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Twitch was awakened by the master ostler firmly shaking his shoulder. He blinked up into the darkness and the darker outline of the ostler.
“Wha-?” he muttered.
“The Thain’s asked for you, lad,” said the old master, sounding gruff from sleep and too much ale the night before. “Up you get. I’ve the carriage ready.”
Twitch blinked again. He had to fight the temptation to ask ‘what’ again, but he knew the ostler didn’t like repeating himself. That would only earn him a boxing over his ears and no answers. “Yes, sir,” he said, even as a hundred questions flitted through his head.
He got up, pulled on his clothes and clambered down from the hayloft, careful not to disturb the other junior ostlers and apprentices. He stopped briefly at the barrel and threw some water on his face, more in an effort to wake himself than to wash. He may not be accustomed to sleeping in like the gentry did, but he never woke this early either.
He stepped outside into the crisp air and looked to the east. There was no hint of dawn approaching. From the stars, it had to be about three in the morning and daybreak was still nearly two hours away. Why would the Thain be going anywhere now?
Chapter 2 – Here We Go A Traveling
At luncheon, Adalgrim ordered a stop just off the road out of Tookbank with the excuse that his family needed to stretch their legs. In truth, he was just as interested in eating as he was in getting his children into the carriages where they belonged before they could cross paths with any other travelers.
Nab and Sprig survived the ride with only slightly frayed nerves. Their riding companions only interrogated them for the first half-hour, asking them about their homelands, kin and favorite foods, before moving on to the more agreeable entertainment of traveling games. In this manner, Ami, Pally and Emse learned much about their riding companions.
Nab was born in Waymoot, was the third cousin once removed of one of the gardeners at the Smials, and loved anything made with apples. He could even recite the receipts to several apple-based entrees and desserts. Working as a groom, he didn’t get much opportunity to cook, but whenever the chance presented itself, he would sneak off to the kitchens. One did, after all, have to keep their skills honed.
Sprig, they were surprised to discover, haled from Pincup. One of his second cousins worked as a cook at Ridge Manor, the ancestral home of the Banks family. He however was not surprised to discover that their cousin Flambard Took’s wife was a Banks; it was under her mother’s recommendation that he had been apprenticed to the Smials. As far as food was concerned, he loved nothing more than to relax with a loaf of bread, a cup of tea and a good book.
“What sorts of things do you read?” Pally asked.
“Words, mostly,” Sprig answered, sending the siblings into giggles.
“Who taught you?” Ami asked.
Sprig shrugged. “We play cards some nights with some of the other workers in the Smials, including a couple of the post messengers. One of them made me a bet he couldn’t pay off, so I suggested he teach me my letters instead.”
“That’s quite entrepreneurial of you,” Paladin said, impressed.
Sprig shrugged again. “It was winter. There weren’t much else to do.”
“Since you have your letters, maybe you’d like to play a game,” Pally offered. “You too, Nab. You don’t really need your letters to play, but it can help. Really, all you have to do is listen.”
“And what game might this be?” Nab called from the other carriage.
“It’s called ‘I’m Going to the Free Fair.’ Have you played it?” Pally asked.
Sprig and Nab shook their heads.
“Oh, well, it’s quite simple,” Esme explained. “We all take turns saying what we’re bringing to the Free Fair. Depending on what you bring, you can either come or you have to wait until your next turn to bring something else. I’ll go first. I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing éclairs.”
Pally and Ami nodded. “All right, you can come,” Ami said. “I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m taking apples.” She winked at Nab, who blushed in response.
“You can come then too,” Pally said, frowning slightly at this byplay. “I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing a plum.”
“Then you can come,” Esme said. “What about you, Nab?”
Nab and Sprig chanced a furtive glance at each other over the distance between their carriages. “Um, I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing a sleeping roll.”
“Oh, sorry, but you can’t come,” Pally said. “Sprig?”
“I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m bringing biscuits?” he guessed, wondering if perhaps the trick was to bring food items.
“No, sorry, you can’t go either,” Ami said. “Your turn Esme.”
“I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing emeralds,” Esmeralda said.
“You can come,” Paladin said.
“I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing amber,” Amaryllis said.
“You can come,” Pally said and took his turn. “I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m taking posies.”
“Nab?” Esme asked.
Nab shrugged. “I’m going to the Free Fair and I’m taking a water skin.”
“Sorry, but you can’t come,” the three Tooks chimed.
“Sprig?” Pally asked.
Sprig thought hard. They said the trick was to listen, but he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be listening for. Clearly, no one would take emeralds or amber to a fair, unless they were a jewel dealer, which the Took children were not. So it must not have anything to do with practicality. Then again, the other items they had all brought had been quite practical. What was he missing?
“I’m going to the Free Fair, and I’m bringing a … butterfly,” he finally guessed, his eyes catching the flicker of delicate yellow wings amongst the wildflowers.
“Sorry, but you can’t come yet,” Ami said and patted his arm consolingly.
Sprig’s arm tensed instantly. To make matters worse, her brother caught this motion as well and eyed Sprig with some suspicion. Only after several moments passed, and Sprig neither acknowledged the pat nor returned it in any way, did Paladin relax again.
They played several more rounds, with the coachhobbits getting no closer to figuring out the trick to the game. On a couple of occasions, they managed to guess items that would permit them to go to the Free Fair, but such instances were pure luck.
Meanwhile, Adalgrim and Clematis were enjoying their carriage ride in silence. Adalgrim had brought a roster of the family heads who would be voting for Mayor. He knew many of them from previous elections, but a few had passed since then and been replaced by their wives or eldest sons.
Clematis had some embroidery on which to work. She would have preferred to read as well, but she found that reading in a moving carriage or cart made her nauseous. For some reason, she did not have the same problem with embroidery and so she always brought a few panes to work on while traveling.
After a time, though, her thoughts got the better of her. “What are we going to do about Amber and Heather?” she asked.
“We’re taking them back to Whitwell,” Adalgrim said. “What else can we do?”
Clematis shrugged. “I don’t like the stories I’ve been hearing about them. Amber is a mother; she shouldn’t be disappearing for hours on end. What if something happened to Arlo during one of these episodes? She would never forgive herself.”
“What could possibly happen to Arlo?” Adalgrim asked, looking up from his list to lift an eyebrow at his wife.
“Anything!” Clematis exclaimed. “I think this winter has proven that we are not invulnerable to the elements.”
“Of course not, but it’s hardly helpful to worry about things that haven’t even happened yet. Who’s to say they ever will?” Adalgrim asked. “Though you are right about one thing: they shouldn’t be disappearing like they do. At the very least, they can tell each other where they’re going.”
“Algie,” Clematis started to protest.
“Now, hear me out first,” Adalgrim requested, holding up a hand for silence. “They’re grieving, is all. We can tell them we understand, that the pain will get easier to bear, that time will heal them. That isn’t what they need right now. They need to be able to get away from prying eyes and ears and just weep. Or scream. Or be numb.”
“It’s been five months,” Clematis countered. “It’s time they remember how to live, and I intend to remind them.”
They looked at each other for several moments, a truce reached in the creaking of the swaying carriage. They bent their heads back to their work; they would speak no more about the subject until they were home in Whitwell.
In the next carriage, Amber and Heather were entertaining Arlo with a game of Shapes and Colors. Amber had made several cards from parchment, on which she had drawn shapes and painted them a single color. She had a large stack of the cards and would put them down on the floor one at a time. The more cards Arlo identified correctly, the longer he could stay up that night when they made camp.
“A red square!” Arlo cried at the next card.
“Very good!” Amber exclaimed and placed down another.
“A blue ball! No, a circle!”
“You are such a smart little lad,” Heather complimented.
“A yellow triangle! A green rectangle! A black square. A purple, um, a purple…”
“What do we call it when it has five sides?” Amber prompted.
“Um, a, uh,” Arlo stammered, stumped. “A square plus one?” he guessed at last.
Amber and Heather laughed kindly, and Heather clapped her hands. “Oh, good one! You are so inventive. I do believe that is what it should be called,” she said. “Alas, it is not. It’s called a pentagon.”
“Pet-is-gone,” Arlo said, looking concerned. “Where did the pet go?”
“No, dear, not pet. It’s pent-a-gon,” Amber clarified.
“Oh. Where did the pent go? What’s a pent?” Arlo asked.
“A pent is a five-sided object,” Amber said. “I’m not sure where it went, though. Sometimes things just go.”
Heather cleared her throat and glanced down pointedly at Arlo. The little lad was looking up at his mother with even more worry than he’d shown before.
With an effort, Amber grinned widely and picked up the cards. She counted them out loud. “Twenty!” she finished. “That’s twenty minutes you get to stay up past your bedtime! You are mummy’s smart lad. You make me so proud.”
Arlo’s worried face melted into a warm smile. Then he jumped up and hugged his mother around her neck.
She kissed his cheek and hugged him back. “What are you going to do with your twenty minutes?” she asked.
“Tell you a story about where the pent went,” Arlo said.
“Oh, so you know what a pent is now?” Heather asked.
“No, but I’ll know by then,” Arlo said with confidence.
“I’m sure you will,” Amber agreed. “Here, play with your block letters for a bit. Your Auntie Heather and I need to talk about grown-up things.”
“We do?” Heather asked.
Amber nodded. “How long until Mum and Da ask us to stay on in Whitwell?”
Heather considered the question for a moment. In truth, she wouldn’t mind staying on the Whitwell farm of her childhood indefinitely. There was something dangerously appealing about having parents to take care of her again. Had it been possible, she would have crawled into her mother’s lap when Clematis first arrived at the Smials at the beginning of Thrimidge. She knew Amber though would rather move to Northfarthing than return to Whitwell for longer than a season, if even that long.
Heather finally shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll wait until we’re at least within sight of Whitwell before asking. We have a week of peace, I think.”
“We should never have agreed to this,” Amber said with a sigh.
“I think we need it, love,” Heather said again, as she had said before when she talked her sister into the visit. “I know I do. I miss Chaco so much sometimes; it’s like I can’t breathe. And I know you miss Mallard.”
“I’ll still miss him in Whitwell,” Amber said. “At least at Great Smials, I have cousins to teach how to read, things to distract me.”
“I think we should stay through winter,” Heather announced, and braced herself for her sister’s wrath. There was no great time to bring up the topic, so they may as well figure things out before their parents could corner them. “I don’t think I could withstand being in the Smials this winter. Anyway, I plan to stay.”
Amber didn’t say anything at first. She watched her son on the floor as he played with his blocks. He could spell his name already and a few shorter words like ‘cat’, ‘dog’, and ‘bird’. He concentrated hard on his letters, forgetting everything else around him. He probably wouldn’t even notice if she brought out the bag of snacks she had packed for him unless she put it under his nose. He had his father’s nose, small and round, and his father’s short brow and narrow cheeks.
Amber smiled fondly at her son and nudged him gently with her foot. She had to nudge him a few times before he finally noticed and looked up, wide brown eyes questioning. “Yes, Mum?” he asked.
“Would you like to have Yule at your Grandmum and Grandda’s this year?” she asked him.
Arlo nodded. “Can I play with the little chicks?”
“You may feed the chicks, if there are any. And there’s always the chance one of the barn cats will have a litter while we’re there,” Amber said.
“Can I keep a kitty?” he asked hopefully.
“We’ll see,” Amber answered and patted his cheek. She waited until he was playing again, then sighed and looked at her sister. “Fine. We’ll stay through winter, but only if we stay in the guest house.”
“I’ll speak with Da after the Fair is over,” Heather said.
After luncheon, they all took the opportunity to stretch their legs and walked over the hills for an hour. Heather, Clematis and Esmeralda crowded around a tree with Arlo and showed the lad all the things hiding in its branches. Amber and Adalgrim hiked up the steeper of the hills, enjoying the sunshine and light breeze in companionable silence. Nab and Sprig tended the ponies, then strolled a short distance away to survey the hills and road in order to decide the best track to take to Waymoot. Pally took Ami aside and led her to an empty outbuilding at the edge of a nearby field.
“What exactly do you think you’re doing with Sprig?” he asked her.
“What do you mean?” Ami asked in return. “I’m being his friend.”
“Is that all? Because you’ve been flirting with him ever since we’ve left the Smials,” Pally accused.
Ami laughed, too stunned to do anything else.
“I’m serious, Darling,” Pally said. “You ask to sit with him on the ride, you start asking him questions about where he’s from, you touch his arm.”
Ami gawked at her brother, her shock quickly turning to anger at what he was suggesting. “I don’t believe you!” she finally got out. “What? I’m forbidden to talk to them? When you flirt with every single barmaid at The Wooly Ram!”
“That’s different,” Paladin said.
“Yes, it is. You’re expected to be a little bawdy and flirty at a tavern. It’s one of the reasons for going. The barmaids and the patrons all know their place, though, and while we might flirt inside the tavern, it doesn’t go beyond those walls,” Pally said.
Ami shook her head. “If I want to be friends with Sprig and Nab, I don’t see what’s so wrong with that! They’re perfectly nice lads.”
“If you want to be friendly with the help, that’s all well and good,” Pally said. “The flirting is not.”
“Listen to you! I never took you for such a prude, Pally. ‘The help!’”
“Yes, they are the help, whether you accept that or not. You are in a position of authority over them, and you sit there next to Sprig, blushing and fawning. It’s not exactly as though he has an option in it, and if you paid any attention you’d realize you’re making him uncomfortable. But he can’t very well tell you to back off and mind your place, now can he? Now, they’re nice lads, as you say, and I like them quite a lot. Which is why I don’t want to see either of them get dismissed, which is exactly what will happen if you continue on like you are,” Pally said, crossing his arms. “So either you start behaving yourself, or I’m telling Da what you’re doing. He’ll send Sprig back to the Smials as soon as we reach the Fair. Is that what you want?”
“No,” Ami said through clenched teeth. “I don’t want that.”
“Then leave him be, and the other one as well,” Pally warned. He turned on his heels and headed back for the carriage, leaving Ami to brood alone.
Ami returned to the carriages only when it was time to leave. She ignored her brother, opting to ride with Heather, Amber and Esme. Pally took Arlo to the other carriage and handed him to Clematis, ignoring Ami as well. He knew it would be pointless to talk to her again until she had time to calm down and really think about what he’d said. She was rational enough, given time. Adalgrim followed Pally inside and joined his wife in playing with his grandson. Nab and Sprig shut the carriage doors and climbed into the coach seats, grateful for some peace and quiet.
They stopped again for tea, but only to stretch their legs and take a small bite. They were all eager to get to Waymoot, and so they were on their way again just a half-hour later. They reached the town as the sun was beginning to wan, turning the sky above a brilliant shade of pink. Nab pulled his carriage ahead of Sprig’s and led the way to The Lounging Kitten Inn.
The inn was bustling and bursting with guests traveling to the Free Fair. There were a large number of carriages, carts and traps parked in the field next to the inn. They would park the carriages there for the night before stabling the ponies, but first, they had to drop their passengers off at the door. They slowed the ponies to a pace and waited until the cart in front of the inn’s door pulled away.
“We must be there,” Ami said and pulled aside the curtain.
“So we are,” Heather agreed.
A moment later, the carriage stopped with a small jolt and they could hear Nab climbing down from the coach’s seat. The door opened and Nab offered his hand to help the lasses climb down. They were joined soon by their parents, Pally and Arlo from the carriage behind them.
Adalgrim nodded formally to Nab and Sprig. “You will see to stabling the ponies,” he stated.
“Of course, Mr. Took,” Nab said, bowing back.
The coachhobbits waited until their passengers were inside before climbing into their seats one more time. They were about to pull away from the door when Ami stepped back outside, followed closely by Pally, who she ignored completely.
“Master Sprig,” she said formally. “I am sorry if I caused you any discomfort with my attentions this morning. Rest assured, I will not put you in such a position again.” Then she paused, waiting.
Sprig was stumped. He couldn’t begin to imagine what she meant by that, but at last he simply nodded, removing his hat as he did so. “I thank you, Miss Ami,” he replied, as that was clearly what she wanted to hear, or so he thought.
“You’re welcome,” Ami replied tightly. She turned back to go inside, sparing her brother a scathing look on the way.
“What was that about, do you wonder?” Nab asked, once they had parked the carriages and were unfastening the ponies.
“Couldn’t say,” Sprig answered.
They took the ponies to the stables and saw them to a stall. They brushed them down, fed and watered them, then went to find their own refreshment. Sprig turned towards the inn door, but Nab continued towards the road. Sprig hurried to catch up.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Home,” Nab said. “I want to introduce you to my runt of a sister. She’s no beauty like your Miss Darling, but she’s comely enough and more within your reaches, I daresay.”
“Won’t they miss us?” Sprig asked.
“They won’t even notice we’re gone, so long as we’re back by first breakfast,” Nab replied. “Now come on; Mama’s the best cook in these parts, better than any cook they’ve got at the Smials.”
With that promising statement, all other thoughts fled their heads as they dashed up the road towards the outskirts of town.
Inside the inn, Adalgrim quickly secured his family’s lodgings for the night and they followed the proprietor to the room. He ordered dinner to be brought to them, and while they waited for their meal, they each took turns at the basin, washing away the travel grime and sweat.
There were only two beds in the room, but they were large enough to fit six stout hobbits with room to spare. The lasses took the bed nearest the window, leaving the lads with the other.
“Five lasses in one bed, three lads in the other,” Pally said. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
“You’re sleeping with Arlo. Trust me, it’s fair,” Amber corrected.
Their meal arrived then. Heather let in the kitchen hand, whose hands were too full of the tray to work the doorknob. He stepped into the parlor, which also doubled as the dining room, and set to arranging the plates and dishes on the table. Behind him came a barmaid with another tray loaded with mugs of ale as well as a tea service. They both bowed or curtsied when they were finished, then let themselves out as the family sat to their meal.
When the food was finished and all their corners filled, the family made their way back to the common room. They had only just glimpsed the other patrons as they came through earlier. They had noticed many working-class hobbits but also a good number of gentry. Now they saw that the room was full of Bolgers, Clayhangers, Boffins, Brownlocks, Hornblowers and Bagginses.
“Bilbo’s here!” Esme exclaimed in Ami’s ear. “Do you think he’ll tell us some of his Adventures if we ask?”
“Have you ever known him not to?” Ami replied, just as eager as her sister for a tale or two.
“I think I’ll step outside for a stroll,” Amber said.
“I’ll join you,” Heather said. The sisters linked arms and made their way outside into the warm night air; the sun had set whilst they were eating and stars now dotted the sky overhead.
“Dora’s here,” Clematis said with surprise. “I hadn’t expected her.”
“Why not?” Ami asked.
“Her mother’s been sickly,” Adalgrim answered.
“That’s hard. Bilbo’s Aunt Linda passed this winter also,” Pally said.
Clematis nodded. “It was a hard winter for many folk.” She glanced around the common room, searching. “I don’t see Dudo or his family. Perhaps they stayed behind to look after Ruby, rather than Dora. Let’s talk to her, dear.”
She took Arlo’s hand and made her way through the crowd to where Dora was sitting. Adalgrim followed after her.
“Look, the children are starting to sit around Bilbo,” Esme said and tugged on Ami’s arm. “Come on. We’ll want good seats.”
Ami, Esme and Pally joined the others around Bilbo, who grinned up at them in eager excitement. Bilbo loved telling his tales, nearly as much as the children enjoyed hearing them. The Took children were by far the oldest of the group here tonight. The Bagginses and Bolgers in attendance were all in their teens or younger.
Four-year old Nora Bolger took the seat of honor on Bilbo’s knee. Ami and Esme took seats next to Peony and Porto Baggins, and Pally joined Ponto Baggins and Wilimar and Heribald Bolger. A few Boffins and Hornblowers were in attendance also, and they all looked up at Bilbo expectantly.
“Miss Nora,” Bilbo said to the lass on his knee. “What story would you like to hear tonight?”
Nora put a finger to her mouth and considered the question seriously. “I don’t know,” she said slowly a few moments later, still thinking.
“What about the feast at Lake Town?” her brother Heribald suggested.
“Um… No,” Nora finally decided.
“What about the dinner party of the Wood Elves?” Peony prompted.
“Um… … No,” Nora rejected at last.
“Honey cakes with the bear!” her other brother Wilimar exclaimed.
“No,” Nora said with a shake of her head.
“The troll mutton!” Ponto and Porto said at the same time.
“Ew! No,” Nora said. “I want to know what you had for breakfast,” she finally announced.
There was a brief pause at this, then the air was buzzing with questions.
“Did you have to cook for all those dwarves?” Ponto asked.
“Who did the hunting?” Porto and Wilimar wanted to know.
“How did you know what herbs to gather? Do they look like our own?” Peony asked.
Bilbo laughed and held up his hands for silence. “Now, those are all very good questions,” he said, tipping a wink to the Tooks in his audience. Plenty of time for more adventurous stories later, once the younger one were abed.
“Now, believe it or not, I did very little of the cooking,” he began. “Let me tell you a secret about Dwarven fare. It’s the most delicious food you could hope to eat that isn’t fixed by a hobbit’s hand, but it does give you the oddest dreams…”
Across the room, Clematis and Adalgrim finally made it to Dora, having been stopped along the way for brief greetings with some of the other patrons.
“Good evening, Dora,” Clematis greeted. “Would you mind it terribly if we joined you?”
Dora looked up, her face lighting into a grin as soon as she saw them and little Arlo. “Why, it would be my pleasure,” she said and moved aside to make room for Clematis on her bench. Adalgrim took the bench opposite.
Dora held her hands out for Arlo and sat him in her lap. “Why, aren’t you sprouting up like a weed!” she exclaimed to the lad.
“I sure am!” Arlo agreed, having heard this statement several times over his short life.
“You remember your cousin Dora Baggins?” Adalgrim said to Arlo. “She’s your second cousin twice removed on your mother’s side.”
“Hallo Cousin Dora,” Arlo said. “I can count to five.”
“You can? Well, I would truly love to hear that,” Dora said.
Arlo held up a hand and started counting as he raised one finger after another. “One, two, three, four and five!”
“Very good!” Dora praised. “Aren’t you a smart lad?”
“I sure am!” Arlo agreed again and grinned toothily, missing Dora’s look of shock.
“Arlo dear, why don’t you run off and join the others?” Clematis said, pointing towards the group surrounding Bilbo. She took Arlo back and set him on his feet. She watched the little lad run off and waited until he was safely in Ami’s lap before turning back to Dora. She patted Dora’s hand. “How are you, dear? How is your mother?”
“Oh, she’s well enough,” Dora replied, instantly looking ten years older. “She’s recovering. I was going to stay with her, but Dudo talked me into coming to the Fair for a bit of a holiday. I’ve been caring for Mother since winter without pause for breath.”
“It must be so trying for you,” Adalgrim said.
“She’s my mother, so I make do,” Dora said. “I must admit though that it is nice to get away, and Dudo was right. There was little point in my remaining behind, what with him staying behind to see to the Bywater Fair. His Ana can care for Mother just as well as I can, after all.”
“How are Dudo and Ana, and little Daisy?” Clematis asked.
They spent the next hour going over the Baggins news and gossip, before turning the conversation to the Tooks.
“I am dreadfully sorry to hear about Mallard and Chaco,” Dora said, taking her turn to pat Clematis’s hand now. “I thought I saw Amber and Heather earlier. How are they faring, the poor dears?”
“Not well, I’m afraid,” Clematis said. She told Dora briefly of the problems their daughters were having. “We convinced them to come home to Whitwell with us after the Fair. We’re just not sure what else to do. Would you have any advice for us?”
“I believe that you’re doing all that you can already,” Dora said. “You need to give them time and space to grieve, which you are. That they are still so fragile is troubling, but they were married for so little time. Amber and Mallard had but six years together, and she lost the bairn she carried on top of that. She has two loses to grieve. Poor Heather had barely two years with her Chaco. They could still remarry, I suppose, but I think we all know that’s rather unlikely. Amber at least has Arlo, but Heather will never know what it’s like to be a mother. Just give them a little more time. You'll know when it's time to push them to take the next step, if they don't do so on their own.”
“I just feel like we should be doing more,” Adalgrim said. “I feel so useless.”
“You’re doing enough,” Dora assured him and Clematis. “Trust in that. If you’re not sure of yourself, how can you expect them to be?”
“Thank you, Dora,” Clematis said, feeling better already. “We can always count on you for sound advice.”
“I do what I can,” Dora said. She patted Clematis’s hand once more and turned the conversation to more cheerful matters. “What of your other children. Has Darling any suitors yet?”
“There are a good number of lads interested in Darling, but she doesn’t seem to want to settle on any of them,” Adalgrim said. “She spends most of her time with Rumbi, but I honestly don’t know what I would do with Lalia as an in-law.”
“Algie,” Clematis chided. “Lalia isn’t so bad. Besides, it’s Darling who would have to deal with her more than us.” She shook her head. “I don’t doubt that Rumbi would make her a fine husband, and to be the future Lady is quite an opportunity. It helps that Lalia likes her so much; she wouldn’t be so overbearing and Rumbi does know how to handle his mother. I just don’t think Darling is as interested in Rumbi as he is in her.”
“Then she shouldn’t marry him,” Dora concluded. “A lass must listen to her heart as much as her head in such matters.”
“Darling is just so… impulsive,” Adalgirm said. “Honestly, I have nightmares of her coming home with the innkeeper’s son.”
Dora raised her eyebrows at this but smiled kindly. “There are worse decisions Darling could make than the innkeeper’s son, so long as the lad is respectable.” Meaning, of course, that his father owned the shop and did not simply rent it or work it for the Hobbit who did own it.
“I suppose that is true enough,” Adalgrim admitted, though they both noticed his shudder.
“Is Paladin courting any lasses?” Dora asked, and they spoke of their children’s potential romances for the remainder of the night.
Their children, meanwhile, sat out the storytelling of Dwarven food and cooking techniques, until at last they were the remaining three members of Bilbo’s audience. Bilbo gave a mighty sigh and beamed down at his Took cousins.
“Now, how about a real adventure story?” he said with a wink.
Ami, Esme and Pally all nodded eagerly. “Tell us about the eagles,” Ami and Esme said.
Pally would have rather heard about the dragon’s hoard again, but given that Ami was still angry with him, he figured that appeasing her was more important at the moment. He nodded at their choice of story, and they all settled in to hear about Bilbo’s narrow escape from the wolves and goblins of the Misty Mountains.
The following morning saw the Bagginses and Tooks heading out together. They ate second breakfast in their carriages, but stopped off the road for elevenses and luncheon. The children ran over the fields, releasing their energy and excitement as best they could. Pally was pleased to see that Ami didn’t even give Sprig a backward glance. She still wasn’t talking to Pally, but at least she wasn’t flirting with the help anymore either.
They came to Michel Delving just in time for tea. If they had thought The Lounging Kitten crowded, it paled next to the commotion that bubbled through the town and spilled out onto its fields. The carriages could hardly be navigated down the streets, so crowded they were with hobbits coming and going. The fair might not begin for another day, but nearly everyone had already arrived, to secure rooms at the inns or in private homes, or field space for their tents, booths and exhibits.
The Bagginses veered off towards The Soaring Falcon Inn but Nab and Sprig continued to the other side of town to The Roosting Pheasant Inn. There Adalgrim confirmed their room was in order, then he and Pally lent their hands to unloading the carriages. Clematis and Amber reached the room ahead of them, to decide who would sleep where in the tight quarters, then directed the coachhobbits and ostlers where to put the luggage.
The family took turns in the bathing rooms to wash properly and change into clean clothes after their tea, before setting off across town to join the Bagginses for dinner at the Falcon. Before going though, Ami slipped outside to the stables to speak with the master ostler. She might not be permitted to speak with her friends, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t look out for their welfare.
“Oh, they’re bedded down in a soft patch of hay already, Miss,” the master ostler assured her. “Don’t you fret. We’ve plenty of work for them here, what with all the guests and all. They’ll earn their food and then some.”
“But they must be allowed to enjoy the fair as well,” Ami insisted. “This is their holiday and I will not have them work through the whole thing.”
“Of course not, Miss,” the master ostler agreed, nodding his head. “I said as they’d earn their food and then some. They’ll have coin to spend at the fair, not a worry.”
“They are to have at least a half-day each day. Morning or night, it makes no difference, so long as they get to choose,” Ami continued.
The master ostler paused only a moment at this. It would deprive him of two good grooms for much longer than was normal, but they could make do easily enough. “I’ll let them know, Miss,” he agreed. He would also let them know that taking so long on the fairgrounds while the other ostlers only had a few hours to enjoy the sights was likely to be frowned upon by their fellows. He would leave it up to Sprig and Nab how long they chose to play.
Ami curtsied. “Thank you, Master,” she said and twirled around to return to the common room before her family could notice she was missing.
To be continued…
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