“Oi! Bifur! What’s th’ name a’ that whore you visit?!”
Bifur didn’t bat an eye at the question, but Bilba nearly swallowed her tongue. She was helping Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur set up a toy stall in the market. Even Blackberry rocked back on her heels for a moment.
Bifur signed a few things, but Blackberry didn’t catch anything more than ‘hair’ and ‘tall’.
“I think she’s in th’ dock,” Dwalin announced. “I saw th’ Lawkeepers bringing in a lass that matches th’ description.”
Bifur signed again.
“Oh, I know that one! You asked why!” Blackberry said triumphantly.
“Probably for . . . . whoring,” Bilba whispered. “And this is a toy stall; there are faunts about!”
“Whoring’s not illegal,” Dwalin scoffed. At Bilba’s look, he started. “You’ve got to be joking.”
“Why?!” Bofur blurted.
“Next you’ll tell us a woman can only have one husband,” Bombur chortled.
Both hobbitesses gave the round dwarf a startled look.
“Well, you can’t,” Bofur corrected, gesturing to Bilba. “But that’s what you get for marrying a king. You could, though.”
“If I had a second one trying to mount me morning, noon, and night, I wouldn’t have time to eat,” Blackberry said dismissively.
Dwalin looked proud of himself and kissed her on top of the head.
“Faunts!” Bilba squealed, looking around for them.
“Are dwarrow men allowed more than one wife?” Blackberry asked.
“No,” Bombur said. “There aren’t enough dams around for that.”
“So if dams are in short supply, why do some still resort to whoring?”
“All hobbit whores are female?” Bofur asked in the same moment Dwalin spoke
“Whoring is an art form!”
“Fascinating conversation! But you can’t have it here!” Bilba said firmly pushing Blackberry up the path. There were some faunts running towards the stall.
“The more I hear of it, the better Ered Luin sounds!” Blackberry laughed.
Bilba stopped pushing.
“You’re – you’re going to Ered Luin?” She said. “But – it wasn’t because of what I said, was it? I’m so sorry!”
“I thought you said you couldn’t take a hobbitess to Ered Luin,” Bofur protested, still within earshot.
“Nikk and Lily are going back, after what happened to him,” Dwalin answered. “And Lily’s taken such a shine to Blackberry they’re going to adopt her. Me showing up out of the blue with a hobbitess on my arm would arouse suspicion. A hobbitess whose ‘Mam’ married a dwarf and found one to marry herself is a different matter.”
“But . . . you’re a hobbit,” Bilba said in a small voice. “You belong in the Shire.”
If Blackberry were a cat, her ears would have flattened.
“No, Mistress Baggins, I don’t. You are the rich landowner directly descended from Hobbiton’s founders. I am just a simple craftswoman who has been treated as an outsider my entire life! And now I’m wed to a dwarf and expecting a half-dwarf child! It isn’t going to get any better! And what of my child?! I’m actually a hobbit! How will they be treated?!”
“Ered Luin, then!” Dwalin declared. “We’ll go as soon as Nikk and Lily do; before you get too big to travel!”
Blackberry shot a glance at her husband as thought she’d forgotten he was there.
“I could take cuttings,” she murmured thoughtfully. “It would be three years before we had grapes again. Another year for aging . . .”
“Berry, I’m Captain of the Guard over all of Ered Luin. I know winemaking is your craft, but you don’t have to worry about making a living, luv.”
Blackberry took in a deep breath. She looked over Dwalin and then glanced at the other dwarrow. She looked to Bilba, who was looking upset. The tiny winemaker cast a slow look around Hobbiton, culminating in a long look at the looming shadows of the Blue Mountains.
“Yes,” she decided. “We’ll go to Ered Luin.”
Echinacea Hedgehopper stepped into the Lawkeeper’s station with a basket on her arm. Her father, Moro Hedgehopper, was sitting dejectedly at his desk, staring at a small sliver of paper.
“What’s the matter, Papa?” she asked, setting the lunch basket on his desk.
“Nothing, my dear,” he sighed. “Just studying the Proudfoot case.”
Moro may have had his eyes on the sliver of paper, but he couldn’t have missed the flinch his youngest daughter gave.
“Why do you care?” She asked, looking away. “Proudfoot was a disgusting, awful creep!”
Echinacea turned to look at the one occupied cell. A tall, dark haired hobbitess looked back at her. Echinacea didn’t know the woman, or what she was under arrest for, but she thought the Lawkeepers ought to have allowed her to get dressed before they brought her in.
“Dicentra, don’t you speak to my little lass!” Moro snapped, leaping to his feet. “She doesn’t need to hear a word from your vile mouth!”
“Proudfoot’s dead then?” Dicentra continued.
“Yes,” Echinacea squeaked.
“Echinacea! Don’t speak to her!”
There was long silence for a moment. Dicentra’s dark eyes raked over the hobbit girl. Echinacea felt like all of her secrets were glass under such a stare. Then Dicentra’s lips curved into a smile.
“Good,” she purred. “He’ll never darken my doorstep again.”
“You had dealings with him?” Moro said sharply.
“He came to my smial four days past demanding succor.”
“And you . . . dealt with him?”
“Believe or not, Captain, even whores have standards.”
Echinacea felt her cheeks flush crimson. Now she knew why she’d never clapped eyes on this hobbitess before; her father was a well respected Lawkeeper of impressive rank in Hobbiton. A whore . . . well, she must have only chosen such work because she was starving!
“Luckily, some of my sweet dwarvish lads were about and they chucked him in the gutter where he belonged.”
Moro was silent. Justilo had made his way to the nearest whore and got tossed out on his ear. It was well known that Dicentra Heartleaf took dwarves as clients, living right on the edge of the Shire. The Lawkeepers mostly ignored her until the local hobbits complained enough. Lately the complaints leaned towards she was charging too much and blacklisted any lad who got rough. So Goodwill rubbed his face, sighed heavily, and decided since they were out at Michel Delving anyway, they might as well pick her up and ‘give her a few days’ rest.’
All that aside, four days past was the day before Proudfoots’ murder. Perhaps Dicentra’s dwarvish lads had . . . well, no, even if they had thrashed him hard enough to kill, they wouldn’t have bothered to drag him all the way back to Hobbiton just to jump the body. The Blue Mountains were closer and had plenty of gorges where the corpse would never be found. Plus Justilo had been alive the morning of his murder; he’d even signed in! Which again raised the question of why a page had been removed from the sign-in book. Cmmdr Bilberry had even signed it off, but said nothing and had constables out searching before the first bell . . .
“Dicentra Heartleaf, at your service,” the tall hobbitess offered in what was not quite a purr.
“Oh! Um, Echinacea Hedgehopper, at yours!” the lass squeaked, bobbing a curtsy.
“Got a trade, lass?”
“I . . . I’m apprenticing at the bakery; just a few days a week.”
“That’s good. It’s good for a woman to have a trade.”
“Please stop talking to my daughter!” Moro snapped, finally wrenching himself out of his thoughts.
“Bloody hell, Moro, you missed it at the Thain’s office! That Heathertoes woman all but shredded her brother with her nails!” Cmmdr Bilberry came through the door, chortling.
“Uncle Goodwill!” Echinacea gave the commander a hug, which he happily returned, looking more relaxed than he had in days.
“Ah, Dicentra . . . glad to have you back again.”
“I’m not speaking to you, Bilberry. Your timing is very unfortunate.”
“Oh, sorry we didn’t time it with your monthly break, dear.”
“I’m serious, Goodwill. I’m going to miss my favorite client locked up in here.”
“Oh yes? Let’s see the book.”
Echinacea watched as Dicentra passed a large, leather bound black book through the bars. She had known the commander since she was a tiny faunt. Goodwill was very particular about the company he kept. If you could be counted among his friends, it was a guarantee that your character was impeccable. Not respectable, exactly, but a good person. And here he was bantering with a whore. Goodwill paced back to his desk, flipping through the ledger.
“Lot of dwarven names here,” he observed.
“Dwarves are respectful and they pay more.”
“’Lord Heen, son of Moreen?’ Nobility! You’re going places, duckie.”
“That’s hardly a thing to mock.”
“You’ve drawn a little heart next to his name!”
To Echinacea’s surprise, Dicentra looked embarrassed. Goodwill looked a tad surprised by this, but shrugged.
“All right, I shan’t continue. Any more for the black list?”
“There’s a few.”
“What’s the black list?” Echinacea asked.
“When lads are rough or violent, they’ll often try it on harlots before respectable women,” Goodwill answered, copying some names down. “It’s a good indicator.”
“That’s not the sort of thing I’d like my daughter to know about, Commander!” Moro shrilled.
“Oh, please, luv; at her age I’m sure she’s no stranger to the beasts men can be.”
There was an edge to Dicentra’s words. Like she knew far more than she should. Echinacea blushed. Bilberry paused in his copying to exchange a look with the dark haired hobbitess.
“Speaking of which, the Shire has yet to reimburse me for the time I spent at the work farm.”
Bilberry sighed roughly.
“That’s why you don’t go to trial anymore, dear. You don’t do any harm. We just tuck you away for a week or two to keep the imbeciles happy.”
Both father and daughter Hedgehopper slowly frowned at the implication of such a statement. You didn’t get reimbursed on the work farm unless you were called up to ply a skilled trade. And Dicentra’s trade . . . .
“Ah . . . Commander?” Erling Bellwether stepped through the door, allowing a shaggy figure to follow him.
Bifur, knowing full well there was no one present who could speak Kudzul, signed as he spoke. He still received a lot of blank stares.
“Dicentra? You have a lot of dwarf clients, do you know . . . ?”
The dwarf turned towards the squeal and went to the hobbitess.
“Now don’t be upset, it’s not as bad as all that,” she said in a soothing tone. “Just a little misunderstanding.”
The commander and I have an understanding, she signed. Occasionally he has to bring me in as a show, but it doesn’t go to trial. I’ll be out in a week or so.
There’s a small group heading back to Ered Luin around then, Bifur offered. Two of them are hobbitesses who married dwarrow. If you wish I could join them and bring you back as well.
There will be hobbits in Ered Luin? Married to dwarves?
Yes, if you . . . if you would wish . . .
If you see Lord Heen on the road, could you tell him I’m very sorry I missed him?
There was a pause and Bifur’s shoulders slumped ever so slightly.
Yes. I will pass on the message.