Thierry Hornblower sighed, taking in his tea guests.
“I still haven’t forgiven you for pulling such humbug, Master Balin,” he announced.
“It was only intended to give a bit of fright, not throw the entire Shire into disorder,” Balin said apologetically.
“I’m sure Master Hornblower was clever enough to see through our little ruse, dear,” Dori said, patting Balin’s hand.
Thierry eyed the silver haired dwarf. Something about him just seemed a bit . . . off. The Thain couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Master Dori was charming, polite, well-groomed, and liked his tea. He would have made an excellent gentlehobbit if it weren’t for the fact that he was a dwarf. But still there was something.
“I had a feeling you weren’t serious,” he lied. “But between that, and the unpleasantness with Proudfoot . . . the Shire is falling down around my head.”
“Please don’t be so hard on yourself, Master Hornblower,” Dori said. “These things do happen.”
“Even the best leader can’t prevent all unfortunate circumstances,” Balin added sadly.
Commander Bilberry thundered up to the front of the Thain’s office. He reined in his pony and jumped off himself before helping down an elderly hobbitess. Goodwill burst through the door.
“Sir! This is Mistress Lily Heathertoes. She’s come all the way from Michel Delving because her husband is being held illegally.”
“Oh my goodness, please, madam, sit down and tell us everything! Master Balin, Master Dori, if you would excuse me please. . .”
“We’ll need parchment and ink,” the commander said. “She’s deaf but she can write it out.”
“Um, Master Hornblower, she’s asking that one of us stay,” Balin said.
The Thain and Bilberry turned to look at Lily, who was gesturing frantically at Balin and Dori.
“My dear, where did you learn Iglishmek?” Dori asked, pairing gestures with his words.
Lily cupped one hand to her forehead, then clasped it in front of her.
“Your husband? Is your husband a dwarf?” Balin asked, gesturing as well.
“I didn’t know there was another hobbitess married to a dwarf,” the Thain announced. “I thought Bilba Baggins was the first.”
“Michel Delving is half-way to the Blue Mountains,” Commander Bilberry said. “It stands to reason there might be a few mixed marriages out that way. Especially ladies who . . . er . . . are not so marriageable.”
Goodwill hid his mouth behind his hand and whispered the last sentence, even though there was no way Lily could hear it.
“First things first!” Dori declared, still signing. “Would the two of you like a cup of tea?”
“Udon!” Blackberry yelped in delight. “My da made the best udon!”
Udon appeared to be a dish of thick noodles in broth with slices of beef, green onion, and a white thing Blackberry had previously identified as fish sausage. The vendor handed her a bowl and two slender sticks. Blackberry tucked into the meal, somehow using the sticks to shovel noodles into her mouth.
“What are those?” Bofur asked, pointing at the sticks.
“These are hashi,” Blackberry reported. “And all I hear anymore is how dwarv – how dwarrow can make the most delicate things around, so you can learn to use them if you wanted to.”
“Can you use them?” Thorin asked Dwalin as he took a bowl himself.
“A bit. I’m not ‘noodle good’ yet.”
The udon vendor laughed uproariously.
"'Noodle good'. Let's see, my lass; uses hashi, wearing sensible boots, and let's see those eyes . . ." The male hobbit reached over and cupped Blackberry's chin. "Definitely Stoorish eyes!"
The Stoor sucked in a sharp breath as Dwalin's massive hand clamped around his forearm.
"Take your hands off my wife," he growled.
"Married the biggest dwarf she could find: definitely a Stoorish lass!" One of the other vendors laughed.
Bofur and Bombur exchanged a look. The way these hobbits made it sound, mixed marriages were common in Gladden Fields. The udon seller squiggled out of Dwalin's grasp, looking pale.
"Oi! Are you Akeagol Brandywine's daughter?" Someone else yelled.
"Keeping well, then?"
"I'm fresh married and expecting!"
Blackberry turned to see Rosemary Heavyhearth staring at her in shock. The innkeeper’s wife had come to the market to see what unusual delicacies the Stoors had brought from Gladden Fields.
"Expecting?! Bloody hell, you're wearing jumps . . . keep eating! You're far too thin for birthing!"
"Thank you! I only found out a few days ago."
"You had a blue wedding, you harlot! And you didn't even tell me!" Rosemary laughed.
While ‘blue weddings’ or weddings where the bride was pregnant, were actually fairly common among hobbits, it was more respectable to pretend they weren’t. This led to the myth that first faunts always came early.
"To be fair, nobody knew it was a blue wedding at the time!"
"It was very timely," Dwalin offered, wrapping his arm around Blackberry's waist from behind. Hashi be damned, he just slurped straight from the bowl. "I like how you make it better, pet."
"I didn't think -- never mind! You know what this calls for?!" Rosemary spluttered, starting to fidget in place.
"A party," every dwarf in earshot chorused.
"First of all, what is your husband's name, dear?" the Thain asked.
They had called for Mirri Elderflower, who could note as fast as people could speak. He was keeping track of the conversation.
'Nikk, son of Vrikk,' Lily fingerspelled carefully. Dori was translating.
"And what crime was he arrested for?" Thierry asked.
'Rape. Raping ME! Which he didn't do! I was all for it!'
Balin snickered as Dori's cheeks turned red.
"Per - perhaps you'd better start at the beginning," the Thain said, trying not to snigger.
The story of the inciting incident was actually quite simple. Nikk, son of Vrikk, and his lovely bride had quaffed a few too many at the Harvest Festival at Michel Delving and when walking home to the White Downs, decided to nip into the woods for a quick tumble. Lily, being deaf as well as drunk, wasn’t quite so careful about her volume when expressing appreciation of her husband’s bedroom skills. The local Lawkeepers had followed the screaming and found the married couple enjoying a bit of rumpy-pumpy. But instead of a fine for public lewdness or other such slaps on the wrist as were normally the case, the Lawkeepers threw Nikk into the dock on a charge of rape and seemed content to let him rot there.
Balin and Thierry took the grandmotherly hobbitess’s sexual exploits in stride. Commander Bilberry was blushing at the gestures employed by the deaf woman. You didn’t even need to know Iglishmek to know what they meant. Mirri and Dori were both crimson: Mirri because he had to hear such things, Dori because he had to say them out loud.
“This sounds like a personal vendetta,” the Thain admitted. “If I locked up every couple that got caught with their knickers down after a big party, the Shire would be empty. And a charge that harsh would require a trial in Hobbiton.”
“They didn’t send him because they knew Mistress Heathertoes would deny the charges,” Bilberry said.
“Fancy a ride to Michel Delving, Commander?” Master Hornblower asked.
“To return with Nikk, son of Vrikk?”
“And whoever happens to be charge of the Lawkeepers out that way.”
Commander Bilberry nodded to them, bowed to Lily, and headed out the door.
“He’ll likely not be back until the morrow,” Mirri offered. “What shall we do with Mistress Heathertoes in the meantime?”
“Mistress Heathertoes, what would you like to do until your husband comes tomorrow?”
‘I would like to stay with dwarrow,’ she signed. ‘I greatly miss having someone to talk to.’
“There we are! I’m sure you can put her up,” the Thain said.
A secretary poked his head in the doorway.
“Master Hornblower, the Stoors from Gladden Fields have arrived.”
“Excellent! They’re a bit late this year; I was starting to worry. Would you gentlemen and lady care to join me for a stroll down to the markets? Stoors have remarkable street food.”
Lily had skipped three meals to get to Hobbiton, so she eagerly agreed. Balin and Dori hung back a moment. They may have thought they were out of earshot, but hobbits had sharp ears. Well, when said ears actually worked.
“Bag End’s rather full,” Dori murmured. “Where are we going to pack in another lady? Bilba and Ori are already sharing a bed.”
“If it comes to it, I imagine Dwalin and Blackberry can take them in. Bramble’s Edge has a spare room. Hopefully the kinship of a mixed marriage will encourage them to help.” There was a pause, as though Dori were giving him a look. Balin chuckled. “Don’t worry, luv; we’ll find somewhere to be alone.”
“It’s too cold to ‘nip into the woods for a quick tumble’,” Dori said with what was not quite a pout.
“It may only be a night or two,” Balin continued. “This Nikk may very well wish to take his wife home after all this business. Then we can go back to sneaking into Bramble’s Edge when Dwalin and Blackberry are at work.”
Thierry paused as he shrugged into his coat.
‘Find a place to be alone’? ‘Sneaking off together’? It almost sounded as if – oh. Oh. Oh! Bloody hell, that was what was off about Dori! He was a lady! The beard was a bit distracting, but lady dwarves had beards, didn’t they? Even Ori had sideburns and she was but a lass! But . . . Dori’s clothes weren’t – well, he - she was traveling, wasn’t she? Dressing like a male was safer for ladies when travelling. Ori wore skirts, but again, Ori was just a lass! Once she was of age, she might start wearing trousers on trips as well.
And by the sound of things, Balin and Dori were having a bit of something on the side as well. Were they wed? Should he offer to wed them?
Lily was staring at him expectantly.
Thierry tore his thoughts away from dwarvish intimacy and took his grandmother’s spare coat from the rack. He held it out for the deaf matron.
“YOU. CAN. WEAR. THIS. IF. YOU. WOULD. LIKE.”
Thierry didn’t know the Iglishmek sign for thank you. He also didn’t know how one could sign sarcastically. Lily taught him both before sliding into the coat.
“I didn’t think dwarves and hobbits could have children!”
“Neither did I or we might have taken some precautions,” Blackberry admitted.
“What an odd thing to say.”
Both hobbitesses turned to look at the Stoorish lady arranging fabrics on a table.
“Gladden Fields took in a fair few dwarrow when the dragon came. It’s a fairly common thing to have dwarf blood there.”
Thorin, Dwalin, and Nori exchanged looks from where they stood outside the fabric seller’s stall.
“Where is Gladden Fields exactly?” Nori asked the woman.
“It’s on the banks of the river Anduin, between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood,” she answered. “Here’s a lovely bit of silk for a naming ceremony dress, mistress.”
“It’s on the far side of – bloody hell, that’s nearly to Erebor!” Nori blurted.
Dwalin looked sharply at Thorin, but the King Under the Mountain was staring off into space, an odd look on his face.
“When we retake the mountain, your wife will be near her kin,” he said in a near whisper.
Now it was Dwalin and Nori’s turn to exchange a look. Retake the mountain? With a dragon in it? The gates were sealed even if the dragon were dead!
“Dwalin, look! Silk screened apples!” Blackberry held up a green cloth with red apples on golden boughs. “This will be perfect for the naming ceremony!”
“Light green, good for a spring ceremony,” the vendor said, nodding. “And apples for fertility!”
“Don’t dwarrow present new babies to the community?” Blackberry asked.
“It’s done a fortnight after the birth, barring any complications,” Rosemary said, nodding. “The Whistlestops are having theirs at the inn next week.”
“Madam, it isn’t uncommon for dwarflings to stay in the nursery until they’re twenty years old,” Thorin announced.
“They never leave the nursery?!” Rosemary blurted.
“Yeah . . . well, hobbit faunts accompany their mothers everywhere after the naming ceremony. And that’s what we’re doing!” Blackberry stated, daring her husband to protest.
“How do they thrive without sunlight or earth?!” Rosemary asked, shocked.
“They aren’t bloody plants!” Nori protested.
“We are children of the Green Lady and we need such things,” Blackberry said sharply.
“Brother! Oh, and Thorin!” Balin came down the alley. “Bit of a new development . . . it seems you two are not the only dwarrow married to hobbitesses in the Shire.”
The advisor turned to look back at Dori, Lily, and the Thain. Dori and Lily had finally stopped ‘chatting’ because they both had their hands full. Lily had an ear of roasted sweetcorn in one hand and a skewer of grilled chicken in the other. She took bites off of each of them in turn, her nose and chin glistening with butter and chicken grease. Dori had a bowl full of udon. He had given up trying to use the hashi properly. The fussy dwarf was drinking the broth from the bowl and using the hashi to shovel the noodles straight into his mouth. He finished the bowl and dropped it into the sink the food sellers left up and down the alleyway for used dishes.
Then he sighted the other dwarrow and patted Lily on the arm.
“These are the dwarrow I was telling you about!” he said, signing as he spoke.
Lily was taking a bite of her corn, but made eye contact and nodded to show she was paying attention. Dori introduced everyone, then broke off mid-sign to gush over the green silk with apples Blackberry held. The Thain watched this and nodded to himself as though he had figured out something impressive.
“At any rate, Mistress Heathertoes finds herself at a loose end until her husband is fetched from Michel Delving,” Balin continued. “Bag End is getting a bit tight, but perhaps we might find her a bed at Bramble’s Edge?”
“I’ll need a few volunteers for an overnight mission to Michel Delving. Some clothead has locked up a dwarf for the crime of marrying a deaf hobbitess that no one else wanted in the first place,” Commander Bilberry sighed.
About five lads, including Lt Bellwether, put their hands up for the duty, leaving Cpt Hedgehopper in charge. He took a look round the station as the rest were packing up. His gaze fell on the parole book, now desecrated with the scribbles of a panicked hobbitess.
“I’m going to cut this page out, Commander,” he announced. “If it looks like there’s a page missing, that’s why.”
Cmdr Bilberry hesitated for a moment, then nodded his assent.
“Fine. Back here in an hour with supplies, lads.”
The Lawkeepers trooped out to gather warm clothes and food. Moro Hedgehopper found a razor blade in a desk drawer and delicately slit the offending page from the book.
And somehow ended up with two pieces of paper.
One was the full page with Mistress Heathertoes’ desperate pleas on it. The other was a tiny sliver, straight on both edges, as if the previous page had been cut from the book. Moro turned to the previous full page and found it as expected: the last entry being Justilo Proudfoot’s the morning before his murder. It was dated and signed off by Moro himself.
Why would there be an extra piece?
Moro held the piece of paper up flat. There was an impression on the first line. Nearly alone in the watch house, Hedgehopper went back to his desk and carefully rubbed over the impression with the flat side of a pencil.
Slowly, Justilo Proudfoot’s name came into view, dated and timed for 5:30 am on the morning of his murder.
And signed off by Cmdr Goodwill Bilberry.