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Ferumbras sighed again and closed his eyes. The rocking of the carriage lulled him into a near slumber - he hadn’t liked lying to Twitch earlier, but it had been clear the lad needed more sleep - and he thought back on the events of the past week from a safe distance.
After his mother’s passing, there had of course been an inquiry. Paladin and Eglantine had sat stiffly, their daughter Pearl weeping between them. Pearl had explained everything that happened as best she could: struggling to push Lalia to the main door, Lalia insisting that she prop the chair as close to the edge of the stoop as possible, Pearl doing her best not to get too close to the decline, Lalia nagging her that she still didn’t have a good enough view. Pearl, flustered and anxious to satisfy the Lady of the Smials, had done her best to inch the chair forward, but Pearl was just a little thing and had to put most of her weight and strength behind every push and prod, and the last one had proved the fatal one.
There had been a few witnesses on hand. A couple of laundresses carrying a load of wash rags from the stables cleared the bend in the hill in time to see the chair’s front wheels tip over the edge and balance there precariously for a half-minute as Pearl struggled to pull it back, quickly losing the battle. Lalia had not helped, sitting back in her chair with such force that she knocked poor Pearl away and the chair and nature had taken over from there. The laundresses and Pearl had run down the hill to try to catch Lalia and the chair, but they were simply not fast enough.
The last witness had been none other than Reginard Took, coming back from some mischief no doubt. He had been at the bottom of the hill, enjoying a leisurely walk, when he heard the calls of the lasses on the hill above him. He looked up just in time to see the runaway wheeled chair and step aside from its path. A couple of lengths above him on the hill lay Lalia, prone, still and silent. He had run up the hill and reached Lalia at the same time as the lasses. A quick survey of the situation had convinced him to send Pearl to fetch the healer. He had then gone off to the barn to see about getting a stretcher made, leaving the laundresses to attempt reviving Lalia.
Ferumbras had spoken at length with the healer. She examined Lalia thoroughly and determined that the fall itself would not have been fatal, had Lalia been of slighter build. “Bruised and sore for certain, and a break or two would be only expected, had it been anyone else. But Lalia, the poor dear, was likely crushed to death under her own weight. Three ribs cracked and pierced her lungs. Even if the laundresses had succeeded in turning her onto her back, it would not have helped.”
The news had traveled fast, and the rumors even faster and wider. Soon enough, Tooks and relations from all over the Shire began to descend upon the Smials to view Lalia’s remains, if only to assure themselves the rumors were true. Ferumbras realized quickly that a public statement in regards to the true nature of his mother’s passing needed to be made to stem the whispers and fingers pointed at Pearl. The statement had done some good, but there were still many who believed it all a plot of the Whitwell Tooks.
Chapter 9 - Decisions and Dilemmas
To say that Ami was surprised at Rumbi’s proposal would be an understatement. Of all the surprises she might have guessed, the box of heirlooms she now clasped in her hands would not have been one of them. She wasn’t at all certain what to make of it, except that she was relieved beyond words that Rumbi had agreed so readily to giving her time to think.
She crossed the fairgrounds lost in thought, oblivious to the hobbits who were made to dodge out of her way to avoid running into her. She was fond of Rumbi and cared for him deeply. He had always been one of her special cousins, whom she could rely on for anything. She was certain beyond doubt that he would make a fine husband and that they could be happy together. She simply had never thought of him in that way before now, not for herself at any rate. Rather, she had always thought he’d be well-suited for Heather, except that she had picked Chaco Brockhouse, only to lose him after two short years this winter past.
She tried to think of him that way now and found it surprisingly easy to do. She could picture perfectly waking up in Great Smials every morning, walking hand in hand with him down the ramps and tunnels to the dining hall, or even making first breakfast in their own little kitchen. She could help teach the children their sewing and history, and enjoy leisurely time with her friends. She might even see Rumbi in the tunnels at times. They’d share a secret little smile before passing each other and going on their ways. In the evenings, they would talk about their day or read by the fire. As for the more romantic implications of marriage... Ami blushed and was grateful that no one was watching her too closely. She didn’t even know what it would be like to kiss him, much less anything else.
She cleared her throat and moved onto to other matters. She was sure that her parents approved of the match. Rumbi would have asked their permission first. There was Lalia, of course, and the obvious need to be trained in the duties of the Thain’s lady. Rumbi had promised not to let Lalia snap at her again, so Ami knew that would not be a worry. She could live under Lalia’s tutelage, and once Lalia forgot her scorn, she would be pleasant company again. Ami wasn’t concerned on that account. And Fortinbras was a dear, sweet uncle who had always favored her. She would be near Heather, Amber and Arlo. She missed seeing her nephew grow up. Each time she saw him, he seemed to have grown by leaps and bounds. Yes, she could see it all very well.
So why wasn’t she more excited?
She reached the Took tent circle without realizing that she had been headed there. She paused, wondering what to do next, and realized she still held the box in her hands. She couldn’t very well walk around the fair with such valuables; she loathed the idea of putting the box down somewhere and losing it. Shrugging, she went to Sigibert’s tent, as she would be going there later tonight, after the bonfires.
Unfortunately, in her state of distraction, she had managed to forget that it was Midyear’s Day. The wedding ceremonies would be performed tonight and Alchemilla’s sister, mother, aunts and female cousins were streaming in and out of Sigibert’s tent in a flurry to get all the last-minute preparations completed. Ami managed to tuck the box beneath her things before she was spotted and not a moment too soon. Before she knew what happened, she was right in the middle of the throng and everything else was forgotten.
Lalia, Gardenia and Dora sat in the middle of the Falcon’s common room, enjoying a cordial luncheon. They had already exhausted the topic of the elections and were discussing the various attractions and displays available at the fair. Gardenia wanted to stroll the art section, being in need of a new landscape for her dining room. If she could not find something she liked, she should be able to find an artist who would accept a commission. Dora requested to go to the carpentry section afterwards, as she required a more comfortable rocking chair for her parlor. Lalia, not one to stroll about when she could have someone else do it for her, would be heading to the sewing circle, where she intended to begin work on a new shawl for Ami.
Dora raised an eyebrow at this but only said, “That’s kind of you.”
Lalia’s mouth pinched in at the corners. She sniffed and said, “Ferumbras is convinced I can make my forgiveness more apparent to the lass by giving her my riding shawl for a Yule gift. However, that was the last thing my mother ever gave me, so I’m rather attached to it. Giving Darling one made by my own hands should be apology enough. She is a dear thing, for all she can’t keep a thought in her head for more than half a minute. It’s the least I can do, considering she may well be my future daughter-in-law.”
“I’m sure she will appreciate the effort and thought behind it,” Gardenia said. “The poor thing still looked shaken last time I saw her. She is not accustomed to being scolded in such a manner, except by her own mother of course, and Clematis can never stay angry with her for long.”
“She’s an endearing young lady,” Dora said. “It is always difficult to remain angry with anyone for too long. Add that dimpled smile of hers, and it’s a wonder Clematis can become angry at all.”
“Oh, that isn’t the reason,” Lalia said with a wave of her hand. “Everyone’s always tiptoed around Darling because of this Took curse she’s supposed to have, of all the inane things to believe. Everyone knows the luck of the Tooks, yet they continue to insist that Darling is going to fall over at any moment because she was born on Overlithe - considered the luckiest of days for near everything else! She’s been pampered beyond what is good for her because of it. I doubt she’d be so forgetful if she had to live with some consequences.”
Dora and Gardenia had to concede the point, if not the spirit in which it was given. Dora finished nibbling on her last strawberry. “Whoever started that rumor at any rate? It wasn’t considered ill luck when Hildigard was born, nor even after he died so young.”
“Undoubtedly, it was one of the servants, and it just spread like wildfire from there,” Lalia said. “Leave it to the help to come up with such ridiculous prattle.”
“I’ve known a fair number of learned Hobbits who come up with ridiculous prattle as well,” Gardenia said, a slight edge to her voice and gleam in her eye. Lalia managed to look contrite.
“Come dears,” said Dora, “let us pay the bill and head for the fairgrounds. I’ve been cooped up for the last two days and I’m eager to see what the fair has to offer.”
They each left a couple of coins on the table and departed without another word spoken between them.
Rumbi and Paladin left The Pheasant, no more the wiser as to Ami’s whereabouts. They found only Amber and Arlo in the room, both curled on one of the beds fast asleep. Ami was nowhere to be found. They asked the barkeep, who stated Ami hasn’t been back since she left last night. On a hunch, Pally went to the stables and spoke with Sprig, but he had even less information to offer than the barkeep.
“At least she is being careful to keep her distance from the help,” Rumbi said with forced cheer.
“She’s not hiding from you,” Pally said assuringly. “She’s giving thought to your proposal. That’s a good thing.”
“Perhaps I should have waited until her and Mother were on good terms again,” Rumbi mused.
“Something like that would not influence her decision,” Pally said. “Wherever she is, I’m sure she’s all right. Let us get back to the races. I want to see how my wager went.”
Ferumbras did his best not to think about Ami for the rest of the afternoon, a goal he succeeded at only one in every ten attempts. He was burning to know what had happened to her and why she hadn’t kept her word to meet him. Despite Pally’s reassurances, he was certain that his proposal was the cause for Ami’s disappearance. Well, there was nothing he could do about that now, except give Ami the time he had promised her to make her decision. If only his best mate, Adelgar, were here, but he had stayed in Tuckborough to help with the running of the fair there. Pally at least was proving a good friend in a pinch, and for that Rumbi was eternally grateful.
Finally, the races were finished. Paladin did well with his wagers, breaking even. Saradoc faired better, winning a ducat overall, which he split with his brother for his sound advice in wagering. Esme had only betted in one race and she jiggled her winnings in her purse.
“I’m going to look for Ami,” she announced and, turning on her heel, headed towards the tent circle.
“What is going on with your sisters anyway? Every time I turn around, one or another seems to have vanished,” Mac said.
Pally shrugged. “Amber’s at the inn with Arlo or was a couple of hours ago. Heather is no doubt helping Alchemilla prepare for the wedding, and Darling is... well, she’s Darling.”
“I’m surprised she doesn’t have a suitor yet,” Sara said. “I would figure the lads would be cramming the tunnels to knock on her door.”
“We don’t live at the Smials though, do we?” Pally said smoothly, sparing Rumbi from having to answer. “I’m grateful for it. I would hate to have to be batting lads away all day. The only suitable lads in Whitwell are already courting or married, or still years from reaching courting age, so that rules any of them out.” He glanced at Rumbi, hoping this information would ease any worries he might have about Ami being courted by another without his knowledge.
Mac jiggled his winnings in his pocket. “Do you think there are any of those fishing reels left? They were dandy and I need a new one.”
“Only one way to find out,” Sara said and the friends changed direction. “I think I will get Mother some gloves, and Father needs a new set of braces. We should get our aunts and uncles something too. Aunt Prima will want lace or yarn, and Uncle Dodi always needs chalk and slate, and...”
“Are you planning to get yourself anything?” Pally asked, amused.
“Oh aye,” Sara said and winked. “A whole apple pie all to myself. No sharing this one, lads. You’re on your own!”
“Is that so? We’ll see about that,” Mac said.
“You won’t actually, as I’ll be buying it when none of you are with me,” Sara said. “Such as now!” He darted off without warning, but Mac and Pally were fast on his heels.
Rumbi stood back and watched them go. He would see them later at the wedding ceremonies, and he knew Pally would make some excuse for his sudden absence. He needed to get ready for the wedding ceremonies himself. The Thain usually took no part in the ceremonies performed at the Free Fair, but his father did conduct a good many in the Tooklands throughout the rest of the year. Fortinbras wanted Rumbi to be at the ceremonies tonight, ready to observe the mayor and learn all he could.
He went to the tent circle and changed into his best suit. His father was already there, waiting and taking the opportunity to read.
“Has she asked?” Rumbi asked without preamble.
“Hm?” Fortinbras hummed and looked up from his book. “Oh, your mother. I haven’t seen her yet, but I’ve decided what I will tell her. I’ll tell her that you became too nervous to ask Darling but you were determined to do so before the end of the fair. That should give you the time you need, she won’t have reason to harass Darling, and she’ll likely feel so sorry for you that she’ll make you hotcakes for first breakfast tomorrow. She’ll likely also want to speak with you.”
Rumbi nearly hugged his father. He would happily take his mother’s lectures if it meant that Ami would be spared them. “Thank you, Father. Have you seen Darling?”
“She’s with Alchemilla,” Fortinbras said with a wave of his hand in the general direction of Sigibert’s tent. He went back to his book.
“Has she been here all afternoon?” Rumbi asked.
Fortinbras nodded. “From what I can tell, any Took lass that made the mistake of coming here throughout the day got roped into doing something. You know Diantha. Once she has you in her clutches, you’re lucky to get away. She’s worse than ever at the moment, barking orders and sobbing in between about her little lass leaving the nest. Sigibert isn’t much better, so I suggest you stay away from the groom’s tent as well. Best you just sit down and wait it out until six.”
“I can do that,” Rumbi said and sat next to his father. He picked up another book from the small stack, but paid no mind to the words in front of him. He could feel hope fluttering in his chest again and he imagined just how wonderful it would be to call Ami wife.
“Oh, Millie, you’re a portrait!” Ami said as all the lasses stood back from the bride-to-be.
Alchemilla stood in the middle of the tent. She wore a periwinkle dress trimmed in white lace. The bodice dipped slightly between her bosom, and a lace necklace with a teardrop amethyst rested upon her chest, a gentle tease for the bridegroom. Her hair was swept back with a simple lace ribbon, her curls trailing down to tickle her shoulders.
“Really?” Alchemilla said, nervousness and excitement colliding in her gut. She just wanted it to be midnight already; she and Ronaldo wouldn’t be able to slip away until after the bonfires were lit.
Heather nodded in approval, a fiendish gleam in her eye. “You’re lovely. Don’t plan on wearing that dress for very long.”
“Calluna Took!” chided Diantha. It took everyone a few moments to realize Diantha was talking to Heather, so rarely did anyone call her by her proper name.
The elder Calluna merely chuckled and took advantage of her mother’s absence to draw out the pipe she had taken from one of the young lads earlier that day. “Your Ronnie will have you out of that gown in two winks is my bet.”
Diantha turned her scowl on Calluna. “Now really!”
“Oh, posh!” Calluna said. “How is the lass to know anything, if we don’t warn her? It’s custom, after all.”
“Warn her?” Ami asked.
She shouldn’t have spoken. Realizing that there were still innocent tweens amongst them, she and her younger cousins were soon ousted from the tent, nearing colliding with Esme. Ami clapped a hand over Esme’s mouth before she could speak and they all pressed their ears to the tent flap. Their attempt overhear anything revealing was thwarted when Gardenia walked by with her arms full of fresh-cut flowers. With an arch of her eyebrow, she had them following her back to the cooking circle where they sat and made garlands for the bride and her court.
“What do you think she meant, warn her?” Ami asked. “About what?”
Rosamunda shrugged. “How am I supposed to know?”
“I know, and it’s nothing like you would think watching the livestock,” said Verbena. She was the second youngest of Isembold’s granddaughters, but only a couple of years younger than Ami. Her sister Euphorbia had been married earlier that year and had whispered a few secrets to her. She leaned forward and whispered them to her shocked cousins.
“No! That’s a lie!” said Rosamunda, looking scandalized.
“Ronnie is going to be doing that to my sister?” Dicentra asked.
Ami remained silent for a moment, her cheeks flushed. “How did your sister know? I mean, how did she know that she’d found the right lad?”
Verbena giggled. “She said she knew she was in love with Marco when he picked a leaf from her hair. It was last autumn and it was quite windy. The leaves were falling nearly ten a second and one caught in her hair. He took her hand to stop her - they were strolling along the riverbank at the time - and he reached up, plucked away the leaf and pushed her hair behind her ear. She said that was when she knew she would marry him.”
“Just like that?” Ami asked.
“Why would that make her want to marry him?” Esme asked.
Verbena shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s her story, not mine.”
“Millie said she knew from the moment she saw Ronnie,” Ami said.
“Mum’s said the same thing about Da,” Rosamunda said. She giggled. “She also teases that if she had just looked the other way instead, she would have saved herself years of headaches.”
Ami fingered the half-completed wreath in her lap. “Amber and Heater both said similar things about their lads, not about the headaches but about knowing. They just knew. I remember Amber asking Mum about her own story with Da, the night Amber and Mallard were promised. Mum said it didn’t happen that way for her. Instead, she said that she had always liked Da as a friend. They were good friends for a long time. It wasn’t until after they were married that she realized she loved him and had the whole time.”
“How did that work?” Verbena asked. “Why did she agree to marry him if she didn’t already know she loved him?”
“Because she knew she’d be happy with him,” Ami said. Was that the answer then? Was she to be like her mother and come to realize her love for Rumbi after they were married?
“So how did she know she loved him, then?” Verbena asked, interrupting her thoughts.
“The first winter after they married, he had the flu,” Esme said when it appeared Ami wasn’t going to answer. “She and the healer took it in shifts to watch after him. Even though he was ill and feeling dreadful, he still found the charm to win over the healer, who was one of those healers who think that fellows can’t possibly be as good at the healing arts as lasses. That’s when she knew.”
“I suppose it does happen that way,” Dicentra said, “but it sounds to me like she loved him before that. Maybe she just thought it would feel different than what it did.”
“Then what is it supposed to feel like?” Rosamunda asked, but none of them knew the answer.
They finished the wreaths and delivered them to Diantha. They had tea with the others in the bride’s tent, then went to the fairgrounds to find a good spot to sit and watch the ceremonies. They joined Amber, Heather and Arlo. Not too far from them were Pally, Mac and Sara, and a few Took lads.
“Where have you been?” Heather asked Ami. “I understand you went missing earlier?”
“Helping Millie get ready,” Ami said and avoided Esme’s eye. Esme hadn’t questioned her about how she had come to be in the Took camp in the first place, but Ami knew the question was coming. She would rather have it come later though, when there weren’t so many people around. As if reading her thoughts, Esme reached out and gently pressed her hand. Ami met her gaze then and smiled. Later, they would talk.
The sun slowly waned and as six o’clock approached, the couples to be wed began to arrive. The stage was already set and soon the Mayor was there, with the Thain and Ferumbras, the mayoral candidates and the chief lawyer in charge of the ballot counting. Clematis and Lalia showed up just before the start of the ceremony to hand over the award badges and ribbons. Clematis joined Adalgrim, but Lalia remained near the stage. Fortinbras leaned over and briefly whispered something in her ear. By six o’clock, all were present and the field surrounding the stage was packed full of Hobbits so that not even a bare spot of ground could be seen.
There were over three dozen couples to be wed tonight, a colossal number even for Midyear’s Day. Usually, the couples would form a line, with their witnesses standing nearby. One by one, each couple would move forward to the altar, exchange their vows, have the license signed by their witnesses and then move aside for the next couple. Usually, there were no more than a dozen couples. With so many couples being wed, it would take well past midnight to finish.
“This is going to take forever,” Verbena said, voicing Ami’s thoughts.
“No it won’t,” Saradoc said. “Father said they’re going to have two altars this year. Thain Fortinbras will be helping the new mayor, whoever that is, to conduct half the weddings, while Mayor Lightfoot does the other half. So it will only take half as forever.”
“Half as forever?” Esme asked. “That makes no sense.”
“Sure it does,” Ami said. “Instead of taking forever, it will only take half that long.”
At long last, Mayor Lightfoot tapped the stage with his cane and began with the announcements and prizes of all the contest winners for the day, which in itself took a half-hour to complete. Finally, he called the mayoral candidates to the stage, introduced them and commended them on a successful campaign.
“Unfortunately, we can only have one successor,” Mayor Lightfoot finished his speech. The chief lawyer stepped forward and handed him a sealed scroll. “I would like to commend Mr. Hayfield and his associates for their upstanding job of counting the tallies today.” Everyone applauded. Mayor Lightfoot opened the scroll, unrolled it and read aloud: “Mr. Goodbeck! Step forward, good sir! You are our new Mayor!”
The crowd burst into whistles and cheers, the working-class hobbits clapping louder and longer than the others. Goodbeck stepped forward, looking proud and surprised.
“Would you like to say a few words?” Mayor Lightfoot asked.
“Um.... thank you!” Mr. Goodbeck said and the crowd cheered again.
The other candidates all stepped forward to congratulate Goodbeck and then take their places amongst the crowd. Mayor Lightfoot removed his sash, put it on Goodbeck and shook his hand.
“Now, without further ado, we have couples awaiting their vows. Are you up to it?” Lightfoot asked.
Goodbeck looked dazed, but he nodded and went to his altar. Fortinbras was there to help him if needed, and Goodbeck had a script from which to read to ensure everything was done correctly. Rumbi stood next to his father, silently tormented. He wished now he had waited to propose to Ami. With his own happiness so uncertain, he didn’t know how he would get through an evening of endless weddings.
The first two wedding parties stepped forward and the ceremonies commenced. As the couples completed their vows and the witnesses finished signing the licenses, the parties stepped aside to let the next one come forward. It was a long process, and there were so many couple that by the end of it even Goodbeck no longer needed the script. Rumbi even could have conducted the ceremony, had he the authority. The last two couples sealed their marriages with a kiss, and the audience cheered all the newlyweds while the final witnesses signed their contracts.
The moon was high in the night sky by this time, and the regular feasting hour was well passed. The crowd departed, some going off to their own tents, rooms or homes, but most separated with the wedding parties back to the feasts that awaited them at their camps. While they celebrated, workers would clear the stages and assemble the bonfires for the midnight festival of Overlithe.
The Tooks assembled in their tent circle, the bride and groom at the center to greet them. The feast was grand, considering the limited cookery available. The servants had not let that stop them from creating a meal worthy of the Great Smials banquet hall though. Soon everyone was eating and laughing, and some juniors took up their lutes and pipes. Those who were done eating put down their plates to dance in the aisles, while the others went back for thirds and fourths.
Ami and Esme hugged Alchemilla tightly. Millie was glowing, grinning from ear to ear. “Oh, love, you look so happy!” Esme said.
Millie nodded. “I feel like I’m floating. That is, if I knew what floating felt like, it would probably feel like this,” she said.
“Where’s the honeymoon?” Ami asked.
“You know I don’t know that,” Millie said. “I wouldn’t tell you even if I did. I’m nervous enough without having to worry about scheming cousins showing up to ruin things.”
“We would never do such a thing,” Ami said.
“I would,” Pally said, coming up behind them. He hugged Alchemilla too. “Where’s your husband? Have you lost him already?”
“Husband!” Millie exclaimed. “Can you believe it? I’m a wife now! Oh! There he is. Eating again. I hope he doesn’t get himself too full. I better go check on him.” She dashed off.
“So it begins,” Esme said. “Just a couple more years, and it may be us. Can you imagine?”
“I can,” Ami said, half-wistful, half-uncertain.
“Can you?” Pally asked. “Do you have any prospects?”
Ami frowned and pulled Esme away. “Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” she whispered.
Figuring the most private tent would be Sigibert’s, given his family would be celebrating with the bride, she led Esme there and peeked inside. Empty. They slipped in undetected. Ami went to their sleeping area, pulled out the box containing the bracelet and hair clips, and handed it to Esme. Esme’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she opened the box and saw what lay inside.
“That’s why Rumbi wanted to see me for luncheon,” Ami started but was interrupted by Esme, who bounced on her feet and gave her sister an enthusiastic hug.
“You’re getting married!” Esme exclaimed. “Oh, Darling, this is wonderful! Rumbi’s a good lad, very practical, and he dotes on you so.”
“I told him I need to think about it,” Ami said, stepping back from her sister’s embrace.
Esme paused, her smile dropping. “What’s there to think about?”
“Lots of things,” Ami said. She explained her earlier considerations, which only seemed to confuse Esme more.
“So then what is the problem, if you can see it all so clearly, and it sounds like a delightful life? I think you’re over-thinking things, love. Just go with what your heart tells you. Aren’t you fond of Rumbi?”
“Of course, I am!”
“Then why are you hesitating?”
“I’m not sure. I was surprised, to be certain,” Ami said. “We weren’t even courting. Don’t you think it’s odd that he never asked to court, if he was considering this?” She waved feebly at the box Esme still held, forgotten in her hand.
“Not all couples court before they get married, Darling,” Esme said. “Maybe you’re like Mum and Da. You may grow to love him still and realize you’ve loved him the whole time. He’s a dear to you and always has been. He’s never broken his word to you. He’ll take good care of you. You’ll never want for anything.”
“I know I won’t,” Ami said. “Maybe you’re right and I’m thinking about this too much. Maybe I should just listen to my heart, but my heart says to think about it more.”
“Well, don’t think about it too much,” Esme said. “You did tell him you’d have an answer by the end of the fair. I suggest you stop fretting about it. Enjoy the rest of the night and have fun on your birthday tomorrow. It only comes around once every four years after all. Spend some time with Rumbi and just enjoy his company. My guess is the answer will come to you as easy as pie and you’ll wonder why you spent all that time thinking about it.” She grinned mischievously.
Ami laughed and nodded. “All right.” She stowed the gift box away again. Then she and Esme returned to the festivities.
The sun was setting as they emerged from the tent. Ami stopped to watch as blue turned to gold and crimson to deep violet. Esme stood with her, their arms linked. When the sun sinked below the horizon, Ami sighed. “What a lovely sunrise, don’t you think?” she asked.
Esme arched an eyebrow. “That’s a sunset, dearest, but it is lovely.”
They continued to make their way around the circle lanes, stopping to chat with their friends and cousins as they passed them by. Eventually they made it to the cooking circle again and sat for another bite while there was still food to be had. By this time, Rumbi was also there. He and Ami locked eyes over the fire pit. Rumbi smiled shyly, uncertain, and gave a little nod before going back to his conversation with Reynard Chubb, Calluna’s son. He kept his distance as the evening aged towards midnight, giving Ami the room he had promised her, watching her from the edge of the circle as she laughed and danced with her cousins and friends. Finally, as midnight neared and the time for the lighting of the bonfires approached, Rumbi came to her and offered his arm. She hesitated only a moment before slipping her arm through his.
“Enjoying yourself?” he asked.
“I am,” Ami said. “You and Reynard seemed to have much to talk about.”
“He’s contemplating what he will study for his apprenticeship next year,” Rumbi said. “He’s quite skilled with his hands and has an eye for intricate details. He can’t decide between carpentry and leather craft. I told him he could easily take apprenticeships in both until he figures out which one is more appealing to him, and there’s no reason he can’t continue with both if he decides that as well. Then I started telling him about my failed apprenticeship with carpentry. To this day, Master Tobold runs in the opposite direction whenever he sees me. Clearly, he’s still in fear for the safety of his thumbs.”
Ami laughed. “You weren’t that bad, surely?”
“I’m banned from even touching a hammer,” Rumbi said. “I’m not even allowed to look at a saw.”
Ami giggled helplessly, relaxing into his side. “Well, now, you must tell me these tales. How come I never heard them before?”
“Haven’t you? I thought everyone in the Smials has heard them.”
“I don’t live in the Smials,” Ami reminded him.
“Fair point,” Rumbi said. “Now, let me think. I suppose I shall have to start at the beginning, as it’s also the end. I only had the one lesson, see? From my very first assignment, it was clear I didn’t have the skill for it. All I had to do was hit the nail with the hammer.”
“You couldn’t hit it?” Ami guessed.
Rumbi grinned. “Oh, I hit it several times. Unfortunately, the nail in question happened to be attached to Master Tobold’s finger.”
“You’re making this up,” Ami accused through her laughter.
“Oh, that I were,” Rumbi said. “But alas, it is the truth I speak. After my failed attempt to master hammering, Master Tobold thought I might at least be able to handle a wood plane. It was a good theory, but-”
“Ami!” Heather called them from the fairgrounds as they emerged from the circle. She ran up to them, looking concerned and frantic. “Have you seen Mum or Da?”
“It’s Arlo,” Heather interrupted, wringing her hands. “He’s worsened. He had a slight fever earlier today, so Amber took him to the inn to rest thinking he’d had too much sun. But it’s worse now. He started screeching a horror and he wouldn’t stop fussing. Oh, I knew I should have said something earlier.”
“Where are Amber and Arlo now?” Rumbi asked.
“Going back to the inn as we speak. I thought maybe Mum would know something to give him,” Heather said.
“Why don’t you call for a healer?” Rumbi asked.
Heather frowned. “She doesn’t want a healer.”
“She’s getting one,” Rumbi said. He let go of Ami’s arm and patted her hand. “Find your mother and father and get them to the inn. Heather, go with Amber, get some hot water ordered from the kitchen and get as many candles lit as you can in your rooms. The night is warm, so the healer may not require a fire but she’ll still need light. Get the hearth ready with wood and tinder, just in case. I’ll get the healer and bring her to the inn.”
They separated, Ami returning to the cooking circle to recruit Esme and Pally in her search for their parents. The word of Arlo’s illness spread faster than she could search however, so it was her father who found her fifteen minutes later. Clematis was already on her way to the inn, with Esme and Pally in tow.
“What do you think will happen to Arlo?” Ami asked, her heart in her throat. The glow of the bonfires dotting the fairgrounds, usually a welcome and serene sight, now gave her a sense of foreboding.
“I don’t know,” Adalgrim said.
By the time they reached the inn, Heather, Esme, Rumbi and Pally were sitting in the common room, each looking exhausted. They were sharing a jug of beer. A steaming kettle sat ignored on the table, the teacups untouched. Ami poured herself some tea and listened intently as Heather addressed their father.
“The healer and Mum are with Amber. Arlo’s complaining of a headache, and he’s vomited at least once. The healer thinks it is heatstroke and is working on him. She’s already given him some juices to drink, which seems to have helped, and she has Amber sponge-bathing him,” she said.
“But he’ll be all right, won’t he?” Ami asked.
“Of course he will,” Adalgrim said. “He wouldn’t be the first one to suffer heatstroke during this fair, and he won’t be the last. I’m going to go peek in on them.” He disappeared down the hall.
Rumbi leaned over and poured some beer into Ami’s teacup. She drank without tasting either.
A few minutes later, Clematis and Adalgrim joined them. Adalgrim poured drinks for them both and went for another jug. Clematis smiled bravely for her children. “He’s just a little overheated. He’ll be fine by morning. Why don’t you all go back to the bonfires and enjoy the festivities? There’s really no need for you to be here, and you can assure everyone else that all is well.”
“Can I see Arlo first?” Ami asked.
“Of course, dear. We’ll wait here for you,” Clematis said.
Ami knocked on the door before entering. Inside, the scene was somber. Arlo was stripped of his clothes and lying on the settee. He seemed to have cried himself out and was instead whimpering in between hard breaths. Even in the candlelight, his skin looked pink and angry. Amber sat next to the settee, wringing cloths of cool water from a basin and placing the clothes over her son’s exposed skin. The healer stood at the dining table, rooting through her satchel. Various bottles and bags were scattered on the table around the kettle. The healer, who looked to be about her mother’s age, looked up when Ami entered and smiled.
“You must be the other sister,” she said.
Ami nodded. “Amaryllis Took,” she said with a curtsy. She kneeled across from her sister and ran a hand through Arlo’s soaked curls. “How are you feeling, button?”
Arlo murmured, too soft to make out the words. A small smile fleeted over his lips before he closed his eyes again.
“He’s better than he was,” Amber said. “Poor lamb.” She looked ready to pass out where she sat. Her eyes were puffy, whether from the late hour or earlier tears or both, Ami didn’t know. Her hair was coming out of its bun and sticking up at odd angles. She looked older than her years.
“Do you need me to help with anything?” Ami asked.
“We’ve got it under control, Miss Amaryllis,” the healer said. She came over with a cup of juice. Amber sat Arlo up so he could drink, then lay him back down. “He’s a strong lad, quite hale. He’ll be running around again in a few days, as though nothing happened.”
Ami nodded. “I can stay though,” she offered again. She cast her eyes around the room, looking for something that needed doing. Her gaze fell upon the soiled clothes and sheets that Arlo had been sick on. “I can do the washing.”
“That’ll keep till morning,” the healer said.
“It’s not a bother,” Ami said. She stood and gathered the washing into a basket that was near at hand. In her haste, she didn’t notice she had grabbed the wood basket nor that her hands were shaking. “I’ll be right back.”
“Ami, leave it,” Amber said. “One of the servants will take care of it in the morning.”
“But it’s his favorite shirt,” Ami said. “It won’t take but a minute.” Not waiting for another argument, she left the room.
Her family and Rumbi stood when she entered the common room. None of them asked her about the laundry but they left the inn as one. Heather, Pally and Adalgrim proceeded to the fairgrounds, but the others remained behind. Ami hitched the basket onto a hip and smiled. “I’ll be along as soon as this is finished,” she said.
“I’ll help you,” Esme said, with a pointed look at their mother and Rumbi. Clematis lingered for a moment, then kissed them both on the brow and went to catch up with her husband.
Rumbi looked less convinced but kissed Ami’s brow also. “You won’t be long?”
“Not long at all,” Ami said. Rumbi left then too and Esme and Ami made their way around the back of the inn to where a small streamlet flowed. They followed the streamlet to the river that ran behind the fairgrounds. It was quiet there and isolated. The moon was already high, providing some light to see by. Ami dropped the basket and began to remove the clothes.
“Where’s the soap?” Esme asked.
Ami paused. “I must have forgotten it.”
“We won’t get far without it,” Esme said. “I’ll run back and get some.” She turned and headed back down the stream, walking at a leisurely pace despite her words.
Ami watched until the night enveloped her, then shook out the clothes and sheets. Heedless of the stinging in her eyes, she picked up Arlo’s shirt and dunked it in the river, the water chilling her hands. She twisted out the water and dunked again, repeating this process until it was as clean as it was likely to get for the moment. Then she sat back, pulled her knees to her chest and let the tears fall.
To be continued...
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