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A White Shell  by Celeritas

Chapter Seven


Midyear’s Day had no clouds in the sky, plenty of birdsong, and Dwarves.  The sun kept Kira awake when they went into town early, and she and her mother spent the morning selling together, talking about the Proudfoots and generally being companionable.  Mother did actually listen to the nicer things Kira had to say about her father’s family, and Kira wondered aloud whether she would perhaps come out on Second Lithe and they could all visit together.  “I don’t know,” said Mother, her eyes growing distant and sad.

Kira squeezed her hand.  “I do appreciate your letting me visit them last night, Mum.  I know they bring back bad memories for you, but I never had those—just good memories, now, of what Dad was like.”

Rosemary squeezed her hand back.  Kira did not dare look at her face.

Part of why they spent the morning together, Kira was sure, was because the Dwarves were about.  It was an understandable precaution to take, Kira thought ruefully, although in this case Mother needn’t have worried.  She had schooled her face into perfect indifference, even when one of them walked up to their stand to procure some herbs.  Mother did not ask for their money.

At last, once all (or almost all) the dwarves had gotten their shopping done in preparation for the night’s feast, Kira was released for lunch and leisure.  She was off like an arrow from a bow.  She ate her meal on foot, looking about her eagerly as she wandered into the town proper.  At last she found one of the faces she was looking for—Kerry Brandybuck, pacing back and forth in front of the fabric shop.

He didn’t notice her until he’d nearly run into her.  “Hullo, Kerry,” Kira said brightly.

“Kira!”  He smiled, then ran his hand through his hair and glanced at the shop door.

“What are you doing?”

“Waiting.  I saw her for five minutes…”

Kira raised her eyebrows.  “Ahh,” she said.

“I haven’t seen her since April.  I knew they were going to use the Fair to plan out the wedding, but I didn’t realise they were starting this morning!”

“You haven’t been out here all day, have you?”

“Not all day—I’ve been wandering about.  But she said they’d be done at noon, and they’re still in there!”

Kira grinned.  “Leaving you, no doubt, to be sweetly tormented by thoughts of kissing her soft lips and running your hands through her hair.”

“Kira!”

“What?”

“You have a wicked, wicked mind!”  He paused.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Walk with me, then.”

“What if they—”

“Kerry, who is in the shop with Sandra?”

“Her mother.  And mine.”

“That’s three ladies in a fabric shop, deciding on material for a wedding.  What makes you think they’ll come out soon?”

“They’ve been there all morning!”

“And nine weeks won’t be enough to make all three of them happy.  Do you want me to go in and check on them?”

“No—no, that’s quite all right.  I’ll walk with you, Kira.”

“Good.”  She laid her hand on his arm.  “It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper chat.  And I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time with Sandra come sundown.”

He smiled ruefully.  “I suppose I can wait that long.”

They began to walk away from the main thoroughfares, to places where word was less likely to get back to Mother.

“Mr. Gardner told me of your clever plan.”

“Eh?”

“Sending the invitation late so you could talk Mother into letting me go to the wedding.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be right not to have you there—though I do have my doubts that we’ll be able to change her mind.  I take it she’s against your going?”

Kira nodded.  “She thinks I’m being far too friendly with you.  But I’ll go see you married—even if I have to run away to do it!”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that!  Dad was going to talk to her today, but he had to deal with a more pressing matter.”

“Merina?”

“The same.”  Kerry sighed.  “Where that lass gets her ideas I’ll never know.”

“The same place I get mine, I’ll imagine,” said Kira.  “Out of thin air!”

“Yes, but you don’t—”

Kira raised her eyebrows.

“You’ve got slightly more sense than she does.”

“By whose definition of sense?”

“Mine,” Kerry said firmly.  “And I should hope most people would agree with me.  Putting on trousers and pretending to be a jockey!”

“What happened to the real one?”

“She bribed him.”

“Oh?”

“With a kiss.”

Kira dropped her jaw.  “Kerry, that’s—”

“Only on the cheek, mind, or so she’s led me to understand.  Not that I wouldn’t expect her to lie to me to keep me off her back.”  He sighed.  “I’m sorry, Kira, but you’ve hit on the one subject that makes my blood boil, just a little.  I’m starting to wonder if I should ask my father to lend me the Magnificent’s sword.”

“Is it that bad?”

He shrugged.  “She’s actually got half of them scared off, for now.  But not for long.  She is very beautiful, and very well-formed, and she has quite an inheritance…”  He shook his head.  “Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only bachelor in the Shire whose head she hasn’t turned.”

“You’re not.”  They had finally reached the edge of the Fair, and they stood on a hill that overlooked pasture shining in the sunlight.  But for the faint noise behind them Kira would have thought they were deep in the countryside.  Kira sat down.  “Tom—Tom Whitwell.  The one that killed the Book.  He—”  Her voice caught.

Kerry was looking at her face, and as it burned she found herself wishing she had said nothing.  He put his arm around her shoulder.  “Kira…”

She gulped.  “And Daffy knows, and I think Roly does, too, but they don’t—they can’t—understand how much I hate the fellow, and I durst not tell Mother because she’ll think it’s good, and…”  Kira sighed.  “But I have made up my mind to enjoy myself, no matter what he thinks of me.”

“That’s probably all you can do.  You don’t think he’ll try anything, do you?”

“Tom?  No, he’s too scared himself.”  She laughed.  “He still hasn’t admitted anything to me—sober, at least—and I wonder how much he’s admitted to himself.”

Kerry laughed, too.  “Kira, when a lad is in love he knows it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this has been going on for years, actually.”

“Years?”

“Think about it—he tried to destroy the one thing that was pulling you away from him and your other friends.”

Did destroy—but that was so long ago!” said Kira.  “Oh, heavens…”  She buried her head in her hands.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything—”

“No, you should have, because that means this is serious!  He’s not going to move on from me in the next two years, not unless I do something—but what?”

Kerry shrugged.  “I’ve never been good at this sort of thing.  I got lucky with Sandra, and as for my sister—”

“Threatening him won’t work, especially since he still hasn’t said anything to me.  That usually only encourages him.  I’d have to break him, the way he nearly broke me, only I could never wish that on anyone, not even Tom.  And I shouldn’t know how to do it anyhow.”

“I shouldn’t want you to find out.  That fellow still needs a comeuppance of some sort, though.”

“Mr. Gardner said he’d do something.  But I never found out if he did, or if he did what it was.”  For a few moments she stared at the fields ahead of her, lost in thought.  “You should have seen the look on his face, though, when he realised he’d been beaten by a girl!”

“He was in the race?”

“Second place—first, when Merina was kicked out.”

“So he won, then?”

“Yes, but everyone’s talking about Merina instead.”  She smiled.  “Tom hates that.”

“That’s good, I suppose.”

“Did you see Merina this morning, or did your father whisk her away before you had the chance?”

“I had five minutes to make my displeasure known.”

“How was she?”

“More upset that she’d gotten caught than anything else.”

Kira nodded.  “Kerry, I—I worry for her.”

“Why?”

“She does these things, with no thought as to what might come of them!  It’s as if she thinks all life’s a sport, and in the end nothing matters.  Am I making sense?”

“I think so,” said Kerry.  “But you’re wrong.”

“Howso?”

“It does matter, to her, in the end.  In Buckland we have this saying: ‘Who laughs much feels more,’ and most people think it’s supposed to encourage you to be happy.  But that’s not what it means.  It means—the people who jest their way through life are actually deadly serious, only they don’t know any other way to deal with all that seriousness, so they have to laugh about it.  Kira, Merina cried when she found out that you had fallen in the river and were perishing with fever, and you know how she hardly knew you back then.  She cried when she learned of the loss of the Book, and she cried on and off for a month, a full two years ago, because she had to wait so long to be courted.  Whatever she does, Merina’s not doing it for attention.  She’s doing it for love.”

Kira shook her head.  “But no one’s going to love her at this rate.  She’s only courting disaster.”

“I know,” said Kerry.

“And you’re not going to try and stop her?”

Kerry sighed.  “I’m getting married in three months, hopefully we’ll be starting a family…  I don’t know if there’s anything I—or anyone else, for that matter—can do.  She’s too stubborn.  So… we just let things take their course, and hope everything works out.”

“The burned hand teaches best,” said Kira, morosely.

“I hope it won’t come to that.”

In the distance they heard the Town Hole clock chime two.

“We should head back…” Kerry said.

“They’re not going to be done!”

“You don’t know that!”

“Fine.  I need to go over my story for today anyhow.”  Kira stood up.

“You’re still telling those?”

“Of course!”  They began to walk back towards the Fair.  “This year it’s about those who fought back during the Troubles.  Do you have any good extra tales about Fatty that I should know?”

“Hmm,” said Kerry.  “The adventure of the echoing caves?”

“Memorised since I was thirteen.”

“How about the torchbearers?”

Twelve.”

“Do you know the full story about how they got caught?”

“They were smoked out.”

“Yes, but first there was a bit of a siege.  The full tale talks about eating bats for a week or two.”

“Bats?”  Kira shuddered.

“Not one to tell the children, I think.”

“Well, you can tell it to me later, and I’ll keep it in my mind for older audiences—if I ever get any.”

They were nearing the fabric shop.  “I’ll get to see both of you later on, won’t I?”

Kerry smiled.  “Maybe.”  He walked to the window and peeked in.  His face lit up.  A minute later and Kira saw why, as the door opened and Sandra stepped out, dressed in a rose-coloured skirt and matching straw hat.  Kerry heaved a sigh of relief.

“We’re almost done,” she said.  “I was just wondering if you could step in a moment, since we need to see which fabric fits your colouring…”

Run, Kira mouthed at Kerry.  He turned and gave her the sort of look she normally saw in snared rabbits.

Sandra followed his eyes.  “Oh, hullo, Kira!  How have you been?”

“Well.  I’ve been keeping him from going mad the past half hour.”  She looked at Kerry urgently.

“I hate to undo all your work, then,” said Sandra, taking her intended by the hand, “but since he didn’t want to elope we’d best be dealing with the consequences.  I’ll find you later, Kira!”  She waved sprightly as she re-entered the shop, but Kira could see just a hint of red about the eyes and was sadly reassured that, as usual, the choosing of fabric was nothing short of war.

*  *  *

The crowd of children was slightly larger this time, and again Alder Gardner sat to the side listening with an academic’s curiosity.  Just as she was about to start Rondo Grubb dashed up, huffing and puffing, and said that he hadn’t heard she was branching into newer material and wanted to hear as much as he could.  She introduced him to Alder and regretted it two seconds later as they launched into an enthusiastic discussion.

“Ladies and gentlehobbits,” she said, rather loudly.  Rondo and Alder immediately quieted, but some of the others giggled.  There wasn’t a face in that group whose father didn’t work for a living, and Kira wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I am glad to see that more of you could make it here today.  Are you enjoying the Free Fair?”

There was a smattering of whoops and hollers.

“How many of you are going to the feast tonight?”

This time everyone cheered.

“Well, true to my word, this is the only story I’m giving today, but if you wait until tomorrow, which is a very special day—who can tell me why it’s special?”

“It only happens every four years!” came a voice from the back.  It sounded like Iris, though that only led Kira to wonder how the girl hadn’t managed push through everyone else and get to the front row.

“That’s one thing.  Is there anything else that makes it special?”

“Dwarves!” said Mat Rumble.

“That’s right,” said Kira.  “They only come once every four years, and tomorrow they’ll be in the Event Field working hard all day to fix your parents’ pots and kettles for free.  And if your parents let you stop by, there are usually a couple with some tricky puzzles for you take home with you to try and solve.  They’re lovely folk so long as you’re not rude—just don’t be over-friendly with them if you don’t want Mum and Dad to get upset.  Can anyone tell me why the Dwarves come here every four years and fix things for free?”

Silence.  The children looked nervously at one another.

“They do this because they appreciate the things our folk did during the War, especially the deeds of Frodo and Samwise.  Now, as I said, if you wait till tomorrow I’ll have another story for all of you, and it’ll be a good and long one.  Today’s story, though, is one that I heard only last night, from my uncle, and it deals with one of my own kin.

“Sancho Proudfoot had a lot less sense when he was a lad than his parents liked.  His family had made its money from the chalk in the hills, so he had reason to be fascinated with excavation, but there’s ‘fascination’ and then there’s ‘folly.’  The story goes that when he was very young he started digging straight down, and when his mother asked him what he was doing he said that he wanted to find out what pulled everything to the ground.  Later he liked to pretend that dragons used to live in the Shire and had buried hoards, and tried to find them even in his family’s garden.

“Sancho grew up, of course, and grew some sense while he was at it, but he still remembered the lessons of his youth and knew a thing or two about digging.  So when he saw Will Whitfoot marched into the storage tunnels and locked up, he got to thinking, and thinking, and thinking.

“The Troubles affected everyone, though, and for a good deal of time Sancho was too scared to do much of anything.  After all, most everyone who spoke so much as a bad word to our unwelcome guests got nothing but grief for it.  But whenever he walked into town he saw the guarded doors to the tunnels, and once he even got up the nerve to peep inside a window and see how the prisoners were being treated, and so he began to think up a plan.  He called on Michel Delving’s two finest diggers, saying that the Proudfoots needed a Man-sized room in his hole so that if anyone important came through they’d be able to offer them hospitality.  But when they were in private, they began to discuss the possibility of digging their way into the Lockholes to set the prisoners free.

“They didn’t still get the nerve to work, though, till Fatty Bolger and his band of rebels were locked in, because Sancho knew they’d be treated terrible for all the grief they’d given the Big Folk.  Sancho had a head for numbers, and he knew the lay of the land well, so he was able to figure out where the tunnel should start and how it should turn if it was to come up in one of the cells.  They dug on and off for a month, nearly surfaced in the wrong place and were only saved by the sound of boots above their head before they dug up.  Finally they broke through, into one of the bigger rooms, and tried to get the rebel locked up in there to make a run for it.

“But the rebel said a funny thing—‘Not till everyone else is out, too.’  And Sancho thought about this, and he suddenly realised something terrible—if they were to let just this one prisoner out, there was a good chance of his getting caught again, and a chance of their getting caught again, too.  So he quickly dashed off, bought a loaf of bread from the bakery, and came back with it to feed the prisoner.  Over the next weeks he and his crew worked out which other places in the Lockholes they could dig to without risking the collapse of the whole hill.  All through the Troubles they kept working to feed the prisoners as best they could, and get to more of them.  They handed small trowels to the ones they had already reached, to make small holes between each chamber and then drop back down the main tunnel if discovery was imminent.  The Travellers returned before they could get to everyone, but they got to a lot, and made sure that no one starved while they were imprisoned.

“After all the ruffians were kicked out Sancho had the tunnels filled back in, and rarely spoke of what he had done.  But some of the places where they dug were filled too loosely, and over the years the ground there has sunk into little dips that you can hide yourself in when the grass is long.”

“Do you know where?” asked one of the lads up front.

“No, for I only heard the story yesterday.  But rest assured that as soon as this Fair is over, I shall begin looking!”  She paused.  “And yes, that is all I have for you today.”

The children clapped for her.  Kira smiled and looked over the group.  Then she started: there, sitting quite on the edge, was the small boyish face of Hal.  He had not been there before, she was sure of it, and she stood up to go to him.

She felt a hand on her arm.  “I think I’ve realised something,” said Alder.  “When you’re telling a story out loud you can actually talk to people, as if you were talking about this year’s flowers.  But when it’s written down you can’t just write what you’d say.  Maybe that’s why your storytelling’s different.”

“You’re probably right,” said Kira, “but if you’ll give me a moment—”  She turned to look back at the children.  Hal was gone.  “I’ll have to think about what you said,” she told Alder, and then she left.

But she could not find Hal, and she had to get back to her mother before she wondered where she was.  At least the lad really had taken an interest in her stories—but who was he?

*  *  *

On her way back to the herb-stand she saw that Mr. Underhill had followed her advice.  His waggon now jutted a little into the pathway, just enough to make people notice, and he’d covered it with a smart linen cloth.  There was still no sign, though—she wondered if he was lettered or not.  Maybe if she had a paintbrush she might be able to control her strokes well enough to make one, though she doubted it’d ever look better than a childish scrawl…

Kira’s hands twitched.  Sometimes she could feel the words, but there was nowhere to let them out.

Returning to the stand she put her arm around her mother’s waist and squeezed.  “Thanks for letting me out for a bit,” she said.

“Luncheon?”

“With Daffodil and Roly.  Tom was off gallivanting with the city lads.”

“Such big words you use, Kira!”

“Sorry, I don’t quite know where I pick them up!”

Mother laughed.  “Well, business has been quite steady in your absence.  I’m thinking we might close early and have supper at the Party while it’s still light.”

“That’s fine.  I know Daffy’s not quite looking forward to more meetings and dancing tonight, so it’d probably be best if I keep her company rather than focus on getting another sound meal.”

“Or if you do both, more like!”

“Well, there are worse ways one can spend an evening.  Come, you’ve been working all day.  Let me have the stand for a bit so you can relax.”

Kira sold herbs until Mother returned at six o’clock to close shop.  Then they made their way to the Event Field, where Kira was disappointed to find Tom already there—and the Burrowses nowhere in sight.  He was eating with his family, something that Kira saw rarely enough, but she did not know when he would finish.  She only glanced at him briefly before hurrying on; he did not look up.

The Burrowses found them and sat with them when they arrived.  Daffodil and Roly, who had not seen her since the races of First Lithe, gave her curious looks, but Kira studiously ignored them and hoped they would not say anything about Tom—at least, not with their parents in earshot.  They did not.  Kira went up for seconds with Daffodil, and promised to keep her company for the first hour of dancing.  “It feels as if I’ve been up since dawn,” she said, “so I don’t think I’ll stay for long.  But it’s not right to let you suffer alone.”

“It’s not entirely suffering, you know,” said Daffodil.  “Some of the dances are quite nice, if you can get yourself a good partner.  And you, Kira, promise me that you aren’t going to run off just to flirt with Tom again.”

Kira shook her head.  “Never in my life.”

When they got back to the table Mother and Mrs. Burrows were chatting; the way Mrs. Burrows glanced up at her and Daffodil Kira could guess the subject.  Suddenly she felt alone, strange, different—not because she was lame, not because she could read, but because there were only two in her family.  Flora was trying to sneak food off of Roly’s plate, and he was pretending not to notice.  She sat down.

“Kira, is everything all right?” said Daffy.

“Quite fine,” Kira replied absently.  She reached across the table to take her mother’s hand.  There was a certain dignity to her smile that came, Kira realised, from being widowed at such a young age.

“You’re distracted,” Daffodil continued.

“I often am,” said Kira.  She turned to look her in the eye.  “It just occurred to me how lonely I’ve been.”

“Well, there’s a party to remedy that!”

But Kira did not stay even her promised hour.  After Mother bade her farewell, telling her to have fun and be sensible, she stayed with Daffodil and talked with whoever stopped by.  Conversation only went on a minute or two before Daffodil was led out into the music, and then Kira was content to watch the weaving forms of hobbits.  Once someone, undoubtedly trying to be polite, failed to see the crutch sitting on Kira’s lap and asked her for a dance; when she showed him that she could not he slunk away in embarrassment.  But after Daffodil accepted two dances in a row from a strapping young lad from the Northfarthing Kira apologised, saying she was tired and needed to head home.  She hated to break a promise, but Daffodil forgave her readily enough.  “Better not to burden you with dead weight, eh?” Kira whispered to her.

“Kira!” said Daffodil.  “don’t say such things about yourself!”  But her eyes were shining and when Kira bade her farewell she said, “Thank you.”

Kira walked away from the Event Field and through the deserted streets of town.  But she did not head home.  Instead, she turned west along the Road and walked past the dim tents until she came upon the fires of the Dwarven camp.

For a minute she stood outside the firelight, suddenly unsure of herself.  Out of the thirty or so who came, she really only knew Fírin, and Dwarves were a strange people.  But, she reasoned, if she did nothing she would regret it for the next four years.  Taking a deep breath, she walked into the camp.

There was only one elderly Dwarf in sight, sitting next to the fire.  Kira cleared her throat and curtseyed low.  “Hullo,” she said.  “My name is Kira Proudfoot, and I should like to speak with Fírin, son of Fólin, if he is here.  He has known me for twelve years and I have not seen him in four.”

The Dwarf looked up at her, and she thought she saw a smile on his lips.  “Hail, Miss Proudfoot,” he said.  “Long has it been since one of your kind has sought us out openly.  You will find Master Fírin near the brook, doing the washing up.”

“Thank you!” said Kira, and hurried towards the creek that she knew flowed into the Ash just north of town.  Then she turned back.  “I thought that the Brandybucks normally cooked for you!”

“They do,” said the Dwarf.  “But they are not ordinary hobbits.”

“And neither, sir,” Kira replied with a small bow, “am I!”

The Dwarf chuckled to himself and returned to looking at the fire.

Kira was somewhat astonished to see the number of Dwarves sitting on either side of the water, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying.  She hung back, trying to study the craggy faces and see if she could find her Dwarf in the lot.

There was no need.  One of them looked up from his work to see her, rose, and said her name.  “Kira!”  He paused.  “You have changed,” he said.

“It’s been four years!” said Kira.

“Ah, but I forget that time passes differently among hobbits!  You must be nearly grown now.”

“Very nearly,” said Kira.  “Might—might I sit with you?”

“Of course!  Come here!”

Kira crossed the brook.  Fírin took her by the hand and raised it.  “My friends,” he said, “This is Kira Proudfoot, a fair-spoken young hobbit with a decided Baggins streak to her.  She would like to get to know us better this night!”

The Dwarves raised a hearty shout that sounded, to Kira, like a small avalanche.

“Really, sirs,” she said, “and ladies, if there are any among you…”  She faltered.  “I should most like to make your acquaintance, but if there’s any extra work that needs to be done I’ll be content to help with that.”

Most fair-spoken,” said one of the Dwarves next to Fírin.  “But I’m afraid the only things left to clean are the larger items.”

“That’s quite all right,” said Kira.  “You’ll be hard at work for us tomorrow; I may as well be hard at work for you tonight.”  The Dwarf nodded and walked to a stack of cast-iron pots and pans to bring some over to her.  They looked heavy, but as sturdy as one could wish and unlikely to undergo any mishaps—just like Dwarves, she supposed.  She turned to Fírin.  “A Baggins streak?”

Fírin merely raised his eyebrows.

“That family’s practically dead in the Shire—especially in Hobbiton.  I’m of little relation and very faint descent.”

“But you are related?”

“Bilbo is my first cousin, five times removed.  And Frodo is my third cousin, four times removed—going with the Proudfoot-Baggins connexion.  If you want to go by Brandybucks—”

“All right, enough!  I had forgotten the dangers of getting you folk on one of your pet subjects.”

The other Dwarf returned with a few pots and Kira readily got to work.  “So,” she said, “do you all have plans for the night?  Or is this just an ordinary night for Dwarves?”

“Oh, no,” said Fírin.  “We do celebrate Midyear.  It is not as important, perhaps, as it is to Hobbits, since we dwell within the earth—but it is important.”

“We live underground, too, you know—or we did, traditionally.”

“That is not the same thing.  I have seen your dwellings and, even if you were all Dwarves, you could not hear the heartbeat of stone from where you live.”

“You can’t grow food from a stone,” Kira said with a smile.

“And that is why our years of greatest glory have been spent in friendship with other peoples.  Would that we had realised this sooner.”

“So, what do you do for Midyear?”

“Not much, especially when we are on the road as we are this year.  But we have brought with us a few casks of our special ale, and there will be music later on—”

“—And dancing!” butted in the other Dwarf.

“I shall be happy to watch,” said Kira.  “And listen.  I would show you some of the dances my people have, but there is only one of me and I have only one serviceable leg.”

“I do recall seeing some of the hobbit dances, before we were rudely banned from the festivities,” said the Dwarf.  “They suited your people, but they suited me little.  You may, therefore, not like ours.”

“We’ll just have to see, won’t we?”

“But there is one thing, at least, that you shall enjoy, Kira!” said Fírin.  “And that is the drink.  We still have tales of how much our famed Burglar liked the stuff.  It’s rumoured his relish for the ale rivalled even a Dwarf’s!”

“Steady on!” said Kira, laughing.  “You can’t generalise one eccentric’s preferences to all hobbits!  But—” she added, smiling coyly, “I shall be more than happy to try.”

“We’d best finish our work, then!” said the other Dwarf.

“I’m sorry,” said Kira, “but what is your name?”

“Tati, son of Tassi.”

“Kira Proudfoot, at your service, sir.”

They finished their work, and then walked back to the camp, where one Dwarf was rolling out a cask of ale and others were tuning their instruments.  Fírin introduced her to many of those present, but Kira had no head for dwarvish names and soon her head was muddled in consonants and foreign sounds.  Then someone poured her a cup of the ale.

She took a small, measured sip.  Beneath the bitterness of the ale was a strange sour taste, and as she swallowed she felt heat spread out to her arms.  “I do not know if I like it yet or not,” she said, slowly.  “It’s a bit stronger than what I’m used to.”  She took another sip.  “I think I like it.  But don’t refill my cup when I’m done, for I’d hate to muddle my head.”

She sat herself down next to one of the fires, and watched in fascination as the musicians began to play.  She recognised some of the instruments, was at a complete loss for others, and was ultimately astonished at the number of ways the Dwarves got sound out of them, familiar and unfamiliar.  They set their fiddles on their knees, turning them this way and that against the bow, tapped at the soundboards, plucked, sawed, and made such music that flowed through her blood right alongside the ale.  On a different stringed instrument, one strummed with his fingers, another struck the strings in time so that they sounded like tuned drums.  If there was a melody or any set order, she could not follow it, but she found her foot tapping along nonetheless.

“Is all your music like this?” she asked Fírin.

“Our songs are more fixed,” he said, “especially when we must work to them, or walk to them.  But when we dance, the only thing that guides our sound is the drumming of our own heart.”

Only two Dwarves entered the clearing at first, and the dancing was as strange and untempered as the music.  As more entered she quickly realised that there were no pairs, nor sets, nor individuals, nor one large group.  It was impossible to follow, so it was better to sit back and just watch.  Almost of their own accord her hands began clapping along—first a steady beat, then variation upon variation that she did not even know that she knew.  One of the musicians—was it Tati?—walked by and pressed a small hand drum into her hands.  She hardly felt the change, content to watch as dwarf after dwarf whirled, jumped, capered past her sight.  Fírin got up from his place beside her and walked around the edges of the camp.

She did not know how much time had gone by before one of them grabbed at her own hand and pulled her, shocked, into standing.  She stumbled and nearly fell to one knee, her crutch abandoned useless at the side, but he caught her by the waist and lifted her into the air.  She was in the air for but a moment before her left foot came in contact with the firm ground, but then another—seemingly at random—came by, and did the same.  Even if she were able, she could not take a step before someone else took her, lifted her, spun her with arms of living steel.  The world twisted around her, her breath came short, and she almost demanded to be set down and restored to something resembling respectability.  She tipped her head back to try and get a breath of fresh air—and then, then, she saw Elbereth’s stars, and laughed aloud, because she was dancing, dancing with dwarves, and this would be the only time she would dance in her life and she would enjoy it.  Her fingers snapped in the air, and when she was on the ground she turned to each partner as if they had been practising this for years and she knew it by heart.

The last one to take her was Fírin, and as the music swelled to a final note, he set her down next to her crutch and the drum she had left behind, and her face was flushed and she was smiling broadly.  “Thank you,” she said.  “That was—that was incredible.”

“Consider it a gift,” he replied.  “You could do anything, Kira, even dance, if you thought about it hard enough to find a way.  I should not be surprised if, twenty years from now, you brought your people to new heights, the highest they have been since the War.”

“You forget how stubborn hobbits are, my friend,” said Kira, sadly.  “They do not rise because they will not.”

“You are not listening to me,” said Fírin.  Kira opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand.  “But I did not praise you for that sort of wisdom, which comes best with age.  You have another sort already in you, one that is rarest in dwarves.”

“What’s that?”

Fírin smiled.  “You are willing to learn—and admit—that you are wrong, when you are wrong.  And you have many, many years ahead of you, to continue learning when you are wrong, and to make those wrongs right.”

Kira blushed.  “I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing, then, although a simple ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

“Thank you, then,” said Kira.

“You’re welcome.  I am glad you liked my present,” said Fírin.  “I am afraid it is one of farewell, for many years.”

“Why?  Are you going back to the Glittering Caves?”

“No.  Indeed, I shall not travel for some time.”

“Why not?”

Fírin took her by the hand and bade her rise.  “There is someone I should like you to meet.  Will you come with me?”

Kira nodded, and picked up her crutch.  Fírin took her to the far end of the camp, where some ponies were tethered to a waggon—one of the covered sorts that the goods-drivers sometimes used.  There had been a vent cut into the top of the cloth, so that smoke trailed from the waggon as if it were a smial with no chimney.  “Go inside,” said Fírin, gesturing to the entrance.

“You’re not coming with?”

“I am not permitted to,” said Fírin.  “I assure you, you won’t come to any harm.”

Reluctantly, Kira climbed the steep steps into the waggon, lifted a flap of the fabric, and stepped inside.

She had to blink a few times before she could adjust her eyes from the cool blackness of the outdoors to the golden, warm haze that now surrounded her.  In the centre of the waggon’s floor was set a shallow, metal bowl, from which a fire crackled merrily and sent smoke within and without.  It smelled more like the furnaces of the dwarves on Overlithe than the campfires she had just left.  Behind it, half obscured by the flames, sat a dwarf, bent over a glass and evidently hard at work.  Kira’s crutch thumped loudly on the hollow wood as she came closer.

The dwarf did not look up until she was only a few feet away.  Kira returned his gaze, until her eyes flicked down and she saw, to her astonishment, that his—her—belly was swollen with life.

“Wh—who are you?” she blurted out.  “What is your name?”

“It would be well for you to return the courtesy, Kira Proudfoot,” said the dwarf.  “But I already know your name, for Fírin has told me of you.  I am called Ása, and I am his wife.”

“Oh,” said Kira.  For a moment she stood there, trying not to stare, dumbstruck.  “I’m sorry for my rudeness,” she finally said, “but I was incredibly surprised.  Dwarf women are only a distant legend among hobbits, and I had not expected to see one so obviously…”

“Be at peace,” said Ása.  “We prefer to keep ourselves hidden, either in tents or in plain sight, for a woman among dwarves is precious beyond jewels.  You have been accorded a great honour to see me thus.”  She bent over the glass again.  Kira looked down through it and saw Ása’s hands, enlarged beyond proportion, tapping away at a bit of stone with a tiny hammer and chisel.  “Only fellow women may see a dwarf with child, and none of these have ever been hobbits, unless there is some tale lost in the annals of time.”

“Thank you, then,” said Kira.  “And why have I been accorded this great honour, when no others have?”

“You are the first to care enough for dwarves to learn.  But I, too, wished to see you, for I have never seen hobbits before, and Fírin told me much of you in particular.  When I quickened I told him that not even my seclusion would keep me from this.  We owe much to your people and I wanted to thank one of you in person.”

“Lady Ása,” said Kira, “that was years ago!”

“Be that as it may, hobbits must be special indeed if they could produce such heroes from such an idle and contented land.  No dwarf could have done what they did, though we are hewn from the mountains themselves.”

“Then on behalf of the Travellers, and in their memory, I accept your thanks.”

“That is well,” said Ása.

“So, who tends for you in here?  Surely you don’t do all your cooking and cleaning here by yourself?”

“A few of my sisters come in to bring me meals and keep me company.  But most of the time I work.”

“And Fírin—he said that he could not come in here.  Surely you don’t wait all these months out without the company of your husband?”

“Do you do things differently?”

Very differently,” said Kira.  “We like to put ourselves on full display—especially when we are with child.  The husband’s only kicked out once labour starts, and as soon as the babe is cleaned up he’s let back in.”

“That last part is the same with dwarves.  But it is odd to think of any men involving themselves with any part of childbearing when it is such a woman’s thing.”

“Don’t you miss his company, though?”

“No more than my mother missed her husband’s, nor her mother before her.  And if Fírin were here, he would not be able to work as hard, and so set aside enough coin for us to raise the child.”

“Is a dwarf-child that difficult to feed?”

“No.  But surely you would not have one parent gone half the time, toiling for bread and neglecting his son’s growth?”

“I would indeed,” said Kira, laughing, “or at least I would if he were a hobbit.  Married hobbits do much the same work whether they have children or not, and we don’t appear to suffer for it—nor our children.”

“And yet you have no father.”

“I don’t,” said Kira.  “Wait, half a minute—how could you have known that?  I don’t recall ever telling Fírin about that—nor any other dwarf, for that matter!”

“Didn’t you?”  Ása set her chisel to the stone and struck it once.  A flake fell off it and onto her lap.  “But dwarven women have always been far-seeing, especially when we carry children.  See this,” she said, gesturing down to her work.  “I do not know what I am making here, only that it is for my son and that it will be his.  We all make birth-gifts for our children, gifts that tell us something about them or what they will do.  Most of us create something we can readily understand—an anvil for a smith, a weapon for a warrior.  It is said there was much weeping among us, in the centuries leading to the Ring War, because our greatmothers made nothing but axes and warhammers; and when, forty years before the War, they began to make levels and chisels, we began to hope.  But sometimes we cannot tell as easily.  It is said that Gimli’s mother made him an axe of steel with a crystal centre, so that if you held it in the sun you could see light pass through it, from blade to haft, and nobody knew what it meant since that axe could not be used in battle, nor even to chop wood.  It was only later, when he proved how great a love of beauty he held beneath his deadly prowess, that he showed us that this birth-gift was indeed a true reflection of his spirit.”

“And what are you making for your son?”

“I already told you: I do not know.  I know what this stone piece needs to look like, and a dozen other pieces like it, but what they are used for I cannot say.”

“Have you finished some of them?”

“They are sitting in the strongbox next to me.”

Ása gestured towards a simple steel box, which Kira opened to find a number of stone blocks, such as the ones children used to build toy houses or line toy holes.  But they were not regular bricks, for parts of them jutted out at strange angles, making them nearly impossible to stack.  Kira tried fitting two of them together.  “They look like a puzzle,” she said.  “Something you try to stack together, to make a wall, or something, only you can’t let there be any gaps anywhere.”

“Do you think I carry a toymaker?”

“No,” said Kira, “unless those are the kinds of toys dwarves play with.  No, I think he’s going to know something, about how to make things—or people—fit together, to put everything in the place where it can work best.  But he’ll have to be very bright, for I can’t solve the puzzle you made myself.”

Ása set down her chisel, took the two blocks from Kira’s hands, and looked at them.  “It is an interesting idea.  If you are right, he will not gain love among dwarves easily.  We prefer accomplishments of the hands to those of the mind.”

“So do we,” said Kira, “but there are always exceptions.”

“Such as you.  I hope that you may know our son, once he is old enough.”

“Will you and Fírin be staying put to raise him, then?”

“We will live at the Lonely Mountain until he is old enough to make the journey himself.  And then he will travel much, much more than most dwarves, and he will understand many people and profit from his understanding.”

Ása returned to her work.  Kira was silent; she had read of prophecy but had never encountered anything close to it first-hand.

“But he will not be a toymaker, of that much am I certain.  He carries too stern a spirit within him.”

The dwarf continued tapping at the stone until Kira had the nerve to speak again.  “So,” she said, “what else do you know about me?”

“Eh?”

“I mean, can you tell me anything else about myself—something I don’t yet know?”

“There is a canker of sorrow in you, eating away at your heart,” said Ása.  “But I suspect you already knew that, and it took no great insight on my part.  Anyone who looked you in the eye could see that it is the case.”

“Maybe,” said Kira, and in spite of the heat she shivered.  “I hope not.  It’s just—I’ve got a lot before me, and sometimes I can feel lost, and you have some insight about you…”

“I cannot give you advice, if that is what you ask for.  And I cannot tell you ‘this will happen’ or ‘this will not.’  Still,” she said, with a smile, “your request was not unkind, and I doubt I shall have another opportunity to see into the heart of one so alien.  Let us see what the wisdom of my foremothers can do.”  She set her tools aside, stood up, and took a small bag from where it sat on a shelf.  She reached inside it, and cast a fistful of something—some kind of herb?—on the fire.  The smoke grew thicker, almost oppressive, and changed in odour.  “Give me your arms,” said Ása.  Kira sat down and held them out.  The dwarf pushed back Kira’s sleeves, and pressed her thumbs into her forearms.  Kira could feel the blood trying to rush past them.  Her heart thudded and her head swam as she looked into the dwarf’s eyes and saw the fire smouldering within them.

“If you were a dwarf and I bore you in my womb,” said Ása, “I would make for you a crystal lamp, such as the Deep-Elves used of old—one that would require no fuel, nor ever be hot to the touch.  And you would use it to bear light to the dark places within, and without, until your land shone like the stars.  But if you were to keep it, and hoard it like a dragon, you would surely die.  Be strong as a mountain, Kira, for you have many enemies about you, and the worst one is the one that would kill you from within.”

Kira breathed slowly and deeply, and suddenly the smoke overpowered her and she doubled over in a fit of coughing.  The spell was gone.  Ása touched her on the back.  “Have I harmed you?”

“I’m sorry,” said Kira, coughing.  “Pipeweed or no, I don’t think I’m as used to smoke as dwarves are!”  Her head swam.

“Step outside, then, and breathe the clean air.  I will await your return.”

Kira did, though it took her a moment to find her crutch, and gulped down the cool night air as if it were water.  The stars looked clearer now, like needles of light piercing the velvet sky.  She smelled grass, and dirt, and summer.

Looking back at the waggon, she saw the smoke tunnelling through the broadcloth roof and almost didn’t turn back.  But the needs of propriety and friendship for this strange dwarf won over any misgivings that she had.  She stepped back inside to make her farewells.

“Thank you,” said Kira.  “I am truly honoured to have met you, and if my time were my own I would stay with you for several days.  But it is late, and my mother thinks I’m sitting around watching hobbits dance, and I must sell more herbs tomorrow.”

“The honour is mine, Child of the Shire,” said Ása.  “I send my blessings upon you.  May we meet again, when earth and stone have need of one another once more.”

“I hope to.  And my blessings, such as they are, upon you and your child.  Goodbye.”

Kira made her round of the camp once more and many farewells, especially to Fírin, and did not have time to think about all that she had experienced until she was alone again, on the walk back home.  Mother was up waiting for her, and she only half-followed her enquiries before protesting weariness and retiring for the night.  But it took her a long time before she could drift into sleep, and when she did she dreamed…

*  *  *

She dreamed she was on a mountain pathway, with one sheer wall going up and one sheer wall going down.  She did not look down, but kept to the reassuring cliffside.  The air was bright, clear, and cold.

She should have been surprised to see him walking next to her, but she was not.  She smiled, stopped, with her back to the wall, and reached out and touched his cheek.  “I’ve been busy today,” she said.

“I’m glad,” said the lad.

“It’s the Fair, and there’s been so much going on, and I was with dwarves today, and—”  She broke off, trying to remember what she was going to say.  “And they had a party and some wonderfully strange ale.  So.  I may not be wholly in control of myself, and so I can get away with doing things that I might regret if I were entirely sober.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You may kiss me,” said Kira, “if you like.  Only once, mind, but—”

He cut her off, placing his lips on hers and cradling the back of her neck with his hand.  “Only once?” he said, a little sadly.

“Did I say ‘once’?  I think I meant—”

He kissed her again.  Her arms were around him, and she found herself kissing him back.

“All right,” she said, “that’s enough for now.”  But he leaned his forehead on hers, so she was staring directly into his eyes, which were of no colour because he was all light, and why, why couldn’t she tell who he was?

Suddenly she felt her stomach drop, like lead, and she held him away at arms’ length now, dreading to speak, as his features solidified before her eyes.  “Tom?” she said, faintly.





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