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A White Shell  by Celeritas

 

Chapter Nine

 

Kira had to sit down, had to reread the paper, over and over again, for surely they couldn’t be serious and there was some way out of it.  When she was going over the signatures for the fifth time (both the Master and the Warden had signed) Mother whisked the paper out of her hands.  “I’m assuming it’s done up properly, then?”

“Yes,” said Kira, voice quavering.

“Good.”  Mother paused.  “No thank you for the permission, I presume?”

“I—”

“Kira, I may not know everything that you’re up to, but I’m no fool, and I know enough.”

“They’re my friends!”

“And they’ve done a fine job showing it all these years, getting you to go behind my back and all.”

“It wasn’t them—it was me!  It was all my idea, Mum, the books, the reading, everything; just leave them out of this!”

“I’ll be more than glad to, once you do!”

Kira crumpled on the stool where she sat, her head hanging on her hand.  She wanted to scream like a faunt in a tantrum, but nothing would come out.

“You can stop crying,” said Mother, “when you tell me all that you’ve been doing without telling me.”

To this, Kira did not reply.  She couldn’t.  She stood, picked up her crutch, and ran.

Behind her, Mother watched, took a step towards her, then scrunched her eyes shut to stop the tears and turned away.

 

*  *  *

Mother could have caught up with her if she’d wanted; Kira did not know why she hadn’t followed her, but she was glad.  All around her, the world was reeling, and someone had to set it right, quickly.  “Kerry?” she cried.  “Kerry!  Kerry Brandybuck!”  She stumbled into a nook between two of the shops and sat down, forcing herself to breathe deeply and think things through.  Though the crowd around her was faint against her thoughts, she knew that in reality they were drowning her out, and that wandering witless was no real way to accomplish things.  He’d be with the Brandybucks, or if he wasn’t, someone there would know how to find him.  Quickly, she dried her tears and tried her best to act as if everything was normal.

She found him ducking out of his father’s tent, running a troubled hand through his hair and looking at nothing in particular.

“Kerry?”

It took a moment for him to notice her. “Kira?” he said.  “What are you—you know you’re not supposed to be here!”

To this Kira had no response but a fresh spurt of tears.  Kerry closed the distance between them, took her hand in his, and looked her in the eyes.  “I’m sorry, Kira, but I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore.  You do know that, don’t you?”

Kira nodded.  “Can she really make you do that?”

“I wasn’t there when they signed the agreement, but—”

“You’re well over thirty-three, Kerry, and Sandra’s of legal age—tell me you won’t let this happen!”

“I—I—I’m sorry, Kira—I only just found out myself; I don’t know…”

Kira squeezed her eyes shut and was sickeningly unsurprised to see the dark island there.

She felt Kerry’s arms around her.  His ribs pressed into her face, and his chest hummed as he spoke.  “Shh…  You just have your little cry out, and then we’ll talk things over.  But keep things short if you can—it won’t do to have you in trouble so soon.”

“What did I do wrong?  For the longest time it was only polite to talk with you, right?”

“I think you enjoyed yourself too much, and I think your mother realised that if she couldn’t take care of things on your end she’d be able to on ours.  Quite frankly I’m surprised she didn’t try earlier.”

“You thought she’d do this?”

“Yes—though I wasn’t sure what I should do if she did.  Kira, I’m so sorry, but—”

“You’ll let me be miserable for the rest of my life because of some stupid contract your dad signed.”

“Kira, it’s not for the rest of your life; it’s only six years…”

Kira began to wail.

“Hush!  Kira, if your happiness is dependent on Sandra and me, you must be in a terrible bind indeed.  You’ll be fine, I promise.”

“No, I won’t.  You’re the only friends I’ve got—”

“—That’s not true—”

“—Well, the only ones who actually understand me, and six years is such a terribly long…”  She could not even finish her sentence.  “Do you have to go along with it?”

“Kira, no one has to do anything.  But in this case—in this case—I think breaking the contract would create more problems than it would fix.”

“No, it wouldn’t!”

“Kira—Kira!  You’re not being sensible.  You need to listen to me.”  He took a step back, holding her at arm’s length.  “Your mother already thinks we’re out to get you—to kidnap you and take you somewhere Outside, I don’t know.  We can’t give her any reason to keep on thinking that, and if you do improve—by her standards—or if she sees that your lack of improvement has nothing to do with us—maybe she’ll let the contract slide.”

“She won’t.”

“And if we do break the contract, there’s not much she can do to us, but what she could do to you would be terrible.”

“Ha!  What’s she going to do, throw me in the Lockholes?”

“Worse than that.  She could throw you out of your home.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad.  I’d be able to support myself—”

“No, Kira, you wouldn’t.  Folk are more than willing to help out a widow’s daughter by letting her tell stories to their children.  But no self-respecting mother would trust her children with a disowned tween.  There’s nothing else we can do.”

“You can not get caught.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because, even if you do, I don’t do things that way.”

“Not even when it’s a stupid decision?”

“Not even then.  I’m terribly sorry, Kira, but I’m afraid we have no choice but to cut you.”

“Then that’s a wretched way of doing things!”

“Kira…”

“I’m just asking for a letter, or a book, or anything to let me know you’re thinking of me!  Why can’t you do that?”

“I can’t, because unlike you, I actually respect my parents!”

Kira gasped for air.  The water was rising about her, surging closer…

“Kira, I’m sorry—that came out wrong.  I’m only asking you to try to understand…”

Suddenly Kira doubled over.  The sun’s heat pressed in on her from all sides, and her head felt light, too light to fight anything, much less the sudden wave that attacked her from inside…  Her stomach heaved, and its contents came tumbling out of her.

“Kira!”  Kerry’s hand was on her forehead, around her back, steadying her.  “You’re burning up!  Are you well?”

“Of course I’m not—”  Her stomach churned again.  “Not well!  Who would be?”

“No, Kira, you’re actually ill.  I should take you back to your mother.”         

She shook her head frantically.  “No!  Don’t take me back to Mother, not to her…”

“I think I should.”  His voice was firm.  “You’re not well enough to be out here, and you should be home resting.”

“But—but if she sees you with me, you’ll be in trouble…  I’ll be in trouble… you can’t let her see me…”

“You’re ill, Kira.  Your health matters more than any sort of trouble either of us could get in.  If you’ve caught a fever you need bed rest, and you can’t do that at the fair.”

“You could just take me back to Buckland…”

No.  We’re going to your mother, and that’s final.”  And he scooped her up in his arms, and she was too weak to protest, though she still shook her head all the way back to the herb stand.

“Mrs. Proudfoot?” he said, setting Kira back on the stool where—instead of fighting the island—she was left to fight off alternate bouts of dizziness and nausea.  “Kerry Brandybuck, at your service.  I’m sorry, but Kira came to find me—to say goodbye—and while I was explaining the necessity of my father’s decision she took ill.  I thought it would be best to bring her to you.”

Mother felt her head.  “Thank you,” she said, and Kira could sense the astonishment in her voice.  “You shouldn’t have run, Kira,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” said Kira.

“Now, sit you down for a little while, and if you’re still feeling ill in half an hour we’ll get you home.”

Kira nodded numbly.

“Kerry, if you could get my daughter a cup of cool water from the well I’d be much obliged.”

The afternoon passed abominably.  It all felt like some sort of sweltering nightmare, for a Kerry who was no longer her friend had no business helping Mother take care of her, especially if Mother mistrusted him so.  She was never quite aware of how she got back home and into her bed, but she must have, and time must have passed, for there was Dr. Grimwig checking in on her, and oh! how wretched it felt to be ill over the Midyear!

When she was well enough to stay awake longer than one mealtime, she broached the subject.

“He’s gone, isn’t he?”

“Who?”

“Kerry.”

“Yes.  For three days now.”

“For good?”

“Until the wedding, at least.  He does care for you, that much is certain, though his heart might not be in the right place.”

“So they’re still cutting me, then.”

“I spoke with Kerry for some time.  He agreed with me that it was probably the best thing they could do.”

Kira turned her face to the wall.

But Mother was so assiduous with her care that it wasn’t fair that she should be so terrible to her in other respects.  She let Kira read, as she recovered, and she was at Kira’s bedside so often that Kira knew the garden was suffering—though Daffodil’s coming by to visit helped, Kira knew.

The blackness hit her, but only once.

“It is not,” said Mother, a few days later, “that I don’t want you to have friends, Kira.  I am only concerned about these ones.”

“I know.”

“But, as I said, if it hadn’t been for the pest all those years back, and the heavy snows, they shouldn’t have made your acquaintance at all—and even then, the thing you have in common most is that thing that you lost.  I’m not asking you to forget them.  I’m only asking you to move on.”

And Kira knew exactly what she was getting at, how it would be lovely if all this bookishness were merely a fancy of hers to be outgrown, for she had heard the same litany for years and years, and before she knew it the words were out: “The same way you have with Dad?”

They did not talk much after that, but Kira began to wonder at her mother’s health and whether perhaps the illness had spread to her.  Finally she was well enough one day to get out of bed, and she forthwith told Mother that she should be in hers.  Mother wouldn’t listen, but when the doctor came in the next day to check on Kira, she asked him to see if Mother was well, and he agreed—Mother had caught Kira’s illness—the grippe, he said, though that was rare in the summer.

There was nothing to do, nothing to think, even, for things needed to be managed.  Kira did not have to cancel any appointments, of course—those had already been cut off by her illness, but that meant that she had to keep the garden—which was looking rather neglected—going, for the sake of coin, and do all the cooking and cleaning, and look after Mother, and she was too busy to mope about the contract or the cutting or anything.  She had not realised how much effort Mother had spent in looking after her when she was too young and weak to help out much.  No wonder she can’t understand why I need books! she thought, when, one night, she finally had the time to slip into an exhausted sleep.  Her foot began to pain her.

Fortunately, the doctor stopped by, and told her that the grippe was going around the whole town, if not the Farthing, and that it was nothing to worry about unless you were in poor health already.  He could not stay long, for the pest had pulled him out of retirement for a week, but he wrote out detailed advice for her, and Mother’s fever broke within a day.  Recovery after that was slow, but steady, and Kira could not brook the possibility of giving less than her all, even if it meant losing hours of sleep just to hold her mother’s hand.  Once, when she came back in from weeding the garden, she found her asleep, tangled in her sheets with her arm draped over her pillow.  Kira gently tucked her back in, and when Mother woke up and tried to get out of bed, she told her that she had everything under control.  She was afraid, truth be told, that Mother would try to get up and make herself useful before she was truly well, for Kira herself had done so plenty of times and had to be sent back to bed, exhausted; but perhaps Mother’s greater years had given her a measure of wisdom.

A week later, Dr. Grimwig came back in to tell both Proudfoots that they could go back to living the way they were used to, as long as both of them—and here he gave a protracted look at Kira, who was feeling a little peaked—didn’t overtax themselves.  He took especial care to listen to Kira’s heart.

So, slowly, things went back to normal, or at least what Mother would consider normal, for Kira durst not start with the storytelling again for safety’s sake.  But Mother never asked her again if there were anything else that Kira had been “up to” behind her back.

In a week’s time, the garden was back to where it had been, and that was well, for they were running short on money.  There had been no time to run into town and pick up the help they had from the Proudfoots, and the mystery hobbit’s gift was both late and less than what they had expected.

 

*  *  *

Just as things were settling into a comfortable rhythm again, Mother took Kira into the storage room in Michel Delving.  She walked to the back, to the old dusty window, and threw it open. The sudden rush of air stirred dust that danced in the sun, which poured into the old room unobscured. The smell of decay was chased away by the summer air.

“What are you doing?” said Kira.

“I was thinking,” said Mother, “that these old relics have mouldered away in here long enough.”

“Mum!”

“Most of them probably wouldn’t serve as mathoms anymore, but maybe—”

“Mother, please don’t; I know they mean so much to you. I shouldn’t have said what I said, about you and Dad. I’m sorry I did.”

Mother let her hand rest on the old pitchfork lined up against the wall. “I haven’t moved on,” she said, and she looked very old. “I don’t think anyone can, after a loss like that. But there’s no use keeping perfectly good stuff locked away when other folk, who aren’t weighed down by all the sad memories, might be in need of it. And if I can’t bear looking at the reminders, every day, why should I even have them in the first place?”

Kira went to her mother, drew her arms around her, and kissed her on the brow. “You don’t need to do this, you know.”

“No,” said Mother, “of course I don’t need to, but I ought to, and I ought to have a long while back.” She looked over the room once and nodded. “Anything you want to keep for yourself you may, and you may keep it here or at home. You’re his child, too, after all.”

Kira looked at all the things piled in the room with trepidation. “Do I have to do it all now?”

“Of course not, dear. But perhaps we could get started today.”

“I’ll have to think things over—maybe over luncheon?”

 “All right; we’ll come back in the afternoon.”

“Thank you.”

On their way out of the tunnels, Kira said, “I hope you can bear looking at me.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You’re the reminder I kept.”

 

*  *  *

 

Luncheon was on the green: a loaf of bread, partly hollowed and filled with soft cheese; summer sausage; and hard-cooked eggs.  While they were eating Kira kept her eyes on her mother.  She hated to think that she had been the cause of this, but she could come to no other conclusion.  “We’re not going to sell them, are we?  I mean, the things we don’t keep.”

Mother shook her head.  “No, that wouldn’t be right.  I was planning on going over to the Town Hole, while you were looking through everything, to ask after any families in need.”

“And the other things—the things that are too personal—maybe those should go back to some of the Proudfoots?”

Mother pressed her lips together.  “I suppose there wouldn’t be any other place for them.”  She paused to take a drink of water.  “It seems odd, making peace with them after all these years.”

“If it would help you feel better, I’ll take them for myself, and then give them away.  You wouldn’t have to see them.”

Mother shrugged.

“You know,” said Kira, hesitant even to broach the subject, “Aunt Foxglove had a bit of a different story as to why Dad died.”

“Of course she does.  She’s a Proudfoot.”

Kira pressed on.  “She said that Grandfather Proudfoot had wanted him to go into the law, and that the farm was his idea, not Grandfather’s.”

“Not so,” said Mother.  “He wanted to set up an orchard, and a cider press.  Your grandfather said ‘no.’”

“No?  But I thought they had a press…”

“Yes, and your grandfather didn’t want to fund another.  He wanted Lagro to stay out in Westmarch, where he could be under his father’s thumb.  But Lagro wanted to leave—so his father told him, ‘the farm in Westfarthing, or the press here.’  He knew life out here would be hard, much harder on Lagro than I had ever dreamed.  But in the end, there was only one choice that Lagro could make, and Grandfather knew it.”

“What if he didn’t?”

“Then,” said Mother, “your grandfather did not know his own son.”

After they were finished eating, Kira walked back to the storage room while Mother went to Town Hole.  She sat on the dusty old bed for a moment, resting her chin on her fist.  Then she got up, and started to look around.

She was keeping the spoons, that was for sure.  They were valuable—but more importantly, they had her father’s initials engraved on them.  There was a clock, too, but it was stopped and she did not know how to start it again.  Maybe one of the Proudfoots would know—in which case they could certainly keep it.  The vase, too, would be nice.

She began to look at the crockery.  It was the same stuff they had at home; it was just that with only two in the house they wouldn’t need so much of it.  That, then, was something to give away, but Kira began to wonder what would happen if she ever had to start her own household.  If she ever got married, and the two of them had to set out on their own much the same way her parents had, what would they do then?

Kira sighed.  She’d weed that row when she came to it.

She began to go through the drawers in the chest that stood against the wall opposite the bed.  The bottom three rows were all linens, but the top one was filled with mathoms that told a story she could not hear.  A strange looking rock or three, a few handkerchiefs, a bit of ribbon, a wooden hedgehog, and—impossible!  She reached to the back of the drawer and pulled it out.  A book?

It fit easily in her hand.  She cracked back the old leather and read the first lines, written in a large and clumsy hand in nut-brown ink.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               September 12, 1490

 

It is five o’clock and the sun is getting in my eyes.  Mum and Fox came in with tea at four, and I got them to open the window glass.  It smells like hay and sunshine, which makes me feel a little better.

But a week ago, I would have been out there.

I don’t understand.  It was just a little spell.

“Kira?”

Kira snapped the book shut and turned to the doorway.  “Mum?”

“I got a few names from Mr. Grimwig the clerk—the Burlytoes out in Tooting lost their things in a fire last month…”

“Why didn’t you tell me Father had a diary?”

“What?”

Kira held out the book.

“I’m sorry, Kira.”  She walked to her and took the book from her hands, flipped through it, and handed it back to her.  “He didn’t write in it very often, and I confess I’d quite forgotten about it!”

“I should have liked to have seen it sooner.”

“Well.  You may keep it now.  Did you find anything else?”

And Kira showed her the things she had set aside, and the things that she thought ought to go to one of the Proudfoots.  “Do you know what exactly it is that the family needs?”

“No,” said Mother, “we’ll have to go visit them.  I suppose that means we should limit ourselves to mathoms today.  Did you give any thought to the toy chest?”

“Oh!” said Kira.  “You wanted me to have those, didn’t you?”

“Eventually, yes, unless—”

“Then I’m taking them.”  She paused.  “We should probably wait for the movers for that, though.”

“Right.”  Mother nodded, then looked absently over the whole room.

“I wasn’t entirely sure about the rest of the things in this drawer, here,” said Kira.  There sat the rocks, and the handkerchiefs.  Mother reached inside to pull them out.  “The rocks don’t matter,” she said.  “I think he had those from when he was a child.  The handkerchiefs can go to someone who needs them.  And…”  She picked up the ribbon and rubbed it between her finger and thumb.  She pressed her lips together as she looked down at it.  “I think I’ll hang onto this a little longer,” and she put the ribbon in her pocket.  “I suppose that’s a good enough start.”

Kira nodded, and they walked home together in silence.

When she got to her room, Kira pulled out the diary and continued her reading.  There was another entry on the same page.

                                                                                                                                                                               September 13

 

I suppose I ought to explain how I came by this.

Well, five—six, now—days ago I was outside, running, and I felt a little dizzy and short of breath, and the next thing I knew I was in bed being coddled by Mother and Father.  It’s not the first time I’ve been coddled.  But most times I actually remember getting sick before I’m coddled.

Which doesn’t explain how I came by this.  Polo gave me this diary so I wouldn’t get very bored.  Because nothing says ‘boring’ like a book full of blank pages.  But that is Polo for you.  He was always a little bit daft.

But when you are bored you do whatever you have on hand, and I have this diary on hand now, so I’m writing in it.

The doctor says my heart is weak and I had best take care of it.  Mother is taking that to mean “lie down in bed for a week.”  It has almost been a week.  I had better be let out soon.

And the next page over:

                                                                                                                                                                               September 14

 

To-day I got in trouble.  It’s a week since my spell, so I got up, but Mum said it hasn’t been a week since the doctor visited.

I felt a little dizzy when I got up, but not too bad.

Anyhow, it’s back to bed for me.  Mother says she feels bad for me, but she’s the one keeping me here.  I don’t know why.

 

She closed the book again.  Mum had said she’d inherited her father’s bad health, but it had never really occurred to her that he would have experienced the same things—long hours cooped up inside with nothing to do and no reason why.  Suddenly she was filled with a yearning—so intense she normally associated it with the Histories—to run back in time, catch him, hold on to him, tell him that she understood him and he understood her…

He understood her…

He would have understood her if he’d lived to see her, all grown up and almost-woman, with a hole in her heart filled with not-quite-belonging.  Hadn’t Aunt Foxglove said he’d hated life at High Hole?

Kira sighed.  She did not hate life here, in the quiet hole and garden on the White Downs that her parents had wanted.  And he may have been lettered, but her father was no reader.

The late July sun was pouring heat from the sky.  Kira walked out of her room, out the front door, and to the well.  The sun had baked the well stones warm, and Kira sat down on one, alone to her thoughts.

 

*  *  *

 

The next day was tea with Daffodil—the first tea Kira had had with her since Mother recovered.

“So, you look better,” said Daffodil, once most of the eating was over.

“Not about to collapse with exhaustion, you mean.”

“I was worried, you know.  Everyone knows what happened to your father.”

“The doctor doesn’t think it was all overwork,” said Kira.  “I don’t think I was in any real danger.  How about all of you?”

“We’ve been fine the past ten days.  Roly and Floy got ill around the same time, and they got over it quickly.”

“Well, Mother doesn’t seem to be out of it any the worse for wear,” said Kira.  Except…  “Actually, we’re clearing out the mathom room now.”

“What?  Why?”

“I think I had a few choice words for Mother… I shouldn’t have said them, but she’s made up her mind now.  We’re going to give everything practical that we can away.  There’s a family that lost their things in a fire.”

“I suppose that’s good.  She’s dwelt on her grief so long, I think anything that could help her feel better—”

“I don’t know if it will, though!”

“Maybe not now, but surely it’s better, in the long run, than sitting around for years wishing things could be different.”

“Maybe,” said Kira.  “Mother got Kerry and Sandra to cut me.”

Daffodil’s jaw dropped.  “Your bookish friends?”

“I found out just before I got ill.  I would have told you sooner, only everything else…”

“How did she manage to do that?  One of them’s the Master’s son, right?”

“I said I wanted to go to their wedding more than anything,” said Kira.  “So I get to see them married in September.  But that’s it.”

“Kira, I’m so sorry!”

Kira shrugged.  “They went along with it.”

Daffodil stood, went behind Kira’s chair, and wrapped her arms around her friend’s shoulders.  “You must tell me whenever these terrible things happen.  It isn’t right to keep all of that cooped up inside you.”

“I’ve tried,” said Kira.

But she did not tell Daffodil about the diary, and when Tom came by the next day to deliver the manure, she was even closer around him than normal, to the point that he up and demanded why she was being so short with him.

“Please leave me alone, Tom,” she said; “I’m feeling remarkably tweenish today.”

And he did.

That gave Kira pause when she stopped to think about it.

After supper, in the waning sunlight, she finally had the heart to open her father’s diary again and read.

                                                                                                                                                                               October 17, 1499

 

Goodness!  I had quite forgotten about this.

Not really much more to say than that, is there?

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 20

 

Yes, I’m ill again, and apparently this time I’ve gotten bored enough to whip this old thing out.

I didn’t—we didn’t—understand it before, but now that the doctor’s involved we do.  He comes in and checks on me every few months, whether I’m sick or not.

My heart’s not well—that’s why I get ill more often, longer, for no reason at all sometimes.  And no, there’s nothing we can do about it, except eat well and rest.  Tho’ the doctor’s idea of well is hardly the same as mine!

So here I am.  Again.

I wish I could go outside.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 22

 

Joy.  Father has taken it on himself to teach me Deportment.  As if we haven’t been taught it all our lives!

________________________________

 

Well, there is a lot more to it than what we’ve been taught, apparently.  Atop courtesy, there is tact, which involves being a good deal more devious than just plain old being courteous would suggest.  Atop reading, and writing, and ciphering, there is managing, which is using reading, writing, and ciphering to get other people to do what you want them to.  And there are proper forms of writing letters, and proper forms of writing other things, and even though I know it’s the way things are done I can’t get a straight answer on why they are done this way!

Father says he wants me to go into the law, or into clerking, or something else like that.  He wants to give me skills that fit ‘with the limits of my heart.’  Truth is my heart isn’t terribly happy with forms, or with getting other people to do what you want them to do, or with being devious.  But if the doctor’s right I may not have a choice.

Oh, how wretched this is!

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 25

 

Sancho came and sat with me today, and we talked a bit about Dad and his Deportment.  Sancho told me not to mind Dad—he’s not singling me out, and it’s something we all have to go through.

“Grin and bear it, lad,” he said, “it seems like a waste of time now, but it’s stuff you’ll need to know.”

“But why?” I said.  “Why can’t we just tell people what we think of them up front?”

He laughed at that.  “That wouldn’t be very kind.”

“Then we should be kinder!”  I couldn’t think of anything to say after that, so I said, “There are too many rules.”

To which he replied, “I know, and I hated learning them, too.”  He shrugged at that.  I don’t think Sancho knows why there are so many rules either.  He said we just have to live with them.

It isn’t fair.  He doesn’t have a heart that keeps him at desk jobs.

 

________________________________

 

I complained to Sancho this evening, and he told me he doesn’t have a choice, either.  He’s the eldest, so he has to inherit all our holdings.  Apparently, Dad is setting him on all these accounts—rents paid by tenants, wages given to day labourers, expenses for the harvest home.

So I thought it over, and realised—yes, that is far worse than what I may have to deal with, and I told him so.  Sancho laughed and told me he’d be more than happy to let me do it once I came of age, if I couldn’t find any other suitable line of work.  So that’s a comfort.  I think I’d rather be clerking for my brother than lawyering on my own.

But both of those seem more suited to Polo than to me, really.  He actually likes words and numbers.

 

                                                                                                                                                                               October 26

 

The doctor thinks I’ll be well enough to get up tomorrow.  Hurrah!

I hope it hasn’t gotten terribly cold out in the meantime.

Fox came to see me today and she picked me a lovely posy.  She said I should press one of the flowers in my diary—she does that all the time, ever since she got hers.  I’m afraid Fox is a lot more regular in writing in her diary than I am.  She also told me to see that I write more often.

 

Kira turned the page; it was a bit stiffer than the others.  There was no flower pressed in it, but she could see the outline of green leaves and blue petals where it had once lain.  The page after it was dated five years later, so she put the diary away.

 

*  *  *

Next morning, she and Mother went in to town again.  After talking things over they had decided to write to the family in Tooting first, to learn when would be a suitable time to call.  Kira had also decided to write to her aunt and uncles to see which mathoms, if any, they wanted.  Only Master Goodbody was in to take letters down, though, so Kira had to sit and listen to Mother try and word an offer of charity tactfully.  When it was Kira’s turn, the clerk smoothly took out another sheet of paper, and winked at her, so quickly that she half thought it was a trick of her eyes.  Staying calm, she began to dictate the letter to her aunt.

About halfway through, Mother rose and told her that since Kira would clearly be a while, she may as well purchase some necessities.  As soon as the door closed behind her, Kira opened her mouth to continue the dictation, but Master Goodbody stayed her with his hand.

“If you please, Miss Kira, I have something for you,” he said.

“I was wondering,” said Kira.  “What is it?”

“A letter,” he said, “and a very curious one at that.”  He walked back to the pile of unsorted mail and picked up a letter sitting neatly beside it.  “It came with express instructions for the office to hold it for you, until you stop by, and then to deliver it to you in person and alone.”

Kira took the letter from his outstretched hand; all over the back in very large red letters were the instructions, along with the words “VERY IMPORTANT.”  She did not recognise the hand.

“It’s very fortunate that I’ve done business with you so often; otherwise I shouldn’t have known who to look for!”

Kira nodded.  There was a glint of curiosity in Master Goodbody’s eye.

“Well,” she said, “thank you for looking out for me.  I’m sure this letter’s important.  In fact,” she added, thinking, “you had better hold any letters that come in and are addressed to me—just to me, mind, not to my mum.  Unless they have the Warden’s or the Master’s or the Mayor’s seal on them, or something.”

“All right,” said Master Goodbody.

“And I hardly know how you got to be clerk if you’re this nosy about other people’s affairs!”

“I’m not nosy!”

Kira slid her thumb under the seal of her acquisition.  “Did you steam this open?”

“Maybe?”

She glared at him, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a coin.  “Satisfy your own curiosity if you must, but keep your judgements to yourself.  If I find out you’ve blabbed my secrets—any of them—to anyone, I’ll report you to the Mayor and you’ll find yourself out of a situation.”  She placed the coin in his palm.

“It was only a little…”

“To you, yes, but to me it’s a lot.”

“All right.”

“I promise I’ll tip you well if you hold my letters for me.”

“And if I don’t blab.”

“Yes.  Now, can I see where I left off so Mother doesn’t come back to find us bickering?”

As it turned out, when Kira was finished and the letter safely stowed between her bodice and her shift, Mother was waiting outside.  “All finished, then?” she said.

Kira nodded and they went home.

All through the walk her heart was thumping, though it was just a letter, after all.  She found herself wishing she had read the letter in the Post Office, or at least asked Master Goodbody who wrote it, or something.  Mother asked her if all was well.  Kira said that the fine weather had distracted her.

When at last she was home and alone in her room, Kira took the letter out, opened it, and flicked her eyes down to the bottom of the page.  “Oh,” she said.

 

July 3, 1552

 

My Dear Kira,

 

As my entire family seems to have gone mad, it falls to me to attempt to restore some sanity to your life and assure you that I, at least, still care about you.  Father told me all about the so-called agreement he and the Warden and your mum came to.  And I think it is utterly vile.  Honestly—and I mean no disrespect to my pig-headed brother and his intended—no amount of weddings is worth cutting a person for no reason other than our so-called corrupting influence on you—and that all on your mother’s word and not ours!  And of course, Kerry would be an ass and go along with it, whether he agrees with it or not.  To be quite frank, sometimes I have to wonder how it is that we’re related.

Well.  Luckily for you, I am not my brother, and I don’t give a fig what my father or your idiot mother says—I won’t cut you, and I will write to you as often as I please, and I don’t care if I get in trouble or not—which I won’t, because I won’t get caught—ha!  And since I’m apparently the only one in either my family or the Warden’s with the nerve to keep in touch with you, I suppose I must tell you all that is going on.

Well, I shall try my best.  I am now somewhat on parole, after that incident at the races, but Father is still very upset with me (I don’t think my telling him what was what about that agreement helped!).  He has told me No Riding for a month, and unfortunately the stablemaster and his sons are in on it, and none of them will budge!  I should have done what you did with Nienna and kept a pony out somewhere secret, but then we have so many more people out here than you do in the White Downs that I’d probably get found out sooner or later.

Mother was furious when she found out, of course.  I think she despairs of me.

Anyhow, I don’t regret a minute of it, and I suppose I shall have to grin and bear my punishment.  The trouble, however, does not seem to have limited my number of suitors.  I have already heard several heartstricken complaints that I was not allowed to any of the parties on Midyear’s, and I have had two visitors already since.  I have sent them away as I am Indisposed at the moment—but I do hope they’ll come back in a month’s time.  So I, at least, am stuck here scheming, and trying somewhat not to be bored!  Kerry told me if I’m really at a loss, I ought to try my hand at copying one of the Magnificent’s linguistic texts, but that stuff is so dry!

Kerry survived all the wedding planning, I am pleased to say, but I think he aged at least three years in the process.  I told him that if he could survive this, Mastering Buckland would be like filling in the corners.  He did not seem to find that particularly funny.

Sandra, on the other hand, was weathering things a lot better when I got to see her—which was not for very long.  I was a bit surprised at the time, but now I think she must just be grateful that they’re finally coming to some decisions.  The wedding’s only three months away, after all, and she’s had to listen to her mum nattering away about it since Yule!

Everyone else here is well, except—oh!  Kerry told me how you’d caught ill!  It sounded dreadful, and I hope you’ve pulled through it all right.  Anyhow, one of my cousins caught it, only we didn’t know he’d caught it till we’d all already come back, and now the doctor’s up to his neck in grippe.  How terrible a summer pest is, and especially at the Fair!  I wonder how it was that you caught it?  At any rate we are all trying to stay well here.  I should like to think that if I were to have caught anything I’d have done it at the Fair—but then I was stuck in our tents most of the time.

Do keep well, and see if you can manage to send word back to me!  I will keep writing to you as long as things are interesting over here—and you know that will be as long as I live here!  And tell your fool mother off for me; the way she’s trying to cage you up makes my blood boil!  I assure you that Kerry and Father have not been hearing the end of it from me!

 

                                                                                                                                                                   Your ever-loving and devoted cousin,

                                                                                                                                                                   Merina Brandybuck

                                                                                                                                                                   Hoyden and Troublemaker at Large

 

P.S.  I never thanked you for putting Nienna in the stables over the fair.  It was pleasant getting to see her again.

 

P.P.S.  I am going to put instructions on this letter so that the Post holds it in the Michel Delving office for you to pick up.  Let me know if it works.

 

P.P.P.S.  Kerry is beginning to look at me suspiciously, for I never write letters.  Perhaps the drawing room was not a good place to start this?

 

P.P.P.P.S.  Maybe I shall start doing some copying.  It should give me an excuse to write to you with no pesky elder brothers!

Kira reread the letter once, then twice.  “It’s not that simple,” she said.  “It never is.  And she’s not an idiot, nor a fool; she just—  Try living my life for half a month, Merina, and then you might understand.”  The letter fell from her hands, tumbled down her skirt, and settled to mingle with the dust on the floor.  Kerry was not an ass, either—well, perhaps he was, but that was a part of him, and you couldn’t wish all his respectability away without wishing for him to be, in some way, other than who he was.  Just as she couldn’t wish that Mother were reasonable… not really, anyway.

She would send word back to Merina—she had to, really, for Merina was trying to be kind, in her own way, but Kira did not know how much she truly wanted to hear from her, especially if she kept carrying on in this vein.  It was all fine and well for Merina to say she wouldn’t get caught, but the most she would receive was a slap on the wrist, whilst Kira…  Briefly she thought of turning the letter over to Mother, telling her that someone at least wasn’t keeping up an end of the bargain.  But as soon as the thought came to her she dismissed it.  The Brandybucks were still her friends, even if she couldn’t talk to them, and she would not hurt them.

She placed the letter under her bed with the others.

 

*  *  *

 

Two days later, Kira and her mother got a reply from the Burlytoes, asking them if they might come by to call on Thursday the third of August.  It being a suitable date, they sent a reply back through the posthobbit letting the family know that they would call sometime in the afternoon.  They worked well into the evening on that day, and the next, so that they could spend most of Thursday travelling to Tooting and back.  The village was a good four hours’ walk north of Michel Delving: not so far that they needed to borrow a pony and cart, but enough to take up most of the day, even for summer.  Wednesday evening was spent baking and bundling enough food for mealtimes.

After a hearty breakfast, they were off.  It was still early enough that the dew got into Kira’s fur and cooled her foot, and she had to place her crutch carefully so it wouldn’t slip on the slick grass.  A mile north of Delving the sun had dried off the dew, and Kira was in the territory of her storytelling work.  Quickly she started telling Mother about her spice seeds, which she had finally managed to plant while they were waiting for the Burlytoes’ letter, hoping that an intense conversation would forestall any farmers’ attempts to speak with her.  She could only hope that there were no children about.

“I’ve done some in sun,” she said, “and others in shade, and I’ve planted them at different depths, to see which ones do best.”

Mother remarked that this may not have been particularly wise, as even if you followed all the rules for each plant they could still fail, and if you didn’t have enough do well you could lose the whole crop—and all the seeds.

“If they are seeds,” said Kira.  “But if I plant them all too deep they could all fail.  I’d just like to see which ones come up for now, though.  I doubt there’s enough of a growing season left for these ones, and I’ve kept half the seeds back.”

“You will have to let me know how it goes,” said Mother, and Kira knew that she did not wholly approve of the endeavour.  Talk turned to the garden in general, and once the land began to grow unfamiliar, with no risk of worrisome interruptions, Kira was happy to let it die.

The rest of the trip was spent in silence and song.  Kira remembered the first time—on a cart trip to her cousin Delphie’s wedding in Buckland—that she mentioned that some of the songs were written out in the book she’d read.  Mother had looked at her with wonder on her face and asked what the point was in writing down a song that everyone already knew.  Kira’d had no good answer for that at the time, but upon a reread she realised that some of the words were different, here and there—due to the differences of space or time, she supposed.  It was strange—when she read the bits and pieces of the Downfall that were set in the Shire she liked to think of the Travellers as living in the same land as she.  But of course they hadn’t had canals or Lockholes or the mallorn then, and there was no Westmarch and her own home had been full of Proudfoots.

If Frodo hadn’t written it all down, she wouldn’t have noticed.

After several hours’ walking, and a number of judicious breaks along the way, they reached the small village of Tooting.  A quick enquiry about the Burlytoes led them to a little smial in one of the hills north of town, with a new wooden door and oilcloth windows.  Mother knocked on the door while Kira stood a respectful step behind.  It was opened by a hobbit who looked about fifty, and behind him Kira could see a slip of a girl, perhaps fifteen, holding the hand of a younger brother who was very clearly staring at them.

“Do I have the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Burlytoe?” said Mother.

The hobbit nodded.  “Are you Mrs. Proudfoot?”

“Yes, and this is my daughter, Kira.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Mr. Burlytoe, nodding twice more.  “Do—will you step inside?”

“Thank you—do come in, Kira.”

Kira stepped in and shut the door behind her.

She did not quite know what to expect, but she realised she had expected worse than what she saw.  The delving was clearly new, but the entire inside, from ceiling to floor, was outfitted in little brown blobby bricks, and the floor was strewn with rag rugs.

“This is quite a neat little hole for one so new,” said Mother.

“Ah!” said Mr. Burlytoe.  “Well, you see, after the accident, the whole village set a week’s end aside, and they worked all the way through to dig us this.  It’s a bit faster work than a cottage.  We tried to help out, but no one would let us, not even to carry any bricks over.  Mr. Toddle, you see, he’s a bricklayer, and those are quite rare, as you know, but his grand-dad picked up the trade from watching—oh, but here I go talking your ear off again!  Mrs. Proudfoot, may I introduce you to my wife, Mrs. Burlytoe, and Salva, dearest, this is Mrs. Proudfoot, and her daughter, Kira.”

Kira murmured a quick greeting to Mrs. Burlytoe, who had a baby in her arms, then cast a questioning look at her mother—she did not know if she was supposed to stay for the grown-up talk or not.

“All right, then,” said Mr. Burlytoe, “why don’t we—”  He looked from room to room—there were only two in the hole, and there was no door between them.

“Mrs. Burlytoe,” said Kira, “would you like me to take the children outside for a bit, so you and your husband can talk with my mum?”

“Oh!  Thank you, dear,” and she walked over and handed the baby (who had been looking a little restless) into Kira’s arms.  For a moment she stared blankly at it, the same stunned look on her face that she imagined all fathers had when presented with their firstborn child.  Then, shrugging to herself, she shifted the babe to her left arm and carefully left the smial.  Behind her, she could hear Mr. Burlytoe instructing the lass and her brother to follow her outside.

Once there, she gingerly sat down and looked at the baby.  She had dealt with faunts before, but infants…

“You can set him down, you know.”  Kira looked up.  The girl was standing in front of her, brother still in hand.  “He’ll crawl, but not very far.  At least, I can catch up with him.”

“Oh.  Thank you.”  She set the baby down in her lap; he almost immediately wriggled out and began investigating the grass.  “What’s your name?” said Kira.

“Celandine—Dina for short.  And Baby is Aldo, and Tam is in the middle.”  Tam turned and buried his face in Dina’s skirt.  “He’s very shy.”

“I’m pleased to meet all of you.”  Kira paused.  “Were you able to get any toys out from the fire?”

“I got my favourite dolly,” said Dina, “but that was it.  Tam didn’t think of grabbing anything until it was too late.  But we have plenty of toys now.  Everyone wanted to give us one after the fire.”

“Yes,” said Kira, “but I’ll bet it’s not the same.”

Dina shrugged.

“Well, if you’d like to have any of mine, I’ve outgrown all of them.  But it sounds as if you don’t need any.”

“No, but thanks.”  The girl sat down.  “Why did you want to help us, anyhow?  You’re not from Tooting.”

“Well,” said Kira.  “We have a lot more things than we need, and we wanted to help someone with them.”

“Most of the help’s already done, unless you have furnishings.  Those are dearer to come by.”

“We have a few,” said Kira.

“Why would you have more furnishings than you need?”

“Because it’s just my mum and me living at my home, and not the family she wanted to have.”

“Oh.  What about your daddy?”

“He died, a long time ago.”

“Oh.”  Dina paused.  The baby was now crawling behind her, so Kira had to crane her head to keep an eye on him.  “I think I’d rather lose my house than my daddy.”

Kira nodded.  “Well, he died before I was born, so I don’t know what it would have been like to have him at all.”

“I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.”

“I don’t know either.”

Kira stood up and went after Aldo before he got too far afield, scooping him up and back into the safety of her arms.

“Miss Kira?” said Dina.

“Yes?”

“If your daddy died so long ago, why didn’t you give his things to other folks then?”

“My mother misses him,” said Kira.  “I don’t quite know why she changed her mind now, but I know it means we get to help you out instead.”

“I’m not that fond of getting help,” said Dina.  “Not anymore.  I want things to get better enough that we can help other people.”

“Me, too,” said Kira.  She sighed.  “Let’s talk about something more cheerful.  Now, I know from experience that most children your age think they’re too old for them, but do you like the Travellers’ Tales?”

“Not really,” said Dina, “but Tam loves them.”

A half an hour later Mother and the Burlytoes came outside and invited them all back in for tea (which the Burlytoes insisted on, even though there weren’t quite enough chairs and Mrs. Proudfoot insisted that they needed nothing), and after much tea and much talk, they took their leave so as to get back home while there was still light.

“You looked quite happy with those children,” Mother said as they left the hills of Tooting behind.  “I think you’ll be a good mum someday—probably a sight better than I’ve been for you.”

“No—you’ve been a great mum,” said Kira.  “All the more so because you’ve had to work, and be more of a dad sometimes since he can’t be here with us.”

“Kira, you don’t think… you don’t think there’s any way that somehow, he’s still…”  Mother sounded worried.

“I think,” said Kira, “that folk who have died stay just a little bit alive, as long as there are people to remember them.”  To think anything more than that was folly, and though her books sometimes brushed at more, the whole idea was so incredible that every time Kira came close to thinking about it her mind skirted round it and fled back to the comfort of reality.  “And we’ll always remember Dad, won’t we?”

Mother placed her arm around Kira’s waist.  “Yes, my lass, we certainly will.”  She sighed.  “They didn’t need much, since the whole town pitched in to help them.  Only furniture—the whole lot of them are sleeping on the floor right now, and that’ll get downright uncomfortable come wintertime, if they don’t already have to deal with bugs and vermin.”

Kira said nothing.

“We’re giving them the bed.”

Kira looked at her, mouth half-open in astonishment.  “But, Mum—”

“I don’t know if I ever told you this, but you were born in that bed.  They managed to get me inside in time, though really I don’t remember too much of that day.”

“Are you sure?”

“They need it, and we don’t, and honestly I’ll be glad if that old thing can make some memories that are happy.”

And Kira did not have the heart to question her any further.

 

*  *  *

Mother did not call for Kira until ten o’clock on Friday—presumably to let her sleep in, but Kira was awake at seven.  Idly she pulled out her writing, and began to practice again, but her efforts were even messier than normal.  The episode with the Burlytoe children had reminded her of how much she loved the Histories, and how much more she loved sharing them, though it had now been a month since she’d had the chance to do it properly.  And Mother had not yet caught her out on that front, and the pressing need to make things known outweighed even the worst consequences.  She would have to start up her business again, and at any rate she needed to get Nienna out from the Delving stables.  She did not think she could afford to board her any longer.  So the next Saturday, when Mother gave her the afternoon off, Kira told her she’d be out walking, and set out for town.

The first stop was the post office—she’d given Merina’s letter a good deal of thought, and she knew exactly what her reply needed to say.  Master Goodbody was in, fortunately, and the first thing he did after saying hullo was hand her a scrap of paper.

“Eh?” she said.

“Postboy was going to give you a message two days ago, but he stopped by here before he headed south and I got him to write it down instead.

“Oh,” said Kira.  “Thank you.  That was very—considerate of you.”  She looked at the paper.

Mr. & Mrs. Twofoot’s children recovering from grippe—they would much like it if you could stop by and mind them in the near future as the farm needs work.

 

“Well,” she said to herself, “considering that this was one of the families I wanted to get in touch with, I daresay that’s a bit of good news.”  She turned the scrap over and handed it back to Master Goodbody.  “Could you make a note that I’ll call on the eighth?  And that I’ve been through the grippe myself so I shouldn’t catch it from the children.”

Master Goodbody sighed.  “This would be much easier if you yourself could write, you know.”

“I know,” said Kira.  “And believe me, it’s not for lack of trying.  Has anything else arrived for me?”

“Not that I know of.”

“All right, then,” said Kira, and she took a deep breath.  “I have a letter to dictate, for Merina Brandybuck of Brandy Hall—and please get it as word-for-word as you can.”

 

                                                                                                                                                                   August 5, 1552

                                                                                                                                                                  

Dear Merina,

 

Thank you for thinking of me and taking the time to write to me.  Obviously I have gotten over the grippe well, but Mother caught it after me so I didn’t even know you had written me until the twenty-ninth.  I hope you didn’t catch it as it went through the Hall; this one put me out for a week.

I hope you have had the time to think over some of the things you put down in your letter.  I certainly have, so I will tell you just once—you do not make my situation any easier when you call my mother names.

In fact, it would probably be better if you simply didn’t write to me altogether.  I know you do not care what would happen to you if you were to be found out, but think then of the rest of your family, and the Fairbairns—and me.  Truth be told, I have the most to lose, and I hope you will not call me a coward for asking you not to engage in any behaviour that could get me in trouble.

I know this is not to your liking.  Please do not take this as a sign of cooling affection for you or yours!  I wish I were as free or as bold to act as you are, but I am not.

I hope that you will think of me as often and as fondly as I do of you, and I hope to see you at the wedding.

 

                                                                                                                                                                   Sincerely,

                                                                                                                                                                   Kira

“Thank you,” said Kira, when she was done.  She swallowed once, paid Master Goodbody the fare, and left the shop.  She had done it—she had cut Merina, and she told herself it was as much for her own good as Kira’s.  But somewhere beneath all that practicality and pragmatics was a small part of her that wondered if she’d done the thing because she thought Mother was right.  Perhaps that was why she felt so low-spirited as she walked to the stables to see Nienna again for the first time in over a month.

The pony still recognised her—that was a start—but she did not look terribly happy.  Quite fit, though—she’d given the stablehobbit permission to take such a fine beast for rides over the winter and once he realised the emergency he must have succumbed to the temptation of riding such a fine pony.  After a quarter hour of coddling (she’d brought a carrot for the occasion), Kira told Nienna that she’d return promptly, and went out looking for the stablehobbit to settle the fare.

He was not near the stables, and she did not know where he lived, so Kira took a guess and made her way to the Oak Barrel Inn.  As it turned out, he was not inside enjoying himself, but was walking a pony from the inn in the direction of the stables.

“Hullo!” said Kira, coming up to him.

“Kira Proudfoot!” he said.  “You’re a sight for sore eyes.  And light pockets.”

Kira blushed.  “I’m terribly sorry about that.  I caught the grippe at the end of the fair, and my mum caught it right after me.  I simply haven’t had the time to check on Nienna till now.”

“No mind, no mind.”  He continued on his way back to the stables, and Kira walked alongside him.  “You weren’t the only one.  There was a gentlehobbit as caught ill just at the end of the fair and had to stay at the inn for four more days before he felt well enough to ride back home.  And we have a good history anyhow, and you have a good pony, and I figured if something truly awful happened I’d catch wind of it.”

“I’ll pay as much as I can now,” said Kira.  “But my own business has suffered this past month, and I may not have enough to pay you in full.  I promise I’ll pay you extra when I get the chance—after all, I had no real way of knowing what you’d do when I didn’t pick her up when we’d planned.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to turn her out.  It’d be a real crime, aside from the fact that she’s yours.  And you, my lass, are in very special circumstances.”

“Thank you, all the same.”

“Now,” he said, “I’ll have to get this new customer settled first, but after that, why don’t we talk over the bill?”

Kira helped him stable the pony, and after that emptied the contents of her purse before him.  It was not enough, but he insisted that she keep two farthings back, in case of emergencies.  Nienna seemed eager to show her steps as Kira rode her out of the stables.  She stopped at the Tunnellies and the Grimwigs to arrange to call the next week, and rode Nienna back to the abandoned cottage and returned home.

The next day Kira had to go into town again.  Mother had paid for two carters to move the bed and other sundries to the Burlytoes, but they needed some additional direction and hands—though Kira couldn’t be of much use for the latter.  So well into the afternoon, they shifted things around in the old mathom room until the carters could take the bed apart and remove it, piece by piece, from the storage tunnels.  After that came a small table, a chest, and half the dishes.  When, at three o’clock, they watched the cart pull out into the road, Kira went back inside to look at the now-skeletal storeroom.  They’d be able to rent a smaller room at the end of the month, and soon that particular tunnel would house someone else’s memories.  As the door shut behind her she wondered if they’d done the right thing.

On the eighth, Kira rode out to see the Twofoots.  The children had recovered sufficiently that they no longer needed to be kept in bed, but Lilac still had a bit of a cough and insisted on remaining abed for further attention.  So, while Willem played games in the next room over (and well within earshot), Kira sat at Lilac’s bedside and continued the story of Éowyn.

“Where was I the last time I told this tale?” said Kira.

“Éowyn was off on her own looking after the people while all the Men went to fight.”

“Right,” said Kira.  “And she was very worried, because her uncle was there, and her brother, and the very nice dark-haired man who was going to take her away after all of this was over.”

“That’s Strider, right?” said Lilac.

“Yes,” said Kira, “and if he were as strong and brave and noble as all the tales say he was, I think I’d fancy him just a little, too.”

“But he’s Big!”

“I said a little.  Anyhow, when the battle was over the King sent a messenger to Éowyn, letting her know three things: that the main host of Saruman was beaten back; that he, her brother, and the Outlanders were safe; and that they would be treating with Saruman at Isengard a few days hence.  So she was able to rest easier for a few days, but nothing could have prepared her for what would come next.

“Strider stopped by, and the Rangers, too, who had come down from the North to help him, but the army of Rohan was nowhere to be seen.  They were taking the hidden paths through the hills, Strider said, but the Rangers had ridden on the open plains because they needed to get where they were going fast.”

“Where were they going?”

“To the Paths of the Dead, which Éowyn knew about all too well.  No one who ever went in there got out alive.”

“Why not?”

“It was haunted.  Thousands of years before, some Men had sworn to help the King fight a great battle.  But when he called for them, they didn’t come, so he cursed them so they’d never have any peace until they helped him—not even after they died.  So their ghosts just lived there, and the few who were foolhardy enough to go after them died.”

“Why did Strider need to go there?”

“Because it was the fastest way to the Sea—and from the Sea he could go up and help Gondor’s biggest city, which would be under siege by the time he got there.  And he knew that because he’d gotten a device that let him see what the Enemy’s plans were, and he knew he was needed down there.”

“My,” said Lilac.

“But all of that’s neither here nor there.  Strider couldn’t tell Éowyn what he knew, because the device was a secret, and she couldn’t know that he’d get through there alive because few remembered why the Dead had gotten cursed in the first place.”

“Why could Strider get through alive?”

“Because he’s the King, silly!  Well, was—his son is, now.”

“But he wasn’t King yet,” said Lilac.

“Right.  Anyhow, all that Éowyn knew was that the man she fancied, who was noble and kind and very good at battle, was going into a land where no one had come out alive before.  So she was very worried, and she had to speak with him all alone.

“She told him what was on her mind, how it was foolish to throw your life away like that, but he said that he would go and hang the consequences.  Then she asked if he could take her along.”

“Oh.”

“Well,” said Kira, “she did fancy him, and it didn’t seem fair that once again he was telling her all the things everyone else had told her—be a good woman, stay home and keep the house because someone’s got to be there to defend these things in case we go off dying in a blaze of glory.  And Éowyn didn’t like that in the least, especially coming from him, especially if he was going to go and throw his life away like that.  And it certainly didn’t seem fair that all of his friends got to follow him into death but she couldn’t come with.  After all, he was supposed to rescue her.

“But Strider said ‘no’ to that, too, and when Éowyn told him that she loved him he said that his heart was already taken.  And Strider left with his men, and Éowyn was left to think over all that had happened.  And she realised that no one was ever going to come to her rescue, and if that was the case, she’d have to do all the rescuing herself.  And she began to think of she ought to do this.

“A few days later, Théoden and his men came along, and along with them, Merry Brandybuck, who had sworn himself into Théoden’s service.  Théoden King laid out his plans for war: there would be a muster the next day, and then he and Éomer would ride to Gondor’s aid.  And that was when Éowyn met Merry, sputtering in indignation because the King would not let him ride along.  She’d already made plans, but she quickly changed them to let Merry in as well.  That night, she put away her dresses and got out a rider’s gear, and she bound up her chest, for she was going to be a soldier now, and she couldn’t get caught.  Then she found Merry, and told him to ride with her—since she was lighter than a man, her horse could bear his weight as well as hers.  But he didn’t recognise her, nor that she was a woman.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” said Kira, “Éowyn was twice as tall as Merry, and he hadn’t seen many Women at all.  And also,” she added, “because he was a lad and lads can be very thick about the silliest things.  Anyhow, they rode out with the rest of the army, and Éowyn was free at last, though it might only be free to die in battle.  And she thought she was happy.”

Was she happy?”

“Well, you’ll have to keep listening to find out.  Next time I come by, though, I’ll tell you all about the battle.  It’s a very good bit of the story, and Merry does something brave enough to excuse all the rest of his thickness.”

“That’s good,” said Lilac.  “Could you make some milk toast for me, please?”  Kira did as she was bid, and while she was at it, she loudly informed Willem that she was done with her taletelling for the day, so he could safely rejoin Lilac without being called a baby.  Willem stuck his tongue out at that.

But when Lilac was eating, she started to ask questions.  “Kira, was Éowyn really that happy?”

“Do you think she was?”

“I mean, if she really was, you’d have said so.  But I was wondering if she was ever happy, before then.”

“I don’t know,” Kira confessed.  “I think it’s harder for Big Folk, especially the ones who are stuck doing something they don’t like, because they don’t have us around to remind them of all the good things in life.  But I promise you, Éowyn will be happy by the end of the tale.”

“Good,” said Lilac, “because it’s not a very happy story.”

And it wasn’t, really.

When the Twofoots came back, they paid her—not much for the visit, mind, but it was money!—and Kira returned home.  Two days later she visited the Tunnellies and the Grimwigs (Tanto still needed his tutoring), and she felt the Shire begin to settle under her foot again.  But there was something else she needed to.

She had to see if she could find Hal.

She still remembered the directions he had given her, vague as they were, and if she left early enough perhaps she could make a trip over there and back, the way she and Mother had for the Burlytoes, and she knew she’d be sore the next day, for she’d be riding, but it would be worth it if she could win a new heart over.

So she worked extra hard at the garden, enough to justify wandering off for a day, and early in the morning on the thirteenth she told Mother she wanted to spend the day out walking, packed herself two spare meals, and set off.

The road heading east was better than Kira had expected, and Nienna was eager to show her paces.  So Kira nudged her into a gallop, and indulged herself in a bit of fancy, pretending she was riding to Gondor and away from all her troubles.  Of course, thought Kira, they didn’t really go away, but she ignored that fact.

After the first stretch Kira slowed Nienna down and had a small snack in the saddle, amazed that so far she had only seen a few holes here and there—hardly anything that would warrant a road this good.  She wished she’d had the chance to see a map at the Fair before she’d gotten ill—she was crossing roads now, and if she were able perhaps she could match them up to where they would be on the East-West road.  And as the sun rose to her zenith she began to wonder if she’d made the right choice.  What if Hal had gotten his directions wrong?

At eleven o’clock she crossed a small stream, and Kira got off to let Nienna drink and to cool her own feet.  After a spate of gentle rolls it was starting to get hilly again—a fine place to dig—and water increased the likelihood of a town’s being nearby.  Nienna was up to the challenge of another ride.

The road turned north, ever so slightly, to make its way between the hills, and Kira began to see more delvings in the hillsides.  It looked promising enough, and when the road began to lead down into a valley nestled into a town she could have whooped for joy.  She had never been so far afield from home before, not on her own, and she walked down into the valley, as slowly as she pleased, to take in the sights.  There was another stream here, too, unless it was the same one bent around among the hills, and it had a nice little bridge going over it.

She looked around her—Hal had said his home was the largest smial for miles.  He might have been exaggerating, but if there were any large ones they were likelier in a town like this than elsewhere.  Otherwise it was time to stop in an inn for a meal, find out where she actually was, and head back.  But nothing appeared out of the ordinary.  “Just one more hill,” she told herself, and rode the road out of the valley.

The next one over had more luck.  The same stream fed here, too, and there was an actual meadow, with children playing in it, and fewer holes.  It looked more like an estate of sorts.  Of course, silly, she told herself, for Hal had been dressed quite well, and if his family lived in a big hole they were in all likelihood gentry…

And there, set in the back of a hill, with terraces and stairs and all, was a hole—and a very large one at that.  Kira got off her pony and began to walk towards it.  As she got closer she saw the number of windows and doors, and tried to calculate—if indeed it was only one smial—how many people could be living in there.  Why, come to think of it, the only home she had seen that was that big was Brandy Hall…

Kira froze in place as she realised exactly where she was.  “No,” she said to herself.  “No, no, no…”

One of the doors opened, and out came a small hobbit with a large hamper in his hands, running down the staircase pell-mell.  He stopped in the middle of the meadow, set the hamper down, and turned back to the smial.  Then his head snapped back to Kira, still standing there with the reins in hand, and waved.  “Kira Lamefoot!” he cried.  “You’ve come!”  And before she could do anything about it, Hal ran up to her and hugged her about the knees.

“Hal!” she said.  “Why didn’t you tell me where you lived?”

“Uncle Holfast didn’t think it a very good idea.  Would you like to meet my parents?”

“Uncle…”  But Hal had already taken off, back towards the smial, to meet a grown hobbit and his wife, and Kira had no choice but to follow.

“Father,” she could hear Hal saying, “This is Kira—”

He’d stopped speaking.  Kira looked up at him to see why.  Hal’s father was staring at her.  Her heart lurched into a race, and she stared right back at him.  The last time she’d seen that face was in the study of Bag End, locking all the books in the Shire away and dooming so much of her life to endless struggle.

Hal was the Thain’s son.





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