her hands.

“Foxglove—that was the sister who did it.  She’s married, now; I looked her up in the genealogies at the stationer’s in town.  So she’s not even a Proudfoot anymore.  Please, may I just talk to her?”

“Kira…”  Mother looked up at her; seeing the look in her eyes Kira almost immediately regretted having brought the idea up.  “I’ll think about it.”

“Really?”

Only think.  I won’t make a decision and it may still be no.”

“I understand,” said Kira.  “But I’ve been with only half a family for so long, I hope you’ll see why I asked.”

“I do, lass,” said Mother.  “And I’m very sorry.”

But Mother thought about it for a long time before she said anything—Kira had not the heart to broach it again for at least another two weeks.  May rolled around and it was planting time—and plant-feeding time—once more, which meant that Kira had once more to face the rather pressing topic of Tom, whom she had been able to successfully avoid during her weeks of idleness.  But manure day came, and so did he, and she could elude him no longer.

She managed not to colour at the sight of him (the way she had on a walk into town) when he pulled up, for which she was grateful.  She had the nagging suspicion that if Mother learnt of his affections for her she would be subject to umpteen matchmaking woes, for which she was both unprepared and unwilling.  But when he greeted her in that cocky voice of his she could not bear it, and she turned around and walked to the well, leaving him to drag the tub over.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” he said when he found her working the crank.

“Do I need to be in the sunlight of your presence every day?” she said without looking up.

“No,” he snorted.  “But I was wondering.”

“Maybe I grew tired of your pestering all the time.  Or maybe I finally figured out what you said to me at the Party.”

“Oh, not this again,” muttered Tom, sinking down on the well’s lip where he normally sat.

“You fancy me, don’t you?”

“What?”  Tom started so suddenly that he almost fell into the well.  “Wherever did you get that idea?”

“What else would you so hotly deny—and apologise for?”

“I told you I didn’t mean it!  Whatever I said!”

“Hah!  I knew it!”

“You don’t know what I said!”

“You near admitted it just now.”

“I did not!  Why must you always be so difficult?”

“I’m sorry, but it’s not every day that you find out that the one hobbit you loathe has been madly in love with you for who knows how long.”

“Kira, you must be joking.  Is this just your way of trying to find out what I actually said to you?”

“What?”

“Because I’d have to be a good deal drunker than I was to say anything as stupid as that I love you.”

“Oh,” said Kira, stung by the repulse.  “So, what did you say?”

“I’m not telling.  But it wasn’t that.”

She emptied the bucket into the tub and sent it down again.  “Good.  Because you’re the last hobbit in the Shire that I would marry and I thought you should know that.”

“Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.”  He paused.  “Marriage?  Who put that idea into your head?”

“Sorry,” said Kira.  “I forgot; you’re not thirty yet so you don’t have to worry about such things.  I’m not as lucky as you are, Tom.”

“Lucky?”  He laughed.  “I have to put up with you and you call me lucky?”  Kira had finished filling up the tub; Tom picked it up with both hands and they walked down the hill together.

“Of course!  I have to put up with me all the time!”

Tom set the tub on the ground in back of the smial and brought over the sack of dung from the cart; Kira took it and set it in the water.  He dusted off his hands.  “There, that’s done for the week.”

“For you,” said Kira.

“And no more of this trying to find out what I said to you, do you hear?  It doesn’t bear repeating and I didn’t mean it.  And I don’t fancy you either.”

“Good,” said Kira, and Tom mounted the cart and drove off.  After he had left she stared down the road, wiping two angry tears from her eyes.  “Liar,” she said.

And although she did not believe his passionate denials for one second, somehow they helped her face him the next time she came across him, for if he was able to pretend, even to himself, that made it just a bit easier for her.  But he was lying, there was no doubt about that.  The next day Daffodil reported to her that her brother was acting “unusually frustrated,” and that all that he would say to her was that Tom was being an idiot and that was that.  And though Kira had long known that Tom was an idiot, it took something unusual for Roly to admit the fact; and the very fact that, when questioned on the cause of Tom’s idiocy, Roly shut up like a clam, pointed to the nature of the subject matter.  Kira herself tried cracking him open for information, even though Daffy was usually much more skilled on the matter and she had met with no successes.  The best response she got from him was a desperate avowal of permanent bachelorhood—although that just as well could have been from her and Daffodil’s continual pestering.

Finally the lasses decided to leave Roly alone, and Roly decided to forget about any and all private conversations that he had previously had with Tom concerning the unknown topic, and Tom remained (or at least acted) blissfully ignorant of the whole affair.  Normally Kira would have objected to this since it was exactly what Tom wanted, but the notion of such a fellow actually being attracted to her still daunted her and if he wanted to pretend that that wasn’t the case she’d be glad to as well.  Next manure day she even managed to try out a few of the new insults she’d thought up on him, and he responded in kind.  It was almost like “old times,” if there ever were any “old times” with Tom.

And on May the sixteenth Mother brought up the topic of Aunt Foxglove once more, and without any pushing on Kira’s part.

“This aunt that you wish to see,” she said, “who is she married to?”

“A Cotton,” said Kira.  “Not one of the Cottons, but related.  The genealogy said ‘of Waymoot’.”

“Well, that, at least, is a very respectable family.”

Kira refrained from commenting that, according to most hobbits, so were the Proudfoots.

“Which would imply that she has some good sense.  And—”

“And?” said Kira, hardly daring to hope.

“Well, I know what you’ve said to me many a time about meeting hobbits at parties, and I’m beginning to agree with you.  Not that you couldn’t put in a little more effort, mind—”

Kira grimaced.

“—but you can’t dance by means of an introduction, and everyone’s mind is on dancing at the parties.  So if you can foster as many acquaintances as you can, apart from at parties—”

Ah, that’s what she was driving at.  Inside Kira sighed a little, but if it would get Mother to relent she would go along.

“—I’ll let you send a letter to her, and see how it goes from there.”

“Really, Mum?  Thank you ever so much!”  Kira rose from her work to give her mother a rather dirty hug.

“And, who knows?  Maybe there are some folk on your dad’s side of the family who can help.”

So the next day Kira went into town, double-checked the name and residence in the General Use Genealogy in the stationer’s reading room (she briefly let Mr. Goldworthy know of the good news), and then went to the Postmaster’s office to have a letter taken.

It took five days of nervous waiting, but eventually the postboy came by with a reply, written on fine, white, lilac-scented paper.

 

May 19, 1552

My dear Kira, 

How delighted I was to receive your note of 17 May!  It has been too long since I (or any of us, really), have seen you, and longer still since we have talked.  I would be most pleased to rectify the situation as you suggest.  As you must know, Waymoot is a bit of a distance from Michel Delving but nothing horrid.  It just happens that my husband has business there next Market Day, May the 29th, so it would be no difficulty for me to travel there.  Do you know Winkle’s Bakery?  They lay a marvellous spread for afternoon tea, and if you would care to meet me then at three o’clock in the afternoon we could have tea and a nice long chat there.  Please let me know if this is amenable to you; if not we can make other arrangements.  I look forward to seeing you soon!

                                                                                                                                       Yours with love,
                                                                                                                                       Aunt Foxglove

 

“Mum,” said Kira after she had read the response aloud to her, “will you let me go?”

“I was planning on having you start the selling next week; the plants should be well enough along by then.”

“Please?”

“If you’ll manage for the morning, I’ll take care of the afternoon for you.  That should give you more than enough time to get ready.  And you must be on your best behaviour if you’re to be at a place like the Winkle Shop.”

“Yes, Mum.  Thank you.”  The Winkle Shop, as Perry-the-Winkle’s Bakery was locally known, charged a very pretty penny for its famous goods.  Mother had never taken her there, saying it “wasn’t for our type,” though since Kira had examined her genealogies on both sides of the family she thought Mother was just posturing.  Would her aunt do the same, and be dreadfully disappointed when she learned Kira had none of the little graces expected of her?  For the first time Kira began to have second thoughts about the meeting.

But she still went to town and posted a reply that very afternoon, and while she was there she peeped in at the Winkle Shop’s window to see what sorts of hobbits took their tea within.  It was not a wholly encouraging sight, but at least the diners were not sitting as if their backbones had been starched, the way Kira had always imagined Proper Hobbits at Tea would look.  Swallowing her fears, she returned home to her own tea, and tried not to think too much about the meeting ahead.

During the intervening week Kira made another visit to Lilac Twofoot, and she was (she hoped) able to push everything else on her mind to a small enough corner that she could focus on telling a good story.  She knew Lilac was still smarting over Willem’s sudden leap into maturity (which Kira was of the mind was not terribly mature) and she was the only person who could comfort her.  And Kira, like Lilac’s mother, was not entirely sure that Willem was too old for tales.  So after last visit she had taken especial care in selecting what story she thought would make the best effect.

“Well, Lilac,” she said when all was settled and Will was safely in the next room, “do you mind skipping around in the Story a little bit?”

“I thought you weren’t allowed to skip,” said Lilac.

“I’ll come back to it later,” said Kira.  “But I thought, since it was down to us lasses, we ought to hear a lass’s story, for we know that all those great big heroes in the Tales still went to bed when their wives and mums told them to.”

“Ohhh,” said Lilac.  She craned her head around Kira to look at Willem behind her.  Kira checked the tin mirror in the room to see the lad studiously playing, as if he had just been caught doing otherwise.

“Lilac,” said Kira, lowering her voice to a whisper, “if you want to know if your brother’s listening in you mustn’t make a show of it.  Tell you what—I’ll keep on looking at him in the mirror—he can’t see that—and if it ever looks like he’s not too old for Travellers’ Tales I’ll give you a wink.”  And Kira winked so outrageously that Lilac immediately pitched into a fit of laughter.

Kira checked the mirror.  Willem had stopped playing, so she winked again, then hushed Lilac up before he could realise what was going on.

“Normally,” said Kira, “I tell this tale from the lad’s point of view because lads are thick and they wouldn’t understand the story half as well otherwise.   But since we’re both bright lasses I think we’ll get by with the better version.  But you must promise me first that if you ever tell the tale to anyone else, you must never tell it this way to a lad, for lads are thick and they won’t understand it.  Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

“Very well,” said Kira.  “Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Rohan far to the south, there was a princess.  Her name was Éowyn and she was the niece of the king, and she was beautiful and all loved her.  But she wasn’t an ordinary princess, for she had learned how to ride and fight just like one of their horsemen, and they called women who could do this “shieldmaidens.”  Éowyn loved riding and fighting, and her people’s songs of the great deeds of their forefathers, much more than sewing or weaving or baking.  But she had to stay home while her brother and cousin were out fighting, for the Queen was dead and someone had to keep house.”

“Couldn’t the King have found someone else to do it?”

“Maybe,” said Kira.  She thought a moment.  “I don’t rightly know.  But the King was very old and he liked having family nearby, only his son and nephew were great fighters so they had to be out at war.”

“But you said she was a great fighter, too!”

“So she was, but lads don’t like taking orders from lasses except in the direst situations.”

“Like when she’s his mum?”  Kira was not entirely sure if Lilac understood what “dire” meant.

“Or his wife.  Anyhow, Éowyn had to stay home and she didn’t like it.

“Now, the King had an odious councillor who fancied Éowyn.”

“What’s that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“Oh-dee-us.”

“Loathsome.”

“Loathsome?”

“Lilac, have you ever been to town and seen those lads who like lurking about the Oak Barrel and pretending that they’re old enough to go inside?”

Lilac nodded.

“Think of the ugliest one of them, and imagine him following you around town all day long and leering at you.”

Lilac grimaced.  The mirror showed Willem with a dark look on his face.  Kira winked and then Lilac smiled a little.

“And since Éowyn’s big brother was off fighting for the King,” said Kira a little louder, “he couldn’t beat up the councillor as big brothers ought to do when an unwholesome lad fancies his sister.  Now, Éowyn could take care of herself just fine normally, but the councillor was such an important fellow that she couldn’t do him in without being called traitor and getting locked up, so she had to deal with the fellow day after day.  And since he realised she could take care of herself, and that he was the last man in the world that she would marry willingly, he decided to take matters into his own hands.  He went to the evil wizard Saruman, and promised to make the King very, very weak.  In return, when Saruman took the kingdom over, the councillor could marry Éowyn.”

“How?  She wasn’t going to let him before.”

Kira shivered.  “The King wouldn’t let anyone marry Éowyn that she didn’t want to marry.  With him gone, the evil councillor wouldn’t have to worry about that.  And Éowyn still could have done him in at that point, but men often think they’re stronger than they actually are.  He thought he’d be able to marry her no matter what.”

“Hmm,” said Lilac.

“Anyway, the councillor was true to his word.  The King fell ill—some say due to his poison, and the councillor made everyone believe he was much weaker than he actually was.  It became easier and easier for the King to sit by and let him do all the ruling.  The only person who could actually help him was Éowyn, with her brother and cousin gone, but she did not know what to do as Rohan slipped further and further into decay.  She was as strong as she could be, but she too fell under the councillor’s spells and began to believe that the King was weak, Rohan was weak, and neither would never return to the glory they once had.  It was very hard for her, having to stay at home, watch this and believe it.

“Her brother and cousin could come home from time to time, and when they did, they helped her.  They realised that the councillor was at fault, and they realised what he wanted as well.  Since they were obstacles in the councillor’s path, he worked with Saruman to get rid of them.  So Saruman decided to attack her cousin Théodred’s company, with the express purpose of getting Théodred killed.  Then the councillor tried his best to show that Éowyn’s brother was taking advantage of his cousin’s death, to raise his own power, and was disobeying the King.  And because the King was so weak he decided to punish him, for nothing he had done wrong.  Now Éowyn was left alone out of the three to look after him.  And that’s all I have for today.”

“Her cousin died?”

“Yes.”

“This doesn’t sound like one of your normal stories, Kira.”

“That’s because it isn’t normal,” said Kira.  “It’s about someone who had to stand tall and strong, day after day, against horrible pressures, and what happens when those prove too strong even for her.”

“Hmm,” said Lilac.

“I told you, it’s something lads wouldn’t understand.  They think all the greatest deeds are dashing about and sword-waving.  Think about it for a little while and you’ll understand.  Willem!” she called brightly.  “We’re all done if you want to come back in!”

And if Willem was giving Kira funny looks until his parents returned, she ignored them.

At last the day for the scheduled visit rolled around.  Kira was rather distraught to find that she had nothing suitable to wear, for conservative as her party outfit was, it was still too fancy a thing for a tea-shop.  Yet she feared her everyday clothing was too plain.  Mother said she was being silly and that as long as she looked neat and clean there would be nothing to worry about.  But Kira made sure the skirt she wore to market was one of the ones that had been salvaged from an old dress, so as not to dirty the one she would see her aunt in.

Kira was distracted at the market.  Those customers who did not know already of the failed business venture found out soon enough when the herb-cart was not at its wonted place for a few weeks.  So as soon as word got round that they were back in business she found herself having to explain exactly what had happened.  The enquiries as to how they had got by in the meantime were blissfully discreet, but Kira quickly found that this was one particular story she was not fond of relating.  The imminent meeting only made things worse.

Somehow, however, she managed to muddle her way through the morning, though she returned home right afterwards without going off to buy lunch.  A small part of her, distanced from the things pressing in on her life, observed that she must really be in a state if she was not in the mood for food.  Kira tried to ignore that part of her, though, and focused on getting home and getting herself ready to see her aunt.

Mother was not able to do much more than look over Kira before she had to leave to take over the stall for the afternoon.  So to calm her nerves Kira read in the intervening hours, until she nearly forgot the time that she needed to leave to arrive at the bakery and had to rush out of the house.  Still, she made herself walk back to town slowly.  It would do no good to appear before her aunt in a flustered state.

Perry-the-Winkle’s bakery was a quaint little building set back on the eastern side of the river, with a white stone front, fresh thatch, and an arched window with blue shutters on either side of the door.  Looking in through one of the windows, Kira saw her aunt sitting at the table nearest it, nestled right in under the alcove.  She was wearing some sort of straw hat, covered in flowers that Kira knew could not be in season.  She supposed they must be cloth.  Aunt Foxglove turned her head to look outside; she caught sight of Kira and raised a gloved hand by way of greeting.  Kira blushed and ducked down beneath the window, before realising how utterly ridiculous she must have looked to the people inside.  She shifted away, stood up, and walked to the door and opened it.

The bell on the door tinkled as it shut behind her.  Everything in the shop was neat and orderly, from the little round tables with their crocheted tablecloths to the linen-lined baskets in the back filled with breads and pastries.  It was not the frosty formality that Kira always associated with the Proudfoots’ High Hole, but it did not quite feel like home, either—as if someone in trying to create a homely feeling had tried too hard and failed utterly.   She turned right and made her way to the table near the window.  Aunt Foxglove rose to greet her and held out her arms.

“Kira!” she said.  “It really has been a while, hasn’t it?”

Kira took one step in and tentatively placed her arms around her aunt’s neck.  Foxglove drew her in for a full embrace and patted her a few times on the back.  “Do sit down, won’t you?  I’ll order tea for the both of us.”

Kira pulled out the chair opposite her aunt and sat down.  She pushed it in a few inches; it seemed to her that she must sit up straight and keep her hands nestled softly in her lap.  Foxglove, in the meantime, waved a serving lad over and asked for their full afternoon tea.  “This is my niece,” she said to him, “Kira Proudfoot.  She’s from the area.”  And the serving lad asked Kira “how do you do” and Kira nodded her head once.

“It shouldn’t take them too long,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “I hope you’re not terribly hungry.”

Kira assured her that she wasn’t.

“Well, how have things been around here?  Has life been good to you and your mother?”

“Mostly,” said Kira.  “We’ve started selling our herbs in market, and—”  She glanced briefly down towards her shift and bodice.

“Oh, that’s right!  How old are you now?  Twenty-seven?”

“As of last August.  I didn’t come out until April sixth, though.”

“And?”

“If you’re asking about my prospects I’d rather not talk about them at the moment.”

Two hobbits came over, carrying two trays: one with a steaming teapot and teacups and the other with cream, honey, and a tiered dish filled with little sandwiches cut into shapes.  They set the contents of both on the table and poured them each a cup.  Kira blinked as she looked at the honey pot.  Inside was not honey, but sugar—beautiful translucent crystals sitting placidly in the white bowl.  Next to it, rather than a honey spoon, was a pair of fine silver tongs.  Tentatively she picked up the tongs and placed one of the lumps in her cup.  She had to blow on her tea before it was cool enough to take a sip.  She looked up, caught her aunt’s eye, and smiled.

“Well,” said Aunt Foxglove, reaching for one of the sandwiches, “I suppose I can understand that.  I was almost thirty-two by the time I found my husband and by that point I’d gotten quite tired of everyone’s questions, thank you.”

“It’s been pretty wretched,” said Kira with a rueful smile.  “I think Mother only agreed to letting me meet with you because if I extend my connexions your way I might find more suitors.”

“Is that it?  I had wondered—just curiosity, you understand; I wasn’t trying to think ill of you or yours.”

“That wasn’t why I sent you the letter, though.  I don’t much care for hunting or snaring, especially lads.”

“And why did you send me the letter, if I may ask?”

“Well…”  Kira picked up one of the triangular sandwiches; it seemed to contain some sort of soft cheese with nuts mixed in.  “I always thought it was a shame to cut off half my family just because of the way my father died.  And I wanted to learn more about him.  It still hurts Mum to talk about him, you see, and you always seemed to be nice whenever we talked at parties or family occasions.”  She swallowed.  The sandwich was still in her hand.  “Mother has a room in the storage tunnels in town and there are a lot of old things in it—things from before he died.  I saw the plate you had painted for him—when he married Mum—and the letter you wrote.  I reckoned you couldn’t be all that bad.”

A smile lit up Foxglove’s face.  “I had nearly forgotten about that old thing!  Do you still have it?”

Kira reddened.  “I’m afraid I broke it.  I was so shocked, you see—I’d never seen a likeness of him before and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I dropped it—I was quite young at the time—and as I was trying to leave my crutch hit one of the pieces and crushed it into bits.  It’s one of the things I regret most.”

“Well,” said Foxglove, taking a measured sip of her tea.  “If you went that far through life without even knowing what your father looked like then I must disagree with the way that your mother raised you.  He was a fine hobbit, and to shut out his memory like that—”  She took another sip of her tea.  “Well.  So I imagine you’ve grown up rather ignorant of your family history.”

“That’s a bit of an understatement.”

“Shame, really—if a hobbit doesn’t know her family what is she supposed to know?—but I’ll help you as I can.  And if your mother seems to be so keen on your fostering connexions—well, perhaps I’ll see to it that you get a bit more involved in Proudfoot affairs.  My father did try the first few years, but once it became clear that Rosemary wanted to go it alone—or mostly alone, I should say—he only sent out invitations to the most pressing things: births, deaths, weddings.  So, if your mother’s amenable we might be able to change that around.”

“I’ll certainly ask, but it is hard to involve oneself with a family that’s clear out in Westmarch.”

“I did say ‘perhaps.’  I’m not wholly acquainted with my brother’s affairs but if I’m not mistaken the Proudfoots still do a great deal of business in Michel Delving.  You just have to catch them at the right time, I suppose.”

“Thank you, Aunt.  I can’t say I’ll be keen on the connecting part, but perhaps I can learn a bit more of this side of the family.  So far I’ve had most of my illicit information from the Brandybucks.”

“Brandybucks!” said Aunt Foxglove.  “Pff!  What do they know?”

“Not much about the Proudfoots themselves, I suppose.  But some of my dearest friends are among them.  It was a Brandybuck that first told me about Grandmother Hallie’s father while I was wintering all the way over there.  I suppose if Mother weren’t on such cold terms with all of you I’d have gone to High Hole instead; there was a spell of illness over here and while I was away from home we got snowed up.”

“Oh.  So is that what made you curious—all those great deeds of Meriadoc the Magnificent that those folk love—they put far too much stock in them, by the by.  Because if you want to hear anything along those lines I’m afraid we’re quite dull by comparison.”

“I do appreciate a bit of dullness now and then, much as my mother fears for me, Aunt Foxglove.  But as to your question—well, yes and no.  Of course I wanted to know why Mum wouldn’t tell me I had a hero’s blood in me, though I’d already guessed her reasons.  And anything a Brandybuck says is going to stir the fancy of a child.  But this was all years ago and there wasn’t much I could learn—or learn that I could learn—about my dad.  I didn’t get thinking about that until I saw the mathom room.  I’d always wanted to know.  It was just hard to find out how.”

Kira reached to take another sandwich, when she realised that there were none left.  A serving hobbit whisked the dish away and came back with a plate full of steaming cramson bread, with clotted cream and jam.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure where to start,” said Aunt Foxglove after they had taken one apiece and started eating again.  “What has your mother told you?”

“Not much by way of detail.  That he was a good hobbit and very dear to her.  She has much more to say on the topic of you—by which I mean the rest of his family.”

“Oh?”

“It’s rather what you’d expect—too fine for us, which I know is false, for we may not be our best but we’re still not working class—too caught up with their airs, too cruel to him—”

“What?  Why would she say that about us?”

Kira shook her head.  “It—I don’t know—I mean, I don’t know what terms he was on with the rest of the family before he died.  I’d always thought they’d wanted him to set out on his own, make something of himself, and it was too much for him and—”

“Goodness, no!  If you’re talking about the farm, that was his idea, poor dear!”

“What?”

“Lagro—he wasn’t well all the time, especially when he was young.  We had a doctor look at him and there was something wrong with his heart.  He was never useless—far from it—but he didn’t take to the tasks that would have been best for him.  Father—that’s your grandfather Blanco—always wanted him to go into the law, or something like that, but he didn’t like that sort of thing.  He was always very practical, your father was, and didn’t much care for the niceties of life that are part of High Hole.  But he didn’t want to sit about idly, either.  I think he thought if he worked hard enough he’d be able to overcome his condition.  So he often helped out the farmhands, and always used to bring in the sweetest apples when they were harvesting the orchards, and watched the cider press.  For a time I thought he’d go into brewing—but then he met his match in your mother and things changed.”

“How so?”

“He told me one night when he was courting her that whenever he came back home after seeing her everything felt false—there was too much veneer, he said.”

“What’s veneer?”

“A thin slice of wood, polished fine, laid over a lesser specimen to make it look better.  Not that we had anything veneered at home—Proudfoot money is too old for that—but when I told him that he threw a cushion at me.”  She smiled.  “I didn’t understand him at the time—I was still far too in love with all the fine, little, pretty things—I still am—but when I married Wilcome I began to.

“Anyhow, the more Lagro fell in love with your mother the more he fell out of love with his home.  Finally when he told Father of his plans to marry her he realised he’d dropped all intention to stay anywhere in the Westmarch.  He wanted to go back to the Shire proper, and he wanted to strike out on his own.  Maybe he still did have plans as a ciderer, but an orchard and a press take time and money, more money than I’d imagine Father was willing to put into his prospects if he was going to turn around and try and leave the family behind altogether—which it certainly appeared he would.  So Father offered him the old hole, to the south of Michel Delving, and the field attached to it, for his own; and said that if he wanted to do anything with the money he made from that he was free to, and if he needed help he was free to ask for it.  My brother Sancho didn’t think he’d take the offer, or at least if he did he’d hire help.  But Lagro was unusually stubborn, and I think he was rather tired of being treated as if he couldn’t work hard with his hands.  So he took it, declaring that he and his wife would start a new life together, come what may.  I only saw him twice after he moved to the Westfarthing, and he seemed truly happy, even if he was leading a far harder life than he needed to.  He never came asking for help, either, though he wrote every month or so to let us know how he was doing.”

Kira smiled.  “That’s right—he could read and write, couldn’t he?”

“Yes, he could, though he never saw any reason for it beyond the practical.”

“Mother told me he scoffed at your grandfather’s tales.”

“We all did—secretly—but he was the most sceptic out of all of us.  And I think Polo always squirmed a bit when we did, too.  It was just part of growing up, you see.  Not that they weren’t marvellous tales, but they were so fantastic that it was a little hard for anyone to swallow them except the very young.  We all know now that there’s more to life than just what goes on in the Shire, but how much of the tales were embellished and how much were real I can’t say.  I don’t think old Merry was cracked anymore, even if we liked to think we did then.”

“That’s good.”  Kira lowered her voice to a whisper.  “I’ve got a little side business telling the same tales to the children in the area.  Mother still hasn’t found out, for she’d have my hide if she did.”

Foxglove widened her eyes.  “That’s… very…”

“Uncharacteristic?  I’m afraid that without a father to guide me I looked a few generations back and took my cues from the Magnificent himself.”

“Goodness!  I had no idea that you’d grow up to be so—so…”

“Scandalous, I believe, is the word.  I try to be quiet about it, though.  I grew up with too much order in my life.”

“Well, I can’t say that Lagro would approve of it.  I certainly don’t.  But maybe he’d understand your wanting to do more.  I imagine, that with the way he died, your mother didn’t want you overexerting yourself?”

“Of course not.  She was right, though; I was and still am weak.  But spinning a few idle tales isn’t the same as breaking your back on a farm, is it?”

“I suppose not—still, do be careful, Kira.  I should hate for you to share in your father’s fate.”

“I will.”

The bread course was finished, and to finish Kira and her aunt were treated to fine small sugar cakes, covered in delicate icing.

“I am glad to know that you are well,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “Though perhaps a little different than I’d expected.  There’s nothing you or your mother want, is it?  I can’t imagine life is quite easy gardening for a living.”

“We’re managing,” said Kira.  “I’m sure you know your brother still helps us out a little, and on top of that we’ve started receiving help from a mystery giver.”

“A mystery giver?  Who in the Shire could that be?”

“The letter says if we try to find out we’ll stop getting help.  Which I’m sure would suit Mother’s stubborn neck just fine but I’d rather keep it for now.”

“Someone is sending you money anonymously?”

Kira nodded.

“And you probably have your guesses as to who it is?”

“I do, but I’d rather not have the giver come into the open just yet.  It could be anyone, really.”

“Then I’m glad to know that you have some sort of help.  I’ve often worried about you two, living all alone like that.”

“I do have plenty of friends, and we do visit with her side of the family, you know.”

“Of course.  I do forget these things sometimes.  Still, I’m glad to have gotten to know you a little bit better, Kira.  We shall have to visit again sometime.”

“Will you be here for the Free Fair?”

“Yes, and at least Sancho should be here as well.”

“We should try to visit then.  Though I have a bit of a reputation for visiting those I oughtn’t during the Fair.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, you know—Brandybucks, Fairbairns, Dwarves—”

The look of shock on Aunt Foxglove’s face made Kira wonder if perhaps she should have left off at the “Brandybucks”.  “Well,” said she, “my husband has probably finished with his business for now, which is just as well for I don’t think I could eat another bite.”  There was one cake left on the stand.  Kira took it.

“As I said before, I’m very glad you wrote to me.  I shall have to think of some good stories of your father for the Fair.”

“Thank you, Aunt Foxglove.”  They rose, and Kira embraced her much more willingly than she had at the start of the interview.  Her aunt held the door for her as she left the bakery.  Outside stood a hobbit whom Foxglove introduced as her husband, Wilcome Cotton.  Kira took his hand and shared a few words before bidding farewell to both of them.  But after she had turned a corner, she stayed and peeped back at the couple.

“What do you think of her?” Mr. Cotton said to his wife.

“She’s rather strange,” said Aunt Foxglove.  “But I think I like her, and not just for Lagro’s sake.”

And those words were enough to put Kira in a good mood for the rest of the day.

“How was the meeting?” said Mother when Kira returned to the herb-cart as it was closing for the day.

“It went well.  Aunt Foxglove said I could see some of our relations at the Free Fair if that’s all right with you.”

Mother thought about it, and that was enough for Kira.  Midyear was a month away, and that was more than enough time for her to make up her mind.  Kerry and Sandra and Merina would be there, too, as well as at least some of the Gardners—and the Dwarves!  Kira smiled to herself as she went to sleep that night.  If she could avoid getting found out, this might end up being one of the best Fairs yet!





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