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A White Shell  by Celeritas

Chapter Eight


Kira awoke feeling sick to her stomach, her dream still burned into her memory.  “I don’t fancy him!” she told herself.  “I don’t; I don’t!”  But she hadn’t known it was Tom, and, after all, it was only a dream and dreams could be mighty strange at times.  But those kisses had been so soft, and sweet, and—

“Dash it all!” she said.  “You don’t even know if that’s what a kiss should feel like!”  She swung out of bed, picked up her crutch, and stumped over to the clothes press.  “And you’ll probably never find out,” she muttered, opening it with a bang.  She tore through her clothes, looking for her favourite green skirt, and in so doing her hand brushed against the reed-boned bodice, designed so well to lift her up and put all her best features on display as if she were a brood mare at market.  She picked it up and pulled it out, spilling a shift over the edge of the chest onto the floor.  “I hate it,” she said.  “I hate it all!”

She dressed in five minutes, stuffed her spare clothing back into the press, where she was assured they would come out wrinkled tomorrow, and stalked out to the kitchen for breakfast.  Mother already had most of it prepared.

“You’re in a fine mood,” she said.

“Sorry,” said Kira.  “I had a bad dream.  Not a book-dream,” she added, to Mother’s alarmed look.  “Just a bad one.  Still, I’d rather not speak of it.  I had a rather difficult time last night.”

“Did you?  You seemed well enough when you came back.”

“Abstracted, more than anything else.  Daffodil has done very well for herself at the dances.  I have not.”


“I did get one request for a dance, mind.  But I don’t know how much of that was politeness and how much of it was genuine interest.  I don’t do well talking to strangers, Mum.”

“Well, many hobbits marry people they’ve known all their lives.”

“I know,” said Kira.

“I’m sure you’ll find someone,” said Mother.  “Everyone does.”

Most everyone.”

“Come,” said Mother, sitting down next to her with a platter full of fried eggs.  “There must be something more pleasant we can talk about.”

“I forgot to tell you yesterday,” said Kira.  “I got a set of seeds.”


“From a spice merchant.  The spice was cheap enough, but it looks like seeds, and I want to see if they’ll grow in the Shire.  Here, I put them with my wallet…”  She reached down into her waistband undo the leather thong tied over her shift, and pulled out a small burlap pouch.  She opened it and rolled a few seeds into her hand.

“I’ve never seen the like before!  You say they come from the Outlands?”

“Yes, and maybe they aren’t seeds, or maybe they won’t grow here.”

Mother picked one up.  “No, it’s a seed, but it’ll grow nothing useful, I’m sure.  We’ve got all the herbs and plants we need right here in the Shire.”

“Still, it couldn’t hurt to see what happens!  I promise, I’ll do all the work myself.”

“Kira, you don’t even know if it needs shade, or sun!  For all you know, it could be poisonous!”

“The seeds aren’t.”

“If you’re to take that spice merchant’s word!  Where was he from, Bree?”

“Well, since I don’t know many Shire hobbits who have the spine to deal with the Big Folk in business…”

“And small wonder!  You know your history well enough to know how the Troubles started—unless those books of yours give some different magical reason for it all!”

“No, they don’t,” said Kira, laughing.  “Well, at any rate, I should still like to try my hand at growing it, and if the rabbits won’t eat it, I won’t either!”

“You do realise that this means you’re not growing it in the plot, though?  Rabbits won’t touch a thing that’s been seasoned with blood.”

“If that means you’re letting me grow it at all, yes!  Are you sure?  I thought that everything from Outside was dangerous!”

Mother thought a moment at this.  “If everything from Outside were dangerous, Kira, we shouldn’t be drinking tea.  I only worry about those things that would cause you harm—taxing your heart or burdening you with unnatural longings.”

“I assure you, Mother, I don’t know what part of Outside this spice comes from.  If it’s to grow at all here, though, it’d have to be as plain and commonsensical as the Shire itself.”

“I suppose I’ll have to let you try growing it, then.  You did buy it with your own pocket-money, after all.”

“Thank you, Mum!”

“But don’t expect anyone to buy it, if ever it comes to that!”

“I shan’t!”

They started late, after all the dwarves had set up their forges in the Event Field.  Daffodil stopped by around eleven o’clock, and, after assuring Mother that she would “keep an eye” on Kira, was permitted to take her friend to luncheon.  “Am I a faunt, now, that I need you pecking over me like a mother hen?” said Kira, as soon as they were out of earshot.

Daffodil snorted, though her eyes were as merry as Kira’s.  “Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.  There are Dwarves in town and if I were your mother I’d keep you on an even stricter leash!”

“Daffy!  You assume that just because there are dwarves in town I’m going to go Tookish on you and insist on having an Adventure!”

“I remember that Dwarf of yours, Kira.  And as hotly as you may deny it, I know that you two are still friends of some sort.  If I hadn’t seen a friend in four years—”

“—I’d make sure that I saw him when there weren’t gossiping hobbits about.”

“Kira!—ah, so that’s why you retired early last night!  You saw the Dwarves, you scandalous little imp!”

“Not so loud, please!  But they aren’t indecent people, really.  They took me dancing!”

“Dancing?  But—”

“They’re very strong folk, and I don’t know how they planned it, but one would lift me by the waist, spin me, and set me down, until I was picked up by another—”

“How many Dwarves did you dance with, Kira?”

“I don’t know.  But it was only one song, and it’s the only chance I’ll ever get to do anything of the sort.”

Daffodil looked at the light shining in Kira’s eyes.  “Well, I suppose I don’t have the heart to reproach you, then.”

“Thanks.  You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

Daffy sighed, but she nodded.  “The Oak Barrel’s got a special on today.”


“Luncheon is half-price for lasses if they can find a lad willing to pay for her.”

“Ugh!  It’ll be filled with courting couples!  What kind of a place are they trying to turn it into?”

“They’re just trying to add to their custom over the Lithedays!  Everyone knows it’s a lad’s pub at night, anyhow.”

“All right.  And Roly and Tom want us to come along and save a little coin in the process, then?”

Tom does.  Roly went along with it well enough as soon as he explained his logic.”

“All right,” said Kira, “but in that case I’m getting Roly to pay for me, and I’ll pay him back three-fourths of the standard fare, too.”

“This coming from the girl who kissed Tom on the cheek!”

Kira stopped in her tracks, her stomach turning.

“What?”  Daffodil laid her hand on Kira’s arm.  “It was only an innocent bit of flirting.”

“I don’t know why I did it, Daffodil,” said Kira, teeth clenched.  “But if I ever end up returning his regard, kindly punch me in the nose.”

“All right,” said Daffodil, slowly.  “Although I don’t see what would be so terrible about that—returning his regard, not punching you.”

“He nearly killed me, Daffy.”

“That was thirteen years ago.  And he didn’t mean to.”

They walked to the Oak Barrel Inn in silence.

Kira had only been to the Barrel a few times before, and then only for luncheon.  Pub culture was something that eluded most lasses, and Kira herself wanted as little to do with it as possible.  Yet that did not stop her from stepping inside, as naturally as she could manage, with a smile.  She would give few the satisfaction of watching her discomfort.

During the Troubles, the old Oak Barrel Inn was actually torn down, its stone and timbers used to put up one of those horrid square Mannish buildings that Kira had seen only in pictures.  Then-recovering Mayor Whitfoot took the cost of rebuilding it out of his own purse, and spared no expense in its construction.  Some talented builder, now lost to memory, had the brilliant idea of using the spare wood from the ruffians’ felling to make the new common room an actual barrel that hobbits could eat and drink inside.  A false floor was laid on it, of course, to make the tables level, but aside from that there was no real distinction between the walls and the ceiling.   A hearth was in the back, where the spigot would have been, as well as doors that led to the kitchen and the private rooms, which branched off from a central hallway that wrapped around the whole.  It let felt old, dark, and varnished inside, and the false floor above the barrel made hollow thumps every time Kira struck it with her crutch.  It would have been a pleasant place, really, if it weren’t for the company.

Tom and Roly were nowhere to be seen, so Daffodil requested one of the two empty tables left in the pub.

“You know,” Kira said as they sat themselves across from each other, “we could just try to find two other lads to buy for us and not have to worry about all this nonsense.”

Daffodil laughed.  “You’re thinking too much again, Kira.  And the more you worry over this the more likely Tom’s going to notice and start seeing signs that you’re convinced aren’t there.”

I thought we were supposed to be looking at eligible bachelors, anyway,” said Kira, blithely ignoring the jab even as she filed away Daffodil’s advice for future reference.  “You still haven’t told me how it went with that Northfarthing lad of yours.”

“His name is Filbert.”

“Filbert?”  Kira snorted.  “Isn’t that some sort of nut?”

“Don’t poke fun at him!  He’s a very nice fellow—almost a little too shy, just like me.”

“Apparently lads like ‘shy,’ then.”

“More than they like ‘brazen,’ at least,” said Daffodil with a laugh.  “But he’s from so very far away that I doubt we’d ever be able to court.  Still, he made for pleasant company.”

“That’s good.”

“And he stepped on my toes only twice.”

“Only twice?”

“The perfect dancers make me afraid that I’ll mess up.”

“Oh, Daffy, you are such a dear!”

“You’d be just as nervous if you had two working feet.”

“I don’t know,” said Kira.  “But he must have been!”

“He did keep on looking down,” said Daffodil.  “But so was I.”  She lowered her voice.  “His ankles were very well formed.”



“Oh, dear,” said a familiar voice from the doorway.  “They’re giggling.”

“That’s never good.”  Roly and Tom walked over to the table and sat down like two sacks of grain flung from a waggon.

“Marvellous idea, this,” said Daffodil sprightly.  “I always like a free meal.”

“Did we say we were paying for you?” said Tom.

“You may, if you like, Tom,” said Kira.  “You can’t have spent all your winnings yet.”

“I think you’ll find,” said Tom, “that most people don’t take well to others telling them how they ought to spend their hard-earned money.”

“Yes, it was so hard for you to convince that breeze to blow off the Brandybuck’s cap.  She is my cousin, by the by—I’m sure I told you that earlier.”

Tom’s mouth worked a moment.  “Isn’t every Brandybuck your cousin?” he finally managed.

“Every one descended from the Magnificent, at least.  We tend to take needling you as a common interest, whether we mean to or not.  But,” she added, “you were right and I shouldn’t tell you how to spend your precious coin.  And so,” reaching diagonally to hand Roly some coins, “here is my portion of the bill, Roland, should you care to buy for me.”

Roly met her with a look of exasperation.  She shrugged at him, promising herself to have a chat with him later and apologise once again for dragging him into another one of her little battles.

“What a fine mess!” said Daffodil, with a smile.  “I suppose now Tom has to pay for me, and I have to pay him back!”

“Tom could have paid for all four of us when he had the chance,” said Kira, “or just you, or just me.  But he doesn’t like paying, and I don’t like bickering for five minutes over a bill.”

“Oh?” muttered Roly.  Kira kicked him with her good foot.

“Fine, I’m paying for all!” said Tom, throwing his hands in the air.  “Roly, give Kira her money back.”

“Really?” said Kira.

“Yes, and a fine job you did twisting my arm!”

“I didn’t twist your arm—I genuinely wanted to pay for myself!  Though,” Kira added as Roly slid her money back to her, “I’m not complaining.”

“Good,” said Tom.  “The last thing I need today is more whining.”  He waved a waiter over and placed their orders—roast pork and potatoes, greens, bread, and a large pitcher of ale.

More whining?” said Daffodil.

“His mother,” said Roly.  “And his brother.”

“He won’t ‘settle,’” said Tom.  “And by ‘settle,’ she means court only one lass and, hopefully, marry her.”

“I saw that!” said Daffodil with the sort of shocked smile one normally expected from gossip.  “He was paying court to at least three last night, all through the dancing, and swearing eternal love to every last one of them!”

“I should hope they know he’s being so free with his affections!” said Kira.

“I’d imagine they’re just keeping their options open, as Mum says.  After all, you can’t know who’s courting you for sure till he proposes.”

“Unless he leaves a note.”

“Kira, who would leave a note?”

“Well, if they both can read…”

“Then she’d already know who it is, for who in his right mind would want to court a reader?”

“Tom!” said Daffodil.

“Only someone else who’d want to read, that’s what I say.”

“Can’t you read, Tom?” said Roly.

Kira examined a particularly fascinating knot on the wooden table.  Her cheek was burning, and she could feel Tom’s eyes boring into it.

Can, yes,” said Tom.  “Want to, no.”

“Yes, how exactly did that work out, Tom?” said Daffodil.  “Aside from the ‘overbearing father’ bit.  It makes sense that he’d teach your brother, since he’s to inherit the farm and all, but why you?”

Kira felt, rather than saw, Tom’s gaze leave her, but before she could hear his reply the waiter arrived with the ale and bread.  And despite Kira’s curiosity as to the answer to this question, she was all too happy to change the topic once they began their repast.  Daffodil gave an account of the dancing from the previous night, and Kira mentioned the lad who had not realised she was lame.  Daffodil, bless her heart, did not mention that Kira had slipped off halfway through.  Kira did not bother correcting her.

“What did you get up to, Roly?” said Kira.

“Not much,” he said.  The waiter came with the rest of the food, and Roly waited until he left to continue.  “Tom was out having his bit of fun, and after the seventh of April I promised I wouldn’t get myself into that kind of pickle anytime soon, so I ended up playing draughts with one of the gaffers from town.  He didn’t look like much, but he’s very clever and he slaughtered me each time.  He said he runs a shop in town, so I might stop by sometime on a market day and try him again.”

“I doubt you’ll ever beat him,” said Tom with a laugh.  “Not till you reach a hundred, at least.”

“I’ll bet he can manage a draw, at least,” Daffodil said stoutly.

“Look,” said Roly, laughing, “it’s not about that!  It’s about having something fun to do, and spending time with folk that you wouldn’t see normally.”

“I understand,” said Kira, with a smile that felt warmer than she’d expected.

“Well, I’m glad someone does,” said Tom.

The next few hours passed smoothly, surprisingly so, and when Kira left to do her bit of storytelling she was only dismayed that she had utterly forgotten to slip her fare for lunch into Tom’s pocket when he wasn’t looking.  No matter, she thought, and stepped lightly to the space behind the Museum.  There were already a few children about, familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones that were introduced as various relations of her regular listeners.  The children were telling each other.  That was good.

It was the largest crowd she’d ever had, which made sense because it was an Overlithe.  Even better, Hal was sitting in the middle of the crowd this time and she thought she could track him down if Alder didn’t detain her for too long.  She was determined not to let him.

When the Town Hole’s clock struck three, she began.  She had reserved this tale especially for today.  “I’m sure,” said Kira, “that you all knew this tale was coming.  But not this tale, perhaps—actually, never this tale, for you all know I like stories that most people don’t tell.  This one I heard a few years back from one Fíriel Bolger, who married into that most famous of lines—that of Fredegar Bolger—or, as most of you know him, Good Old Fatty.”

Those of the children who had not known that the tale was coming perked up.

“I know you all know most of the tales that there are to tell about Fatty and his rebel band, and I’m proud to say that most of them are true.  But underneath all of the fighting, there was, in each and every one of those hobbits, a core of fierce love for their land and for their people.

“Those of you who know your genealogies might know of Jessamine Bolger, Fredegar’s wife.  But in the time of the Troubles they were not yet married, though even at this time they loved one another very dearly.  Fíriel told me that Fatty did not want to leave the Shire to accompany Frodo because of Jessamine, but I have my doubts.  Fatty was very rooted in the Shire, and had no love of adventure or elves or anything but the rolling greens and open faces of our land and our people.  As it was, Fatty was courting Jessamine all through the year leading up to Frodo’s departure, and afterwards, through the Troubles.

“Once he knew that there were Men in the Shire—he already knew they were up to no good—Fatty went to Jessamine and warned her of the peril that awaited them all.

“‘I’m worried for you,’ he said, ‘Who knows what blackness lurks in the hearts of these people?’

“Jessamine laughed, though her eyes were troubled.  ‘I’ll be fine,’ she said.  ‘I do have a head about my shoulders.’

“But Fatty was worried, because Jessamine was very pretty, and because he loved her deeply.  He did not believe in keeping secrets, though, so he poured out all his concerns about the Shire to her—yes, even his encounter with the Riders, which he had told hardly anyone.  He would have told her about the Ring, but when he hesitated she told him to say nothing, because in this case she was better off not knowing.  And so he said nothing, though he had a feeling she knew more of what had happened to Frodo than either of them would say.  And as the weeks went on, he kept talking to her about the state of the Shire, and how things were getting more and more dangerous, and finally she said, ‘Well then, Fredegar my love, why don’t you do something about it?’

“‘Me?’ he said.  ‘I can’t do anything; I’m not a hero.’

“‘Yes, you are,’ she told him.  ‘You’ve already faced the Black Riders, and lived to tell the tale.’

“‘I ran away,’ he said.

“‘But you kept your wits about you!  You’re a hero, Fatty, and when we get ourselves and our land out of this mess you’re going to marry me, so don’t tell me you can’t do anything!’

“Well, this was very heartening to Fatty, and when she kissed him afterwards that about settled the matter.”

Some of the lads made faces at this.  Kira ignored them.

“Afterwards, Fatty thought long and hard about it and realised just what Jessamine had roped him into—putting himself in danger, and leaving her.  He protested, then—he found he didn’t mind the danger for himself, not terribly, but he worried what would happen to her heart if he came to harm—but Jessamine insisted that the Shire needed him now far more than she did.  So together they began to pore over maps and family trees until they were pretty sure who would help him fight back in the Shire and who might have to be fought.  Fatty went around, late at night, and began asking some of the local lads what they’d be willing to do to keep their land free from the wretched Men who were making such a nuisance of themselves, and he got himself a band, and they filled in the maps with where they thought all the ruffian camps and strongholds were.

“And Fatty began doing to the ruffians what they were doing to the Shire—being a nuisance.  One time they made off with their food, which was stolen from hobbits; another time they let volleys of pebbles fly on them and made them leave their camp; a third time they stole their horses.  But as wretched as the Men were, Fatty still couldn’t bring himself to actually hurt them, much less kill one of them.

“That all changed, though, very quickly.  Someone was snitching on Fatty, for it soon became clear that they knew who led the rebels, and who was close to that leader.  One morning he woke up to find brand marks on his door, and on the doors of all his twelve-mile cousins—and on Jessamine’s and her family’s.  Fatty became worried, and he stayed up late that night talking with his father about what they should do.  It was too late, Fatty argued, to go back and be meekly robbed time and again—if anything bad happened to the ruffians they’d blame Fatty and who knew what would happen next.  So he agreed that he and his band would go into hiding, and offer safe escort to his family until they were well-hidden and out of reach of the rest of that troop.  Times would be hard for them, but not as hard as they’d be if they kept their association with him.

“All that week he worked to get them out, and remembering his role in the Conspiracy, Fredegar set a few of his comrades in each home to make it appear lived in, until all the houses and holes were vacated.  Finally, there were only two homes left—a spinster aunt’s and Jessamine’s.  Jessamine’s father had a bad back, so Fatty planned to wait until Market Day to move them out.  He was helping his aunt move when he heard the news.

“A young hobbit, not older than fifteen—one of the younger brothers of the rebels—came running up to him.  ‘The last house!” he cried.  “It’s burned down!’

“Fatty was fearstruck, but he couldn’t do anything until his aunt was safe.  As soon as she was safely holed up with another family, though, he rode all the way back home, to Jessamine’s house.

“The sight was terrible.  The house was burned down, and the cellar that was dug into the hill behind it collapsed.  ‘I saw it from a distance,’ said the lad.  ‘They made sure they were all in there, and then they wedged the doors and the windows, and then they and set fire to it.  When it was all burnt down, they turned to go, but I kept watching.  Then there was a loud noise and the hill caved in.’

“Well, Fatty knew that Jessamine’s father kept a fine old barrel of Northfarthing whiskey in there, and he reasoned that it must have caught fire and exploded, caving the hill in.  He went up to the wreck and looked, and what he saw I won’t repeat to you.  Suffice it to say that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jessamine’s parents had been killed in the fire.

“‘Are you sure Jessamine was in here when they started the fire?’ he said, once he was done and returned to the lad.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I didn’t get a look myself—my Mum wouldn’t let me.  But the ruffians made sure that no one escaped, and she was in there when the fire started.’

“Fatty then went back to the hillside, and began to dig—but he stopped himself.  He would not let his happy memories of his beloved be tainted by her end, he told himself, and he still wanted to leave alive the shadow of a hope that she had survived.

“But as the days turned into months, and no word of Jessamine appeared, that hope turned to ash, and Fredegar Bolger was not nearly as unwilling to take blood—or to shed it.  His ventures got more and more daring, for he didn’t care quite so much whether he lived or died, and when at last he was caught he was already a shadow of the hobbit that he used to be.

“That, of course, got worse in the Lockholes, where he was crammed into a tiny cell and given very little to eat or drink.  There, he found himself falling prey, more and more, to that most deadly of dangers to a hobbit’s heart—indifference.

“If he had been in there for too long like that, I’m afraid Fatty would have died.  But about a month into his captivity, Fatty got a visitor.  She was an old hobbit, with a cane, a shawl, and a hunched back.  When the guard opened the door, she spat on his face.  ‘Thankee;’ she told the guard, ‘I’ve allus wanted to do that in person.’  But just then there came a big noise from outside, and the guard dashed away see what was the matter.  Immediately she took from her cloak a loaf of bread, big and round.

“‘I am sorry,’ she said.  ‘I had to do that to get in.’

“Fatty stared at the loaf, and then at the lady.  ‘Who are you?’ he said.

“She made no reply, but laughed, and pulled her shawl down from her hair.  Soon she was kissing him.

“‘Jessamine?’ he said, for it was she.  ‘How are you alive?’

“‘Hush,’ she said.  ‘It doesn’t matter.’

“‘It does!’

“‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘don’t make a scene out of it.  I don’t know how long the distraction will last.’  And as she put her shawl back, Fatty noticed a burn mark on her face.

“‘You were in the fire, after all, then?’ he said.

“‘I was,’ she told him.  She had been getting some roots from the cellar, and the door stuck.  ‘I could hear their jeering as they set fire to it,’ she said, ‘and then something fell across the door.  I had to keep pushing at it, but it didn’t give way for such a long time.’

“You would have died,’ he said, ‘if you’d gotten out sooner.’

“‘I know,’ said Jessamine.  ‘I saw.  But by the time I got out most everything was burned, and they must have turned away.  The door was still burning when I pushed it.  I’m afraid I’m not as pretty as I once was.’

“‘You’re still beautiful.’

“Jessamine laughed at that.  ‘I’m alive, at least.  The cellar collapsed behind me, and I had to wait a good time before I thought it was safe enough to crawl away.  I got help, but I couldn’t have them tell you—as long as they knew I was alive they could hurt you.’

“‘They did.’

“‘Yes,’ she told him, ‘but if you’d have known, you’d have acted differently, and they might have guessed.  Oh, Fatty, do forgive me!’

“‘Of course,’ he said, for when you’re that in love with someone you don’t have to think about these things too hard.  Then he looked down at himself.  ‘I’m not sure if I’ll ever warrant that nickname anymore.’

“‘You will,’ she said.  ‘There’s a file in the bread.  You can use it to get out.’

“‘No,’ said Fatty, and he handed the bread back.  ‘If I get out, I don’t know what they’ll do to retaliate.’

“‘But I can’t leave you locked up in there!’

“‘You can,’ he said, ‘and you will.’

“‘But,’ said Jessamine, ‘what if the Big Folk stay here forever?  What if you never get out?’

“To that, Fatty had the strangest thing to say.  He said, ‘I don’t think that’ll happen.  As long as you’re alive, Jess, I can believe anything.’

“And he was right, of course.  The Travellers came back, and rescued Fredegar Bolger, and as soon as he was well, he and Jessamine were married by Frodo Baggins, Deputy Mayor.  They lived quite happily together, and if you’d like to know the names of their children, you can find that out from just about anyone who knows their genealogy.”

The children stood up when Kira did, and she struggled to keep her eyes on Hal to make her way over to him.  But before she could do much of anything she felt a tug on her skirt.  It was Alder, and he looked somewhat displeased.  “That was not,” he said, “a proper Fatty story!”

“Alder,” said Kira, somewhat testily, “have you ever known me to tell ‘proper’ tales at all?  Because I assure you, to most hobbits, telling children what the Travellers really did Outside is nothing short of pure scandal.”

“Well, it was hardly what I expected.”


“But you could have left some of the kissing out.”

“What, just because Fatty Bolger killed a Man or three, he’s not allowed to be in love?”

“That wasn’t what I—”

“I’m sorry, Alder, I’m looking for someone—”  Kira scanned the crowd.  He could hardly have run off again…

“Kira Lamefoot?”

Kira looked down.  Standing there, right in front of her, was her quarry.  “Hal?”

“I asked my relations if you could come over to my home and tell tales there.  I think some of the other children would like it.”

“Really?” said Kira.  She got down on her knees to get a better look at him.  He was well-dressed, or had been when his mother had last seen him.  “Well, Hal, I should like that very much, but that depends on where your home is.”

“It’s not too far from here.  You can leave after breakfast and arrive in time for tea, if you’re quick about it.”

That was too far, even if Nienna wanted to run—it’d take at least three hours, probably closer to four or five.  “How would I get there?”

“The road’s actually south of here.  You head east on it, past the gnarly old tree, and keep on going till you see it.  It’s the biggest smial for miles around—you can’t miss it.”

“Is there a town nearby?”

Hal screwed his face up, as if thinking.  “Can’t remember.  But I’m late for tea.  Goodbye!”  And with that he darted away, and even without the children still milling around Kira would not have been able to catch up with him.

“Well,” she said to herself, “that was helpful.”

 *  *  *

Daffodil met her shortly afterwards, and escorted her back to Mother.  Both of them readily assured her that there had been No Dwarves, and Kira was grateful to see Daffodil keep her secret for her once more.

It was back to work right after that.  Kira had been gone too long, and even though business was still steady, they had closed early the night prior.  It was not until after most everyone had left the Fair that Kira and her mother returned home for dinner—since the forges had been set up all day in the Event Field, there was no formal feast for Overlithe.  Kira found herself quite weary, though the day had not been too long or too difficult, and she was most grateful when Mother told her that they would be visiting with the Brownlocks tomorrow night and not tonight.

When she retired to her room for the night, Kira reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out something that had been slipped into her hand with some spare change.  It was a small, tightly furled piece of paper.  Unrolling it, she recognised the hand.

My dear Kira—

I should dearly love to visit with you sometime before the Fair is over!  There is so much to show you (fabric and other sundries), and I need an excuse to escape my well-meaning female relations (current and future) for a few hours.  I know you’ve been very busy, and that you’re trying to keep that a secret, so if it doesn’t work out, then it won’t, but—do try!

S.F. (soon to be B.)

P.S.  I was poking around back home a little while ago, and found a sketch or three taken from Grandmother’s wedding.  Thought you’d like to see them, as there is a good deal of familiar faces!

Kira’s heart warmed inside her, though she had to shake her head at the postscript.  “If you really didn’t mind my not seeing you, you wouldn’t be bribing me with an old sketch!”  Briefly she thought of slipping out and heading back, to talk to her right then and there, but she was feeling quite tired and Sandra probably wanted to be with her intended at the moment.  She didn’t even know where they would be.

So Kira laid her head down on her pillow and closed her eyes.  Her head was teeming with plans for the next day, but underneath it all was a layer of sorrow that the Lithedays should be over so quickly.  One of these days, she thought, Lithe won’t be nearly so special because I’ll be able to see my friends whenever I want.

 *  *  *

Kira awoke the next morning feeling cold, and small wonder—she had kicked off her sheets, unknowing, in the middle of the night.  She searched her mind for the dreams that would have caused such a violent reaction, but any memory of them had fled.  “I think,” she told Mother, “that I shall sleep for a full day after all this is done.”

“Kira, you know that if it’s too much for you—”

“It isn’t,” said Kira.  “I was exaggerating, just a little.”

The walk over to the Fair was pleasant—there were only a few people about, and there was still a little dew on the ground.  Business was slow for the first hour or so.

At ten o’clock in the morning, the Master of Buckland approached their stand.  For a moment Kira wondered what he was about—but then she remembered the wedding, and she smiled.  He asked to speak with Mother alone.

Kira managed the stand while she was gone, but she could only do so out of habit.  Her heart hammered in her chest, for though she had every bit of faith in the Master and his skills at persuasion, she was nervous—and she had been warned not to get her hopes up.  After fifteen minutes, she kept on jerking her head this way and that, thinking that she’d seen her mother walking towards the stand in various postures of victory and defeat.

After an agonizing hour, Mother returned, and, seeing the look on her face, Kira’s heart sank.  “I can’t go?” she said.

“To the wedding?  Funny that you should guess what that was about, when all you know is that the Master of Buckland asked to speak with me.”

Kira turned red and looked at her skirts.

“I spoke with him, and with Mr. Fairbairn, and I believe we have reached an understanding.  You may go to the wedding of their children.”

“I may?”

“But in return, I have asked both the Master’s family and the Warden’s to cut you.  Since it was only through unfortunate circumstance that they made your acquaintance in the first place, they readily agreed.”  Mother held out a sheet of paper—the official kind that clerks used—detailing that, excepting for the duration of the wedding of Kerimac Brandybuck and Sandra Fairbairn, no one in the direct line of the current Master of Buckland, nor of the Warden of Westmarch, was to have any deliberate contact, whether in person or in writing, with Kira Proudfoot, a minor under the protection of her mother, Rosemary Proudfoot.

There were seven signatures at the bottom, all done in red ink.

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