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A White Shell  by Celeritas

Chapter Six

 

All the month of June Kira mapped out what she would do over Midyear.  In years past she had usually been able to sneak in at least one meeting with a bookish acquaintance, and she had only overstepped her reach once, eight years ago, when the Dwarves had at last returned and she had been too eager to explain to Fírin how everything made sense now.  She would have to be cautious.

Tale-telling was not uncommon at the Fair; after all, there were so many children running around that they could be up to no good without someone to keep them distracted.  But never had she heard any stories that she herself knew were true—though there were several embellished versions floating around.  The Mad Baggins tales had not yet lost their appeal, and probably never would—as unjust as they were.  Kira would limit her endeavours to the daytime, after she had closed up shop or while Mother was running it.  Mother rarely stayed out at nights anymore, so although Kira expected a thorough questioning on what she had done (and whom she had met) it would not be too difficult to slip off then.

First Lithe none of the Brandybucks or Fairbairns would be in town yet, but Aunt Foxglove would be and quite possibly some of her relations as well.  She remembered her aunt’s account of brother Polo squirming as his siblings roundly denounced the great legends and wondered if he too had fallen to Kira’s blessed curse.

Midyear’s Day was the busiest of the four, though Overlithe came in as a close second.  Perhaps she could claim exhaustion at the party, avoid Daffodil’s well-meaning help at finding her suitors to please Mother (at which request Daffodil had smiled most inconsiderately and asked her why bother since she already had one), and…  but Kira rarely articulated that plan, even to herself.

That left Overlithe and Second Lithe to spend time with the Families and possibly get a few introductions to show her mother.

Her head teemed with ideas surrounding her release.  Once she had thought about telling Daffodil or Roly, but the veil blew against her mouth and dried her tongue.

*  *  *

Help for the month came in from both sources, but the mystery hobbit never reprised the gift of gold.  A few silvers did not go amiss, though.  Kira and her mother once again worked on culling the finest samples for competition and sale within the Fair.

Tom was well enough, which meant he was quite irksome.  Only once she caught him looking at her as she pulled water from the well.  It was only for an instant, but she dumped the bucket on him nonetheless and asked what his head was doing in the clouds rather than firmly planted in the manure where it belonged.  When she was finally alone she could still feel her flesh burn where his gaze had rested.  How, how could such an unbearable ass as he be attracted to her?

A week before the Fair Mother gave her permission to visit with her aunt once more.  Three days prior she received a letter from Mr. Gardner intimating a meeting of extreme importance which she was to make at all costs or suffer the consequences of being Most Impolite.  Mother did not give permission for this meeting, but it was too late to give any response that would reach him on time (so Kira said, so that she could deliver her regrets in person).  On the last day of June she received a fine note in the whitest, softest paper she had ever seen, inscribed upon in gold and silver ink.

Mr. and Mrs. Caradoc Brandybuck                                                                                                                 and Mr. and Mrs. Elfstan Fairbairn

 cordially invite you

to witness the Union

of their Children, 

Kerimac and Sandra,

in Marriage

The Ceremony is to be held in the Party Field in Hobbiton, upon Thursday the Twenty-Second of September at Two O’Clock in the Afternoon.

A Feast will be provided afterwards, featuring Food, Dancing, and General Merriment honouring the new Couple.

Please send Notes of Acceptance or Regret by no later than the Fifteenth of July.

 

“The Warden’s daughter marrying the Master’s son.  It’s the wedding of the decade,” Kira said after she had read it to her mother.

“And if you’re only talking to them for the sake of politeness you’re doing a terrible job of it.  I know who these people are and I know what they want to do with you.  At times like this I’d like to place propriety on a shelf and cut them altogether!”

“You’re invited too, you know.  I wouldn’t be surprised if half the Shire is.  And you know the feast will be—”

“The feast has nothing to do with it!  You want to go to this wedding, don’t you?”

It sounded too much like an accusation.  Kira let the truth out, and cursed herself as she did.  “Of course I do.  They were kind to me, when they didn’t even know me, they gave me a gift—”

“Which did you much good—”

“Which improved my health, and they’ve found joy in each other, joy that they need, and you don’t want me to see them wed?  Let me go at least for them, if not for me!”

Mother sat down next to her and took both her hands.  “Sweetheart, their gift nearly got you killed.”

Tom nearly got me killed.  I don’t see you cutting him, though heavens know it’d help me.”

“Tom may have been rash, but at least he’s got sense in him—”

“And if that’s what you think sense is then I’d rather go mad!”  Kira dropped the invitation on the floor, knocking over her chair with her crutch in her haste to get up, and stalked down the hallway to her bedroom.

“Kira!”

She slammed the door and flounced upon her bed, letting herself cry.

An hour later Mother opened the door a hair and asked to come in.  “I thought you were past this sort of thing,” she said, quietly, regretfully.

“It’s just a wedding.  I’ve tried to bend myself to your will all these years, and you never reward me by—”

“By giving you what you want?  Kira, you know that what you want and what you need aren’t always the same thing.  I’ve seen you with these people, seen what they do to you.  It’s like telling a child not to touch fire.  It may be a sight lovely to look upon, but I can’t bear to see you get burnt.  Only a child learns after he’s touched it once, and you—”

“Mother, if you’d seen the things I’ve seen you’d want to go back, too.”

“Even if you know you’ll get hurt?”

“Even then.  But Kerry and Sandra—they’re not the folks who cause that.”

“That’s funny.  I thought your acquaintance with Kerry is what started all these problems.”

“They wouldn’t have been problems if others hadn’t made them so.”

“Kira, I don’t want us to be at odds with each other.  You know I love you and I’m only looking out for you.”

“I know.”

“And so I have to keep you from these people, if you can’t do it yourself.  They may be nice people, but they’re not what’s best for you.  I can’t let you go to this wedding.”

“I understand,” said Kira, and the worst part was that she did.

She cried again when she went to sleep, but this time her tears were not hot but bitter.

*  *  *

But morning dawned and it was First Lithe and there was work to be done and life to be lived.  The entire walk up to Michel Delving was transformed with carts, tents, and hobbits, and Kira was grateful that she had managed to stable Nienna in town before anyone could discover her.  First they dropped off their entries for judging, then they took the cart out from storage (very difficult, as at the same time other people were trying to set up their own wares in the empty rooms and the tunnels themselves) and wheeled it out, away, to the makeshift bannered avenues west of town.

It was especially hard to keep up business in the grocer’s district, when all kinds of new smells were wafting their way over to one’s nose.  Normally Kira was able to stop thinking about it, but during the Fair sellers from all over the Shire set up shop, and ready-food stands abounded regardless of what was being sold nearby.  Kira thought she would go mad every time the wind blew the smells of freshly frying meat from the nearby sausage cart towards her.

But Kira was an old hand at selling, so she could afford to let herself get a little distracted.  In anticipation of the greater flow of traffic they had dried herbs on the cheap for ready use as well as their regular fresh fare, and semi-dry wreaths and braids for those who wished to buy in bulk.  As the morning drew on she let herself get caught up in the flow of society and the sight of fresh faces, and Mother came by to relieve her much sooner than she had anticipated.

The first thing she did, of course, was go to that infernal sausage stand and relieve her hunger.  They did have less to sell compared to other years, but when Mother checked the till she declared immediately that Business was Good and handed Kira one and a half pennies to spend as she pleased.  After a couple of sausages, an apple, and some sort of griddle cake, she found she had three farthings left and decided to roam the rest of the grocers for strange finds.

For one thing, this was one of the few times that one could find game for sale in a Shire market.  It was not that rabbits and fowls were uncommon fare, but usually friends or family went out a free afternoon to do the work.  And a place as settled as the White Downs held none of the larger game.  So it was that Kira looked forward every year to the stand that held such novelties as cured venison, turkey, or even pheasant.  Fingering her coin in her hand, she stared at the strange meats for sale until, shaking her head, she turned and stumped away.  She did not know what Mother would say if she came back home with a deer haunch and did not fancy finding out.

But there, tucked back among stands of cabbages and greens, was the most peculiar-looking shop she had ever seen.  It was a waggon—a regular cart, even, and one that had seen much use, but only the back was facing the lane and little of that was being used.  On a small stepladder used for loading were a number of small glass jars, and sitting on the waggon itself was a hobbit with a straw hat and a weathered face.  Curious, Kira drew closer to peer at the bottles.  They were filled with what looked like some sort of grain.  She picked up a blue bottle with black kernels and peered at it closer.

“Careful with that,” said the hobbit, “that’s worth at least a silver right there.”

Kira immediately set it down.  “What is it?”

“Pepper,” he said.  “Or at least so’s I’m told.  Not that I don’t trust my merchants, you know, but—”

“You could find out.  There’s an import shop here; I think they sell pepper along with everything else…”

“Oh.”  The hobbit’s face fell.  “And here I was thinking I was the only one selling fancy spices from the Southlands!”

Kira thought quickly.  “I don’t think they had as many different—spices, you said?—there as here, though.  They specialise in other things—sugar, coffee, tea.  I haven’t been in there much.”

“You’re a local, then?”

“You could say that.  I live about an hour’s walk south of here.  Michel Delving’s our main market, my mum and I.”

“Well, I don’t have a market.  I’m normally on the road, I am—”

“Are you a driver?”

“Beg pardon?”

“You take goods across the Shire for those that can’t enter it.”

“In a manner of speaking—”

“Oh, it’s quite all right.  I’m not afraid of you or anything.  I always thought it a little romantic, to tell the truth.”

“Oh, now, don’t be ridiculous, sweet.  It’s just a line of work like any other.  You’d be surprised—Big Folks aren’t terribly different from the rest of us.”

“I’m not, actually.  But what are you doing selling spices?”

“There’s nothing like changing things up a little now and then, I say.  I got a particular fine job a few months back—nice pay, small load—and asked what was so fine in there that they could afford to pay me so good.  Turns out there’s folks beyond the Bounds who’d be willing to pay an arm and a leg for what I’ve got here.  I’ve even heard tell that they use these things for coin outside the King’s realm.  So, I thought to myself, ‘there’s a fair or two coming up, and maybe some folks as would like to try something new,’ and I had the money for it, so I bought me a set off another merchant and decided to try my hand at selling them here.”

Kira picked up another bottle, this one filled with what looked like a very thin bark.  “I’m very impressed,” she said.  “But haven’t you lived here long enough to know that no one ever wants to try anything new here?”

“Well, you have to start sometime!  You can’t tell me that we never built above ground, nor that we always smoked weed, nor that we never used the King’s coin.”

“We don’t.  Usually we just use the same old Dwarven stuff from before the King returned.”

“All right then.  You can’t fault me too much; I didn’t grow up here.”

“You’re a Breelander!”  Kira’s face lit up with delight.  It did explain his accent, which now that Kira thought about it was actually somewhat close to how the Brandybucks spoke.

“Not too loudly, now.  Thought you’d know that, though what with me being a driver and all.”

“I’m sorry to draw unwanted attention, Mr.—”

“Underhill.  It’s all right, though; no harm done.”

Kira set the bottle back down and picked up another.

“Really?”

“Really what?”

“Underhill.”

“Yes, that’s my name, and don’t go knocking it.”

“I wasn’t.  Anyhow, I appreciate your optimism, but I can’t imagine your business has been exceptional so far.”

Mr. Underhill looked left and right.  “You’re the first one that’s come by.”

“You need something bright.  Maybe a yellow tablecloth.  And if you can move the cart farther from sight that might help as well.  And since folk who’d be willing to try something new are more likely to be lettered, you might want a sign as well.  If not, you need to work on your shouting.  Have you ever tried selling at a market before?”

“Well, no, not exactly.”

“People might be curious enough as soon as they see that there’s something to be curious about—well, children, at least.  If you can get them close enough and start talking, then you might be able to get a sell or three.  Especially the gentry; they’re always bent on impressing each other.  See, this I know I haven’t seen at the import shop before.”  She gestured to a jar containing what looked like the wilted remains of black flowers.

“That’s cloves,” he said.  “Smells marvellous if you’ll open it up.”  He uncorked the top; Kira almost took a step back after she caught a whiff of the jar’s contents.

“Right, so tell folk about that.”

“And that ain’t even the half of it!”  Mr. Underhill was starting to warm up.  “Here, take a look at this.”  He drew from his waistcoat pocket a small metal box and opened it.  Inside were a few frail, golden threads of something.  “Most expensive spice out there, very strong, too.”  Kira leaned forward to smell it, but he snapped it shut and put it back.  “Can’t have you blowing it away, now, can I?  There’ve been wars fought over the fields that grow this.”

“So your merchants tell you?”

“Well, yes, but it’s a wondrous colour.”

“It is.  So, what sort of spice are you willing to give me in return for the candid advice I’ve given you?”

“Hum,” said Mr. Underhill.  “I’m afraid you aren’t going to give me a fair deal.”

“Nonsense!  You’ll make it back up in a few hours’ time, I’m sure!  And if you have to deal with Men all the time I’m sure you can haggle for all you’re worth.”

“Then you know I’m not going to give you any of this for free.”

“Ah, but at a discounted price?  And I’d prefer something that can’t be gotten at the import shop, too, if that’s possible.”

“Why don’t you take a look for yourself, then?”

“I take it the yellow thing is off limits?”

“Unless you’ve got silver on you, yes.”

“Right.”  Kira looked through the various spices on the stepladder, until she found one that was most fascinating not because of it looked exotic, but because it looked somewhat familiar.  It was a small, brown seed, around the same shade as caraway or dill, though it was larger and rounder.  “What’s this?”

“I don’t quite recall…  Something like corimanna or coriander…  There’s a name pasted on the bottle.”

Kira looked at it, and found in a rather foreign-looking script the word corneänna.  It looked elvish.  “What if I take an ounce of that?”

“An ounce?  I should think that’d be at least one copper, lass.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!  I did you a favour!  Why, this looks like something I could get anywhere in a gardening shop!”

“Really?”

Kira uncorked it and smelled it.  “I said ‘looks,’ not ‘smells.’  You haven’t been had, but I have to wonder if this isn’t one of the cheaper spices on your list.  Remember, I was asking for you to give me a spice; I’ve already given you something.”

“Half a penny?”

“A farthing.”

“Half a penny.”

“A farthing, and I tell you the tale of Frodo Baggins vanishing into thin air in the Prancing Pony.”

“Hah!  You’re wrong, there!  That was one of my own relations that did that.”

“Was it, now?  Funny what a century will do to fact…”

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood today,” said Mr. Underhill.  “Give me your farthing, and explain to me how I don’t know my own family history.”

And so Kira found herself telling her first tale of the fair to a sceptical driver from Bree.

*  *  *

By the time she was finished three of her regular listeners had scouted her out and were dawdling nearby to hear her tale.  As soon as she walked away one of them darted up and began tugging at her skirts.  “Kira Lamefoot!”

“Hush!” said Kira.  Mother’s stand should not be in earshot, but she did not want to take any risks.  “Mundo Rumble, how kind to see you again!  Are your cousins in town as well?”

“Yes, and we’ve been having a wondrous time!”

“Excellent.  Are you following me because you want another story?”

Mundo grinned.  “Maybe.”

“Imp.”

“How well do you remember the faces of those that were at the Tree Party?”

“Well enough.”

“See if you can find as many as you can, and tell them that if they’d like a story they should talk to their mums and dads and meet in back of the Mathom-house at three o’clock.  The Town Hole’s clock will be chiming to let you know.”

“Right!”

“And no need to mention my name.  Just spread the word that there’ll be stories at three in back of the Museum.”

“Right!  Mat, we’re getting stories from Kira Lamefoot again!”

“Hurrah!” cried a small voice a few feet behind.

Kira sighed.

*  *  *

She found Daffodil and Roly in the press of hobbits leading up to the Event Field, where the races would be starting soon.  Roland was pointing at something in the distance, and she could see—not hear, for the noise of the crowd was too great—Daffodil laughing, her light brown curls bouncing in the air.  For the briefest moment, gazing upon the pair, Kira felt something in her heart surge, but what it was she could not say.  She shook her head and walked up to them.

“Kira!” cried Roly.  “How’s business?”

“Busy,” said Kira, “or at least it was when I got off.  You’d have no idea how exhausting talking to hobbits is—not until you’ve been at it for three hours and finally gotten yourself a break!”

“Have you come to see Tom, too, then?” said Daffy.

“Tom?  Oh, that’s right, he’s in one of the races again, isn’t he?”

“First one of the set.  I’d have thought he’d have told you half a dozen times.”

“Maybe I just wasn’t listening to him.”

“Oh, come, Kira,” said Roly, “that’s not very nice.”

“I’m sorry!  You know how things are strained between us.”

“Oh, not this again,” Roly groaned.

“Just tell me Tom didn’t give you any money to bet on him.”

“He did,” said Roly.  “I put it on Buckland, though.”

“Did you, now?”

“They win over half the time!”

“Roly, Tom is going to have your hide when he finds out.”

“Not when I bring back his earnings, he won’t.”

Daffodil sighed.  “Lads.”

“I quite agree,” said Kira.

“Oh, don’t the both of you look grown up!”

Kira snorted.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing—I was just remembering your face at the Tree Party, when Daffy and I took off—”

“And if my sister ever does that again, I shall box her ears.  You are a terrible influence on her behaviour, Kira.  To think of my own sister debasing herself—”

Daffodil laughed.  “You were as red as a beet, Roly!  And if we want to talk debasement I have a number of good stories which I’m sure Kira, not having a brother herself, would find quite fascinating…”

Roly turned red once more.  Kira only smiled to herself, knowing full well exactly which stories Daffodil was talking about, for of course she had told Kira every one of them when they had happened.  “Let’s get to the field,” said Roly.  “We wouldn’t want to be late, would we?”

But just then they heard from a distance the short, sharp call of a trumpet and a swell of noise as the race began.

“No, we wouldn’t,” said Daffy, and together they pressed their way through.

Kira went first; they had learned long ago that being a cripple, especially one with a pointy crutch, cleared a pathway faster than otherwise.  At last they made their way to the front of the throng, just in time to see Tom go thundering by on his family’s pony.  Daffodil tugged at Kira’s sleeve.  “Maybe you should wave a handkerchief or something.  Might make him go faster!”

Kira whacked Daffy on the arm.

“Or slow him down with distract—ouch!”  Kira had dug her crutch into Daffodil’s right toe.  “What was that for?”  She turned and saw the look on Kira’s face.  “Oh, right.  Sorry.  Just having a little bit of fun.”

“Don’t,” said Kira absently.  “At least, not at my expense.”

“Who’s in the lead?” Daffodil asked her brother.

“Can’t quite tell, they’ve made some laps without us.”  A cluster of ponies galloped by again; Kira had to shut her eyes against the dust.  “Judging by the cheers, though, I’m guessing Buckland’s ahead.”

As Tom came around the bend this time, his pony got a new spurt of speed.  Kira desperately hoped he had not noticed her.  Another two laps, and he was one length behind the rider from Buckland.  The crowd roared.

“That’ll be the last lap,” said Roly.

Despite her brother’s wager Daffodil began cheering Tom on.  So did Roly.  Kira remained silent, and kept her eyes upon the two riders making the final bend in the track.  Thus it was that when a gust of wind pushed the caps of both riders from their heads, she was one of the first to see the long, dark brown locks blown free from Buckland’s rider.  Buckland easily crossed the finish line, with Tom following soon after, but the crowd’s attention was not on the race itself anymore.  Buckland slowed down to a walk, the rider smiling broadly in the exhilaration of victory, when her hand unconsciously went to her cap and found it missing.  Immediately her smiling expression turned to one of shock.

“Merina!” said Kira.

“What?” said Daffodil.

“Who is that?  Do you know her?”

“My ostentatious, scandalous, good-for-nothing, little, cheating vixen of a Brandybuck cousin!”  Kira laughed.  “I don’t know whether to strike her or kiss her!”

“Oh,” said Roly.  “You’re related.”

“Only second cousins,” said Kira.  “Believe me, she makes me look dull by comparison.”

“Clearly,” said Daffodil.  “What happens now?”

“Well, she would have won,” Kira said.  Just then, in the distance, the Mayor took Tom’s hand in his and raised it into the air.  The crowd cheered.  “Of course, since it’s against the rules for a girl to jockey…”

“I paid silver on her!” said Roly.

“Cheer up,” said Kira.  “At least it wasn’t yours.”

Halfway into the next race Tom elbowed his way through the crowd to join them, a small, fat purse in his hand and a wide grin on his face.  First Daffodil hugged him, then Roly, and finally Kira, though she broke free from him as soon as she could.

“It’s a good thing Buckland was cheating this year,” said Tom.  “Though I always said it wasn’t fair for them to enter the contest to begin with.”

“That’s just because they beat you all the time, Tom,” said Kira.

“So they should have their own race!  Anyhow, it all worked well this time, and with that money you put on me, Roly, I should have more than doubled my earnings!”

“Actually…” said Roly.

“And I believe that’s my cue to leave,” said Kira.  “Good job on your winning, Tom!”  And she actually went up on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek before turning and making her way through the crowd to find the stables and Merina.

Already she could feel her face burning as she left the crowd behind.  Idiot, idiot, she thought as she stalked away.  You don’t fancy him, you’ll just encourage him—oh, but if she could have seen the sweet confused expression on his face, added to stunned fury as he realised that Roly had bet on the winning candidate and lost!—No, I said I wouldn’t use this against him, and I shan’t, I shan’t—Kira stood still for a moment to compose herself.  Well.  It was done, and she would have to deal with its consequences later.

Merina was not at the stables, but her pony was, and the hobbit who was caring for him told Kira how her cousin had been marched off to the Town Hole in a huff for her infractions.  So Kira walked the extra distance to Town Hole and was just about to muster up the courage to listen in at the raised voices inside when it swung open and out stalked Merina herself, still in shirt and trousers.  Her eyes were blazing, but there was a certain pride in the way that her mouth twitched and Kira knew that she was enjoying every minute of it.  Without any preamble Kira took her by the hand and said, “I thought you weren’t due to show up till tomorrow.”

Merina was still too overwrought to notice at first that Kira was leading her safely away from where she might make a scene—too overwrought, even, to notice that Kira was there.  With a start she looked over and said, “Hullo!  Where did you come from?”

“From the races, of course, after the whole Shire saw what stunt you pulled!  Whatever will your father say?”

“Oh, I know he’ll have plenty of words for me when he shows up tomorrow.  I left him a note, you see, and he’s had a journey over halfway across the Shire to stew in his wrath.  I honestly expected him to ride up after me and drag me back… you know I’ve always said it’s a shame lasses can’t race.”

“So you left in advance of the others just to—what were you trying to prove, anyhow?”

“Nothing!  I wanted to ride!”

“Merina, honestly, I don’t understand how you can be so bright half the time and so pig-headed the rest!”

“Where are you taking me, anyhow?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“Could we at least head back to the stables?  I have some proper clothing there.”

“I suppose.  Can you try not to create any trouble there?”

“Kira, my dear heart, I never try to do anything.  It’s everyone else’s fault they see me as trouble.”

“And that, O Cousin, is a barefaced lie if I ever heard one!  Everyone knows you do half the things you do for the attention, and mark my words, someday it’s all going to explode in your face like a covered pot.”

Merina laughed.  “Hasn’t happened yet!  Anyhow, I did win, even if I didn’t fetch a prize for it.  Confound that wind!”

“Yes, and I’m sure that as word of your exploits spreads, half the lads in the Shire will call you a shrew and the other half will pine away with heartache.”

“What about the ones who do both?”

Kira sighed.  “Merina.”

“What?”

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that—that you’re juggling firebrands, or torches, or even fireworks, with all this?”

“Hum.  An interesting image.  Anyhow, it shouldn’t matter as long as you only touch the cool ends, should it?”

“Please remind me why we’re friends again.”

“Why, Kira, because all your other friends are far too dull!”

“Right,” said Kira, and she sighed.

The reached the stables, and from the relative privacy of a back stall Merina had Kira unpin the cloth she had used to bind her breasts.  “Ugh,” she said.  “You have no idea how uncomfortable that was getting.  If you’ll look in the saddlebags for me I should have a change of clothes.”

Kira did as she was bid and found neatly folded a shift, skirt and—“Is that thing leather?”

“Oh, you like my bodice, do you?  Very fitting, actually—it’s a nice alternative to all that wood or whalebone.”

“What about starch and canvas?”

“Not nearly interesting enough,” said Merina.  She picked up the shift and flung it over her head.  “I am, after all, the first and only daughter of Buck Hill; someone must set trends.”

“You are going to cause the death of so many perfectly innocent cows—”

“Ah, more steak-and-kidney pies for me, then!  Would you mind lacing me up?”

Kira complied, punctuating each tug at the laces with such epithets as “incorrigible” and “foolhardy.”

“Excellent!” said Merina when she was done.  “Shall we tour the wonders of the Fair together?”

“Actually, no,” said Kira.  “Unlike you, I have something rather constructive planned and I would rather your good-natured interfering didn’t distract me.”

“More tale-telling, then?”

Kira sighed.

“You never did tell me how that mysterious poem of yours went.”

“Terribly, as expected.  I think I’d best stick to children from now on.”

“Right.  Well, I won’t bother you with my good-natured interference if you don’t want it.  But don’t expect to see me the rest of the Fair if my father gets his way!”

*  *  *

In truth Kira was not pressed for time, but something in Merina was unbearably irritating today and she did not know why.  She was afraid, genuinely afraid for her, though it was clear that if anyone could get away with being Merina there was no hobbit better suited to the purpose.  And the tips of Kira’s lips still burned.

She would have to apologise to Tom—but what was there to apologise over if, as he claimed, there was no false hope to give him?  With a sudden moment of clarity she realised exactly what it would sound like—Tom’s own denial of whatever he had said at the Party.  And she knew he was lying then, so what if—

No, no!  She would not think about that.  And anyhow going by Roly’s talk Tom had as much as admitted his feelings for her—just not to Kira herself.  She thought back to the days—strained, but beautiful compared to this madness—when she could loathe Tom safely.

Drat!  Why did lads have to be lads and complicate things?

*  *  *

She was pleasantly surprised at the number of children who were already awaiting her in back of the Mathom-house.  Near the edge of the group lingered a youth whose image skirted about the edges of her memory, with a sort of open-faced goodness about him that she had come to associate with every descendant of Samwise the Stout-hearted.  Curious, she bridged the distance between them.  “I’m sorry—have we met?”

“Some time ago,” said the hobbit, “though never for long.  I understand; there are usually a lot of faces to keep straight in my family.  I’m Alder Gardner.”

“Harding’s eldest?” said Kira.  A smile spread across her face, and she took the hobbit’s hand.  “Well met!  But what are you doing here?  I’m sure that you get more than your fair share of history and tales at home.”

“And if you’re fond of tales not even that’s enough!”  Alder grinned.  “But I’m here more for craft than for learning.  My dad or my gaffer reads your letters aloud to all of us, you see, and I know what you’ve been doing—”

“If you’re talking about my minding other folks’ children, you should know better than to get yourself involved.  I’m only allowed to get away with it because of my pitiable condition and my inherent mothering instincts—neither of which advantages, I fear, you have.”

“Well, there’s that—but I was meaning more of the telling of tales themselves, weaving whole worlds from the power of voice alone…  I spoke to the Rumble brothers after you told us of them.  They say your storytelling’s like none other.”

“That’s very kind—but whyever would you need to spin tales when you’ve already got them laid out for you?  I know your family reads aloud from your copy of the Book.”

“Yes, but that’s only one book, only one story—and it’s all fine when it’s on paper, but when it’s in the air…  Dad read to the Rumbles from the Book and they said that it weren’t half so good as what you gave them from thin air.”

Kira shook her head, horrified.  “I could never compare to the talents of—”

But Alder continued over her.  “And besides, how else can I learn to tell the stories of our time?”

“Our time?  We don’t have any stories.  It’s all dull.”

“Oh, come, Miss Proudfoot!  Someone’s got to write of the tragedy of the Red Book of—”

A shadow fell on Kira’s face.  “Not that, please, I beg of you.  There are some things that are best left mouldering in the recesses of time.”

“If you say so,” said Alder, and his face maintained a certain pluck about it that made Kira want to cry.

“Please, Master Gardner.  If you have any respect for my craft you will leave my tale untold, and not just for my sake.  Posterity should not have to hear of our darkest hour.”

Kira was saved from having to argue further by the distant chiming of the Delving clock—one, two, three.  Composing herself, she swept up her skirts in one hand, her crutch in the other, and sat upon the grass some distance from the children.  There were at least four or five new faces—probably friends and relations of those she normally minded, in town for the holiday.  She would have to speak to them afterwards, if time remained.  She scanned the crowd for the face of the elusive Hal, but he was not there.

“I thought,” she said, “that we’d have a break from tradition today.  I know that normally we talk of such subjects as the Travellers and the heroic things they did to save their beloved Shire from Shadow, but in my press to make known the truth I often set aside other heroes, those who saved the Shire without ever leaving it.

“I am speaking, of course, of the Troubles, when Men entered the Shire and tried to make it their own.  Most of us did not fight back, at least not outright, because we did not know our own strength.  But some of us did, and some of us fought back in subtler ways, too—ways that Men knew and ways that they didn’t.  The latter stories, I’m afraid, have been lost to us—for we’re a quiet, unassuming people, and when we do what’s right we don’t like to parade it that much.  They were often small things—hiding food and sneaking it to those in need, playing at a bad harvest so the Big Folk wouldn’t think we had as much, and wouldn’t think to take more, succouring those who did resist outright.  But whenever Men could find these things out, and they did more often than I’d care to admit, they clapped those hobbits up in chains and put them in the Lockholes—the storage tunnels that we have over across the river.  If you look at where the dry goods are displayed and sold, that’s the burrow where they did it, and you can still see the holes in the doors where Men pounded the giant locks into them.

“So I’d like to tell you the story of some of the hobbits who wound up in the Lockholes—what they did to get there, how they were caught, and how they fared afterwards.  And do understand that since little of this was written down what I tell you may not be true in the way that the Travellers’ Tales are; these stories are gleaned from books but also from hearsay and family legend.

“Today I’d like to tell you the story of old Flourdumpling, the first to stand up against the changes that were happening in the Shire.  ‘Flourdumpling’ was not his right name of course; that was Will Whitfoot, a fine hobbit of Delving who had been Mayor for many years past.  He had gotten his nickname when there was a cave-in at the Town Hole—no one was hurt or anything, but the plaster dust from the walls coated him when they pulled him out of the wreck.  We still call the spot Town Hole here, but it’s actually above ground now, on the spot where the terrible accident happened, so maybe Town House would be a better name.”

She told them of Mayor Whitfoot’s foresightedness, how he was a sharp judge of the true motivations of folks—whether they really meant well or were only looking out for themselves—and how that made him a prime candidate for Mayor early in his life.  They said it was because his heart had been broken when he was young, and up until then he had been so gullible he’d dig straight down if you told him there was a dwarf-tunnel under his feet.  Anyhow it was a fact that he had never married, and when he died his estate passed to his sister and her husband.

So with Flourdumpling’s keen eye for the workings of others, he was the first to notice not only that Lotho Sackville-Baggins was up to no good, but also that his kind of ‘no good’ needed to be stopped, before it got out of control and began harming others.  Not that he could do anything about it until Lotho had actually done something wrong, and there wasn’t anything wrong in buying or selling (even if too much of that sort of thing was a sign of trouble).  Not even when Men came in lounging about the Shire could he do anything, for that was in the days before the Ban.  But “doing” was not the same thing “talking,” and soon Lotho and his hired Men suspected Will of mobilising the Shirriffs against the Shire’s unwanted guests.  To try and discourage him, the ruffians dug a channel to divert the course of the Ash river away from his property—presumably reducing its value, as if hobbits placed a high stock in such things.  Here the Mayor had his chance—for Lotho had been up until now paying back families for any damage that Men did to their property.  But since (as he said) it could not be proved that his Men diverted the river, Lotho refused to pay the Whitfoot family back.  This kind of legal mincing was just the excuse Will needed to put Mr. Sackville-Baggins back in his proper place, and so Will Whitfoot mounted his trusty pony to ride out to Hobbiton.

But sharp as Flourdumpling was, he wasn’t expecting the Men Lotho had let in to get violent, nor to lay hands on him on the road and lock him up tight within the Storage Tunnels.  Will Whitfoot was the first prisoner from the Troubles, and so he was stuck in the Lockholes (as they were soon called) the longest, with little food and less comfort.

Kira went on to explain how despite his age and ill treatment the Mayor survived the Troubles.  Since he had been caught before he could even get up to any mischief he fared better than some prisoners, but he was still quite weak and not fit for his job.  But after Frodo Baggins resigned his post as Deputy Mayor, Will took on another full term, and was gladly elected both for his previous skill and for the hardship he had endured, before he was replaced by his more famous successor Sam Gardner.

The children clapped for her when she was done and clamoured for more, but Kira winked and said that if they wanted more tales they would have to come back the next day.  It was hard disappointing them so, but she wanted them to come back tomorrow and the day after that and maybe bring some new faces along as well.  And the longer a crowd of children was sitting behind a building on the outskirts of town the longer they might be discovered by someone who would report her enterprise back to her mother.

Kira sighed.  This was getting ridiculous.  The more she wanted people to learn of her, the less she wanted to be discovered, and here she was, trying to get both when it was clear she could only have one.  It would almost be easier to run away from home and ramble the countryside telling tales!

She rose, firmly reminded herself of her place in society and family, and sought out Harding’s son for news of his father.

“That was hardly a fair sample of craft!” he cried.

“And the first rule of my craft,” said Kira, “is never to make a story any longer or shorter than it is.  I don’t have much information on old Flourdumpling and I won’t be caught telling the children lies, much as their parents think I do all the time.  At any rate I’ve only whetted the appetite for more tales tomorrow.  Now, if you don’t mind, could you tell me where your father is?  He sent a letter to me earlier…”

“No, I can’t,” said Alder, “but I can show you where we’re all put up for the Fair.  He may not be there now, but he should in the evening.”

I don’t have the evening, thought Kira, but she followed him anyhow.  The Gardners were set up in a large tent on the eastern side of town, not far, in fact, from where Kira had told her tales.  There were few about—a mother and child (one of Harding’s nephews or nieces, she supposed), and an older hobbit (though getting on in years, she would not call him “gaffer”) sitting smoking quietly in the back.  Smiling as Alder split off and began to rummage around in his pack tossed carelessly to the side, she knelt facing the fellow and took his hand in hers.  “Hullo, Mr. Gardner,” she said.

Holfast Gardner opened his eyes.  His face crinkled into a smile.  “Kira Proudfoot!” he said, around the stem of his pipe.  “And how are you doing, my dear?”

“Much the same as usual, I’m afraid.  Up to the same mischief of literacy and that pernicious thing we call ‘education’.”

“That’s very good to hear.  And is it your usual policy to bother old hobbits at rest by entering their abodes?”

“Oh, your grandson invited me in here,” said Kira.

“Alder?  He’s got a good heart.  He’s very fascinated with you, by the by—I’d almost say he idolised you, but he doesn’t know quite enough to decide whether that’s worth his time.  Ever since we ran into those brothers from Bywater…”

“I hope my dropping their names hasn’t been trouble to you!”

“No, no, far from it, bless their hearts.  And bless Alder’s, too!  I can only hope”—here Mr. Gardner took a long pull—“but never mind that.  We’re too stubborn and watchful to let anything like that happen again.”

“I only got Harding’s letter at the last minute,” said Kira.  “I suppose you know what it’s all about?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, whatever meeting it is, Mother won’t let me attend.  I figured I might as well deliver my regrets in person.”

Mr. Gardner chuckled.

“Of course you see right through me!  You know you’d have thought up the exact same tricks in my situation.”

“That’s just as well.  You probably wouldn’t have liked the meeting anyway.”

“Why not?”

“It dealt with the Tooks.”

Kira stiffened.

“Not with them, with them—just the matter of their having a great deal of uncopied material—”

“Which I could certainly help with the copying thereof, if only I could write and actually wanted to.”

“I told you you wouldn’t have liked it.”

“Why even invite me to such a meeting, then?”

“So you could deliver your regrets in person.”

Kira laughed.  “You really have got me figured out, haven’t you?”

“Perhaps.  I do admire your work, Kira, and I think there isn’t a thing you could be doing more than you’re doing already.  Sometimes I think your friends ask too much of you.  Meaning well, of course, but—”

“I know,” said Kira.  “And I won’t even be able to attend the wedding.”

“Oh?”

“I got the invitation but a day ago.”  She sighed.  “Mother said ‘no.’”

“That’s odd.  We got ours early May.  Hum,” said Mr. Gardner, pondering.  “Ah—I think I see what they’re up to.”

“What?”

“Just think—the Brandybucks, the Fairbairns, and you and your mother, all in the same town all at the same time, without any actual planning… that young Kerry is quite a clever fellow—he’ll go far as the Master one of these days.”

“What exactly are you on about, Mr. Gardner?”

“I think—I don’t know, but I think—your friends mean to get their parents, two of the most important hobbits in the entire Shire, to pull your stubborn and rather difficult mother aside one day and have a nice long chat with her.”

“Really?”  For the first time since the previous night Kira felt a bit of hope fluttering in her breast.  She remembered, long ago, when the Master of Buckland had pulled her aunt aside and persuaded her to let her read over the long winter months beyond the River.

“And maybe they won’t be able to accomplish anything with her, but it won’t be for lack of trying.  You do want to see this wedding, don’t you?”

“More than anything.”

“Hmm.”  Mr. Gardner sucked at his pipe.   “I wonder.  They will try, but things may not be easy.  After all, your mother has the final say on what you may and may not do until you come of age.  You may regret what decision they come to.”

“It won’t matter,” said Kira fervently.  “I’ve seen them skirting about each other for years, then courting—if I can see them happy together it will be enough.”

“I hope so.”

They did not talk for much longer, because the afternoon was wearing on and Mother would be closing up shop soon.  But on the way back to the grocers’ lanes she found her aunt Foxglove and promised her that she would see her in the Event Field after dinner.

She and Mother returned home to dine, for which Kira was most grateful.  She ate in complete and utterly glorious silence, savouring the taste of the loaf they had bought at the Fair—no baking on an early day like the Fair!—and the way its flavours mingled with the stew, brimming with the fresh taste of summer greens.  Mother did not appreciate that much, but they had talked all along the walk back home and during their cooking, and she knew her daughter’s habits well enough to let her sit and think if need be.

She had been happy that Kira had already discharged the business of giving the Gardners her regrets.  Of course the tale of Merina’s exploit spread like wildfire, but this time Kira was all too glad to say that she had shaken her cousin off at the nearest opportunity.  She hated to admit it, but sometimes the company she kept really did reflect poorly on her.  Poor Tom had actually been overshadowed in his win!—and Kira did not know whether to feel pity or pleasure at the fact.

Then there was the matter of that evening.  Though nothing formal was planned, hobbits who had not seen each other—sometimes since the year prior—loved to gather before the festivities of Midyear really kicked off.  Those who were skilled at music often brought their instruments with them, and there would be dancing.  Kira had already planned to go so that Daffodil would not feel as terrible being the only eligible lass, but she hoped to get off the hook with permission to see her father’s family.  And Mother had been thinking about the matter for a month now.

She only had to ask, and Mother said yes.  It was like breathing on an ember in her heart.  Maybe it would not be that difficult to attend the wedding, either.  But Kira stilled herself.  No use worrying about things that she had no control over, not yet.  She was only in her room for a few minutes, to compose herself and brush her hair, before kissing her mother and stepping outside again to walk back to town.  For the briefest moment she felt bad, leaving Mother all alone for so many nights in a row, while she went out and spent time—at least tonight—with the people whom Rosemary Proudfoot blamed for her husband’s death.  It took a lot of courage to let her go, she supposed.

She had thought, she thought as she walked over, of telling her Foxglove’s side of the story, but she didn’t think it would make any difference.  After all, Father was dead and there was no changing that, whether he was driving or driven to whatever had set him off.  And, she reminded herself, no one knew if he had been taxed too hard anyway.  She’d asked Dr. Grimwig about it once and learned that sometimes these things just happened.  That wound was too old for Kira to go about opening it again.  All that she could do about the matter was learn more for herself.  Maybe that’s why Mother was letting her go—she had realised that even if grief had silenced her own tongue all those years it didn’t mean Kira couldn’t listen to others.  It was a subtle change, but strong.  What had caused it, she wondered?

Oh, but the Proudfoots were merry folk at a fair!  She had only seen them before at High Hole, really, where all the varnish had gotten to her just as it had gotten to her father.  And she had only been there for solemn occasions, besides.  It was true, they (especially Sancho and his wife and children) were a little “high” at times, in ways that she had long ago expected Brandybucks and Fairbairns to be (and found herself pleasantly proven wrong), but Kira could see that they were polite and kind once she made it clear that she was making an effort to know them.  She did, at one point, see a cousin titter something about “poorer relations,” but he was silenced with so strong a glare from Sancho that she knew at once her uncle was all right.

As were all of them (barring the rude cousin).  Foxglove’s husband had a kind of solidity to him that she would have expected from a Cotton; Sancho’s wife was a bit too fancy for Kira’s tastes, but she was kindly; and Polo—suffice it to say that Kira had always wanted a daft bachelor uncle and was pleasantly surprised to find that she had had one all her life.  Not that he was as daft as her, but he smiled when she told him of her storytelling and even had a few tales to spin himself—personal recollections of The Magnificent and a few others that she tucked away for further use.  She did not hear much about her father, but it did not matter.  She still felt closer to him than she had ever felt before, surrounded by the people he grew up with and loved.  Sancho declared at the end that they must see one another more often and Kira found herself agreeing not just for her father’s sake.  As she walked home in twilight it occurred to Kira that she had spent almost an entire day in the company of others, and had not come out of it any worse for the wear.





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