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“You smell like horse,” said Mother, when Kira hugged her, hungry and weary, that evening.
“Pony,” Kira absently corrected, and when Mother cast her a querulous glance, she said, “I was at Tom’s barn,” as if that would explain everything.
“Oh?” said Mother, raising her eyebrows, and Kira blushed as she realised that, perhaps, it might explain everything. Staring down at the hem of her skirt, she reddened even more and began to think very quickly. “I wasn’t there all day, thank you, I went out walking first. I just must have lost track of the time.”
“Kira,” Mother said softly, and Kira was reminded of nothing so much as when she had had that discussion with her on her last birthday, “I know Tom’s a dear friend and all, but I do hope at least his brother was there to keep an eye on you…”
“He wasn’t,” said Kira, “but he’d make a terrible chaperone anyway. For heavens’ sakes, Mum, Tom isn’t thirty; he can’t yet do anything…”
“Perhaps not, but he can certainly think about it. And even if he didn’t mean for you to fall in the canal, you must admit he tends to mischief.”
She did have to bring that up, didn’t she? “He didn’t do anything!” she said, and if she was shouting, so much the better.
“I’m sure he didn’t,” said Mother. “Just keep an eye on yourself when you’re around him, all right?”
“Well, I won’t see him again, if it matters so much to you!” Kira ran into her room, before she could betray herself even more. She knew what Mother was thinking, and she knew it would work, and what was worse, Mother probably approved of the match on some level. What if…
What if she spoke to Tom?
Kira began to cry, and if Mother was listening in, she was thinking it was something else entirely, and that made it so much worse.
* * *
Next morning was Monday, which meant that Kira had a halfway decent chance of managing to talk to Tom in private, and hopefully before Mother got a word in with him, too. She begged the first two hours of the morning off, and tried not to wince when Mother fixed her with a shrewd look that meant who knew what. Tom she found with the livestock, morosely eying a young pig that she thought she recognized from walks to town.
Kira hobbled up to him, and said, without any preamble, “Tom, I’m in a pickle.”
Tom blinked at the sound of her voice, then turned to look at her. It took him a few moments to come up with a response. “I’m sure you’re the only one surprised by that.”
She folded her arms.
“Why are you telling me, then?”
He knew exactly why she was telling him, bother it all! “I might need your help getting out of it,” she said. “Also, it involves you either way.”
“I know,” said Kira, “I shouldn’t have involved you at all, but I was thinking on short notice, and—”
“No, it’s not that,” said Tom. “You’re asking me for help, is all, and I don’t see any reason why I should think to grant it.”
“Hasn’t helping me been the only thing you’ve ever done, Tom, even when you’re trying to kill me?”
“Kira!” Tom rounded on her, his face twisted in anger and… hurt?
Kira took a step back. “All right, I’m sorry. That was a little petty of me, I guess.”
“It very much was,” Tom muttered. He sighed, and dashed his hand against his face. “What happened?”
“Let’s sit somewhere apart, please,” said Kira. Tom nodded, and while they walked away, she kept her eyes on the grass, which had gone yellow in the August heat. As soon as they were out of earshot, she began talking. “You know I tell stories to the children,” she said.
“Yes,” said Tom.
“And you know that Mother doesn’t know.”
Kira briefly wondered, for not the first time, why he hadn’t told Mother what she was up to, but tamped it down before she could be inclined to say anything. “That’s what I was doing yesterday. Telling stories, I mean, at—at a child’s home.” She took the opportunity to pause, choosing her words carefully, by sitting down on the grass. Tom sat a foot away from her, eying her warily. She looked up at him. “They had a barn, and the lad wanted me to see their horses, and Mum noticed the smell, so I said I was with you. And… and you can well imagine how she took that…”
“How did she take it?” said Tom.
“What?—Oh!” Tom reddened.
“So you see I involved you, and I shouldn’t have, and I’m very sorry for it, especially as you’ve told me time and again that any such…takings… are completely unfounded in truth. I promise I shan’t do it again.”
“So,” said Tom, “what am I supposed to do?”
“Nothing, if you like. Just don’t be surprised if Mum comes by and asks what we were doing in your barn for three hours.”
“Three hours?” His mouth worked for a few seconds. “What—what does she think—”
“I told her we didn’t… get up to anything… which we didn’t, and even if either of us had wanted to, we couldn’t, since you’re twenty-eight, but now she thinks we might want to, and I tried telling her we didn’t…”
“This—this is terrible!” Tom stood up. “I’d better set things to rights myself!”
“Yes, you better had!” said Kira.
“Right, then,” said Tom. “I shall!” He stalked off, looking as determined as she had ever seen him. As soon as he was out of sight, she heaved a sigh of relief—though the danger was not fully past, she supposed. Tom could change his mind, or realize how much power over her this gave him, or—most likely—decide that part of “setting things to rights” meant telling Mother! Her heart began to beat more quickly, but she wouldn’t run after him as if she needed him…
She needed his help, though, and it rankled within her. Please, Tom, she thought desperately, don’t let her know…
Well, if she wasn’t going to go after him, she had best gather herself and go about the rest of her business. She hadn’t been by the post since she’d sent off Merina’s letter, and it would be well if she checked and made sure her cousin hadn’t tried to write her again. So, trying not to think about things, she made her way to the Post Office to find Master Goodbody there.
“Have you any mail for me?” she said.
“Yes, actually,” he said, and handed her four crisp letters. “Two of them arrived for you the day after you last stopped in, and I’ve been holding them for you ever since, as you asked.”
Not from Merina, then. That was Aunt Foxglove’s writing on one—why would she write to Kira?
Oh, right, thought Kira. Because I wrote to her first. Abashed, she sat down on the age-polished bench next the door, and opened the letters one after another.
I am in receipt of your letter as of this Wednesday, August 2. Thank you for letting me know. I didn’t realise that your mother had held onto so many of Lagro’s things over the years, and I hope that most of the items have found a new home. I would love to see any mementos that you have saved, and take whatever ones you are willing to give.
This is probably something best settled among the rest of the family. I assume you’ve gotten in touch with Foxglove and Polo, so I’ll send them a note and we’ll see when we might all be free to come to Delving.
Foxglove and Polo had both written to say that they would be delighted to come down, and asked if she would be free on dates which, Kira was embarrassed to note, had already passed. Her aunt also enquired whether Mother was well, if she was giving Father’s things away at last, and hoped that she was. The final letter, fortunately, was from her uncle Sancho again, requesting if they could meet on August 16th—two days hence. It would take time to travel there, though, and—did the post even run that fast?
“Drat,” Kira muttered to herself. She’d really put her foot in things this time.
She’d have to send a letter to each of them, with her apologies for rudely leaving her correspondence unanswered. Was there even a point in giving them a reason? “I’m having the post hold my mail in case my outlandish Brandybuck cousin decides to contact me again and get us both in trouble” just didn’t seem to suit the matter. In the end, she decided against it—she was still only twenty-seven, after all, and could be allowed some moments of irresponsibility.
“I can be free any time you choose,” she had Master Goodbody write. “Mother and I rarely leave Michel Delving, so if you could decide on a date and send it to me, I’ll be more than happy to meet with you. I don’t know if Mother will, but I’ll talk to her about it.”
Thinking about responsible, adult things that she had neglected to do reminded her that she still hadn’t completely repaid the stable for Nienna’s extended boarding, so she found the stable lad and made another payment. Then, wondering who else she had failed to visit in the past months, she made her way to the stationer’s to call on Mr. Goldworthy.
She was shocked to see him, not minding the shop in the back, but sitting in the reading room bent over a draughts board opposite Roland Burrows. Kira immediately entered the shop and rounded on them.
“Hullo, Kira!” said Mr. Goldworthy, while Roly, draught in hand, looked on in surprise.
“Hullo, Mr. Goldworthy!” said Kira. “Roly, I’ve told you about this shop before, there’s no reason to look so startled.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Goldworthy, “so you two know each other?”
“We grew up together,” said Roly. “Kira, it’s not anything, I just didn’t expect you to come in like that.”
“And I didn’t expect to see you here! However did you get the nerve to set foot in a stationer’s?”
“I told you about Mr. Goldworthy, didn’t I?” said Roly. “At the Free Fair. We played a round of draughts together, and he said if I wanted to try and challenge him again, he owned a shop in town. And so—here I am!”
“I do recall that, now that you said it,” said Kira. “I just didn’t realise it was Mr. Goldworthy!”
Mr. Goldworthy cast a shrewd eye at Kira. “Have your friends something against stationers?”
Roly laughed. “No, not at all—only Tom, and half of that’s from sheer stubbornness. I saw him, by the by, running past here, not half an hour ago—like the Riders were at his tail! Do you know whatever could be the matter?”
“Yes,” said Kira cautiously, “but if you want that story you’ll have to wait. I was just dropping in, really, to say ‘hullo’ to the two of you.”
“No purchases today, Kira?” said Mr. Goldworthy.
Roly gave her a funny look.
“No,” said Kira. “I haven’t the money. Maybe next time, though. I’ll see you both later, I’m sure.” She turned to go.
“Kira?” said Roly.
“What is it?”
“You weren’t going to tell Tom I was in here, right?”
“Of course not,” said Kira, “though if you really want to make sure he doesn’t notice, I’d play somewhere other than the Reading Room.”
“Roland,” said Mr. Goldworthy, “if you’re ashamed of my company—”
“It’s not that at all!” said Roly. “It’s just… Tom—well, he’s a little strange, and it wouldn’t matter much, except that he trusts me.”
“And consorting with a stationer would betray that trust?”
“Consorting with a stationer that Kira considers her friend, yes. Look, this is what I started playing draughts to avoid, while they’re all caught up being tweenish—”
“—Hoy!” said Kira. “Mr. Goldworthy, I can explain it all later if you’d like, if Roly doesn’t want to.”
“Thank you,” Roly said pointedly. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to know what Tom was dashing about for.”
“Of course not!” said Kira. “Till then!” she added, and the bell over the door tinkled as she made her way out.
Mother looked worryingly cheerful when Kira returned to the herb-cart. Granted, Kira doubted that if Tom had spoiled all about her storytelling operation, Mother would look that cheerful, but what could he have told her?
“What did you tell him?” said Mother, mirth in her voice, as Kira stepped behind the cart.
“I had a very interesting discussion with young Tom just now, and I’m sure you were behind it. What did you tell him?”
“Nothing much,” said Kira. “Just that we had spoken for a good while, and you knew about it and were beginning to assume things about us.”
“It’s not assuming,” said Mother. “Merely observing.”
Kira looked sidelong at her mother. Should she risk it? “What did he tell you?” she said.
“He assured me that his intentions toward you are pure, if that is what you are wondering.”
“Good,” said Kira. She paused. “Why are you smiling, then?”
“He assured me rather more times than were strictly necessary.”
“Well, that’s Tom all over,” said Kira. But somehow she felt that Mother wasn’t giving her the whole story, and she didn’t know if she had the heart to ask.
* * *
Kira did not receive her uncle’s reply for another two weeks, though she made a point of checking with the Post Office whenever she was in town. Each time, she recalled the difficulty of arranging such a meeting by post, and felt especially bad for making Sancho Proudfoot do it a second time. In the meantime, she tried not to imagine the upcoming meeting—it made her nervous—and spent the approaching weeks as if they did not mean anything special.
They did, though—August always filled her with a bright, mad-eyed sort of melancholy—and her birthday was approaching. They gardened, cooked, cleaned, ate, slept—and Kira went on telling stories, teaching, and reading.
One day, when she had to put the Quenta down to keep herself from yelling at Túrin, she picked up her father’s diary once more and read.
March 13, 1504
I hate everyone and I hate everything!!!
The rest of the page was filled with a prodigious amount of scribbles and dark lines. Kira turned the page.
Well—that is almost entirely untrue, but it felt good to write it. And of course, you can’t go around saying things that aren’t true, so this is the only other way I can think of saying them anyway, barring going off somewhere alone, which Mother never likes. How I hate being the baby!
So, perhaps I have finally found a use for this diary, if I can just go on writing things that aren’t really true but feel good to write anyway.
I wanted to help the workers prune the orchard today, so I was, but then Mum saw me on the ladder and had words with me, which turned into Father having more words with me, about how even if I didn’t have a bad heart (never mind that I haven’t had a spell in years!) I still shouldn’t be doing such things, especially at my age, because they didn’t befit my station. Which is a load of tripe, and he knows it, for didn’t the Thain—the Thain himself—marry a gardener’s daughter? I’ve only been to Great Smials once, mind, but even then I was rather under the impression that they had different ideas about what the gentry could and couldn’t do. And granted, the Tooks are all cracked, but if the Thain himself—
Normally, when Dad gets on me for things like this, I can go to Mum, because apparently they did things a little differently in Buckland, too, but she’s cross with me for putting myself into danger, and when Mum gets cross over my help, I can normally go to Dad.
No such luck today—
The next several pages were filled with similar entries, all variations on the same theme, all painfully tweenish. There was one idle fantasy of going off and marrying a tavern lass just to spite his father, which Kira found amusing until she recalled that it was her own father going into great detail on exactly how attractive such a lass would have to be for him to get the nerve to up and do it.
Then, abruptly, the florid entries cut short, and, a page later, were followed by a solitary note.
January 19, 1508
Well, I suppose there is no more use wishing for something else.
I spoke with my father today, and unless I wish to run away and possibly be disowned (which I don’t), there simply is no way I shall be able to farm, or orchard, or garden, or anything with my hands that does not also involve a pen. He won’t allow it, and I don’t wish to make him. I know it’s my own well-being he has in mind, anyhow.
So, I spoke with him further, and he is all right with me clerking for Sancho. I suspect I shall be doing it for the rest of my life.
I am quite fond of being dull, but I would rather it be my kind of dull and not my parents’. But it seems I don’t have any choice.
There were more entries, but they were so many pages ahead, and if they were like these?
Yelling at Túrin was preferable.
* * *
The day before Kira’s birthday, she and Mother went on a long walk south along the Ash River, until they came to a yellow field with mounds and a few stone markers. Sometime shortly after her father’s death, Blanco Proudfoot had come by and put a headstone by his grave—the Proudfoots hadn’t been able to make it to the burial in time, and Mother refused to see them anyway. Later, visiting his grave, she found it there, along with a posy already fading. Kira had picked one along their walk today, and now she laid it across the dry turf. “I’ll go on for a bit now,” she told Mother, when she was done paying her respects. Kira did not need to wonder that a wound could still feel fresh after all those years.
The river was low, and the water was pleasant, not icy-cold the way it was when the weather was turning and the ink floated off the page…
Kira stopped, blinked, and stared at the surface of the water. Nothing there, of course, but she still looked away and tried not to listen to the dark water swirling round her ankle, soaking up the hem of her skirt. She should have moved away from the sound of the river, but she couldn’t, it was as if her crutch had gotten stuck in pitch-black mud and now it was worming its way in between her toes and freezing them in. She shut her eyes and wept darkness as she vainly tried to face the rising tide alone.
* * *
Mother found her, mud smeared into her hair and on her face, on the river’s bank, and the look on her face was old and sad. “You might be glad the river’s so low,” she said, wiping the mud from Kira’s cheek. “If it hadn’t been, you’d have fallen right in.”
I did, thought Kira.
* * *
Mother must have grieved well that day, though, because the next day it was like nothing had happened. They put a stew with chicken and apples—funded in part by the mystery hobbit—together in the morning, and let it simmer all day for supper, so that Mother could make a spread for tea that would rival the Winkle Shop. That was when Kira handed out her gifts, and although the tea did not quite match the Winkle Shop’s standards, it was made with twice the love so she hardly minded. Daffodil she gave a packet of pins, for her lace-making, Roly a new set of draughts, and Mother a new set of shears for the garden. Tom, of course, received his customary gift—a quill, this time, and an inkwell. Other years she had given him paper, sand, and once (when she was quite pressed for pocket-money) a rag that she had informed him was for wiping his pen. Tom glared at her.
“What?” said Kira. “They’re both of the finest quality, I assure you.”
“Roly,” said Tom, “remind Kira that you’re only supposed to give folk presents they actually want.”
“Well, if you threw your last quill away, then clearly you are wanting a new one, aren’t you?”
At that moment Mother reentered the room, so (before Daffy could put her oar in) Tom gritted his teeth and politely thanked Kira for her gift.
Kira nodded graciously and swiftly changed the topic of conversation, offering to play draughts with Roly the next time he wanted practice. Neither of them mentioned who, exactly, his elderly opponent was.
At supper that night, she asked Mother if they were going to talk about her prospects at all. “I’m afraid they haven’t much improved,” said Kira, “though perhaps, if I can keep getting to know Uncle Sancho better, I can buy us a little more time.”
“Maybe,” said Mother. “Or maybe you won’t need it.”
“I’m not sure how,” said Kira, “considering that most hobbits court by dancing, and I can’t even—”
“Stop worrying,” said Mother, “and have a little more faith in yourself. If you keep on thinking less of yourself, the lads will think less of you, and they won’t even notice you. Or maybe someone already has, and you just don’t know it yet.”
I wish I didn’t know it, thought Kira, wondering how much Mother had guessed about Tom.
* * *
The next day, when they went into town, Uncle Sancho’s letter was awaiting Kira in the Post Office, asking if he and Polo and Foxglove could call on the seventeenth of September. After obtaining Mother’s consent, she had Master Goodbody dash off a reply—then, thinking better of things, also wrote to her other uncle and aunt letting them know that she’d be happy to see them then. “I wonder what they’d say if they knew you were trying to get them to keep supporting you past thirty,” Mother said on the way out.
“That’s not the only reason I’ve gotten in touch with them,” said Kira. “Twenty-eight years is far too long to be punished for one hobbit’s death, and besides, Uncle Sancho had nothing to do with it. In fact, if Father’s diary is correct, he used to clerk—”
“—and he hated it,” said Mother. “Goodness! If you want to hear what really happened, you might as well talk to someone who was there—and who understood him, mind, not like his family.”
“Would you really tell me, Mum? I mean, all of it—your courtship, the plans you had together.”
Mother sighed, and looped her arm in Kira’s. “For you? Yes, I should do. And I shall, just—not now, please.”
Kira nodded. “I’ll take ‘not now,’ as long as it means ‘eventually.’”
* * *
The seventeenth was close enough to the wedding that Kira was already made of jitters; knowing that her kin were coming down to look at the last of her dead father’s things only made matters worse. She and Mother had agreed that they ought to entertain them at home, for reasons of cost if nothing else, and then Kira and her aunt and uncles would travel to the storage tunnels together and go through those things of her father’s that remained. They had bought a salted ham for the purpose, which they soaked through the night, then roasted in the oven with honey, and stewed apples, and potatoes and turnips. Mother worked on the last touches to luncheon while Kira chatted with her relations around the dining table. Conversation during lunch was mostly limited to the weather and the harvest around the Westfarthing and March.
Afterwards, when they had reached the Lockholes, Kira showed her relations the things of her father’s that she had set aside.
“Heavens!” said Uncle Sancho. “I remember this!” He picked up the wooden hedgehog. “I whittled this for Lagro while he was sick!”
“You can take it,” said Kira. She took it from her uncle, peered it over, and handed it back. “I don’t think he mentioned this in his diary.”
“No,” said her uncle. “This was when he was still learning his letters. I’m afraid he got a splinter afterwards, though—probably not the best idea of a gift for an eight-year-old. You were sickly as a child, too, weren’t you, Kira?”
“Sancho!” said Aunt Foxglove.
Kira reddened a little. “I did get ill, yes,” she said. “Sometimes I still do. I don’t know if it was as bad for me as it was for my father. Mum tried to send me away when we knew a bit of pest was coming.”
“Father probably ought to have tried that,” said Polo, “but then Lagro would have gotten so lonely. Most of our relations were living in High Hole at the time, and Buckland was so far away!”
“I suppose we could have sent him to the Aunties,” Foxglove said, “but I think being well around them would be far worse than being sick at home. Especially for him!”
“Who were the Aunties?” said Kira.
“Our father’s eldest sisters—they lived in your smial before your parents moved in. Stuck the lads in starched collars, and taught us all our manners.”
“It was an unpleasant experience for all of us,” said Sancho. “Your father especially.” He paused. “Do you want the hedgehog? Since you still get ill, I mean.”
“No,” said Kira. “It means much more to you than it does to me, and I’ve already taken my own mementos out of the lot.”
“All right, then,” said Uncle Sancho, and he wrapped the carving in a handkerchief. “It seems you inherited your father’s heart, lass. Not just in the way of getting ill, either.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Kira. “He seemed so rooted in the earth, and sometimes I fear a gust of wind will take me up to the clouds and I shan’t fall down. I think he would have worried about me.”
“No more than any parent worries about his child,” said Aunt Foxglove. “However else he felt about things, he knew all kinds of things about feeling out of place.”
“Tell me, Kira,” said Sancho, “is everything well between you and your mother?”
“What are you implying?” said Kira.
“It was a conversation we were having some time back, after the fair. You are still family—and she is, as well, and—”
“We get by,” said Kira, sticking her chin up. “Very well. We’ve had few to rely on but each other for most of my life.”
“We had discussed that—and how we wish, now, that we could have been involved more. It can’t be good, growing up with only one parent to rely on, and little family, for so much of your life.”
“And what of her family? And our friends? We’ve managed—very well, considering the circumstances, and if you don’t think my mother did a good job raising me, you should tell her yourself.”
“We didn’t say that—nor did we mean to. Polo had just mentioned how lonely you seemed, and we wondered.”
“My loneliness, such that I have, is my fault entirely, and not my mother’s. I love her—very much, and I refuse to cast her off the same way she did to you—or my father did to my grandparents.”
“That is very, very good, then,” said Polo. “There are so few problems that are in our power to fix. I don’t know if the cold relations between us and your mother are one of them, but the least that can be done is to ensure that they will not be passed on in the future. As for Rosemary—if Kira says that all is well, I suggest that we believe her. She’s hardly the first hobbit to have lost a father so young. Now, Kira, you mentioned a diary of your father’s. If that is among your offerings for us, then I should be quite happy to take it.”
“It isn’t,” said Kira. “If you don’t mind, of course. Only I found it, and I know so little about him still, I thought I should like to read about him in his own words.”
“Of course,” said Uncle Polo. “What are these, then?” He pointed to the rocks Kira had found at the bottom of a dresser drawer.
“They’re rocks,” Kira said slowly. “Of course they are. I don’t know how important they are.”
“Polo, really!” said Aunt Foxglove. “You should remember! You and he used to go for walks and find them.”
“Why… so we did! I honestly did more of the finding than he did, though. He preferred to drag his feet through the grass and the dirt and get as much stuff clogged in his fur as he could.”
Foxglove shuddered. “I remember one time, when the maid was on holiday, and Mum made me wash them out! Said it was ‘a lesson in patience.’”
“Good lessons, mind you,” said Sancho, “She made us all learn them, at one point or another.”
Kira sighed. There’d never been an opportunity to learn these sorts of lessons deliberately—life itself saw to that.
“Except for Lagro,” said Uncle Polo. “Poor fellow had to learn patience, being in the sick bed all the time.”
“Not very easily, I’d imagine,” said Kira.
“No,” he said. “I’d imagine not. Well, then, since these rocks seem to have the strongest association with me, I suppose I should be the one taking them!”
“And what about you, Aunt Foxglove?” said Kira.
“There must be something in here that Lagro took to remember me by.”
“I don’t think Mum took all the handkerchiefs.”
“You’re right—yes, this is one of the ones I used to embroider—see, there’s my nameflower on the corner. And a button! This was—oh, heavens!” Kira’s aunt turned her face away briefly and dashed her hand at her eyes.
“What is it?” said Kira.
“His wedding. I sewed on one of his waistcoat buttons, in case one fell off. I hadn’t imagined—!”
“Take it, then,” said Kira. “He obviously kept it for your sake.”
“Yes,” said Aunt Foxglove. “I think I shall. You should know, Kira—he was very happy. They both were, together.”
“I know,” said Kira. “Mother misses him every day.”
“I hope,” said Uncle Polo, “that, in time we can learn to understand one another, then. We do miss him, as well.”
“I’d imagine,” said Kira. “And believe me, I want to fix this as well. But I don’t know how to fix people, and I don’t know if I can.”
They made their way back to Kira’s home mostly in silence, and parted shortly after. Kira sat up late in her room afterwards, staring at her father’s diary but not opening it. How could a situation, where once there had been so much love, have ended so poorly?
It wasn’t until she awoke the next morning that she remembered, with a mixture of anticipation and dread, that Kerry and Sandra’s wedding was in four days.
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