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It felt as if all the blood had drained right from her body, down through the sole of her foot into the ground, even though she could feel her heart hammering through her ears.
“Who?” said the Thain’s wife.
“Kira Lamefoot,” said Hal.
“My apologies,” said the Thain. “Magnolia, this is Kira Proudfoot, the girl who lost the Book all those years ago.”
“Thank you, Mr. Took,” said Kira, bowing her head just a little, “but I am twenty-seven now, hardly a ‘girl,’ and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. And I apologise for trespassing on your land. Had I known who you were…” She stopped, trying to think of something to say that would be neither false nor rude. “I should have put more thought into coming down here.”
“Well,” said the Thain, “if it is any comfort to you, all that young Halbarad here asked me was whether or not a storyteller could come by at some point in the near future—not a word about your name, or when you would come. However, since you are here now, your company would be a pleasure—provided, of course, that you are willing to tell stories as my son asked.”
Kira’s eyes glinted. “Oh, I assure you, Mr. Took, I have plenty of stories to share!”
“Hal,” said the Thain, “would you run inside and see if the cooks can put together another small basket? And please ask one of the stablehands to come by and tend to the pony.”
“Yes, Dad!” Hal said, and scampered back in the direction of Great Smials. Mrs. Magnolia Took was unpacking the basket that they had already brought out and unfolding the blanket on the ground.
The Thain gestured for Kira to sit. “So,” he said, “what sorts of tales do you tell, Miss Proudfoot?”
“True ones,” said Kira.
“Pardon?” said Magnolia.
“I’m sorry,” said Kira, “I thought you'd be aware of the special relationship I have with the Thain. I tell Travellers’ Tales—real Travellers’ Tales, ma’am, and other pieces of history that I can glean from the countryside, and I don’t varnish them. I know that some,” she said, giving the Thain a pointed look, “find this activity dangerously subversive, but I can guarantee that none of my listeners, as yet, have gone on any adventures or engaged in any acts of wanton destruction of property. I hope that by allowing me to come here you haven’t endangered your son by awakening in him such, quite frankly, Tookish desires.”
“Miss Proudfoot,” said the Thain, “I think that’s hardly a concern—”
“Of course, I’d forgotten. He’s probably already learned about this stuff, since he’s a Took and not one of the great lice-eaten masses who actually works for a living and consequently has no need for learning, much less those sentimental fripperies known as ‘hopes’ and ‘dreams’…”
“Miss Proudfoot! Pray, do not presume what I or anyone else in this smial thinks—much less that you have a so-called special relationship with me because of a decision made twelve years ago!”
“What decision, Auduin?” said Magnolia, laying a hand on his arm.
“I am referring to the decision to keep our books inside their libraries to prevent another such accident as the one in which Kira was involved. An unfortunate consequence was that she herself no longer had access to those books, which, considering that her initial access to them caused the danger to begin with, was perhaps not as unjust as it, no doubt, felt at the time.”
Kira opened her mouth to make an angry retort, but just then three children came running outside, to the picnic, saying that Hal had bumped into them and told them about the storyteller and where she was.
“Thank you,” said Kira, softening at their arrival, “but as Hal requested me, I think it’s best to wait patiently until he returns, isn’t it?” The children nodded and withdrew to a distance they thought was polite, while Kira began to eat and attempt to make polite conversation with the Thain and his wife. Unfortunately, every few minutes she was interrupted by the arrival of another clump of children; until, by the time Hal came back, basket in hand and stablehand in tow, there were two dozen children of varying ages, and Kira had only gotten a dozen bites in.
“Could you tell us a story now, Kira Lamefoot?” said one of the young Tooks.
“Yes,” said Kira, setting down her food and flicking her eyes over at the Thain once more. “I believe I could manage that.
“Once upon a time, there was a prince of a faraway and noble land who was of the age to marry. And seeing the number of women in his land both fair and good, he decided that he would marry for nothing less than love itself, and would not limit himself to those of his rank. So he disguised himself as a beggar and went among the common people for many months.
“Upon his travels he met a farmer’s daughter, plain, but with a sort of spark in her that caught his interest. So he hired himself at her father’s farm, to be an extra hand, and worked hard and tried to acquaint himself with the entire household.
“The farmer’s daughter did not think much of him, but she still listened to him when he spoke, because no one else would and it was her duty to make all feel at home. And bit by bit he began to cultivate the spark within her, until it turned into a tiny flame. She began to appreciate the things that he had to say, and the more they spoke the less he could keep hidden about himself and his true nature. He told her of his homeland and the good things to be found there, and she believed him. But her friends and family began to distrust the prince, because he was a stranger and did not carry himself the way an ordinary farmhand should.
“At length the farmer’s daughter returned the prince’s regard, for he had loved her for a long time. They plighted their troth under the moonlight and promised to return to his home in a week’s time in order to marry. But on the fifth day her family caught wind of the plan, and tied the prince up in the stables and beat him. In vain he told them of his name and rank, and the people who would surely seek retribution if he should die. And the farmer’s daughter, trying to free him, was also caught, bound, and made to watch him in his torment.
“It is not known whether her family meant to kill the prince, or simply beat him until he learned his lesson. But his wounds were too much for him and he died, and his beloved was inconsolable.
“The farmer’s daughter now packed up her things and ran away from home, to tell the king and the queen what had befallen their son, for none knew where he had gone. But when she told them the sad news, they were furious, said that she had seduced him for her own gain, and then had had him killed so that she might become the royal household’s only heir. They returned her to her family, to grow old and die with a people no longer hers, and the next day made a decree that no nobleman should ever court or marry a peasant, lest they suffer the same fate as their son.
“And that is why among Men the nobles marry among each other, and the peasants among each other, and there is to be as little contact between the two as possible, and it is considered lucky if anyone manages to marry for love.
“Now, if anyone can tell me the meaning of this tale I will gladly tell another, happier and truer. But until then I beg you not to request any more from me, for I shall tell you none.” And Kira returned to her food in stony silence, and when the children—Hal especially—clamoured for an explanation, or another tale, or anything that was better than what she had just given them, she did not reply.
At length the children scattered, until only Hal mournfully remained—and he, too, left when his parents told him to.
“Only true tales, Kira?” said Magnolia.
“I changed the particulars. Normally I don’t do that—in fact, this is the first time I’ve tried.”
“Because I’ve tried telling the actual tale, and people don’t understand.” She turned her eyes to the Thain.
“Whether we do understand it or not,” he said, “you are a guest here and I would appreciate it if you afforded us the same respect we afford you.”
“I’ll thank you for the reminder, then, Auduin.”
“Miss Proudfoot.” Mrs. Took laid a hand upon her arm. “Would you like a tour of Great Smials? I assure you there are plenty of things you would find of interest.”
Kira looked at her. She knew what she was trying to do, and she wanted to protest outright, but she had never been and if Great Smials was anything like Brandy Hall or Bag End (which she somewhat doubted), they’d have ever so many relics of Thain Pippin… “Thank you, Mrs. Took. I should like that very much,” she said, and she chided herself for taking the bait.
“Now,” said Magnolia, when they were nearly at the main door. “Will you tell me what is the matter?”
“Hasn’t your husband already told you?”
Magnolia opened the door for Kira and gestured for her to step inside. “Yes,” she said, “but I am interested in hearing what you have to say, my dear.”
And somehow being called “dear” by the Thain’s wife did not sting. Kira flushed red. “I am sorry,” she said. “But I hadn’t expected Hal to invite me here, much less that he was your son, and the whole thing’s been such a shock…”
“And what of the decision Auduin alluded to?”
“It broke my heart,” said Kira. “And in a way, I think I hate him more than my friend who killed the book, because your husband knows the Histories are real.”
“Hate?” said Magnolia, and her eyes were filled with sorrow.
“I’m sorry.” Kira was studying the hem of her skirt.
“If you wish to return to this smial—and I, for one, should like it if you did, for Hal would be so very sad if you didn’t—I suggest you revise your opinion of its people, Miss Proudfoot.”
“That,” Kira said, “is going to prove most difficult, and I’m afraid I haven’t the heart to try.”
“Well, then,” said Magnolia, “if this is to be your only visit here, I had better show you all the sights. You are rather fond of the Travellers, are you not?”
She showed her the old room—the one that Pippin had spoken of in Fangorn, that was Gerontius’, and hadn’t been changed since he was alive. Peregrin, she heard Magnolia tell her, had restored it—the furniture had to be repaired, it was true, but it was kept in precisely the same locations. A few things had been added since then—Pippin’s sword, for example, as well as a magnificent oak cabinet—but all in all, it still looked, and felt, old. It hadn’t been changed since he retired South, and Kira could tell from the smell alone. Then, there were a few old fancies in the mathom room, which was almost as extensive as (albeit rather more neglected than) the Museum in Michel Delving. All throughout, the smial reminded Kira of nothing so much as High Hole, except that all the grandeur seemed almost natural here, as if it were perfectly normal to place a ball-room with a great big chandelier and silver mirrors in the middle of the smial if you were a Took.
“Is there anything else you’d like to see?” Mrs. Took asked her when she was finished.
Kira hesitated. It was stupid, helplessly stupid even to ask when she knew she would only be able to look, but—“Actually, do you think you could let me see your library?”
“Certainly—oh, why didn’t you say anything earlier? Please, follow me,” she said, and she led Kira back to the mathom room, but turned aside to a wooden staircase with dark green velvet runners, and led Kira up the stairs. Beyond them was a set of double doors that arced together at the top, ornamented by two handsome brass doorknobs. Magnolia held them open, and Kira stepped inside.
The libraries at Brandy Hall and Undertowers were both dark—Undertowers, with its stone walls, torches in sconces, and roaring fireplaces, had the appearance of a dungeon that one wouldn’t mind at all to be locked in, with rocking chairs and blankets so that you could sit down and tell a story. Brandy Hall’s was studded with candles, and the dark wood of the tables where she had seen Kerry working was muted with spilt wax. This one, though, was all light—there were no less than five windows in the ceiling, all shining down on five round tables, with small bookshelves placed in between them to lend the reader some privacy. Then, there was the shelving going all around the circumference of the room—seven shelves, reaching at least as many feet high, and stepladders—stepladders!—that wheeled around on the wall. Tooks, Kira thought to herself, but she knew she was falling in love. Drat.
“Do you mind if I have a look around?” she asked Magnolia. “I—I might be some time.”
Magnolia thought for a moment. “Tell you what—why don’t I leave you here for a while, and when you’re done, you can go back outside and find me or the Thain, and we’ll see what should happen next then, eh?”
Kira nodded. “I’d like that very much, Mrs. Took. Thank you.”
She closed the door behind her, and Kira was left alone in the most beautiful library she had ever seen. It wasn’t fair, she thought, as she circled the stacks, brushing her knuckles against old leather spines that smelt of dust and bygone eras. By rights this should be hers, as much as any Took’s, not because she, too, was a scion of a Traveller, but just the simple fact that she could read. She reached out to a book at random, ready to pull it from its shelf, but her hand stopped an inch away from it. It would not do to get lost in another world when she was already so far from home. She sighed, and kept walking, her crutch making an odd thump against the wood of the floor.
So lost in her thoughts was she that she did not notice the hobbit sleeping at one of the tables in the back, clustered among the shelving, until she was nearly upon him. His arms were sprawled over the desk, and his head lolled over them, so that all she could see of his head was a mop of light brown curls. Cautiously, she took a step around the table to get a better look at his face, only to find that his eyes were, in fact, wide open, and staring right through her.
She nearly stumbled back in shock. “Hullo,” she said.
He squinted to focus his eyes on her, then blinked, sat up, and said, “Hullo.”
She paused, unsure of what to say next, then held out her hand. “My name’s Kira. What’s yours?”
“I’m Alaric.” He took her hand and shook it. “I’m sorry—what are you doing here?”
“The Thain’s wife showed me in. Am I not supposed to be here?”
“No, no, it’s not that! I just wasn’t expecting—well, anyone, really. If I had been—”
“You’d have found a better place to take a nap?” Kira smiled.
“No, I’d have looked like I was doing something. I wasn’t napping; I was hiding.”
“Well, half hiding, half nursing a headache, and half punishing myself so I won’t have to be punished by someone else, but mostly hiding.”
Kira pursed her lips together. “This doesn’t seem like a particularly good place to hide.”
“Oh, it’s marvellous! Hardly anyone ever comes up here, and if they do, I can pull out a book and make it look like I’m reading, and then—lo, I’m doing something productive and I get a pat on the head and I get left alone again. Probably my favourite spot to go to.”
“Hmm. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Peregrin had in mind when he dug this room.”
“What’s that to you?”
“Oh, nothing, only I’m standing in the most gorgeous collection of books I’ve ever seen and apparently the only person in this hole who ever comes here comes here to hide. I hope you at least read one of these every once in a while!”
“No. Why should I?”
“They’re books! Books are meant to be read!”
“Then let someone else read them! I’ve tried, and they’re all dull!”
Kira made a little noise of disgust. “Fine,” she said. She trudged around the bookshelves, taking especial care to slam her crutch into the floorboards, until she found one that stuck out to her: a small, weathered-looking volume bound in brown leather. She jerked it from its place, for it would not come out of the shelf easily. The leather was stiff, there was some sort of a bird embossed on the cover, and it smelled peculiar, especially when she opened it up, and found, to her delight, that the book was filled with poems. Resisting the urge to sit down and read it right there, though, she made a point of returning to Alaric and sitting across from him before she began to read.
Have you ever gone to bed at night a-tasting the sea-air,
Have you ever rowed in waters that are governed by the moon,
Have you ever stood atop the nest when dawn is near at hand,
“You’re not a Took.”
“Eh?” Kira looked up from the book to find Alaric looking at her.
“I said, ‘You’re not a Took.’”
“No,” said Kira. “I’m not. How very astute of you.” She turned the page in her book.
“What is your family name, then, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“It’s Proudfoot, as in ‘The Proudfoots of High Hole, Westmarch.’ But I hail from the White Downs, just south of Michel Delving, where my mother and I run a little herb garden, my father having died twenty-seven years before. Oh, and I was born this way, and no, it isn’t an inconvenience; it just hurts a little over the cold months. Is there anything else you’d like to know about me?”
“Yes. Why do you like reading so much?”
“Why don’t you?”
“I told you. It’s dull.”
“Alaric,” said Kira, “have you tried reading every single book in this library?”
“Then I hardly think you can state that reading is dull. Here,” she said, and she read aloud the poem for him. “Is that dull?”
“That’s poetry. It’s different.”
“All right, then. ‘He drew Sting and ran towards the open gate. But just as he was about to pass under its great arch he felt a shock: as if he had run into some web like Shelob’s, only invisible. He could see no obstacle, but something too strong for his will to overcome barred the way.’ Not, poetry, prose, and pure history.”
“Did that really happen?” said Alaric.
“Sting,” said Kira. “Sitting on the mantelpiece in Bag End. Or did your mum not see fit to teach you that?”
“Oh.” Alaric paused. “Travellers’ Tales?” he hazarded.
“Histories,” said Kira, “but yes. It’s from when Sam’s trying to rescue Frodo.”
“Hmm,” he said. “From that orc-tower, right?”
“See? I haven’t forgot it all!”
“I’m glad to hear you learnt it in the first place,” Kira said drily.
“Oh, yes,” said Alaric. “Had to read the entire Downfall when I was taking lessons. The schoolmaster made me write an essay, actually, on that bit where Frodo’s supposedly dead, defending Sam for taking the Ring from him.” He grimaced. “I just remember wondering why he couldn’t have made up his mind earlier and spared me a few pages of agnonising monologue.”
Kira gaped at him. “Well, Master Took,I’m terribly sorry that Sam Gamgee was too preoccupied with his own conflicted feelings to give any thought to the concerns of posterity as they sat idling away the hours in the nursery!”
“No, it’s not that—I just don’t see why I had to read all that in the first place! I mean, it happened so long ago, and I’m sure it mattered to him when it happened, but he’s dead and gone…”
“Yes, and so are your great-grandparents, but that doesn’t mean you don’t keep up the family stories!”
“Ugh! I am sick and tired of hearing about my great-grandparents!” Alaric stood and began to walk towards the library door.
“Alaric,” said Kira.
“I’m sorry. Did you know your great-grandparents?”
“No,” he said, without turning around.
“I didn’t either. What about grandparents? Have any of them passed on?”
“All of them but one.”
“Do you have any good memories of them?”
He nodded. “Grandfather was the one who told me I should go here, instead of my room, if I got myself in trouble. Said it’d do me more good. Don’t know if it has, but it’s a prettier place to go.”
“And you shouldn’t recall that he said that, just because he’s not around to say it to you again?”
“Look, it’s not like that.”
“Then what is it like?”
“I—I don’t know.”
Kira stood up, followed him, and reached up to touch him lightly on the shoulder.
“Try reading the histories next time you run up here.” She sighed and walked to the library door.
When she was three feet away, though, it opened, and in stepped a short, elderly hobbit with crows-feet around her eyes and her snow-white hair pulled back into a bun. “Pardon me,” she said. “Are you Miss Proudfoot?”
“I am,” said Kira.
“Good. I have an answer to your riddle. The prince is the Red Book of Westmarch, his parents are those who were charged to look after it, and the poor farmer’s daughter who got caught up in the whole mess is you, you silly thing.” She smiled, and not unkindly, to soften the smart of her words. “And if that answer suffices, perhaps you can act like a grown hobbit and stop dragging the children of this good smial into your petty squabbles with my son.”
Kira blinked. “That is indeed the answer to my story. But who are you, madam, and how did you know?”
“I am Goldilocks Took, Miss Proudfoot, and I know because I listen, and I have known of you since that accident all those years before. Young Halbarad came to me, after your little lark outside. He was most upset by the tale; it wasn’t what he was expecting at all. It wasn’t too hard to put two and two together—in fact, I suspect Auduin did, but he didn’t respond. Quite right, too, after such a callous insult to him in his own home. If you thought you were being clever, perhaps you were, but you were not particularly subtle.”
Kira sighed, but she held her chin up. “I wasn’t trying to be subtle. I was trying to get everyone to understand.”
“What made you think that no one understood before?”
“Well, if someone did, surely I’d be treated with a little more kindness!”
“Kindness? You came here unannounced, but you were fed, and your pony was stabled, and you were permitted—nay, asked—to tell your stories here. When, in response, you were so rude as to insult the master of this hole, in front of his wife and all the children, you were given a walking-tour of the grounds, and even allowed to wander this library at your leisure. I think you will find, Miss Proudfoot, that there is a difference between kindness and getting exactly what you want. Perhaps you would do well to improve your own understanding of this smial and the people who live here, before you match our supposed unkindness with your own.”
Her words sank in. “I am sorry,” said Kira. “I’m afraid I hold grudges too well for my own good. You must all think I’m an awful person, or at least that I’m uncouth.”
“I think you’re young,” said Goldilocks, “and that you don’t yet know how to respond with grace to those who disagree with you. It is not such a terrible thing, to be unpractised in such matters. I can recall many times that I did the same.”
“What do I do now, then?”
“That, my dear, is entirely up to you. But if you are asking for my advice, I suggest that you do the right thing, and apologise to all those you have offended—but especially Hal, who, after all, did not know who you were when he invited you, and all the children, who do not yet deserve to be involved in a struggle not of their own making.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Took,” said Kira. “Truly, I didn’t realise what I was doing, especially to Hal.”
“Oh, don’t think I did this for your benefit,” said Goldilocks, with a smile. “I came to speak to you because Hal was hurting, and I’d be a bad grandmother if I didn’t do all I could to stop it. The same goes for you, Alaric,” she added. He was standing ten feet behind Kira, half hidden by the bookshelves, his thumb jammed between two pages of the poetry book that Kira had been reading. She hadn’t even realised he was lingering there, but Goldilocks must have. “Quit your moping and come downstairs. If I’m not mistaken, you may get to hear Miss Proudfoot spin a proper tale.” She looked to Kira for confirmation; Kira gave one unsteady nod. Goldilocks Took opened the door to the library, and the three of them descended the stairs together.
“Where is Hal?” Kira asked Goldilocks once they were at the bottom of the stairs.
“In the parlour of the Thain’s apartments, I believe—oh, but you wouldn’t know where that is—Al, do be a dear and fetch your brother, would you?”
Alaric nodded and set off down the hallway.
“His brother?” said Kira.
“Yes,” said Goldilocks. “Is there a reason for your concern?”
“No, only if I’d known I daresay I would’ve been a little more respectful.”
“Really? You afford the Thain himself so little respect; why should you afford it his son?”
“Because,” said Kira, “look at his father!” She smiled a little, but faltered when she saw the look on Goldilocks’ face. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
“Where were you thinking of doing your bit of tale-telling?”
“Oh, outdoors, again, I suppose—actually, no. Do you think I could use the old room? You know, the one that was the Old Took’s and then Thain Peregrin’s?”
“You’ve already turned Great Smials on its end today; I don’t see why a little more damage wouldn’t hurt. But that room was never really Pippin’s. As I recall, he just used it from time to time, when he felt like it.”
“Oh… right,” Kira said faintly. She was relieved to see Alaric coming back down the hallway, although Hal was not with him.
“Hal’s coming,” he said, “but he wanted to fetch all the other children, first.”
Kira widened her eyes. She didn’t think they’d all come.
“He asked,” Alaric added, looking at Kira, “whether you were going to tell a real Travellers’ Tale this time. I said, ‘yes.’”
“You were right to,” said Kira. “I already have a Travellers’ Tale picked out. Now, I don’t fancy being caught by a horde of children in the hallway, so if you don’t mind I’ll move to Gerontius’ room now.”
“Gerontius’ room?” said Alaric.
“Yes,” said his grandmother. “Why not?”
“I’ll have to let someone know, then.” And with that, Alaric was off again, and Kira and Goldilocks began to make her way to the old Thain’s room.
“So,” said Kira, her voice quavering, “if you don’t mind my asking, what were they like? The Travellers, I mean.”
Goldilocks chuckled. “Like any other hobbits.” She laughed again, when she saw Kira’s querulous look. “Oh, they were all remarkable, don’t get me wrong! I used to think my father never slept, he worked so hard. But they still liked their meals as much as any other—more, even, if that were possible. Of course,” she added, looking off down the hallway, “I can’t tell you much about the fourth.”
“I know that,” said Kira. They made the rest of the way to the room in silence.
When they got there, Kira had a good look around for a place to sit and gather. It would be good to elevate herself, so that she could see everyone’s faces, but if one wasn’t supposed to move the furniture that included the chair at the desk. There were a couple of armchairs near the cold hearth, but there were no rugs nearby. Walking farther into the room, she noticed that one of the walls fell back to reveal the largest bed she’d ever seen.
The mattress was at the level of her eyes, and above it, the bedposts soared up, right up to the ceiling, which had been raised, she was sure of it, just to accommodate the canopy, which was the colour of leaves in the summer. The bedcurtains, fixed neatly to the posts with ties of the same, were the colour of sunshine, and the coverlet and bedskirt continued in the same vein, richly ornamented by embroidery and cream-coloured ribbons. Then, the bedposts themselves, and the head and foot, were carven all over with blossoms and bees and the season’s first ripening fruits, not dull like the bed lately of the Lockholes (which now seemed but a pale imitation of this one) but polished till they shone. The whole thing was so large that she was certain it would accommodate the entire population of children at Great Smials, and still leave room to sneeze.
Behind her, Kira heard the door to the room open and the voices of children murmuring. She cast a questioning look at Goldilocks.
“Why are you looking at me?” she said. “It’s not my room, it’s Gerontius’.”
Kira did not know much of the Old Took, but she knew from her pedigrees that he had had a great many children, and he must have loved them all. So reasoning, she found the step-stool at the side of the bed, clambered onto it, and invited the children after her, seating herself on two pillows. Goldilocks, meanwhile, hung back, and she could see Alaric, too, standing half in the shadows.
Hal was the first one up.
“Hal!” she called out. “You invited me here! Would you like the honour of the lap?”
Hal wrinkled his nose. “I’m too old for laps,” he said.
“Are you certain? I don’t think you too old for laps, but the next time I see you, I may!”
“‘Course I’m certain!” he cried.
“Very well,” said Kira. “You may bestow the honour of the lap on another worthy hobbit, if you wish.”
“Hmm.” Hal looked around him, then selected a tiny faunt, picked him up, and placed him on Kira’s lap.
She looked around her. There were not as many children as there had been last time. Kira grimaced—that was probably her fault, and it was gracious that those who were here were giving her a second chance.
“All right,” she said. “First of all, I apologise for that first story I told you. It wasn’t at all the sort of story that I’d led you to believe I’d tell, it’s not the sort of story Hal’s heard me tell and that he invited me for, and it’s likely not the sort of story you’d like to hear. And on top of that, it wasn’t a very good story. So I’ll say I’m sorry, and I promise I’ll never tell you a story like that again. And I’m even more sorry that I stopped telling stories before I should’ve, and I shan’t do that again either.
“So—let’s start everything all over. My name is Kira Proudfoot, I’m a story-teller, and I’m very happy to be here today with all of you. Normally I tell Travellers’ Tales—true ones, mind, as they were written by those who’d been there. But sometimes I branch out and tell other histories—of hobbits, or even Men and Dwarves and Elves—all real, and all true. I don’t pretend to know every tale, but I know a lot of them, and I will try my best to honour requests. And I shall be taking requests, after I’ve given you this first tale that I hope you will all be happy to hear.
“It’s a Travellers’ Tale, and seeing as you’re all Tooks, it ought to be about the Took who travelled at the end of the Third Age, Peregrin Took, called Pippin, whom I’m sure your grandparents remember as Thain. And so it is—for today, I’d like to tell you about some of the peculiarly Tookish things that Pippin did Outside, and how they saved him and his cousin Merry Brandbuck from certain peril.”
She told them the tale of the orc captivity—Pippin’s “chapter,” as Merry had so quaintly put it (and she imagined that Frodo must have been quite willing to oblige)—and how Pippin’s quick thinking in a tight pinch had gotten them out of trouble and given their friends hope. He’d had no idea, she said, if anyone was even left alive to follow him and Merry, but he’d acted anyway, because doing something was better than doing nothing. What he’d done was risky, true, but if he’d thought it through, maybe he wouldn’t have done it, or maybe he’d have spent so much time deciding that the opportunity to act would have passed. “But he didn’t let that happen—he thought, made up his mind, and acted, and if he hadn’t acted, when help did come, he and Merry wouldn’t have been able to avail themselves of it.”
Most of the girls cringed at Kira’s lurid descriptions of the orcs, but the boys were clearly relishing it in that perverse way of theirs.
“Sure,” said Kira, when the story was at a suitable point for interruption. “Wink and leer if you like. But wait till you’re strapped to one of those foul creature’s backs, so close that you can’t help but smell rank flesh every time you breathe, so close that you’re practically kissing them, and no way to let them know that you’re hungry, or thirsty, or that you need the chamber pot, with home and a nice warm bed leagues upon leagues away, and no way to get there. Make no mistake—it was harrowing. And that’s what makes Pippin’s ability to do something about it even more remarkable.”
She left Pippin and Merry safe under the eaves of Fangorn, and then began to take requests. She was pleased to note that the children here at least were willing to range further afield—requests at parties, among the uninformed, usually went no further than the Barrow-downs. They also had a working knowledge of what was fact and what was fiction—no questions about Mad Baggins, and some of them at least knew about the Ring. But there were no requests for tales of Frodo himself, so Kira had to work him in as best she could.
When her throat began to tire and her stomach to rumble, Kira called off the tale-telling and shooed the children from the great big bed. Halbarad Took’s face was shining as he climbed down, and immediately he ran to Alaric and began chattering away at him. Alaric’s face lit up as he bent down to scoop his brother into his arms, and Kira was taken aback by the transformation. As she climbed down the bed, she looked at the doorway to the room and saw the Thain and his wife standing there, as well as a few other adults she did not recognise.
She swallowed. “I hope you don’t mind my invading the room and rumpling up the bed. Mrs. Goldilocks Took did invite me.”
“I did not invite her,” said Goldilocks, who had taken a seat in the chair behind the old Thain’s desk. “I merely stated that, given the havoc she had already wrought, using Gerontius’ room would hardly make matters worse.”
“Ah,” said the Thain.
“I also wanted to apologise for my conduct earlier,” said Kira. “It was rude, disrespectful, and entirely unwarranted, and I would thoroughly deserve it if you never let me set foot in this smial again.”
“I’m glad to see you’ve come to your senses, Miss Proudfoot.”
Kira bit back a retort. Goldilocks was looking at her. “Of course, if you can pardon my earlier offense, I would be happy to return here at your invitation. I think the children liked my stories, and I know I liked them as an audience.”
“We shall see about that,” said the Thain.
“I hope you understand if I don’t stay any longer. My pony may be fast, but it’s quite a ride to Michel Delving. Thank you for having me here.” She held out her hand to the Thain, heart pounding. He hesitated before taking it firmly in his own.
Rather than wait for a hand to bring Nienna out, Kira asked for directions to the stable and walked there herself. Nienna was comfortably settled in one of the stalls, which were almost as well-apportioned as the ones at Brandy Hall, and looked much better than she had when Kira had arrived at Great Smials hours earlier. “Fancy another ride, dear?” she asked, letting Nienna snuffle her hair. She probably smelled of dust and faunt.
It did not take long to get ready to ride. Kira had left her brace on for the duration of her stay, and despite the linen it was starting to chafe, but that could hardly be helped now. Just as she was about to lead Nienna from the stall, though, she heard her name from behind.
It was Hal, and he had a small bundle in his hand, and Alaric was standing behind him. He put the bundle in her hands, and said, “Thank you for coming here and telling stories, Kira Lamefoot.”
Kira eyed the bundle curiously.
“It’s a bit of food for the road,” said Alaric. “Hal was getting hungry, and then he thought you might be too, so I asked the cooks to make you something.”
“Oh,” said Kira. “Thank you both; that was very thoughtful.”
“Is it all right if I still call you Kira Lamefoot?” said Hal.
“Of course it is! That’s how most children know me.”
“Good,” said Hal.
“I guess this is good-bye for now, then. I hope to see you again soon.”
“Good-bye, Kira Lamefoot,” said Hal. Alaric looked as if he wanted to say something, but said nothing. Kira led Nienna from the stable and then mounted her.
* * *
She looked back. Alaric had followed her.
“What is it?” she said.
“Nothing,” said Alaric. “Only I wanted to let you know I enjoyed your stories,” and then he looked down at his feet as if that were something to be ashamed of.
“He was your great-grandfather, you know,” said Kira, as if the idea had just occurred to her.
“Sam Gamgee. Up in the tower, breaking his heart out over duty and love. He was your great-grandfather, and you couldn’t summon up a shred of sympathy for him.”
“Good-bye, Alaric.” Kira nudged Nienna into a walk, and left Great Smials and the Tooklands behind her.
Alaric looked at her for a half a minute before turning around and heading inside.
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