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A/N: Life's been getting in the way of writing, lately. Lord willing, I'll be writing again (and posting more of AFoW), soon, but in the meantime… I thought you might enjoy this story. :-)

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SOMEONE WAS COMING up the path, and it wasn’t her papa.

Flory forced herself to keep harvesting the squash that was so much easier and cheaper to grow than grain. Her hands trembled. She made sure her back was to the approaching heavy tread, lest he glimpse her fear. She was already an easy target.

The visitor stopped by the garden gate. “This be the smith’s?”

His voice had a gravelly texture, both in pitch and accent. She was bending over a squash plant, and the speaker sounded level with her ear.

Flory looked back and saw a he-dwarf, no taller than her chest if she were standing straight. His hair was all braided back, and his chin had nothing on it that she could see.

Had she ever seen a he-dwarf without a beard, before? Dwarves kept close watch over their children and youth. One her age, traveling alone, was supposed to be unheard-of.

The dwarf was definitely a traveler and not a visitor who’d escaped his guardians. His travel-worn clothing, boots, and cloak attested to that, even before she considered the pack on his back.

“D’ y’ know if ’e could use an assistant?”

Flory remembered pain and pressure and panting—and panic from when her father couldn’t understand why she feared Shom and wanted him far from her.

Breath, not voice, escaped her lips, but the dwarf stepped back as if he understood despite her silence. “This be th’ path for th’ smithy?”

She nodded hesitantly.

The dwarf turned his head to look farther down the path, then looked back at her. He frowned and climbed the garden fence.

Flory froze.

He sat on the top post beside the gate, facing her, and locked his ankles around the lower post as if he intended to stay there awhile. “Th’ name be Thurst.”

She dared not hope that he meant to be kind. Others viewed her with pity or avarice—and only recently had she come to understand the latter gaze. She didn’t see either in Thurst’s eyes, but would she be able to read a dwarf?

Time passed. Finally, Thurst sighed and climbed back over the fence. He looked at her as if about to say something, shook his head as if rueful, and continued down the path. “May th’ sun smile on y’, miss.”

Clutching the cloth sack bearing her harvest, Flory stared after him.

He didn’t turn back once.

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