“The Rangers are here, Captain!”
Captain Hedgehopper reached the front of the Lawkeeper’s Central Post just as two Men entered, dusting snow off of their coats. He had met the older one before, a tall fellow called Arathorn. The younger Man was unknown to him. Lieutenant Bellwether joined them.
“Ah, Rangers. I am Cpt. Moro Hedgehopper, this is Lt. Erling Bellwether. Thank you for coming.”
“I am Arathorn, and this is my son, Argonui. I understand you’ve had a murder?”
“I’m afraid so, Master Arathorn. We’ve had accidents and fights that have gotten out of hand before, but this one is a bit different.”
“Was the victim someone of great importance?” Argonui asked.
“Yavanna, no, he was as worthless as they come,” Erling said.
“However, whoever killed him tried to frame some dwarves in the Shire and—“
“There are dwarves in the Shire?”Arathorn cut in.
“Not many, but a few have settled here. One of them married a hobbit lass a few weeks ago. We didn’t think there were any issues, but the dwarf in question got into a tussle with the victim over his new wife. Then the victim is found dead, thrown down in front of the forge where the dwarf works and had an axe wound in his back.”
As Moro spoke, he led the two Rangers to the furthest room at the back. Justilo Proudfoot’s body lay in an old pantry with two boards missing from the wall so the cold could preserve him. The two men pulled the sheet off of the corpse and looked him over.
“What do you think, lad?” Arathorn asked.
“Well, it wasn’t dwarves,” Argonui answered.
“In fights over honor, dwarves almost always remove the head. Even when they don’t, they shave the victim.”
“Shave them?” Erling questioned. “Hobbits don’t have beards.”
“They would have shaved his head instead. Either way, it looks like this blow to the head is what killed him.” Argonui pointed to a bruise and cut at Justilo’s temple. “The cut on the back has no bruising at all.”
“Well done, lad. If you should like my opinion, Cpt. Hedgehopper, I’d suppose this gentleman got into a scrap with someone who hit him just right, realized he was dead, panicked, and threw him on the doorstep of the last person he’d had an argument with,” Arathorn surmised. “It was just too sloppy to have been planned.”
The two hobbits nodded and thanked the Rangers, offering them luncheon. For Men who lived their lives roaming, the opportunity to eat until they were fit to burst was a rare treat. The pair went next door to what was ostensibly a public café, but had been taken over by various Lawkeepers.
“That’s the feeling I got from this mess, too,” Moro told Erling as the pair grabbed their cloaks to head next door. “Looks like we should be looking for a rock.”
Erling didn’t look relieved at all.
“Or a truncheon.”
“I’m only doing this right now because I’m curious, girl. Strip down to your shift,” Goody ordered, putting the kettle on. She badly needed a cup of tea.
As Blackberry started to disrobe, the midwife gathered the tools of her trade.
“You really think it’s the dwarf’s baby?”
“YES!!!” Blackberry snarled.
“Mmm. When was the last time you were with a hobbit male?”
“Eight years ago.”
Goody stopped in her tracks.
“Eight years? Really?! But everyone says –“
“What? What does everyone say?” Blackberry asked, stripping off her corset.
“Um . . . . a lot of ladies say you’re like a hunting cat,” Goody said ruefully. “And small enough to slip through windows.”
Blackberry rolled her eyes. She was used to being grist for the rumor mill. In fact, she thought she might have heard the one about having loads of lovers before. Instead, she looked down at the corset in her hands as if seeing it for the first time.
“I’m going to have to switch to short stays, aren’t I?”
“Or jumps or even a kirtle. Just leave pressure off of your stomach. And you’ll need to practice your birthing dance, too. Remember it?”
“You can come by the class on Saturdays, if you need to. Let’s have a look at that belly.”
What followed was much pinching and prodding and peeing into a small glass bowl. Goody mixed some ground herbs into it, then went back to her physical exam. She examined Blackberry’s breasts, belly, hips, feet, and secrets. The old midwife returned to her glass bowl and held it up to the light. The liquid within had turned red.
“You need to start eating more, lass; you are much too thin for birthing.”
“I am with child?”
“Nearly two months gone, so I stand by my first question. You’ve only been married three weeks.”
Blackberry had the decency to blush, but she grinned.
“Have you seen my Dwalin?” she asked slyly. “Anyway, I’m not taking any cheek from Goody ‘Four husbands and counting and I’ve given birth to fourteen children’ Whemper.”
Goody scoffed as Blackberry began to redress. The younger hobbit woman tied her corset as loosely as she could, swore when she had trouble buttoning her dress over the top of it, then just left the back unbuttoned and threw her cloak over it.
“Is there a healer with this mob of dwarves?” Goody asked.
“Yes, Oin, son of – somebody or other.”
“I might need a conflab with him if the child really is half-dwarf.”
“You know where Bag End is.”
“Yes, I do. Well, congratulations, my dear, welcome to motherhood; you’re starting your greatest adventure, now get out I have to sleep.”
Grinning, Blackberry walked back to Bramble’s Edge.
“A truncheon? You think it was a Lawkeeper?!”
“I don’t have any proof,” Lt. Bellwether said. “Just a suspicion.”
The pair had kept silent until the Rangers ate and left, and now spoke in hushed voices as they walked back to the Post.
“The Commander had us out searching for Proudfoot before the corpse had even been found.”
“He missed his parole check-in.”
“He had until ten in the morning to make that. He was only out so early because he was working for Farmer Rumblebelly, milking cows. Besides, last time someone jumped his parole, they just sent word round to keep an eye out for him. And Longfoot ended up being at work, he just forgot to sign in! The first thing we should have done was send some lads to the dairy!”
Cpt. Hedgehopper’s face started to contort as he realized the insinuation.
“That’s . . . you can’t just—“
“He’s been acting queer.”
“Don’t talk to me about this until you get some proof,” Moro sighed, pushing open the door.
“WHO THE HELL INVITED THE RANGERS?!”
Commander Bilberry was practically purple with rage. The constables present instantly put their natural hobbitish powers of disappearing to use.
“I did,” Cpt. Hedgehopper said firmly. “They have more experience with dwarves than we do; they had some insights.”
“They said Proudfoot got into a scrap with someone who hit him just right and cracked his head open. Then they panicked and threw him on the doorstep of the last person to take issue with him.”
Cmdr. Bilberry stared hard at his officers.
“That is a pretty good insight. Except what of the axe wound?”
“It’s winter; everyone has axes by their woodpile.”
“I’m still not convinced. Get up to Bag End and count dwarves, then go over to the Green Dragon and make sure the number matches.”
The captain and lieutenant grudgingly made for the door, but Erling paused.
“The Ranger’s insight wasn’t perfect, Commander.”
“In what way?”
“Well, the last person to call for Proudfoot’s head . . . . was you.”
The lieutenant pulled the door shut after him. Moro was shaking his head.
“Do not talk to me of this!”
“He flinched! He flinched! He might not be guilty, but he knows something!”
“Let’s go count dwarves before you get us killed!”
Blackberry had an old pair of jumps left over from her first marriage, when she thought there would be children. She threw them on over a winter morning dress that was little more than a glorified nightdress. In truth she probably could have gone another month in a corset, but Blackberry had waited long enough to wear jumps that she was going to do it as early as possible. She made meals for her husband and loaded up her cart before heading into town. She kept her fur-lined cloak closed as best she could so that news of her condition didn’t reach Hobbiton before she did. These days, when a woman switched from wearing corsets to jumps, there was really only one reason for it. Blackberry dropped off her wine, then headed to the forge. Dwalin was fetching coal for the forges when she walked in but set down the bucket and came up for a kiss.
“How are you doing, love?” Blackberry asked.
“Oh, forging with a hangover is just a delight,” the big dwarf announced.
To Blackberry’s surprise, Dwalin instantly noticed her change in dress and smiled warmly.
“I like that frock; it’s very dwarvish. Did Dori make it for you?”
“This? Oh no; this is just what hobbit women wear when they find out they’re with child.”
“Really? Why are you wearing it?”
Blackberry simply stared at her husband. Dwalin stared at his wife. After a moment, his steel grey eyes dropped to her stomach. Then they flipped back up to her face. He paled. Then his eyes dropped back to her belly again. He put one hand over his mouth and swayed on his feet. Blackberry laughed.
“I just found out!” She announced. “Goody Whemper said two months along!”
Dwalin actually staggered back a step to catch himself on the counter.
“You’re – you’re . . . two months? But that would mean . . .” the big dwarf looked at the patch of floor where Thorin had discovered them.
“Yes. It’s a good thing you married me! It’s probably a mark of honor for a dwarf to be conceived in a forge!”
Blackberry was anticipating a joyful yell, being picked up and twirled around or Dwalin running through town, laughing like a loon. She was not expecting his face to contort and damn if his eyes didn’t look a bit wet.
“I nearly left you,” He whispered. “I nearly went back to Ered Luin without you and this whole time you were carrying my child.”
“I would have followed you to Ered Luin and demanded you marry me,” Blackberry announced, sobering a bit. “This town already hates me, I could imagine what having a half-dwarf bastard would do.”
Dwalin looked pained, but gathered her up and squeezed her carefully.
“Even if I were a complete coward, I would have done the honorable thing. But it’s even better that I married my sweet lass and got a wee one on the way as well.”
He touched his forehead to hers. For a moment, they simply stared into each other’s eyes.
“We’re going to have a baby,” Blackberry whispered, giggling.
“We’re going to have a baby,” Dwalin returned, grinning.
He kissed her once more, set her down on the worktable, then drew in a deep breath and tore out of the door, bellowing something in Khudzul. Blackberry stared after him, then started laughing. She was happy that he was happy. She was grateful beyond the power of tongue to tell that Dwalin hadn’t asked if the baby was his.
Blackberry was certain that was a question she’d be answering until the baby was actually born.