Summary: A murder mystery, set in Buckland. When Merry is suspected of murdering a Brandybuck cousin, Frodo conducts his own investigation (with Sam's assistance) to clear Merry's name and find the guilty party.
Categories: FPS, FPS > Frodo/Sam, FPS > Merry/Pippin, FPS > Pippin/Merry, FPS > Sam/Frodo Characters: Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam
Series: Frodo Investigates!
Chapters: 25 Completed: Yes
Word count: 35872 Read: 160059
Published: March 22, 2008 Updated: March 22, 2008
Although I've taken a lot of backstory from the book, I've also used two key elements from the film version: the Shire is untouched, and our four main hobbits are all around the same age.
Almost all of the names used in this story are taken from the Brandybuck family tree in Appendix C, but the characterizations are mostly my own (with apologies to any Brandybucks whom I may have unfairly maligned by making them suspects in a murder).
This story takes place in the spring of 1420 (S.R.), about six months after the boys have returned from the quest.
Disclaimer: The characters and overall storyline are certainly not mine. They belong to J.R.R. Tolkien's estate, and I'm just playing with them to entertain myself and anyone else who likes this kind of thing.
June 2004 (revised April 2005)The Frodo Investigates! series
1. Chapter 1 by Kathryn Ramage
2. Chapter 2 by Kathryn Ramage
3. Chapter 3 by Kathryn Ramage
4. Chapter 4 by Kathryn Ramage
5. Chapter 5 by Kathryn Ramage
6. Chapter 6 by Kathryn Ramage
7. Chapter 7 by Kathryn Ramage
8. Chapter 8 by Kathryn Ramage
9. Chapter 9 by Kathryn Ramage
10. Chapter 10 by Kathryn Ramage
11. Chapter 11 by Kathryn Ramage
12. Chapter 12 by Kathryn Ramage
13. Chapter 13 by Kathryn Ramage
14. Chapter 14 by Kathryn Ramage
15. Chapter 15 by Kathryn Ramage
16. Chapter 16 by Kathryn Ramage
17. Chapter 17 by Kathryn Ramage
18. Chapter 18 by Kathryn Ramage
19. Chapter 19 by Kathryn Ramage
20. Chapter 20 by Kathryn Ramage
21. Chapter 21 by Kathryn Ramage
22. Chapter 22 by Kathryn Ramage
23. Chapter 23 by Kathryn Ramage
24. Chapter 24 by Kathryn Ramage
25. Chapter 25 by Kathryn Ramage
Chapter 1 by Kathryn Ramage
When the news that Berilac Brandybuck was missing and presumably drowned in the Brandywine River first reached other parts of the Shire, it was called a "sad accident." Residents of Hobbiton shook their heads and spoke, as they often did, of the peculiarities of that family; the way the Brandybucks persisted in engaging in such dangerous activities as swimming and taking boats out onto the river, it was a wonder that accidents like poor Berilac's didn't occur every week!
Then, when Berilac's body was recovered downstream two days later, alarming stories quickly spread about strange bruises on his hands and even more suspicious wounds on his head. Speculation ran wild. Was the young hobbit's death not an accident after all?
"It must've been one of those odd folk that was hanging about our borders," was the common opinion. Buckland was as near the border as anything. Any wandering ruffian might easily cross into the Shire there and, finding Berilac alone, assault and cast him into the water for some nefarious reason.
Then, even more astonishing news reached Hobbiton the following day.
"The shirriffs in Buckland have arrested Mr. Merry," Sam reported when he returned from a mid-morning trip to the Bywater Market. He'd moved into Bag End after they'd come home last fall to look after Frodo, who was still recovering from his quest into Mordor.
Frodo was just finishing the breakfast Sam had set out for him before going on his errands; as Sam came into the kitchen and delivered this news, he lay his knife and fork down on his plate and stared at his friend blankly. "What on earth for?"
"They're saying he murdered his cousin, the one that was drowned."
"What- Berilac?" Frodo sputtered. "But that's nonsense! You must have misunderstood."
"There's no mistake," Sam assured him. "I got it right from Robin-Sherriff Smallburrows, that is. He had the news from Buckland this morning. When I first heard the story going 'round the market, I didn't know what to make of it. You know how folk'll talk. Once they get hold of some gossip, they'll tell it over 'n' over 'til it's all mixed up and twisted around, and if they don't know the facts, they'll make up whatever comes into their heads. So I went to Robin for the truth of it. I wanted to be sure before I told you, seeing as how it's Mr. Merry."
"Yes, of course. Thank you, Sam," Frodo spoke abstractly, stunned by this news. In his agitation, he lifted his empty teacup to his lips, put it back down on the table and reached for the teapot as if he meant to refill the cup, then changed his mind. He rose to his feet and went to the kitchen doorway, then stopped there with one hand on the curved doorpost while he decided what to do. "Sam, will you pack a bag for me? I'm going to ride over to Buckland. If Merry's in trouble, I've got to go to him."
"What can you do?" Sam asked, astonished that Frodo was ready to go tearing halfway across the Shire at a moment's notice because Merry Brandybuck was in trouble.
"I don't know," Frodo admitted, "but I must do something."
Chapter 2 by Kathryn Ramage
Sam packed a traveling bag for Frodo and one for himself, since he wouldn't dream of letting Frodo go without him, and they left Bag End within the hour. It was 40 miles from Hobbiton to the borders of Buckland, and Frodo was eager to get there as soon as possible; they rode swiftly, stopping only at Frogmorton and Whitfurrows for a bite to eat and to let the ponies rest, and crossed the Brandywine Bridge late that afternoon.
The Buckshead Inn lay at the crossroads just beyond the Buckland side of the bridge. The innkeeper, who kept himself apprised of all the important news, told them that Merry had been locked up in the guardshouse at Newbury. Although both he and Sam were weary after their long ride, it was only another seven miles to Newbury; Frodo decided to press on without further delay.
The guardshouse was a long, low, wooden structure, built during those uneasy days when strange folk were too often seen on the Shire's borders. It was intended to store weapons and supplies in case of invasion or other emergency, and also served as a central office where Bucklanders could always find a sherriff when one was needed.
Hob Hayward, who was on duty when Frodo and Sam arrived, allowed them in to see the prisoner.
"We don't have no cells to lock people up in," Hob explained as he led them through the long hall of the armory, to a door at the very back. "We had to put Mr. Merry in the room where the sherriff on duty sleeps, as there was nothing else we could do with him." He knocked on the door. "Here's some visitors for you, Mr. Merry."
The door opened into a small room with curving walls in the traditional hobbit style, furnished sparsely--sparse, at least, by hobbit standards--to provide basic comforts to the sherriff who must occupy it for a night or two. There was also usually a rack for pipes and a locker full of food supplies, which Hob had removed to the hall, along with other small comforts, when he'd vacated the room to accommodate his prisoner.
Merry lay on his back on the narrow bed, a pipe in his mouth and his eyes on the ceiling, but he sat up when he saw who his visitors were. "Frodo! And Sam too! I didn't know you were here."
"We came straight away when I heard the news," said Frodo. "How are you, Merry? Have they been treating you well?"
"I've been in worse places," Merry answered with a grin. "It's not so bad. Hob here has seen that I get decent meals and plenty of pipeweed. He just won't let me go past that door."
"You know I can't, Mr. Merry," Hob said apologetically. "I was told in particular not to, not 'til we've finished conducting our investigation-" he pronounced these last words carefully, relishing each official-sounding syllable, "and the matter is sorted out. You've got it better than I do. That's my bed you're sleeping in, while I'm left a-sitting out against the door all night. I've got to keep guard over you and see you don't walk out."
"If I did, I'd only go back to Crickhollow," Merry retorted. "You'd just have to go over there when you want me."
"Then you might as well stay here," said Hob, "and save me the trouble of going to get you."
"May we speak to your prisoner alone, please?" Frodo requested, interrupting this badinage.
"There's no rule against private conversations, is there, Hob?" Merry asked.
Hob considered it. "No one's said you could, and no one's said you couldn't either. Seeing as how it's Mr. Frodo, come all the way from Hobbiton to see you special, I guess it's all right. But mind now, Mr. Merry, if you're going to confess to anything we ought to know about..."
"You'll be the first one I tell, Hob. I promise."
Hob left them alone to talk.
"I've never seen the sherriffs so happy," said Merry once the door had shut. "They're enjoying themselves, you know. Even for all his grumbling, Hob's having a high old time of it."
Frodo glanced at the door--and Hob somewhere beyond it--with a scowl of disapproval. "Horrid lot of brutes," said Sam.
"Don't be too hard on them. They've got a real, live murder to investigate. It's the most excitement they've seen in all their years on the job."
"What happened, Merry?" Frodo sat down on the bed beside his cousin. Sam stayed near the door to ensure that Hob didn't eavesdrop. "I want to help. I'll do anything I can, but I don't understand why you've been arrested. Why do they think you've got something to do with Berilac's death? What proof do they have?"
"No proof," Merry answered, "but there's enough against me that looks suspicious."
"Were you anywhere near the place where he drowned?"
"It's just a mile or so from Crickhollow, where Pip and I have been staying. You remember that end of the lane, where it meets the footpath along the river? That marshy bit where the rushes grow tall, and the bottom's muddy?"
A strange look came over Frodo's face. "Yes," he said, "I know it."
"Pip and I found the boat pulled up there."
"Pulled up, not washed up?"
"No. Someone had dragged it half onto the bank. There's a muddy flat below the path that's a sort of a natural landing. We didn't know who'd left it there. We didn't know about Berilac's being missing. No one did, not 'til he didn't come home for dinner that night. He left the Hall that morning from the boathouse, and that was the last anyone saw of him. Pip and I never saw Berilac, dead or alive, but of course the sherriffs have it that I met him by the river earlier in the day. They say I fought with him and, by accident or deliberately, hit him on the head and killed him."
"But why? Why do they think you fought with him?" As far as Frodo knew, even if Merry and Berilac were not on the friendliest terms, they were not openly hostile toward each other. "That's nothing to arrest you for. Unless they have some proof, they've no right to shut you up here like a criminal." Another question occurred to him. "Merry, who's ordered Hob to keep you under guard?"
"The local magistrate," Merry said dryly. "You know who that is."
Frodo did know. The office of magistrate was traditionally held by the most prominent hobbit in the vicinity. In Buckland, that was the Master of the Hall. "Oh, Merry, not your father?"
"Surely he doesn't believe you did this?"
"I don't think that has anything to do with it."
"Merry..." Frodo lowered his voice, "what's going on? Tell me. There's more to this than Berilac's death, isn't there?"
"Berry's death is only the end of it." Merry sighed. "I suppose all this business began when we left the Shire- No, it goes even farther back than that. Father was always fond of Berry. Remember how he used to hold him up as an example of a properly behaved hobbit-lad, and wonder why I couldn't be more like him? And you know what an old stickleback Berry was! He never got into trouble, or wanted to go off on adventures. He wouldn't disappear for more than a year without a word of warning. When we left the Shire as suddenly as we did, no one could tell what'd happened to us. As far as the family knew, I'd fallen off the face of the earth. They had no idea if I was ever coming back, and so Father started looking to Berry as the next in line."
"And when we came home-?"
"I was put back in my rightful place, and Berry went back to his."
"If you don't mind me saying, that sounds more like a reason for Mr. Berilac to push you into the river than the other way 'round," Sam observed.
"Maybe it was. We never got on very well--Frodo can tell you about that--but if Berry bore me any grudge, he was smart enough to keep his feelings to himself. He said he was glad to see me alive and well, and welcomed me home just like the rest of the family. If anybody was obviously disappointed to have me back again, it was Uncle Merimac--not that Uncle Merry would wish me dead, but he's ambitious enough to like the idea of his son being the next Master of the Hall if I never came home. In any case, there wasn't any trouble, not 'til the day before Berry went missing. I had a quarrel with Father. He threatened to disown me. He'd found out about Pippin, you see."
"Found out what about Pippin?" asked Frodo.
Merry regarded his cousin with eyebrows archly and meaningfully upraised.
"Oh," said Frodo. "But surely he knew about that ages ago."
"He did, but he never minded it when Pip and I were just boys playing around. It's serious now. Since I've come home, Father's decided it's time for me to settle down. I've had half a dozen girl-cousins paraded before me, until I couldn't stand it any more. We finally had it out. I went to Father and told him that I might get married one day, but I'm not in any rush and whoever I choose, she has to understand how things are between me and Pip. After all we've been through together, we don't want to let each other go. I'm sure you know what that's like--you and Sam."
Sam blushed, but Frodo smiled and said, "Yes, I know exactly what that's like."
"Well, Father didn't see it that way at all. He said it wasn't natural. I wasn't a boy playing games anymore, and I had to stop seeing Pippin before it became a scandal. I told him I wouldn't. I'm not afraid of scandal, and I'd leave the Hall for good rather than break it off. I'd never seen Father so angry before.
"Everyone knows we've quarreled--half the household must've heard him shouting that he'd cut me off--but no one knew what it was about before Berry's body was taken out of the river all battered and bruised, and the sherriffs started to wonder who would want to do him harm. Once they heard of my fight with Father, they came up with the idea that Father was going set me aside and put Berry into my place, and so I must have knocked him over the head and tossed him into the Brandywine to get rid of him way once and for all. Yesterday, they came round to Crickhollow to tell me I was under suspicion and to ask me to account for my whereabouts at the time of the murder."
"Who told them about it?" asked Frodo.
"I don't know. Anyone might've. It could even be Father himself. He didn't lift a finger against it when the sherriffs took me. When he came here yesterday to give Hob his orders, he said that justice must take its course, but that's not the reason he's doing this. I'm being punished, and not for anything to do with Berilac. At least, Father can't hold Berry over me anymore."
Frodo understood. The sort of "boys playing games" relationship that Merry and Pippin had shared since their late tweens went on all the time between young hobbits; it was not openly acknowledged and rarely spoken of in public, but it was accepted... up to a point. The Shire could turn a blind eye to it as long as it didn't go on too long to be called child's play, or become too indiscreet to be overlooked. Merry and Pippin had breached that limit of acceptability, just as he and Sam had--but they had been caught out, and Merry was paying for it.
"Couldn't you account for your whereabouts?" Sam asked Merry.
Merry shook his head. "The morning that Berilac drowned, I was off by myself. I was upset after the quarrel, so I went for a walk. I wanted to think things through, to figure out what we would do if Father made good on his threats and Pippin and I had to go somewhere else. I was out 'til lunchtime--nowhere near the river, mostly on the path to Bucklebury along the Hedge--but I've no proof of that. There's only my word for it." He smiled. "Pippin was ready to say he'd been with me, but I wouldn't let him do it. They'd only think he was lying for my sake, which he would've been. No one's accused him of helping me to get Berry out of the way, and I won't give them the chance to."
"Where is Pippin now?" asked Frodo.
"Still at Crickhollow." Merry grabbed Frodo's sleeve, suddenly earnest. "Look in on him for me, will you? I don't like to think of him being there alone, not knowing what's going on. Stop by and let him know I'm all right. Tell him not to worry."
"Do you want us to stay with him while we're here?"
"No, if you're going to do any good, you'd better go to the Hall. Mother will be glad to put you up, and you can work on Father. He likes you. He's always said you were a young hobbit of uncommon sense, even if you did go off on an adventure and took me along. He might listen to you."
"Yes, of course," Frodo promised. "I won't let you sit in this awful place a minute longer than I have to."
"It isn't so bad, really. I don't like being caged up, but I can stand it. I don't even begrudge the sherriffs the fun of their investigation... as long as I don't get hanged at the end of it." Merry's smile faded and the cheerful facade dropped. They saw how frightened he really was.
"Oh, Merry-" Frodo hugged him. "That won't happen. I won't let it, even if it means rescuing you from the gallows at sword-point." Merry laughed against his shoulder, and they went on clinging to each other until Sam began to fidget. As they drew apart, Frodo took Merry by the arms and said, "I'll come back tomorrow and, with luck, I'll bring good news."
Chapter 3 by Kathryn Ramage
Pippin was not in when they stopped by the cottage at Crickhollow, so Frodo and Sam continued along the back road that curved around the foot of Buck Hill and went past Bucklebury. It was twilight when they arrived at Brandy Hall. They left their ponies at the stable and walked to the front of the Hall across the wide, green lawn.
Sam gaped up as the last lights of the sunset glittered in the scores of westward-facing windows around and over the three front doors. On the quest with Frodo, he'd been in the great cities of Men and Elves and Dwarfs, and seen towers that nearly touched the sky, but he'd never before seen a hobbit-hole of this size, nor one with a second and third story. Brandy Hall tunneled through the entire hillside, and outbuildings extended from the earth atop the hill and away from its slopes.
"The old warren hasn't changed a bit," Frodo said wistfully as they approached the nearest front door. "I was born at Brandy Hall, you know, and spent my childhood here before I went to live at Bag End. Do you remember when Merry and I came to visit Bilbo that first time, the summer after my parents died?"
"I remember," Sam answered. As if he could forget! It had been years before Mr. Bilbo had adopted Frodo. Sam had only been a small hobbit-lad then, helping his father to tend the garden at Bag End. When he wasn't needed in the garden, he would go up to the house for his lessons. Mr. Bilbo had not only taught him to read and write, but the peculiar old gentleman had also amused himself by giving the gardener's boy poems to recite and by telling him wonderful stories about faraway places, goblins, dragons, and best of all, the Elves--filling his head with all sorts of nonsense that the Gaffer had said would give him ideas above his place and never do him a lick of good.
But when he'd gone up for his lessons on that memorable afternoon, Bilbo had said there would be none.
"I have a special job for you, Sam my lad," Bilbo had announced instead. "Some of my young cousins are coming to stay with us for a few days. They're boys near your own age. One of them has lost his mother, just as you have, and his father too. I'd like you to make them welcome. Show them about. Play with them."
Sam had agreed, but with some bashful doubts. Until that day, his only playfellows had been the Cotton boys and other country lads from the farms around Hobbiton. Little gents, such as the two that had arrived that same afternoon, dressed in their best clothes for their visit, high-spirited and skittish as a pair of unbroken colts, were even more strange and foreign creatures to his experience than girls. What could he do to make friends with them?
As much as he would like to say that it was love at first sight, the truth was that, at that first meeting, he could only tell Frodo apart from Merry in that one boy was dark-haired and the other fair. He'd learned to distinguish between them later on, when Frodo took an interest what Bilbo was teaching him and wanted to hear some of the poems he'd learned. They had begun to be friends over that. Merry, on the other hand, was always looking for ways to get them all into trouble.
He had been in a tug-of-war with Merry over Frodo since then. Sam didn't want to be jealous, but sometimes he couldn't help it. He'd felt the pangs of it this morning when Frodo had wanted to come racing here to help Merry, and again when they had hugged for so long in the guardshouse.
It wasn't that he suspected there had ever been anything between the two--Frodo had told him there wasn't, and Sam trusted that he wouldn't lie about it--but that there was a whole, long history they'd shared before he had come into it. Merry and Frodo had known each other since they were practically babies and had been brought up almost as brothers. On the other hand, Frodo was twelve when he'd come to visit Bag End that first summer; Sam had never seen him before then, and had only had little pieces of Frodo's life afterwards until Frodo had come to live with Bilbo nearly ten years afterwards. It was all that time that he was jealous of, all those years that Merry had had with Frodo that he hadn't, and the strong bond that lay between them because of that.
He felt as if the balance had only tipped in his favor since he'd accompanied Frodo on his quest into Mordor. Awful as it had been in so many ways, that experience had given him a bond of his own to share with Frodo that no one else in the world could ever have, not even Merry Brandybuck.
Frodo pulled on the bell-rope; after some clanging within and an interval of silence, the imposing figure of Bramblebanks, the chief porter and majordomo of the Hall, answered at the door.
"Bramblebanks, hello," Frodo said as if his appearance were not completely unexpected. "It's been quite awhile, hasn't it? I've come for a visit. Will you tell Aunt Esmeralda and Uncle Saradoc that I'm here, please?"
Bramblebanks let them in and left them standing in the front hall with their luggage while he went "to inform the Mistress of your arrival."
"I call them my aunt and uncle, but they aren't really," Frodo explained while he and Sam were waiting. "Uncle Saradoc and his brother Merimac are actually my first cousins, and Aunt Esme's a second cousin on the Took side--but she really is Pippin's aunt, his father's sister. Uncle Bilbo isn't an uncle either. You know that, Sam. He's my mother's first cousin and my father's second." He smiled. "I'm afraid it all must sound terribly complicated."
Sam shook his head. He had the usual hobbit love of genealogy, and even though he had heard parts of Frodo's family tree before, he liked hearing it again. In the first place, he was rather proud of Frodo's pedigree--some of the best blood in the Shire had gone into his making--and in the second place, it helped him to keep all these people straight in his head.
"As a general rule, we call them aunts and uncles if they're more than 20 years older," Frodo continued, "and nieces and nephews if they're 20 years younger. Everyone in between is a cousin. It's much less confusing that way."
He turned at the sound of footsteps approaching. Bramblebanks appeared around the curve of the main tunnel, accompanied by Esmeralda Brandybuck, the Mistress of the Hall and Merry's mother.
In normal circumstances, Esmeralda's strawberry-blonde curls and that Tookish impishness which she had passed on to Merry made her seem more like a young girl than a grand hobbit-lady, but today, her spirits were subdued. There was a haunted look instead of the usual sparkle in her eyes, but she smiled with genuine happiness as she came forward to embrace Frodo and give him a kiss on the cheek.
"Frodo, darling! How sweet of you to come."
Frodo returned her kiss. "It's good to see you too, Aunt Esme."
"How have you been, dear? We haven't seen you at the Hall in ages, not since before you went away on your travels." As she took both his hands in hers, she noticed the missing finger. "How did you do that? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know any more about the dangers you boys were in while you were away. Merry and Pippin are always telling horrible stories about battles they've fought in, walking trees, Big Folk on horseback, and hordes of orcs. I ought to be grateful you've all come home alive. Merry has a scar..." She put one hand to her own brow, indicating the place where Merry had been struck by the hilt of an orc's blade. "You've heard about Merry? If it weren't bad enough that poor Berilac should die, we must have this-!" Tears filled her eyes, and she quickly pulled a handkerchief from her bodice to dab them away.
"Yes, I've heard all about it. That's why I've come. I've just been to visit Merry at the guardshouse, to see what I can do to help him."
"Dearest Frodo!" She gave him another kiss. "I'm certain Merry can count on you, even if it's only to say that you don't believe that these awful accusations are true. You've always been his friend. If only Saradoc..." The corner of Esmeralda's mouth turned down, but she stopped before she said anything against her husband. "Will you be staying with us awhile?" she asked Frodo instead.
"As long as you'll let me," he answered.
"As long as you like!" she responded affectionately. "I'll show you to your room. After he carries your bags, Bramblebanks will find a bed for your servant in the staff quarters."
"If you don't mind, Aunt Esme, I'd like Sam near me," said Frodo. "I have... bad spells now and again, and shouldn't be left alone at night."
"You poor thing," she murmured sympathetically, and considered Sam for the first time; he squirmed and colored slightly under her gaze. "Yes, I think that can be arranged. Bramblebanks, the big guest room near the master suite. That will do."
The porter nodded and picked up Frodo's bag. Sam carried his own, following the lady and Frodo from the front hall.
Like most hobbit-holes, Brandy Hall had no stairs. The main tunnel wound around within the hill in a spiral, starting out very wide at the ground level as it passed the main rooms, but growing more narrow as it went up to the bedrooms above. Esmeralda led them through a full circuit of the tunnel, until they came to one of the outer rooms with a window that looked out on the gardens on the southwestern slope of the hill.
"It's one of our nicest rooms," said Esmeralda, "and there's a cot in the dressing room your servant can use. The bath is just across the hallway, but I'll have some hot water sent to you so you can wash quickly before dinner. You're just in time to join us." She squeezed the fingers of his undamaged hand. "I'll leave you to freshen up."
After she and Bramblebanks had gone, Frodo peeked through the connecting door into the dressing room. "You ought to sleep in there tonight, for appearances' sake," he told Sam. "If I'm to do Merry any good, Uncle Saradoc shouldn't hear any gossip about us. Will you be comfortable with that little bed?"
Sam joined him at the dressing-room doorway: the spare bed tucked between the massive chest of drawers and towering wardrobe was small, but no smaller than the one he'd slept in for years in the room he'd shared with his brothers in Number 3 Bagshot Row. "I think I'll be able to squeeze in," he answered. "We got spoiled at Minas Tirith. We were sleeping on rocks and dirt for weeks before that, and wishing for a mattress as soft as anything in the Shire!"
Frodo laughed, and leaned closer to put an arm around him. "You don't mind playing the servant for a few days, do you, Sam?"
"No, I don't mind." Sam never minded. He wished Frodo could understand that. Frodo had been so insistent when he'd asked Sam to come live with him that he was not to be a servant, and he was always apologetic whenever he asked Sam to do something that might be seen as waiting on him. But this was what Sam wanted to do. He liked that Frodo relied on him so naturally; he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he didn't feel useful and needed. It was not a duty, but a pleasure. Whatever he did to take care of Frodo was as much an act of love as anything they did in bed. "It's what I came to Bag End for, to look after you."
Frodo smiled. "Is that the only reason?" he teased.
"No," Sam answered, teasing in return, "not the only reason. There's a bit more to it than that."
They were drawing into a kiss, when there was a knock at the door--and they both jumped back from each other, startled. Frodo laughed at their foolishness and said, "It must be the hot water."
Sam let in the maidservant, who had brought up the promised cans of hot water. "You'd better hurry up and wash," he said as he poured water into the washbasin. "You don't want to be late for dinner."
Chapter 4 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo went down to join the family as they were gathering for dinner. To his surprise, his second cousins Fatty and Estella Bolger were standing just outside the dining-room door with their Aunt Beryl, who was also Berilac's aunt on the Bolger side.
"Frodo, hello!" Fatty cried out in his own surprise and delight as he gave Frodo an enthusiastic hug. "I didn't know you were here!"
"I just arrived. What about you? How long have you been in Buckland?" The Bolgers' home was Budgeford in the Eastfarthing, but as close relations to the Brandybucks, they were frequent visitors at the Hall.
"I came the day before yesterday," Fatty answered, "but Aunt Beryl and 'Stella here-" he nodded his head to indicate his sister, "have been at the Hall this past week. Uncle Saradoc invited them special... before all this trouble began." He lowered his voice at these last words.
Estella, mousy-haired and apple-cheeked like her brother, came forward shyly to greet Frodo. She'd been a little girl the last time he'd seen her, but was nearly of age now. He then received a kiss from Aunt Beryl, and murmured his sympathies about the tragic loss of her other nephew.
They went into the dining room, which was a large, round room at the heart of Brandy Hall. The dining table was likewise large and circular, its head distinguished by a chair more elaborately carved than the others, and by its proximity to the sideboard.
Saradoc Brandybuck, Master of the Hall, was already seated in this chair, waiting for the rest of the family to take their places around the table. He was as prosperous-looking a hobbit as could be found in the Shire: fat, florid, and fair-haired, what Merry might be in 40 years given a sedentary life and six square meals a day. Merimac, the Master's younger brother and Berilac's father, was like Saradoc in looks, but shorter and sandy-haired. Also at the table were Aunt Hilda and her sons Doderic and Ilberic--the boys were two years apart, but enough alike to be twins--and Aunt Melisaunte, arriving late with her younger daughter Melilot. Melilot was a plump, pretty girl with a riot of brunette ringlets. Frodo remembered her dancing at Bilbo's birthday party. She looked wan today, and rather strained; there were circles under her large brown eyes.
"Mentha is not well," Melisaunte apologized for the absence of her elder daughter as she took her seat. "She prefers to stay in her room tonight."
The dinner conversation was focused at first on Frodo and his unexpected arrival. Once everyone had expressed their surprise and offered their heart-felt greetings, they insisted on hearing the news from Hobbiton. Frodo was glad to oblige, but he noticed that when they told him in turn of the doings in Buckland, no one spoke of the incidents which must be foremost on all their minds. Whether it was grief over Berilac or worry for Merry, the depth of distress felt during this family tragedy was indicated primarily by how little appetite anyone had. The womenfolk especially passed over course after course untouched, but even Saradoc was seen to push away his plate.
The talk turned to the recent marriage of Hilda's daughter Celandine and Melisaunte's son Merimas, neither of whom was present that night.
"You missed the wedding, of course," Hilda told Frodo. "It was last autumn, before you returned home. I'm sorry you weren't here for it. It was the grandest celebration we've had in years. Celie and Merimas are the first children of the Hall to marry."
"It's a very good match," said Saradoc. "The sort of thing we hope to see from all you young people now you're old enough."
"Do you have any plans for marriage yourself, Frodo?" Beryl asked him. "Is there some nice girl around Hobbiton you've got an eye on?"
"No- No one in particular," Frodo answered, blushing more than the innocent question warranted. "And where is the- ah- young couple now?"
"They've taken a cottage up the river," said Melisaunte. "They only meant to spend their honeymoon there, but it's turned out that they like having their own household so much that they've stayed on these last six months."
"You'll see them tomorrow," added Hilda. "They'll be here for the funeral."
There was an awkward silence.
Now that the taboo had been breached, the subject could be discussed. Melilot was the first to speak. "What will happen to Merry?" she asked tentatively.
"The official penalty for murder is death by hanging-" said Saradoc.
Esmeralda made a small, choked sound.
"You needn't be frightened for the boy's ultimate fate, my dear," her husband hastened to reassure her. "I don't know if it's ever actually been done. Has there ever been a murder in Buckland before? Anywhere in the Shire?"
The question went around the table, but no one could think of one example of a murder happening in the last hundred years. There were some tragic accidents and one or two mysterious disappearances, like old Bilbo's, but one hobbit deliberately killing another-? No. There had never been a trial for murder that anyone could recall. Crime in the Shire was rarely more serious than a drunken quarrel coming to blows, or the theft of farm produce.
"The sherriffs must be mistaken," said Melisaunte. "There can be nothing in these terrible suspicions against Merry. I'm positive that some outsider must have done it--something... strange lurking in the Old Forest came through the Hedge, or one of those nasty-looking Big Folk or dwarves."
"It can't be true," Estella agreed softly. "Not Merry."
"I don't believe it was murder at all," said Fatty. "We'll find that this was an accident, I'm sure of it. Boats are dangerous things." Fatty was not a native Bucklander, and only went boating reluctantly. "To go out on the river alone and tell no one where you're going, the way Berilac did, is asking for trouble."
"As I see it, the difficulty is that Merry can't prove he was somewhere else when poor Berry was drowned," said Doderic. "That's why the sherriffs have arrested him, isn't it, Uncle Saradoc? But what's in that? Who can ever account for their time, as if we knew in advance that something horrible was going to happen, and we must always be prepared to defend ourselves against accusations? Can anyone here say where they were that morning?" He looked at the others around the table. "If the sherriffs had asked me, I couldn't have given them a better answer than Merry's. No, mine is even more suspicious, for I was out on the river too, fishing down at the Standelf pool." His gaze landed on his brother and, with a note of teasing, he asked, "And where were you, Ilbie?"
"You know I was up in my bedroom," Ilberic answered with a little huff. "I slept in rather late. Can I prove it? I don't suppose so, not unless someone heard me snoring. Did anyone, Dodi?"
"I'm sure I couldn't say," his brother replied, "but you do snore rather loudly. Someone must have heard! Now, what about the rest of you?"
"I was out for a walk," said Melilot.
Estella opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but a glance from Aunt Beryl stopped her; she blushed in confusion and began to rearrange the vegetables on her plate with her fork.
"I wasn't here at all," Fatty contributed. "I was in Budgeford."
"Not good enough, Fatty!" said Doderic. "You might easily have ridden over-"
"I don't like this game of yours," Merimac said darkly. "I don't find it at all funny."
Doderic immediately looked contrite. "I am sorry, Uncle. It wasn't meant to be a game. I only wanted to show that any one of us might be suspected as easily as Merry, and for reasons just as flimsy. If the sherriffs have nothing better than that to hold Merry for, then I've no doubt they'll have to let him go in the end."
"It couldn't have been Merry," said Aunt Beryl. "It certainly couldn't have been any one of our people."
Chapter 5 by Kathryn Ramage
After dinner, the ladies retired, either to their beds or the drawing room. The young lads headed out for the pub at Bucklebury; Frodo was about to accompany them, when Saradoc turned to him and said, "Frodo lad, it's been quite some time since we've had a talk. Why don't you join us for a pipe?"
Since old Rory Brandybuck's day, it had been a custom for the Master of the Hall and other adult males in the house to settle down to smoke and enjoy a glass of wine after dinner. While Frodo would have preferred to go out with Fatty and his other cousins--and walk over to Crickhollow before the evening grew too late--if he was going to do the job Merry had asked him to, he needed to be in his uncle's company. "Yes, thank you, Uncle. I will."
The children had always been forbidden to play in the master's study, and Frodo felt a little strange as he followed Merimac and Saradoc in. In spite of all the things he'd seen and done out in the greater world, this invitation from his uncle made him feel as if he were truly considered one of the grown-ups.
He'd only been called into this room full of musty books and ledgers before on serious matters: He and Merry had received scoldings and punishments for whatever mischief they'd gotten themselves into, and he had occasionally discussed business concerning the property his parents had left him. As Frodo's legal guardian, Saradoc had managed things for him before he'd come of age. It had been a point of pride for Saradoc to give scrupulous attention to the finances of the orphan in his care. No one could accuse him of mishandling the boy's affairs! Frodo recalled that his uncle had been especially proud to hand everything over to him on his 21st birthday in a better condition than it'd been in when he'd taken charge of it. That was the last time Frodo had been in this room, just before he'd gone to live with Bilbo.
He sank into one of the overstuffed leather chairs near the fire. His own pipe had been left upstairs with his baggage; Saradoc offered him one from the rack on the mantelpiece, then poured out three glasses of dark red wine from a decanter on the sideboard.
As he handed Frodo one of the wine glasses, Saradoc patted his shoulder. "It's times like this I'm sorry we let you go to old Bilbo Baggins and fall under his influence. Not that it hasn't provided for you nicely, my lad, but Bilbo was always a bit odd with his writing poetry, and running off on adventures with that wizard-friend of his and putting it into your head to go running off too. Well, he's paid for his oddities. At least, you've come back. As Merry tells it, I gather that you're a hero to the Big Folk."
"You're a friend to this new king," said Merimac with some appreciation.
"Merry and Pippin have also done some brave deeds," Frodo replied modestly. "They stand very high among the heroes of Gondor, and are great friends of King Aragorn themselves."
"Be that as it may, you're all home now." Saradoc was not as impressed by his son's and nephews' place in the Big Folk's world. "You've had your adventure and I daresay it was all great fun, but it's time to settle down and be respectable. Merry has to realize that. Your Aunt Esmeralda's told me that you've been to see him today."
"Yes, sir. Merry is very dear to me, you know. I intend to stand by him until he's been cleared of this awful charge against him. You don't think he's guilty, do you?" Frodo looked from one uncle to the other.
"I wouldn't like to say so in front of Esmeralda and the other ladies," said Merimac, "and I don't say Merry is responsible for my boy's death, but if he is, then hanging's too good for him."
"Oh, I'm sure it won't come to that. They won't hang a Brandybuck. There are a few things that look bad against Merry, but it'll all be cleared up soon enough," Saradoc answered confidently. "In my official capacity as magistrate, I have to see that this investigation is conducted properly, with no question of special favors. That's only fair. Justice must be seen to be done. The heir to the Hall shouldn't be treated differently from any common murder suspect."
"But to be shut up like a criminal on nothing but suspicions-" Frodo began.
"He'll come to no harm in the sherriffs' custody. And it'll be a lesson for the boy. Merry's always been too flighty."
"It's the Tookish nature," said Merimac. "He gets it from his mother's family. I told you there'd be trouble one day when you married a Took."
"Esmeralda was flighty in her youth," Saradoc admitted grudgingly, "but she's grown much steadier with age and I've never had any reason to complain about her conduct. Even at her most Tookish, she was never so wild as Merry's been."
"The boy should have been reined in," Merimac responded. "It may be too late for him now. It's certainly too late for my Berry."
"No, I think Merry still has a chance," Saradoc said, and turned to refill Frodo's glass. "You're a sensible young hobbit, Frodo. The Bagginses are good stock--"
"Nearly as solid as the Bolgers!" Merimac interjected.
"A little stodgy, but a decent, respectable family."
Frodo sipped his wine, and did not tell his uncles that the Bagginses had always attributed his peculiarities, especially his fondness for reading and his ability to swim, to his Brandybuck blood.
"Now that you're master of your own household, you know what responsibility is," Saradoc continued. "Can't you talk to Merry? Make him see reason."
Frodo had to smile. "Merry asked me to talk to you, Uncle. He told me of your- ah- quarrel."
"That's just the sort of thing I mean!" With a glance at his brother, Saradoc leaned closer to Frodo and spoke barely above a whisper. "I don't mind Pippin Took. He's not a bad lad, but he's not the best companion I could choose for Merry. He's too easily led. He lets Merry get away with too much, and there are limits to what decency will stand. The two of them setting up house together! And the stories I've heard about what goes on at that cottage! He's gone too far this time, Frodo, and it's got to stop."
"If Merry does agree to give up Pippin-" Frodo asked, although he was quite certain that Merry would never accept his father's terms, "will you tell the sherriffs to let him out, Uncle?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that without some proof of his innocence," said Saradoc, "but I would be glad to speak to them about reconsidering their case against him. Fair's fair."
Chapter 6 by Kathryn Ramage
When Frodo returned to his room, Sam was already there, crouching before the chest of drawers in the dressing room as he put away the clothes in Frodo's traveling bag. Frodo's nightshirt and dressing gown had been laid out across the foot of his bed.
"You don't have to do that for me, Sam."
"If I'm playing the part, I ought to play it all," Sam replied, and went on with what he was doing. "You'd only make a mess of it anyway. You don't know what's packed."
"I did tell you to pack my bag..." Frodo murmured, abashed as he always was when he caught himself treating Sam as if he were a servant.
"You know I don't mind it," Sam told him, "and it's just as well you did. The state you were in this morning, you wouldn't've remembered to bring your nightshirt, or something to wear for your cousin's funeral."
As Frodo lay down on his bed, he could see that the doors to the wardrobe were open and Sam had hung up one of his good lawn shirts, freshly pressed, along with his best black coat with the velvet collar and a pale gray, silver-threaded waistcoat.
"No, I wasn't thinking about the funeral," he said. "I've barely thought of anything but Merry." He lay his head in the crook of one arm; he felt very weary, and the glasses of wine he'd had with his uncles had gone straight to his head. "I'd hoped to go and see Pippin tonight, but I'm too tired now for the walk."
"That's no surprise, not after the day you had!" said Sam, and shut the drawers of the chest with a series of brisk bangs. "You rode fifty miles or more, worrying about Mr. Merry every inch of the way, and you've scarcely had time to catch your breath since we got here." He came into Frodo's room and, shoving aside the clothing laid out there, sat on the foot of the bed; with a little urging, Frodo moved his head to rest on Sam's lap. "You're not up to such running about anymore--you know you're not. It takes too much out of you. You won't get well again if you push yourself so hard."
Frodo sighed. "I know. I'll try to rest tomorrow before the funeral." As Sam stroked his hair, he shut his eyes. "Poor Berry. I've hardly given him a thought at all..."
"Did you know him very well?"
"Berilac? We both grew up in this house," Frodo answered somewhat evasively. "He was my first cousin, once removed, just the same as Merry. He was actually closer to my age than Merry is."
"I never hear you talk about him." Now that Sam thought about it, he couldn't recall ever meeting Berilac himself. But there were so many Brandybucks, it was hard to keep track of them all!
"I hadn't seen him in years. We were never very friendly, even as children," Frodo admitted. "His father didn't encourage it. Uncle Merimac was always at his brother's right hand, you see, and since Merry has no brother of his own, he seemed to think that Berilac ought to stand beside Merry in the same way. He never liked that Merry and I were best friends. After my parents died, Aunt Esme and Uncle Saradoc became like another mother and father to me. I think Merimac was afraid that they might adopt me. He saw me as a usurper, as if I were taking the place that his son ought to have. Berilac must have had some of the same feelings, even if he wasn't very fond of Merry, and Merry didn't like him."
"An old 'stickleback,' Mr. Merry called him," Sam remembered.
"And that's just what Berry was as a boy--clinging and sticky. He made up to the grown-ups. One doesn't like to speak ill of the dead..." Frodo hesitated, and then did so. If he couldn't tell Sam the truth, who could he confide in? "Berilac used to tattle on us. He was always sneaking off to his father or mine or Uncle Saradoc to tell them what mischief Merry and I were up to and making it sound worse than it really was. If he meant to come between us, it didn't work. It only made us more determined to stand together. We used to find ways to sneak around him, so that he couldn't prove his tattling-tales. I thought we'd outgrown such childish tricks, and our quarrel with him had ended years ago." He lifted his head and twisted around to look up at Sam. "But, do you know, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Berilac had carried tales about Merry and Pippin to Merry's father--and put their friendship in the ugliest possible light, if Uncle Saradoc's reaction is any indication."
"You talked to your uncle about letting Mr. Merry go then?"
"I've just spent the most awful hour in conference with him." Frodo sat up. "Oh, Sam, you should have heard him! Merry understands his father all too well. Uncle Saradoc doesn't believe for a minute that Merry's guilty of this crime. He's punishing him for their quarrel, for Pippin. He practically told me that he could have Merry released from the sherriffs' custody at a word, but he won't do it. He wants to teach 'the boy' a lesson by keeping him shut away. I can't talk him out of it--in fact, he wants me to talk to Merry and convince him to give Pippin up! Then there's Uncle Merimac, who's doing his best to poison his brother's mind against Merry. I heard him do it. He never misses a chance to remind Uncle Saradoc how wild and irresponsible Merry is. I can see now where Berry learned that sort of thing! It's no good--the only way I can possibly help Merry is to find some proof of his innocence that Uncle Saradoc can't ignore. He'll have to set Merry free then." His eyes earnestly sought Sam's. "You'll help me, won't you?"
"'Course I will," said Sam. "But you're not going to go running all up and down Buckland. You just said you'd rest."
"I promise I won't push myself too hard," Frodo assured him, "but I must do this. You can see how important it is. Merry's depending on me. None of the family believes he had anything to do with Berilac's death--except perhaps Uncle Merimac--but they'll only sit and wait for the sherriffs' investigation to take its course. I can't sit by with them. That's not what I came here to do. I have to look into this matter myself." He considered Sam as an idea began to form. "You can help me by being my eyes and ears, and save me some 'running about'. You had your dinner in the servants' hall, didn't you?"
Sam nodded, although he didn't see the point of this question. "They set a fair table--mushroom stew and some good beer, though not as good as what we have at home."
"And was there any gossip? What do the servants think of this business?"
"They talked of nothing else! They're all for Mr. Merry. They say he's 'a bit wild,' but good-hearted and would never do such a thing. Now, the other..." Here, Sam trailed off delicately.
Frodo looked curious. "What about 'the other'? I'd like to hear their opinion of Berilac too."
"Well, the Master of this here Hall might've had a high opinion of him, but according to them in the servants' hall, Mr. Berilac Brandybuck wasn't the proper little hobbit-lad he made himself out to be. They say he was something of a caution with the pretty maids."
"Was he? That's a possibility I hadn't thought of." Frodo considered it. "If there was some maid that Berry was trifling with, perhaps an outraged father or brother or jilted sweetheart tried to put a stop to it, and went too far."
"And there's more," Sam told him, then hesitated again.
"What, Sam? Out with it."
"It's second-hand news, you might say. One of the undercooks is sister to a farmer that lives on the other side of the river outside Stock and she went visiting him today, to get the mushrooms. Over dinner, she was telling how her brother said he'd seen a hobbit-lad and lass, a pretty, dark-haired girl, rowing up the river the day your cousin went missing. She has it that it must've been Mr. Berilac, up to something."
"Berry had a girl with him?" Frodo cried, astonished. "Can that be true? Everyone in the family seems to think he went out alone."
"It mightn't be so," Sam said. "Like I was saying, it's second hand and not everybody believed it. Some of 'em down in the servants' hall said that the cook's brother was making up a tale out of smoke and wishes to make himself important. And then someone else said it must've been this girl, and not Mr. Merry, who pushed Berilac into the water, and some more of 'em agreed with that. They said the cook ought to tell the sherriffs about it, and the ones who didn't believe it said there wasn't nothing to tell and she'd best keep her mouth shut. They were quarreling over it when I came away."
"It could be a fuss over nothing," Frodo had to agree. "It might've been another boy and girl. Lots of courting couples go out boating on the Brandywine...." He lay down again, pillowing his head on Sam's knee and shutting his eyes, but he was still thinking. After awhile, he said, "But, Sam, what if it's true? You see, don't you? If Merry didn't do this, someone else must have."
Chapter 7 by Kathryn Ramage
The next morning, Frodo announced his intention to visit Crickhollow on his way to see Merry at Newbury. Sam, as always, accompanied him.
Instead of taking the back road around the foot of Buck Hill past Bucklebury--the way they had ridden to the Hall the night before--Frodo headed down the main road to the point where it intersected with the lane eastward to Crickhollow; stopping at a wooden gate on the western side of the road, he went through it toward the river. There, a footpath bordered by tall grass and long-stemmed blue and white asters ran atop a raised earthwork embankment and, below it, a grassy slope went down to the water. Rushes grew close to the bank, except for one broad, flat muddy area that had been cleared to provide a boat landing.
Frodo climbed up onto the embankment and stood looking out over the wide, golden-brown river glittering in the sun.
"I thought we were going to see Mr. Pippin," Sam said when he caught up.
"We are," answered Frodo, "but I wanted to come here first. I wanted to see where Merry and Pippin found Berilac's boat. If I'm going to investigate this matter myself, it seems like the best place to start." He continued to look out on the water as he spoke. "This isn't very far from where my parents drowned."
Sam understood the odd look that had crossed Frodo's face when Merry had described this place.
Frodo rarely spoke of the incident, but Sam had heard the old rumors about how Frodo's parents had died; he could still hear Ted Sandyman's jeering voice: "I heard tell she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him." The Gaffer had quashed these stories whenever he heard them, saying that boats were dangerous enough without any pushing and pulling, and Sam was inclined to agree. He'd had some experience of boats now, and had nearly drowned once himself. It wasn't a way of dying that he liked to think much about.
"Were you there when it happened?" he asked.
Frodo shook his head. "They had gone out after dinner for a row in the moonlight. I was up at the Hall, playing with Merry and the other children in the nursery. I didn't hear about it 'til the next morning, when Aunt Esme took me aside and told me she had some bad news, and I must be very brave.
"It's a treacherous part of the river, even without foul play. Because of the mud, you can't see the bottom, and it drops very suddenly from the shallows, where the rushes are, to the deeps. The currents are strong out there. You can be pulled under..." He took his eyes from the water and looked down at the bank immediately below where he was standing to find a long, flat scrape in the mud. "The boat was drawn up there." He pointed. "Berilac's body was found much farther downriver, but he must have gone into the water near this spot. Why do you suppose he got out here?"
"Maybe he was visiting someone," Sam suggested.
"Who?" Both hobbits turned to consider the hill-like hummocks of cottages visible along the winding lane that led away through the trees on the far side of the road. "Merry and Pip? It's possible. He might have intended to go to Crickhollow to see them after the quarrel--to offer his condolences, or to gloat--but I don't think they were expecting him to call. Merry would have said so if they had, and they would've guessed who the boat belonged to when they found it."
"Does anybody else live out this way?"
"Two of my cousins were just married and have set up house in one of the cottages. Berry might have meant to visit them, but I can't imagine that they had any part in this. A newlywed pair of murderers doesn't sound very likely. Perhaps they saw or heard something. And there are others who keep cottages out here. Old Uncle Dinodas retires to his cottage whenever the Hall becomes too noisy and crowded for him, and my cousin Mentha used to have a studio, and still does for all I know."
"Studio?" Sam echoed.
"She paints." All around the scraped area where the boat had landed was a churn of multiple bare heel- and toe-prints; Frodo scrambled down the slope and crouched to examine these more closely. "I wish I could tell something by the footprints, but there are so many of them. It looks like half of Buckland has been trampling here!"
"If Strider was here, he could look at that muddle and say who each of those feet belonged to, how long ago they were here, and what they were up to," Sam said as he came down to join Frodo at the water's edge.
"Unfortunately, Strider's too busy being king, so we'll have to puzzle this out ourselves. I'd be happy if we knew at least what Berilac was up to. If he wasn't visiting one of the family cottages, perhaps he intended to meet with some girl from Newbury or one of the neighboring farms, although it's an odd place to come ashore for that." Frodo rose from his crouched position and walked slowly along the river's edge with his eyes on the ground; he had not gone five yards from the place where the boat had been when he spotted a metallic glint in the muddy water. "Here, what's that?"
Sam watched anxiously as Frodo waded out into the shallows amid the rushes. The water only washed around Frodo's calves, but he had spoken mere minutes ago of how treacherous this part of the river was. "Don't go out no deeper!" Sam warned him. "You know I can't swim if you fall in."
"I won't." Frodo bent over and reached down into the mud; he brought up something that glittered in the sunlight and swished it around in the water to rinse it off.
"What'd you find?" asked Sam.
Frodo waded back to the shore to show him: an ornamental fragment made up of three swirls of silver shaped like leaves intertwined, two of them broken at one end, distorted and elongated, as if they'd been pulled away from other, missing swirls. Within each curl of silver was set a red garnet. "It looks like part of a cloak pin, or perhaps a lady's brooch. So a woman was here!" he said with growing excitement as his imagination took flight. "Do you suppose this belongs to the mysterious girl your cook's brother claims he saw in the boat with Berry? Who could she have been? And what happened to her?"
"That might've fallen there at any time," Sam pointed out. "You said yourself that too many people've been on this spot since Mr. Berilac's boat was found. Anybody could've dropped it, before or afterwards."
"It can't have been in the water for very long," Frodo countered. "The silver isn't tarnished."
"But if it fell before, why didn't the sherriffs find it?"
"They may not have been looking for it," Frodo answered after giving the question some thought. "They thought that Berilac's death was an accident at first, and if they lit upon Merry soon after they found the body downriver, they mayn't have come back to this spot to look for clues. It wouldn't mean anything to them. They haven't heard the story about the mysterious girl." Then he sighed. "Well, you're probably right, Sam. It may have nothing to do with the murder, but maybe..." He tucked the scrap of silver into his waistcoat pocket. "It can't hurt to keep hold of it and ask."
Chapter 8 by Kathryn Ramage
They crossed the road and went up the lane toward Crickhollow, walking and leading their ponies. As they passed the first cottage on their left, a feminine voice called out from the other side of the fence, "Frodo, hello! When did you get here?" A pretty girl with profuse brown curls in pink ribbons came up to the gate and held out one hand to him over it.
"Celie!" Frodo handed Sam his pony's reigns and went over to her. "How are you? How is married life?"
Celandine was the youngest of his Brandybuck cousins, only 27; Frodo had been surprised to hear that she was the first to be married--and to Merimas, of all people! Merimas was forty, and generally acknowledged to be the most conventionally-minded Brandybuck of his generation.
"Wonderful! You can't know how nice it is having a home of our own, even if it's only four little rooms. We're just about to go back to the Hall, for poor Berry's funeral." Celie turned as her husband emerged from the cottage, carrying a pair of traveling bags, and said, "Darling, look who it is! Frodo Baggins, and his friend- I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"This is Sam Gamgee," Frodo introduced him.
"D'you do," Merimas mumbled and nodded his head at the pair.
"Are you lads staying at the Hall?" Celie asked Frodo.
"Yes, we arrived last night. We're going to pay a visit on Pippin, then ride to Newbury to see Merry."
Merimas snorted at the mention of Merry and Pippin, and took the baggage around to a track at the side of the cottage, leading to a small stable at the back where a pony was tethered.
"You mustn't mind him," Celie said. "He never approved of Merry, and now-! Isn't it horrible?"
"Awful," Frodo agreed.
"But I don't believe Merry would ever do such a thing. I don't see how he had the chance. He was never by the river that morning, as far as I saw."
"So you didn't see Merry pass toward the river?" Frodo asked, then turned to include Merimas, who was leading his baggage-laden pony into the lane. "Did either of you see anyone?"
"No," Merimas answered. "No one who hadn't a reason to be there."
"We did see Merry and Pippin, but that was well after noon," added Celie. "I'm certain that Merry never came this way earlier."
"Were you here all that morning?" asked Frodo.
"What d'you mean?" Merimas asked back.
"Only that if you were out, you might've missed seeing something important," Frodo replied, "something that will help Merry. I want to help him, if I can."
"We were here," said Celie. "I was in the parlor from breakfast 'til lunch-time, and Merimas was in and out, but of course I didn't sit and stare out the window every minute. I never saw anyone pass. I wish I had! I'd tell the sherriffs and Uncle Saradoc that."
As she came out through the gate, Frodo asked her, "By the way, have you lost any jewelry, Celie? I found a broken piece by the river." He took it out of his pocket. "Could it be yours?"
The girl stared at the fragment of jewelry in the palm of Frodo's hand. "No," she shook her head. "That isn't mine." But Frodo thought she sounded reluctant, as if she weren't telling all the truth. "I haven't been near the river in ages. Merimas doesn't like to go boating."
"But Berry did?" Frodo asked softly.
"Oh, yes," Celie answered, and tears welled in her eyes. "Poor Berry. I'll miss him. He was such fun--but," she insisted with sudden urgency, "that was all a long time ago!"
"Celie, come along!" Merimas summoned her, then turned to lead his pony down the lane toward the main road.
With a glance of apology at Frodo, Celie ran to join her husband. "We'll see you at the Hall later!" she called over her shoulder as she took Merimas's hand and the two of them walked away.
"She's got dark hair," Sam observed once the newlyweds had gone. "And I'll wager anything you like she's been out a-boating on the river with Mr. Berry."
Frodo couldn't disagree; that was the impression he'd gotten as well. "I don't think Celie could kill anybody," he said. "She can be a silly little chit, but she's harmless. And besides, she sounded genuinely sorry that Berry's dead. It doesn't seem that very many people are." But there was a tickle of suspicion at the back of his mind that made his joke about murderous newlyweds seem not so funny anymore. The newly-married couple wouldn't commit a murder together, but if Berry had been paying attentions to Celie before her marriage--or even afterwards--who knew how her husband might react?
The idea was disturbing. He didn't want to suspect such a horrible thing of any of his cousins.
They walked a little farther along the lane, until they came to a shabbier cottage with an untrimmed hedge. An elderly hobbit was standing on the small front lawn, pipe clenched between his teeth, practicing his golfing.
"Uncle Dinodas! Hello!" Frodo shouted out loudly enough for the old hobbit to hear.
Dinodas looked up, squinted in Frodo's direction, then burst into a smile. "Is that young Frodo? Primmy's boy?"
"Yes, it is." Frodo went up to the hedge and pushed some of the untrimmed branches down to look over the top. "It's good to see you, Uncle."
Dinodas tucked his golf club under one arm and stepped over a number of little white wooden balls scattered in the grass to come to the hedge and speak to his nephew. "It's been quite some time since I last saw you, but I'd know you anywhere, my lad. You're the image of your mother, poor Prim." He shook his head sadly at the memory of his long-dead, much younger sister. "Have you come for the funeral?"
"Yes, that's right." But Frodo observed that his uncle was in a battered and patched old tweed jacket and trousers, and didn't look as if he were planning to go anywhere. "Aren't you going to attend yourself?"
"Oh, I'll have to go and stand by the vault with the rest of the family for appearances' sake," said Dinodas, "but I'm not going to the Hall before or after. The speeches'll be bad enough to listen to--I couldn't stand to hear all the women sobbing and everyone going on about how wonderful Berry Brandybuck was, when it wasn't the case at all!" Frodo's eyes widened at this frank admission, and his uncle continued, "Now, you haven't been home in awhile, lad. You didn't see how Berry was doing his best to take what was Merry's rightful place as heir to the Hall while the two of you were off on your adventures. It was disgusting, seeing how he wormed his way into Saradoc's good graces."
"But surely he was set aside once Merry returned," said Frodo.
"He was, but I know he didn't give up trying, nor had his father. They meant for Berry to be the next Master here, no matter what. I don't say Merry knocked him into the river, but if he did, then Berry had it coming. I'd say he got what he deserved, whoever did it." Dinodas gave a golfball on the grass near his feet a good whack and sent it across the lawn into an overgrown border. "Are you're going to see Merry at the gaol? If you are, mind you tell him I said so. I'm on his side in this."
"Yes, Uncle. I will."
"And the way he chased after girls!" the old hobbit went on. "None of the local maids was safe with him. 'Twas a disgrace. Why, I saw one myself just last week, running up the lane from the river. If Berry was chasing her, I can guess what that upstart was after her for!"
"A girl?" said Frodo, suddenly alert. "What girl?"
"I couldn't say. She went by very quickly, and my old eyes aren't what they used to be. I don't know who she was."
"Was she dark-haired?" Sam asked eagerly.
Dinodas peered at Frodo's companion. "I think she was."
"Did you see her on the day Berry was drowned?" asked Frodo.
"It might've been, but I can't be sure," Dinodas admitted. "Berry used to come up here often. Mind, I didn't hear about his drowning 'til days afterwards, when he was pulled out of the river, so it might've been a day or two before."
As he and Sam walked away from Dinodas's cottage, Frodo said, "If my uncle really did see a girl that day, she could very well be the one we're looking for."
"But you don't think it was this Mrs. Celie?" Sam asked.
"No, I don't," Frodo said quickly. "Even if she was lying and had been down at the river when Berry was there, she would have gone straight home. She'd no reason to come this far up the lane, for Uncle Dinodas to see."
"Unless she was running to somebody else. Didn't you say there was another cousin of yours who lived along here?"
"Yes, Mentha. That must be her studio, just ahead." There were other, unoccupied cottages in the greenery along the lane; Frodo pointed to one that was obviously inhabited, on the opposite side of the lane from the two they had just passed: the neatly tended garden was bounded by a low, wooden fence painted white and a row of red rose-bushes. Vines ran up tall trellises on either side of the front door and over the rounded roof. A sign on the gate that read 'Ivysmial' was likewise decorated with painted rosebuds and ivy vines around its borders. "But she isn't there now. She's back at the Hall."
"What about her? Has she got dark hair?"
"She does, and so do her sister Melilot and their mother. So do a good many other women in Buckland." Frodo laughed, a little nervously. "Enough of suspecting my relatives, Sam. If we're not careful, we'll begin to see murderers everywhere!"
Chapter 9 by Kathryn Ramage
The cottage where Merry and Pippin were living was at the very end of the lane, set farther back than the others and hidden behind a tall hedge. It had been built after the style of a hobbit-hole--low, round-roofed, and sod-covered, so it resembled a natural hill amid a grove of trees. Only the facade around the front door showed a brick face. There was a neglected garden before the house, and Sam looked at the overgrown grass and untended flowers in dismay as he followed Frodo up the stone walk.
Before Frodo could knock, the door flew open and Pippin sprang out to throw his arms around him.
"I knew you'd be coming!" Pippin announced gleefully. "When I saw Dodi, Fatty, and Ilbie at the Buckle's Notch last night, they told me you were at the Hall. I've had an eye out the window all morning, watching for you. Have you had any breakfast yet?"
"Yes, just before we came out," said Sam.
"Well come in and have some more! I was just sitting down for a bite."
The inside of the cottage was as unkempt as the garden, for the two young hobbits who occupied it were indifferent housekeepers at the best of times, and Pippin more careless than usual since Merry had gone. Dishes were piled in the kitchen sink and the floor looked as if it hadn't been swept in a week, but a fresh pot of tea and a plate of currant buns had been set on the table. Pippin wiped out a couple of mugs with a dishcloth and poured tea for his guests.
"I'd hoped to see you last night," Frodo told him, "but Uncle Saradoc took me off after dinner for a serious talk... about Merry."
Pippin sobered at this. "You've heard about their quarrel then?"
"Merry told us everything."
"They let you see him? I'm not allowed to--the sherriffs are under 'special orders' to keep me out."
"We saw him yesterday. Merry asked me to come by and tell you that he's fine. He was afraid you'd been left alone here." Frodo was relieved to know that that wasn't so; if Doderic, Ilberic, and Fatty were meeting Pippin in the pub at Bucklebury, then he had not been entirely shut out by the family.
He said so, and Pippin answered, "Oh, yes, all the lads have rallied 'round. Dodi was here the morning after the quarrel to say he was on our side, and Fatty came straight away when he got to Buckland. And our neighbors have been very kind. Old Uncle Dino says he'll stand by Merry... although I don't think he really understands what Merry and I have done to be in trouble. Celie's as sweet as that stodgy husband of hers will let her be, and Mentha had a word or two for us when we went by."
"Doderic was here..." Frodo's brow creased in a small, thoughtful frown.
"Even Aunt Esme came by yesterday morning," Pippin continued as he offered the currant buns; Sam took one. "She was bringing a few things over to Merry at the guardshouse, and wanted to be sure I was all right. She said I could come stay at the Hall if I wanted to, but I think I'm better off keeping out of the way 'til the trouble's past." He picked up one of the buns, took a bite, and continued through the mouthful. "Not Berry's murder, I mean. You can see why I'm not exactly eager to get in Uncle Saradoc's sight right now. If he remembers that I'm here, I'll be thrown off the premises and no doubt sent packing home to Tuckburough in disgrace. And I refuse to go. I won't leave Merry, not while he needs me. I'm going to rescue him." He sat down and, leaning over the table, told them confidentially, "That's the reason why I'm meeting the lads at the pub: We're making a plan to raid the Newbury guardshouse and set Merry free. Want to join us?"
"I've already promised Merry I'd do something of the kind if worst came to worst," said Frodo, "but I think we ought to keep that as a last resort, don't you? I mean, there are other, more peaceable means of freeing Merry we might try before it comes to that, and we all have to flee the Shire and live as outcasts."
"I guess so..." Pippin answered, reluctant to abandon his plans to rescue Merry himself.
"It seems to me that the best way to help Merry is by finding out who's really responsible for Berilac's murder." Frodo sat down opposite his cousin. "I intend to look for whatever facts the sherriffs might have missed to prove Merry's innocence. Will you give me a day or two to do that before you and the others do anything rash?"
"Yes, all right."
"And can I rely on your help?"
"What can I do?" Pippin folded his hands on the table and looked attentive and earnest.
"Tell me everything that happened that morning. Was there anything odd?"
"It was an odd day even before we knew about Berry. Merry was very upset, you see, by his fight with his father. He'd been tossing all night, and he was up early. He barely touched his breakfast, and then he said he was going out. I offered to go with him, but he wanted to be by himself and think."
"You stayed here through the morning?"
Pippin nodded. "I wanted to be here when Merry came back."
"Did you see anyone? Berry didn't come by, did he?"
"No, certainly not!"
"What about Dodi? When exactly did he visit?"
"Dodi dropped by around elevenses, but he was gone by the time Merry came back and we had our lunch. After lunch, Merry said he was sorry he'd been so awful before, and offered to go out for another walk with me. We went down the lane 'til we got to the river."
"Did you speak to any of your neighbors? Celie? Uncle Dinodas?" asked Frodo.
"I think Uncle Dino was in his front yard when we went by, but we didn't stop to talk to him. Mentha was in her garden. We didn't see Celie or Merimas."
"And why did you go that particular way?"
"Well... the Notch doesn't open for afternoon business 'til 4:00, and we thought we'd take the long way 'round and stop on our way back through Bucklebury for an ale or two. But when we found the boat, we went around to the Hall boathouse instead to ask them about it. It looked odd to us. The oars were missing."
"You didn't see anyone along the river? Not Berry, nor anyone else? Any girls?"
"Girls?" Pippin shook his head.
Frodo brought out the swirls of silver from his pocket. "Did you notice this, or the rest of it, when you discovered Berilac's boat?"
"What is it?" his cousin asked as he took the piece. "It looks like a broken bit of jewelry."
"I found it in the river, near the place where the boat was pulled up onto the bank. It's why I think some girl might've been there. You've never seen it before? You don't know who it belongs to?"
"No," came the regretful answer as Pippin gave it back. "It doesn't look like I've got much useful information for you, does it?"
"Nonsense. You've cleared up several points, and given me one or two ideas to look into. One last question, Pippin: You've been living here in Buckland for months. You know the people at Brandy Hall and around it, seen things first-hand. Do you have any suspicions who might have wanted to kill Berry?"
Pippin picked up another bun and munched thoughtfully. "I've been wondering about that since the sherriffs took Merry away, since I don't have much else to do. But I haven't the least idea. No one liked Berry--that is, no one who really knew him--but to bash his head in... well, that takes a special kind of hatred, doesn't it? You'd have to want him dead in the worst way to do that. I can't see any of the Brandybucks getting worked up enough to kill one of their own family and be so vicious about it, not even Merry."
Frodo looked shocked, and Pippin explained: "Well, you know it's not true that Merry wouldn't ever kill anybody. He has. We've all had to fight-" he looked to Sam, who nodded in understanding. They had all seen battle, had drawn their swords to defend themselves or others, and all of them except Frodo had come away with blood on their blades. "But this isn't some orc. It's a cousin! Even if Merry hated him enough to want to get rid of him, he wouldn't do it in that nasty way. I couldn't tell the sherriffs that, though. They wouldn't understand. They'd only see that if there's one Brandybuck who's actually killed someone, it's our Merry. They'd say that if he did it before, he'd do it again." He asked Frodo, "Are you going to see him again today?"
"I promised him I'd come back," Frodo answered. "Besides, Uncle Saradoc asked me to see him, to talk him out of going on with you."
Pippin grinned impishly. "In that case, will you give him a kiss for me? And tell him I'm still here, waiting for him to come home."
Chapter 10 by Kathryn Ramage
Hob Hayward was still the sherriff on duty when they arrived at the guardshouse.
"How is your investigation coming along?" Frodo asked as Hob let them in to see Merry. "Have you spoken to anyone at the Hall? The servants? There may be something there you've missed."
"We've finished our inquiries at the Hall," Hob informed him. "We don't wish to disturb the Master nor any of his household more'n is necessary 'til we have some news to report."
"And have you any?"
Hob shook his head.
"Have you asked the members of the family that live in the lane if they saw anybody?"
"We did, just afore Mr. Merry was arrested, but they didn't have much to say."
"Perhaps you ought to talk to them again," Frodo suggested. "My cousin Celandine tells me that she didn't see Merry go to the river that morning."
"That only shows he could've gone 'round another way so he wouldn't be seen," Hob responded. "Now you leave us to do our investigating as we see fit, Mr. Frodo."
"What've you been doing?" Sam wondered.
"We are asking them as live in Bucklebury and Newbury near the Hedge if they've seen any suspicious characters lurking about," Hob replied with an officious huff. Then he added in more conciliatory tones, "Don't you worry, Mr. Frodo. If Mr. Merry's innocent, we'll turn something up."
As they walked the length of the armory hall, Sam gave Frodo a quizzical glance behind the sherriff's back; Frodo fingered the edge of his waistcoat pocket, but said nothing.
Hob unlocked the door to Merry's room, then left them to speak in private.
Merry lay sprawled on the bed, just as he'd been the day before; he lifted his head to smile at them and say, "Hello! What's the news? Anything good?" but he did not get up until Frodo sat down beside him to convey Pippin's message and deliver his kiss. That brought Merry's spirits up a little, and he was even more cheerful when he heard that Pippin had not been cast out by the family.
"Mother went to see him?" Merry smiled. "She never said a word about it when she was here yesterday, and I never thought to ask her to look after Pip for me. And good old Dodi! I knew I could count on him not to let us down."
Frodo had given him the good news first. Now, he told Merry of his conversation with Saradoc.
The smile vanished. "I didn't have much hope of you talking Father over, but it was worth a try."
"I wish I could have done better for you, Merry."
"'Tisn't your fault. Father won't budge, and that's that." Merry flopped back onto the bed with a sigh. "I've been thinking things over, Frodo. Before the sherriffs came for me, Pippin and I were talking over what we would do if I was disinherited. We said we might leave the Shire for good and go back to Minas Tirith. If I get out of this mess, I think that's what we'll do. It's the best thing, really. We were both much happier there, you know, once the war was over. Pip has a place waiting for him in the King's court, and I could find something too. It was nice being home again at first, but I don't feel like I belong here anymore. We were heroes in Gondor--in the Shire, we're an embarrassment to our families. We're better off out of the way. If Berry was alive, I'd tell him he could be the next Master of the Hall and welcome to it! I suppose it'll go to Dodi now. He's next in line."
The other two hobbits exchanged worried glances. Merry was normally so high-spirited and optimistic; they had never heard him sound bitter like this before. The frustration of being locked up and falsely accused was beginning to tell on him.
"You shouldn't start packing just yet," Sam told him. "Frodo's working on a way to get you out of here."
Merry regarded his cousin with curiosity. "What are you going to do?"
"I've decided to conduct my own investigation," Frodo explained. "I'm going to prove your innocence beyond all doubt, then they'll have to let you go."
This made Merry smile again. "You'll do a better job than the sherriffs. You couldn't help it--you're smarter than the whole lot of them together!"
"They've focused their attention in the wrong places-" Frodo agreed. "They're looking for some outsider-"
"Hob says they're looking for 'suspicious characters' around that Hedge," Sam interjected with a derisive snort.
"-but I think they ought to be looking closer to home."
Now, Merry was intensely interested. "Really? Who do you think did it?"
"Well, it's only a theory of mine," Frodo answered, curbing his enthusiasm; he had no real proof yet, and didn't want to give Merry false hope. "I believe that there's a girl involved--a girl who was with Berry that day. I've been down to the river this morning to have a look at the spot where you and Pippin found Berry's boat, and I found this." He took the broken ornament from his pocket.
Merry took it, turned it over in his fingers to examine it. His expression, which had been so avid only seconds before, suddenly went blank. "This was down by the river, you say?"
"Yes. Do you have any idea who might have lost it there?"
"No, I've never seen it before." Merry returned the trinket to Frodo.
"It doesn't belong to anyone you know?"
"Not that I know of. Sorry, Frodo. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can't."
Merry was a good liar when he needed to be, but Frodo knew him too well to be fooled; he could see that his cousin was keeping something back.
"I though you were going to tell the sherriffs about that girl in the boat and the piece of jewelry you found?" Sam said once Hob had shown them out of the guardshouse and they were alone.
"I meant to," Frodo admitted, "but they wouldn't know what to do with it. The story about the girl is just that--a story, no more. The girl Uncle Dinodas saw might be anybody, or might've been there on another day. I need to find something more substantial. Until I do, I'm only a meddler. You heard how stuffy Hob became simply because we asked a few questions. The sherriffs wouldn't appreciate it if anyone, even a relation of the Brandybucks, went poking his nose into their official business. As for this- ah- clue of ours," he patted his pocket, "I think I'd better hold onto it awhile longer, 'til I learn more about it. I don't know if it has anything to do with Berilac, but it does mean something to Merry."
"He was lying," Sam murmured under his breath.
"I know. I'm certain that Merry knows who that trinket belongs to. But why won't he tell me?" That was what stung the most. "I'm trying to help him. Doesn't he see that?" Then he gripped Sam's arm. "Sam, it must be someone at the Hall! Merry's trying to protect someone there. One of the family? Yes, that's the only answer that makes sense. Merry would speak up if it were anyone else. A cousin? One of the aunties? Surely not his mother!" He shook his head. "I can't see Aunt Esme smashing anyone's head in. It's too absurd. In fact, none of the ladies at the Hall, even the dark-haired ones, seem likely as a murderess." He spoke as if he were joking, but a serious, unpleasant idea was forming in his mind: what if the broken piece of jewelry were Celie's, and she had lied about it? Would Merry lie for her? "When we get back to the Hall, I'll have to find out-"
"Not right off, you're not," Sam stopped him with a no-nonsense tone. "You've done your running about for the morning. When we're back at the Hall, I want you to lie down awhile before the funeral. You can do more investigating afterwards."
"I'll rest," Frodo promised. In truth, he was beginning to feel weary after his morning's exertions. "But you must work for me while I'm resting. Be my eyes and ears, remember?"
Sam nodded. "What d'you want me to do?"
"The servants won't attend the funeral. It'll be the perfect time for you to ask them some questions."
"Do you want me to show that bit of jewelry about?"
"No, I'll do that myself, discreetly, among the family. I'd rather not have very many people know about it before I know whose it is. But there are a few other things I'd like to find out more about. If we're going to conduct our own investigation properly, we must be methodical and go through every step in an orderly fashion." He enumerated the questions he wanted answers to, counting them off on his fingers:
"First, we have to find out if Berilac was alone or if he had someone with him when he went out--and if there was, who she was. I'd also like to know exactly when he left, and if he said anything about where he was going. The hobbits who work at the Hall boathouse will be able to tell you that. The boathouse is that big, wooden building that hangs out over the river at the northernmost end of the property. If you follow the path under the willows along the river's edge, you can't help but find your way to it.
"Second, I want to know where Doderic was. Ask the boatsmen about him as well. They can tell you when he went out and when he came back." He told Sam, "Last night at dinner, Dodi said that he'd been fishing at Standelf pool that morning, but that's not where he went, not if he was visiting Pippin at Crickhollow. You heard Pippin say so."
Sam nodded. "I saw how you took particular interest in that, but I couldn't see why. You don't think he-?"
"I don't know! I don't want to think anything so horrible about a cousin of mine, but I know he lied. It's hardly possible for him to have been in both places--the two are miles apart, on either side of Buck Hill. I think that he must have taken a boat, so that he could say he was going south to Standelf when he rowed upriver instead... perhaps to follow Berry."
"Why would he do that?"
Frodo voiced his worst thoughts: "What if this piece of jewelry belongs to Celie? What if she did go to the river to meet Berry, and someone else followed and found them there?"
"But why this Doderic, not her husband?" Sam looked confused.
"Yes, I thought it might be Merimas, at first--but, Sam, Dodi is Celie's brother." He could see Sam's expression brighten with understanding. "He wouldn't like it any better than her husband would. Perhaps he..."
Frodo tried to imagine what had happened: Berry had stopped at the landing at the end of the lane for a pre-arranged meeting with Celie. Doderic had known about it and followed him there in a second boat, and surprised the two in their tryst. To avenge his sister's honor, he'd struck Berry, knocking him into the river deliberately or by accident--and then what? Could he have gone to pay a friendly visit on Pippin after committing a murderous assault? Pippin wasn't the most observant hobbit in the Shire, but surely he would have noticed if Dodi were behaving oddly. And what about Celie? If she had witnessed Doderic's fight with Berry, that might explain why she had run up the lane past Uncle Dinodas's cottage instead of going home; she was seeking help or shelter from Mentha. But if she had seen the two fighting, she must also know or guess that her brother was responsible for Berry's death. She might lie to protect him, but would she be so composed about it? Celie had seemed upset about Berry when Frodo had spoken to her, but not as upset as a girl whose brother had just killed her lover might reasonably be.
It didn't make sense. Something wasn't right.
"No." He stopped himself. "I mustn't jump to conclusions before I have the facts. I need to know more. Ask about Dodi, and you might try to find out if there was any gossip about Celie and Berry, before or after her marriage."
"I doubt if you'll be able to learn what the family in the lane were all doing, but can you find out who else was away from the Hall that morning?" Frodo counted off a third finger. "After Dodi told us where he was supposed to have been when Berry was killed, some of the others at the table told where they were as well." He tried to remember. "Fatty said he wasn't here yet. Melilot said she was out for a walk. Perhaps someone can tell us where she went. Ilberic said he slept late. That one might be easiest to discover the truth of. Whatever you find, Sam, you can tell me about it after the funeral."
Chapter 11 by Kathryn Ramage
As he returned to the Hall, Frodo was intercepted by Saradoc. His uncle must have been waiting for him, for Saradoc emerged from the study almost as soon as the young hobbit was in the front door. "If you don't mind, my lad--a word or two before lunch?"
"Yes, Uncle, of course." With a glance at Sam, who nodded and went up the curving corridor alone, Frodo went into the study. He was relieved to see that Merimac was not there; he knew that his uncle meant to ask him about Merry, and it would be much easier for them to talk without those poisonous asides.
Saradoc shut the study door. "You've been to Newbury?" he asked. "Had your talk with Merry?"
"I've spoken with him," Frodo answered.
"And will he see reason?"
"If you mean 'does Merry intend break with Pippin,' the answer is 'No'. He refuses to do so." When Saradoc's mouth turned down in a disappointed frown, Frodo added quickly, "As a matter of fact, he spoke of returning to Gondor rather than agree to that." He believed that Merry had spoken in despair and anger, but he also thought that Saradoc ought to see how strongly his son felt about this intolerable situation.
"Leave Buckland!" To Saradoc Brandybuck, such a thing was unimaginable.
"That is what Merry said," Frodo confirmed. "He won't change his mind, but he doesn't wish to be an embarrassment to the family." This wasn't exactly what Merry had said, but it had the effect on Saradoc that Frodo hoped it would.
"He doesn't have to do that!"
"You must see how Merry feels at being shut up like a criminal, Uncle. He's longing to get out, and get away. Can you blame him?"
"Oh, I know the boy's in a tight spot, but that's no reason to do anything rash," said Saradoc. "If he'd just sit still another day or two, be patient until the sherriffs have investigated the matter fully and cleared him, then everything will be all right. And I do blame Merry for getting himself into this." The elder hobbit paced the room. "If only he'd be sensible, marry a nice girl, and do his duty to the family. That's all I ask. I wouldn't care what he and Pippin Took got up to in private if he'd behave himself in public. None of this would've happened if he'd just done that."
"Berry wouldn't have been killed?" Frodo asked, puzzled.
"No, I didn't mean that. But if Merry had done as I'd asked, we would never have quarreled. No suspicion would have fallen on him when poor Berry died, and I wouldn't be in the absurd position of having to arrest my own son--the son of the Hall!--for his cousin's murder. What else could I do once the sherriffs heard of our quarrel? I had no choice but to let them take him in. I wouldn't have put Berry in his place, not really," Saradoc admitted grudgingly. "Berry was a good lad, but he never had Merry's cleverness, if Merry would put his wits to good use!"
"Perhaps if you had told Merry-" Frodo began, when there was a tentative knock on the study door. The family was waiting to go into lunch, but could not sit down to eat until the Master was there to preside over the table. Saradoc, who made a point of never being late for meals out of courtesy to his family as well as personal inclination, went to join the others.
The same party was at lunch as had been at dinner the night before, with the additions of the newly married couple returned from their honeymoon cottage and Mentha, who sat red-eyed beside her younger sister Melilot. Mentha was dark like her sister, but taller and more plain, and of a somber disposition even at the best of times.
"Have all the arrangements been settled for this afternoon?" asked Beryl. "Are we quite ready to see poor Berry to his rest?"
"Nearly ready," said Esmeralda, "but we need another lad to carry the bier." By long-standing tradition, four young males were called to bring the body to the vault.
"It ought to be a son of the house," Doderic said pointedly, "but we seem to be short of them these days."
"There aren't enough suitable youths," Esmeralda agreed more tactfully, "but Fredegar has been kind enough to volunteer. I was hoping, Frodo, that you might stand in for Merry at the ceremony. Will you, please?"
"I'd be glad to, Aunt Esme." Frodo tried to recall exactly what the lead bier-bearer did. He had not played a part in the last family funeral he'd attended, old Rory Brandybuck's. That had been a very large and grand affair, with half the Shire turning out to pay their respects to the last Master of the Hall; today's ceremony, by contrast, would be a much smaller and more private occasion, but surely he would be called to do that same things that Merry had done then? "I won't have to give a speech, will I?" The speeches over old Rory had gone on for hours.
"Only if you'd like to, dear," his aunt assured him. "Otherwise, you have only to lead the procession out of the Hall, and stand by poor Berry during the farewells. Who is going to speak? Merimac, you will, certainly."
"Yes, of course," said Merimac. "And you, Saradoc? You were fond of my boy--that's only fitting."
"I'd like to say my farewells," said Beryl, "just as I did for my poor sister, his mother. I never thought I would live to speak over them both."
"What about you, Mentha dear?" Esmeralda addressed her eldest niece with tender solicitude. "Do you feel fit to attend the funeral? Would you like to say a few words about Berry?"
Mentha nodded. "I will be present, Auntie," she answered. She reached to take her sister's hand, and Melilot gave her fingers a comforting squeeze.
After lunch, Frodo approached the two sisters as they left the table. "May I talk to you?"
"We were just going up to our rooms," said Melilot. "Mentha ought to rest."
"Yes," Mentha agreed. "I need to lie down for awhile... before the funeral."
"I'm going to rest too." Frodo smiled softly. "I promised I would." The pair did not object as he left the dining hall and walked up the corridor toward the bedrooms with them. "Do you mind?" he asked. "I'm trying to help Merry. I'd like to ask you both a question or two, about the day Berry died."
Mentha gripped her sister's arm. "What do you want to know?"
"I wanted to ask about Celie."
"Celie?" Mentha echoed. Both sisters looked puzzled.
"She didn't pay a call on you, did she?"
"No," said Mentha. "I didn't see Celie that day. Only Melly."
"Melly?" Frodo was surprised. "Is that where you were going?" he asked Melilot. "You said last night you were out for a walk. You went to Mentha's?"
"Yes, if you must know," the younger girl answered. "I went to visit my sister. I spent the day at her cottage, and we walked back to the Hall together for dinner."
Frodo wondered if she was the dark-haired girl Dinodas had seen, and not Celandine. "Did you notice if Uncle Dinodas was out in his yard when you passed, Melly?"
"Uncle Dino? No, I didn't notice him." Melilot cast a glance at her sister. "Was he there?"
"He said he saw a girl go past his cottage," Frodo explained. "I thought it was Celie, but I'm afraid Uncle Dinodas doesn't see all that well any more." He felt rather silly; he'd been imagining a girl flying down the lane in fright, when all the time it had been Melly going on an ordinary visit. This was what came of jumping to conclusions and letting his imagination mislead him!
"Here, Frodo!" their brother Merimas shouted. As he came up the corridor after them, Frodo stopped, but Mentha and Melilot took the opportunity to go on alone. "What d'you mean by going around asking everybody questions?" Merimas demanded. "Well, no more! I won't have it. You've upset my wife, and now my sisters. What is it you're after?"
"Whatever proof I can find that Merry didn't kill Berilac," Frodo responded frankly. "Merry is my dearest friend, like a brother to me. I don't wish to distress the ladies more than they've already been distressed by this, but if they can tell me anything that will help to get Merry out of gaol and the danger of being hanged, then I will ask them. I want to see justice done, don't you?"
Merimas grudgingly admitted that he wanted justice, even if he didn't approve of Merry. "But just you mind, Frodo Baggins--don't go bothering them any more than you have to. I'll put a stop to it if you don't, Merry be hanged or not!"
Chapter 12 by Kathryn Ramage
When Frodo went to his room for his nap, he found Sam placing his clothes for the funeral over the back of a chair. Frodo sat down on the bed and told Sam about his latest conversation with his uncle as he took off his coat and waistcoat.
"You think Master Saradoc'll come around after all?" Sam asked as he took the cast-off garments and put them in the wardrobe.
"I don't know yet, but I've given him something to think about." Frodo slipped his braces off his shoulders and lay down. "Uncle Saradoc isn't so bad, usually. He's not the warmest-hearted hobbit in the Shire, but he's always had a strong sense of family honor. His behavior of late hasn't been the best, but that's only because he's so proud. You know how rare it is for any family of hobbits to have only one child--when one of the great families produces a single heir, it's a cause for alarm! Even though Merry's only just come of age, Uncle Saradoc's put it all on him to carry on the precious Brandybuck line, but for the same reason, he wouldn't set his only son aside. It'd be too great a wound to his pride. He'll threaten Merry with disinheritance, but he says now that he never really meant to put Berilac in Merry's place. I wonder if Berilac knew that, or if he thought Uncle Saradoc actually meant to do it..." He sighed. "Well, I won't give up my investigation, even if my uncle relents. There are too many questions left unanswered." He looked up as Sam came to stand beside the bed. "Did you get any answers to my questions in the servants' hall?"
"There wasn't a proper luncheon today, as they had the funeral to get ready for and most of the maids were out in the yard with the laundry," Sam reported. "But while I was having a bite to eat in the kitchen, I got on good terms with some of the older servants. That's mostly due to you, Frodo."
"The ones that remember when you were a boy here have naught but good things to say of you." Then Sam added, "Old Bramblebanks hears tell you've gone a mite peculiar since you went off to live with Mr. Bilbo, but he's sure you've kept a sound head in spite of it."
"If I wanted stories about what you were like as a little lad growing up," said Sam, "I could get more'n enough to suit. They'll tell me anything about the Brandybucks if I ask."
"Have they told you anything?"
"I heard a bit more about Mr. Berry's carryings-on. I asked 'em about Mrs. Celandine. She ran a bit wild, they say, when she was still a miss. She was out with Mr. Berry from time to time, and other lads from Bucklebury. Them in the servants' hall had it that she was to marry Mr. Berry once she was of an age, but she chose Mr. Merimas instead and the family approved, him being so steady-like. After that, Mr. Berry started courting one of his other cousins."
"Mentha," guessed Frodo. Upon reflection, it seemed obvious: Mentha had been too upset to come down to dinner last night, and why else would Aunt Esme invite her in particular to speak over Berry unless there was a special connection between them? "Is there more?"
"Not yet, but I'll be going to the boathouse while you're out at the funeral, and I want to talk to the maids when they come in. They'll know the most about the family's comings and goings."
"Is that what you're going to do next?"
"Just as soon as I see you resting." Sam drew the curtains over the window, then leaned down to give Frodo a kiss on the cheek. "Go to sleep."
Frodo was glad to comply. He did feel very tired, almost as if it were an effort to keep his eyes open. He shut them.
Just before he dropped off, he heard a light tap on the door, then Sam spoke softly: "Can you come back later, Daffy? Mr. Frodo's sleeping and mustn't be disturbed. Wait, I've got a question for you..." and Sam went out into the hallway.
Chapter 13 by Kathryn Ramage
"It doesn't matter about Mr. Frodo's bed," said the maid named Daffy as she and Sam went into the room next door. "He's only slept in his sheets the one night, and we'll get 'em for washing after you've gone." As she began to strip the bed, she glanced up at Sam and asked, "Will you be staying with us for very long?"
"I don't know rightly," Sam answered, and came forward to help her gather up the bundle of sheets. "We'll stay 'til we've finished what we came here for." He looked about the bedroom, which was very like the one Frodo was staying in. "Whose room is this?"
"Mr. Fredegar Bolger, who's visiting too."
"He didn't come 'til just before we did," Sam ventured. "Isn't that so?"
"Yes, that's right. Just the day before." As they left the room, Daffy took the armload of sheets from Sam and dropped them into a large wicker basket sitting in the hallway. "He's come up for the funeral. But his sister Miss Estella's been here awhile with their aunt. This is her room," she announced as they went into another room farther along the passage. "A sweet little miss, she is, and hardly any trouble to look after, 'cept for that once..."
As they went from room to room, Sam helping the maid to gather the bedsheets, she told him many interesting things about the occupants of each. Sam listened attentively, asked questions, and thought he would never be able to remember it all to tell Frodo. He'd have to write everything down when he got a chance!
"You're sweet to give a hand, Sam Gamgee," Daffy told him when they had finished with the last bedroom. "It's got my job done so much quicker."
"Glad to've helped," Sam mumbled rather shyly. It was the least he could do to repay her for the information she'd given him. He had only one question left to ask. "Can you tell me, Daff? We've been in all the rooms. Which one belonged to this Mr. Berilac who died?"
"It's that one." Daffy pointed to a closed door at the far upward curve of the hallway, a room they had not entered. "It's been shut up. Nought to look at, if you've a mind to go in. Why d'you want to?"
"Oh, I was curious. I've heard so much talk about him. All sorts of odd things."
"That's no surprise!" she laughed. "Mr. Berilac was a caution! Old Bramblebanks warned me about 'm the day I started to work here at the Hall. 'You're a pretty girl,' he said. 'Watch yourself around that one.'"
Sam wondered if Berry had paid improper attention to Daffy--she was quite pretty--but he couldn't suspect her. They were looking for a dark-haired girl, and Daffy's hair was yellow. "He didn't give you any trouble, did he?"
The question made Daffy smile at him. "No," she answered, "save for a teasing word or two. I was on my guard, but I've heard stories about girls that wasn't!" She leaned closed to Sam and told him confidentially, "Last summer, there was a maid who worked here, Milliflora, her name was. She had to go off and marry quick-like to a lad at one of the farms down the river Standelf-way. She had her baby only three months after." Her eyes were wide. "Now that's scandal enough, but it was settled all right in the end, 'til her husband came to the Hall wanting to see Mr. Berilac--wanting to fight with him over Milli! He said Mr. Berry'd disgraced her."
Sam was agog at the dazzling array of sexual indiscretions he had discovered going on around Brandy Hall--and all centered around one person! It made his own secret with Frodo seem quite mild by comparison. "You mean the baby was Mr. Berry's?" he whispered.
"Well, there's no way of knowing," Daffy admitted. "The cook has it that even Milli wouldn't know for certain one way or the other. But her husband wouldn't have any more to do with her after that. She and the baby went home to her family, and they've been there since. What else can we think of it?"
Sam agreed that this was suggestive. "And what about the husband? Did he fight Mr. Berry?"
"No," the girl answered regretfully. "Old Bramblebanks sent him off, and he never saw Mr. Berry."
Sam was eager to find out more about this incident, but before he could ask for more details, there was a shout from someone below: "Daff!"
"Coming!" Daffy shouted back, and gave Sam another smile. "I shouldn't stand out here a-talking all day when there's work to be done." She shoved the wicker basket full of bedsheets down a narrow, steep side-tunnel, and went after it.
After she had gone, Sam tried the door to Berry's room, and found it locked.
Chapter 14 by Kathryn Ramage
When Frodo woke from his nap, Sam wasn't there. He must still be out asking questions, Frodo concluded, and since his clothes had been set out for him, he had only to wash up and dress before going to attend the funeral ceremony.
He went down to the Hall's back parlor, where Berilac's body had been laid out. The other bier-bearers were waiting outside the parlor door.
"I'm sorry," he said as he joined them. "Am I late?"
"No," Fatty assured him. "We're waiting for Uncle Saradoc to let us into the parlor. The door's locked."
"It's good of you to give a hand, Frodo," said Ilberic. "Even if Merry were here, it'd be impossible for him to do this. Uncle Merimac would throttle him barehanded if he dared to touch Berry's bier."
"And Aunt Esme couldn't ask Pippin to take the duty," added Doderic. "I hope Pip's had the sense not to show up. This funeral's going to be awkward as it is. Imagine if he did come after the row Uncle Saradoc and Merry had over him-!"
They fell quiet as Saradoc arrived. The elder hobbit fished a large ring of keys from his waistcoat pocket and hastily unlocked the parlor door. "Ready, lads? It's time," he said as he pushed the door open. "The door to the garden is open and everyone's waiting outside. You can bring poor Berry out."
With a chorus of "Yes, Uncle," the four young hobbits followed him into the darkened parlor, lit only by the shafts of sunlight that filtered in through the gaps between the closed curtains and the crack of the slightly ajar outer door. Berilac's body lay on its bier on a table at the center of the room; Frodo was surprised to see that it was covered with a sheet of thick black cloth.
They took up the long poles that extended from the ends of the bier--Frodo, in Merry's place, was first, with Doderic directly behind him, and the other two at the other end--and lifted it from the table. Saradoc held the garden door open for them. Once the bier had been brought out, the rest of the family and those friends and neighbors who had come to attend the funeral fell in behind, forming a procession. With slow, measured steps, they walked down the garden path, out through the gate, and across the lawn to the vault.
The Brandybuck burial vault was a low hill on the northern end of the Hall property, not far from the river amid a grove of willow trees. In accordance with custom, the body was first set on a low platform before the entrance to the vault; there, the mourners could bid farewell to the departed before he was taken in to his final resting place.
"They can't show Berry," Doderic explained in a murmur to Frodo as they set the bier down outside the vault. "That's why he's covered. He's not a pretty sight. He was in the water, you know, for two days before they fished him out."
The four bearers stood ranged on one side of the body, heads bowed and hands clasped respectfully while those who wished to said a few words of remembrance for Berilac. The Master of the Hall spoke first, praising his nephew and lamenting the loss of so promising a young hobbit. Merimac spoke next, more in anger than grief, vowing justice for his dead son. Beryl wept openly. Celie's eyes brimmed with tears and she hid her nose in her handkerchief. At the back of the family group, Dinodas looked impatient.
"Have you seen him?" Frodo whispered.
"No," Doderic whispered back. "No one's been allowed to view him since he's been laid out, except the women who prepared him for burial."
"Aunt Beryl wanted to see him," Fatty added under his breath, "but Uncle Saradoc said she'd better not. It's more than Berry's being in the water so long. I heard that his head was awfully bashed in when they found him."
"That's true," said Doderic. "That's how the sherriffs knew it wasn't an accident, although why they lit on Merry-."
"Dodi, Fatty, ssh!" Ilberic hissed. Mentha was approaching. She placed a bundle of flowers on the bier and turned to face the crowd of mourners as if she too meant to speak. But instead of speaking, she burst into tears and quickly moved away.
"Poor Mentha's all torn up about Berry," Ilberic said with sympathy as she sank down on a bench near the entrance to the vault and sobbed into her handkerchief. Melilot went to stand over her sister and offered comforting whispers and pats; their mother Melisaunte joined them. "Except for Uncle Merimac, this must be most distressing for her. There was an understanding between the two of them, you know."
"No, I hadn't heard." But it confirmed his guess after what Sam had told him.
Others went past the bier, leaving more flowers, some standing for a moment to say their farewells. Once the last of the mourners had passed, the four young hobbits resumed their places around the bier, which was now covered by a mound of flowers. In concert, they lifted Berilac's body, taking care not to let the flowers spill off onto the ground.
As they carried the bier toward the entrance to the vault, Mentha lifted her head to look at the covered body and let out a piercing wail, "Berry! My Berry--why?" Then she lapsed into a fit of hysterics and could not be calmed down. Melilot and Melisaunte quickly escorted her away from the funeral and back to the Hall.
The ceremony concluded soon after this outburst. Once Berry was laid in his place in the vault, the heavy doors were pushed shut with a resounding, final clang. Saradoc thanked the guests for attending and invited them to join the family at the Hall for some refreshment.
Chapter 15 by Kathryn Ramage
"That wasn't so awful," Fatty said as the bier-bearers walked back toward the Hall together, trailing behind the others. "Except for poor Mentha."
"I was afraid Uncle Merimas would make a scene when it came his turn to speak," said Doderic. "I thought he might accuse Merry right there over his son's body. Could the family ever recover from that? As if we haven't provided enough scandal already to keep the Shire busy chattering for months! By the way, Frodo, what's this about Merry intending to leave the Shire once he's free?"
"How did you learn about that?" Frodo asked, startled.
"I overheard Uncle Saradoc telling Aunt Esme. Is it true?" All three cousins looked extremely interested.
"I don't know if he truly means it, but it's what Merry said when I saw him this morning. I had to tell Uncle Saradoc, in hopes it would make him change his mind."
"I hope it does, but it hasn't gotten Merry out of gaol yet," said Doderic. "We're working on that ourselves, you know."
"Yes, Pippin told me about your plans," Frodo answered. "I think it's wonderful the way you've all stood by them. They need their friends especially now."
"Why shouldn't we stick with them?" Doderic responded. "Merry's our cousin, so is Pip, and in spite of the fuss Uncle Saradoc's made about it, they haven't done anything we haven't all done too." He grinned. "With Merry around, I expect every one of us has been up to precisely the same games-"
"With Merry," his brother finished, and both of them and Fatty chuckled companionably.
Frodo understood their joke: In their 'tweens, before Merry had settled on Pippin, both brothers and Fatty had been among Merry's earlier playmates. It was only natural that they assumed he had played around the same way with Merry himself, since the two of them had always been particularly close friends; in fact, they would be surprised and disbelieving if he told them otherwise.
He wondered what they would say if they knew of his relationship with Sam. Games between cousins of the best hobbit-families was one thing, but a love-affair with one of the common folk, especially a servant, was quite another matter. It wouldn't be seen in the same amusing light as their own romps with Merry, but as a serious breach of gentlehobbit conduct similar to Berilac's reputed dalliances with housemaids.
"Nothing wrong in it," Ilberic concluded as the boys stifled their laughter, for Estella had left the company of the aunties and was headed in their direction. "The only difference is that Uncle Saradoc isn't so eager to see any of us married off right away." He smiled at Estella as she drew near, and she shyly smiled in return.
"It might be better if Merry and Pip did go away for awhile," Fatty said softly, so his sister would not overhear. "Not out of the Shire, of course, but away from Buckland once this unpleasantness is over and done with. It'd do them a world of good to get away from these Brandybucks- That is-" He paused, flustered. "I beg your pardon. I didn't mean-"
"Quite all right, Fatty." Doderic smiled. "We know we aren't the Brandybucks you're referring to, and anyway I agree with you."
"But Merry can't go away," said Estella, who had heard after all. "It wouldn't be fair, not if he's innocent as we all know he is." She looked appealingly from one lad to another. "You do believe he's innocent, don't you?"
"Of course we do," Ilberic answered. "Nobody in their right mind could think otherwise." He received another shy smile.
"It's ridiculous!" Doderic agreed. "Why, I've got as much reason to get rid of Berry as Merry did. With both him and Berry out of the way, I'd be next in line as heir to the Master of the Hall. Or it might've been Ilberic."
"Me!" cried his brother. "What reason would I have?"
"Once the way was clear, you'd only have to give me a good knock over the head to get rid of me too."
"Estella, dear," Beryl called her away from the group of boys.
"It's a pity Merry doesn't take an interest in girls," said Fatty as Estella returned to their aunt. "Stel's grown up rather nice, if I do say so as a brother. And she's so obviously sweet on him."
"Obviously," echoed Ilberic, and Fatty looked contrite again.
As they headed toward the Hall, Frodo spotted Sam standing beneath the row of willows along the river, half-hidden by the curtain of long leaves, and waving to draw his attention. He quietly left the group and headed toward the trees.
"I've just come from the boathouse," Sam announced once Frodo had ducked under the fringe of willow leaves to join him.
"What did you find out?"
In response, Sam took a small memoranda book out of the pocket of his jacket; Frodo smiled at the sight of it, and Sam explained, "You said we ought to be methodical, so I thought as I'd better write it all down to be sure I got it right.
"Now then," he opened the tiny book and read from his notes, "Mr. Berilac went to the boathouse right after first breakfast. The boatsmen say he was alone when he rowed off, and that was the last they saw of 'm. He didn't tell them where he was going. They said they told the sherriffs just the same the day after Mr. Berilac went missing, and didn't have more to add."
"What about Doderic?" asked Frodo. "Did he take a boat too?"
"Mr. Doderic took a boat out less than an hour after Mr. Berilac, but here's the curious thing: He didn't bring it back. His brother, Mr. Ilberic, did."
"Ilbie? Are they quite sure of that?"
"Well, they allow it's easy enough to get the two brothers mixed up, as they look so much alike, but one of the old boatsman, Tubby Ragwort, his name is, swears it was Ilberic Brandybuck that came back to the boathouse just before noon."
"Yes, I remember Old Tubby," said Frodo. "He's been with the family for years. He'd know one lad from the other. Ilbie said he slept late that morning, but he must have been lying. Did you look into that?"
"I did, and that makes what the boatsmen told me curiouser still." Sam turned back to the first page in his notebook. "I asked the housemaid that does the family's bedrooms when she came to see if we had any washing that needed doing. We had a nice, long chat while you were sleeping. She says Mr. Ilberic was snoring very loud when she went to straighten his room. She didn't try to go in then, but came back just before lunch, when he wasn't there. Earlier that morning, she was taking water up to your cousins' rooms as she does for 'em most days, but she says he was quiet then. She knocked on the door, but there was no answer."
"He must have been out earlier and come back to the house," Frodo mused. Under the cover of the trees, where no one could see them, he put an around Sam and leaned on him. "But why would he do that? It doesn't make sense. Why go out, then come back in for a nap, and then go out again at noon to return Dodi's boat? What could he and Dodi have been up to?" He watched the figures on the lawn, the last of the funeral party, going into the Hall via the front doors. "What about the others, Fatty and Melly?"
"Miss Melilot was out all day, and didn't come back 'til dinner-time with her sister, Miss Mentha," Sam reported.
"Yes, that fits with what Melly told me. She walked over to visit Mentha at her studio."
"And as far as anyone can say, Mr. Fatty didn't come to the Hall 'til yesterday morning."
"Budgeford's 25 miles away. I suppose it's possible that he could have ridden down here unseen, then gone home again... but I can't think of a reason why he would." Frodo laughed. "I find it hard to imagine Fatty Bolger riding hard through Buckland with murder on his mind, don't you?"
"It does make an odd picture," Sam agreed, "but there's one other person you didn't ask about that might've brought him down from Budgeford in a hurry: Miss 'Stella Bolger was missing for an hour or more that morning."
"She turned up again at lunch, right as rain, but Daffy said that her aunt, Miss Beryl, was making the biggest fuss, setting the whole house upside down looking for her."
"Yes, Aunt Beryl watches over Estella very closely. Would she have sent for Fatty if his sister were missing?" Frodo shook his head. "What a peculiar business this is! Ilberic, Doderic, possibly Fatty, and now Estella--was anyone where they said they were?"
Chapter 16 by Kathryn Ramage
They parted on the front lawn; Sam went around to the southern side of the hill, and Frodo went into the Hall. The funeral party had gone on to partake of the offered refreshments and the front hall was empty. The door to the Master's study was ajar and, as Frodo went past, he could hear his uncles arguing within:
"-'til you know the truth of the matter, it's only just!" Merimac was saying, his voice rising with emotion. "That's all I ask for, Saradoc--justice for my son."
"What about my son? It's hard on the boy if he's innocent, harder than I thought it'd be if he's talking of leaving Buckland rather than give in."
"If he's innocent, there'll be proof of it. And if you're afraid of Merry's running off, then keeping him locked up's the best way to see he stays right where he is."
Saradoc sighed. "Yes, I suppose you're right..."
Frodo's heart sank at this exchange, and he stole quietly past the door and down the corridor to the best drawing room, where the rest of the family and guests had gathered. Esmeralda was serving tea with small cakes and sandwiches to refresh the party and sustain them until dinner. The drawing room was large and well-furnished, full of comfortable chairs, plump tuffets, and settees, but very crowded today. Since Frodo was late coming in, there were no empty seats; once he'd been given his tea, he found a place to stand at the mantelpiece, beneath a large portrait of Aunt Esme. From this vantage point, he could keep an eye on Doderic and Ilberic, who were at the other end of the room, wedged in behind the chair their mother was sitting in. He meant to speak to them first about the curious things Sam had told him, if only he could catch them alone.
Melisaunte and her daughters were absent, but their absence made them a prime topic of conversation. There were some disapproving murmurs among the guests about Mentha's behavior. Tears were expected at a funeral--indeed, they were a proper show of mourning--but so public an exhibition of deep, personal grief was shocking. Someone suggested that it was even in bad taste.
"Questionable taste it may have been, but I can't blame the poor child. I feel quite sorry for her," Hilda declared. "It's a terrible thing to happen to a young girl. It's bad enough to be widowed, but at least then you've had your years with your husband, and your children together." She looked fondly up at her own sons and newlywed daughter. "But to lose your betrothed-!" Hilda shook her head sadly. "Poor Mentha won't even have memories of happier times, and it will be so much harder for her to give her heart to another lad after this tragedy."
Other widowed ladies in the room were likewise sympathetic, but there was still some disagreement about the correctness of Mentha's conduct, broken heart or no broken heart. The question might have become an argument, if it had not ended abruptly when Melilot came in.
"How is your sister, dear?" Esmeralda asked her.
"She's calmer now, Aunt Esme. We've put her to bed and Mother's sitting by her." Melilot accepted the cup of tea her aunt offered. Her brother, who was seated nearby, gave her his place. "Mentha wants to go back to her cottage as soon she's fit, and I'm going with her to look after her. She can have quiet there, and it will do her good to be among her own things."
"It might also do her good to return to her work," said Esme. "It will help to take her mind off her sorrows."
"Yes, I think so too," Melly agreed, "and so does Mother."
"A girl so artistic as your Mentha must be very sensitive," one of the guests observed. "Is she still painting her pictures?" Mentha's paintings were a noteworthy peculiarity even among the peculiar Brandybucks.
"Yes, she is. She's really rather talented, you know," Merimas informed them. "She mostly paints pictures of gardens, flowers, ivy-covered cottages and such-like, but she does portraits too."
"She did a lovely picture of Merimas and Celie to commemorate their wedding," Hilda added proudly. "And she painted that." She indicated the portrait of Esmeralda. Those visitors who had not been in the drawing room to see this portrait before expressed their appreciation of it. "It's very beautiful work, isn't it? An excellent likeness."
"Mentha promised me one of Saradoc, to match it," said Esmeralda. "Perhaps she will paint it, once she's sufficiently recovered from her loss."
Frodo sipped his tea and continued to watch Doderic and Ilberic. He paid little attention to what was being said, for his thoughts were scattered in other directions.
What had the two been up to on the river that day? And was Estella Bolger part of it, or was her disappearance due to some other matter entirely? For an instant, Frodo considered the possibility that she might be the girl seen in Berry's boat, then he dismissed the idea. Estella could never be described as 'dark-haired,' and she was too innocent a young girl for such goings-on with the likes of Berry... wasn't she?
Also, he couldn't help thinking of that ridiculous joke Doderic had made on the walk back from the funeral. He would have taken it as nothing more than Dodi's usual nonsense, if Merry hadn't said nearly the same thing. Frodo had first considered Dodi's mysterious actions that day in connection with Celie, but he doubted now that Celie was involved in this at all. Did Dodi have a more selfish reason for wanting rid of Berry? An absurd idea had occurred to him: Now that Berry was dead, what if Merry were hanged for his murder or fled the Shire forever? Doderic would become the next Master of the Hall. Was that reason enough to kill one cousin and keep silent while another was accused of the crime? And would his brother assist him?
No, it was too ridiculous. Frodo couldn't believe it, not of Dodi and Ilbie.
At last, Doderic made his excuses and squeezed out from behind his mother's chair. Ilberic slipped out after him. They left the drawing room. Frodo left his teacup on the mantelpiece, and followed them.
He caught up with the pair in the spiraling hallway going up to the bedrooms and took Doderic by the arm. "Dodi, wait a moment. I want to talk to you--to both of you." Ilberic stopped a few feet farther along the corridor. "I wanted to ask you some questions about what you said at dinner last night. Dodi, didn't you tell everyone that you went fishing at Standelf pool the morning Berry was killed?"
Both boys looked curious at the question. Doderic nodded. "Yes, that's right."
"Pippin says you were at Crickhollow. Which is it?"
"Crickhollow," his cousin answered after a hesitation. "Once I learned what Merry's quarrel with his father was about, I wanted to give my support to him and Pip, so I went to see them. Merry wasn't in, but Pippin and I had a talk instead. Why do you ask?"
"Because you were out on the river when Berry was killed," Frodo pursued. "If you went to see Merry and Pippin, you must have gone upstream just as Berry did, and landed your boat at the same place on the bank. Were you there when he was? Did you see him? I want the truth."
Doderic laughed at first, then stared at him in astonishment. "Frodo Baggins, what are you thinking of? Are you actually asking if I had something to do with Berry's death?"
"No..." Frodo blushed in spite of himself. Hadn't he been thinking just that? "But you lied about your whereabouts, and I want to know why. It was such a silly lie. Honestly, Dodi, you should have at least asked Pippin to keep his mouth shut."
"I wasn't trying to hide the truth from you, Frodo. It was Uncle Saradoc I didn't want to know! There's no chance that he'd talk to Pippin with things as they are now."
"Then why did you bring it up at the table last night, when you might have easily said nothing?"
"Well, I am on Merry's side, you know, and I thought I had to say something on his behalf. Where I really was didn't alter my point about Merry's being arrested on no more than trumped-up suspicions. Besides," Dodi lowered his voice, "last night, I said my position was no better than Merry's. You can see now that, except for that quarrel with his father, it's nearly the same. If the sherriffs thought I had a reason to want rid of Berilac, I could be in Merry's place!"
"Your position is worse than that," Frodo told him. "What were you and Ilbie up to when you played that trick with the boat?"
The question took both brothers completely by surprise. "You know about that too?" asked Ilberic.
"I asked the boatmen," said Frodo. "You're lucky that no one else has. If the sherriffs weren't so set on Merry, the two of you might be in serious trouble." He looked from one boy to the other. "What were you doing? Please, tell me."
Doderic looked at his brother; Ilberic nodded, giving him permission to speak. "If you must know, Ilbie wanted to get away for awhile and not have anyone know about it. He's awfully sweet on her."
"Who?" Frodo asked. Then, in a flash of comprehension, he understood. "Estella Bolger?"
"It's a secret," said Ilberic. "Uncle Saradoc and Estella's Aunt Beryl wouldn't approve it. They'd rather see her matched to Merry."
"Is that why she was asked here?" asked Frodo.
"You didn't see how Uncle Saradoc was pushing the poor girl at Merry when she arrived last week. Merry tried to be kind to her, but he wasn't going to let himself be married off no matter who his father picked out for him. Well, you know how that turned out."
"It's not that Merry objected to 'Stella in particular," Doderic added. "It's just that after all the others, she was the final straw."
Frodo remembered what Merry had told him about 'half a dozen girl-cousins' being paraded before him as prospective brides. "There were a lot of others, weren't there?"
"Just about any available girl of a respectable family!" said Doderic. "Right after Merry came home, Uncle Saradoc started off by talking to him about Melly, then Dina or Della Burrows, then Araminda Banks. He's got a grudge against the Tooks right now because of Pippin, but last winter he thought that Merry might agree to marry one of Pip's sisters--as if it would be the next best thing! But Merry didn't like that idea either. Then Uncle Saradoc invited Estella."
"I've spent a lot of time with 'Stella since she came here," Ilberic continued. "She's a very sweet girl. I wanted to protect her."
"From Berry," Doderic explained. "He was always around Estella too, but that was mainly because he knew she was meant for Merry, and he could never resist trying his charms on a pretty girl."
"Auntie Beryl didn't mind him, though," said Ilberic. "Since Berry was courting Mentha, she didn't see any harm in it. But once she saw that I was taking too much interest in her precious chick, she started whisking 'Stella off whenever I tried to talk to her. You've seen how Aunt Beryl watches over her. There's no chance to speak to the girl alone. I hoped that if I could get 'Stella away from the Hall and her aunt for awhile, I might be able to tell her that if Merry didn't care for her, I did. And if it turned out that she liked me too, we could keep quiet 'til this trouble with Merry was past. Maybe once Uncle Saradoc got over his disappointment, he wouldn't mind having a nephew married to a nice girl with a modest fortune instead of his son."
"What did you do, exactly?" Frodo asked. "Where did you go?"
The brothers exchanged a quizzical look. Doderic answered first. "I didn't go up the river, Frodo. I never saw Berry after breakfast that morning. After I got the boat, I took it downstream a few hundred yards from the boathouse and hid it in the willows that hang over the river, where Ilbie and I had planned. I waited 'til Ilbie came down to the spot with 'Stella, and they got into the boat and rowed off. Once I saw them off, I went back to the Hall, and up the side of the hill to climb in Ilbie's bedroom window."
"I'd gone out the same way," Ilberic added, "and left it unlatched for Dodi to get in."
"I was going to pretend to be Ilbie, in case anyone went looking for him once Aunt Beryl noticed Estella was missing," Dodi explained. "And there was an awful fuss when she did, but whenever I heard someone coming, I snored as loud as I could 'til they went away."
"Dodi, that sounds like a ridiculous plan," Frodo observed.
"Well, it worked, didn't it? Ilbie and Estella got off for a couple of hours by themselves, and no one knows where they were."
"Then you went to Crickhollow?"
Doderic nodded. "When it got to be quiet and I thought I'd been there long enough so that everyone would believe Ilbie was in his room sleeping and hadn't gone running off with 'Stella, I went out the window again. I walked over the top of Buck Hill to Bucklebury and went to visit Merry and Pip. I was never near the river once I came back to the Hall. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Frodo?"
"Yes, thank you. And what about you, Ilbie?" Frodo turned to his other cousin. "Where did you go?"
"Surely you don't think I had anything to do with Berry's death?" Ilberic protested. "Not with 'Stella in the boat with me--or do you think she's in on it too?"
"I think he's gone quite mad," said Doderic. "Suspecting us!" He didn't sound as indignant as his brother, but puzzled by this questioning and somewhat concerned.
"I haven't gone mad," Frodo tried to assure them. "I only want to help Merry by finding out what really happened that day. I'm sorry if I sound suspicious, but you must admit that your comings-and-goings looked a little strange. It was a mystery that had to be cleared up."
Thus appealed to, Ilbie was placated enough to answer, "Well, if you must know, Estella and I let the current carry us down nearly to Standelf, and then we had to row back furiously to be home in time for luncheon. I left her off under the willow trees before I took the boat back."
"Does Fatty know about this adventure of yours?"
"Yes, of course!" said Ilberic. "We told him when he arrived and heard how 'Stella had gone missing. I wanted him to know there was no cause for alarm, that she was perfectly safe the whole time."
"Did you tell him that Berry was paying attentions to Estella?" Frodo still found it difficult to imagine sturdy, even-tempered Fatty in a murderous rage, but if Berry had trifled with his young sister, that might be just the thing to do it!
"No," said Doderic. "Why should we? Berry was dead by then. You aren't suspecting Fatty now, are you?"
"No--I only thought I'd ask." It occurred to Frodo then that it might have been Ilbie and Estella, dark-haired or not, who'd been seen rowing on the river--not Berilac and some other girl at all. His best theory was crushed. "How did it turn out?" he asked Ilbie. "Do you and 'Stella have an understanding now?"
"No, it's just as Fatty said: she's sweet on Merry," Ilbie answered sulkily. "Poor 'Stella was broken-hearted when she understood why he didn't want to marry her. She told me I was very kind to think of her, and perhaps someday she might think of me the same way, but she couldn't right now. I left it at that. It didn't seem fair to go on courting her after Merry was arrested. This false accusation and imprisonment have only made him more attractive to her. Unless Uncle Saradoc changes his mind and lets Merry out..."
"He won't," Frodo said. "Uncle Merimac's talked him out of it."
Doderic scowled at this news. "Then it looks like we'll have to do it ourselves."
"That's what I'm trying to do." It seemed improbable, but Frodo thought he ought to ask one last question, just to be sure. "I don't suppose either of you know if Estella had a brooch or clasp made up of silver leaves, with garnets?"
Was it his imagination, or was there a look of complicity between the two brothers?
"I don't think so," said Ilberic. "Not 'Stella-"
"No," Doderic spoke more decisively. "Certainly not."
Chapter 17 by Kathryn Ramage
When he left Frodo, Sam went to find Daffy, to see if she could tell him more about the disgraced maid and the husband who had rejected her. Except for that elusive dark-haired girl, these two were the only people he'd heard of who might want Berilac dead who were not part of the Brandybuck family, and he knew that Frodo would want him to find them and talk to them if possible. He had gotten on very good terms with Daffy today; she might be able to tell him where Milliflora's family lived, or where the husband's farm was. He asked in the kitchens, and one of the cooks directed him out to the wash yard behind the kitchen garden.
It was the end of a laundry day; a number of huge copper pots and wooden washtubs in the yard, no longer filled with hot water, had been turned up to dump the last of their soapy contents onto the grass. Servant-maids carried large wicker baskets up to take down the sheets and clothing that had been left hanging to dry all day on lines strung up on poles on the slope of Buck Hill above.
Sam looked up at the maids, searching for that head of bright yellow hair... when he noticed something he was not looking for. His mouth dropped open.
After he'd left Doderic and Ilberic at their rooms, Frodo tried to puzzle matters out. He had found answers to several of his most perplexing questions, but he didn't feel as if he were any closer to solving the central problem of who had killed Berry.
As he rounded the curve of the hallway on his way to his own bedroom, he found Sam waiting for him outside the door.
"Frodo!" Sam came forward eagerly. "Where've you been? There's something you've got to see, if she's still there."
"Come on." He took Frodo by the arm, and led him a few feet farther along the hallway, until they came to a side-corridor that sloped sharply downwards. They went down this passage, until they came to its end just outside the kitchens, at a back door on the southern side of the Hall. Sam took Frodo out through this door, and into the wash yard.
"I came here looking for Daffy," Sam told him. "I didn't find her, but I noticed this other girl-" He nodded to indicate one of the maids, who stood chatting and laughing among a group of others on the hillside. "Frodo, look. Her, there."
Frodo looked, but he didn't see what was so interesting about the maid at first, until she turned her back to them. Then he saw it: holding her dark brown curls away from her face was a large crescent-shaped comb made up of silver loops like long, curving leaves, and sparkling with garnets.
"It's just like that bit you found," Sam leaned closer to whisper near his ear.
"Who is she?" Frodo whispered back. "Do you know her?"
"I've seen her in the servant's dining hall. Lily's her name. Lily Waters. She's maid to some of the ladies. D'you think she's the one?"
"It could be..." Frodo felt his hopes rising. So the mysterious dark-haired girl might exist after all! "That comb is too expensive to belong to a maidservant. If she is the one we've been looking for, Berilac must have given it to her as a gift." In spite of himself, his imagination took flight again. "Was he dallying with this girl, and they were going to one of the empty cottages for a tryst? And what happened then?"
"I thought you said that piece of jewelry belonged to one of the family?" asked Sam. "Why else would Mr. Merry not tell us about it?"
"Yes, that's what I thought," Frodo admitted. "But I must have been mistaken. There must be some other reason for Merry to keep silent. We've got to find out. Go and talk to her, Sam."
Sam balked. "What do I say?"
"Flirt with her."
"Oh, you know the sort of thing. Tell her she's pretty. She's got lovely eyes. Say something about how the garnets in that comb bring out the red in her hair, and then ask where she got it. Lead up to the question gradually." Sam was staring at him incredulously. "I've got to know," Frodo explained. "I can't ask her, Sam--it wouldn't be right for one of the family to be so familiar with a housemaid. Or, worse, she might think I'm accusing her of stealing it. She'll be much more likely to tell you the truth if you ask her in the right way."
Sam nodded, agreeing reluctantly.
"All right then." Frodo gave him a push to send him off. "Go on!"
While Sam climbed up the hillside to question the maid, Frodo retreated to a bench beneath a cluster of trees in one corner of the yard, where he could watch Sam's progress without being too conspicuous; the servants who had noticed him seemed curious at the sight of a gentlehobbit in black velvet hanging about their work area. He wished he had his pipe with him, for it would at least give him the visible excuse of sitting here for a quiet smoke.
On the slope of Buck Hill, the maid Lily had stripped one line of clothing and was dragging her laundry basket uphill toward the next. Sam caught up with her and, taking the handle at one end of the basket, offered to carry it for her. The two began to chat as he helped her take down a line of ladies' petticoats. Lily did not seem to find the attention unwelcome, but smiled, laughed, and touched her hair, until Frodo began to worry that Sam was carrying out his task a little too well. He also noticed that some of the other maids nearby looked jealous that the visitor had picked out Lily to talk to.
Frodo had to admit that once Sam overcame his natural shyness, he had a way with women. He was comfortable talking to them. It was an ability that Frodo acknowledged he did not possess himself. He felt awkward around girls he had not known from childhood. Never mind that it wasn't proper--he simply could not have flirted with a girl as he had instructed Sam to do. It was just as well that he had no more interest in them than Merry did, and was not being pressed to marry.
He wondered if Sam felt differently. If it weren't for him, would Sam be happy with a girl..?
When Lily had filled her laundry basket, Sam carried it down the hill and saw her to the back door. With one last smile at him, she went into the Hall with the other maids. Once she had gone, Sam found Frodo under the trees and went to him, rather flushed in the face.
"Well?" asked Frodo.
"It wasn't Mr. Berilac," Sam reported. "Lily told me it was one of the ladies she tends. She said, 'Miss Melly gave it me.'"
Chapter 18 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo retrieved the broken piece of comb from the pocket of the waistcoat he'd worn that morning and returned to the drawing room. The last of the visitors had departed and the tea things had been cleared away. The family was dispersing to their rooms to change out of their funeral clothes before dinner; Melilot had already left.
He hoped to see her at the dinner table, but Melilot stayed to watch over her sister so that Melisaunte, who had been sitting by Mentha's bedside all afternoon, could come down to dinner instead.
Since Melilot's room was not far down the hall from Frodo's own, he decided that his best chance to talk to her was by keeping his bedroom door ajar and listening carefully to catch her when she went to bed. After dinner, he pulled a chair close behind the door, and settled down for his vigil. Sam sat to wait with him, perched on the foot of the bed.
"D'you think this Miss Melilot's the girl who was seen in Mr. Berilac's boat?" Sam wondered.
"I don't know." Even when Frodo had first guessed that Melilot was the one Uncle Dinodas had seen go past his cottage, he'd never thought that she must be the mysterious dark-haired girl seen with Berry. And yet Berilac seemed to have at least flirted with every other girl-cousin at the Hall: Celie, Mentha, even Estella. Melly too? "It seems incredible, but how else could her comb have broken by the river if she hadn't been there herself?"
"It looks as if you were right in the first place," said Sam. "Mr. Merry must've known it was hers."
"Yes, and I think Celie must have recognized it when I showed it to her. I suspect Dodi and Ilbie did too." Frodo recalled the glance that had gone between the two brothers when he'd described the fragment of jewelry to them.
"Why did he lie about it? Mr. Merry's not sweet on this cousin of yours, is he? The way he's stuck by Mr. Pippin, I'd've thought he didn't care for any girl."
"It isn't like that," Frodo explained. "Melly's almost a sister to him. You have to understand how we were brought up together. You haven't been up to the nursery, have you? It's shut now, 'til there are children in the household again. It fills the entire top floor of the Hall under the crest of Buck Hill. There isn't one room, but a maze of playrooms and cubbies for nursery-maids and children to sleep in. We grew up there, the whole lot of us, tumbled atop each other like puppies in a basket. I didn't have a room of my own until I was thirteen. You grow very close under those conditions. We are a close family, perhaps too close." He played with the broken comb between his fingers, then turned to Sam. "I suppose your own childhood at Bagshot Row wasn't so very different, with so many of you in that little bungalow?"
"We were crowded in too," Sam answered, "and there was only six of us!"
"Wouldn't you do the same as Merry if it were one of your sisters, Sam? You'd lie to protect May or Marigold?"
"Probably," Sam admitted, "but I'd hope they'd speak up before I'd got myself hung for something I didn't do." Then, after a delicate pause, he asked, "D'you think she killed him?"
"Melly? No." Frodo shook his head briskly. "No, I can't believe that. Melly's a dear. She wouldn't ever deliberately harm anyone."
Sam huffed at this. "Well, it seems to me-" he began, when another door down the hallway creaked open.
"Hush!" Frodo hissed. He left his seat and crept toward the door to peek out; Melilot was just emerging from Mentha's room. Frodo went out.
Melilot was startled to see him. "Frodo? What-? Is something the matter?"
"I've been waiting to talk to you, Melly. It's important. I believe I've found something that belongs to you." He held up the broken piece of jewelry.
If he'd had any doubts, they disappeared as he watched the color drain from Melilot's face. "Wh- where did you find that?"
"In the shallows of the river, near where Berilac was drowned," Frodo told her. "It is yours, isn't it?"
Melilot stared at him wildly, then said, "Not here! Come inside." Grabbing Frodo's arm, she yanked him abruptly into her room. "Shut the door." While Frodo closed the door, his cousin took a small cherrywood jewelry box from the top of her wardrobe and set it on the dressing table; she opened it and brought out the other, larger piece of the broken comb.
"It's mine," she confirmed. "There was a pair of them. After this one broke, I gave the other away."
"How did it break?"
There was another long silence, another moment of decision. When she spoke, her voice was so low that Frodo could barely hear her. "Berilac tore it from my hair."
"You were with him that day, on the boat?"
Frodo asked the next question as gently as he could. "Melly, what happened?"
"It seems like you already know all about it," she responded wryly.
"No, not everything. Will you tell me?"
Melilot nodded again. She composed herself, sitting down on her bed and folding her hands in her lap before she began. "I was walking on the path along the river, when Berry came rowing by and asked if I'd like to ride with him as he was headed the same way. It would save me a mile's walk, so I got into the boat." Her hands in her lap clenched more tightly together. "When we were out in the midst of the water, Berry proposed to me. At least, that's what I thought it was at first."
"I thought that he and Mentha had an understanding."
The corners of Melilot's mouth turned down. "So did I, but when I said so, Berry told me, 'that's all over and done with.' He said he was going to break it off with her. She wasn't the one he truly wanted. He kept on saying such things, 'til I understood that it wasn't marriage he was proposing. He'd trifled with my sister's heart, and he meant to do the same with mine. I wouldn't hear another word of it. Then he tried to kiss me--and I wasn't having any of that from him! I made him row ashore. I said I'd jump out and swim if he didn't. I told him I'd tell Mentha. When we got to the bank, he got out of the boat too and grabbed my arm. Perhaps he only meant to stop me from running off to tell tales against him, or perhaps..." She shook her head. "I tried to make him let go, and he got hold of my hair. I hit him, and hit him again." The rest of it came out in breathless bursts. "Once I got free, I picked up a rock and threw it at him. It struck the side of his head and he fell into the water. Then I ran as fast as I could."
Frodo was breathing hard too by the time she finished. "Oh, Melly. Have you told anyone else about this?"
Melilot opened her mouth, then shut it quickly. After a moment, she said, "No." She let her head fall to her hands, dark ringlets flying over her face. When she looked up at him, her large, brown eyes were tearful and pleading. "Are you going to tell, Frodo?"
"No," Frodo answered carefully, "but I think you ought to go to the sherriffs. They should know the truth of what happened."
"Go to the sherriffs?" she repeated, baffled. "What good will that do? Berilac's dead now. Why disgrace his name?"
"What about Merry's name?"
"Merry-?" She looked more perplexed than before.
"If you'd come forward, Merry never would have been arrested. The sherriffs would have known it was you from the first." He sat down beside her and, feeling rather shy even though she was a cousin, took her hand. "You've nothing to be afraid of, Melly. No one would have blamed you. You struck Berilac in your own defense. A lady has a right to guard her honor-"
Melilot pulled her hand from his with a gasp. "Frodo, I didn't kill Berry!"
"No, of course not! When I last saw Berry, he'd climbed back to the bank and was sitting by the water's edge with his head in his hands. His head was bleeding, but he was alive when I left him."
"He was still alive..." Frodo murmured, struggling between relief and doubt.
Melilot was regarding him with an odd expression. "You thought I'd killed him, Frodo? That's why you came to talk to me?"
"Yes, I did," he admitted. "When I found your comb by the river, I wondered... I suspected. I'm sorry." His face turned red, and he felt ashamed of himself for the second time that day. "But, Melly, why didn't you say anything before? The truth wouldn't have harmed you, and it would have helped Merry."
"You'll think me a fool, but I didn't consider what happened to me in light of Merry's arrest. I was so upset--I didn't want anyone to know. When I heard that Berry was dead, I didn't think- I mean, I never thought that Merry had killed him, but that someone else must've come along..." Her face suddenly went pale and she sat very still, staring straight ahead. Then she asked in a choked voice, "Do you really think I might have done it, by accident? I never meant to strike him hard, only to make him let me go."
"I don't know," Frodo answered honestly. "Perhaps Berry was dazed and lost his balance and fell into the river. Or maybe he threw himself in because he couldn't bear the shame of what he'd done. Anything of the sort is possible. But it doesn't matter. Don't you see? However Berry died, it occurred after you'd gone. There's no reason for anyone to believe it wasn't an accident after all."
Chapter 19 by Kathryn Ramage
"We've done it, Sam!" Frodo announced triumphantly when he returned to his room. "I have my answer!"
Sam was still sitting at the foot of the bed, where he'd been when Frodo had left. "You know who killed Mr. Berilac?"
"No, not precisely..." Frodo admitted.
"Then what did this Miss Melly tell you?"
"She told me what happened to her by the river that day, and that was enough." As he prepared for bed, Frodo discreetly related the facts of Melilot's story.
"Berry was sitting by the water's edge when she ran away," he concluded as Sam helped him pull his nightshirt on over his head and buttoned up the front. "I don't know if Berry fell in after that, or jumped, or was pushed by someone else. The important thing is that we know now how he got the wounds on his hands and head. If Melly will only speak up, Uncle Saradoc will have no other choice but to let Merry go free."
"You think she's telling the truth?" Sam asked.
"Sam!" Frodo cried, almost laughing with surprise and perhaps a little guilt, since he had doubted Melilot himself only a short time ago. "What a question! Of course I believe her." A small frown creased his brow. "Why do you think Melly's lying?"
"I'm not saying she is, nor that she isn't." Sam had been turning a few things over in his own mind while Frodo had been so long in his cousin's bedroom, and he thought he had to speak. "If you don't mind me saying, it seems to me that you're too ready to take these Brandybucks at their word. What about Mr. Doderic? Did you find out what that business of his going out and his brother coming back with the same boat was about?"
"That's turned out to be some silly romantic adventure of Ilbie's to court Estella Bolger." Frodo told Sam of his conversation with his cousins. "Dodi and Ilbie are silly young asses. It's just the sort of ridiculous stunt they'd put on. I should have guessed it was something of the kind once I heard that Estella was missing at the same time."
"Did you believe them too?"
"Once I heard their story, yes." The small frown deepened. "But, do you know, before we discovered that that comb belonged to Melly, I was almost certain Doderic was involved in Berry's death? When I asked him to explain himself, I practically accused him of murder-" Frodo scowled, "because of what you told me!"
"I was only doing as you asked!" Sam retorted, stung at this unfairness. "You said we were going to be methodical. Well, if that's what you mean to do, then it's no good to go on saying, 'No, Dodi couldn't do this' or 'Melly wouldn't ever do that,' whenever you find something against them. Now, I know they're your family. You don't like to think they've done wrong, any more'n I'd like to think it of my own brothers or sisters, but you've got to see that if one of 'em did it, they'd lie to you about it."
Sam expected Frodo to explode indignantly at this, but instead, Frodo considered his words seriously.
"You mean that I'm too close to see them properly?" he asked, and sank down on the bed with a sigh. "You may be right, Sam. I remember my cousins as they were as children, but I haven't been at the Hall in so long. I can't say what they're like now that they're grown, any more than they know me. I know too well what nice people, even respectable, decent Shire-folk, are capable of. That one of them may have committed murder-? I can grasp the idea of it here," he touched the side of his head, "but in my heart, it isn't so simple. I want so much to believe what they say. It feels disloyal to suspect them. These are my nearest relations, almost as dear to me as Merry is. How can I suspect them?" He lifted his eyes to Sam's. "What do you think happened?"
"I couldn't say," Sam admitted. "Maybe Miss Melilot hit Mr. Berry just as she says, or maybe she hit a bit harder and left him dead. Or, maybe, somebody else came along after she ran off. Maybe it was her brother, or old Mr. Dinodas saw more'n he said and went after Mr. Berry with that golf club of his. Or what about Mr. Doderic? He might've gone 'round the other way to Crickhollow and come across Mr. Berry by the river. Whatever happened, the one who did it wouldn't tell you--and if any of the others knew about it, they wouldn't say either. Seeing how close these Brandybucks are, they'd stick together. They'd protect each other."
"And aren't I one of them?"
Sam shook his head. "Not in this. You'll pardon me putting it so, but you've been poking your nose into something they don't want you to know about."
Frodo did laugh at this. "Surely you're not suggesting that they're all in it together? That seems a little far-fetched."
"No, but they aren't telling you everything. They've kept things back, even Mr. Merry."
"Merry-?" Frodo echoed, frown returning.
"You know he wouldn't tell you that that broken bit of comb was Miss Melilot's. Frodo, have you thought that Mr. Merry-" Here, Sam hesitated, afraid he was going too far.
But Frodo wanted to hear it. "What about 'Mr. Merry,' Sam?" he prompted. A hint of coldness had crept into his voice.
Knowing that he was on dangerous ground, Sam took a deep breath and said, "Have you thought that this story of Miss Melilot's gives him a better reason for getting rid of his cousin than what the sherriffs already have against him?"
Frodo gaped at him in amazement. "Sam, that's horrible! How can you even think it?"
"You told me yourself how he feels toward this Miss Melilot," Sam explained in a rush. "What if he knew what'd happened between her and Mr. Berilac? I'd gladly knock anybody over the head if they went grabbing at my sister."
"Are you saying you think that Merry is guilty?"
"No! I'm not saying it's so. Only-"
"Only that I should consider the possibility?" Frodo shook his head. "Well, I can't! I won't! This really is too much! I refuse to listen to another word of it." He flung himself onto the mattress. "Sam, will you leave me alone, please?"
Sam didn't argue, but went into the dressing room and shut the door between them.
Chapter 20 by Kathryn Ramage
It was the middle of the night when Sam woke to the soft but distinct and all-too familiar sound of Frodo whimpering in his sleep. Then, Frodo cried out, "No!"
Sam got up and went into the adjoining room.
Frodo was not awake himself, but enough moonlight came in through the window over the bed for Sam to see that his eyes were wide open and glassy. His hands were out, shoving to push away some unseen foe.
Sam sat down at the edge of the bed. Capturing Frodo by the wrists, he spoke softly, but urgently. "Frodo, wake up!"
This was why he would have come to live at Bag End even if he didn't love Frodo as much as he did: What would happen if Frodo screamed in the dark, and no one was there to come to him?
"Can't you hear me?" He gave Frodo a shake. "Please, wake up!"
"Right here." Frodo's eyes were still wide and unfocused; Sam let go of his wrists and took his head between both hands, forcing Frodo to look at him.
At last, Frodo's eyes found his. "Oh, Sam..." he sobbed, and sank into his arms. "It's gone!"
Sam would be glad of that, if the loss wasn't tearing Frodo apart. He cradled Frodo, resting his cheek atop Frodo's head as he rocked him like a child. "There now, my dear," he murmured. "It's all right. It's past now. You're safely out of it."
"Sometimes," Frodo said, muffled against his chest, "I'm afraid I won't ever be out of it."
Sam didn't like to admit it, but he was afraid of this too. As bad as these nightmares were, they were nothing to the truly terrifying fits Frodo had suffered on the first anniversaries of his injury at Weathertop and of the Ring's destruction. On the latter day, he'd lain abed weeping and moaning, "It's lost! It's lost forever!" in such a fearful state that nothing Sam could say or do would bring him around. Frodo was fine again the next day, but the incident remained frighteningly vivid in Sam's mind. What if the same thing happened next year, or the year after that? For how long would it continue? Would Frodo ever be free of the taint of that evil?
At a knock on the door, Sam started guiltily, suddenly mindful that they were not alone. There was a houseful of hobbits around them, Frodo's relations. Reluctantly, he set Frodo down and went to the door.
When he opened it, he found himself faced with the Mistress of the Hall in her nightshift and dressing gown.
"Is Frodo all right?" Esmeralda asked. "I heard him cry out." She raised her candlestick to cast some light into the dark room behind Sam and find Frodo curled on the bed with his head in his arms.
"He's all right, Missus Brandybuck," Sam hastened to assure her. "He's just had a bad dream, remembering how he hurt his hand. I'll take care of him, ma'am, don't you worry. I've been through this with him plenty of times, and I know what to do."
For the first time since he'd entered the Hall, Esmeralda considered him, as if she were only now aware of his existence. "What is your name, lad?"
"Samwise Gamgee, ma'am."
Her expression brightened. "Why, you're the 'Sam' that Merry and Pippin speak of so often, aren't you? You went with them on their adventure with Frodo?"
"Yes'm, and I look after Mr. Frodo now we're home again. 'Tis my work, you might say."
"Frodo isn't well, is he?" she asked in a lowered voice.
Normally, Sam's fierce sense of loyalty kept him from discussing Frodo's health with outsiders--but while Esmeralda Brandybuck was a stranger to him, she was the nearest Frodo had to a mother. Hadn't Frodo said so often enough? If anybody had a right to know, she did.
"No, Missus Brandybuck," Sam told her in an equally low and confidential tone. "He's been poorly since before we came home."
Esmeralda nodded solemnly. "I was afraid of that. The poor, dear boy looked so pale and weary when he arrived yesterday, and this recent family misfortune has been so very distressing for us all. I'll leave you to care for him. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to call upon me." Other members of the family who slept nearby had come out into the hallway, murmuring in confusion and concern; as she turned away from Frodo's door, Esmeralda spoke to them softly, told them, "It's nothing. Only a bad dream," and shepherded them back to their rooms.
Sam shut the door and returned to Frodo. "Do you want me to sleep here with you the rest of the night?"
When Sam climbed into bed, Frodo cuddled close, head tucked against Sam's collar and legs drawn up. Sam stroked down his back in long, slow sweeps to comfort him.
"All the time we were on the quest," Frodo said after awhile, "I thought of the Shire as if it were the one place in the world where there were never any troubles. But I was wrong. There are troubles here too. In some ways, it's worse, because this is home."
"You've worn yourself out with all this running about and fretting after Mr. Merry," Sam told him. "You were pushing too hard--I was worried you would. And then I didn't help you any, saying what I did about your family. I should've kept my mouth shut."
"No, Sam, you only said what was already in my mind. That's why I snapped and flew at you the way I did. I'm sorry." Frodo snuggled closer. "I blame myself. I didn't think things through. When I started looking into this, I only meant to help Merry. I didn't consider how the rest of the Brandybucks might be involved. And yet, when the clues began to point toward them, I found myself looking at Merimas, Dodi, even Melly, as possible murderers! I didn't want to have such awful thoughts about my own cousins--but I am. I have from the first. I can't help it."
"And it's brought on one of your bad spells. Was it the same dream as before?"
"Yes, except that it's not a dream," Frodo answered. "You know that as well as I do. It's my worst memory."
Sam felt a stab of dread in his heart at these words. "I thought you didn't remember what happened there in Mordor at the very end?"
"I don't, not all of it. It's all in bits and pieces. Flashes of horrible things come back to me from out of the dark." Frodo lifted his head. "You've never been seriously ill, have you, Sam? Never been feverish, delirious, out of your head with pain and fear?"
"No." In fact, Sam had never been sick a day in his life.
"It was like that after I was wounded the first time at Weathertop. What I recall of those days, before I awoke in Rivendell, seems like a strange and terrible fever-dream, not something that actually happened to me. If I didn't have the scar and that old ache in my shoulder, I might almost believe it didn't happen. It's the same when I try to remember what I did in Mordor after I passed into shadow. It seems like a bad dream... and it returns to me in just that way."
Frodo's nightshirt had ridden up and he had twisted around in Sam's arms until Sam found it easier to stroke his bare flank rather than down his back. As Sam's hand moved over Frodo's thigh, Frodo quickly covered it with his own; he raised his head, stretching up for a kiss. Mouth sought mouth and, as they met, Frodo led Sam's hand up beneath his nightshirt, around to the small of his back, and wrapped his leg around Sam's hip. Then, still kissing, he reached under Sam's nightshirt to grab him by the haunches and bring them snugly up against each other.
Sam was surprised that Frodo would be in the mood for this so soon after waking from a nightmare, but if it was what he needed in the way of comfort--what would help him to forget again--then Sam was ready to give it.
He unfastened the row of tiny carved-bone buttons that ran down the front of Frodo's nightshirt, then pressed him to the mattress and lowered his head to place a kiss on the bared skin between the parted folds of cloth. Frodo's hands tangled in his hair, guiding him as he nuzzled upwards from chest to throat; when he nibbled on the lobe of one ear, Frodo threw back his head and let out a cry. Sam quickly lay a finger over his lips.
"Hush, love," he whispered. "We've got to be quiet. Somebody might hear."
Chapter 21 by Kathryn Ramage
A tap on the door awoke them the next morning. The two were curled up together--not an unusual situation, until they realized they were not at home.
Sam tumbled out of bed. The sunlight on the slope of the hill outside the window told him that it must be mid-morning. He didn't know where his nightshirt had gotten to, and there was no time to run to his own room to dress, so he plucked up Frodo's robe from the post at the foot of the bed and pulled it on on his way to the door. Frodo, still in bed, pulled the blankets up to his chin.
A maid, the yellow-haired girl Sam had questioned the day before, was standing there when he opened the door; she smiled at him as she entered the room, bearing a tray laden with teapot and cups, a rack of fresh toast, and small pots of honey, butter, and jam.
"The Missus sent this up to Mr. Frodo, as he wasn't down at first breakfast," she announced as Sam took the tray from her. "And she says she hopes he didn't have too bad a night."
"I'm much better, thank you." Frodo peeked out from the blankets. "Please tell Aunt Esme that I'll be down soon."
The maid curtseyed and departed. Sam brought the tray to the bed and set it down at Frodo's feet. Frodo sat up, tucking the blanket around his waist, and took a piece of toast to nibble on while Sam poured out some tea for him. In spite of what he had told the maid, he looked pale and there were shadows under his eyes.
"We shouldn't have slept in so late," he said. "There's too much to be done today. I have to see that Melly talks to the sherriffs, and Merry is set free. Once that's done, I've finished what I set out to do."
"No more investigating?" Sam asked.
Frodo shook his head, and buttered another piece of toast. "It's not my business to catch this murderer, Sam, if there is such a creature. As a matter of fact, I'm beginning to think that the aunties have the right way of looking at this: If it wasn't an accident, then it must have been some wandering ruffian. Not one of us."
This seemed like an odd thing for Frodo to say, but Sam realized he was still afraid that one of the Brandybucks was involved. If there was to be an arrest, then Frodo did not want to be responsible for sending a member of his own family to prison... or the gallows.
"There's something else I've been wanting to speak to you about. It's been on my mind," Frodo went on as he brushed off the toast crumbs that had fallen on his bare chest. "Do you remember what Merry said that first time we visited him at the guardshouse--about how he might be willing to marry a girl who understood how things were between him and Pippin?" And when Sam nodded, "That might work for us too, don't you agree?"
Sam was surprised, and somewhat alarmed, by this question. "Are you thinking of getting married, Frodo? Not- Not to this Miss Melilot?" He couldn't help but recall how vehemently Frodo had defended his pretty cousin last night, nor how much time Frodo had spent in her room.
"No," Frodo laughed, "not Melly. Merry isn't the only one who regards her as a sister. There's no one I intend to marry. But, Sam, you used to be sweet on Rosie Cotton."
"Maybe I was," Sam replied defensively, "but that's all over and done with." Even if he had a wistful thought or two of might-have-been's whenever he saw Rosie at the Green Dragon, he had decided to stay with Frodo and he meant to stick by that. "I've made my choice."
"You would probably be married by now if it weren't for me--if not to Rosie, then to someone else. You'd make a wonderful husband, Sam," Frodo said as he accepted a cup of tea. "Girls like you. You've made quite a stir among the housemaids here at the Hall. Lily... and what's the name of this one?" He nodded toward the door to indicate the maid who had brought in the tray. "Daffy?"
"That's right," Sam answered, blushing. "Her name's Daffodil."
"I saw how she smiled at you."
"What of it?" Sam wasn't certain what to make of this teasing, but he was sure he didn't like it. He'd been pleasant with both girls, all right, but he would never have said more than was ordinary in the way of politeness to either if Frodo hadn't sent him to make inquiries from them! Why was Frodo talking to him like this? And why bring it up now, when he was sitting naked on a bed still mussed from their lovemaking the night before? Was it some joke? If it was, Sam didn't see the point.
"I wouldn't like to keep you from having a normal life," Frodo told him.
"If I'd wanted a normal life, I would've stayed home in the Shire and never gone off with you! I wouldn't-" Sam didn't know how to finish this. Love you as I do? Agree to live with you? Share your bed? Care for you as the most treasured thing I have? All of them were true, and just as fitting.
But Frodo seemed to understand what was left unsaid. "I know, Sam." He smiled softly as he took Sam's hand, and leaned over the tea-tray to give him a quick kiss. "I could never tell you how very glad I am to have you. But it isn't fair that you should spend your best years caring for an invalid." Sam let out a cry of protest, and Frodo responded swiftly, "I'm not well, Sam, and you know it as well as I do. I heard you tell Aunt Esme so last night, and you would never have done that if it weren't true."
Sam began to see what this nonsense was about. "You'll get well again," he insisted. "You just need to rest. Once this business is done and we're back at Bag End, I'm putting you right to bed and you'll stay there for a week! You're in particular low spirits this morning because of that bad turn you had last night. It's made you say things you don't mean. I don't mind looking after you, Frodo. You know I don't! If I'd ever wanted anything more, I would've said so. When you asked me to come live with you, I'd've said, 'No, thank you. I'm going to marry Rosie Cotton if she'll have me.'"
"And if you had, I would've said that both you and she were welcome to come and live with me," Frodo rejoined. "I would say just the same now, Sam: if you want to marry Rosie, and if she is agreeable and understands how it is between you and me..." He squeezed Sam's hand. "Well, I wouldn't mind it either. That's all I wanted to tell you."
"All right," Sam accepted this. "You've told me. Are you done with this foolishness?"
"For the moment," Frodo answered, smiling.
"Then you finish that tea and get washed up and dressed. You'll feel better once you have a proper breakfast in you."
Chapter 22 by Kathryn Ramage
When Frodo went down for second breakfast, he found the aunties gathered in the breakfast nook, chattering excitedly. Saradoc and Merimac were there as well, the latter obviously in a state of shock.
"Frodo!" Aunt Esme went to him as he entered the room, smiling and looking more like her usual girlish self than Frodo had seen during this visit. "How good to see you up! Are you feeling better, dear? You gave us all a very bad fright last night." She gave him a hug, and kept her arm around him as they went toward the others seated at the breakfast table. "Have you heard the news? Merry's to be released!"
"No, I hadn't heard. That's wonderful!" Frodo was surprised. It looked as if his plans for the day were nullified--but he didn't mind it a bit. "What happened?" he asked Saradoc. "Did Melly talk to you?"
"Melilot came to me early this morning," his uncle confirmed. "You know about that, Frodo? The incident... between her and Berilac?"
"She told me about it yesterday. I hoped she would come forward and tell you the truth."
"It can't be true," Merimac murmured, stunned. "Not my Berry."
"I find it hard to believe of Berry myself," said Saradoc. "He always seemed like such a well-behaved lad--but I don't doubt Melilot's word," he added quickly, for Melisaunte was scowling at him. "The girl has no reason to lie. Indeed, her reluctance to speak of it 'til now proclaims the delicacy of her position."
"I wish she had come forward sooner for Merry's sake," Esmeralda said, "but I understand why Melilot wouldn't like to say anything so awful about a cousin."
"And Berry courting her sister!" cried Celie. "Poor Berry. He never knew when to keep his hands to himself."
"Since it looks as if the whole thing was an accident," Saradoc concluded, "I've sent word to the guardshouse that Merry's to be freed as soon as possible. Justice has been done." He looked at his brother as if he expected Merimac to dispute this, but Merimac had no argument to make.
Frodo looked around the room. None of the young people except Celie, Estella, and Merimas were present. "Where's Melly now?"
"She and Mentha left immediately after first breakfast," said Melisaunte. "They both were very anxious to get away to the cottage."
"None of the boys were here for breakfast," Hilda added. "We've no idea where they've gone."
"Will you have some breakfast yourself, Frodo?" Esmeralda offered.
"If you don't mind, Auntie, I'd like to go to Newbury right away," Frodo told her. "If I can't give Merry the good news personally, I'd like to be there when he comes out."
After hastily collecting Sam from the servants' dining hall, Frodo went to the stable and they were soon riding on the road to Newbury.
"So that's it then," Sam said as he urged his pony to keep up with Frodo's. "This business is finished?"
"As far as we are concerned, yes."
"And whether or not there was murder done-?"
Frodo shook his head. "I don't suppose we'll ever find out what truly happened that day beside the river. Everyone seems happy to call Berry's death an accident and since there is nothing to indicate otherwise, we must be satisfied with that. If the sherriffs want to go on hunting for a murderer, let them have their fun as long as Merry is safe and no other Brandybucks are arrested."
When they arrived at the guardshouse, Fatty, Ilberic, and Doderic were standing outside, wearing or carrying the weapons and armor that Merry and Pippin had worn in battle and brought home with them. But there was no fight, nor sign that there had been one; the trio stood on the green in front before the guardshouse talking quietly, and two sherriffs--Hob, who was just going off duty, and his replacement who was just coming in--sat on the bench by the front door, smoking.
"What's happened?" Frodo asked as he and Sam rode up.
"We came to break Merry out of gaol," Doderic explained sheepishly. "From what you said yesterday, it seemed hopeless that Uncle Saradoc would ever change his mind, so we went to see Pippin last night for an emergency meeting. We've been up all night, working out the final details of our plan, and we decided the best time to attack was when one sherriff was handing the keys over to the other. We were going to lock them up in the store-room, and be off before anyone could raise the alarm."
"But when we got here, they said they'd let Merry out an hour ago." Ilberic waved in the direction of the sherriffs.
Hob removed the pipe from his mouth to add, "I had special orders from the Master of the Hall: new facts in the case of Mr. Berilac's death had come to light, and Mr. Merry was to be released. What else could I do but let 'im go? I couldn't go against the Master's wishes, even to oblige you young gentlemen in your game of letting Mr. Merry out yourselves." His companion nodded in agreement.
"And where's Pippin?" asked Frodo. "Wasn't he part of this?"
"Pippin led us," said Fatty. "He's the only one who has any experience in battle. But when he heard the news about Merry, he went off after him. I expect they're back at Crickhollow by now."
"We were thinking of going by the Newbury inn for some breakfast before we go home," said Ilberic. "Want to join us?"
But Frodo had already turned his pony and was headed off in the direction of the road to Crickhollow. With a bemused shrug, Sam followed.
Chapter 23 by Kathryn Ramage
Pieces of Pippin's armor lay scattered on the lawn at Crickhollow, and sounds of singing and bursts of shrill laughter came from the cottage as they approached.
"Sounds like they're having a party," Sam observed as he climbed off his pony. "Should we go in?"
"Yes, why not? They won't mind, and I want to see Merry." Frodo walked up the path through the untended garden. The front door of the cottage had been left ajar, and he went inside.
Merry and Pippin were dancing in the parlor. Arms around each other, the two sang loudly to provide their own music as they bounded back and forth across the floor. They paid no attention to where they were going, and nearly bumped into Frodo as he and Sam came into the room.
"Frodo, hello!" Merry flung one arm around Frodo's neck; the other was still around Pippin. "Come in! We're celebrating my freedom! We would've sent you an invitation, but I wanted a little time with Pip first, you understand. I haven't seen him in days."
He kissed Pippin, then kissed Frodo. When he offered to kiss Sam too, Sam drew back quickly and said, "No, thanks." But Merry was in too effusive a mood to be refused, and Sam got a wet slop on the cheek anyway.
"Well, as long as you're here, join the party!" Merry let go of both cousins and, out of breath, flopped into the nearest chair.
"Have something to drink?" Pippin offered. "There's some ginger-beer in the kitchen left over from last night's special rescue meeting." He went into the kitchen to get it.
Frodo sat down in another chair near Merry's. "It's good to see you out of that wretched place."
"It's good to be out of it!" Merry responded cheerfully.
"Do you know why you were released?"
"New facts came to light that showed I didn't do it, so Hob said, but he didn't say what they were."
"It was Melly," Frodo told him, and noted that Merry looked very interested, but not very surprised. "She came forward and told your father that Berry had accosted her. She didn't kill him, but she did hit him in the head to escape."
"Is that how it happened?" Merry smiled. "Well, then, if Berry fell into the river after that, it was only his own fault--and good riddance!"
"Merry, why didn't you tell me about Melly?" Frodo asked. "You knew she was there, didn't you? You knew that piece of broken comb was hers when I showed it to you."
"I knew," Merry admitted. "Mother gave her those combs as a birthday present years ago." He blew out a puff of breath, and explained in more a mollifying tone, "I didn't tell you, Frodo, because I thought that if Melly was the one to knock Berry into the river, then she must've had a good reason for it. I wasn't eager to be hanged, but I wasn't going to put a noose around her neck either. Still, I'm grateful she came forward at last, and I'm glad to hear she didn't kill Berry after all."
"That was Frodo's doing," Sam informed him. "He convinced her to tell what'd happened."
"Then I'm grateful to him too." Merry grinned at Frodo. "I knew if anyone could do it, it'd be you. I said you'd be a better investigator than any shirriff, didn't I? And I was right!"
"He would've done better if you'd told us the truth yesterday," Sam grumbled.
"I don't see how you could've worked it out more quickly," Merry retorted. "You found out about Melly without my help. The shirriffs never got so far as that. If it were left up to them and their official inquiries, I might've sat rotting in the guardshouse for weeks and who knows how I would've ended up?"
Pippin returned from the kitchen with four mugs of ginger-beer and handed them around.
"But everything's turned out all right," Merry went on. "We won't have to leave the Shire in disgrace," he told Pippin as he took the mug his cousin held out to him.
"I never wanted to go," said Pippin.
"We'll stop at the Hall for dinner tonight and I'll make peace with Father. I'll promise to marry... oh, whoever he likes and whoever'll have me--Estella Bolger, Minda Banks, one of your sisters. How about you, Pip? You ought to have a wife too. One each. That's only fair."
"What about Melly?" Pippin teased. "She's a nice girl, pretty too-"
"And she isn't afraid to knock a fellow over the head if he gets too presumptuous! I daresay a knock in the head might do you good once in awhile, but Melly deserves a better husband. Besides, she's had an eye on your cousin Everard since they were children." Merry gulped his beer and scowled. "I'm not at all sorry Berry's dead now I know what he did to her. If I'd heard about it before, I would've given him a good shove into the river myself, just as the shirriffs said I did."
Frodo glanced apologetically at Sam; so he'd been right about that.
"Perhaps it's what any brother would do in such a case," he conceded. "As a matter of fact, I wonder if Merimas actually saw Melly running up from the river, just as Uncle Dino did--only he knew who it was and kept his mouth shut about it. He was very angry when I started to ask questions about whom he'd seen in the lane that day. He wouldn't do anything to endanger either of his sisters. I wonder if he guessed what'd happened..."
It occurred to Frodo then that there was one other person who might have known that Berry had assaulted Melilot on the day it had happened. Who had to know.
Suddenly, he saw that it was exactly as Sam had said: I'd gladly knock anybody over the head if they went grabbing at my sister. But it wasn't Merry who had claimed that vengeance, nor even Melly's own brother. There was another who, by striking Berilac down, was not only defending her younger sister, but also taking a special revenge of her own against a faithless lover.
"Melly went with Mentha to her cottage earlier this morning," he spoke urgently. "We've got to go and find them. I want to see Mentha."
"Whatever for?" asked Pippin.
But Sam had followed Frodo's thoughts. "You think it's her? It's Miss Mentha?"
"Mentha!" Merry echoed, sitting upright. "Frodo, are you sure of that?"
"I've been wrong before," Frodo admitted, "but I don't think I am this time. Who had a better reason for wanting Berry dead?" He rose from his chair. "I'd like to see her, to have the truth. I'm worried for her--for both of them. If I'm right, what do you think Mentha will do now that Melly's told her story?"
Chapter 24 by Kathryn Ramage
Ivysmial was a half-mile down the lane from Crickhollow, and the four hobbits reached it within a few minutes. Smoke rose in thick plumes from the parlor chimney.
Frodo knocked insistently on the door, and was relieved when Melilot answered. "Melly, where's your sister?" he asked. "I want to talk to her, please."
"She's sleeping," Melilot told him, her eyes flitting from face to face with curiosity and wariness. "This has been horrible for her. You saw how upset she was at the funeral yesterday. I had to get her away from the Hall for awhile..."
"It was Mentha, wasn't it?" blurted Pippin. "She pushed Berry in?"
"Did she, Melly?" Merry asked.
"Hush! She'll hear you." Melilot opened the door to let them into the cottage and led them to the parlor. Even though it was a warm morning, a fire was blazing. As the boys gathered in the room, Melilot sat down on a tuffet by the hearth. Piles of papers tied with ribbons, open boxes, and other clutter lay on the floor, as if she'd been sorting through them when interrupted by their arrival.
Frodo crouched down beside her. "Melly," he began in a low voice, "when you were walking by the river that day, you were coming to see your sister. When you ran from Berry, you came directly here, didn't you?"
"Did you tell her what he did to you?"
"I didn't need to," she answered. "Mentha could tell right away that something was wrong. I was crying. There was mud on my dress, and my hair was pulled about with that broken comb hanging down from one side. I only had to say Berry's name. Mentha took me inside, helped me put myself back together, gave me a cup of chamomile tea. I lay down, there-" she nodded at the rosewood settee where Pippin had taken a seat. "I must have fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew, it was afternoon and Mentha came to wake me. We went back to the Hall together. I didn't even know Berry was missing until later that evening, when I heard that you'd found his boat in the same spot where I'd left him."
"Didn't you think-?" Merry asked.
"No!" she insisted. "It never occurred to me 'til I talked to Frodo last night. Mentha was so calm, at first."
"She was quite calm when we spoke to her," said Pippin. "Remember, Merry? She was standing out in the garden when we came by. It must have been just afterwards."
"She didn't begin to be upset until Berry was found," said Melilot. "When they brought his body to the Hall and the sherriffs said it was murder. I was afraid that someone would find out I'd fought with him and I would have to tell what he'd done, but Mentha told me not to speak a word of what had happened. I was to forget about it. She said she'd look after me. She made me give away the other comb, the one that wasn't broken, to our maid. Even last night, when I began to wonder, I didn't- I didn't want to imagine such a thing, not of my own sister! Then, when we arrived here this morning, she asked me to burn everything she had to remind her of Berry--presents he'd given her, love notes he'd written. I found this-" She picked up a miniature portrait of Berilac lying on the hearthrug and held it up for the boys to see; the face had been stabbed through repeatedly. "The last time I was here, she was working on it to give to him. She knew about Berry's awful reputation for chasing girls--she couldn't help it, after the way he behaved with Celie last summer--but when he started keeping company with Mentha, he promised her that that was all past. She forgave him. But she couldn't forgive this."
"He told you he was going to break it off with her," said Frodo.
"He never told her," Melilot replied. "Maybe he meant to, if I'd done as he wanted, and would've broken her heart just the same. This painting is the only thing that shows how she felt." She tossed the portrait into the fire. "There." She turned to look up at them, lifting her chin defiantly. "It's gone now. There's no proof, and I won't speak against her. She's my sister, no matter what she's done. If you go to the sherriffs, I'll say I did it--I hit Berry harder than I meant to." Then she asked more timidly, "What will you do?"
"I don't want to bring the sherriffs into this," Frodo assured her.
"I don't think we've the right to do anything," Merry added solemnly. "As far as I'm concerned, Berry got what he deserved. It wouldn't be justice-"
A sharp bang in one of the rooms beyond cut him off and made them all jump.
"Mentha?" Melilot leapt up and went to her sister's bedroom, which was empty. "She heard us!"
The window was unlatched. One of the half-circle casements swung free; the other had slammed itself shut. Frodo went to look out. Like the front door, the window was flanked by trellises covered with ivy. The vines that climbed up the trellis on the right side were torn, and the flowers in the bed beneath the window were crushed. "She went out this way," he told the others. "Where would she go?"
But even as he asked, he knew where she had gone. They all knew. The river.
Without another word, they went out of the cottage after her, running down the lane as fast as they could go.
As they reached the lane's end and scrambled up over the raised embankment, they saw her: Mentha had waded out into the shallows of the river. She had not troubled to lift her dress clear of the knee-high water, but was walking slowly, dragging its sodden weight, as she headed toward the deeps.
At the cries of "Mentha!" and "Stop!" behind her, she turned. Her face was white and her eyes wild with despair, but she gave her sister a smile and called out, "You don't have to lie for me, Melly!" Then she threw herself into the deeper water. For an instant, her full skirts and long, dark hair spread out in the water, then she sank out of sight.
Frodo didn't stop to think, but slid down the muddy slope to the water, and dove in.
The instant he'd done it, he realized that it was a very foolish thing. Even in the midday sun, the waters of the Brandywine were too muddy to see anything more than a foot beneath the surface. He could only grope blindly, hoping to catch Mentha's arm or a handful of skirts... but without luck. When he was forced to come up for air, he found he'd been caught the dangerous undercurrents. His head broke the surface; he cried out once. Frantically, his arms flailed to fight the current, but it was too strong.
After all he'd been through and survived, was it to end like this? He would drown at home, so near the place where his parents had died.
The last thing he heard before the water came up over his ears was Sam shouting his name and Merry saying, "Don't be stupid, Sam! You'll only get pulled down too!" Then he went under.
There was a great splash in the water nearby. A hand seized his coat and yanked him back to the surface. As his face cleared the water, an arm went around his collar. "It's all right, Frodo," a voice spoke against his ear. "I've got you."
Sam couldn't swim, but Merry could.
Sam had gone out into the shallows as far as he dared, dragging a large branch that had fallen from a tree overhanging the embankment. He extended it out into the water toward them; Merry caught it and they both clung to it as Sam and Pippin hauled them to safety. Frodo flopped onto the muddy bank and lay sputtering, choking, gasping for breath while Merry pounded his back to get the water out of him and Sam held him close and pushed the wet strands of hair from his face.
"Did you see Mentha?" he asked when he was able to speak.
"No," said Merry. "She went under even quicker'n you did, but she wasn't fighting to stay up."
They looked out over the murky waters, but saw no splashes or ripples on the surface except for the ordinary currents of the river. There was no sign of Mentha.
"She's gone," Melilot sobbed and sank down with her head in her hands.
Chapter 25 by Kathryn Ramage
They arrived at Brandy Hall mud-covered, soaked, and bedraggled, Melilot weeping, Sam half-carrying Frodo, and the other two running ahead to bring news of Mentha.
The family's relief at seeing Merry home again quickly turned to bewilderment and sorrow at this new tragedy. At the sight of her mother, Melilot flew with fresh sobs to Melisaunte's arms. Saradoc welcomed his son and, grudgingly, Pippin too before calling for boats and sending messages to Bucklebury and the nearby farms to summon aid in searching the river.
Frodo was taken to his room, where Sam promptly got him out of his wet and muddy clothes, washed him up, and put him to bed. He was deeply upset and anxious to go out and join the search for Mentha, but he was also still coughing and wheezing from his near-drowning; Sam said he was close to a collapse and refused to let him get up. After a brief struggle, which ended when Sam pinned him easily, Frodo was forced to concede.
For the rest of the day, while the household was in a commotion around him, he lay abed with a cool, damp cloth on his brow and was fed soup and hot tea with honey. Esmeralda was at his bedside as often as Sam, and fussed over him nearly as much. She fussed over Merry too, but since both of "her boys" were at the Hall, she did not have to divide her attention between them.
Frodo remained in bed until noon the next day, when Sam was satisfied that he was fit for the journey home.
"And we'll go in slow, easy stages this time!" Sam insisted. "You've had a hard enough time of it without more tearing about. We won't go no farther than Whitfurrows today."
Frodo made his farewells to the family after luncheon. Few were at the table; most of the ladies had retreated to their rooms and the young lads were out. Esmeralda alone saw him off. They stood at the front door of the Hall while Sam strapped their bags onto their ponies, which Merry and Pippin had brought back from Crickhollow.
"It was wonderful having you here," his aunt said as she took his hands in hers. "I hope you'll visit again soon, under happier circumstances. You're always welcome, Frodo-" she paused, then added softly, "and so is your sweet friend, who looks after you."
Frodo stared at her in surprise. She had called Sam his 'friend,' not his servant. "You know... about me and Sam?" he ventured, the tips of his ears turning pink. He wondered if Sam had told her, as unlikely as that seemed. While the two had gotten on good terms by tending him together, Sam was still in awe of the lady; surely, he wouldn't confide in her on so delicate a subject.
"I can see how very fond he is of you," Esmeralda answered. "I didn't wish to embarrass him, so I asked Merry instead. I thought that if anyone else knew, he and Pippin would."
Of course. Esmeralda had a much more tolerant view of Merry's relationship with Pippin than her husband had. Would it be so odd if she understood his situation as well?
"Does Uncle Saradoc know?" he asked.
"No, I don't believe so," said Esmeralda, "but I think it's best if we don't tell him. Your uncle's had so much to trouble him lately, and after his difficulties with Merry, I'm afraid it will only distress him. We'll keep it our secret." She smiled and lay a gentle hand on one of his cheeks, then kissed the other. "Goodbye, dear. Have a safe journey."
Merry and Pippin were returning to their own cottage, and went with them as far as the lane to Crickhollow. As they rode, Merry spoke of his intention to come and visit Bag End.
"I thought you said we didn't have to go away?" asked Pippin.
"We're not leaving the Shire," Merry replied. "Why should we now Father's relented. Finding out what Berry was really like has come as a shock to him. He doesn't think I'm so awful anymore. Oh, he still wants to see me married off, but he's given up on pushing girls at me for the time being. Estella and Auntie Beryl are going back to Budgeford tomorrow. But Fatty was telling me last night that it might be good for us to get away from Buckland for awhile, and I think he's right. After this mess, I'd like to be somewhere else. Hobbiton will be nice and quiet--that is, if you don't mind giving us a room, Frodo."
"Not at all," Frodo said, somewhat distractedly. "We'll be happy to have you stay."
"We'll come in a week or two," Merry decided, "once you're feeling well enough, and- ah- things here have settled down. We ought to stay at least 'til Mentha's..."
He let the sentence trail off, for they had come to the crossroads; Frodo stopped and left his pony at the gate, then went through on the path to the river.
At the river's edge, he stood looking out at the swift-flowing golden-brown waters, tearing the heads off the tall flowers that grew on the banks and tossing them in one by one to watch them catch in the current and be swept away.
"They haven't found her yet, have they?" he asked his friends when they joined him.
Merry shook his head. "Father has every boat in Buckland out looking for her, and he's called for a search along the banks downriver. It's like Berry's death all over again."
"Except that this is my fault." When the others protested, Frodo insisted, "Yes, it is. Mentha's dead because of my meddling. I ought to have let well enough alone once you were free, Merry. I should have minded my own business. If I had, Mentha wouldn't have come here to throw herself in."
"You don't know that's so," Sam tried to console him. "Who knows what was in her mind?"
"Poor Mentha must've been unbalanced," said Pippin. "What she'd done to Berry--I suppose she couldn't live with it afterwards. It must have driven her mad."
"If her mind had turned, she would probably have done herself a harm sooner or later," Merry added. "The way she had Melly burn her things, it looks- well- like she was planning to do something of the kind even before we came. That was what you were afraid of, wasn't it, when you wanted to go to Ivysmial?"
Frodo nodded. "I'd hoped to stop her. I wanted..." he sighed and tossed in the last of the flowers in his hand. Tears welled in his eyes. "I only wanted to help."
"You did all you could, Frodo," his cousin came forward to put an arm around him. "Nobody blames you."
Frodo leaned against him. "Do they know-?" he asked. "The family at the Hall, do they know what really happened?"
"Some of them must've guessed the truth," said Merry, "but I expect they won't talk about it. We won't. Melly won't either."
"No," Frodo agreed. "No one will say a thing. Why create more of a scandal? The Brandybucks are a very close family. They stick together, protect each other. Everyone will say that Mentha went mad after the death of her lover. They'll call this another 'sad accident'." He left Merry and turned to Sam, who was standing close by; Frodo took his hand. "Let's go home."
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.