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WHAT IS THIS? COULD IT BE? Is it a COMPLETED INDEX of Scatterstone?

YES! It is the final installment of Scatterstone! I told you I'd get it up before the Sun became a red giant! I just barely made it!

It's been fun, it really has. I'm hoping to come back and revisit these little guys at some point, too, somewhere, somehow. But in the meantime, enjoy your closure!

--

Largo's memory from after the diamonds struck him was spotty. He'd been so sure he was about to break apart as the magic had built up that anything happening next was a surprise. Especially the when the pressure suddenly ceased, and he collapsed like a cave-in.

But after that, other things kept happening: shouting, a sheet of flames and heat, a light touch on his brow. Then the stomach-dropping sensation of flight as the dragon carried him back to the House and--blessedly--deposited him straight through the window into his bed.

Manjusha left again after that--there was much to discuss with the earl and countess. But Kuen had ridden along, and stayed behind with him, and the first thing she said was, "House, will you bring me my kit?"

Largo learned then that Kuen was a healer--though an unconventional one. When she opened the kit, his eyes were drawn inexorably to the gleaming collection of knives in a clear case of some sort.

Kuen heard the little gasp he let out and followed his gaze. Slowly she picked up the case and tucked it away.

"Sometimes I need those to heal," she said. "Getting the diamonds out may require me to use them."

"Will it?" he whispered. Kuen had also seen the horror of Kraja and his knife. She would not use them badly. Even so ...

"I will not use them if you don't want me to," she said. "But you will be more likely to get sick, or die."

The pain was throbbing through him, worse than when the wizard had beaten him. He swallowed. "I don't want these in me. Please get them out. Even with knives."

She was looking at him thoughtfully.

"Perhaps you would prefer to be asleep while I heal you," she said.

"That's an option?"

"I have a ... sleeping potion, I suppose you could say. You won't be aware of anything I do. Sometimes the potion can make you sick, but it is not likely."

"Yes, please!"

"I may waken you a moment to ask how many are left. Can you count them?"

"Yes."

The stuff she gave him tasted terrible, but it had the desired effect. Largo collapsed into a dreamless sleep. When he drifted forward again, the diamonds were washed and sitting in a little dish next to him. Kuen was still there, dozing in an armchair. As soon as the House noticed Largo was awake, though, the chair shifted a bit, letting the sprite awaken.

"Did it work?" he asked.

She smiled. "Yes, it did."

He looked over at the diamonds.

"They're quiet now," he said when he felt coherent.

"Their magic is free," she agreed. "How do you feel?"

He considered. He was covered in little cuts and larger ones; he felt like he'd been flattened twice. But there were no more diamonds sulking inside him. "Better, I think."

"Is breathing difficult?"

"I don't ... think so."

She nodded, satisfied. "You had a lot of injuries from the diamonds and the pressure of the magic. It will take some time to recover. And I don't want any infections to arise. I think the magic burned anything off. But I want to be sure."

"All right." He had only the faintest idea what she was talking about.

"By the way," she said, "thank you. We never did properly meet. But I am happy you made it out in one piece."

Largo forced himself to look at her--and was surprised to see the shared pain in those bright eyes.

"Thank you," he said.

She knew what he meant. "I am sorry I couldn't keep away all the scars a moment like that inflicts," she said. "But I may be able to help salve those you were given. I've some ability in ... I suppose you might call it 'soul healing.'"

"Maybe." It was a lot to think about.

The window darkened again: Manjusha had returned. As Kuen opened it, Arie fluttered from her perch on the dragon's head to sit on the sill.

"Is he gone?" Largo asked.

"Nothing but scorched earth where he stood," Manjusha said, and Largo was almost shocked with relief.

"She actually got shouted at by a groundskeeper for burning up a flowerbed," Arie said. "It was the most marvelous thing I've ever seen."

Manjusha ignored her. "The countess respectfully requests your presence at the house again," she said to Kuen. "Purely as a guest. She has some things she wishes to discuss with you."

Kuen smiled wryly. "Perhaps I will accept."

"Good to see you made it," Arie went on to Largo. "You look terrible."

"I'm glad I'm the only one who does," he said.

She laughed, but Manjusha looked grave.

"That was brave of you," the dragon said. "Your courage is admirable."

"You're a hero!" Arie beamed.

Largo didn't feel like a hero. He was pretty sure a hero never had to fight the urge to curl up in a ball and sob for his mother. But he didn't know how to say it, so he stayed quiet.

Manjusha went on with dignity: "Courage is a quality I do look for in a student."

It was better than the last time she'd commented on his prospects as a student. But Largo himself had changed. When he had expected to die, he had found that he had a few regrets. He had large ones--never seeing Nolly, or his family, or his home again.

But he also had small ones--like those cursed pebbles he was forever trying to arrange.

And he was not going to let the opportunity to learn the answer pass again.

"I'm sorry I won't be a better student," he said. "I'll try. But I'm afraid I'll have more questions than answers."

"Questions are good," Kuen said. Manjusha, for her part, eyed him inscrutably.

Courage. Here it was. Before anything else happened--"May I ask one now?"

Heavy, scaled lids briefly obscured those copper eyes. He thought the dragon might be curious.

"Which of the planets is in the center?" he asked.

A moment's puzzled silence hung. Dragon, fairy, and sprite exchanged glances.

Largo felt like a fool. "They say the Earth is in the center--all the orreries do. My brother, when I was little, he said it when he showed me the constellations. But it can't be. I watched them--the planets. Every night it was clear."

"You learned the constellations?" Manjusha asked.

"Yes, but I couldn't make the planets go right. I've tried them all--the sun, moon, the others--but I can't ... quite find it. Keeping track of it all ... I wish there were some way."

They were openly staring at him now. "You're trying to calculate the planets," Manjusha said.

"Well--yes."

"Where did you learn the mathematics? I thought you couldn't read."

"Mathe--no." He frowned. "I'm using these." He reached for his pouch of little stones. "I'm making the patterns with them. But it's hard to get my mind around it ..." He dumped them into his hand and rattled them.

"How do you know the Earth is moving?" Kuen asked.

He looked at her, surprised. "Can't you feel it?"

She burst out laughing.

Largo looked helplessly at Arie, who shrugged. "Manjusha?" she asked. "He's your student."

Manjusha nodded slowly. "Yes. He is. Largo. You are correct--most orreries are wrong. The Earth is not in the center of the planets. The sun is."

"The sun!" He leaned back, thinking. "Then how do the others work? And how big is the sun? How long does it take for each planet--"

"Largo."

He paused.

Manjusha gazed at him. "Are these the sorts of questions you have been meaning to ask?"

"Not always," he said sheepishly. "I ask much more ridiculous ones. 'Why do people need to breathe but fish don't?' 'Why do plants die in the shade?' 'Why does water bubble when it boils?' I'll ... try not to pester you."

"You will do no such thing," Manjusha said. "You will ask those questions. And you will learn to read and write forthwith, so that you may write them down as they occur to you, and research answers, and record results, and calculate, and other things as well. Do you understand?"

He wasn't entirely sure he did, but he knew a directive when he heard it. "Yes, my lady. I'll learn to read. I'll start right away."

"Very good. I am going to go have a bath. We shall take this up later."

And she vanished from the window.

"I am intensely curious about how the House goes about drawing a bath that big," Arie commented.

"Perhaps it will demonstrate for us later," Kuen said.

Largo was twisting his hands in his blanket. "I should have told her," he said.

The guilt in his voice must have been apparent; they both leaned forward.

"You said you have trouble with reading," Arie said. "But I can help you with that! I've been looking at how to write some Common--"

She stopped, reaizing that Largo was shaking his head.

"It's not just that letters are strange," he explained. "That's part of it. But not all." He could feel himself blushing. "It seems silly now. But learning to read means learning to write. And I couldn't do that."

"Why not?"

At this point, this revelation--something he'd feared since he was little--seemed ridiculous. "Because sooner or later someone would find out that I favor my left hand."

The puzzled silence that followed was enough to make him laugh aloud--in turn making his abused body protest. "You don't even know, do you?" he asked.

They shook their heads.

"That's a sign that someone is evil," he explained. "Maybe even a witch."

Arie blinked. "Really?"

"Why?" Kuen asked.

Largo blinked. "I--have no idea."

"So you didn't want to learn to write because you thought people would suspect you of magical talent?" Kuen asked.

He nodded, blushing.

"Did you think you had magical talent?"

"That's the funny thing," he said. "I didn't. But I was so worried that they'd think I did--I was already a scatterwit, and ..." He trailed off with a shrug. "I try to use my right hand, but it just doesn't work. I'm forever dropping things."

"I recommend just using the hand that you favor," Kuen said.

Largo laughed again. "I might as well. Now I suppose after telling them I'm a mage nobody'll think twice about my hands."

"If they do, refer them to me," Kuen said.

"I'll write you a letter," he said. "If I take long enough to recover, I may be able to write home before I get there, anyway."

"Oh, I don't know about that," she said. "But then, you do seem to be a quick learner. You may surprise us all."

#

"I don't understand," Nolly told Zeia plaintively. "Everything here is so small."

Hunched on one of the Celadon Toadstool's long settees, Zeia sipped her half-pint and looked around. "It's hobbit-sized."

"I don't mean that," Nolly said. "That's right and proper." She hadn't realized how much effort she'd been expending adapting to a giant-sized world until she no longer had to. "But the--the place is smaller."

"Ah. Yes."

Nolly glared at her. "You know about this?"

"It's an effect of travel. It changes how you see things. Familiar things become strange because your eyes have changed."

"Oh." Nolly felt that perhaps somebody should have warned her about this, but she couldn't think who.

Certainly she'd have liked to have been warned about the way the people would be. When they'd pulled the cart into Birchdale she'd been swarmed with friends and family, and there was hugging and scolding and crying. But in the days since, she'd found that she was still, somehow, outside of the community.

"I think my family is angry with me," she said. "Mum's been snapping at me but she hates to let me out of her sight, and Dad's been keeping clear of me. It feels--" She stopped, as this had just occurred to her. "It's like when I first joined your caravan."

Zeia nodded. "You're different now."

"I'm not!"

"But you are. You've seen things they haven't; done things they haven't. You've changed." She reflected. "And you frightened them. Think about how you'd feel if someone you loved just vanished one day."

"Like you?" Nolly said.

Zeia swallowed and nodded. Then she smiled. "You tore down a castle looking for me."

"I didn't tear it down," Nolly protested absently. Would the family have come after her?

They'd thought the trolls had gotten her, and had even organized a posse to hunt them down--to no avail. It was nice to know that they'd come after her.

And Largo--many thought he'd been gotten by the trolls, as well. Not all, though--his mother had questioned Nolly intently when she had returned, convinced that her son was still out there looking.

Nolly couldn't answer with anything definite, but she had told Mrs. Blackstone in no uncertain terms that she was right. Largo had gone after her, had tried to find her, but had known to look elsewhere.

But if the trolls hadn't gotten him, why hadn't they heard from him? Why wasn't he home? Was he trying to make her worry? When he did come strolling in, she'd--

"Oh," she said.

"Precisely," Zeia agreed.

Nolly sighed. She had changed. She'd wanted this. Had she made a mistake?

"We're thinking of leaving tomorrow," Zeia said.

"What? You're leaving me?"

She realized how silly that sounded as she said it. Zeia and Ivan had readily agreed to bring her home, and for some reason Fodzi had decided to join them. The dwarf was enchanted with what he called the "homespun pastorality" of Alricshire, even as Nolly had felt like a stranger in her own corner of the world.

Zeia squeezed her shoulder. "You'll survive. You learned to fit in with us. You can learn to fit in with them. But we have to catch up with the caravan. We've got all these matches to sell." Nolly's father had grudgingly agreed to give the Fyan an excellent deal on several cases. "And it's probably best not to inflict Fodzi and his poetry on your people's hospitality for too long."

Nolly giggled a little at that. "But you will be back for the fair?"

"Of course we will. We'd miss you too much otherwise." She smiled. "And we do want to keep an eye on our honorary Fyan."

Pleased, Nolly put a hand down to her waist, where the hobbit-sized Fyan daggers they'd presented her with hung. Perhaps those would help her feel braver.

"If you happen to see Largo in your travels, tell him I'm waiting for him," she said.

Zeia laughed. "I have no doubt you two will find each other," she said. "Knowing you, and what you've said of him, when you do you'll be unstoppable."

#

It was a cold, rainy day when she went out to the cave Largo once used to hide from the world. She'd spent the morning letting her mother fuss with a new dress for her. Nolly liked the dress--a pretty blue calico--but her mother's hints that it was meant to replace some of the Fyan clothes Nolly had picked up in her travels she appreciated somewhat less. How strange it was to think about dresses after stopping an evil wizard!

When she found the cave, she was shocked. The place was a mess. The homey things Largo had added, as well as his collections, were flung carelessly about, likely by the same animals that had raided his stash of food. And the cave walls themselves had shifted and collapsed in on each other.

A stonemage, she thought numbly. What happened here?

"You know, it makes us all nervous when you wander now."

Nolly jumped. "Master Sirthaus!" She frowned. She had seen his carriage on the road, but they weren't on the road anymore. This place was off the normal paths--hidden enough that only she and Largo visited it with any regularity. It was difficult to imagine Largo's elegant, city-educated uncle picking his way through the groves and over the rocks.

And the idea that he'd followed her was difficult for another reason.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

He was under a big black umbrella. "You must be cold," he said. "Will you join me?" He moved so there was room for her.

Nolly hung back. "I'm quite all right," she lied. "I've gotten used to being out in the weather."

"Indeed." He raised an eyebrow. "It's a matter of some concern."

"What? My getting soggy?"

"Your roaming," he said. "I happened to see you leaving the road. Given the worry you've put your father through, I felt it was my duty to follow you."

"How very ... thoughtful of you."

He waved a hand at the cave behind her. "What is this?"

She hesitated, unwilling to give away Largo's secret. But then, the cave was a wreck now. "Largo and I used to come here."

A muscle in Sirthaus's face twitched. "I see."

"It was a cave," she added.

"A ..." His expression changed. Cold grey eyes took in the destroyed opening, the jagged pebbles and freshly fallen boulders.

"Oh, dear," he said.

Nolly swallowed. He'd filled his voice with what he must think "concern" sounded like. "What?"

Sirthaus carefully approached the mouth of Largo's lair. "I wonder ... perhaps we were wrong to suspect the trolls in Largo's disappearance."

Nolly edged toward him. "What do you mean?"

"We had thought he'd gone off to find you," he said. "But what if he had simply retreated here, to his little hiding place, and been caught in this cave-in?"

A chill slid through her. "You--you think he's buried in there?"

"A frightful thought," he said. "But entirely possible."

"No," she said.

No, of course not. It was not likely--no more so than the trolls. She had seen Largo--talked to him. The dreams hadn't been just dreams. Zorna agreed with her.

So where was he?

Sirthaus was still wearing his "concerned" face. "I am sorry, Nolly," he said, laying a hand on her arm. "This must be quite a shock to you."

It's a lie! she wanted to scream. It's a lie because I've talked to him, he spoke to me in dreams with a stone he himself enchanted because he's a stone mage and he found out when he was coming after me but I don't know if I saved him from losing that magic or worse--

But of course, if it were true, Sirthaus would be the last person she'd want to tell.

If it weren't--

"--waiting for him," she realized Sirthaus was saying, now evidently trying for "fatherly," "but you cling to a false hope. Largo is gone, whether by cave-in or troll. I know you thought he was your only prospect--that he alone might still be willing to ignore your transgressions--"

"What?" Her voice cut his words like a knife. They had slid off in some new direction, momentarily confounding her. Prospect? Transgression? What in the world--?

Oh.

Oh.

Glodho giving her wounded, betrayed glares. The women whispering, only to hurriedly begin discussing the weather when she approached. The worried purse in her mother's lips; her father's bemused calculations.

Oh, dear.

"Do not give up yet, my child." His hand was still on her arm. "Perhaps another suitor will forgive you. You can be redeemed--"

Nolly shook him off, suddenly furious.

"Maybe it's just that Largo's the only one here who isn't so bloody nasty-minded," she snarled.

Sirthaus reeled back as if struck.

"You're a rotten old fish, Sirthaus." Now that she'd begun, it came like a landslide. "You're mean, and selfish, and you've got your head shoved so far up your own behind that you can't see anything but the back of your own navel! You went out into the world; did you never see it? Did you never see how many ways there are to be good, without being proper? Or how many ways to be proper without being good?"

He was white-faced, lips pinched. For a moment longer, Nolly studied him.

"No," she finally said. "You didn't even see how many ways there are to be nasty. You've just got the one."

Sirthaus was silent. His eyes traveled downward. Nolly realized that she was resting her hand on the daggers at her waist; he'd noticed.

Softly, icily, he said, "I was afraid of this."

Nolly turned her back on him. "Go away, Sirthaus. You can think I'm improper all you like. But tell someone else about it, thank you."

She realized her folly immediately. Now that she'd delivered the ultimatum, she was determined to wait until he'd left. Unfortunately, the rain was picking up again, and her leg, not fully healed, was starting to ache.

But Nolly had battled murderous wizards and saved mages. She could outwait an old man with an umbrella.

And, soon enough, Sirthaus let out a long-suffering sigh.

"Walk, then," he said. "Walk home and wait forever for your little scatterbrain. I am going back to my carriage. Enjoy your travels."

And he left.

#

"You've got trouble," Arven said.

The brother closest to her, Arven was the only one who would still sit with her at the Celadon Toadstool.

Nolly was all right with that. She was getting a bit fed up with the people around here.

This was new, though. "What kind of trouble?" she asked.

Arven glanced around. The other patrons didn't openly stare at her, but she could see the sidelong glances. Her brother was right: something felt ... hostile.

She took a nervous swallow of ale.

"I've been hearing people say nasty things about you," he said.

"I know. They think I'm some sort of brazen wench now."

Arven started. His face grew hard even as he blushed. "I'll fight anyone who says so," he growled.

"Aren't you a nice boy." Nolly grinned.

Arven grinned back but then sobered. "That's not all, though."

"What? What else are they saying?" The eyes of the man she'd killed came back to her. She hadn't been able to tell anyone about the battle at Kraja's fortress--nobody here, not even Arven, would even believe her. But maybe Zeia, Ivan, or Fodzi--well, most likely Fodzi--had let slip a comment about it.

But Arven's answer took a different path. "They're saying you've become a witch."

The mug banged onto the table. "What?"

He couldn't stop himself from glancing at her waist--and the Fyan "practice wands" she still carried. "People are whispering that you went to study occult magic with them. To learn their darkest secrets."

"That's ridiculous," Nolly said, loudly enough for other patrons to eye her.

The frustration of her homecoming finally boiled over. "Is that what you think?" she demanded of the room. "You all think I'm some sort of wicked witch?"

Eyes would not meet hers--save for one pair.

"You went off with heathens," Glodho Brockwood pointed out loudly. "Ran off like someone was after you."

Nolly stared at him in disbelief. Like someone was after her? Didn't he remember--

"You were under suspicion back then, you know," he went on.

"I most certainly was not! Who said I was?"

Then it hit her. "Sirthaus Elliwell said that, didn't he?" She glared around the room. "Didn't he?"

A few people shuffled their feet.

"That rotten old fish!" she cried. "You tell him--"

A loud BONG from outside drowned out her tirade. Everyone turned toward the door.

"The town bell?" Arven said, confused. "But--what's that pattern?"

Nolly listened to the urgent alarm. Long ago she and all the other little hobbits had memorized the patterns for different emergencies--trolls, fire, flood, things of that nature--but this one was unfamiliar.

The answer was provided a moment later when Thordred Innsman burst into the Toadstool.

"Dragon!" he shouted. "There's a dragon in Alricshire!"

Nolly gasped. Largo had mentioned ...

"Where?" she demanded breathlessly.

Thordred stared at her. "Cherrystone Road," he finally said.

Nolly did not wait around. While the rest of the Toadstool was still absorbing this information she sprinted for the door.

She was dimly aware of people mobilizing around her, but she paid them little mind. Cherrystone Road was a little ways from the town center, in the direction of the Blackstone residence.

It was only when she saw the dragon--a great being of scarlet and silver--settling on the road ahead that she slowed, suddenly aware that her daggers would probably not save her should this dragon be in a hobbit-eating mood.

But the dragon seemed disinclined to devour anyone. She was eyeing the crowd of wary hobbits with an air of complete unconcern even as they edged toward her with their improvised weapons. As Nolly neared, she saw the mighty head turn to look back along the length of the body. Someone was dismounting from her broad shoulders.

For a moment, Nolly's hammering heart fluttered. It was too tall for a hobbit--a lithe, red-haired woman wearing, of all things, trousers under her red coat. But then the woman reached up to help down someone else--

"Largo!" Ignoring her aching leg, Nolly broke into a run.

His head whipped around. "Nolly!"

She slammed into him with such force that he staggered back against the dragon's scaly foreleg. He grunted with pain, but his arms were around her already.

"You're all right!" she cried at the same time he wheezed "You're alive!"

She drew back to look at him, make sure he was real, but kept her hold on his shoulders.

"You big fool!" she burst out, shaking him. "What's the idea scaring me to death like that?"

He ignored her words, staring into her face with joy and trepidation. "Nolly," he said, almost in wonder. "Nolly Fine, will you marry me?"

She swatted him lightly on the head. "Of course I will, you idiot! Where've you been?"

"Where have I--?" He laughed, then caught her in another hug. "What about you? What's the idea running off like that?"

That was too much to answer in this moment. She had barely thought how to begin when a small voice from back in the loose ring of hobbits shrieked his name, and moments later the entire Blackstone family was surging forward--only to stop at an apprehensive distance from the dragon.

Largo looked torn.

"Go to them," Nolly told him.

She watched the mob of hugs, scoldings, and joyous cries and smiled. It reminded her of her own homecoming.

And look how well that's turned out, she thought, smile becoming a grimace.

"So you're Nolly."

Nolly wasn't used to looking down to speak to anyone, but the voice came from her knee. She'd managed to miss this little being.

Seeing this, the fairy leaped up to rest on the dragon's mighty forepaw. Her wings were dry and brittle, like autumn leaves, but she didn't seem to need them to help her jump. They were reddish-brown, nicely matching the earthy colors in her dress and her tawny hair.

"At youro service," Nolly said. "Um ..."

"Terwu'arie. Arie, if that's too much."

"You're a friend of Largo's?"

"I am indeed."

"And he's told you about me?"

The fairy grinned. "Oh, he's mentioned you once or twice."

"Then what--"

She stopped, noting a disturbance in the crowd. She turned in time to see a few of the small force of Birchdale's reeves, led by ...

"Oh, dear," Nolly murmured.

Sirthaus Elliwell glided forward, taking a a cold, perfunctory look at the scene. The chill of his gaze quieted the noisy reunion.

Then he waved to the reeves.

"Begone, creature," he said to the dragon. "Or my men will destroy you."

#

For a moment Largo simply gaped at his uncle in disbelief. Fortunately, he wasn't the only one: the reeves behind Sirthaus hesitated, clearly not certain how to go about slaying a dragon.

Largo, for his part, couldn't keep it in. "What are you talking about, Uncle?"

"Largo." The boiling contempt in Sirthaus's voice was plain. "Why am I not surprised that you have a hand in this?"

"What is ... this?" Largo's father, Linus, interjected.

"It's my homecoming, Dad," Largo said.

"And you've brought a dragon," Sirthaus said.

"Well, I suppose Lady Manjusha brought me," Largo said. "But yes." He looked at Nolly. "I went to find you. But I got lost along the way."

"I'm glad we're both found," Nolly smiled.

"And you've fallen in with ... these." Sirthaus gestured at Manjusha, Arie, and Kuen--a shocking trio, from Manjusha's awesome presence, through Arie's exotic wings, right down to Kuen's choice to wear trousers.

"They're my friends," Largo said.

"Oh, naturally. You bring a them to Birchdale with no thought to the dangers they may present?"

"Funny," Arie said to Kuen. "I don't feel dangerous. Do you?"

"Only reciprocally," Kuen said.

"I'm feeling more dangerous by the minute," Manjusha rumbled. A few hobbits edged back.

Largo sighed. "Do you think I'd have asked them to join me if I thought they posed a danger, Uncle? And do you think I could stop them, anyway?"

"Maybe," Arie muttered.

Largo met his uncle's eyes. "Kuen and Arie are my friends. And Lady Manjusha--" He paused, unsure how to explain.

Sirthaus waved a hand. "Careless. Thoughtless. I always knew it. No concern for your people. But I suppose that's only to be expected from someone who goes after a girl who would run off to dally with a whole Fyan caravan."

Largo gasped. Nolly reddened. A few whispers ran through the crowd.

Seeing the effect, Sirthaus smirked. "Oh, come now, nephew. You mean to tell me that had never crossed your mind?"

It hadn't. Truly, truly it hadn't. Now, for a fleeting moment, it did--but it didn't even pause before it flew on. One glance at Nolly's aghast face told him that it hadn't crossed her mind, either.

"I was waiting for Largo," she protested blankly.

Sirthaus snorted.

Beneath Largo's feet, the pebbles in the road began to strain toward him. A few stones began to tumble down the hill. The little stones at his belt nearly leaped out of their pouch.

Behind him, a rapid, quiet conference was going on between the three wizards.

They were right. He was losing his control. He took a deep breath.

"Well, then," he said, concentrating on calming his furious magic. "If she is to have a reputation, then I shall have one to join her." He took the pouch and dumped the stones into his palm.

His fury had not calmed much. The power leaped into the little stones--and then the stones leaped into the air.

Everyone drew back with shock.

The pattern Largo had been practicing as he had recuperated took form. In the middle was his goldstone, a miniature sun. Around it whirled the others, tiny planets, dancing in the corrected version of orrery that had vexed him for so long.

The crowd held their breath until the stones slowed and settled back in his palm. With a last smile, Largo closed his fingers over them.

The crowd burst into whispers, murmurs, and awed looks. Nolly, eyes shining, clasped her hand over his.

"And here I was going to show off that I'd learned to juggle," she said.

He could feel a blush as he pulled his hand away to put the stones back. "I probably should have mentioned that before I asked you to marry me."

She laughed. "But I already knew it!"

Then it was true! "Did you dream it?"

"So!"

Largo spun back to his uncle, and barely resisted the urge to shrink back. The elegant old hobbit's disgust had morphed into molten fury.

"Sorcery," he almost spat. "Even at your worst, I never could have expected this. And you're likely all sorcerers." He swept a hand at Largo's entourage.

Manjusha bristled. "Of course we are. I would hardly be taking him as a student otherwise."

Even Nolly's jaw dropped at that.

Sirthaus, though, sneered. "You'd best take him, then," he told the dragon. "Mages aren't welcome here. He freely admits to being one. He may no longer dwell in Alricshire."

Though he'd been dreading it--all his life, really--Largo still felt a cold wash through him. He had arguments ready, but--

"You can't be serious!" Nolly shrilled

The crowd was treated to the sight of the prodigal Fine girl storming up to wave a finger in their vaunted judge's face.

"You call this justice?" she demanded. "You want to kick someone out of their home for how they were born? Magic isn't the problem. Nasty people are the problem. And you may not be a mage, sir, but you're as nasty as they come."

"You're more than welcome to join your dear bethrothed in exile then," Sirthaus said.

Largo folded his arms. "I'm not going to leave forever just because you say so, Uncle."

That finally took Sirthaus aback. He went pale. But--

"It is not simply that I say so," he said. "It is the law."

"That you made," someone pointed out. Largo blinked. He'd forgotten the crowd.

"But it is the law," Linus Blackstone admitted, distraught.

"So change the law," Kuen said.

All eyes turned to the sprite, who had been watching curiously. She met their gazes with simple helpfulness. "If a law is not working, it is not a good law," she shrugged. "So you must change it."

Largo looked around at the people of his home--the people he'd known all his life.

"Kuen's right," he said. "But I'd rather not stay if you all think this law is just. I'll leave if you do. But perhaps you don't. Does anyone want to change it?"

A cry of approval startled him.

Sirthaus looked around, disgusted. "This is a mob!" he cried. "You cannot suggest that this will have any effect on government!"

"Fortunately, you'll have time to change it officially," Kuen said brightly. "While Largo's studying with Manjusha."

Nolly laughed. "Good point!"

"Then begone until--"

"Not so fast," Heliotrope Blackstone snapped.

Largo's mother surged forward to put around her son's shoulders.

"If you think I'm going to let my boy miss Wintermas with us," she told Sirthaus, "you are gravely mistaken."

Then she looked up, a bit apprehensively, at the dragon. "And if you think I'll send away those who brought him back to me, you underestimate Blackstone hospitality, Uncle. Shall we have it said out in the world that the hobbits of Birchdale are so unwelcoming?"

The last was a ringing demand to the entire assemblage. After a moment's hesitation, the cry was taken up: "The mages stay!"

And with that, the tension broke. The hobbits surged forward to congratulate Largo on his return, his abrupt engagement, and--a bit more hesitantly--his newly-discovered magical abilities.

"Thanks, Mum," he whispered. "I--you aren't angry I'm a mage?"

She hugged him again. "Oh, my boy. It explains a lot."

That made him laugh. "I felt the same way."

"I'm sorry," she said, waving at the crowd in general and Sirthaus in particular. "I don't know how we'll sort all this out."

Largo looked around at the people from his old life, the ones from his new, and Nolly, who was both, and who he knew so well and had to get to know again.

"Me, either," he said. "But it's strange, Mum. I'm not so afraid of not knowing anymore."

#

"I never would have thought a dragon would get on so well with children," Nolly said.

She was approaching the bench Largo sat on, out in the Birchdale square. It had snowed the night before, and many of the town's children--and adults--had turned out to play. A somewhat bemused Manjusha had been pressed into service building snow forts in preparation for the looming snowball fight.

Nolly was carrying two steaming mugs from the Celadon Toadstool. She offered one to him.

"Hot cider," she said. "Thought you'd be chilled." When he accepted, she passed it to him, then shuffled her feet and nodded at the space next to him. "May I?"

"Of course," he said. He was having some difficulty forming the words.

She seemed to be having similar problems. Twice she appeared to be on the verge of speaking before finally, on the third try, managing, "That's a lovely sweater."

"Thanks," he said. "A dwarf made it for me."

"Really? I met a dwarf, too, but I don't think he would've been able to make a sweater. He's got stone magic, though--like you, but he thinks yours must be stronger."

"How does he know about my magic?" Largo said.

But before she could answer he pounded the arm of the bench. "Damn it, Nolly, what happened to you? Why'd you leave?"

She went pale. For a moment it looked like she was going to shout back. Instead, though, she deflated.

"I don't know," she said. "I love--I love Birchdale. But there's so much more in the world." She took a sip. "Glodho proposed to me that night," she went on. "And I realized that you'd propose soon." She gave him a sidelong smile. "Though I thought you'd wait until you were twenty-nine. But--even then, after that I'd never see the world."

He was stung. "You don't think I'd have traveled with you?"

"No," she said.

He opened his mouth to retort, but paused.

"Maybe I wouldn't have," he said. "But then I thought you were in trouble. I had to follow."

"Yes," she said, with a grin that took away the earlier sting. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"

"It's rather exhausting," he said.

"And I want to hear about it!"

He fought down a reflexive moment of panic. "All of it?"

"Of course."

"Even ..." He'd gotten a bit better about considering That Night, but ... "Even the worst things?"

"Yes," she said in a low, fierce voice. "Especially those. I wanted to tell you all of mine, too. Thinking about you got me through them. You deserve to know--if you want. But I want you to know the wonderful parts and the terrible parts. I want to know yours, too." She stopped, as thought something had just occurred to her. "It wasn't all terrible, was it?"

He blinked, then laughed.

"No," he said, surprised himself by the realization. "No, I think a lot of it--maybe even most of it--wasn't."

She sagged with relief. "Oh, good."

The frantic worry that had risen in him at his homecoming settled. "I'll tell you. Maybe not right away. But I will."

"That's fine. And I want to hear about your time with the dragon. Visit often."

"Oh!" He reached into his belt pouch. "I almost forgot! I can tell you about it between visits, too. Look!"

He handed her a folded sheet of paper. I already showed everyone my magic, he thought. This is nothing.

But he couldn't completely suppress a twinge of self-consciousness as Nolly curiously unfolded the paper.

Her eyes widened.

The letters on the page were slightly smeared, formed with the deliberation of one unaccustomed to a pen.

Dear Nolly, the letter said. I am learning to read. I will write to you while I am away. Regards, Largo

She looked up, eyes shining. "Surprises, indeed!"

He blushed. "I'm only just learning."

"Then you'd best write a lot so you learn quickly," she said. "But wait! You can do it another way, too! I have something for you!"

She rummaged at her own belt pouch. Largo noticed she was wearing it on a colorful sash--one of the many splashes of Fyan flair she wore along with her Alricshire blouse, coat, and skirt.

"Aha!" She hled up what she'd been looking for.

His eyes widened. "Agates!"

"The Blue Star wizard realized you had magic because of the one I had," Nolly said. "It's how we were able to talk."

"Manjusha realized the same thing," he nodded, taking the pendants.

"I'm afraid I lost the one you gave me," she said. "I didn't know if you still had yours. So I got new ones." She looked hopeful. "I thought you might magic them the way you did with the others."

"As soon as I figure out how I did it, I will," he grinned. "But how did you lose the other one?"

Nolly laughed--suddenly helpless in the face of a question that needed hours, at least, to answer. Largo had the feeling he would grow familiar with that laugh, both hearing it from her and making it himself.

"That comes at the end," she said. "I think I'm going to have to begin at the beginning."

"All right," he said. "Let's begin."

#

Manjusha was having a fine time playing with the little hobbits. She could not remember the last time she had really let this side of her take over. Hobbits were good for bringing out that part of her--the less dragonish, cheerier side of her.

A small exclamation from a nearby bench caught her ear. Pausing with a large snowball in her claws, the dragon glanced over.

The one her student had been so preoccupied with--Nolly Fine--had her hands up to her face in gleeful suspense. Largo was speaking animatedly, hands alive as he related something of his adventures.

Manjusha felt a tug on another sense. Blinking, she adjusted her vision and looked again.

There it was! As Nolly took her turn with a wild tale of her own, and Largo listened raptly, the dragon ould just make out two tiny glows of magic on the bench between them.

Agates. He was doing it again.

A snowball smacked the side of her nose. Snorting, Manjusha turned back to the chilly battle. But she was secretly pleased.

Whatever happened next, it would certainly be interesting.

Date: 2016-07-04 07:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fractalwolf.livejournal.com
Heee! This is awesome!

Do you have any plans to publish it more widely?

Date: 2016-07-05 08:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] padparadscha.livejournal.com
At the moment, no, but I may ebook-ify it someday.

I fixed a few unclosed tags I missed that ate a few lines of text, so hopefully it should look better now.

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