Pretty much what it says on the label: vignettes from the early lives of assorted characters.
“Dinna cry, Ma. Look, we’ll make th’ coin stretch, sure’n we will. See, we hold th’ rent to payday, an’ we buy up taters wi’ it an’ bones for th’ stock. We pay double next rent, see, but by then Pearl an’ I’ll hae done th’ mendin’ for th’ Bywater laundry, an’ Pa willnae ever ken we saved it up. An wha’ he dinnae know about, he cannae drink up. Dinnae cry. We’ll manage, sure’n we will.”
The tween skittered off to her pallet by the stove and dug into the packed earth of the floor. With a sigh, she bid farewell to the coin she’d saved up. Almost enough to buy Bertie Boffin’s old ciphering book! She’d just have to keep trading chores for peeks at it. She waited till the coast was clear, then gathered up the bits left over from the stools Papa and Mama broke. The wood was old and seasoned. If she played it right, she could trade with Sam the Whittler for beans.
The tiny girl marched about importantly with the broom clutched in one hand. The other hand clutched the heavy helm so she could see out of it. Finally her big brother Dafydd took pity on his five-year-old sister and stuffed the helm with a shirt so it would sit higher on her frizzy-bright head. He was showing her how to swing her mop/ halberd when a long shadow fell over the dock and a grinning man boomed, “What’s all this, then?”
His daughter squeaked, “I’m a m’rine! Look, Da!” Chubby in her smock, she strode with great big steps from one end of the dock to the other. One of the local cats chased after the trailing old curtain tied around her neck.
Trying to be stern, her Da said, “You know you’re not supposed to touch my armour.”
Her annoying brother Bren said, “Told you so!” To underscore the point, he used his fingers to pull his face into a horrific orc-sneer. She couldn’t sneer back, not with Colonel Da looking sternly down at her.
Her Da continued, “But you cut quite the figure, even so. Wes, you help her take that off, now, before she trips and it falls in the water. But first… let’s see a salute, duckling.”
His youngest smacked her chest so hard, she winced and muttered, “Ow!” Her brothers laughed, but her Da returned the salute and said with a twitch at the waxed ends of his mustache, “As you were, lass. Run help your Ma now.” Taking his helm from his middle son, he herded his boys off for the day’s sparring practice.
“It looks stupid.”
“Is not stupid!”
“Your everything is stupid.”
“Violet. Brentonn. That’s enough now. Vi, you go on now.”
“Go on. Isn’t Kevin Lacey coming by for you soon?”
Her stupid little brother offered her a worshipful look and held up a pendant in his grubby boy hands. It was a violet on white milk glass with a green border. It was perfect. She hated him.
His eyes begged for approval as he said, “I made it for you to wear. So you’ll look pretty at the dance.”
She regarded him. Perhaps it was the maturity of her nineteen years, or perhaps it was some sort of awakening maternal instinct, but in the moment, she saw him not as the horrid boy who’d stolen her life, but as a little fellow who needed looking after. ‘It’s not his fault,’ she told herself. So this time instead of sneering at whatever defects she could find, she took the gift and said, “That’s awful sweet, Brenty.”
The little boy glowed with delight as his father put a hand on his messy head. “Very kind of you, Violet. Now you go have yourself a good time. You’re so pretty, reckon nobody’ll think to look at the glass.”
Her benign goodwill didn’t go so far as to let her father off so easy. She said shortly, “I’d rather stay here.”
He papa smiled in that irritating I-know-best way and said, “Reckon you’ll sing a different tune when he asks what he’s planning on asking you. Go on, now.”
Violet gasped and ran off to reconsider her hair. Brenty asked, “Papa? How come Violet doesn’t get to work glass anymore?”
“She’s a girl, son. Girls marry out and help their husbands do their trade.”
“Oh.” Brenty fussed with the bottle molds in front of him before saying, “It makes her sad, though.”
His father’s big, warm hand gave his shoulder a squeeze, his expression looking just a bit guilty. “She’ll feel better when she’s married. Go on, now. Let’s see another bottle.”
“This way, child. Fourth door on the left.”
The small elfling clung tightly to the stranger’s robe as she followed him into a cheerful room. The walls were carved and painted with all sorts of fishes and there was a strange sort of bed. Two beds! One hanging above the lower one, both of them cozy hammocks. Another elfling sat on an elegant stool by his table, his hair a shock of red that was poorly confined by messy braids. On the table….
“What’s that?” the shy girl asked.
“That’s my pet. He’s a spider.”
The new girl hid quickly back behind the adult’s robes, and the gentle-faced hall-father chuckled warmly, ruffling her hair. “Not that kind, sprout. This one doesn’t get bigger than an apple and it doesn’t eat anything bigger than bugs. You can have a pet too, if you like.”
“Of course you can.”
“Can I have a human?”
To his credit, the grown-up didn’t laugh. “Humans aren’t for pets. Now, this is Fuimbrith. He just got here yesterday. Fuimbrith, this is Tatharien.”
The boy asked boldly, “Did Sauron kill your parents?”
Tatharien nodded, big-eyed and stricken.
Fuimbrith said comfortingly, “He killed mine too. Only it was a while ago, so I had time to get used to it. Then my aunt had to sail, so here I am.”
She near-whispered, “Don’t you care?”
He shrugged and looked to where his spider was crawling about on the back of his hand. “Can’t change fate.”
She nodded and took the stool opposite, asking, “May I pet your spider?”
“Sure. His name’s Nazgul.”
“They let you name him that?”
Her roommate grinned widely. “Watch ’em stop me.”
Their hall-father watched a while to be sure the pairing suited, then quietly left them to play until supper. They’d have to build another wing onto the orphan housing at this rate. Curse Sauron, and shame to Gil-Galad for what befell Oropher.