Sharp Knives by Kathryn Ramage
Summary: A Frodo Investigates! mystery. When a very dear cousin of Frodo's is accused of murdering her husband and his lover, Frodo takes drastic steps to protect her while he hunts for the true murderer.
Categories: FPS > Pippin/Merry, FPS, FPS > Frodo/Sam, FPS > Sam/Frodo, FPS > Merry/Pippin Characters: Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam
Type: None
Warning: Het Content
Challenges: None
Series: Frodo Investigates!
Chapters: 35 Completed: Yes Word count: 53958 Read: 70720 Published: August 06, 2012 Updated: August 06, 2012
Story Notes:
June 2012

This story takes place in June of 1427 (S.R.).

The earlier Frodo Investigates! mystery in which Toby Clover was murdered and Everard Took and Melilot Brandybuck were married was Too Many Tooks.

Special thanks, as always, to Susan for her beta-reading and comments while this work was in progress.

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

26. Chapter 26 by Kathryn Ramage

27. Chapter 27 by Kathryn Ramage

28. Chapter 28 by Kathryn Ramage

29. Chapter 29 by Kathryn Ramage

30. Chapter 30 by Kathryn Ramage

31. Chapter 31 by Kathryn Ramage

32. Chapter 32 by Kathryn Ramage

33. Chapter 33 by Kathryn Ramage

34. Chapter 34 by Kathryn Ramage

35. Chapter 35 by Kathryn Ramage

Chapter 1 by Kathryn Ramage
Melilot Took smiled wanly at her cousin Frodo Baggins. "You've believed me capable of murder before, Frodo. Twice, in fact. Now it looks as if it may be proved of me at last."

"It can't be," said Frodo. "Not unless you actually did it. You didn't murder Ev and Tibby, did you?"

"No."

"Then your case isn't a hopeless one. Merry and I will do everything in our power to aid you." Frodo had come to Tuckborough as quickly as he could once he'd received Merry's urgent summons. Merry had met him at the Green Hill Inn, five miles away, and they'd ridden together to the Thain's Hall to come to their cousin's rescue. "Merry's talking with Uncle Paladin right now about granting you your freedom," he told her. "You shan't be shut up here in your room any longer. They've already agreed that I am to investigate these murders and find the true culprit." Frodo took a chair near the bed his cousin was sitting on. They were in a pleasant little bedroom in Adelard Took's house--the same room Melly had stayed in during the months before her marriage to Adelard's son, Everard--but now it seemed to Frodo like a prisoner's cell in spite of the flowery print furniture coverings and the late-morning sunlight gleaming through the window's lacy curtains. "If I'm to do that, you must help me, Melly. Tell me about the last time you saw Everard."

"I saw Ev, and Tibby too, the afternoon it happened," she answered. "I went to their cottage. Did you know?"

"Yes. I understood that was why Sherriff Thornbreak thinks you killed them."

Melly nodded. "When Evvy returned to Tuckborough, everyone seemed to think I ought to give him a chance to come back to me. I didn't want him back and he had no desire for a reconciliation either--I knew that even before I spoke to him. But we were still husband and wife, bound together as one until our deaths." She stopped there, and Frodo thought that she might cry, but no tears appeared. "Evvy wrote me at Brandy Hall. He said that his father had given him a place to stay. The Tooks wouldn't have Tibby as a guest here, so they'd set up house for themselves in that little cottage--the same cottage where we had our honeymoon. It's only a few miles from Tuckborough, but far enough away that they wouldn't be seen as a public disgrace. That's how Evvy put it. He asked me to go there and see him. And so I did."

"What did you talk about?"

"Addy. That was why Ev wanted to talk to me. Addy was only a baby the last time Ev saw him. He's grown so big since then, Ev wouldn't know him. Evvy was very sad about that. He wanted to see his son and asked if I would bring Addy to visit him. I agreed that I would. You remember what I once said--no matter what was wrong between Evvy and me, he was still Addy's father and he had a right to see him if he wanted to. I didn't like the idea of my baby being near that Tibby, but I didn't intend to stand in Everard's way where our little boy was concerned."

"Where is Addy now?" asked Frodo. "Did you bring him to Tuckborough with you?"

"He's in the nursery with Pearl's little boys. She's looking after him while..." Melly's face twisted again as if she might begin to cry. "I left them alive, Frodo. Tibby left Ev and me alone in the sitting room so that we could talk privately, but after awhile he came back and said that it was getting close to tea time. He asked if I meant to stay and join them, but it was obvious I wasn't welcome. I don't mean that he literally pushed me out the door, but he made it clear that Ev belonged to him and not to e and I was only there at his sufferance. Ev didn't say otherwise. I didn't want to stay in any case. Everard showed me to the door, and Tibby stood a bit down the hallway to watch me go out. I promised I would bring Addy to the cottage the next day. We said goodbye and Evvy shut the door behind me. That was the last I saw of them."

"Did you see any sign that either of them was frightened or nervous? I know that the Tooks didn't approve of them returning here to live. They wanted Everard to break with Tibby even if he didn't reconcile with you. Do you know if they'd received threats or warnings, or perhaps nasty notes? Did they feel in danger in any way?"

"No, nothing of the sort. I'm sure that Ev felt the weight of his family's disapproval, but if he and Tibby had received any threats or nasty letters, he didn't mention them to me."

"Who do you think killed them, Melly? Do you have any idea?"

"I first thought that they'd done it themselves," Melly answered after a moment. "Oh, Frodo, you should've seen them. They were so pathetic. They'd done a foolish thing by running away together and they both knew it. Evvy tried to put up a brave show when I spoke to him, but he realized that he'd ruined his life. He wasn't in love with Tibby. It was always Toby Clover, Tibby's brother, whom Ev had truly loved. Well, you know how Toby was killed after Ev threw him over to marry me. Everard felt responsible for Toby's death. It ate at the heart of our marriage from the beginning and it destroyed it in the end. I'm sure that he took up with Toby's brother to try and get Toby back, only Tibby wasn't like his brother at all except for the way they looked. Ev had finally realized that, but he felt he couldn't abandon Tibby after all they'd been through together. As for Tibby, I don't believe he cared for Ev at all. He only wanted his revenge on the Tooks for what had happened to his brother. He meant to cling to Ev out of spite, if nothing else. They were stuck with each other. When I heard that they were both dead, I thought they'd decided that the best way out of an impossible situation was to kill themselves together. I've learned since that that isn't possible."

"What about the knife that killed them?" Frodo pointed out. "That wasn't found at hand, was it?"

"No, one of the shirriffs found it in the bushes outside the cottage. I didn't learn about that until later either, when Chief Shirriff Thornbreak came to ask me to account for it."

"Where did it come from?"

Melly shook her head. "I couldn't say. The shirriff showed it to me. It looked like the sort of ordinary pocket knife anyone might carry."

"It wasn't at all remarkable, like Uncle Adelard's wood-carving knives?"

"Oh, no. I couldn't even tell whether or not I'd seen it before. Shirriff Thornbreak seems to think I'd brought it with me when I called on Ev and used it to stab him, then Tibby, and then threw it aside as I left the cottage. He insists that I must've quarreled with Everard about Tibby, but I didn't. He doesn't believe anything I say about the last time I saw them. No one does."

Frodo put his hand over hers. "I do, Melly," he told her. And he meant it.
Chapter 2 by Kathryn Ramage
After he left Melilot's room, Frodo found Thain Paladin and Adelard Took in Adelard's study, which opened onto the garden at the back of the smial. Merry was waiting impatiently with them.

"Well?" asked Merry.

"I can't believe she's guilty of this crime," Frodo answered, then turned to the two elder hobbits. "Call it prejudice on my part, Uncles, but it seems unlikely to me that she's capable of committing such a brutal act." He looked from one to the other. "Surely you don't think she is?"

"I don't like to," Adelard admitted with a note of apology. "Melly is as dear to me as my own daughters. She's the mother of one of my grandsons! But my son is dead and, while it doesn't seem possible that anybody could do such a terrible thing..." He shook his head. "She was there at the time Shirriff Thornbreak thinks it must have happened."

"It has to be considered, Frodo," Thain Paladin added. He also sounded apologetic about it, but remained firm. "She's not under arrest--I could do that much for her--but there's enough against her that I must agree with Sherriff Thornbreak. We ought to keep close watch over her until this matter is cleared up."

"You say she isn't under arrest. Then she isn't officially kept prisoner here?" asked Merry.

"No, lad," said Adelard. "The door to her room isn't locked. Melly has agreed to remain inside this house."

"Must she keep to her room?" asked Frodo.

"No, but she prefers it."

"No small wonder," huffed Merry, "if all the Tooks feel as you do."

Paladin and Adelard looked astonished and even a little hurt, not so much by the statement itself as by Merry's contentious attitude. He was their nephew and they'd known him from infancy. He had always been affectionate, courteous, and deferential toward them as his uncles and elders, until now. Fighting for Melly was obviously more important to him than upholding social niceties.

Frodo felt the same indignation as Merry did over this treatment of their cousin, but he kept his temper better. Merry had called on him specifically to help her by finding the true murderer of Everard and Tibby. If he was to do that, then he would have to work with the Tooks and the local chief shirriff. The Mayor had named him Detective Inspector General for the Shire while he was investigating the stranglings of four women in Hobbiton and Bywater last year; he still had the authority to investigate these murders without Thain's permission, but he would much rather have Paladin's goodwill and cooperation, as well as Adelard's and their families. No good would come of open enmity.

"May I see the cottage please, Uncle Paladin?" he requested politely. "I'd also like to begin my investigation by having a word with Chief Thornbreak to learn what evidence he has against Melly."

Paladin seemed relieved that Frodo wasn't being as hostile toward him as Merry was. "Certainly," he agreed. "I'll send for Chief Shirriff Thornbreak, and he can escort you to the cottage himself."
Chapter 3 by Kathryn Ramage
The cottage where Everard and Tibby had been staying was about three miles south of Tuckborough in a secluded spot among the trees, and was reached by a lane that wound through hills and woods between fields and farms. Low shrubbery had been planted beneath the front windows on either side of the door and colorful flowerbeds flanked the flagstone path. The cottage was the property of Adelard Took; he'd spent his own honeymoon there many years ago and had given it to both of his sons in turn for a few weeks at the beginnings of their own marriages. In spite of the fact that only one of these marriages had turned out to be happy, the cottage had the look of a pleasant home--just the sort of place to start a young couple off on a life of domestic tranquility. Yet the last couple to stay here had met with an extremely tragic end.

Mr. Thornbreak, the Chief Shirriff for the neighborhood of Tookbank and Tuckborough, had come to the Thain's Hall at Paladin's summons and agreed to escort Frodo to the cottage. Thain Paladin hadn't accompanied them, and Merry stayed behind as well, preferring to be near Melly.

"I mean no disrespect to you, Mr. Baggins," Shirriff Thornbreak told him on their way to the cottage. "You helped us before when we had a murder that needed looking into. I'd've never caught on to who killed Toby Clover if it wasn't for you! But just the same, I'm sure I have the one as did this already. I know that doesn't sit right with you, as she's your cousin and the Master o' Buckland's kin. You're bound to go and work it out for yourself. I'll give you a hand since his Thainship asks me to, but you'll see I'm right in the end."

"You may be," Frodo conceded, more to avoid an argument than because he had any doubts about Melilot's innocence. "But I sincerely hope you are not."

Once they were inside the cottage, Thornbreak led Frodo along the short hallway that led from the front door straight back to the kitchen. There were two doors to the immediate left and right of the entrance, leading to the sitting rooms. Halfway along was another door that opened onto a bedroom. "Mr. Everard was here-" Thornbreak indicated the floor before the doorway. "Tibbard Clover was in that sitting room," he gestured to the room to the right, "a-lying under that front window there."

"Who found them?"

"A lad from the baker's in Tookbank. He brought 'em a basket of fresh bread and cakes every morning, per Mr. Adelard's orders."

The bodies had been removed, but bloodstains remained on the wooden floorboards. Frodo knew that Adelard had taken Everard's body home to be laid out in the parlor, per traditional hobbit funerary custom. "Who has Tibby's body now?" he asked. "Where did they take him?"

"'Twas his sister, Mrs. Thursk--Miss Clover that was. You remember her, Mr. Baggins, from that other Clover business."

"Tansy? Yes." Frodo recalled Tansy Clover as a dark-eyed and wary girl, standing with fierce protectiveness over her father until the last. "I didn't know she was still in Tookbank."

"That she is, Mr. Baggins. After Mr. Clover passed on, she went to live with some relatives of hers--the Steephills that were her grandmother's kin, not any Clovers. They've passed on since, and she's the only one o' that family left now. She married one of our local lads, Rudmer Thursk, a wood-carver, a year or two back."

Frodo looked over the bedroom first. The bedclothes were rumpled and there were distinct dents in the feather mattress and pillow, indicating that someone had been lying there recently. Everard, presumably, since he'd been found at the bedroom door. There were no signs of a struggle. "Was the front door open?"

"It was shut, Mr. Baggins, but not locked. Anybody could go in or out."

"Was there blood on the doorknob?"

"None that we saw."

"Did you discover any signs that the murderer washed up here? Was there bloody water in the wash-basin in the kitchen or bathroom? Wet or stained towels?"

"No. Somebody'd washed up some tea-things in the kitchen and they was laid out on a towel. There wasn't no blood to be seen in there."

"How very odd," Frodo mused. "And there's such a lot of blood out here. How did the murderer manage to keep clean? Surely he didn't walk away covered in it. Tell me, Sherriff, how were Ev and Tibby lying when they were found? Can you give me an idea of their positions? Was Everard facing the bedroom door--like so?--" Frodo stood in the doorway, looking into the bedroom, "or was his back to it?"

"He was facing out, Mr. Baggins, just the opposite of the way you are, and he was stabbed afore. Like he was lying a-bed and come to the door. I reckon the murderer came in the front door and chased down Tibby first, then when Mr. Everard woke at the noise and got up to see what was going on, she got 'm too."

Frodo tried to ignore the sherriff's use of the feminine pronoun. "And Tibby?"

They went into the sitting room, which was next to the bedroom where Everard had last lain. Shirriff Thornbreak pointed at the dark, dried pool of blood beneath the large, round window overlooking the cottage front. "He was a-lying curled up there, Mr. Baggins, with his hand on his chest like he was trying to stop the blood from coming out. It was all over his hands and shirt."

"Where was the knife?"

"In the bushes just outside. I'd say it was flung away as the murderer went out."

Frodo went to have a look at the shrubbery under the sitting-room window next. It hadn't rained since the night of the murder, and he found dark droplets of dried blood on the shrubbery leaves and on the grass beneath. More curious still, there were also dried drops of blood on the windowsill.

"Was this window open or closed when you first found Tibby, Shirriff?" he asked.

"Open." Thornbreak looked at the bloodstains on the sill. "You're right, Mr. Baggins. She must've tossed the knife out through the window afore she run off."

"But you see, don't you, Sherriff, that that makes no sense?" Frodo pointed out. "None of what we've seen matches your idea of what happened if Mrs. Took is the murderer. I understand that it's your belief that Melilot Took came here to the cottage to see her husband, bringing a knife with her, and at some point they quarreled and she stabbed him and Tibby. It couldn't have happened that way. Everard was probably in bed--you've said so yourself. Was he in his nightshirt when you found him?"

Thornbreak nodded. "He was wearing a nightshirt, Mr. Baggins."

"Do you think he was conversing with his estranged wife while he was in bed?"

"He might've been, Mr. Baggins," Thornbreak answered. "Poor Mr. Everard mightn't've been feeling well, and wasn't up to getting up and dressed to talk to her."

This scenario contradicted what Melly had told him--and must also have told the shirriffs--about conversing with Everard in the sitting room, but Frodo didn't press this point. Shirriff Thornbreak didn't believe Melly's story anyway. Instead, he said, "You told me that Everard must've heard Tibby being attacked, rose from his bed to see what was going on, and was stabbed himself. Do you believe that Mrs. Took, after talking with her husband, went into the other room to murder Tibby first, then came back to kill Everard?"

"She might've," replied Thornbreak. "She mightn't've meant to kill her husband at all, only Tibby, 'til Mr. Everard came out. He saw her with the knife and Tibby's blood on her hands, so she had to get rid o' him too."

"If that were true, then surely Everard would've guessed she was responsible for Tibby's death as soon as he discovered his friend's body, even if he hadn't seen her kill him," Frodo countered. "Murdering Everard as well as Tibby wouldn't save her from being implicated in the first crime. Besides, Chief Thornbreak, if she had committed both murders in that way, why would she go back into the sitting-room to dispose of the knife through the window rather than head straight out the front door with it?"

This conundrum stumped Thornbreak for more than a minute, then his furrowed face cleared and his expression brightened. "Maybe Tibby wasn't dead yet and she had to go back in to finish 'm off, Mr. Baggins! Then, the window being wide open, she threw it out that way, wanting to be rid of it as quick as possible."

Frodo didn't attempt to refute this new theory. While he couldn't imagine his cousin frantically dashing from room to room, bloody knife at hand as she made sure that she finished off both her victims, he recognized that he needed more than his own faith in Melly to convince the Chief Sherriff that he was wrong. He needed facts. Though these rooms had given him some promising ideas of his own, there was little more to be gathered here; he must talk to more people concerned in the matter, especially those who were closest to Tibby and Everard and those who might have wanted one or the other dead.

Instead of answering Thornbreak, he said, "I'd like to speak to Mrs. Thursk, please. Do you know where she lives, Sherriff? Can you take me to her?"
Chapter 4 by Kathryn Ramage
The last time Frodo had seen Tansy, she'd been a slender girl of about thirty. She was certainly older now and thicker about the waist. Frodo wondered if she were pregnant. She'd already given birth to at least one child, for he heard the prattling voice of a toddler from somewhere within the Thursk smial high on the hillside above Tookbank. But those large, soft and stormy brown eyes that he associated with the Clover family remained the same. Today, they were pink-rimmed with tears as she opened the door and regarded him suspiciously.

"Mrs. Thursk?" Frodo began. "I don't know if you remember me-"

"'Course I remember you, Mr. Baggins," she answered shortly. "I'm not like to forget, am I? You looked into our Toby's murder and found out it wasn't the Tooks who did it. I guess you're here now to prove it wasn't Mrs. Melilot Took as killed Tibby and her husband. You an't here to look upon Tibby."

Frodo admitted that he hadn't come to view her brother's body. "Do you believe that Mrs. Took did it, Mrs. Thursk?" he asked.

Tansy gave him a sullen, glowering look before she replied, "I don't know her, Mr. Baggins. I never set eyes on her, as far as I know."

"Do you believe that I'm interested in finding the person who did this, regardless of whom it is?" Given Tansy's attitude, Frodo expected her to question his motives--but to his surprise, she nodded.

"I hear things about you, Mr. Baggins," she told him. "You got famous looking into murders all over the Shire since you was here last. I know you won't lie for the Tooks if one of them done it, nor even for somebody that's closer kin to you. I don't blame you anymore for what happened to my dad, and I don't blame his Thainship either. He looked after me after Dad died, 'til I married Rudmer and found a home o' my own. But all the same, we should never've come here from Oatbarton. Maybe the Tooks never meant us harm, but they've been the death of all my family except me."

"I'd like to talk to you about Tibby," Frodo requested. "Do you mind, Mrs. Thursk? May I come in?"

She remained wary, but stepped away from her door to allow him to enter. Chief Shirriff Thornbreak, who had stood waiting at the garden gate, tugged the brim of his cap and informed Frodo that he was going back down to the high street; Frodo could find him having his luncheon at the Bullroarer's Head when he was done here. Frodo thanked the Shirriff and went inside.

Tansy escorted him past the door of the best parlor, where Tibby lay, and into a smaller sitting room. The child Frodo had heard from outside was seated on the circular rag-rug at the center of the room, playing with a jointed wooden doll. A young hobbit, whom Frodo assumed to be Rudmer Thursk, rose from the settee by the hearth as his wife brought her guest in.

"Who's this, Tansy?"

"Mr. Frodo Baggins, the detective."

Rudmer gaped at Frodo. "I've heard of you, Mr. Baggins. You're famous the Shire over. And you're looking into this awful business with Tansy's brother and Mr. Everard? But everybody says it's-"

"Rud, will you take the little un and put her down for her nap?" Tansy interrupted her husband. "She's looking a mite weary and like to start crying, and Mr. Baggins here wants to ask me about Tibby."

Rudmer took the hint and picked up his little daughter, who didn't look in the least tired or ready to cry, and carried her away to one of the back rooms. Tansy sat down on the settee and invited Frodo to have a seat.

Frodo got straight to the point. "Mrs. Thursk, I'm sure you've given a lot of thought these last few days to who would want to kill your brother. If you don't believe it was my cousin Mrs. Took-"

"I didn't say that!" Tansy corrected him. "Only as I'm not so sure she did it as some folk hereabouts are."

Frodo smiled. "You think it was one of the Tooks."

Her answer again surprised him. "I'd like to say so, Mr. Baggins, but I can't, not with Mr. Everard killed the same as poor Tibby. You know how the Tooks would've liked to see Tibby dead any time since he and Mr. Everard ran off, but that was so Mr. Everard'd come home and behave himself like a proper gent. Oh, some of them'd kill my brother soon enough if they had the chance, but I can't see 'em killing one o' their own no matter what he'd done. So it can't be them."

This was an encouraging sign. If she wasn't ready to accuse the Tooks simply out of old resentments, then Tansy was more likely to give him her honest opinions and perhaps even some helpful information. "Who then?"

Tansy shook her head. "I don't know that there's anybody that'd mean harm to both Tibby and Mr. Everard."

"Did your brother come here to Tookbank after he and Everard returned to this neighborhood?" asked Frodo. "Do you know if he talked to anyone, any of his old friends, or if he had any quarrels?"

"He came up the once, right after Mr. Everard and him came home the week before last. Now, Tibby was never one for writing. Oh, he knew his letters right enough and could read when he wanted to," she added quickly, lest Frodo think her brother was illiterate. "Only, he used to say he never saw much use in it. Such things was for high-born folk like the Tooks and yourself. I never heard from him while he was up north. I only knew he was coming back when I heard talk in the town about Mr. Everard. His dad, Mr. Adelard, had a letter from him. Then there was a knock at the door and Tibby was standing there!" She was growing more comfortable as she talked about her brother. "'Twas a surprise to me, but I was that glad to see him after so long away and no word. You want to know if there was a quarrel, Mr. Baggins? Well, Tibby told me he stopped on his way to see me to have a half-pint at the Bullroarer's Head, where he always used to go, only they wouldn't have him there. Turned 'm off straight away! He didn't come into town after that."

"But you saw him again? Did you go to the cottage to visit him?"

"That's right. I went two or three times," Tansy answered. "Rud said he didn't like me walking out so far by myself when I'm expecting, but it was my going to see Tibby he didn't like. He didn't like it when Tibby came here that once either, but I told him it was to be one or t'other. Nobody was going to stop me seeing my brother." She spoke with the same fierce family loyalty she'd once shown for her father; Frodo had the impression that the emotions that had tied her to her late brother were stronger than those that bound her to her husband. Even now, Tibby was still the more important of the two for her. He wondered, however, if Tibby had cared as much for his sister.

"May I ask what you talked about? I understand that it may have been personal, but it might also help me to understand why he and Everard were killed."

"I don't mind," Tansy said with a shrug. "'Twasn't particularly private. When Tibby first came, he said how he missed me. I showed him the baby and told him there was another little un on the way. He asked about Rud, and told me he was happy to see one of us Clovers was getting on and not stuck in a misery."

"'In a misery'," Frodo repeated these last words. "Is that precisely what he said, Mrs. Thursk?"

"He'd just come from the Bullroarer's, like I told you, Mr. Baggins, and he was upset. I expect he was feeling like he didn't have a friend in all of Tookbank 'cept for me. Rud came home then, while me and Tibby was talking. He used to be Tibby's friend in the old days, but he wasn't happy to see him back again. Rud didn't say so, but both Tibby 'n' me could see how it was. Tib said he wouldn't stay where he wasn't wanted, so he took himself off."

"And when you called at the cottage?"

"Nothing much," said Tansy. "We were just glad to see each other again. If it wasn't for me, Tibby said, he wouldn't've bothered staying on. He didn't want to come back to this part o' the Shire, only Mr. Everard wanted to see his family and his little boy and Tibby was bound to come too. He wanted them to go back north soon as they could. He said so to Mr. Everard when I was there."

"What did Everard say to that?" Frodo wondered.

"He told Tibby they'd talk about it later--meaning, after I was gone. I don't know if they did or not, but they were still there the next time I went to see Tibby."

"When did this happen, Mrs. Thursk?"

"Not more'n a week ago," said Tansy. "They wasn't here that long before Mrs. Took came."

"How well did you know Everard?"

"I never saw much of him," she answered, "'cept as the friend to my two brothers."

"Did it surprise you when he and Tibby ran away together?" Frodo asked.

Tansy shook her head. "It surprised lots o' folks hereabout, 'specially the Tooks, but I knew something o' the sort was in the wind. After Mrs. Took went off to Buckland with their little boy, Mr. Everard used to come to see Tibby. They'd go out for ales together at the Bullroarer's and Tib wouldn't come back all night. I guessed what they was up to."

"Did your brother-" Frodo hesitated, for this was a delicate question. "Did Tibby ever talk to you about his friendship with Everard Took before they went away? Did he leave you with the impression that he was genuinely fond of Everard, or that he only took up with him in order to get revenge on the Tooks?"

"He never said a word to me one way or another," Tansy answered, "but there was something in the way he'd say Mr. Everard's name sometimes that made me think he didn't like him much. It wouldn't surprise me if he was leading Mr. Everard on to get back at the Tooks over Toby." Her eyes flashed. "But Mr. Everard wasn't in love with Tibby neither. He'd've cast Tibby off if he could--only he couldn't!"

"No, he wasn't in love either," Frodo agreed. 'Stuck in a misery' seemed like the perfect description for their mutual situation, but it got him no closer to learning who had murdered them.
Chapter 5 by Kathryn Ramage
Tansy had only mentioned one person in Tookbank who had quarreled with her brother since his return. That hobbit's name hadn't been spoken--in fact, Tansy had said "they" had refused to serve Tibby at the Bullroarer's Head--but Frodo knew precisely whom she was referring to. Only the proprietor of the tavern, Mr. Brundle, had the authority to send unwanted customers away.

Once he left the Thursk home, Frodo headed down the lanes on the steep hillside toward the Tookbank high street, and entered the Bullroarer's Head. He'd been in the tavern many times during his visits to his Took relations, and Mr. Brundle recognized him the moment he approached the bar to order a half-pint of the house's best ale. Mr. Brundle was typical of inn-, tavern-, and alehouse-keepers throughout the Shire; he wasn't the most quick-witted of hobbits but was always welcoming to strangers, even-tempered, and inclined to gossip. His greeting of Frodo was friendly enough, but his genial expression grew more somber when Frodo broached the subject of the recent murders.

"Ah now, I should've guessed that's what brought you here, Mr. Baggins," he said ruefully as he filled a mug from one of the enormous kegs behind the bar and set it down in front of his customer. "Chief Thornbreak said you was in town when he came by for his bite o' lunch." Thornbreak was in fact seated at a table nearby, finishing up a ham and cheese pie with his own half-pint of ale. "Besides, you never come in alone before, only when Mr. Pippin or one o' the other lads was with you. "

Frodo admitted that it was so. "I hope you'll be able to answer a few questions, Mr. Brundle."

"Happy to, Mr. Baggins, only I don't see how I can. I an't set eyes on poor Mr. Everard since he come home again, nor that wife o' his."

"But you did see Tibby, didn't you?"

Brundle grunted an acknowledgment. "That lad, now, I could've told you ages ago he was headed for a bad end--didn't I always say so, Chief?" He raised his voice as he directed this question toward Thornbreak.

"He was a wrong un!" Chief Shirriff Thornbreak shouted back in agreement. "Naught but trouble."

"That's so. Trouble and trouble, Mr. Baggins, from the first time he come in here. Always took more ale 'n he should, and it only got worse after that other Clover lad, Toby, got killed. Drunk in the streets he was, as often as not, and the shirriffs'd take him in to sleep it off. Chief Thornbreak'll tell you tales. Spoiling for fights too. He hit Mr. Pippin once, who was sitting at that table over there, minding his own business and enjoying a half-pint o' our best with some other Took-lad, a cousin o' his from up north. If it wasn't for the other lad being ready to pull Tibby off, he might've done Mr. Pippin a harm! I had to put 'em all out after that, for the sake o' the peace, but I told Tibby right then that he wasn't welcome back if he couldn't behave himself proper. I'm used to lads getting tipsy, and nobody minds a bit o' rowdiness nor rough-house now and again, but there's a limit."

None of this came as a surprise Frodo; he was already familiar with Tibby's drunken antics of old. "Is that why you refused to serve Tibby when he last came in?" he asked.

"Partly that," Mr. Brundle answered. "The lad was trouble, as I was just telling you, Mr. Baggins. I didn't want no more of it here at my house. But even if Tibby wasn't feeling up to starting a fight this once, he might've been in for one anyway. Feeling's been hard against 'm since he run off with Mr. Everard and brought scandal on the Tooks. There's lots of folk here in Tookbank on the side o' the Tooks, and that's no surprise! Where'd we be without his Thainship? Where'd I be if it wasn't for Mr. Pippin and the other Took-lads coming here regular-like for their drop o' ale instead o' going to the Hillibanks pub or Tunneltop? I don't want no fighting, but it's the Tooks I got to think of too. I couldn't have 'em taking against me over that Clover lad."

Frodo murmured sympathetically to show that he appreciated the tavern-keeper's delicate position. Mr. Brundle seemed like an unlikely suspect, but he might still provide some information. "You said that Tibby was always spoiling for fights," he ventured. "Who else besides Pippin did he fight with?"

Instead of providing a wealth of gossip and tales of outrages committed in his public room, Mr. Brundle suddenly became circumspect. "'Twas a long time ago, Mr. Baggins," he answered. "I don't know as I remember, not the particulars. It didn't take much to start Tibby off. And besides, it can't matter now, can it? It wasn't anybody that Tibby quarreled with here that went over to Mr. Adelard's cottage to kill him and Mr. Everard."
Chapter 6 by Kathryn Ramage
When he returned to the Thain's Hall, Frodo found the Thain seated in the best drawing room with his wife, son, two daughters, their husbands, and Adelard. Merry was with them, standing by the large, circular window overlooking the garden. They weren't actually arguing when Frodo entered the room, but he felt certain that he'd interrupted a heated dispute. Merry looked stormy, Lady Eglantine indignant, Pippin unhappy, and the others in the room appeared extremely uncomfortable at being haplessly caught in the midst of it.

"Ah, Frodo!" Ferdi Took, who was married to Pippin's youngest sister Peri, leapt up to greet him with obvious relief. "I'd heard you were here. Uncle Paladin said you'd gone off with Chief Thornbreak to have a look at the- ah- cottage."

"You were gone quite awhile," said Adelard. "Did you find anything that would help Melly?"

"I'm quite sure now that she couldn't have committed these murders, not in the way Chief Shirriff Thornbreak believes she did," Frodo answered. Since the Thain's family were Everard's nearest relations, he refrained from providing details about drops of blood; he would share these pieces of information with Merry later. Instead, he continued, "With that in mind, I went to Tookbank to see if I could find anybody else who had reason for wanting either Tibby or Everard dead. I had an idea about why they were murdered, and I wanted to speak to Tansy Thursk."

"That girl hates us all," said Pearl, Pippin's eldest sister. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least if she claimed we had murdered her brother."

"She might've," Frodo agreed, "but she can't imagine that you'd want Evvy dead too. After I spoke with her, I went to the Bullroarer's. According to Mr. Brundle, Tibby had a way of making himself disliked long before he and Ev ran off together. He particularly mentioned the time Tibby attacked you, Pip--" he turned to give Pippin a small smile.

Pippin smiled tremulously in return. "And Di jumped on his back and thumped as hard as she could to make him stop."

"Yes, only Mr. Brundle still believes that Di was some Took 'lad' he didn't know." Miss Diantha Took was in fact now Pippin's betrothed; Brundle would be shocked to learn that the friendship between the future Thain and his presumptive Lady had begun during a brawl in his own tavern. The current Lady, Pippin's mother, wasn't pleased about it and frowned as Pippin spoke fondly of the willful young girl. "I gather that that wasn't the only brawl Mr. Brundle remembers, but he refused to give me what he calls 'the particulars' of any other fights Tibby had. According to him and Chief Thornbreak, all of Tookbank considered Tibby a bad lot."

"So he was," said Reginard, Pearl's husband and Everard's elder brother. "It was a bad day for us all when those Clovers came to live in Tookbank."

"Tansy agrees with you," Frodo told him. "Only, her family seems to have gotten the worst of it."

"The worst!" cried Reg. "You can say that, after I've lost a brother?"

"She's lost both of hers, Reg, and her father as well. Whatever the Clovers have done, they've paid dearly for it."

Reginard sputtered, but he couldn't deny that this was true. His father laid a hand on his arm and asked, "What was your idea, Frodo?"

"That Tibby is at the bottom of this. No one seems to have borne a grudge against Evvy." He was aware that the one person who might fit into this category was shut up in her bedroom in the smial next door, and that everyone else in the room was aware of it too. "In spite of the scandal, Tookbank speaks well of him. But someone might easily have had a reason to kill Tibby. What I saw at the cottage supports my idea: The murderer came for Tibby. Ev was abed in the other room. Either the murderer didn't know he was there, or thought that Ev was asleep so that he could kill Tibby without being seen. But Ev must've heard his friend being killed and came out to see what was going on. He saw Tibby's murderer, and had to be killed too." This theory didn't fit everything Frodo had observed at the cottage, but he was certain that it was closer to what had actually happened than Shirriff Thornbreak's theory about Melly going on a bloody rampage. "May I ask, have any of you been to the cottage?"

Peri let out a horrified squeak. "No! Not since- No, I couldn't bear it."

"I meant during the week or so after Ev and Tibby returned," Frodo explained gently. "Did any of you go and visit them while they were living there?"

"I did," Adelard volunteered. "I had to make the cottage ready for them, once Everard wrote to me that he was coming home and wanted a place where they could both stay. He knew that Tibby wouldn't wish to stay at my house and he didn't mean to be parted from Tibby. The cottage seemed the best solution. On the night they arrived, Everard called upon me to fetch the keys."

"Was Tibby with him, Uncle Addy?" asked Frodo.

"No- That is, Tibby had accompanied him, but he stayed out with their ponies at the stable. He refused to come into the house--whether because he felt he wouldn't be welcome, or because he couldn't stand to enter a Took's home, I couldn't say. Evvy didn't stop long regardless, but left once I'd given him the cottage keys. I called on them the next day to see how they were getting on. Ev gave me a letter he'd written to Melly, to let her know he was in the vicinity of Tuckborough. I saw Tibby then too, Frodo, but didn't speak very much to him. I went again three times after that, to bring Everard news and letters from Melly in reply to his, and- well- simply to see him. I'd missed him while he was away."

"He didn't seem ill to you, did he? On that last occasion, nor any time before?"

"No. A bit low in spirits, perhaps, but quite well."

"I went with Adelard on one occasion," said Paladin. "It was the day Melilot's second reply to Everard arrived, telling him that she and little Addy were coming. We rode out to deliver it to him. I was there when he gave it to the lad and saw Everard read it, but I never saw Tibby then nor at any other time since their return. Everard wasn't ill that day."

"I went once too," said Reg, "just after Ev came home. It must've been before your visit, Uncle Paladin. Ev was glad to see me, but Tibby glowered as if he wanted to push me out the door. Since I'd gone specifically to try and bring Ev to his senses and break off with the boy, I can't say his attitude wasn't a natural one for him to take. As if anything about that unnatural creature could be natural! Well, Ev couldn't be made to see sense, so Tibby had his way in the end. I left them there."

"I went," Pippin spoke next. "Ferdi and I rode down together. We thought that Ev ought to know we were still his friends and somebody was on his side."

"Tibby and his brother used to be friends of mine, years ago when Ev and I first met them," Ferdi added. "I would've been happy to make friends again, but Tibby wouldn't have it. He wasn't any more welcoming to us than he was to Reg."

"He hated all the Tooks, Frodo," Pippin concluded.

"He blamed us all for his brother's murder," said Pearl. "No Took had a hand in that, but he and his sister held us responsible."

Lady Eglantine had been frowning in disapproval for some minutes and had actually opened her mouth when her son spoke of being on Everard's side. Now, she announced, "Well, I never went near the place, nor would I hear of my daughters going. Much as we might've wished to see Everard again, we did our best not to acknowledge what was going on at that cottage. But why ask us these questions, Frodo? Surely, you can't suspect one of Everard's own family? Even the wretched Clover girl doesn't go so far as that."

"No, Aunt Eglantine," Frodo assured her, although he would be ready to do so if he saw any indication that one of the Tooks was implicated. "I'm only trying to form a picture of what happened between the time Ev and Tibby returned home from the north and when they died. Who they saw and talked with. What about Melly? Did she only go to the cottage that one time?"

Some of the Tooks looked uncomfortable at the question, but Adelard answered, "Yes, she'd just arrived the previous night. I sent a note to Ev after first breakfast, and we received his reply at little later that morning by way of one of the delivery boys who carried groceries to the cottage. Melly rode out to see him that afternoon."

"Melly only left Brandy Hall the morning before," said Merry. He'd begun to look less like a thundercloud since Frodo had come in, and was listening carefully to everything his cousin said. "She hardly had time to do anything at all."

"Did you accompany her from Brandy Hall?" Frodo asked him.

"No, Melly drove the trap herself. I only came here after Ev was killed. Pip wrote me that the Chief Sherriff was going to arrest Melly for murder, and I wrote you, then rode as fast as I could to see if I could put a stop to it. You see that I haven't yet."

Frodo turned to address the group in general. "I'd like to ask you all about Melly's activities that night," he announced. "She tells me that she saw Everard that afternoon and left the cottage shortly before tea time. Did she return in time for tea?"

"She did," said Pearl, and Adelard nodded to confirm this. "We had our tea in the garden parlor next door. Melly said that she meant to take little Addy to see his father the next day."

"She didn't appear nervous or upset in any way?" asked Frodo.

"Not that I observed," said Adelard.

"She wasn't when I saw her later," Pippin declared definitely.

"Was she wearing the same dress she'd had on when she'd gone to call on Evvy, or did she change her clothing before joining you for tea?"

"It was the same dress," said Pearl. "White, with dark blue flowers. She came straight from the stables into the house."

"Are you suggesting that she might've gotten blood on her clothes, Frodo?" Merry demanded.

"I'm sorry, but you know such questions must be asked," Frodo responded. "Even if it's Melly." He waited a moment, giving Merry time to accept this unpleasant fact, before he asked, "She didn't go out again that night?"

The Tooks, some eagerly, some reluctantly, confirmed that Melilot had not been out of sight of at least one person for more than a few minutes between her return from the cottage and the time she went to bed. She'd spent the hours between tea and dinner in the nursery with her son, where the other children and a nursery-maid were present, then had dined with her father-in-law, Pearl, and Reginard before they'd all come next door to join the Thain's family.

"Then she couldn't have gone back to the cottage before eleven o'clock, when she retired to her room," Frodo concluded. "Can anyone confirm that she stayed in her room all night, or did anyone see her leave it?"

No one had observed either, "But Chief Thornbreak seems to think that the murders occurred much earlier in the evening," said Adelard. "He claims that they must've been committed during her one visit to the cottage, not that she returned in the night. The- ah- bodies..."

The Thain took Frodo by the arm and drew him close enough to speak into his ear. "They were completely stiff and cold when they were discovered the next morning," he said softly, in order to avoid distressing Adelard and other members of his family who had cared for Everard with this grisly information. "If they'd been killed in the middle of the night, Thornbreak tells me, they wouldn't have been so far advanced in death."

"So even if Melly can't account for her whereabouts that night, it doesn't matter, Uncle? It's only the late afternoon and early evening hours that are of concern? From perhaps four in the afternoon until eight?"

"Yes, that's right."

Merry had also drawn closer to hear the Thain's murmured conversation with Frodo. At this point, he broke in with, "Now that you've heard what Frodo has to say, Uncle Paladin, will you change your mind?"

The Thain shook his head. "It's a promising beginning, but I need more than an idea of Frodo's before I can consider it. I must have some sort of proof, either that she couldn't possibly have committed this crime or someone else is guilty."

Frodo looked from one to the other. "Change your mind? About what? What were you talking about before I came in?"

"I want to take Melly and Aderic back to Buckland with me," Merry told him.

"And I can't allow it," the Thain added. "Until this matter is thoroughly cleared up, she must stay here."

"She belongs to Buckland," said Merry, in dogged tones that told Frodo this was something he'd already said at least once before. "She may have married a Took, but she lives at the Hall. She's a Brandybuck by birth--my kinswoman and one of my own people. I have a sworn duty to protect her." As head of the Brandybuck family and Master of the Hall, Merry held a position that was the equal, if not the superior, of a Thain and was as great a power within his own domain as his uncle was in Took lands. He might be in the Thain's domain now, but Merry didn't intend to be intimidated by the older hobbit nor behave as if he were begging for favors.

And Merry was not only defending someone he considered one of his Buckland subjects and a kinswoman naturally under his protection, but a young woman he'd grown up with from infancy in the Brandy Hall nursery. Like Frodo, he considered Melly almost a sister. The Brandybucks were always close and protective of each other; any one of them would fight for Melly as Merry was doing if they were present.

"I would rather she was safely out of Tuckborough," he continued. "She'll be in my custody. As Buckland's magistrate, I have that right over my own people. If Frodo happens to find any reason why she has to come back here, I'll escort her. I'll rely on his judgment. You know he's more impartial than any of us."

"Of course, you'd say that, Merry Brandybuck," said Eglantine. "By 'impartial,' you mean favorable to you and your family. Frodo's as much a Brandybuck as any who bear that name, and the two of you live in each other's pockets!"

"If you mean to imply that I'll conduct a dishonest investigation to favor my Brandybuck relatives, Aunt Eglantine, that isn't so," Frodo responded, trying not to be insulted by this slight upon his integrity. "I believe Melly's innocent of any crime. I've made no secret of that, and I hope to prove I'm right to Uncle Paladin's satisfaction. But if I do find anything that suggests I'm wrong and she might've killed Ev and Tibby after all, I won't suppress it simply because she's my cousin and I'm fond of her. I've suspected many people I'm fond of, and closer relations too."

"I'm sure she didn't mean it that way--did you, my dear?" Paladin turned to his wife. "We're all distressed by this tragedy and our feelings are overwrought. After the great service you've done for the Shire over these last few years, Frodo, no one could question your sense of duty to justice."

But Lady Eglantine felt she had more to say. Not only was the quarrel Frodo's entrance had interrupted bubbling up again, but older resentments were resurfacing. "Oh, I'm certain Frodo's successes are praised from one end of the Shire to the other. Has there ever been a hobbit more talked about for his adventures--and more besides! You think quite highly of yourselves, don't you, you and Merry Brandybuck and that gardener friend of yours? You go about meddling in other people's affairs whether you're invited to or not, digging up scandalous secrets and leading impressionable young hobbits astray. Well, I'm happy to say that that's none of my business, except that you've made it your business to mislead and corrupt my son."

Lady Eglantine was always the most reserved and refined of hobbits and normally could scarcely bear to allude to her son's relationship with Merry or any similar 'unpleasantness.' To hear her speak so bluntly came as a shock. Frodo was stunned. Pippin seemed more bewildered by this accusation than anything else. The other Tooks in the room looked acutely embarrassed.

"Mother," Pearl murmured reprovingly.

"I say, Mother Eg, that's a bit harsh," said Ferdi.

"Aunt Eglantine, you're mistaken," Frodo protested. "Pippin and I have never been more than friends." Pippin nodded emphatically to confirm this. "I've never touched him-"

"Oh, I don't mean that," the Lady said with a note of extreme distaste. "What you've done, Frodo Baggins, is far worse. You taught him that the sort of wild and adventurous life that the Tooks used to lead in Old Gerontius's day under the influence of that wizard-friend of yours was the life a modern, respectable Took ought to have. You took him out of the Shire on dangerous quests, sometimes for months on end so that we weren't certain if he was alive or dead. Because of you, he fought in battles that should've been of no concern to him. It's a wonder he did come home safely in the end. And you do it still! You encourage him to risk further danger by inviting him to join you on these investigations of yours. Every time you write him about the latest one, he dashes off. When you summoned him this midwinter past, he came home with terrible tales about running around in a stinking bog, chasing after monsters and murderers and pulling people out of the mire. What's worst of all, you've encouraged him to defy his family's wishes. You can't deny that you've done your best from the first to see him refuse Diamond and take up with that awful other north-Took girl."

"That was my own idea, Mother," Pippin spoke up. "Mine and Di's. I never wanted to marry Diamond and she didn't want to marry me. Frodo had nothing to do with it. He tried to talk Diamond out of marrying without her parents' permission."

"I suppose that Merry was the one truly behind that escapade," conceded his mother. "You knew you'd find a haven for your runaway friends at Brandy Hall. It's all a part of the lax attitudes the Brandybucks have instilled in their children. I shouldn't be astonished that neither Merry nor Melilot nor Frodo has turned out the way they have, given their upbringing."

There had always been a certain rivalry between the two great families, but feelings had been running particularly high the last few years. It had begun with Merry's relationship with Pippin. Melilot's and Everard's separation had only made matters worse. Then, just over a year ago, Pippin had helped his North-Took cousin Diamond, the girl his family had hoped he would marry, to elope with another boy. Pippin had taken the young couple to Brandy Hall, where the Brandybucks had not only sheltered them, but Merry himself had officiated at the wedding and given Diamond's new husband a job as land-agent. From his visit to the Long Cleeve to negotiate with Diamond's family for their consent to her marriage, Frodo knew that they considered these actions a declaration of open opposition to their own wishes. Their South-Took relations must feel the same. Lady Eglantine obviously did. This latest conflict over Everard's murder could spark even worse quarrels between the Brandybucks and Tooks. The resulting feud might last for generations.

Merry hadn't spoken to defend himself during Eglantine's outburst, but the implied insult to his mother and aunts at the Hall was too much for him to bear. "If you'd rather we not stay here to corrupt your son, Aunt Eglantine, Frodo and I can find lodging somewhere else," he said stiffly.

This was a blow to the Thain's sense of hospitality, but it was Pippin who looked as if he'd been slapped in the face.

"You lads don't need to go," said Paladin.

"I think you and your family would be more at ease if we didn't stay," Merry replied. "As long as we are at cross-purposes, it's for the best. All the same, I don't want to be too far away from Melly. She must know that her own family hasn't abandoned her. If I can't take her home as I'd like, will you allow me and Frodo to take her and Addy to the inn with us? The Bullroarer's Head isn't out of your domain, Uncle, and we'll both give our word that we won't run off to Buckland with her."

"If you give your word, I'll allow it," said Paladin. To Frodo, he added, "Go and tell Melilot that if she wishes to leave with you for the inn, she may."

"Thank you, Uncle," said Frodo. But the rift hadn't been healed.
Chapter 7 by Kathryn Ramage
"Was she speaking in that same way before I came in?" he asked Merry after they'd left the Thain's Hall through the parlor's garden doors and were walking toward Adelard's home next door. "Did you know that's how Aunt Eglantine felt about us?"

"About me, yes," replied Merry. "She's made no secret of her feelings since I seduced her precious son, although I must say I'm astonished to hear her so say in front of so many people! She didn't say anything like that before--I was mostly arguing with Uncle Paladin--but it's obvious she was itching to say something awful."

"I didn't realize she disliked me so much," Frodo murmured.

"You don't like her very much either, Frodo, so why should it trouble you? I've never let it bother me, nor stand in the way of my friendship with Pip. He's a grown hobbit and she can't do a thing about our corrupting influence upon him if he wants to be influenced by us."

"It's going to be rather hard on him now that it's all come out into the open. He'll have to pick sides between his family and us."

"Then he'll just have to pick a side. I'm not the one who's forcing him to choose." They entered Adelard's smial through the open door of the study and went to Melly's room.

Melly had been having tea alone in her room and reading when the tap came on her door, but she looked up eagerly when her cousins came in. Frodo told her briefly how he had occupied himself since he'd seen her that morning, and Merry explained the agreement he and the Thain had made about her accompanying them to Tookbank. "You can stay there quite comfortably until this business is finished and Frodo's found out who's really responsible. Then we can go home."

"Yes, I'd like that," Melly said. "Father Adelard and Pearl try to be kind, but I haven't felt welcome in their home, not even when Ev was still alive."

"Is that why you've stayed shut up here?" Frodo asked her. "Uncle Paladin said that you aren't under arrest."

"She certainly isn't free to leave," Merry muttered.

"Yes," said Melly. "That's why. It's hard to speak to them when I know they must be wondering if I'm truly guilty of murder. Ev's been laid out in the back parlor. Have you been to view him, Frodo? I haven't dared. Who knows what his father and brother would think if I asked to? Besides, it disturbs me to think of him lying there cold and pale. I did love him, once. Poor Ev." She then asked, "Are you going to Tookbank tonight? If you are, will you please engage a room for me and Addy? I'll join you tomorrow. I need to pack my bags, and pack for Addy too. I want to be sure we take everything of ours that's left here--even things I left behind before." She waved the book she still held in her hand. "If all goes well, I don't intend to return to Tuckborough once this is over. I may never return again. And, Merry," she turned to him with a sudden, purposeful look on her face, "if things don't go well for me, I pray you take Addy home to my mother. It'll break her heart to lose all three of her children. He'll be all she has left."

"Of course I will, but that's nonsense, Melly," Merry insisted. "When I take Addy back to the Hall, you'll go with us. Frodo will find the person who murdered Ev and straighten this out."

"Even Uncle Paladin agrees that things look promising," Frodo told her.

"Thank you, Frodo, but I do understand how dark matters are for me. Even if Uncle Paladin hasn't made up his mind that I'm guilty, others have. You'll do all you can, but in the end it might not be enough. You may not be able to save me." She smiled at him--a strange, despairing smile that made her look exactly like her sister Mentha had, just before Mentha had thrown herself into the Brandywine. Frodo was horrified.

"That won't happen," he snapped with a vehemence that startled both her and Merry. "I promise you, Melly, however this turns out, we won't let you come to harm."

"I'll break my word to Uncle Paladin before I allow it," Merry agreed. "One way or another, I'll see you safely home."
Chapter 8 by Kathryn Ramage
Before they left Adelard's house, they stopped in the day nursery which opened onto the garden. Merry had seen Melly's son Aderic since his arrival, but Frodo hadn't yet and was worried about how the little boy was taking the distressing events going on around him. Losing a father was enough to grieve any child, but to lose him in such a dreadful way was worse still. And to be separated from his mother at such a time! Frodo's sympathies went out to the boy.

They found Aderic playing with his cousins. Pearl's and Reg's brood of small sons were all robust boys with bright curls in shades of chestnut and auburn. Aderic, who took more after his Brandybuck mother than his Took father, was a dark and slight figure among them. He was a quiet and somber little boy, but Frodo was relieved to see that he didn't look as if he'd been crying. How much had the Tooks told him? Surely, at the age of five, Aderic was old enough to be informed that his father was dead, but it was possible that he wasn't aware that Everard's body was laid out in another room only a few doors away.

When he saw Frodo with Merry at the nursery door, Aderic smiled. "Uncle Frodo!"

"Hello, Addy." Frodo crouched down to give the little boy a hug, then was overwhelmed by the other little boys, who were just as delighted to see him and clamoring for hugs too. A few minutes passed before he could ask Aderic how he was.

"I wanna go home now," Aderic told him. "Can we? Uncle Merry said Mamma 'n' me could go after you came."

"Not right away," said Merry. "Soon. We have some things we must do first."

"Aren't you happy here, Addy?" Frodo asked. "No one's been mean to you, have they? Do you want to see your mother?"

"I saw Mamma this morning," Aderic answered. "She doesn't like it here, and I don't either. Pev says she's in trouble."

"We're not s'posed to talk about it," Peveril, the eldest of the Took boys, told Frodo confidentially. "My mamma says so."

"Your mother did say so," said Pearl, who had come to the doorway beside Merry while her son was speaking. "Pev, I'm afraid you take too much after your Uncle Pippin." To Merry and Frodo, she said, "I didn't expect to find you still here. I thought you'd gone."

"We won't be here for much longer," Merry answered coolly. "Frodo wanted to see Addy before we left for the Bullroarer's."

"Then little Addy and Melly won't be going with you?" asked Pearl.

"Not tonight, no."

"We'll come back for them tomorrow," Frodo added as he rose from his crouched position amid the children. The three grown hobbits went out into the garden, where the boys wouldn't overhear their conversation. "Doesn't Addy know about his father?"

"Melly told him that Everard is dead, but I don't think he truly understands what that means," Pearl answered. "It isn't as if he knew Ev. Until they came to Tuckborough for this visit, Addy hadn't seen Ev since he was a baby. We've done our best to keep the rest of it from him."

"I think it'd be best if he were back at Brandy Hall," said Merry. "That's his home. I see that I can't take him and Melly right away, but at least I'll have them away from this house in the morning. You'll only have to abide her presence one more day."

"Oh, Merry," Pearl spoke in her reproving tone. "There's no imposition, honestly."

"All the same, you and Reg and Uncle Addy will be relieved to have her out of your house. I realize you can't be pleased to have her staying here. We won't trouble you for long. Frodo and I will do our best to avoid intruding more than we have to while he's investigating. If you'll pardon me, I'll see to the ponies." Merry gave her a frigidly polite bow and went over the top of the hill to the stables.

After he had gone, Pearl turned to Frodo with an apologetic expression and said, "I don't suppose I can blame him for feeling unwelcome after the way Mother's behaved to both of you. I hope you don't take the things she said as much to heart, Frodo. She's been extremely upset since poor Evvy died."

"I didn't realize that they were so close." Eglantine's late sister had been Everard's mother; in spite of this close blood relationship, Frodo had never observed the Lady expressing any special affection for her nephew.

"They weren't," Pearl confirmed. "But she's felt his death terribly keenly. I think it must have more to do with Pippin than Everard himself. The life you lads lead--you and Merry, and Pippin too. She's terrified that he'll end up like poor Evvy has."

"Murdered?"

"Well, dead. He's her only son, you know, and Father's heir. That does count for something. And since Pippin enjoys facing danger while helping you with your investigations, it's only natural she blames you for the risks he takes. She's always been horrified by the old stories about Thain Gerontius's sons and daughters who went out on adventures, especially the two that never came home. She's a Banks, after all, and they aren't Tookish in the least. She's tried to instill in us all a sense of decorum, to keep us from taking after our Took ancestors. I never wanted to go on adventures and that sort of life doesn't seem to hold much appeal for Peri either now that she's married and has a child of her own. But Pippin's got too much Tookish blood in him for Mother's comfort. Pimmie too. Running off with that traveling circus! We've no idea where in the wide world she is."

"Do you--do the Tooks--really believe that Melly killed Everard?"

"We can't help blaming her for his death," Pearl admitted. "No, Frodo, that's not the same thing. She abandoned him to return to her own family--something a proper wife should never do without the most severe provocation. If she'd stayed here and kept an eye on her husband, then Ev might never have gone off with Tibby and ended up as he did. She and little Addy would've been constant reminders of his family responsibilities. Without them, he had nothing to do but brood and go to drink at that public house, where he saw Tibby Clover almost every day. Melilot's behavior helped to bring about this terrible ending. If she can be blamed for nothing else, she can be blamed for that. I don't personally believe she murdered Everard, but her part in this is difficult for any of us to forgive."
Chapter 9 by Kathryn Ramage
"We can share one room for tonight," Merry said as he and Frodo rode down the road toward Tookbank, "unless you're expecting Sam to join us. Where is he, by the way? I thought he'd be coming with you."

"He'll be along in a day or two," answered Frodo. "I left Bag End as soon as I received your message, but it's impossible for him to go off at a moment's notice anymore, not since... Not since poor Rosie died. He has to make arrangements to see that the children are looked after."

"I thought you'd hired a nursery-maid to do that?"

"I did, but a nurse is no substitute for a mother, or a father. It isn't so bad with the twins. They don't remember Rosie at all, but Elanor and little Frodo fret if Sam goes away from them unless he provides some diversion to take their minds off his absence--a visit to Aunt Dora's, or Marigold bringing their cousins up to Bag End to stay with them. If they're having some adventure of their own, they don't think about him being gone. He won't be able to join us 'til at least tomorrow. We can share until he arrives, then I'll take another room for Sam and myself. And of course we'll need one for Melly and Addy."

But when they arrived at the Bullroarer's Head and attempted to make these arrangements, they found Mr. Brundle to be apologetic but unyielding. He was happy to give them a room for as long as they liked, and would set another in reserve for when Mr. Gamgee joined them, but he couldn't have Mrs. Took at his tavern.

"Whyever not?" wondered Frodo.

"It an't me, Mr. Baggins," Mr. Brundle said in the same apologetic tone. "I told you, I have to think o' the Tooks."

"But the Thain himself has said that our cousin could lodge here with us," Merry protested.

"Well, his Thainship can say what he likes, Master Merry, but Tookbank won't stand for her being here. It's Mr. Everard they're thinking of," Brundle explained. "Everybody that lives here knew him from a little lad. Before there was all this trouble over the Clovers, they'd've said he was a good lad too. Anybody'll tell you that his dad, Mr. Adelard, is the best and kindest gent in all the Shire, excepting only the Thain himself. They're that fond o' him, and they took it hard when they heard how his son was murdered. Now, Tibby, like I told Mr. Baggins this morning, he was a troublemaker and we all knew he'd come to a bad end. He was an outsider to Tookbank besides, even if his dad was born here. Nobody minds particular much about Tibby, excepting his sister, but they mind about Mr. Everard. And everybody's heard from Chief Thornbreak how it was his wife that must've done it."

"That hasn't been proven," said Frodo.

"So you say, Mr. Baggins, and his Thainship must agree since he hasn't let Chief Thornbreak lock her up yet, but I was born here in Tookbank and never been more'n ten miles from it. I know the folk hereabouts. They don't know it's so. They won't like her being here. If they see her, it'll be hard on her. Even if they don't, it'll be hard on me. They'll hold it against me long after you're gone. So I'm sorry, Mr. Baggins, Master Merry, but I can't have her here."

Merry huffed in exasperation; Frodo turned to him and said, "I don't like it either, but if Mr. Brundle is right about feelings in Tookbank, it may be safer for Melly to stay on at Uncle Adelard's rather than be subjected to insults and possibly even danger. Who knows what they might do if they truly believe she's a murderess? We have to think of Melly's safety first of all."

"We can go and stay at the Green Hill Inn," Merry responded. "They aren't so beholden to the Tooks and won't object to having Melly lodge in one of their rooms. She'll be quite safe there."

"I don't think Uncle Paladin will let us take her so far from Tuckborough," said Frodo. "He only agreed to let her come here with us because of the way Aunt Eg was behaving."

"I won't go back to the Thain's Hall, Frodo. I refuse to step foot in that house again after the way she spoke about Melly and Mother. Lax upbringing! And Mother born a Took!"

"We needn't return to the Hall," Frodo said reasonably, seeing that his cousin was still fuming over that last scene in the Thain's parlor. "But if I'm to carry on my investigation here, I don't want to lodge so far away." He especially wanted to be near the Bullroarer's Head so that he could pick up the local gossip about hobbits who had had quarrels with Tibby. "Merry, you do see, don't you? Whether or not you choose to go to Green Hill, I have to stay on."

Merry grumbled, but he didn't want to be far from Frodo or Melilot himself. He agreed to stay in the vicinity of Tuckborough until he could take Melly home.

"The folk of Tookbank won't resent us staying here, will they?" Frodo asked the tavern-keeper. "We are, after all, Mrs. Took's kinsman and interested in proving her innocence."

"Well, nobody can blame you for that, Mr. Baggins, seeing as how you've done the same for other folk up and down the Shire who're no kin to you at all," Mr. Brundle answered after considering the question. "If the two o' you are of a mind to stay on without Missus Took, I don't suppose there'll be much fuss over it. And whether or not you're right in the end, I don't expect the local folks'll hold it against me for giving you lodgings."

"Very well then!" said Frodo. "A room for two, if you please."

Once they'd engaged their room, they took their bags down the long corridor behind the public rooms. Merry sat down on the foot of the bed with another huff.

"We'll have to go and tell Melly what's happened. I don't like this, Frodo! I feel as if we're trapped in an enemy's land. Enemies--in the midst of the Shire, if you can believe that would ever be true. We might as well be surrounded by orcs as by Tooks. At least I know how to put up a good fight against an orc. I can't draw a sword against another hobbit, not even Aunt Eggie."

"It isn't so bad as that," Frodo said, still trying to be reasonable although he found this situation just as distressing and frustrating as Merry did. In spite of his intention to remain impartial while conducting his investigation, he couldn't help feeling as if the expressions of hostility they'd encountered from the Took family and here in Tookbank were forcing him to close ranks with Merry in Melly's defense. "I'll go back to Uncle Adelard's and tell Melly not to pack her things yet. While I'm gone, you can order our dinner. Under the circumstances, the private dining room would be best. We'll talk about what we're going to do." He sat down beside Merry and patted his arm. "Whatever kind of fight this is, I'm on your side. You know that. In each other's pockets, just as we always are."

For the first time since they'd met that morning, he saw Merry smile. "She wasn't far wrong in that, was she?"

"We both have the same goal, to aid Melly however we can. At least, none of the Tooks seem to believe that Melly is truly a murderer, not even Aunt Eglantine. That's to our advantage."

"I'd find it more advantageous if Uncle Paladin let me take her home," said Merry.

"You know why he can't, Merry. He's magistrate here and his own nephew has been murdered. Like it or not, Melly is suspected. He can't just let her go off to some other part of the Shire until the matter is cleared up. And it will be cleared up. If she's innocent of this crime, as I'm certain she is, I'll find proof of it. But until that's done, justice must be seen to be served."

"Justice must be seen!" Merry snorted. "I've been at the mercy of that same phrase, Frodo--you remember."

"Yes, of course I do." Frodo had begun his career as a detective when Merry had been suspected of murdering their cousin Berilac; Merry's father had had the sherriffs in Buckland lock him up in the Newbury gaol under the pretext of serving justice, and Merry had never forgiven his father for it. From his present attitude, it seemed to Frodo that Merry wouldn't forgive the Tooks either.

"It stayed between us until the day he died," said Merry, following Frodo's thoughts. "I care too much for Melly to let her suffer that same way. It's bad enough being shut up because you're suspected, and worse still when you know it's just for form's sake! We must get her out of here, Frodo. Never mind promises--I won't let her come to harm." He leapt up and, as he paced the floor restlessly, began to form a plan. "You say you'll go back to Uncle Adelard's tonight? When you go to her room, you'll be alone with her. You can take her out of the house through the window. She's on the garden side, but the Tooks will all be at dinner by the time you arrive. You can cross over the top of the hill, and I'll be waiting with the ponies ready in the road. We can be halfway to Buckland before they realize we've gone."

"What about little Addy?" Frodo asked.

"We certainly can't leave him behind. Melly wouldn't dream of going without him. Here, Frodo, you must say that Melly wants to see him, and take him to her room with you. We'll have to leave his things behind, but we can manage until we get them both home to Brandy Hall."

"Merry, we can't do that."

"You said you were on my side!"

"I am! But you must see reason," Frodo pleaded, knowing that Merry was too upset to be reasonable. "Running off will only convince everyone in the Took lands that she's guilty. They'll think she's fled to the Master's protection. You won't let anyone take her out of Buckland again once she's safely there."

"Quite true! I can protect her in Buckland."

"You can protect her as long as she remains in Buckland," Frodo pointed out, "but she won't ever be able to set foot on this side of the Brandywine again. You'll only be giving her a larger prison. Do you want her to be known as a murderess for the rest of her life?"

"I'd rather she had a nice, long life as a suspected murderess than be hanged as one," Merry responded.

Frodo was about to respond to this declaration but as he opened his mouth to speak, there was a tentative tap on the door. Instead of replying to Merry, he turned and asked, "Who is it?"

"It's me--Pippin."
Chapter 10 by Kathryn Ramage
"Can I come in?" Pippin peeked his head in through the door, as if unsure of his welcome.

"It's good of you to join us, Pip," Frodo said.

"I left the house right after you did," Pippin told them. "I think I must've started for Tookbank ahead of you. I've been here for awhile, sitting in the public room. I wanted to say how sorry I am." He looked far more contrite than any Took who had actually insulted the Brandybucks. "I see why they have to suspect Melly--you always go on about that, Frodo, suspecting people even when they're part of our own families--but they don't have to be so nasty about it. And Mother had no right to say the things she did. I couldn't sit in that room with them for another minute after you left."

"So you've made your choice," said Merry. "You're with us." He was watching Pippin carefully.

Pippin nodded. "I didn't want to pick sides--but if I have to pick, then I pick you." He returned the smile Merry gave him, then turned to Frodo to announce, "I want to help with this investigation. I'll do whatever you say. I'll be a spy among the Tooks for you. If there's something you want to know about and Father and Uncle Addy won't tell you, Frodo, I can find it out."

"I don't think your father or Uncle Addy are hiding anything, Pip," said Frodo.

"I doubt either of them would kill Ev," Merry added. "I can't see Uncle Addy harming anybody, least of all one of his children."

Pippin shook his head in agreement. "That's not what I meant. Only that I'd find out things for you if you asked me to. Besides, if it's anybody--one of us, I mean--then it must be Reg."

Both Frodo and Merry were surprised to hear Pippin express this remarkable idea. "But why would Reg want to kill his own brother?" asked Frodo.

"I didn't say that he did," Pippin replied, "but remember how he felt about that old business with Toby? He was even worse after Ev ran off with Toby's brother. He thought that Ev had disgraced the Tooks, but he blamed Melly for it. Well, what if Reg thought that this was a good way to get back at all of them? At the Clovers and Ev, and at Melly too."

"You mean, he would deliberately plan to lay the blame on Melly?" said Merry.

"It's possible, isn't it? I can't think of anybody else in the family it could be. I don't like to think of it being anybody, but Reg is the one I can't help thinking it might be. If it was him, maybe he didn't mean to kill Ev. What if he went to the cottage to kill Tibby and didn't know Ev was there? It was only when Ev came out of the bedroom and tried to stop Reg or said he'd tell that Reg had to kill him too." He regarded Frodo expectantly, waiting to see what he thought of this.

While Pippin's theory didn't quite fit what Frodo had seen at the cottage, he acknowledged that there might be something in it. "But if that were so, then the plan to implicate Melly must've occurred to him later. If Reg meant to leave Ev alive, then surely Ev would be suspected when his lover was murdered while he was in the next room. Would Reg want that to happen?"

"There'd be an awful scandal in any case, on top of the scandal of Ev and Tibby coming home to begin with," said Merry. "Maybe he'd want to see Ev punished by being suspected, or even arrested, to serve him out for bringing all this trouble on the Tooks in first place. But would Reg go so far as to stand by and see his brother hanged?"

"If Pip's right, he went even further toward seeing Everard dead, and he has no qualms about standing by to see Melly punished for two murders when she is innocent of any crime." He could see that Pippin was growing uncomfortable with this discussion, even though he had introduced the idea. Reginard was, after all, married to Pippin's eldest sister. "That's a task for you if you want it, Pip. Reg would certainly refuse to talk to me if I asked him questions about Evvy, but he might talk to you. Don't pry and make him suspicious, but encourage him to talk about Everard and see if he says anything noteworthy. And can you find out where he was just before tea-time? If he was home well before Melly, then he couldn't have been at the cottage after she'd gone. But he might've come in later. Some time must have passed, you see, between the time Melly left the cottage and the time of the murder."

"How do you know that?" asked Merry.

"Unless he was feeling unwell, Ev surely didn't go to bed immediately after she'd gone, but he was in his nightclothes and the bed was rumpled. Also, according to Melly, Tibby practically shoved her out the door so he and Ev could have their tea. And they did have their tea--Chief Shirriff Thornbreak said the tea things had been washed up in the kitchen. The murderer wouldn't have done that, not without washing up himself first! Even a half an hour might be enough time, though that's cutting it rather fine. You might see if Reg came home as late as that."

Pippin nodded, accepting this assignment.

"Another task you might take up to help me doesn't involve the Tooks at all. You remember that I said I believe Tibby is at the bottom of this?"

"And had quarrels with other people here at the Bullroarer's besides me?"

"That's right. Mr. Brundle wouldn't tell me more, but he might tell you. Or one of the Bullroarer's regular patrons might feel at ease speaking of Tibby to you when they'd be more guarded if Merry or I asked them questions. I know you won't mind spending time in the public room in a good cause."

"Not at all!" Pippin had perked up at the prospect of this easier job. "I've done some of my best investigating over a half pint. I can start tonight if you want me to."

"That would be splendid." Frodo glanced at Merry, and noted that his Brandybuck cousin's spirits had also improved since Pippin's arrival. "Will we need two rooms after all?"

"I won't be stopping overnight," said Pippin. "I'll have another ale and a bite to eat before I have to go home for dinner. There'll be a fuss if I don't."

"But you could leave us to ourselves for awhile, Frodo," Merry suggested. Pippin had been standing just inside the door during this conversation; Merry now stepped closer to take his arm and draw him into the center of the room.

"I meant to go back to Tuckborough anyway," Frodo reminded him. "I have to talk to Melly."

"You're certain that you don't want me to have the ponies ready and waiting?"

"No," Frodo said firmly to quash any further plans for escape that would do Melly more harm than good. "But if you're going to order dinner while I'm out, you might leave some for me."
Chapter 11 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo understood Merry's frustration over being unable to protect Melly; he felt protective of her himself and in some ways just as helpless to aid her. It wasn't that he was afraid he would fail to find the murderer of Everard and Tibby; he was certain that he would accomplish that in the end. But he was afraid of what this ordeal was doing to her. Melly's demeanor this afternoon had alarmed him. It was as if she'd accepted defeat already and awaited her fate. He dreaded to think how the news that she wasn't welcome in Tookbank would affect her.

When he arrived at Adelard's smial, Reginard answered the door and grudgingly admitted him.

"Pearl tells me her brother's disappeared," Reg informed Frodo on their way to Melilot's room. "Mother Eg is besides herself, but she knows where he's gone as well as the rest of us do. Pippin's joined you and Merry, hasn't he? He's gone over to your side."

Frodo acknowledged that Pippin was indeed at the inn with Merry.

Reg made a sound of disgust. "I suppose that was only to be expected. Will he be staying on there?"

"No, I don't think so. He said he intended to be home in time for dinner tonight. Aunt Eglantine needn't worry." Frodo decided to test Pippin's theory about his brother-in-law. "Tell me, Reg, do you think Melly killed Everard?"

"I know what she did," Reg replied tersely; Frodo wasn't certain what precisely he meant by this, until he added, "Her behavior drove him to despair, and straight into the arms of that Cotton boy. I loved my brother dearly, but I could see that he was of a weak character. The right wife would've helped him to stand against his own weakness. Melly might've managed it if she'd cared to. You remember how she bullied him into marrying her after the other Cotton boy was killed? If she'd been as firm with him while they were married, none of this ever would've happened."

While this was no answer to Frodo's question, it gave him a good indication of how Reg felt about Melly. Pippin was right; he hated her enough to want to see her punished for her husband's murder. But would Reg kill his own brother just to see Melly hanged? That seemed far-fetched. He tried another question, in hopes of settling the problem of Reg as a suspect one way or another. "You heard Pearl tell me earlier that Melly arrived in time for tea. Can you confirm the time she returned from the cottage? Times are rather important in a case like this."

"I'm afraid I couldn't say. I was out in the garden, having a pipe, and didn't come until Pearl called to me that my tea would get cold. She and Melly and Father were already gathered 'round the sandwiches when I came in."

Reg left him in the hallway outside Melly's door. Melly was pleased to see Frodo again, but when he told her what Mr. Brundle had said about lodging her at the Bullroarer's Head, she received this information with that same attitude of resignation that had alarmed Frodo earlier.

"Then I've no choice but to stay here." She went to the round window on the far side of the room, as if she were in accord with Merry's plan for her escape. But instead of opening the window to climb out, she sank down onto the cushioned seat in the lowest curve of the windowsill. Her face contorted briefly as she tried not to cry. In spite of her efforts, however, tears soon began to glisten in her eyes.

"Oh, Melly, please don't!" Frodo sat down beside her and produced a clean handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket. "It won't be for long," he tried to reassure her. "We're doing all we can to help you."

Melly accepted the handkerchief. "I know you'll do your best for me, Frodo," she repeated. Her voice was slightly muffled behind the little square of linen held over her eyes and nose, but she sounded no more hopeful about Frodo's 'best' efforts than she had earlier in the day.

"I will," Frodo insisted. "I wish I could do more to spare you this awful waiting and worry." The upper part of Melly's face was hidden and he didn't know if she was still crying; she wasn't sobbing, but she drew in one deep, sighing breath after another. Tentatively, he put an arm around her and felt a little awkward as he did it. He wasn't used to embracing women. When she let her brow rest upon his shoulder and gripped the front of his jacket with her free hand, he didn't try to pull away, but gently patted her back. Surely this was the sort of comfort he could offer any friend in distress, male or female?

He could imagine how Melly must feel. She would've been stunned by her husband's murder. Even though they'd been separated for years, she had once loved him. Whatever her feelings for him now, the brutal way in which Everard had died must disturb her as profoundly as it distressed his family. And yet, suspected of his murder as she was, she couldn't grieve for him as the Tooks could. Her tears would seem false to them. She was well aware that they'd resented her even before Everard's death and could readily believe that they thought worse of her now. She must feel trapped, alone in a house filled with people, frightened, and bewildered. No wonder she'd fallen into a defeated state of mind with little hope for the future! She'd withstood so much, but was losing the strength of will to fight against what seemed to her to be such oppressive circumstances.

What could he do to raise her spirits? "Melly, I-"

Someone knocked on the bedroom door; Frodo jumped back a little and looked up, startled.

Pearl came in, bearing a tray with a covered plate of food. "I've brought you your dinner," she told Melly. "What about you, Frodo?" As she set down the tray on a little table near the door, she looked from him to Melly with a perplexed and curious expression. "Reg told me you'd come back. You're welcome to join us, or I can have another tray sent up here for you if you'd rather dine together."

"Thank you, no," Frodo said. Letting go of Melly, he rose from the window seat. "I told Merry I'd be back in time to have dinner at the inn. I ought to be going." He turned to Melly, who was carefully blotting her damp cheeks; she had been weeping after all. "I promise I'll come to see you again in the morning."
Chapter 12 by Kathryn Ramage
When Frodo returned to the Bullroarer's Head, Mr. Brundle directed him to the private dining parlor beyond the public room, "where Master Merry's a-sitting to his supper."

Frodo went in to find his cousin presiding over a table at which three places had been set: one had been used and abandoned, the plate at another was still clean, and the remains of Merry's own supper sat before him. He was picking over a chicken leg. At the middle of the table sat the rest of a partially carved roast chicken on a platter, half a loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board, and bowls that had once contained boiled vegetables and now only held a few straggling peas in some watery butter sauce.

"I see that Pippin dined with you," observed Frodo. "Is he still here?"

"No, and he only had some bread and soup and the other drumstick before he left," answered Merry. "He didn't want to spoil his dinner."

"Did he spend any time in the common room?"

Merry nodded. "He stopped for a half-pint on his way out. I didn't join him--I thought he'd do better on his own. If he learned anything interesting, he'll tell you about it tomorrow." Frodo took a seat before the clean place and helped himself to bread and butter. He hadn't eaten at all since he'd arrived in Tuckborough that morning and only now realized how hungry he was. Merry rose to carve some meat from the chicken for him. "I'm ready to investigate too, just like in the old days, though I don't know how much I can do with all these Tooks and their people set against us. Nobody'd tell me anything. They shut their mouths tight when they see me."

Frodo nodded, understanding. He'd seen some wary and even hostile looks cast his way from the regular patrons in the public room when he'd come in. It would be useless for either he or Merry to try and question them directly; that task was better left to Pippin.

"If there's anything I can do that doesn't mean asking questions, I'm only too happy to help." While Frodo started on the chicken, Merry stuck his head out the door to order another bowl of soup and more vegetables. "How was Melly when you saw her?" he asked Frodo after he'd spoken to the inn's servant and was returning to his chair. "Did you tell her what Brundle said?"

"I did, and it made her cry. Merry, it was awful! I couldn't bear to see her feeling even worse about this situation than she already was. You saw how oppressed she was this afternoon."

"I saw," Merry agreed grimly as he helped himself to more chicken. "That's just why I want to take her home. She'd still be under a shadow of suspicion, but at least she'd be among her own family--and be safe no matter what happens!"

Frodo regarded his cousin silently while the maidservant brought in his soup and more peas and parsnips. "It wouldn't matter to you if she did do it," he said once they were alone again. "You'd do just the same if you knew she had murdered Ev and Tibby."

"You tell me she didn't, and that's good enough for me," Merry responded. "You'll find out the truth sooner or later, so why let poor Melly be kept prisoner here until then if she'd be better off in Buckland?"

"What if the truth turns out to be that I'm wrong?"

"You aren't." Merry shook his head. "Even if you are... well, you're right, Frodo. It doesn't matter to me if she's guilty or not. Everard behaved like a swine to her from first to last--marrying poor Melly to begin with after all that trouble with Toby Clover, then abandoning her and Addy for Tibby. She would've been much better off if she'd accepted your proposal instead. If you ask me, Melly thinks so too."

Frodo blushed. "What sort of husband would I be?" he responded diffidently. "And be fair, Merry. Melly left Ev first."

"That's different. She saw she'd made a mistake and came home to think things over. It's not as if she ran off with a lover." Merry let out a puff of breath. "I don't say I'd approve if she did kill him, but I'd understand why she'd want to be free of him. Only, she didn't do it! You said so yourself." He turned Frodo's question back on him. "Would it matter to you if you found some proof that she did kill them? Would you stand by and see Melly hanged?"

"No!" Frodo had witnessed the hangings of two unrepentant and thoroughly despicable murderers who had struck at people he knew and cared for; even then, it had been a horrible sight. The thought of seeing someone he loved at the end of a hangman's noose sent a sickened shudder through him. "If she were guilty, I'd do everything I could to see that it didn't come to that. I don't like hanging as a punishment, even when it's fully deserved. I think it should be avoided whenever possible, if there's any chance for the murderer to make amends or be redeemed. But I won't suppress or ignore the facts for anyone--not even for you or for Melly."
Chapter 13 by Kathryn Ramage
When they returned to Tuckborough the next morning, Frodo went to the front door of the Thain's Hall. Merry, however, refused to set foot in his uncle's house.

"I'll wait for you over at Uncle Addy's," he told Frodo on the doorstep. "I won't be more welcome there than I'd be at Uncle Paladin's, but at least Melly will be glad to see me and I won't have to face Aunt Eglantine. If you see Pip, tell him where I am, won't you?"

"Yes, of course I will." Frodo's chief reason for calling at the Thain's home was to speak to Pippin. He knew that he wasn't entirely welcome here himself, but as a professional investigator he couldn't afford the luxury of being overly sensitive about intruding into places where he wasn't wanted.

He waited until Merry had gone into the house next door before he took up the enormous brass knocker on the Thain's front door and thumped it down. When he was admitted to the Hall, the porter directed him to the breakfast room. Paladin and Pippin were just finishing their first breakfast, but Frodo was relieved to see that Lady Eglantine wasn't there. He was no more eager to face her than Merry was.

"Do you have any news for us?" Thain Paladin asked once the common courtesies had been exchanged and Frodo had been invited to join them.

"That's just what I've come to learn, Uncle. Pippin volunteered to help with my investigation. Did he tell you?" Frodo thought it was best to be perfectly frank and open about Pippin's assistance.

"I told Father all about it when I came home last night," said Pippin.

"And what did you find out?" asked Frodo. "Was there any gossip in the public room?"

"They hardly talked about anything else! I didn't hear as much as I'd've liked to. I had to get home and I was late for dinner anyway. Mr. Brundle's right, Frodo--half of Tookbank thinks Melly did it. But they all agree that Tibby was a bad lot. I asked particularly about people Tibby had fights with and heard some stories about lots of quarrels in the old days, before he and Evvy ran off. I've got some names for you. Do you have your notebook with you?"

Pippin recited the names of several Tookbankers, local farm-lads, and sons of cadet branches of the Took family, some familiar to Frodo and others strangers. Frodo wrote them all down in his memoranda book, though he could see by an excited sparkle in his cousin's eyes that Pippin had something more interesting to tell him and was saving it for last.

"Wasn't there anything more recent?" he prompted. "Did Tibby have any quarrels after he'd returned?"

"He had one." Pippin produced his special news. "Mr. Brundle didn't like the lads at the pub telling me, but I wormed it out of them while he was busy opening a new keg. Frodo, you'll never guess! Tibby was fighting with Rudmer Thursk."

"His sister's husband?" Frodo was surprised. "When did this happen? It must've been the night Tibby first arrived and went to the Bullroarer's. Was that why Mr. Brundle made Tibby leave his inn?"

"They weren't in the inn," Pippin answered. "It was that same night, but it happened out in the high street after Mr. Brundle refused to let Tibby inside. Nobody knows how it started. At least, they didn't tell me, but they said they could hear Tibby and Rudmer shouting at each other outside the open windows."

"Did they tell you what the fight was about?"

Pippin shook his head. "Mr. Brundle was back by then."

"I'll have to call on Mr. Thursk and ask him."

"Indeed you shall," Thain Paladin agreed. He seemed as pleased as Frodo to hear this promising story. "Will you be back with us for the funeral this afternoon? Ada and Filobard arrived late last night, and Adelard expects Flora and Isalda in time for luncheon."

Frodo was grateful; by pointedly extending this invitation, the Thain was trying to heal the breach that had arisen between his family and Frodo and Merry yesterday afternoon. "I certainly plan to attend, Uncle," he answered. He had put on a plain black coat that morning.

"I'm glad you'll be there," Pippin told Frodo. "I'm going to be one of the bier-bearers. Did you know? Uncle Addy's asked Ferdi and me, Elvegar, and Stally--all of Evvy's closest friends. I don't suppose Merry's coming too?"

"I think he intends to stay with Melly. He's next door now, by the way." This was the subtlest way Frodo could convey Merry's message to Pippin. Since Paladin was making an effort to be welcoming, Frodo had no wish to insult him by repeating Merry's refusal to set foot in the Thain's Hall. "Oh and, Pip, about that other matter-" He was reluctant to mention Reg by name in front of the Thain, but Pippin looked at him blankly. "You remember--the other possibility we discussed last night?"

Pippin's expression brightened. "Oh, yes! I know who you mean."

"Have you had a chance to look into that yet?"

"Not yet. I haven't seen them."

Paladin looked curious at who this "other possibility" might be, but before he could ask any questions, Lady Eglantine's voice came from the breakfast-room doorway behind them:

"Frodo Baggins! I must say, I didn't expect that you'd dare to show yourself here again."

Frodo flinched. He'd been dreading this meeting from the moment he'd entered the Thain's Hall. Nevertheless, he turned to her and tried to speak pleasantly, "Good morning, Auntie. Yes, I've come back. I wanted to talk to Uncle Paladin and Pippin-"

"Oh, I know what you've come for," the lady retorted. "You've embroiled my son in another of your investigations. Did you imagine I couldn't guess where you'd gone and what you were up to last night, Peregrin Took? You're spying for Frodo. 'Other possibilities.' 'Other possibilities!' Who might that include, I wonder? Who has he set you upon? Your father? Your sisters? Your uncle? Oh, I remember what happened the last time we were subjected to one of these awful intrusions. No one was beyond Frodo's suspicion, even here in our own home! He's asked you to spy on us, hasn't he? Anything to spare that Brandybuck cousin of his."

"Now Eggie, my dear," the Thain murmured gently to try and quell this outburst, but it was Pippin put a stop to it--to the astonishment of both his parents.

"No, Mother," he said quietly. "I offered, but Frodo said I didn't have to. You can't blame him for me doing what I want to do." He was intimidated by Eglantine, as always, but determined to stand up to her. "Evvy was my friend, and I'm going to help Frodo find out who killed him. I'm sorry if you don't approve." Growing bolder, he went on, "And if you don't mind me saying so, Mother, you're the one who's behaving rather badly. We were all fond of Ev, but that's no reason to go to pieces and start screaming at my friends and making wild accusations. It isn't like you."

Eglantine stared at her son as if he were a stranger who was making unprovoked and incredibly rude personal remarks. "You dare speak to me this way?"

"Somebody has to."

The Lady turned to her husband in appeal, then glared at Frodo as if were responsible for Pippin's rebellion. "You've turned my son against me!" Then she burst into tears and fled from the room.

"Pippin," Paladin said reprovingly.

"I didn't mean to hurt her feelings, Father," Pippin said with a sincere note of apology, "but I couldn't let her go on insulting Frodo like that. He's only doing what he came here to do."

The Thain sighed. "I know. I'll speak to her." He followed his wife out.

Frodo felt acutely embarrassed at his part in this scene. "I'd better go," he said.

Pippin all but leapt from his chair at the breakfast table. "I'll come with you. Still, I suppose it might've been worse. We're lucky she doesn't know about Reg!"
Chapter 14 by Kathryn Ramage
They went next door to Adelard's house. When they entered through the garden door into Adelard's drawing room, they found that all three of Everard's sisters had arrived. Adelard had gone out to make the final arrangements for his son's funeral, but his surviving children and their spouses were seated together. They had just come from the adjoining parlor, where Everard was laid out. Frodo greeted his cousins warmly and expressed his sympathies for their loss.

Ada, the eldest sister, was normally a cheerful young woman, but she'd been crying since viewing her brother's body and only gave Frodo a wan smile half-covered by her handkerchief. Her husband, Filobard Banks-Took, was a distant cousin on Eglantine's side, a mild-tempered but stolid and unimaginative young hobbit. Frodo had never heard him express a thought that wasn't entirely conventional.

"It's a bad business all around," Filobard said to Frodo and Pippin. "But what else could be expected? A wife belongs with her husband, and contrariwise. No good ever came of married people living apart and you see how this has ended up. It's a tragedy for all concerned."

"I can't believe it of Melly," Ada said in a choked voice.

"I refuse to believe it," declared Isalda, the youngest and most sensible of the sisters.

Isalda and the middle sister Flora were in a position similar to Pippin's, caught between divided family loyalties. Flora's husband Fatty Bolger was a near relation of the Tooks--his mother and Ferdi's father had been sister and brother--but his home and his sympathies were nearer to the Brandybucks. He was also one of Frodo's closest friends. Isalda's husband Doderic Brandybuck had, like Frodo and Merry, known Melly since their days together in the Brandy Hall nursery; although two years younger than Melly, he had the same protective feelings for her as her older cousins did and loved her as dearly as his own sister.

Dodi wasn't in the room. When Frodo asked if he'd come from Buckland with her, Isalda explained that her husband had gone to see Melly immediately upon their arrival.

"Merry's up there too," Reg added sourly. "It's a Brandybuck conclave. I suppose you'll want to join them, Frodo."

"Eventually," Frodo answered. "I hope to give them some good news."

He would have said more, but at that moment he glimpsed a curious movement out of the corner of his eye--a dark object that was not part of any plant fluttering in the breeze--and turned to look through the garden door, left open when he and Pippin had come in. Through the shrubbery beyond the door, he could now see that the object was the black skirt of a woman's dress. She was climbing down the steep hillside escorted by a male companion--no, two. He couldn't see their faces, but he realized who they were before he recognized the familiar pattern of Merry's blue and gold waistcoat. The three Brandybucks had gone out through Melly's window and were descending into the garden behind the smials.

"I hope they aren't helping her to escape," said Fatty as he joined Frodo by the door to watch the trio emerge from the cover of the shrubbery and step out onto one of the pebbled paths between the flower beds. "It's just the sort of thing Dodi was saying he'd do."

"Merry too," Pippin said. "Frodo told him not to try it."

"I said it would be foolish and accomplish nothing," Frodo acknowledged.

"They seem to be determined to ignore such good advice," said Reg.

"If they were silly enough to try, they'd have gone over the top of the hill to the stable on the other side and we'd never have seen them," Frodo pointed out. "I expect that they just wanted to get out into the sunshine. Poor Melly's been shut up in her room for days."

"Is Melly-?" Flora hesitated. "Is she allowed out?"

"She hasn't officially been arrested," Pearl explained. "Father's waiting to see if Frodo finds out anything for or against her."

"I admit I feel much more hopeful about how this will turn out seeing that you're here, Frodo," Isalda told him. "If anyone can get to the bottom of this and find out who really killed poor Evvy, it's you."

"They do say you're the best investigator in the Shire. My brother Fragobard's always talking about that time you borrowed his name to solve a murder," said Filobard, but with a grudging note. Frodo had once adopted the name of Fragobard Banks-Took while conducting an investigation where he wished to keep his own identity secret; although the real Fragobard was thrilled at even being so marginally involved in one of the famous detective's adventures, Filobard thought this incredible impudence on Frodo's part. Like many a respectable hobbit, he didn't believe that prying into the sordid business of murder was a fit occupation for a gentleman.

As Dodi and Melly sat down on a bench in a bower at the end of the pebbled path, they noticed that they were being observed. Dodi said something to Merry, and Merry turned to wave at the group gathered at the drawing-room door. Pippin went out to him; when the two met, Pippin began to talk in a low but agitated voice. The others also went into the garden, breaking off into couples. Frodo headed for the bower. As he approached, Dodi rose to give him a hug.

Dodi's mood was similar to Merry's last night; he was angry about the Took's treatment of Melly and determined to help her. "I'll do whatever I can, Frodo. You've only to ask. Isalda won't mind--will you, darling?" Isalda had also come up the path toward the bower behind Frodo. "She's a friend of Melly's and doesn't believe a word said against her--no more than I do."

"I can't promise to do much to help myself," Isalda added as she took her husband's arm. "I see how the family feels, especially Reg, and I don't want to start arguments between us when we should all be remembering poor Ev. I'm here to bid my farewells to him, but as long as we're here, Dodi's free to do as he likes. Everyone knows he stands with Melly in any case and expects he'll want to help you, Frodo."

"There you are," said Dodi. "You can count on me."

"There isn't much you can do yet, Dodi. I've just begun to look for people who wished Everard or Tibby Clover harm. We've only discovered one interesting prospect so far." Frodo repeated Pippin's story. "I'm going to question Rudmer Thursk and see what he has to say. If there's anything in it, I'll inform Chief Thornbreak."

Dodi and Isalda were encouraged by this news, but Frodo observed that Melly wasn't as cheered as he'd hoped she would be. Seated in shadow beneath a tangle of climbing roses, her head was down and she swung her feet slightly so that her toes brushed the grass beneath the bench. She'd been listening to everything he'd said, but didn't appear to take an interest although it vitally concerned her.

"It's a very promising beginning, Melly," he told her after Isalda and Dodi had gone to spread this information to the others around the garden.

"Perhaps. You don't really think this hobbit's killed them, do you?" she asked. "His own wife's brother?"

"I can't yet say it's so, but he may have his reasons. I'll know more after I've spoken with him." Frodo sat down beside her. "You mustn't give up so easily, Melly. I will find the one who murdered Ev and Tibby--if not Mr. Thursk, then another. I won't be alone in this task either. You heard what Dodi had to say. You've seen how Merry's stood by you. And there are others too, Pippin and even his father."

Melly didn't answer immediately. After awhile, she looked up into his face. "I'm sorry, Frodo. I know I have friends around me and my case isn't entirely hopeless. All the same, I can't feel very hopeful. I don't seem to be able to feel much in the way of anything right now. I don't feel as frightened as I know I ought to be at my position. I can't grieve. Oh, I've wept, but not for Everard. Since I first heard that he was killed and I was suspected, it's as if I've stepped into utter darkness. There's nothing but black all around me and I'm standing near the edge of a bottomless pit. One wrong step, and I'll fall in. I can't see ahead. I can barely move."

At this further expression of Melly's despair, Frodo saw that he had to do something drastic to give her heart. "It may be hard for you to believe now, but this bleak feeling will pass," he said, and took her hand. "You'll come through the worst of it and be safe and even happy again one day. When this trouble is over, why don't you come to Bag End--you and Addy? Remember, we spoke of your visiting last summer."

This invitation brought a faint smile to her lips. "We did, didn't we? Yes, I think I'd like that. When this is done, if I am free, I don't think I could simply go home to Brandy Hall and carry on as if nothing had happened. I'd be glad of a quiet shelter somewhere away from the Tooks and Brandybucks for a little while."

Frodo went on, encouraged by the first signs he'd seen that she could look toward some future prospect that wasn't disastrous. "More than a little while, Melly, if you like Bag End and agree to stay." He'd been considering a similar proposal for some time, but these current, dire circumstances drew him to make an even more dramatic offer than the one he'd originally planned. "I can't give you much protection now, but when this is past and you are free, I hope you'll accept my home and whatever else I can provide for you there. If you want a quiet shelter, I can give it to you. If you want a pledge of my faith in you, then you have that as well. Melly..." He took a breath, then said, "I would consider it a great honor if you would marry me."
Chapter 15 by Kathryn Ramage
He'd offered Melly marriage once years ago, after Everard had spurned her on what should have been their wedding day. She'd thought it very sweet and had given his proposal serious consideration. As he spoke now, she stared at him in wonderment, as if she couldn't believe what she was hearing. Then she laughed. "Oh, Frodo, you are a dear, silly hobbit! You can't go around proposing to women whenever they're in trouble."

"I don't. I haven't--that is, I've only ever done it once before. You remember."

"Of course I remember." Her expression softened. "It was one of the worst days of my life. I was sitting and crying, over there," She waved a hand toward the green at the center of the garden, where a pavilion had once been erected for her wedding ceremony. Merry and Pippin were there now, staring at them since Melly had laughed out loud. "You came out of the darkness to talk to me. I haven't forgotten a moment of that night, Frodo--but you don't mean it this time any more than you did then. It's gallant of you, but you must stop making these grand gestures whenever you feel sorry for me. I might very well accept, and then where will you be? Stuck with a wife you don't really want!"

"It does sound like an odd match," Frodo admitted. "And I realize that it's far too soon to speak properly of such things to a new widow, but I have good reasons for asking you now."

"What good reasons?" Melly asked him. "I'd like to hear them, please."

She did look sincerely curious and Frodo was ready to explain. "Well, you told me once that you wanted to leave Brandy Hall and make a home for yourself. I thought that my home might serve the purpose. Bag End needs a mistress, you see. I've felt that very much since we lost poor Rosie. It isn't enough to have servants doing the cooking and cleaning. There has to be a woman who cares about the house because it's hers. Perhaps it isn't the cottage you spoke of taking for your own, but Bag End is a nice house."

"It's a charming little house," Melly agreed. Only a hobbit who had grown up in the enormous Brandy Hall would think of Bag End as 'little.' "But you don't have to marry to gain a housekeeper, Frodo."

"No-" Frodo hastily tried to correct this impression. "That isn't what I meant at all. If you came to live with us, it'd be your home as much as mine. You'd never have to give a thought to housekeeping unless you wanted to. Mrs. Parmiggen looks after the kitchen, and we have a couple of maids to sweep up and look after the children. Then there's Addy. He likes me and I'm very fond of him. I hope I can be a stepfather to him. I've taught Sam's daughter Elanor to read, and I can give Addy lessons as well. And I'd like it very much if you'd consider acting as a sort of stepmother--or at least as an aunt--to Sam's children, especially the little girls."

"Hadn't I better marry Mr. Gamgee then?" Melly asked. Frodo was certain that she was joking. He was delighted to see a renewed spark of liveliness in her eyes; if nothing else, this conversation had accomplished that.

"Elanor's suggested such a match already," he responded in kind. "You made a great impression upon her last summer, but I'm afraid the idea of it terrified Sam. He wouldn't dream of asking a Brandybuck lady for her hand. He'd say that he was getting above himself. But he is coming up in the Shire. He's become Chief Shirriff of Hobbiton and Bywater because of his work with me, and he'll go farther if he believes he can. He might even be Mayor one day. His children will certainly be prominent gentlehobbits, and Elanor and Rosemary ought to learn how to be ladies."

"One of them might marry Addy when they're old enough," Melly suggested. "Or Celie's boys."

"I don't see why they shouldn't. They're going to grow up to be quite pretty and they'll be my heirs, along with their brothers. If you like children, there are two others I'm also partly responsible for--my cousin Doriella's children who have lately come to Hobbiton."

"Yes, I've heard about them. Merry tells me you discovered them only after their mother died."

"That's right. We never knew she, or they, existed. They live with Ponto and Golda Baggins now, but I contribute to their upbringing. Eudora's a little darling. Everyone loves her, and you will too. Her brother Eudo's a bit shy and more difficult to know. He's a sensitive lad, and he likes to read. I've leant him books about the Elves that Uncle Bilbo translated and may teach him Elvish when he's older. Addy won't want for friends in Hobbiton. And-" Here, Frodo hesitated, feeling somewhat bashful. This was the most problematic part of his offer. "If you decided that you wanted to have another baby of your own, I'd be willing to try. I couldn't promise more than that."

Melly laughed again. "That's very generous of you, Frodo."

"Well... I can't claim I'd make a fit husband in that respect. I mean to be completely honest with you, Melly. I know what I am and who I love, and I can't apologize for it."

"I know about you and Sam Gamgee, if that's what you mean," Melly told him.

"Everybody knows about me and Sam these days." It had been a surprise to Frodo to realize how many people did know, and not just their intimate friends. All Hobbiton seemed aware that he and Sam had 'been together' before Sam's marriage and had resumed their old relationship since Rosie's death. Since he was a wealthy and socially prominent hobbit, well known and respected as the Shire's famous detective, he'd met so far with little in the way of insults or ostracism. At worst, some of his elder Baggins relatives observed his keeping house with Sam with tight-lipped disapproval. Sam's family had likewise grown reserved toward him, and the Cottons were sullen, but not openly hostile. "But you see that I'll have no secrets from you, and give you no unpleasant surprises. So I'm one up on Everard already."

"Oh, I don't think it matters very much, Frodo, if we do marry. I won't be troublesome, asking for- well- what you aren't able to give. I used to be frightfully keen on that sort of thing," Melly told him frankly. "Before I married Ev, I was so eager to learn what all the fuss was about, but I'm afraid I rather lost interest in it after we'd been married awhile and little Addy was born."

"You poor thing," Frodo murmured with sincere sympathy.

"Well, it was for the best. Ev was a poor husband. You certainly couldn't be worse than he was. He never really knew what he wanted, you see. In a muddle from the first. I should never have insisted he marry me after that awful business with Toby Clover, but I didn't know how it was all to turn out. I never foresaw this! After Toby died, Ev told me that he was through with- well- boys and all that, and he was ready to love only me. I believed him. I wanted so badly to believe him, and perhaps he honestly thought he meant it when he said it. But it was Toby's death that truly came between us."

"What do you mean?"

"Toby's dying the way he did made him more than just a boy Evvy had been friends with. He became the boy who'd sacrificed his life for Ev's sake. Because of that, I think Ev loved Toby more after he was dead than when he did when Toby was alive. Nothing I could do as his wife was enough to overcome that treasured memory. It made him easy prey for Tibby, poor fool." She shook her head. "We've been playing over this nonsense long enough, Frodo. If I'm to be free of suspicion, you ought to be off investigating instead of sitting here making silly proposals. Weren't you going to question that brother-in-law of Tibby's and see if he has better reasons than mine for wanting Tibby gone?"

"You're right. I should be on my way if I want to return in time for the funeral." Frodo rose, aware that he and Melly were being watched not only by Merry and Pippin, but by the other members of the family who were in the garden. Their long and animated discussion had drawn attention and open curiosity. Well, Melly was free to tell them whatever she wanted, or to keep her own counsel. "I know you haven't taken a word I've said seriously, but I hope you'll consider my offer as an honest proposal." He squeezed her hand lightly before he released it.

"Yes, darling, I will," Melly answered. "You're quite mad to make such an offer, but I don't see how I can help thinking about it. It's certainly given me something new to think of!"
Chapter 16 by Kathryn Ramage
Since the Thursk smial was near the top of the hill that divided Tuckborough from Tookbank, Frodo chose to walk over the hilltop instead of riding his pony back along the road; it was the quicker route.

As he came down from the crest of the hill on the Tookbank side, he could look down over the steep lane below and the crooked row of round doors to the smials along it. Each smial had a tiny patch of garden in front, bounded by a low stone wall. In one of these little gardens, Rudmer Thursk sat on the grass with his daughter and a collection of carved wooden toys. It was so pleasant a scene that Frodo wondered if this hobbit could in fact have committed so bloody and brutal a pair of murders. But then, he'd seen a hobbit who'd committed at least one murder and was planning another play as sweetly with another little girl not very long ago. Affection for a daughter didn't necessarily mean that one was incapable of killing someone else. Desire to protect a loved one might even spur a hobbit to commit acts he would otherwise never dream of doing.

Rudmer looked up as Frodo came down the lane to stand on the other side of the wall. He didn't rise, but nodded his head respectfully. "Good morning, Mr. Baggins. Tansy said you'd be coming back. Is it Tansy you want to see? She's lying down." He inclined his head toward the windows of the smial behind him. "She had a bad night and I told her to rest as best she could before the funeral. Tibby's funeral's today."

"Everard's too," said Frodo.

"I expect there'll be more folk there," said Rudmer. "There's so many Tooks hereabouts, and hardly anybody'll turn out to see Tibby buried. He had no close kin here in Tookbank beyond Tansy. There was some cousins, old maiden-aunts of Mr. Clover's who looked after Tansy after he passed on, but they washed Tibby off their hands long ago. Tansy managed his laying out and all the rest of it by herself. I said I'd give a hand, though it's work more fit for womenfolk, but she wanted to do it 'n' see him sent off proper."

"Her brother's death must have upset her very much," Frodo said sympathetically.

"That it did," Rudmer agreed. "Tibby was all she had left of her own family, Mr. Baggins. I expect you know more about that 'n I do, since you was in the middle of that business with Toby being killed. Losing Toby that way, it made Tibby all the world to her, 'specially after her dad passed on too. How was she to look after herself? That brother of hers wouldn't do it. After he went off, she pined over him so it'd break your heart to see her. But I'd be surprised if he gave her a thought all the time he was away. It would've been better if he'd stayed away for her good as well as his own."

"Did you like your brother-in-law, Mr. Thursk?" asked Frodo.

Rudmer considered for a moment before he answered, "It wouldn't be decent to say, now he's dead."

"Which means you didn't like him."

"It wouldn't be decent to say," Rudmer repeated firmly, "nor wise, seeing as I'm talking to you, Mr. Baggins."

"I've heard about your quarrel with Tibby on the day he returned to Tookbank," Frodo told him.

Rudmer gaped up at him, then turned his attention to his daughter and gathered up the toys she had flung aside. "You shouldn't listen to gossip in the town. They talk lots of nonsense." He spoke in a calm voice, but Frodo could see that his hands were shaking as he placed the little wooden figures in a row before the child.

"A lot of people at the Bullroarer's Head heard the two of you quarreling in the high street," Frodo persisted. "Are they lying? Why would they tell such a story if it wasn't true?"

When Rudmer lifted his head to look up at Frodo again, he said, "All over Tookbank, everybody's saying that Mrs. Took killed Tibby and her husband, but they also say you don't think it's so. That's why you're here, asking questions. If it wasn't Mrs. Took, then you've got to look 'til you find somebody else."

"Yes, that's so," Frodo acknowledged. "But you must see that it does no good to try and keep secrets. It only makes matters look worse. I've come to you, Mr. Thursk, because I'd like you to tell me the truth of what happened rather than rely on pub gossip. If you've done nothing wrong, then you've nothing to fear from me. "

Rudmer was still wary in spite of this reassurance, but he answered, "That's kind of you, Mr. Baggins. Tansy's afraid of you, but she says you're a fair gent."

"Will you tell me what the fight was about?" Frodo prompted when Rudmer said no more after this intriguing remark about his wife's fears.

"Tansy," Rudmer said simply. "Did she tell you how he came here to see her? Well, I didn't want him to bother her again after that, and I told him so. She's expecting another baby at the end of the summer and I didn't want her getting worked up over him. That brother of hers was always more to her 'n she was to him--I'm sure of that. He didn't care for her, but I do. I've done my best for her. I didn't like to see her upset herself over him, and he'd only be coming back to upset her some more. Awhile after he left here, I went out to look for him. I thought he'd be at the Bullroarer's, where he always used to go. I found him trying to get in, only they wouldn't let him past the door. I heard later that Mr. Brundle kicked him out earlier in the day. When he walked off down the street, I went after him and told him he wasn't to trouble Tansy. He said he was bound to see his sister as much as he liked and I couldn't stop him! I said my house was my house and his sister was my wife and the mother of my little uns and I cared for them even if he didn't. Then I gave him a shove, and he shoved me back. We didn't come to blows, not as such, but I pushed him once hard enough to knock him down. After that, he ran off and that was the last I saw of him."

"You never went to see him at the cottage?"

"No!"

Rudmer's voice had been rising steadily during this account of his fight with Tibby. At this last emphatic exclamation, Tansy's voice called out sleepily from inside the smial. "Rud? Who's that you're talking so loud to?"

"Nobody!" her husband responded. "It's just me and the baby playing. I didn't mean to wake you." He gave Frodo a glance, urging him silently to go away before Tansy came to the window and saw him.

"Doesn't she know about the fight?" Frodo asked in a whisper.

Rudmer shook his head fiercely. "D'you think I'd tell her? She'd never forgive me for it."
Chapter 17 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo walked back over the crest of the hill and down into the deep valley that contained the garden behind the Thain's Hall and the neighboring Took smials. Merry was sitting alone on the western slope above the garden, waiting for his return; he was frowning, but Frodo was used to that by now.

As he drew nearer to his cousin, Merry rose and called out to him, "Frodo, have you gone mad?"

At first, Frodo didn't understand what Merry was referring to. Then he said, "Oh. Melly told you?"

"Just after you left. I wondered what on earth you were saying to her to make her laugh like that. It couldn't have been this story about Rudmer Thursk. That's news to cheer her, but it isn't so cheering as that. Whatever made you do such a thing?"

"I wanted to give something to think about besides her present position, so that she'd look toward her future. I also meant to show her that I intended to stand by her, no matter what. It did cheer her up, Merry. She laughed out loud. You heard her."

"What if she accepts?" Merry persisted. "When I asked what she meant to do, she said she was thinking the matter over seriously. It's all very well to want to give her hope, Frodo, but it isn't fair of you to play with her feelings. She's been through enough. What'll you do if she decides she'll marry you?"

"If she does, then I will marry her," Frodo told him. "I meant it, Merry. I wouldn't have made such an offer if I hadn't intended to carry it through. You didn't seem to think it was so terrible an idea last night. You said she regretted refusing my proposal the last time."

"I never imagined you'd actually go and do it again! Besides, when I said that, you said you wouldn't be a fit husband. Have you told Melly about you and Sam? After Evvy, she deserves to know." Something else occurred to Merry. "What about Sam? What'll you tell him? He won't like you getting married."

Frodo knew that this was true, but he answered, "I don't see why he should object. I didn't when he married Rose. And unless Melly wants another child, my marriage to her will be perfectly chaste."

"Did you tell Melly that?"

"Of course. We had a frank conversation on the subject. She knows all about Sam. She understands that I'm not the sort of hobbit to be attentive to a wife in that way, but I told her I'd be willing to try if she wanted to have a baby. The Ring undermined my health, but I've no reason to believe I can't father a healthy child if I make the effort."

Merry shook his head in disbelief. "You're quite mad, Frodo. The maddest hobbit I know."

"Melly said so too."

"Well, you and Melly can do as you please, but did you think of how the Tooks will receive this news? They're bound to hear of it--they probably have already. Pip was with me when Melly told me, and Dodi and Isalda were nearby. Pearl and Reg too. They won't keep it to themselves. The story will spread 'til everybody in Tuckborough hears about it."

A gathering of hobbits in the heart of the garden below told Frodo that Merry was right; the news was already beginning to spread.
Chapter 18 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo and Merry came down the slope above the smallest smials, those belonging to lesser members of the Took family, with front doors opening directly onto the western side of the garden. Once in the garden, they walked toward the group of Tooks and their visitors. The Thain, Ferdi, and Peri had joined the couples who'd been strolling around when Frodo had left, but Melly was no longer in sight. Everyone regarded Frodo expectantly.

"Is it true, Frodo--what they're saying about you and Melly?" asked Ferdi.

"Didn't Melly tell you herself?" Frodo asked back. "Where is she, by the way?"

"She went into the nursery to see little Addy before she went back to her room," Pearl informed him. "I think she wanted to consult him about having a step-father so soon." There was a slight note of disapproval in her voice at this unseemly haste, but she also watched Frodo with curiosity.

"It isn't as if the poor boy knew his own father," Flora protested.

"We only came out after she'd gone in. It is true then?" Peri asked Frodo. "You've proposed to her?"

Frodo acknowledged that it was true, but added that matters between them weren't settled yet.

"Well!" said Ferdi in amazement. "I thought that Pippin was only making it up as a joke."

"I thought it was odd when I saw how you and Melly were sitting so close together last night," said Pearl, "but I never imagined-! If it were anyone but you, Frodo, I might've assumed that something of the sort was in the air, but you..." She hesitated, feeling that she'd stumbled into an awkward topic.

Her husband, however, felt no such delicacy. "You must admit that it's certainly unexpected, Frodo. What do you want a wife for?" Reg wondered. "According to the stories we've been hearing from Hobbiton lately, you already have a husband."

Some of the others looked embarrassed at this crude remark, but Pippin said, "Well, why shouldn't he? If I can get betrothed to a girl, there's no reason why Frodo can't too."

"No reason at all!" Fatty agreed with sudden heartiness, following Pippin's lead, and gave Frodo a firm pat on the shoulder. "If Melly accepts, then I'd say she's made an excellent choice."

Dodi and Ferdi hastened to offer their own conditional congratulations. Isalda kissed Frodo on the cheek and the prospect of a wedding moved Ada to smile for the first time since viewing her brother. But Frodo could see that they were all bewildered. His lack of romantic interest in any woman was well known; none of his friends had ever expected him to marry. They must be wondering why he'd chosen to propose to Melly now.

"Of course you have my best wishes for your future happiness as well, Frodo," the Thain spoke carefully, "but don't you think you've put yourself in a peculiar position? Won't your interests be divided if you propose marriage in the midst of investigating a murder when the lady is your chief suspect?"

Frodo had expected someone to make this point and, unlike the obnoxious personal question put to him by Reginard, he was ready to answer it. "No, sir. If I had any true reason to suspect her, I wouldn't have done it. I've made no secret of my belief in her innocence from the first, and you may take this as my declaration of how certain I am about it now. There are other suspects I'm considering."

"Ah!" Thain Paladin seized upon this last remark. "You've questioned Rudmer Thursk? What did he say?" He wasn't the only one eager to hear what Frodo's report.

"Mr. Thursk didn't confess to the murders," Frodo told them, "but he does admit to having a fight with Tibby, just as Pippin described."

"He'd have to admit it, since half the town heard them. What'll you do next?" asked Pippin. "Will you go to Chief Thornbreak?"

Frodo shook his head. "Not yet, when there's only a fight to tell him about. Since it's been talked over at the Bullroarer's Head, I'm certain he's heard of it already and doesn't attach particular importance to it."

"He thinks he's already got his murderer and doesn't need to look for anyone else," Merry grumbled.

"Mr. Thursk denies that he ever saw Tibby again after their fight," Frodo continued. "He told me that he'd never been near the cottage. It seems to me that the next thing to be done is catch him in a lie."

"You mean, find someone who saw him going there, or coming back?" Dodi asked.

"That's right. That will be a tale to tell the Chief Shirriff."

"If he went that way on the night Ev was killed, somebody might've seen him. I'll help you find them," said Pippin, and Dodi also offered his services. Those who had never doubted Melly's innocence seemed relieved at even so small a prospect.

Merry looked hopefully toward the Thain, but Paladin showed no sign of relenting. He was sympathetic, but wouldn't budge from his original conditions: Melly wouldn't be free to leave until Frodo provided clear proof of her innocence or another's guilt. As the local magistrate, he was concerned with justice, but he was even more aware than Mr. Brundle of the local feelings about Everard's murder and his wife's part in it.
Chapter 19 by Kathryn Ramage
Because of local feeling toward her, Melilot didn't attend her husband's funeral that afternoon. Merry pointedly remained at Adelard's house with her. Together, they looked after Addy and the other children while the rest of the family assembled at the far end of the meadow beyond the garden, where the extensive Took vaults were. Dodi and Fatty stood beside their respective spouses near Everard's bier before the vault door. Frodo also attended, but stayed at the edge of the crowd throughout the ceremony. Like Merry, he felt as if he were in the midst of an enemy camp. The Tooks were his relatives as much as the Brandybucks, and some were as dear to him, but he'd placed himself firmly on the Brandybuck side by supporting Melly. By this time, his proposal to her had become common knowledge among the many smaller households around the Thain's Hall. Members of these cadet branches of the Took family who spoke to him before the funeral were coolly reserved or looked as perplexed as his friends had by the news. They must think him besotted and no longer an impartial investigator. A number of prominent Tookbank residents and local farmers had also come to pay their respects; they kept deferentially at the back of the crowd, away from the gentry, but they had also heard the news. Frodo heard the whispers that went among them and noticed the furtive glances in his direction. Who knew what they thought of it? Frodo felt certain he would hear something of their opinions tonight when he returned to the Bullroarer's Head. Mr. Brundle would tell him. He had no desire to draw more attention to himself than he already had, but he had to be here to watch and learn.

The meadow was a long one, extending northward from the shallow end of the valley created by the curving hill where the principal Took smials were burrowed; a stream separated it from the garden. From where Frodo was standing, he could see not only over the heads of the crowd to the entrance to the vault, but another sad reminder of how this tragedy had begun--the copse where Everard used to meet Toby Clover, and where Toby had been found murdered the evening before Everard's and Melly's wedding.

Frodo made note of the people who spoke words of farewell over Everard's covered body on its bier, per hobbit tradition. Adelard and Thain Paladin spoke first, each in turn declaring his affection for the dead hobbit and his grief at the loss. They carefully avoided any allusion to how Everard had spent the last few years of his life and the way he had died. They were here to express their own sorrow for a beloved son and nephew, not stir up anger. As head of the family, the Thain was particularly determined to suppress any vengeful emotions among the mourners.

Eglantine didn't speak, but Pearl did and Everard's three sisters followed tearfully with childhood reminiscences. Reginard, unsurprisingly, was the first to declare a wish for revenge upon his brother's murderer; he didn't name Melly, but Frodo felt sure that this reticence was due to Pearl's and Adelard's influence. The Tooks knew who he meant, however, and excited murmurs began to rise from the crowd. It was only when Ferdi stepped up next and offered some happy memories of his best friend that these murmurs subsided and the general mood improved.

Other friends of Everard's followed Ferdi--Edegar Took and his younger brother Elvegar, Florian Took, Stalibras Windipeak-Took, Hildebord Plurose-Took, all distant cousins who lived in and around Tuckborough. Frodo knew them all fairly well, but none well enough to call them his own friends. Like Pippin, Ferdi, and Ev himself, they'd grown up together as rowdy young hobbits and enjoyed spending their time pulling pranks, drinking at the local pubs, and putting wagers on pony races; some, like Ferdi, had married and grown more respectable, while others still keenly enjoyed their youthful pursuits.

None of them spoke of Everard's death with anger or bitterness. Their sentiments were in keeping with Ferdi's. They'd known Everard from childhood and had always thought him a good lad. They'd missed him sorely these last few years and were sorrier still that he'd come to such a tragic end so young. Edegar spoke of his hope that the murderer would be discovered soon; Frodo paid close attention, for it was the first truly interesting thing to occur at the funeral. Not only did Edegar seem to believe that Everard's killer wasn't Melly, but some person unknown, but his statement also upset his brother, Elvegar. Some urgent, whispered conversation was exchanged between the two after both had expressed their farewells. Frodo was too far away to hear what was said, but Pearl spoke a rebuke to them and they remained silent among the group near the bier until the last farewell had been made and Elvegar joined the other bier-bearers to carry Everard into the vault.

After the ceremony had concluded, Adelard extended a general invitation for refreshments to be served in the part of the garden nearest his home. As the crowd dispersed, Frodo tried to keep an eye Edegar, hoping to talk to him and learn what the quarrel had been about. There were too many people moving between them, however, and he soon lost sight of the younger hobbit. But Edegar would surely join the rest of the family at Adelard's; Frodo was certain he would catch him there. He followed the crowd in the direction of the bridge that led into the northern end of the garden.

Reg and Pearl were walking a short distance ahead of him, arm in arm with their heads together. Frodo heard only a fragment of their conversation, but it was enough to draw his attention away from Edegar and Elvegar and make him strain to hear more without obviously eavesdropping.

"...asked me about tea-time, when Melly came back from the cottage and so on, but I think what he wanted to know was when I came in," Reg was saying to his wife in a quick and low voice. "The funny thing is, Pip asked me the same question just before the funeral, only he wasn't as roundabout about it. Is he spying for Frodo?"

"Of course," Pearl responded, and gripped her husband's arm as he started back angrily. "There's no reason to be alarmed. It was only to be expected." She glanced back at Frodo, who deliberately kept his eyes on the grass before his toes. "Let them pry and poke to their hearts' content. They can't discover anything. Only mind that you keep your tongue and don't give them cause to watch you."

Frodo couldn't hear Reg's muttered reply, except that Melly's name came into it.

Pearl answered, "Well, you must abandon that idea, my dear. It doesn't seem likely now."

"Here, Frodo!" another voice called out behind him.

Frodo turned to look over his shoulder just before he crossed the bridge. Edegar was among the last of the hobbits leaving the funeral and was headed toward him, bringing along his unwilling brother by the arm. He stopped to let Reg and Pearl go on with their interesting conversation, and waited for the two brothers to catch up with him.

"I don't like her any better than you do, Elve," he said as he thrust Elvegar toward Frodo, "but I won't see an injustice done. Tell him."

"Injustice?" Frodo echoed. "You mean, against Melly?"

Elvegar remained silent and recalcitrant. "Tell him," Edegar insisted, but Elvegar didn't speak until the last of the funeral attendees had gone past and they were alone in the meadow.

"She couldn't've done it, Frodo," he muttered sullenly.

This was more than Frodo could have hoped for. "How do you know so certainly?" he asked, and tried not to sound too eager for the answer.

"Because I was there at the cottage myself after she left." Now that he'd begun to talk, Elvegar produced the rest of his story rapidly. "I didn't see her go, but Ev told me that his wife had just been to call upon him. Naturally, he was low in spirits, so I offered to go with him into Tookbank for an ale at the Bullroarers to cheer him. Ev refused, since Tibby wasn't welcome there. So I stayed there with him and had tea and commiserated 'til it began to get dark. I was with Ev for more than an hour."

"Melly was back at Uncle Adelard's well before dusk," recalled Frodo. "She was there in time for tea." At this time of year, dusk fell around eight o'clock; it would be dark by half past. Adelard's family had taken tea that afternoon around five o'clock. "She wasn't out of sight again that evening until they all went to bed."

Edegar nodded. "And this fool's known it was so and kept it to himself. I knew he'd been out that night, but didn't know where he'd gone to. Well, he told me just before the funeral and I said he ought to go and tell you before you learned of it from someone else and started to make more of it than you should."

"Like imagine that I killed Evvy!" Elvegar exclaimed.

"Did you?" asked Frodo.

"There, you see! I knew you'd take that line!" Elvegar looked to his brother to witness that he'd been right. "You're on her side. Everyone's aware of that."

"I don't want someone I care for to be punished for a crime she didn't commit," Frodo answered this accusation. "I don't want that to happen to anyone, even people I don't like. As your brother says, it would be an injustice, and I care very much about justice."

"I didn't kill Ev, as a matter of fact, and I don't know who did," Elvegar retorted. "He and his friend were alive when I left them. Tibby Clover was angry--as usual--and Ev was low, as I've told you. He said he meant to go to bed right after he'd had his dinner. But they were fine!"

"Thank you, Elve," Frodo said sincerely. "Are you willing to come and tell this same story to Uncle Paladin? I think he'd prefer to hear it directly from you."

After an encouraging look from his brother, Elvegar agreed.
Chapter 20 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo would have been delighted to bring evidence of Melly's innocence to Thain Paladin under any circumstances, but to produce it when dozens of hobbits were present to witness it was an unabashed triumph. Only a few of the most prominent Tookbankers had accepted Adelard's invitation to take refreshment, but nearly all the Tooks who'd attended the funeral were there.

As Elvegar repeated his tale of having seen Everard and Tibby alive after Melly was supposed to have killed them, Frodo heard those murmurs rippling through the crowd again--first with tones of surprise, then doubt, then acceptance that it must indeed be true. Even those who believed that Frodo might lie for Melly's sake knew that Elvegar wouldn't. Like many of Everard's friends, he'd disliked Melly since she had gone home to Buckland. It was true. Melilot Took hadn't murdered her husband. She couldn't have done it.

Frodo hoped that this news would spread as swiftly as the gossip about him and Melly had.

"Will you inform the Chief Shirriff, Uncle?" he asked once Elvegar had finished.

"I'll send a message to him right away," Paladin agreed. "I expect that he'll want to question Elvegar himself, to be certain of his facts."

"But you believe him?"

"Yes, certainly. I see no reason why young Elve should lie, though I do wonder why he kept such important information to himself for so long." The Thain regarded Elvegar sternly, as if he knew precisely why Elvegar hadn't spoken to clear Melly earlier. "You won't mind if Chief Thornbreak asks you a few questions, will you, Elve?"

"No, sir," Elvegar mumbled. He knew he had no choice and was resigned to retelling his story as often as required.

"Then may I tell Merry and Melly that he can escort her home?" Frodo requested. The two hadn't emerged from Adelard's smial to face the crowd of Tooks in the garden, but remained indoors and out of sight.

Paladin smiled. "Yes, go and tell them that she's free to leave Tuckborough. Merry needn't wait any longer."

But Frodo couldn't go into the house immediately, for he was surrounded by hobbits who wished to praise him for his swift success.

"I'm so glad, Frodo!" Peri said.

"It's a relief to know that Melly couldn't have done something so terrible," added Ada.

"I never doubted she couldn't, not for an instant," said Isalda. "But all the same, it is wonderful to see it proved."

"They do say you're a very good detective," said Filobard.

Fatty was grinning and Dodi hugged him. Their congratulations were more enthusiastic than those he'd received over his plans to marry Melly. This was, after all, something that they had expected him to do.

Pearl also said that she was pleased things had turned out so well for Melly, but Reginard, Frodo noted, looked disappointed almost to the point of anger--as if his expectations had been thwarted. Was he upset because Melly couldn't be his brother's murderer, or because she had escaped a hoped-for punishment?

Then, most remarkable of all, Lady Eglantine came forward--not to offer congratulations, but to apologize. "I'm afraid I haven't been myself lately, and I've said some unpardonable things to you," she said quietly. "I do hope you will pardon them, Frodo."

"Yes, of course, Aunt Eglantine," Frodo replied graciously. "I quite understand."

"We all do, my dear. It's been a most trying time," said Paladin, and Pippin took his mother's hand.

When Frodo finally stole away from the garden, he entered Adelard's house through the study door and went to the nursery. It seemed the most likely place to find his Brandybuck cousins. When he peeked into the room, however, he found that the younger Took boys were taking a nap and Aderic and Peveril were playing quietly. Mamma and Uncle Merry, Aderic told Frodo, had gone to "watch the party."

Frodo looked through the adjacent rooms until he found his cousins at the window in one of the back parlors overlooking the garden where the funeral reception was being held. They must have heard the commotion outside and realized that something important had occurred.

"What's going on, Frodo?" Melly asked him as he came into the room. "Everyone looked so excited all of a sudden, but Uncle Paladin is smiling. Is it good news?"

"The best news." Frodo told them what happened, and had the pleasure of seeing Merry whoop out loud and jump in the air.

Melly threw her arms around his neck--Frodo half expected her to accept his proposal at that moment, but all she said was, "Thank you."

"I wish I could say it was my remarkable detective skills that accomplished this, but I hardly did anything," Frodo replied modestly as he took her by the arms to hold her slightly back from him. "It was Edegar who brought his brother to me."

"And Elve was happy to keep his mouth shut 'til then," said Merry, briefly reverting to his angry mood. "Frodo, could Elve have done it?"

"That's possible, of course. He was there at approximately the right time, though I couldn't guess at what reason he might have to murder them. I think that if he did kill them, his brother would never have forced him to admit he'd been to the cottage that night. As for his brother..." Frodo paused to consider Edegar's motivations.

"You sound as if you plan to go on investigating Evvy's murder," said Melly.

"Yes, if Uncle Paladin will allow it. I've done what Merry brought me here to do, but my business isn't quite finished. Even after what happened here today, there will always be people who will wonder if you didn't have something to do with it. The only way to silence them is to discover beyond all doubts who really is responsible. Besides, I want to know who killed Ev and Tibby. Don't you? If we leave it to Shirriff Thornbreak, we may never learn the truth."

Melly acknowledged that, yes, she wanted to find out who had murdered her husband. Merry also admitted to being curious.

"But that's no reason why the two of you should stay on here," said Frodo. "I know how badly you want to go home."

But Melly surprised both Frodo and Merry by answering, "No, I can't go home yet."

"You can't want to stay here?" Merry asked incredulously.

She shook her head. "I've no wish to stay here now that I'm free to leave. You know I didn't feel welcome, even before, and it'll only be more awkward now. But I don't want to go so far away as Buckland. My business here isn't finished either." She was looking at Frodo; Merry followed her glance and his eyebrows shot up beneath the curls on his brow.

"And you wouldn't join us at the Bullroarer's?" he asked.

Melly shook her head again. "Not after the people in Tookbank have been saying awful things about me. I never want to set foot in that town again and won't subject my Addy to it."

Merry fully sympathized with her feelings. While both were glad that the worst was past and she was free, neither was ready to forgive the Tooks nor the Tookbankers.

"What about the Green Hill Inn?" Frodo suggested. "If you leave Tuckborough right now, you'd have to stop there at any rate unless you mean to ride through the night, so why not take a room for Addy and yourself? Merry and I can ride over with you and we'll have dinner together. I won't be able to stay there--I have to remain at the Bullroarer's Head if I'm to carry on my work, but I'll bring you news whenever I have any."

Melly agreed that this was the best solution and hastened to her room to pack. By the time the after-funeral party had dispersed and the various Took families returned to their own smials, she and Aderic were prepared to go. While Merry went to the stables to have their ponies saddled and the trap brought around, Melly made brief farewells to Adelard and his family. Though polite words were exchanged, both sides were understandably reserved. Everard's family was no more ready to apologize for suspecting Melly of his murder than she was to forgive their suspicion. She didn't want to quarrel, only to be away from them, and they were relieved to see her leave. But not a word of this was said aloud.

"Good-bye, my dear," Adelard said to his daughter-in-law at the front door of his home while Frodo helped Merry put the baggage into the back of the trap. "I hope you'll allow little Addy to come and visit us sometime."

"Yes, of course, Father Addy," Melly replied. "Whenever you wish. Only let me know, and I'll make arrangements to send him here to you."

"Thank you. I'll write you at Brandy Hall or Bag End, wherever you make your home. I do wish you happiness, dear Melly." Adelard took her by the shoulders and she submitted her cheek for a kiss. Pearl also bestowed a cool kiss on the cheek as she said good-bye, and Dodi, Isalda, Flora, and Fatty promised that they would see her at the inn tomorrow when they stopped on their own way home.

The Green Hill Inn was only five miles from Tuckborough and they went swiftly along the curving road between the hills amid the deepening shadows of the late afternoon. Melly drove the trap, just as she'd driven to Tuckborough little more than a week before, and Frodo and Merry rode their ponies behind her. Pippin decided to come with them at the last minute; he would join them at the inn for dinner, but told his parents to expect him home for the night. It was his way of carefully dividing his time and loyalties between the two.

"However did your father convince your mother to apologize?" Frodo wondered. "It was kind of her, but I know she wouldn't have done it without his prompting."

"It was before the funeral," Pippin explained. "He reminded her--in that gentle way he has of talking to her when she's on a tear--that everybody in Tuckborough would be turning out to see Evvy's farewell and it wouldn't do to make a scene. When she's herself, there's nothing Mother dislikes more than making scenes. He didn't say 'So you'd better behave yourself,' but that's what he meant. And she took the hint that I was right and she'd made some bad scenes already about you. She began to feel she'd been wrong--not about what she said to you, exactly, but that she said it out loud. I don't know what's the matter with her. I'd never've guessed that Mother would take Evvy's death so hard. She didn't like him when he was alive, especially not after this business with the Clover lads."

Frodo said nothing.

They arrived at the Green Hill Inn at dusk. While Pippin and Merry took the ponies and trap around to the stable yard, Frodo took Aderic by the hand to escort the little boy and his mother in through the front entrance. Since the inn lay at the crossroads of two important routes for travelers north, south, east, and west, and sat near the eaves of the vast Green Hill Wood, it was the only place for miles around where the local farm-folk could gather for an evening. A number of hobbits were already gathered in the common room; Frodo could hear them laughing and talking as he walked with Melly into the front hall. There was no sign of the innkeeper, who was most likely at the bar, serving ale to his patrons.

"Hello!" Frodo called out. "Mr. Greenlee? Are you here?" Normally, he would've gone into the common room in search of the innkeeper, but he didn't like to take a newly-widowed lady and small child into the public room of a tavern.

Mr. Greenlee didn't appear in response to Frodo's summons, but Sam did. "Don't I know your voice, Fr-?" he began, but stopped when he saw who Frodo was with.

"Sam!" Frodo cried in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"I was on my way down to Tuckborough and stopped to have a sip o' ale and let the pony catch his breath before I started my last leg," Sam answered. "Now, what's this about you getting married?"
Chapter 21 by Kathryn Ramage
"However did you hear about that so soon?" Frodo wondered.

"It's all the talk here, even more'n Mr. Everard's death--though they're saying it's all of a piece." Sam looked from Frodo to Melly to little Aderic, who was still clinging to Frodo's hand, and his eyes widened in alarm. "You haven't gone and got married already?"

"No, of course not! Ev's funeral was only a few hours ago. Nothing's been decided yet," Frodo told him. "Melly hasn't accepted my offer." He could see that Sam was relieved to hear this at least.

"And might never, until Frodo's talked to you and has your approval, Mr. Gamgee," Melly added.

"That's very kind of you, Mrs. Took," Sam said respectfully, "but it's his say whether or not he wants you for his wife."

"Since part of Frodo's idea is that I should care for your children, it's no good if I come to live at Bag End and only bring discord," Melly answered. Sam looked puzzled.

The innkeeper emerged--not from the public room, but through the door that led to the stables. He didn't seem surprised to see that there were customers waiting for him. "Welcome back, Mr. Baggins," he said with a bow to Frodo. "And you must be Missus Took."

His foreknowledge was explained when Merry and Pippin soon followed from the stables along with two lads bringing Melly's baggage. When the two cousins saw Sam, they greeted him quickly and announced that they were going to have an ale before dinner, "while you talk things over," then disappeared into the common room.

"I'll leave you as well." Melly retrieved her son's hand from Frodo's and went with the innkeeper to make arrangements about a room for her son and herself and to order dinner for six in the private dining room.

While Mr. Greenlee showed Melly and Addy to their room, Frodo and Sam went into the common room to seek a table in an inconspicuous corner, although Frodo already felt quite conspicuous. His presence was immediately noticed and numerous pairs of curious eyes were upon him. There was only one other place to go; taking Sam by the arm, Frodo guided him across the room and out through the door near the bar, which led onto a small, stone-paved terrace on the western side of the inn. A low stone wall surrounded the paved area, and a gate opened onto a path that led around to the front of the inn or down to the crossroads. Fortunately, no one had come out to enjoy their ale at the benches or tables here; it was a fine evening, but growing slightly chilly now that the sun had set. They could talk privately without being overheard.

Frodo hadn't been looking forward to this conversation, but he'd known from the first that it would have to be done. If no one else understood his reasons for proposing to Melly, he had to be sure that Sam did and accepted it. Melly was right; none of them could be happy living at Bag End if Sam resented her presence.

"What's going on?" Sam asked him once Frodo had shut the door to the inn behind them. "That lot in there've been saying that you asked Mrs. Took to marry you before her husband was hardly cold. That looks like it's so, since both you and Mrs. Took admit it is. But some're saying you asked her knowing she murdered her husband, so as to protect her. And some're saying you helped get him out o' the way so you could marry her yourself."

"What rubbish!" Frodo exclaimed. "Melly had no part in her husband's death--that's been proved, though I suppose that news hasn't gotten here yet." Merry and Pippin would surely be telling the local hobbits about it now. He hoped that Melly would never learn that the gossip was as bad as it had been in Tookbank. At least, Mr. Greenlee had received her courteously. "I never thought of proposing to Melly until after Everard was dead."

"Oh, I know that's all bunk." Sam waved his hand to dismiss the more outrageous rumors. "But why'd you go and ask her then? What's this about her looking after my little uns?"

"Well, that was part of my reason. You knew I intended to invite her to come to Bag End this summer. I thought that if she and Addy found they were happy with us, I'd ask her to stay. We've discussed this more than once."

"You never said anything about marriage!" Sam sputtered.

"She wasn't available to be married, not when Everard was still alive. Now, I can make a more formal offer to her."

Sam was still upset, but he was trying not to shout. Raised voices might be heard by those within the inn. "What're you thinking of, Frodo?" he asked in a lowered voice. "We only just- well- There's naught to stand between us now, even if I never wanted to be free of poor Rosie this way. So why d'you want to go and marry Mrs. Took? You don't want to be rid of me?"

"No, of course not! You know that isn't so. I want her to join our household. I made it all very clear to her, Sam."

This didn't make Sam any more pleased. "We're not going to be sharing, are we?" he asked. "I won't go through that all over again."

Frodo sat down on one of the benches at the far end of the terrace. "I didn't object to you marrying Rosie," he repeated the argument he'd made to Merry. "You remember--I encouraged it. I wanted you to be happy and saw that you couldn't be without her. I knew how you loved her."

Only a little light shone through the round windows on either side of the inn door, but Sam leaned closer to Frodo until their noses almost touched and searched his eyes intently. "D'you love her like that, Frodo?" he asked in a whisper, as if he dreaded the answer. "I've seen for a long time that you liked her, as much as you ever liked any girl."

"No," Frodo answered honestly after giving the question serious consideration. "I don't love her, not in that same way. I care very much for her. There isn't a woman more dear to me, except for perhaps Aunt Esme and Aunt Dora--but my feelings for her aren't quite the same as what I feel for them either! Nor is it what I feel for you, dear Sam." He took Sam's hand and raised it to hold the palm against his cheek. "All the same, there's never been another girl I ever thought about marrying, and I suppose neither Melly or I have ever forgotten that. I've told you how we grew up together at Brandy Hall, how close that makes us. If I do love Melly, it's because she's like a sister."

"I don't know as I'd want to marry a girl who was like one o' my sisters," said Sam.

Frodo had to smile. "I suppose I might feel differently myself if I were like other hobbits and sought an ordinary marriage." He briefly squeezed the hand he was still holding. "I want you to be certain that you understand that, Sam--if Melly does accept, we won't be the usual sort of husband and wife. I told her that I'd only try it if she wanted another child. I don't think she'll take up that particular offer in any case. She thought it was funny."

"I can't say as I blame her. It's a funny thing to tell somebody when you're asking to marry 'em." But this information obviously came as a great relief to Sam. "Then there won't be any sharing?" he asked.

"No."

"And she's still thinking of marrying you, after that?"

"She's considering my offer, just I've explained it to you. I hope you don't mind too much, Sam. I only decided upon it this morning, when I saw how alone and hopeless she felt. There was no time to consult you."

"I don't see how I can mind much," Sam conceded, "not if it's as you say."

"It'll be just as I've said. You do like Melly," Frodo went on, encouraged by Sam's signs of acquiescence. "And she likes your children. And her son likes me. I don't see any reason why we all can't get on very well together-"

He stopped abruptly when someone rapped on the other side of the door. Sam whirled and Frodo jumped to his feet, both expecting an unwanted intrusion, but it was only Pippin, telling them that dinner was ready whenever they were.
Chapter 22 by Kathryn Ramage
After dinner, Melly picked up her sleepy son to put him to bed. "I know that you're going to talk about murder now," she said, "and Addy oughtn't hear about such things yet."

"Will you come back after you've tucked him in?" asked Merry.

Melly shook her head. "I'm afraid I'm not up for joining this investigation. I've played too much of a part in it already. Only tell me when you know who killed Evvy."

Sam gave her a look of sympathy. He'd said the same thing after Rosie's death. It was impossible to take an interest in abstract discussions about who might've murdered someone when you were so close to the murder yourself.

Once Melly had gone and the table had been cleared except for a tray containing a decanter of the innkeeper's best wine, the four hobbits settled down to look over Frodo's investigation so far. Sam was told about all that had been seen and discovered since that afternoon; he then took out a memoranda book and the slate pencil he'd brought with him. "Now, who d'you think did it?" he asked, and prepared to write out a list of suspects.

"If you ask me, Rudmer Thursk seems the most likely," said Pippin.

Frodo had to agree. "He cares very deeply for his wife--more than she does for him. Her brother came first in her heart, though he didn't deserve that sort of devotion. If Rudmer was afraid of what Tibby's return would do to his marriage and his wife's peace of mind, he might've gone to any lengths to see that Tibby was sent away again as soon as possible. We know that he fought with Tibby to try and keep Tibby away from his home. He claims that that was his only encounter with Tibby, but what if it wasn't? What if he did go to the cottage in hopes of driving Tibby away? He mightn't have meant murder. He may have only brought the knife with him to try and frighten Tibby. But Tibby wasn't the sort to be easily threatened. He'd stand up to Rudmer and declare that he'd see his sister whenever he pleased. They fought again and Tibby was killed. Ev awoke and came out to see what was going on, so he had to be killed too. All this is possible, but we have no proof that Rudmer was ever at the cottage at all."

"I'll see about that," Pippin promised. "Dodi and Fatty are helping too."

"Are they?" Frodo recalled that Dodi had offered to help, but he hadn't been aware that any specific arrangements had been made, nor that Fatty was involved.

Pippin nodded. "Ferdi said he'd take them to the Bullroarer's after dinner. If anybody saw Rudmer out and about that night, we'll find it out."

"What about Reg?" asked Merry. "Last night, you said you thought he was the one member of your family you could imagine committing these murders, Pip. Do you still believe it? Has anything turned up again him since then?"

"He's said some things today that make me wonder," said Frodo. He still wasn't sure what to make of that conversation he had overheard after the funeral. Were Pearl and Reg merely discussing what to do if Reg was questioned, or had something more sinister been planned between them to account for Reg's whereabouts at the time of the murder? He decided not to mention it, since Pearl was involved. While Pippin was ready to suspect his brother-in-law, he hated to hear anything that impugned the character of his eldest sister. "He had good reason to want to be rid of Tibby and he hates Melly. He'd be happy to let her take the blame for his brother's murder even if he had no part in Everard's death and knew that she didn't either. That much, I'm certain of. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that he's capable of killing Ev. He did love his brother and, whatever hatred he felt for Tibby or Melly, it was because of what he thought they'd done to Ev. I can easily imagine him stabbing Tibby to try and restore Ev's honor, or being glad to see Melly hanged when a word from him could save her--but I can't see him killing Ev just because Ev happened to catch him red-handed. I think that Reg, for all his faults, would let himself be caught rather than have his brother's blood on his hands."

"Maybe Ev fought with Reg himself," Merry suggested. "Ev wouldn't just stand there once he saw what had happened. He might've tried to go for help, or to rescue Tibby."

"There was no sign of a struggle," Frodo pointed out. "According to all I saw at the cottage, and all that Chief Thornbreak found, Ev was stabbed as he stood at the bedroom doorway in his nightshirt."

"Could he've been moved?" Sam asked.

Frodo shook his head. "Not after he was stabbed. The blood--I saw it. There was a pool where Evvy was found, and another in the sitting room where Tibby died. They couldn't have been moved without leaving a trail along the hallway. The only other blood we found was in the bushes, where the knife was flung out through the window. No, if Reg did it, that's not how it happened. He had to be capable of stabbing his brother at once, or else he didn't do it at all."

"Maybe somebody else went with him, and that person stabbed Ev?" Merry persisted.

"Could it be Elvegar?" asked Pippin. "We know he was at the cottage just when Chief Thornbreak says they were killed. He admits it."

"Yes, but why would he tell Frodo he was there if he did it?" Merry answered. "When I asked Frodo the same thing earlier, that's what he said and I couldn't think of any explanation. Frodo's right. It'd be much more sensible for Elve to keep his mouth shut. He didn't speak up to help Melly. He wouldn't have said a word if his brother hadn't made him."

"You know him better than we do, Pip," said Frodo. "Why do you think he might've gone with Reg to the cottage?"

"Well, he was Ev's friend and had the same reason to want Tibby gone as all the Tooks did. Maybe they only went to bully Tibby and send him on his way--or maybe that's what Elve went expecting to do. But Tibby would fight, and then Reg stabbed him and Elve had to do something when Ev came out to try and stop it. He would've kept quiet as long as he thought no one knew he was there, but once Edegar found out, he had no choice. He doesn't hate Melly as much as Reg does, but he doesn't like her so he wouldn't mind her being in trouble."

Frodo acknowledged that this was as plausible as any other theory they'd made up so far. Another idea had also occurred to him since the afternoon. "It mayn't have been Elve who was there for the murder, with or without Reg. However Elve felt about Tibby, they didn't openly quarrel. At least, we haven't heard about it. But Edegar did. He's on that list of hobbit-lads who had fights with Tibby at the Bullroarer's Head that Pippin gave me this morning."

"But if Edegar was behind it all, why would he bring Elvegar to you to say that he'd been there?" asked Merry.

"I don't know," Frodo admitted. "Perhaps they thought I'd find out and decided it was better to turn my attention toward Elve instead of Edegar. If Elve was only there to visit his friend, then he has nothing to fear. He mayn't even know that Edegar had any part in it. Well, that fight was ages ago and may mean nothing. All the same, I think it's worth my while to ask him about it, and ask both brothers a few other questions."

"Who else is there?" Sam asked as he diligently wrote these names down.

"Only one other person occurs to me," Frodo said reluctantly. "Another Took." Merry understood who he was referring to, but Pippin didn't.

"Who is it?" Pippin asked. Frodo didn't answer. "Well, who?"

It was Merry who told him, "Aunt Eg has been behaving peculiarly since these murders, Pip."

"No!" Pippin shouted.

"You've said so yourself," Frodo said quietly. "This isn't like her at all. She's extremely distraught."

"Frodo, no!"

"She cares a great deal for family honor. She hates scandal, and Ev certainly brought scandal to the Tooks. Her own nephew."

"No!" Pippin insisted.

"She could bear it while he was far away, but then he came home again and was living openly with his lover just beyond Tuckborough. Maybe that was more than she could stand."

"No!"

"Pippin, it does have to be considered," Frodo began, but at this point Pippin put his hands over his ears and refused to listen to another word. There was nothing to do but stop talking.

"Consider whoever you like, Frodo, but she's my mother," Pippin said once he saw that Frodo didn't intend to go on. He looked from Frodo to Merry in disbelief. "You can't really mean you suspect my mother of murder?"

"Frodo's suspected his own mother of murder, Pip," Merry said lightly. "You missed the fun last summer--you were away when Frodo and Sam were visiting the Hall and he found an old letter she wrote on the day she died. I'll tell you all about it later. It'll be my mother next."

Frodo couldn't say that it would take a great deal to make him suspect Esmeralda. It would only mark the fact that she was much more dear to him than Pippin's mother. He didn't want to upset Pippin; whether or not he liked Aunt Eglantine, or suspected her, Pippin did love her and didn't want to believe that she would ever commit a criminal act. He resolved not to mention his suspicions of Eglantine again, unless he could prove beyond all doubt that she was guilty. To press the question beforehand would only make matters worse and he had no wish to divide himself from those Tooks who were still his friends.

Sam said, "So what'll we do next?" He hadn't written down Lady Eglantine's name.

Frodo looked at him gratefully and said, "One way or another, we must find proof. We can guess all we like about who was there and what happened, but until we find a witness or a clue that puts one person undeniably at the cottage at the right time to commit the murders of Ev and Tibby, guesses are all we have. Pippin, you've already said that you'll try to find out if Rudmer Thursk was there."

"I'd rather do that than anything else," said Pippin. "And I'll even talk to Reg if you want me to. But I won't ask my mother questions, Frodo--that's that."

"I won't ask you to," Frodo assured him. "I'll question Edegar and Elve myself tomorrow, and if Ferdi and the lads are still at the Bullroarer's when I return tonight, they can tell me if they've learned anything of interest. If I miss them, will you please drop by Uncle Addy's for breakfast and find out?"

Pippin agreed that he would. Merry, who was planning to stay on at the Green Hill Inn to keep Melly company, promised that he would talk to Dodi and Fatty when they came by with their wives tomorrow, if Pippin overslept.

"We'll have to see what we find tomorrow," Frodo concluded, "and then decide how to go on from there."
Chapter 23 by Kathryn Ramage
"You didn't say what I could do," Sam pointed out later that evening as they rode back to Tookbank. Pippin had gone with them as far as his home in Tuckborough and they were now approaching the tunnel through the rocky crest that separated the two towns.

"It's enough that you're here, dear Sam--though I suppose I ought to find some task for you. Since you're neither a Took nor a Brandybuck, you might be able to go where members of either family can't. You're known to Tansy Thursk, but not to Rudmer."

"You think he's the most likely one to've killed Mr. Everard and Tibby Clover," Sam recalled.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. The Thursks are wary of me, and perhaps they have good reason to be, but that one fight between Tibby and his brother-in-law simply isn't proof enough for anything. Tibby was always having fights and quarrels and they didn't end up in murder." Frodo rode silently for awhile, thinking over the best way for Sam to approach Rudmer without putting their suspect on guard against him. At last, he said, "Rudmer Thursk is a carpenter or woodcrafter of some sort. He keeps a little shop not far up the high street from the tavern. While I'm off on other errands tomorrow, you can pop in there as any traveler stopping at Tookbank might, look over his wares, buy one or two things, and have a chat with him."

"You want me to buy tables and chairs?"

Frodo laughed. "No, nothing so unwieldy to cart home as that! He carves little trinkets and toys as well. I saw some of his handiwork this morning in his own daughter's hands. If he has more of the same to sell, you'll have gifts to bring back for the children."

By this time, they had passed through the tunnel and the lanterns of Tookbank shone ahead of them. The last patrons were leaving the Bullroarer's Head as they went inside, but Mr. Brundle's barmaids were still busy sweeping up and clearing the tables. Frodo fancied that the tavern's patrons looked more welcoming this evening; a couple even offered him their congratulations as they went out the door--whether on his success in proving Melly innocent or on his pending marriage to her, Frodo wasn't sure.

Sam, who'd been riding all day and was weary, went straight down the long tunnel behind the public room to find the bedroom Frodo and Merry had previously been sharing. Frodo sought out the innkeeper. He found Mr. Brundle having his own late supper in the kitchen, which was otherwise closed for the night, scrubbed clean, and its fires banked.

"Won't Master Merry be wanting his things tonight?" Mr. Brundle wondered after Frodo had explained Sam's arrival and Merry's departure, and made arrangements for one of the stable-lads to convey Merry's belongings to the Green Hill inn in the morning.

"He'll probably be asleep long before a lad could ride over there if one goes now," said Frodo. "Merry can sleep in his clothes well enough. He's done it plenty of times before in less comfortable surroundings." Mr. Brundle nodded uncertainly, not knowing what to make of this remark about the sleeping habits of one of the highest-born gentlehobbits in the Shire. "But he'll want a change of clothing tomorrow and I doubt he'll want to come back to Tookbank to fetch his things. Now that our cousin Melly's left Tuckborough, he'd rather be near her."

"I was glad to hear how Mrs. Took's been exonerated." Mr. Brundle pronounced this last word carefully; it was new to him. "And I'm more sorry 'n I can say that I couldn't let her lodge here last night. There were hard feelings in the town--you know that. But I hope there won't be any hard feelings over it now it's past, Mr. Baggins, not from the folk hereabouts, nor from you nor Master Merry."

"I bear no grudge, Mr. Brundle. I understand that you had to think of your own living and the goodwill of your neighbors," Frodo said magnanimously. "Then you've heard the news?"

"Mr. Ferdibrand was in earlier with Mr. Bolger and Mr. Doderic Brandybuck, as are married to Mr. Adelard's daughters," Mr. Brundle answered. "They were quick to tell anybody who'd listen about how you proved she couldn't've done it and how the Thain set her free. Mr. Doderic promised to knock anybody in the head if they said a word against her, and Mr. Ferdi said he'd give 'em a good kick in the seat o' their trousers for good measure. So that kept the worst tongues from wagging. If his Thainship and the rest o' the Tooks are standing up for her, and Chief Thornbreak agrees, then who're we to say different?" Having finished his dinner, Mr. Brundle emptied the mug of ale beside his plate and refilled it from a jug on the table. He then held the jug over an empty mug as if he meant to fill it as well. "Will you have a drop yourself, Mr. Baggins, before you're off to bed?"

Frodo refused this offer. "But will you tell me one thing before we part for the night?" he requested. "Why didn't you want me to find out about Rudmer Thursk's fight with Tibby Clover?"

Brundle didn't answer this immediately, but had a sip of his ale before he said, "I was hoping you wouldn't get to hear about that."

"But you must surely have known that the story would come to my ears sooner or later. Half of Tookbank was here to hear them in the street outside."

"Half o' Tookbank quarreled with that Tibby. Didn't I say so?"

"That's true," Frodo agreed, "but you didn't hope to keep me from finding out about those others. Why this one fight in particular? What reason do you have to try and protect Rudmer Thursk? He's not a relation of yours, is he? A nephew, perhaps?"

"Of a sort," the innkeeper admitted. "His mother's my wife's cousin's child."

"Yes, I see." For hobbits, this was considered a close relationship. Rudmer probably called the innkeeper 'Uncle.'

"Now, Rudmer had naught to do with Mr. Everard's murder--I'm sure of that!" Mr. Brundle insisted. "He's a good lad and never did harm to anybody. He wouldn't've harmed Mr. Everard, whatever his quarrel with that Tibby. Anyways, he was here all that night."

"Was he?" Frodo was alert at this information. "Why didn't you say so before?"

"I didn't know you'd want to know it 'til now, Mr. Baggins. Why bring it out before you heard tell about Rudmer and Tibby and started asking questions?"

Frodo acknowledged that this was reasonable. "Can you tell me when he came in that night, and when he left? Did you make note of the time?"

"I'm not likely to forget it--not that night!" Mr. Brundle responded promptly. "He was the first one to come in that evening, straight from his shop up the way. He didn't go home 'til it was after dark and I asked if his wife wouldn't be waiting dinner for him."

"What did he say to that?"

"That she wasn't feeling well with the new baby and he didn't want to trouble her with cooking. Mrs. Brundle saw he had a bite to eat here in the kitchen, and he went on his way home. It must've been going on for ten o'clock when we saw him out the door."

It might well be true, but Frodo doubted this convenient story. There was, however, no way he could disprove it tonight. He bid Mr. Brundle good-night and went to his room, where Sam was waiting for him.
Chapter 24 by Kathryn Ramage
Sam had put on his nightshirt and was lying in bed, but he wasn't asleep. While Frodo prepared to undress at the foot of the bed, he told his friend about his conversation with Mr. Brundle.

"We could question Mrs. Brundle about it, but it mayn't be worth the trouble. She'll only tell the same tale as her husband, whether or not it's true. But perhaps someone else who was in the Bullroarer's Head that evening can tell when Rudmer came in or went out? There's another task for you, Sam, after you've been to see Rudmer Thursk. And why not ask him about his comings and goings at the inn while you're talking to him?" Frodo had removed his coat and waistcoat and, as he carried them to the wardrobe to hang them up, noticed that the coat's black velvet collar was looking somewhat threadbare. "I'll need to see Mr. Threadnibble about making a new black coat for me when we get home."

"You ought've kept that one for best," Sam said drowsily, "and not go riding about in it."

"I don't normally use it for riding," said Frodo, "but I left Tuckborough this afternoon directly after Everard's funeral and there was no opportunity to change. I do try to keep this one for best, but it's the one I always wear for funerals. I've worn it to every one I've attended since Berilac's." There'd been many funerals since then; it was part of his work to attend them. He hung up the coat and shut the wardrobe door.

Sam had lit a small fire to ward off the chill of the room before getting into bed so that Frodo could comfortably dispense with his own nightshirt; once he'd stripped off his shirt, trousers, and small-clothes, and piled them on the same chair near the hearth where Sam had placed his, he climbed into bed. It was warm beneath the blankets. Frodo snuggled closer to the source of that warmth and wrapped both arms around Sam from behind. Following the unexpected news of his plans to marry, he felt he must make it up to Sam and reassure him that it wouldn't change anything between them. Sam responded to this embrace by twisting around until he managed to slip one hand beneath Frodo's torso, around to the small of his bare back, then drew Frodo down, breastbone against his shoulder.

"What'd your betrothed say if she saw you doing this?" he asked after a kiss.

The question might've troubled Frodo if he'd detected a note of jealousy behind it. But there was a hint of smile on the corner of Sam's lips; he was teasing.

"She isn't my betrothed--not yet, and may never be," Frodo answered. "She hasn't given me her answer. And I did tell you, she knows how it is between you and me. It was only right I tell her all about myself before she made her choice. I've gone too far with you to keep secrets from anyone any longer." He gave Sam another kiss, then nuzzled the curve of his jaw. "I must say how pleased I am that you're taking this so well, dear Sam. I know that my proposal to Melly came as quite a surprise and you've a right to be upset about it."

"It might've happened before," Sam replied philosophically. "Don't I know that you could've married anybody you liked since you came of age?"

"Surely not 'anybody,'" Frodo scoffed at the idea that he was such a magnificent catch. "What girl would've wanted to marry me?"

"You might've married Angelica, like Miss Dora wanted you to."

"No chance of that!" Frodo exclaimed, laughing. He was still lying half on Sam's chest, braced on one forearm. "We hated the sight of each other all the time Aunt Dora was trying her hardest to push us together. She wouldn't have had me if I'd begged her."

"If you'd begged and meant it, she'd've taken you," Sam said, to Frodo's astonishment. "I think if you'd once looked at 'Gelica like a pretty girl expects boys to look at her, she wouldn't've minded Miss Dora's pushing so much."

This was something Frodo had never considered. In those days, he'd only thought of his cousin Angelica as a vain, spoiled, selfish girl; even if he'd been disposed to notice pretty girls, she wasn't a girl he would've chosen to pay attention to. Though they'd become better friends since then, he still couldn't imagine being married to her. "No, not Angelica," he declared. "Who else?"

"There's Thimula. Old Mrs. Sackville-Baggins put it in her will that she was to marry you."

"Aunt Lobelia's will wasn't valid on that point," Frodo replied. "She couldn't leave me a house I already owned on the condition that I marry a woman I barely knew. And Thimula barely knew me. I doubt she would've taken me just to have a home at Bag End. Aunt Lobelia left her quite enough property without it and, besides, she had her eye on Rubar Chinhold, poor thing."

Sam went on to the next prospective bride. "Blanca Budling."

"Blanca?"

"Look at that red-headed, freckly Uphill-Took lad she did marry! Why wouldn't she pick you over the likes of him if you gave her a chance to? If you ask me, she wouldn't've minded if you did try to kiss her that once, like Miss Dedona thought you were going to when you took her off to ask her questions. You might've married the richest girl in the whole Shire and had all the tea you'd ever want."

This made Frodo laugh again. "That would be a great inducement to marry, Sam."

"And what about that other Uphill-Took cousin of yours--Miss Randa?"

"Randa did make me an offer," Frodo admitted. "But she would've wanted me to live at Uphill Hall with her and help to manage her family's property. It would've been just the same if I'd married a great tea heiress like Blanca. Even if I could be a proper husband in other respects, I could never have been the sort of helpmeet that such women really need. I hope Randa does find the right lad to stand by her one day, like Blanca did."

"Then there's Mrs. Took, back when she was still Miss Melilot and you asked her the first time," Sam said. "She might've accepted you then. She almost did."

"Yes," Frodo agreed reluctantly. "I might've married Melly years ago. It would've spared her a great deal of trouble, but we mightn't have had such a nice little boy for a son."

"So you had plenty of chances to wed if you wanted to," Sam concluded.

"And you've kept count of every one of them!"

"You don't notice women in that way, Frodo, so you think they don't notice you," Sam told him. "But I can tell you they do. Lots of 'em do."

Frodo acknowledged that there was some truth to this; he was never aware of women's interest in him unless they practically flung themselves at him, to his utter confusion and embarrassment. "What if they do?" he asked lightly in reply. "Even if I did notice them, my dearest Sam, it wouldn't have made any difference between us." He pecked the tip of Sam's nose affectionately. "Melly won't now. There'll simply be a lady and another little boy living at Bag End with us."

"There'll be some changes," Sam responded seriously. "It won't be like it was with Rosie. If you marry Mrs. Took and adopt her little boy, they'll have rights."

"I have thought of that, Sam." Frodo sat upright, tucking the blanket around his hips. "If we marry, of course I'll make proper provision for Melly and little Addy. You won't mind sharing in that respect, will you?" He knew that Sam was never comfortable discussing his will nor the fact that, even though his health had improved greatly since Queen Arwen had given him her talisman, he didn't expect to remain on Middle Earth long enough to grow old; nevertheless, the thought was obviously on Sam's mind and had to be discussed. "I've left Bag End to you and your children. If I have a wife and step-son, they'll naturally have a claim to it as well. I don't imagine that Melly will throw you out of the house after I'm gone, and I hope you won't behave that badly to her either."

Sam made a snorting sound as he tried not to laugh.

"Then you agree that it won't come to anything so ridiculous?" Frodo said, smiling. "I'm certain that whatever arrangements I make, they'll be fair to everybody and won't cause a quarrel. And the matter may resolve itself in the end."

"How d'you mean?"

"Addy might fall in love with one of the girls once they're grown. I'll follow Auntie's example and leave Bag End to him and Nel--or to him and little Rosie--on the condition they marry. Perhaps my matchmaking will come to a better end than hers."
Chapter 25 by Kathryn Ramage
The next morning after first breakfast, Frodo returned to Tuckborough and Sam went up the Tookbank high street to find Rudmer's shop. It was only a short walk up the hill from the tavern, and two doors away from what had once been the Clover's butcher shop--and still was a butcher's shop today although under new management. Sam went inside to find that although Rudmer had many samples of his craft on display, he was no maker of furniture. No chairs, tables, or large chests were in view, but shelves were filled with small cabinets with a multitude of tiny drawers, jewelry boxes, lap-top writing desks, carved wooden serving trays, and toys like the ones Frodo had described. Sam was examining these last when the owner of the shop emerged from the curtained-off workroom at the back.

"How can I help you, sir?" Rudmer asked in friendly tones. "I beg your pardon--I don't know your name. You're a stranger to these parts?"

"I'm stopping at the inn for a day or two," Sam answered. This was the truth, but it felt like a lie. He didn't like the taste of it on his tongue. Nevertheless, he plunged on with his task. This was what Frodo had sent him here to do. "I heard tell of the toys you make and thought as I was having a look about, I'd have a look in here too."

Rudmer seemed surprised to hear that his work was well-known. "You have children?"

"Four little uns."

"I've only got one myself--a little girl--but we're expecting another by the autumn. I started carving toys for her when she was a baby and got to carving so many that I thought I'd put 'em out to sell." Rudmer took down a set of tiny, jointed dolls to show them to Sam. "How old're your little uns, sir? Boys or girls?"

Sam was dressed like a gentlehobbit--Frodo made sure that he was a regular customer of Mr. Threadnibble, the Hobbiton tailor--but his accent remained that of a country lad. Rudmer grew chatty and more at ease after hearing him speak. Sam provided information about his children's ages and sexes, and Rudmer made recommendations regarding suitable toys for each. If buying presents was all he had come here for, Sam would've enjoyed himself. But he had other business to attend to, and further duplicity was required.

"I heard you've been having an exciting time hereabouts lately," he said.

"You mean the murders?" asked Rudmer with no sign of self-consciousness. "That's right--two lads was murdered just last week. One o' them was a gent from Tookbank, the Thain's own nephew, and the other was a local lad, the old butcher's son and my wife's brother."

Sam murmured his sympathies. "It's a shocking thing to've happened. Do they know who did it?"

Rudmer shook his head. "There was some that was sure it was the gent's wife. Our Shirriff thought so and would've locked her up if it wasn't for her having such high-n-mighty friends. The Master o' Buckland's her kinsman, and so is that detective, Mr. Baggins. If you're lodged at the inn, you'll see him there. Well, he proved it was wasn't her and Shirriff Thornbreak had to let her go. They oughter find the right ones who did it. It's upsetting to my wife."

"D'you have any ideas who it might be yourself?" asked Sam. "Seeing how the one lad was kin to you?"

"I don't like to guess," said Rudmer. "Tibby--that's my brother-in-law--was away from us for near to three years, and who knows what sort o' hobbits he ran afoul of while he was off to other parts o' the Shire with Mr. Everard? Just the same, it wouldn't surprise me to hear it was some stranger that followed 'em back to the Thain's land. I can't see anybody I know committing these murders."

"Did you tell your shirriff or the detective about it being a stranger?"

"They wouldn't listen to the likes o' me," Rudmer said diffidently as he gathered up the toys Sam had purchased and wrapped them up into a tidy cloth bundle.

"There might be something in it. You didn't see any strangers hereabouts last week around the time these murders happened, did you? They'd've most likely stopped at the inn down the street. You might've seen them there that very night." Sam had a moment of inspiration. He'd been struggling to think of a way to ask Rudmer about his comings and goings at the Bullroarer's Head on the evening of the murders, per Frodo's instructions, but had had no idea how to go about it without rousing Rudmer's suspicions until now. "Did you go to the inn that night?"

"I did," Rudmer confirmed. "I had my supper there, but I didn't see anybody I didn't know." He handed the wrapped parcel to Sam with a small, wry smile. "I'd've noticed anybody coming in with blood all over 'em."

"They might've gone in for a half before the murders, to steady their nerves. If you'd gone in earlier, you might've seen 'em."

"I might've," Rudmer agreed, though he was beginning to look puzzled by his customer's intense interest in the subject. "But as it was, I didn't."

Sam exited the shop. He hadn't gone more than a few steps down the street before a voice called out to him, "Hoy! Is that Shirriff Gamgee?"

Sam glanced back; Rudmer was still at the shop door and had obviously heard Chief Thornbreak hailing him. He turned to greet his fellow High Shirriff.

"I don't need to ask what brings you to Tookbank, Samwise Gamgee. You're here on Mr. Baggins's business," Thornbreak said cheerfully. "I wondered what kept you when he came here the other day, though he's done his work quick enough without anybody's help. He said it wasn't Mrs. Took that did it, and I was sure it was--and he was right in the end. Too clever by half, that gent of yours."

"You don't bear him no grudge?" Sam asked.

"Well, I felt a bit put out at being shown I was wrong," Thornbreak admitted. "Nobody likes that, do they? But wrong I was and we all want to catch the right murderer. I don't want to put a noose 'round a lady's neck when it don't belong there. Though I daresay it'd never come to that, particularly not if the lady's protected by the likes o' his Thainship, the Master, and Mr. Baggins who they're saying wants to marry her now she's a widow. Who'd've guessed that he would be sweet on her? I reckon that's why he came down so quick from Hobbiton to rescue her."

After Chief Thornbreak had invited Sam to join him in a mug of ale that evening so they could talk over the murders and who Frodo suspected, he went on his way. Rudmer remained in the doorway of his shop, looking in turns bewildered, distrustful, then horrified. He looked at Sam as if he wanted to ask him a question, but Sam hastened away before Rudmer could confront him. He felt as if he'd committed a betrayal.
Chapter 26 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo left his pony at the Thain's stable and went along a path that led to the eastern, outward slope of the U-shaped hill where most of the Took families had made their smials. Edegar and Elvegar lived with their parents in the last smial at the end of this hill, before its slope diminished at the creek that divided the garden from the meadow beyond.

When Frodo knocked at the front door and asked if the two sons of the house were in, a maid showed him through to the garden side, where Edegar and Elvegar were enjoying a morning's pipe after their second breakfast. It was going to be a fine sunny day, and other branches of the Took family were also out in the parts of the garden nearest their own homes.

"Oh, it's you!" Elvegar exclaimed once the maid had announced the visitor and he turned to find Frodo standing there. "I oughtn't be surprised that you've come back. I knew once I spoke up that that wouldn't be the end of it. First Uncle Paladin, then the High Shirriff. I had to sit with them all the rest of yesterday afternoon answering their questions about when I last saw Evvy. They may be done with me, but not you, Frodo. You'll be poking at me forever after. Yes, I knew how it would be. Now that you've got Melly free, you have to find somebody else to hand over to Shirriff Thornbreak in her place."

"So I do," Frodo acknowledged. "But it isn't you I've come to 'poke at,' Elve. It's Edegar."

"Me!" cried Edegar, more astonished than his brother.

"Yes. I have a few questions for you. In all the excitement after you brought Elve to me yesterday, I didn't have the opportunity to ask you then. I hope you don't mind. Will you tell me how you learned that your brother visited Everard that evening?"

"He told me so," Edegar responded promptly. "It was over luncheon, just before we dressed for the funeral, as a matter of fact."

"Did you ask him for the truth, or did he come out with it without being prompted?"

"Here now, Frodo!" Elvegar protested. "What are you getting at?"

"I asked him," Edegar answered the question, disregarding his brother's interruption.

"But how did you know to ask? What made you suspect he had something to tell?"

"I didn't 'suspect' him of anything, Frodo. 'Suspect'--now there's a word! No, I only wondered. I told you, Elve came in late for dinner that night. I didn't think much of it at the time, only I knew he hadn't been at the Bullroarer's Head with friends, where he'd usually be of an evening if he came home late."

"How did you know he hadn't been there?" asked Frodo.

"I was there myself, with Stally. We stopped for a half-pint on our way home. I was nearly late for dinner myself! We didn't hear about poor Evvy being killed 'til the next morning. It was then I began to wonder. I saw the look on Elve's face whenever someone said that Melly had murdered Ev. He didn't look guilty or anything of the sort, Frodo, if that's what you're after, but it was a queer look. Like he'd eaten something that'd gone bad and wasn't going to keep it down."

"So you guessed that he wasn't telling all he knew about Everard and Melly?"

Edegar nodded. "But that was all I suspected him of doing. Not murder. Elve doesn't usually keep secrets from me."

"Here, what is this, Frodo?" Elvegar demanded again. "What are you getting at with these questions?"

"I've only a few more," said Frodo. "Edegar, you say you stopped at the Bullroarer's Head with Stalibras on your way home from somewhere?"

"Yes, that's right," Edegar confirmed, though he also seemed puzzled at Frodo's line of questioning. "We'd ridden over to Olddigger's farm to look at a pony Stally's thinking of buying."

"What time did you arrive at the Bullroarer's?"

"It must've been after six o'clock. We had a couple of half-pints each and talked over the pony we'd looked at. Stally did buy it, if you're interested."

"And what time was dinner that evening?"

"We always dine at eight."

If Elvegar was telling the truth, then Everard and Tibby had still been alive around eight o'clock that evening when he'd left the cottage; therefore, Edegar couldn't have been involved in the murder. But Frodo now began to wonder: What if all of this was an elaborate ruse the two brothers had created between them? Elvegar wouldn't have come forward with his story of visiting the cottage if it meant implicating himself, but he might if Edegar had murdered Everard and Tibby hours earlier and he wanted to protect his brother.

There was no way Frodo could verify Elvegar's story, but Edegar's could be examined more closely. The Olddigger farm was nearly ten miles away, along the Waymoot road that curved north beyond the far side of Tookbank. It would take a hobbit hours to ride there and back again. The cottage where Everard and Tibby had been murdered was in the opposite direction, beyond the southern end of Tuckborough. If Edegar and Stalibras Windipeak-Took had truly been at the farm during the afternoon, and had been at the Bullroarer's Head soon after six, then it was impossible for Edegar to commit the murders before that time. He could ask Stalibras. Would Stalibras lie to say that Edegar had been with him? Stally was not only Edegar's friend; he'd once been a friend of Everard's and had resented Tibby. What about Farmer Olddigger?

The shrill shrieks of a small child at the other end of the garden distracted Frodo from these thoughts. He left the two brothers and quickly crossed the open lawn at the garden's heart, headed toward the back of the Thain's Hall and its immediate neighbors to see what was going on.

The shrieks were coming from Periwinkle Took, Ferdi's and Peri's daughter. The little girl, a miniature version of her mother, was clutching the front part of her skirt against her round tummy, her strawberry ringlets in a tangle, as she ran as fast as she could in a delighted terror from her uncle Pippin. Since she wasn't yet three years old, she couldn't run very fast. Pippin was doing his best not to overtake her, though his exaggerated movements and warnings that he was "Right behind you, Winkie! I'm going to catch you!" were meant to show the child he was in earnest.

Periwinkle was looking back over her shoulder at her pursuer and not at what lay ahead of her. She was headed in Frodo's direction. Frodo crouched down to take her in his arms and picked her up before she ran into him. The little girl let out one more ear-piercing scream as she was lifted, but once she realized who was holding her, she wrapped her arms around Frodo's neck and gave him a kiss.

"Hullo, my poppet. Where have you been hiding?" Frodo asked her. "I haven't seen you at all since I arrived."

"Peri's kept her in the nursery," said Pippin as he reached Frodo. "She and Pearl agreed it was best to keep the little ones out of the way during all the trouble. They didn't want them to overhear anything they shouldn't and start asking questions nobody wanted to answer."

"But they're out-of-doors now." Pearl and Peri were seated on a bench not far from the Thain's Hall garden door, Pearl with her youngest son, still a baby, in her lap. Frodo could also see the older boys scrambling around under the shrubbery and trying to keep out of sight behind the tall flowers. "What were you doing to this poor little thing, Pip? I thought she'd fallen down and broken an arm or leg."

"We were only playing hide-and-go-seek! Only Winkie didn't want to be found."

"Couldna catch me!" Periwinkle crowed gleefully. "Unca Pippin couldna catch me!"

"Of course not, darling--you're much swifter than your silly old uncle. By the way, Pip, I've been calling on Edegar and Elvegar this morning," Frodo added to Pippin. "I have another task for you once you've tired yourself out chasing the children. Can you chat with Stally Windipeak-Took and ask him how he liked that pony he was looking at over at the Olddigger farm? If he wonders why you want to know, you can say you're thinking of getting a new pony yourself or something of the sort, but what you really want to find out is if Edegar was there with him, how long they stayed and how late they rode back."

Pippin nodded as if he understood.

"If you can, also find out how long they stopped at the Bullroarer's Head on their way home. I may ask you to visit the Bullroarer's tonight to verify that Edegar and Stally were there for as long as they say they were. I know you won't mind doing that."

"No, not at all!" said Pippin. "It's my favorite kind of detective work."

"If there's any sign that Stally's story isn't trustworthy, I might send Sam to the Olddigger farm later on to see if the two were actually there on the day of the murders. But that ought to do for the present. Did you talk to Dodi and Fatty before they left?" asked Frodo.

"They'd gone before I could get up and dressed," Pippin said apologetically. "I meant to go next door to have breakfast with them and say good-bye, but Pearl says they were eager to go home. Not just Dodi--Izzy and Flora too. Ada says they didn't want to be in the middle of any family quarrels, but she and Filo are staying on for a few days."

"What about Reg?"

Pippin shook his head. "I haven't seen him this morning."

The little boys hiding in the bushes began to shout for Uncle Pippin to come and find them. After Pippin obeyed this summons from his nephews, Periwinkle squirmed to be set down so that she could rejoin the game as well. Frodo set her on her feet on the grass and let her go to toddle after Pippin. He then went over to the bench where Pearl and Peri were sitting; he knew it would be useless for him to try and interview Reg directly, but he and Pearl were on better terms and she might be more amenable to answering questions.

"Pip's wonderful with little children," Pearl said once Frodo was near enough to converse with. "And they adore him. He really ought to have some of his own."

"Perhaps if he marries Diantha, it'll turn out right in the end," Peri said. "Oh, I know he speaks as if they don't intend to have babies like ordinary husbands and wives, but they may feel differently after they've been wed awhile."

"And if Merry Brandybuck allows him to have a proper marriage," Pearl added. "I believe it has as much to do with what he wants as it does Pippin and Diantha." She looked up at Frodo, who was standing before her. "But you haven't come to discuss my brother, have you, Frodo?"

"No," Frodo admitted.

"You're still conducting your investigation, even at this moment."

Frodo admitted to this as well.

"How then can we assist you?" asked Pearl. "We're as anxious to find poor Evvy's murderer as you are, and of course we want to help you if we can."

"I'm glad to hear you say so, Pearl. You've always been a sensible woman--the most sensible of Tooks." Pearl couldn't object to this, for she was generally recognized as the most clever and responsible of the Thain's four children. But Frodo intended more than flattery. Of the Thain's children, Pearl was also the one who took most after her mother and Frodo wanted to let her know that he expected her not to behave hysterically, as Lady Eglantine had done. "You won't take offense if I ask you a question purely to clear members of your family from all suspicion?"

"Goodness!" cried Peri. "Who do you suspect now?"

But Pearl had taken Frodo's hint and replied calmly, "No, I don't mind, Frodo. I understand that it's part of your business to ask strange questions. You must do it to clear the innocent of suspicion as well as to name the guilty. Ask me what you will."

"Thank you. I only wish to know one thing--was Reg at home all that evening or did he go out again at any time?"

"Reg? Oh, Frodo, surely not!" Peri exclaimed again. "Not Evvy's own brother."

A spark of indignation flashed in Pearl's eyes as well, but she answered, "Certainly, he was here, Frodo. He and Father Addy were out of the house that afternoon, but they were home in time for tea."

"Reg was a little late for tea."

"So he was, but not by more than ten or fifteen minutes, and he was never out of my sight throughout the rest of the evening." Color had come into Pearl's cheeks. "But I suppose you believe it's usual for a wife to say such things for her husband's sake, even when they aren't true?"

"Pippin says that you've never told a lie in your life," said Frodo. "I hope that you wouldn't disappoint him, not even for Reg's sake."

This was enough to check Pearl's rising indignation. She almost smiled, obviously touched that her little brother held so high an opinion of her character. "I would hate to disappoint Pip," she agreed. "Well, if you have any doubts about my word, Father Addy was with us as well, Frodo, and so was Melly. We were in each other's company from the time Melly returned from the cottage."

"Who do you mean by 'we,' precisely?"

"Until dinner, it was just the four of us--Father Addy, Reg, Melly, and I. After dinner, we were with Mother and Father, Pippin, Ferdi and Peri, and Uncle Ferdinand and Aunt Floribunda in the drawing room of the Thain's Hall. I'm sure any one of them will tell you the same, including Melly. If she's cleared from suspicion, then we all are."

"That's true," Pippin spoke up; Frodo turned to find that his cousin had left the children's games and was standing close behind him, wanting to hear what Frodo was saying to his sisters. Pippin's expression brightened as he realized that his mother was likewise safe from further suspicion; he seized Frodo's elbow with both hands. "Frodo, I wasn't with Mother before dinner-time, but Peri was--weren't you?"

"She had tea with Mother Florrie and me next door," Peri answered. She was slow to perceive that her mother's whereabouts at the time of the murders were also important, but Pearl was already frowning at Frodo. Suspecting her mother was a greater offense than suspecting her husband.

"And Father and I were with her the rest of the night after that 'til we went to bed," Pippin concluded cheerfully. "So you see, Frodo, it's perfectly all right. It couldn't've been anyone in our family."

It was possible that the Thain's entire family, including Pippin and his sisters' parents-in-law, would lie for each other, but Melly wouldn't. Frodo would ask her about the members of the party that evening the next time he saw her; if she'd noticed anyone missing for the period of time required to reach the cottage, she was certain to say so. But Frodo doubted that there would be any such noteworthy absence. The Tooks had all been at home. "You're quite right," he acknowledged. "You've nothing to worry about."

"I'm pleased to hear it," said Pearl.

"So I am." Reg had come out of his father's smial during the last part of this conversation. "I hope this means you'll stop prying into our comings and goings?"

"I will," said Frodo, "if you'll you tell me why you were late for tea that day."

"Why on earth would you be interested in that now?"

"Only because you've been at pains to conceal the reason for it." Frodo stepped around the bench where Pippin's sisters were sitting and took Reg by the arm to lead him some distance away so that they could speak with some degree of privacy; Pearl observed their movements with a look of concern, but didn't protest on her husband's behalf. "You came in after the others had settled down to their cakes and sandwiches," he said quietly. "You said as much yourself."

"I was having a pipe up on the terrace." Reg gestured to the half-moon shaped area on the hillside above them. "I said that too."

"Yes, but that's the part I don't believe. As far as I can tell, you weren't on the terrace that afternoon. Pippin's asked around, and no one saw you in the hour or so before tea-time." This wasn't true--Frodo hadn't set Pippin to any such task--but it had the desired effect on Reg. His arrogance visibly deflated and left him looking uncertain and foolish. Frodo pressed on. "You walked over the top of the hill to come in on garden-side of the smial, as if you'd come in from the garden, but you were somewhere else. Where did you go? Come now. Elve's established that Ev and Tibby were alive hours later, and your wife and entire family can say that you didn't go out again that evening, so you've no reason to keep secrets about what you were up to now. Did you go to the cottage?" It was the only possible explanation that made sense.

After he had glanced at Pearl, and she nodded her head in response to an unasked question, Reg muttered, "Yes."

"You spoke to Ev after Melly had gone, and you said nothing?"

"No! I didn't talk to Ev. I never saw him." The rest of Reg's confession followed grudgingly. "I wanted to hear what he and Melly had to say to each other--whether they'd be sensible and behave themselves like respectable hobbits, or carry on as disgracefully as they have been. When Melly rode out to the cottage, I followed through the woods and listened outside the sitting-room window."

Frodo's eyebrows rose. "You eavesdropped on them?"

"Oh, I know it wasn't a gentlemanly thing to do, but I had to know. Ev wouldn't listen to my advice. I'd tried that. And Melly certainly wouldn't listen to what I had to say about their marriage. If I told her the best thing to do was come back to Tuckburough and be a proper wife to Ev and make him be a proper husband, she'd refuse to do it just out of contrariness. But I hoped that if they met and spoke civilly to each other, they might agree between themselves without anybody pushing. They were speaking civilly, Frodo. You should've heard the way poor Ev talked about seeing little Addy. It would've broken your heart. I truly had some hope that they'd try to reconcile, until that Tibby came in and spoiled things. When I heard the next morning that he and Ev were dead, I thought she must've killed them right then!"

"Even though you didn't hear any commotion or screams?"

"Well, I didn't quite see Melly leave the cottage," Reg answered. "When Tibby started talking about seeing Melly off, I didn't want to risk being seen, so I retreated into the woods. I'd left my pony in a clearing about five hundred yards away. You can't see the cottage from there, because of the trees. I waited until I saw Melly ride past and had gone on so that she was far enough ahead of me, then I rode home myself."

"When did you did tell Pearl about it?"

"The next day, after we heard about the murders. We discussed whether or not I should go to Uncle Paladin. I didn't actually see anything that would've gone for or against, Melly, you know. What could I tell the shirriffs that they didn't already know about her comings and goings that afternoon? If I had heard screams or seen Melly rush out of the cottage with a bloody knife, you may be sure I would've come forward."

"And if you had seen something that might've helped her?" asked Frodo.

Reg scowled as he replied, "I would've come forward then too. Even if I hadn't wanted to speak up, Pearl would never have stood for that." He turned to his wife, then left Frodo to join her.

"Frodo!" This shout came from Ferdi, who had just emerged from the smial on the other side of the Thain's Hall, where he and Peri lived with his parents. He was heading toward Frodo eagerly. "Hullo! I'm glad you're here. I don't suppose you were here early enough to catch Dodi before he and Izzy left. He was hoping to tell you about it himself, but they're well on their way home by now. At least, they'll have stopped at Green Hill and he's sure to tell Merry and Melly all about it."

"All about what?" asked Frodo.

"Rudmer Thursk! That's who you wanted us to find out about, isn't it?"

"You didn't find someone who'd seen him near the cottage, did you?"

"No, it's not quite as good as that," Ferdi admitted, "but it's still something you'll be happy to hear! Dodi was chatting with a local chap he didn't know. This fellow said that he was at the Bullroarer's that night, as he is most nights, and Thursk didn't come in 'til late in the evening. His friends wait for him and they all have their half or two at the end of the day, but Thursk didn't show up 'til it was almost dark. And he wasn't at home or at his shop. This chap lives near enough to the Thursks to know when Rudmer shuts up his shop and that he didn't go home for tea."

"I'd like to have a word with this 'chap' myself," said Frodo. "Do you know who he is?"

"I didn't see who Dodi was talking to, but it was after we'd told everybody that Melly had been proved innocent of the murder. Apparently, this fellow told Dodi that if he was a friend of the famous detective, then the detective ought to know about Rudmer Thursk. He also mentioned that fight Rudmer had with Tibby, though we know all about that already."

Frodo intended to find this hobbit and hear what he had to say for himself. He would go to the Green Hill Inn for dinner again tonight and ask Melly about the Tooks. He would also verify Edegar's whereabouts. But this was all a matter of course. It looked to be almost certain that Rudmer Thursk was the murderer.
Chapter 27 by Kathryn Ramage
"I reckon you're right about this Thursk feller," Sam said when he and Frodo met for a cold luncheon in the private dining room at the Bullroarer's Head. "He almost said as much when I asked him about seeing any strangers in here early that night--said he wouldn't've seen anybody early." All the same, Sam didn't sound pleased at their success, and Frodo noted it.

"You have doubts, Sam?" he asked. "All our other most likely possibilities have become impossible, if they were where they say they were that night. All the same, if you have any reason to think I've got it wrong, I'd like to hear it. I don't want to be unfair."

"'Tisn't that you're wrong--only, I liked him. Talking to him at his shop, he seemed like a friendly lad and not like somebody that'd commit murder. I'll think of him when I give the little uns those toys I bought, and whenever they play with them."

"We've known pleasant murderers before this, Sam," Frodo reminded him. "Lady Iris was kind and welcoming to you when the rest of the North-Tooks behaved like abominable snobs. And I've told you about the poisoner in Minas Tirith, who seemed like such a nice girl. Val Stillwaters. Rubar. In fact, I believe I've met more charming murderers than ill-mannered ones."

This made Sam smile, but he asked. "Do we tell Chief Thornbreak?"

"No, not yet. When we meet this afternoon, I shall tell him the facts I've discovered today, but I won't place any special importance on Rudmer Thursk. So far, we've only heard that he was somewhere else when Mr. Brundle claims he was here. That doesn't prove he was at the cottage murdering Everard and Tibby. He might've been anywhere. I'd like to talk to the hobbit who spoke to Dodi last night before I give his story more credence. This other hobbit might be telling a tale for some reason of his own. And I'd like to hear what Rudmer has to say for himself."

They settled down to their meal of game pie and beer and were just finishing when there was a tap on the door. Mr. Brundle came in to ask if there was anything more they wanted and, as he was clearing the mugs and plates, told them, "Rudmer's out in the public room. He was asking after you, Mr. Baggins, wanting to know if you were here. I didn't like to disturb your lunch, but if you don't mind seeing 'm now, I'll send 'm right in."

Frodo agreed, and Rudmer appeared in the dining-room doorway a few minutes later. His eyes went nervously from Sam to Frodo. "So it's true then?" he asked Sam. "You're a friend o' Mr. Baggins, helping with his investigating? A high shirriff yourself, like Mr. Thornbreak? And when you came to my shop, it was to ask me questions?"

"I didn't say nothing that was a lie," Sam answered, though he knew that this was splitting a fine hair. "I'm only stopping in Tookbank for a day or two, and I wanted to buy some toys for my little uns."

"But you asked me about the murders." Rudmer looked frightened. "What did you want me to tell you? What did I tell you?"

"I wanted to find out where you were the night Tibby and Everard were murdered," Frodo cut in, to Sam's relief. "Mr. Brundle told me that you were the first one in the public room when he opened for business that evening, and you stayed late enough to take your dinner in the kitchen."

"With Aunt Rula," said Rudmer. "That's true, Mr. Baggins. I thought Tansy'd be in bed by the time I got home and didn't want to be rattling pots and pans to wake her cooking my own supper at home."

"That part of it I've no doubt is true," Frodo agreed. "You were here at a late hour, but were you also here at an early one? I've heard from someone else that you weren't, and your own words to Mr. Gamgee suggest it as well."

"Who's been saying things about me?" Rudmer demanded.

Since Frodo couldn't supply a name, he only said, "Is it true, Mr. Thursk?"

"I told you, Mr. Baggins--folks' tell whatever tales come into their heads. They tell lies. It was that Turgo Buspey, wasn't it? He'd say such a thing."

"Why would he lie to get you into trouble?" Sam asked.

"I'll tell you why. You want to know where I was that night? Well, I wasn't off stabbing Tibby and Mr. Everard. I wasn't anywhere near to that cottage. I'll tell you right where I was."

"I'd like it very much if you did, Mr. Thursk," said Frodo. "Won't you sit down, please?"

Rudmer didn't accept this invitation, but remained standing as he explained, "It's like this, Mr. Baggins. You never been in my shop, but your friend here can tell you that it's all fiddly little bits o' carving."

"It's nice work," said Sam. "Good carving."

"Thank you," Rudmer nodded in Sam's direction to accept the compliment. "But it's naught that half the hobbits in the Shire that're handy with a knife couldn't do. My work brings in enough to see that we don't go in want, but I'd like to do more. So I'm going to buy a lathe."

"A lathe?" Frodo echoed in surprise.

"One o' them turny machines that makes the legs on a table all round and even," Sam explained.

"I do know what a lathe is, Sam." Frodo turned his attention back to Rudmer. "So you were out buying this lathe that evening?"

Rudmer nodded. "I want to do proper carpentry--tables 'n' chairs--but that takes bigger tools 'n a pocket-knife. There's no carpenter here nearer'n the Thain's man over in Tuckborough. This lathe, it's in Tooksend. The old carpenter there, Mr. Druve, he's leaving his work to go live with his daughter in Waymoot and he's selling off his things cheap. It's a ways to go, so I shut up my shop early to walk over and have a look at the lathe and some o' his big saws and planers and other tools. And that's why I got back to town so late."

"Did you tell your uncle where you'd been?"

"No, Mr. Baggins. Like I said, I didn't want anybody to know 'til it was done."

"Is that also why didn't you tell me this when we spoke yesterday?" Frodo wondered.

"That, and I didn't see any reason for it. I told you I wasn't anywhere near that cottage, Mr. Baggins, and it would've looked strange if I'd told you more. I didn't know it was so important, not 'til you sent your friend here to ask me in round-about, and I talked to my uncle just now and he said he'd done his best to keep me safe. Safe! He meant well, but he couldn't've done worse for me. I never asked him to lie for me," Rudmer insisted, "only that I had a secret to keep and he mustn't tell anybody. But after he heard about Tibby and Mr. Everard being killed, I guess he must've thought I had a bigger secret'n I did! I didn't tell nobody where I was going, since there're others that'd be ready to buy that lathe too if they heard about it and might've got there before me or offered Mr. Druve more'n I could pay."

"Like this Buspey feller," said Sam.

"That's right, Shirriff. He's got an idea to go into carpentry but doesn't have the money to set up shop for himself. He'd be happy to do me a wrong turn now he knows I got there first."

"It seems a rather hard 'turn' if it gets you hanged," Frodo observed.

"It won't come to that! I can prove I was there, Mr. Baggins. You go and ask old Mr. Druve and he'll tell you. He'll say how much I paid."

"We will ask him," said Frodo. "He isn't a relation of yours, by any chance?"

"No. I never saw him before I went over to Tooksend. A friend who knew I was wanting some carpenter's tools told me about it. You can ask him too. He lent me a cart to go get it and he's keeping it at his barn 'til I can make proper space for it in my workroom. He'll show it to you if you say I sent you." Rudmer provided the name of his friend and the location of the farm.

"D'you believe him?" Sam asked Frodo after Rudmer had gone back to the public room to fortify himself with an ale after his ordeal.

"I couldn't say until we verify his story. I was going to ask you to call on Farmer Olddigger this afternoon. Tooksend is on the way." Tooksend was a small village at the point where the Tuckborough road met the Waymoot road. It was four miles away--not as long a journey as the ride to Olddiggers' farm, but still far enough in the opposite direction from the cottage that, if Rudmer was telling the truth, he couldn't have been there at the right time to commit the murders either.

Sam accepted this assignment. "Me 'n' my pony had a good rest up this morning. We're ready for another long ride."

"It'll take you most of the afternoon, I'm afraid. I'll have to meet Shirriff Thornbreak by myself and tell him what we've learned. If you're up to it when you get back, please join me at Green Hill for dinner tonight and tell me what you've found. If not, send one of the stable-lads with a message and I'll see you when I return." Frodo smiled. "But I hope you won't be very tired."

He gave Sam a quick kiss before they left the dining-room and walked together down the back tunnel of the inn that led toward the stables. If Sam was to accomplish all he had to do this afternoon, it was best that he begin his journey right away.

"I can't help wondering, Sam," Frodo said before they reached the door to the stable yard. "What if Rudmer is telling the truth? And Edegar is as well? What if all our possibilities turn out to be impossible? Who then could have killed Ev and Tibby?"

"Maybe Rudmer Thursk's right," Sam answered. "It's a stranger who did it after all."
Chapter 28 by Kathryn Ramage
Later that afternoon, Frodo met with Chief Thornbreak in the common room and, over an ale, explained the difficulties with all of their current suspects.

"Maybe nobody did it," Chief Thornbreak joked. "Only, we got these two dead hobbits to account for."

Frodo asked about strangers or visitors passing through Tookbank during the days before Everard's and Tibby's deaths, and learned that Thornbreak's shirriffs had already made inquiries into the matter and found nothing; it was the one piece of work they had done before turning their full attention to Melly. He also asked about the condition of the murdered hobbits' bodies when they were first discovered, and how Thornbreak had estimated the time of death. This grisly subject could be discussed in greater detail with the Chief Shirriff than with Frodo's grieving uncles. Thornbreak had only ever seen one murder victim before this tragedy--Toby Clover--but like many hobbits, he was familiar with how bodies grew stiff after a natural death and how long they remained so, for this sometimes made the laying out of the recently deceased inconvenient.

Thornbreak admitted that he'd put the time of death as early as half-past four when he was certain that Melly had committed the murders, "since she couldn't have done it no later, Mr. Baggins." But, when all other points were considered, Everard and Tibby had more likely died as late as eight or even nine o'clock that evening. "They could've been dead twelve hours when I first had a look at 'em about eight o'clock the next morning," he told Frodo. "They'd had plenty o' time to grow cold and stiff in the night, but the stiffness didn't pass off 'til the end of the day. I was there all the morning. His Thainship and Mr. Adelard was there too, but it was a long while before they could see poor Mr. Everard laid out proper on a bier to be carried home. At least he was lying down to begin with, so it was only a matter of making him fit for the ladies to tend to."

"Ladies?" asked Frodo. "Lady Eglantine?"

"Well, Mr. Baggins, I heard her Ladyship was in an awful state once she saw the poor lad dead and couldn't give a hand to the laying out. No, 'twas Miss Pearl who took charge of him. There's the steadiest lady in all the Shire--you may be sure of it. Steadiest head and steadiest hands. I daresay there isn't much that'd turn Miss Pearl from doing what's needed."

Frodo had to agree, and asked about Tibby.

"Now, Tibby was all curled up tight when we found 'm, head upon his knees," Thornbreak answered. "I had to cover 'm with a sheet so as not to upset the gents nor the shirriffs. His sister came for him that day, but he wasn't fit to be laid out and taken back to Tookbank 'til the next morning."

After this, Frodo rode out to visit Rudmer's farmer friend and saw the lathe for himself. His afternoon's business completed, he then went to Green Hill. He had left a note at the inn for Sam to follow him; Sam didn't arrive by dinner-time, but one of the stable-lads from the Bullroarer's Head did, bringing a letter from Sam in reply. The innkeeper brought it around to the terrace on the side of the inn, where Frodo sat with his cousins, enjoying the early evening weather and watching the road. Frodo opened it immediately.

While Sam wrote that he wasn't wearied by his journey that day, his pony was "worn out." He'd met Pippin in the public room and they would try to confirm the hours at which all the suspects had been there on the evening of the murders. After that, Sam said he would be "resting up," awaiting Frodo's return. Notes on the results of his inquiries followed.

"Well, that's it," Frodo announced to Merry and Melly after glancing over the rest of Sam's letter. "None of them could possibly have done it. Edegar and Stally Windipeak-Took were at the Olddiggers' farm for more than two hours and didn't leave until nearly five o'clock. Sam says that he rode back to Tookbank as fast as he could, too see how quickly it could be done. It's about twelve miles from the farm to the Tookbank end of the tunnel, and Sam estimates that it can't be done in less than a hour, even at a hard gallop. He managed it in an hour and quarter by staying on the road."

"No wonder the poor pony's worn out!" said Merry. "But the road's the only way to go, and on through the tunnel if you mean to reach the cottage. You can't cut across the countryside in that part of the Shire. The hills are too steep and rough. It's much smoother riding on this side of the tunnel, but you'd never get a pony over that rocky crest between Tuckborough and Tookbank."

"Sam says that he would've gone on through the tunnel to the cottage, only he doesn't know where it is and if he'd stopped to ask for directions, it would've defeated the purpose of the exercise." Frodo set down the letter upon his knee. "At any rate, Edegar told me that he and Stally were at the Bullroarer's sometime after six and there until they went home at eight. If Sam and Pippin can confirm that, it all fits together neatly without any odd gaps."

"What about Mr. Thursk?" asked Melly.

"He was at the carpenter's buying his lathe, just as he said." Frodo found this part of Sam's message. "According to Mr. Durve--that's the old carpenter, whom Sam talked to on his way to the Oldigger farm--Rudmer left his shop at half-past eight, when the old hobbit usually has his dinner. Rudmer went on foot, by the way. Unless he had a pony concealed somewhere, it would also take him an hour to return to Tookbank. His farmer friend, who lives less than a mile from Tookbank, told me that Rudmer came by briefly that night shortly after nine o'clock to tell him he'd bought the lathe and asked if he could borrow a cart. And you told me yourself, Merry, that the hobbit Dodi spoke to last night was indeed Turgo Buspey, whom both Rudmer and his friend agree would be happy to get Rudmer into a bit of trouble."

"It must be Elvegar then," Merry declared. "He was there at the right time, and he's the only one we know of who was."

"But why would he admit to it if he did anything more sinister than chat with an old friend?" Frodo repeated this same point they'd discussed the night before.

"His brother forced him to tell. Edegar mightn't even know what Elve was up to."

"Will you pardon me, please?" Melly rose abruptly from her seat on the bench and called out to Aderic, who was playing on the slope below the terrace with some boys from a neighboring farm. "Addy looks like he needs a bath before dinner. I ought to wash up myself. We'll join you when we're presentable again."

"I don't suppose she's any more keen to hear this sort of conversation today than she was last night," Frodo said after Melly had taken her son inside.

"She only stayed to hear if Sam had any good news about finding the murderer," Merry answered as he lit his pipe; he puffed until it produced smoke, inhaled deeply, and sank back with a sigh. "We were certain it'd be this Rudmer Thursk, and that'd be an end to it."

"Instead, we're back to guessing games, and I've no better idea of who killed Evvy than I did when I began. I'd be ready to believe it was some stranger who'd followed them back from the north as Rudmer Thursk suggests, only no one's seen any strangers about." Though it seemed like a futile exercise, Frodo considered this idea for a moment. "If someone did follow Ev and Tibby from Overshire, they'd have to come by way of the crossroads here. There'd be no reason for them to be seen in the vicinity of Tookbank at all. They'd be more likely to have stopped at this inn than one of the taverns in town." He asked his cousin, "Mr. Greenlee hasn't seen any travelers with odd clothes or accents in this past week, has he?"

"He hasn't said so."

"Would you ask him?"

"Yes, of course. I've done little enough to help you investigate this."

Frodo smiled. "You've been helpful in other ways, by looking after Melly and keeping her spirits up. Would it be worthwhile, I wonder, to write the Chief Shirriff in that part of the Shire? I don't know who that would be, but Thornbreak and Sam are sure to have his name. There may be something in it. If there isn't, I can't think where else to turn next." He sighed and, since he hadn't brought a pipe with him, held out a hand to Merry; Merry surrendered his own pipe long enough to let Frodo have a consoling puff.
Chapter 29 by Kathryn Ramage
They agreed that they would talk about something besides murder over dinner, and when Melly and the freshly-scrubbed Addy joined them in the dining-room, Frodo asked them how they'd spent the day. Melly and Addy had gone for a long walk in the Green Hill Wood and gathered a number of pine cones. Merry had accompanied them to the Ferndingle farm, where Noddy Ferndingle was happy to show them around, tell them the tale of how a traveling circus had "haunted" the wood, and introduce Addy to his housekeeper's grandsons. They'd deliberately kept themselves away from the inn for most of the day to avoid overhearing the local gossip, but both Merry and Melly had sent letters home to Brandy Hall to let their family know the truth of what was happening.

"Did you tell them about my proposal?" Frodo asked.

"Melly nodded. "Yes, of course. They were bound to hear of it from Dodi and Isalda, so I thought it best that Mother and the aunties know exactly how you and I stood rather than let them jump to conclusions. You know how they are--they'll be making plans for my wedding dress before I'm out of mourning."

Merry laughed. "You remember how it was with Mrs. Underhill, Frodo? All of Buckland was ready to see me married to the mysterious widow simply because I called on her a few times. If they'd only known who they were so eager to match me to!"

Frodo chuckled as well, sharing this private joke, and Melly glanced from one to the other. "I hardly think my possible marriage would be considered as important as yours, Merry," said Frodo. "All of Buckland, as you say, expects a Master to wed a suitable lady and produce an heir. They haven't gotten used to idea that you simply don't intend to do it. It can't matter to anyone but my closest friends and family--and the lady herself--" he turned to give a smile to Melly, "how I choose to conduct my private affairs."

"You mightn't be as consequential as the Master of the Hall, my dear," Merry responded without conceit, "but you're either extraordinarily modest or extremely silly not to realize that you are an important hobbit. Modest as well as silly, if I know you. Nobody in the Shire is as famous as you've become these last few years, since you started taking on all these investigations and writing books about them. Everyone's heard of you. They'd naturally take an interest if you got married even if you went about it in the ordinary way. The way you've proposed to Melly only makes the news all the more exciting and romantic."

"I'm famous for more than investigating and writing, Merry," Frodo reminded his cousin. He couldn't say more, not with a little boy seated beside him. Fortunately, most of this conversation went over Addy's head and he appeared to be more interested in chasing the last of the peas around his plate than in what the grown-ups were talking about.

"And that only makes in more fascinating to them, Frodo," Merry replied with a grin. "They never give up hope that we'll change. After my experience with the widow, I know that better than anybody does!"

Addy had been promised by his Uncle Merry that they would go out once it was dark to try and catch some fireflies at the edge of the Wood. Once the child had cleared his dessert plate, Merry took him by the hand and the two of them left the dining-room, heading for the inn's back door. Melly walked arm-in-arm with Frodo toward the stables. There was to be no discussion of suspects over wine and pipeweed tonight; Merry and Frodo had gone over what little there was to consider before dinner, and Frodo wanted to be on his way back to Tookbank.

"I know Mr. Gamgee's waiting for you," Melly said, "but, Frodo, before you go, there's something I want to ask you. I couldn't before, not in front of Addy. It's rather personal."

"Yes, of course," Frodo answered with a note of trepidation.

"It has to do with that whole, strange business with Mrs. Underhill. The story that went around Buckland afterwards was that she was an imposter who'd tried to trick Merry into giving her some money, but there's still something very peculiar about it all. This isn't the first time I've heard Merry's make jokes about the widow, and Pippin's made some odd remarks too. I've heard enough from them to guess that you were involved in it somehow, but I didn't see until the two of you were laughing about it tonight." As they stopped at the stable-yard gate, she looked up at him with a curious expression. "Frodo, were you Merry's mysterious widow?"

Frodo nodded and blushed so hotly that the change in his face was visible to Melly even in the twilight.

Melly took a moment to consider this. "I want to understand. Was it some sort of- well- a game you and Merry were playing?"

"It was part of a case I was investigating at the time," Frodo explained. "I was obliged to leave Hobbiton without anyone knowing that I'd gone and had to hide somewhere else in disguise." One of the stable-lads emerged and gaped at them openly until Frodo ordered his pony saddled and brought out. "Only Sam knew where I was," he continued once the boy had gone. "Merry was helping by conveying messages between us--but then things quickly got beyond our control. He called upon me so often that it encouraged the most outlandish gossip, and once it'd begun, there was nothing poor Merry could do to put a stop to it. Even Pippin believed it."

Melly laughed. "Yes, I remember that very well!" She continued to gaze up at him, but now she was smiling. "Is that why you want to marry me, Frodo--for my wardrobe? I've got some lovely dresses, made by Mrs. Pinchley in Bucklebury, but I'm afraid they'd be too small for you."

"Then it's fortunate that I don't do that sort of thing anymore," Frodo answered, trying to match her joke, but it was the truth. He hadn't since Rosie's death. Marigold and May had taken most of Rosie's clothing, but even if any of her garments still remained at Bag End, Frodo felt it would be disrespectful, if not morbidly obscene, to dress up in things that had belonged to his lover's dead wife. He doubted Sam would find it appealing under the circumstances. "Your dresses are quite safe, if that's what's troubling you, dear Melly."

"I've a great deal to think about," Melly admitted. "Once all this awful business with Ev is behind us, I'll be able to see other things more clearly. I can't give you a better answer than that now, Frodo." The stable-lad was bringing the pony out. Not caring that she had this witness, Melly stood up on tip-toe to give Frodo a kiss; her lips just brushed the corner of his mouth. Her eyes flickered quickly over his face before she said, "Good-night." She left him at the stable-yard gate and went to find Merry and Addy.

Frodo rode back to Tookbank in a hopeful frame of mind. His list of suspects had diminished to nothing, but he felt sure that his personal prospects were going to work out. Sam had received the news of his intended marriage to Melly without the expected outburst of jealousy; he wasn't afraid of being supplanted by her and seemed to accept that she and Aderic would become part of their household. And Melly not only understood what sort of hobbit he was, she didn't seem to mind. Once this case was solved and Melly could give her mind fully to the question of a second marriage, he believed that she would see the advantages of it and accept his offer.

It was well after dark when he arrived at the Bullroarer's Head. As he made his way towards the inn door, a small figure with a shawl thrown over its head emerged from the shadows along the crooked high street. A woman's voice softly called out his name, "Mr. Baggins!"

Frodo turned, startled. "Why, it's Tansy- Mrs. Thursk. What you doing out here at this hour?"

"I've been waiting for you," she answered as she stepped closer. "Rudmer thinks I'm off calling on a friend, but I had to come say this to you."

"You have something to tell me?" If she'd stood out here in the street keeping watch for him, it must be important--and also secret, since she hadn't told her husband where she was going, nor gone into the inn to await his return.

"That's right, Mr. Baggins." The shawl-covered head nodded. "'Tis this--Does Mrs. Took know a lad called Tadler Toptree?"

"I couldn't say. Who is he?" Frodo recalled that the groom who oversaw the Took family stables was named Sadler Toptree. "Is he related to the Thain's groom?"

"Tad's his son. He worked at the Thain's stables with his dad when Mr. Everard and Missus were at Mr. Adelard's," Tansy hissed at him in a whisper. "Talk is he was a 'friend' to Mr. Everard before us Cottons came to Tookbank and he took up with my brothers. You know how he did, first with Toby, then Tibby. And Tadler took against it. What I come to tell you, Mr. Baggins, is that both Tad 'n' Mrs. Took had reason to hate my brother Tibby and want revenge on Mr. Everard."

"But you know she couldn't have done it," Frodo told her. "That's been proven. She left them hours before they were killed."

"I know that, Mr. Baggins. Everybody's saying so now, though they was as sure Mrs. Took killed both Tibby and her husband yesterday. I didn't think it was her, but once I heard tell of Tadler, I had to come to you. You oughter go talk to Tadler Toptree and see if he can prove the same. Ask 'm where he was that night. Ask 'm if Mrs. Took didn't send 'm to go and do it for her."




"Do you believe it, Frodo?" Sam asked very soon afterwards, once Frodo had gone to their room and repeated this astonishing information to his friend. Sam had gone to bed early and was eagerly awaiting Frodo's return--but this wasn't the reunion he'd been expecting. Frodo was too disturbed even to kiss him hello, let alone undress to join him.

"No, of course not!" said Frodo, pacing at the foot of the bed. "It's an absurd story. If Tansy didn't make it up herself for some reason, then someone else has. She was very coy when I asked her where this accusation had came from--said she'd heard Tadler's name the other day and remembered what she'd once heard about him from her brothers, so she's been turning the idea over in her mind since. I can't believe she'd hold back any honest information about who killed her brother. If someone has deliberately planted such an idea in her head, then it's a hobbit who hasn't given up hope of harming Melly through her husband's murder. I'd blame Reg or one of Ev's friends who dislikes her, but Tansy dislikes all the Tooks even more. She wouldn't work with any of them to revenge herself on Melly."

"Maybe it's meant to harm this Toptree lad, not Mrs. Took?" Sam suggested.

"Then why bring Melly into it?" Frodo stopped pacing and sat down on the bed near Sam's feet. "All the same, I can't ignore this story now that it's been brought to me. I must find and question Tadler Toptree."

"Are you going to tell anybody else about it?"

"I'll have to bring it to Uncle Paladin's attention. If I don't, he'll have every right to doubt my integrity and think I'm more interested in protecting Melly than I am in finding the murderer. But I'll do my best to keep it from reaching anybody else's ears--not only the other Tooks, but Merry and Melly."
Chapter 30 by Kathryn Ramage
"Mr. Baggins!"

Frodo froze at the doorstep of the Bullroarer's Head the next morning just as he was about to step out into the high street. The voice hailing him was Chief Thornbreak's, but there was a certain note in it that Frodo dreaded to hear. He knew before he turned to face the Chief Shirriff that Thornbreak had heard Tansy's story.

"What's this I hear about Mrs. Took and Tad Toptree? You've heard it yourself," said Thornbreak.

Frodo nodded. "I'm certain it's all nonsense," he said with a dismissive air, although his heart was pounding hard in anticipation of the disaster that would follow if this story had indeed spread. Already, he could imagine the angry whispers, the hostile glares of the townsfolk, the demands that Melly be brought back to Tuckborough and placed under arrest. They would blame him for freeing Everard's murderess. "So you- you've heard it too? May I ask--did Mrs. Thursk come to you, or did you hear it from someone else? Is it generally talked of around Tookbank?"

"Tansy Thursk told me," Thornbreak answered. "She stopped by my house last night--just after she went to you. I reckon she was afraid you mightn't do anything about it, seeing as how you're about to marry Mrs. Took."

He was eyeing Frodo speculatively, and Frodo bristled at the insinuation. "I intend to do something about it," he responded. "I think it's all a filthy lie, but do mean to look into it. As a matter of fact, I'm on my way to see Uncle Paladin now, to find out what I can about Tadler Toptree. I must question him first."

Bringing up the Thain's name had just the effect on Thornbreak that Frodo hoped it would. As long as he had his uncle's favor and the authority to investigate, the shirriff must allow him to proceed as he liked. Thornbreak was also reassured that, by bringing the story to the Thain's attention, Frodo wasn't going to ignore it for Melly's sake.

"And you'll tell me what Tad has to say for himself?" Thornbreak asked.

"Yes, of course." Frodo still felt as if his heart were beating too fast; the danger had not yet passed. "You haven't spoken of this to anyone else?"

"No, Mr. Baggins. I thought I'd come by and see you first thing."

"Then it isn't being talked of in Tookbank yet." He had his own request to make in return. "Chief Thornbreak, I pray you--please--don't speak of it to anyone until I've had my chance to investigate. If there's nothing in it, as I'm sure there is, then it can do great damage to not only my cousin Melly, but to this other lad. You don't want to see an injustice done to them."

Thornbreak agreed that he wanted no injustice. He'd learned a lesson from his previous hasty jump to the wrong conclusions, and didn't want to be shown up again. He would wait until Frodo returned.

Frodo thanked him, and went to see the Thain.




"Tadler Toptree? Yes, of course I know him," Paladin said. Frodo had entered the Thain's study as surreptitiously as possible, in hopes that no other member of the Thain's family would know that he was there. "His father's been my head-groom for more than forty years. He worked here in the stables for some years himself."

"But he no longer works for you, Uncle?" asked Frodo.

"No, he took up the position of ostler for our cousins the Lowbottom-Tooks a couple of years ago. He lives there at Lowbottom, if you're looking for him." The Thain regarded Frodo curiously. "What's this about, Frodo? Why are you interested in Tad?"

"I heard something about him last night. I hope you'll confide in no one about it until I've investigated the matter thoroughly. I'd rather not have anyone distressed. It may be nothing but lies." Once the Thain had agreed to tell no one, Frodo repeated the story Tansy Thursk had brought him. The Thain listened in amazement, but by the time Frodo had finished, his expression was more incredulous than horrified.

"I find it difficult to believe, Frodo. I've known the lad since he was a boy! Tad commit murder? And at the behest of another?" Paladin shook his head. "What could induce a hobbit to do such a thing? Money?"

"Tansy says it was a mutual desire for revenge. But I've been thinking things over since I spoke to her last night, sir," Frodo said, encouraged by the Thain's reluctance to give the story credence. "The more I consider what Tansy told me, the more I doubt it. I wonder when this arrangement between Melly and Tadler was supposed to have been made. Melly arrived only the night before she went to the cottage. Where did they meet? When did they have an opportunity to make plans? Even if Tansy is right about Tadler's resentment toward Tibby, how would Melly come to know about it? How well did she know him when she lived here three years ago? Did they keep in correspondence during that time? Could she have written him from Buckland?"

"Tad can't read," said Paladin. "I do see what you mean, Frodo. It isn't in the least likely that these two should plot murder together."

"All the same, I must interview him. There must be some reason that Tadler Toptree's name has been conveyed to me, either by Tansy herself or through her. If he isn't working at Melly's behest, he may have done so for someone else. Or he may know where these rumors come from and that will give me the clue I need. At any rate, you understand why I can't ignore it."

"I understand perfectly," said the Thain. "And it pleases me greatly that you've come to me with it, Frodo. I knew that you could be relied upon to conduct your investigation with your usual devotion to the truth, in spite of certain- well- personal interests."

Frodo couldn't pretend to misunderstand this allusion. "You won't summon Melly back to Tuckborough, will you?" he requested. It was the Thain's right to do so if he believed that she was still implicated in his nephew's murder, but Frodo hoped that Paladin could be convinced not to take this calamitous step. "She and Merry are still at the Green Hill Inn and are quite comfortable there. I'm afraid if they hear of this, he'll fly back to Buckland with her immediately and you'll never bring them back. You know how he's been--hot-tempered from the beginning. He takes his duty to protect his people seriously, and he has a great affection for Melly."

"He's not the only one, is he?"

"No, sir," Frodo admitted. "But that's why I don't want her to leave while she's still under any shadow of suspicion. It would do her more harm if she were to return to Buckland before this is completely settled."

"I won't send for her unless there's something to this story after all," Paladin consented. "I can make you no fairer promise than that."

"Thank you, Uncle," Frodo said sincerely. "I know you've been working as hard as I have to put a stop to any rift between our two families. You don't want the Tooks and Brandybucks divided any more than I do. Too many people would be hurt by it, some of them very dear to both of us."

Paladin nodded. "I suppose that none of us can help taking a personal interest in this matter--it's in the family, and too close to us all for anyone to remain impartial. We can't avoid being grieved by what's happened to poor Ev, but it's my hope when all is done, we've suffered no harm so great that it's beyond repair." Whether he was referring to the ultimate solution to Everard's murder or the threat of a feud between the Took and Brandybuck families was unclear, until he added, "Tempers have run high because of this and some very harsh words have been spoken lately, but perhaps once this awful matter is settled and the murderer's been caught, all this unpleasantness can be forgotten. I'd hate to go to war against Buckland. It would put me against not only my short-tempered nephew, but my sister, at least two of my nieces, and very likely my son. All, as you say, very dear to me." The Thain spoke with a note of wry humor, but he had an important point he wished to make as well. "And it may be contrary to Lady Eglantine's views, Frodo, but I must tell you: I don't think you've been a bad influence on Pippin at all. I couldn't wish a better friend for him."

When Frodo left the Thain's study, he headed toward the front door of the house rather than go out through the garden. The sounds of children's laughter told him that the Tooks were spending another sunny morning out-of-doors, and he still hoped to avoid being seen.

As he emerged from the corridor that connected the study to the front hall, however, he ran into Pearl and Ada--almost literally.

"Why, Frodo!" cried Ada. "I didn't know you were here."

"Yes, I've been to see Uncle Paladin," Frodo explained.

"Have you brought news?" his cousin asked eagerly. "Have you found out who killed poor Evvy?"

"No, not yet. That still remains to be seen."

Pearl might never have told a lie, but years of looking after her younger brother had taught her when someone wasn't telling all the truth. The look she gave Frodo was sharp and inquiring, and made him quite uncomfortable. "I thought that yesterday you were looking into a promising prospect--Tansy Thursk's husband," she said.

"I'm afraid he wasn't so promising after all," Frodo told her.

"Pippin was at the inn 'til all hours last night with that friend of yours, asking questions. He came home quite tipsy, Mother says. She was upset about it, but I suppose that it's better he ask questions about the Tookbank folk than about our own family. Yesterday morning, he was asking Stally whether or not he was happy with a pony he'd purchased--although I can't imagine why that would be of interest to you, Frodo."

"It isn't any longer," he answered. "Stally isn't suspected."

"I'm glad. I'd hate to think that any one of the Tooks--even a distant cousin--had some part in this."

"So am I! We'd all be much happier if it was a stranger," said Ada. "So much more awful if it's somebody we know! I don't know if I could bear it."

"And have you no one else in mind, Frodo?" Pearl was still watching him carefully. "No Took or anyone else?"

"No," he replied. "Not at present. There are some matters I must look into first." He wasn't certain what meaning lay behind Pearl's remarks--was she trying to find out what he had come to her father about, or was she probing to see if he still suspected her husband or mother? He felt that if she kept pressing him, he was sure to give away some information that he'd rather keep to himself. With a hasty apology, he excused himself.
Chapter 31 by Kathryn Ramage
The Lowbottom-Tooks were not one of the Took families who lived in the hill around the Thain's Hall and shared the Thain's stables; their home lay in a deep dell approximately a mile and a half to the south of Tuckborough--just off the same lane that eventually led to Adelard's cottage. If Tadler had gone to the cottage that night from his place of work, he would've had a much shorter distance to travel than someone coming from Tookbank or Tuckborough. He would take less risk of being seen as well, since he wouldn't need to go along the well-traveled road that passed through the two towns. There were only a few other cottages and a couple of small farms between Lowbottom dell and the cottage where the murders had occurred, and these could be avoided entirely by leaving the lane and instead taking one of the paths that crossed the woodlands and meadows.

The original Lowbottom Hall smial had been dug into the westward end of the dell long before the Lowbottoms and Tooks began to intermarry, and it had increased in size as the family prospered. Numerous round windows now dotted the steep slope. The bottom of the dell was given over to a garden and a paddock near the eastern entrance. Instead of crossing the garden to the far end of the dell to make his presence known to his relatives in the great smial, Frodo climbed over the paddock fence and went directly to the stable. There, he found a round-faced young hobbit in homespun tweeds, occupied with the task of brushing down a pony.

When the ostler saw Frodo, he raised his cap politely and regarded his visitor with open curiosity.

"Are you Tadler Toptree?" asked Frodo.

"That's right, Mr. Baggins." He grinned at Frodo's look of surprise. "'Course I know ye, sir. An't I seen ye come 'n' go at his Thainship's often enough?"

"Yes, I suppose that's so," Frodo acknowledged, though he had no memory of seeing Tadler before. Would Melly have remembered the groom's son under similar circumstances?

"What can I do for ye, Mr. Baggins?" Tadler asked him. "Is it Mr. Lowbottom-Took ye've come to call on?"

"No, actually, it's you I wanted to see." Frodo took a seat on the edge of an empty wooden trough. "You've heard about the murders of my cousin Everard Took and of Tibby Clover?"

"'Course," said Tadler, and went on currying the pony's flanks. "There's been no talk o' nothing else this week past. They say ye've been 'vestergating on account o' Missus Melilot, but I han't expected to see you here."

"Have you heard that your name has come up in my investigation?" Frodo broached the point of this interview gently.

"No, sir." Tadler didn't appear alarmed or wary, only politely puzzled. He scratched his head with the curry comb. "I don't see how that could be, Mr. Baggins. I an't seen naught hereabouts o' murderers, nor heard a word ye prob'ly an't heard at the Bullroarer's yerself."

"It's been said that you had a part in the murders," Frodo told him.

At these words, the young hobbit showed the first signs of real emotion. "No!" he cried out, startling the pony.

"There's a story going about that you acted on behalf of Mrs. Melilot Took--Everard's wife."

"No!" Tadler insisted with vehemence. "If somebody's been saying that, Mr. Baggins, then they've ye told the worst lie. 'Behalf o' Missus Melilot'? Now, I used to see Missus Melilot when she and Mr. Everard'd take their ponies out, but I never spoke more'n dozen words to her all the time she was at Mr. Adelard's. 'G'morning,' it was mostly. I han't seen her since she went home to her own folk in Buckland. I heard tell from my dad that she was coming back after Mr. Everard come home, but I never set eyes on her. I an't been nearer his Thainship's 'n my dad's in weeks. Why'd anybody say I'd want to go 'n' murder poor Mr. Everard on her say-so?"

"I was told that you had reasons of your own to resent Everard and wanted revenge."

"What reasons? I'd no reason to harm a hair on his head nor his littlest toe."

"You weren't jealous?"

Tadler frowned. "Jealous o' who? Are you making out that I was sweet on Mr. Everard's wife?"

"No," said Frodo. "Didn't you resent Everard's friendship with the Clover lads?"

Tadler was slow to understand what Frodo was insinuating; when he did, his face turned beet-red and flung the curry comb to the dirt floor. "That's another awful lie, Mr. Baggins! 'Twasn't so! Now, Mr. Ev was always friendly-like to me. He'd buy me and my dad a drop o' ale whenever we met him 'n' Mr. Ferdi at the Bullroarer's. He'd even give me a game or two o' darts. He was friendly as you like--as if the likes o' us was as good as him, his Thainship's own kin! But we wasn't never 'friendly' like that, not like he was with them Clovers if that's what ye mean to say. Ask Mr. Ferdi if ye don't believe me. Mr. Ferdi, he knows more about Mr. Everard'n anybody else. They was always that close since they was little lads and never kept no secrets between them."

"I'll ask Ferdi," Frodo agreed. If there had been anything between Tadler and Everard, then Ferdi was certain to know all about it. "When did you last see Everard?" he asked. "Had you seen him since his return?"

"No, sir. I only heard about 'm. Dad told me how they come home. Mr. Ev and Tibby Clover come into the stables one night, and Tibby wouldn't go into Mr. Adelard's house but stayed out with the ponies 'til they rode off again. I reckon if they was going to Mr. Adelard's cottage, they'd've gone by here, but I didn't catch sight o' them. I heard tell afterwards how old Brundle wouldn't let Tibby in at the Bullroarer's."

"Have you seen any other members of the Took family recently?" Tadler hadn't been in league with Melly to commit these murders, but he may have acted for someone else who was well-accounted for that night. "Everard's brother? One of his friends, perhaps? Have you spoken to them?"

"I an't seen much o' any of them since I come to work here," Tadler answered. "Mr. Ferdi, I see sometimes at the Bullroarer's of a night, and Miss Pearl and Miss Peri, they call upon the Missus and Miss Rosabella, but we don't have much to say to each other. Dad tells me the news when there's any to tell. He told me when Mr. Ev came home, like I told ye, and when Missus Melilot was coming back."

"And where were you the night Everard was killed, Tadler?"

"At my dad's, having supper with 'm. I go over to hear the news. He'll tell ye it's so, Mr. Baggins, but maybe ye won't believe 'em."

Tadler's whereabouts couldn't be verified--a loving father would certainly say whatever was necessary to protect his son--but Frodo believed that the ostler was telling the truth. He was also inclined to believe that there'd never been a special friendship between Tadler and Everard, for he'd seen nothing of shame or embarrassment in Tadler's response to his questions. Nor had he observed any fears at having secrets exposed. Tadler was simply indignant such terrible things were being said about him. If Tadler was telling the truth, then someone had gone to great efforts to make up these lies. But who? Was it Tansy, or was she only repeating rumors she'd heard elsewhere?

"Tell me, Tadler," said Frodo, "do you have any enemies?"

"Enemies?" Tadler repeated the word incredulously.

"Who would tell such lies about you? Are you on bad terms with Tansy Thursk--Tibby's sister?"

"I hardly know her."

"What about her husband Rudmer?"

"Oh, I know Rud," said Tader in tones that told Frodo the two were not friends. "But he an't the sort to go about telling mean lies. And why would he tell lies about me? I don't have no quarrel with Rud. It wasn't me he was fighting with, not like he was fighting with that Tibby."

"Did your father tell you about that too?" asked Frodo.

"I was there to hear to hear when it happened, Mr. Baggins. I heard Rud and Tibby shouting and pushing at each other in the street. But Dad was there and he heard it too."
Chapter 32 by Kathryn Ramage
After he left the Lowbottom-Took home, Frodo returned to the Thain's stables for a chat with the elder Mr. Toptree. Tadler's father confirmed Tadler's story; they'd had supper together on the night of the murder. Tad came for supper three or four nights in the week, and he and his father often rode over to Tookbank to have an ale or two at the Bullroarer's Head afterwards. They hadn't gone to the inn on that particular night, but Tadler had stayed over at his father's bungalow and ridden back to his place of work the next morning. Old Mr. Toptree was prepared to swear that his son hadn't left the bungalow that evening. But what else would he have said? Frodo expected nothing less.

"I didn't see Mr. Everard again after that night he come home," the old groom said in answer to a question from Frodo. "He sent word to his dad, Mr. Adelard, most every day by one o' them lads as comes and goes from the bakers and the greengrocers. I'd hear from them how it was at that cottage. No, sir--I didn't see what Mr. Everard was sending to his dad about. Writ down, they was, and I was never a one for reading and such-like. If there was need for me to know, Mr. Adelard'd come and tell me what I was to be ready for. That's how I come to know Missus Melilot was bringing the little lad here days before they come. And just this morning, Mr. Adelard's told me to send a cart there to carry back Mr. Everard's things once the shirriffs are done with 'em."

"A cart? I didn't realize that Everard brought so many belongings home with him," said Frodo.

"He didn't have so much when he first come home, Mr. Baggins, only a pack strapped to his pony's saddle. But as Mr. Adelard thought him 'n' that Clover lad was going to be staying on awhiles, he sent some o' Mr. Everard's things that were left behind off to him there, so it'd seem more home-like. Poor Mr. Adelard's like as not to shut the place up for good now. It won't be home to nobody again, since murder's been done in it."

Frodo employed the services of one of the stable-lads himself and sent a message to Sam. Sam had remained in Tookbank that morning to find and question Turgo Buspey, but Frodo had another task for him.

When he left the stables, Frodo went into the smial next to the Thain's Hall to ask Ferdi about Everard's friendship with Tadler. It no longer mattered to him if the Tooks heard about this line of inquiry. Again, he received confirmation of what Tadler had told him, and from a more impartial source than Tadler's father; Ferdi had no reason to lie for Tadler's sake.

"You mayn't believe it's so, considering how things turned out, but Ev never chased after boys. Certainly not the common lads," Ferdi told Frodo. "Before we met the Clovers, he would've said that that sort of thing was beneath a gentlehobbit. He wouldn't have gone for one of our own stable-boys any more than he would've accosted a housemaid. Until that business with Toby began, there was only me--well, that was only natural, since we were best friends--and Merry. And who hasn't had a bit of fun with Merry?"

Even before he returned to Tookbank for luncheon and heard Sam's report about the local gossip, Frodo had already come to the conclusion that Tansy's story was nothing but lies from beginning to end. By the time he'd heard what Sam had to say about Turgo Buspey, he was certain of something more as well.

"When I saw him," said Sam, "this Buspey feller admitted he only wanted a bit of revenge on Rudmer for getting in ahead o' him buying that lathe. He never saw Mr. Doderic before, but when he and Mr. Fatty came in here with Mr. Ferdi, this Buspey knew they was helping you and he thought it'd be a laugh to have Rudmer get questioned over his whereabouts when Tibby was murdered. He didn't mean any more by it. He swears it wasn't to get him hanged. He was very sorry to hear it might've."

"So, it was all a cruel sort of prank."

Sam nodded. "Now, wait 'til you hear who this Buspey heard about the lathe from." He gave Frodo a name. "He says she came by his shop that afternoon and let it slip accidental-like--only I don't think it was any accident."

Frodo had to agree. He saw the whole matter very clearly now.

"D'you want me to come with you?" Sam offered as they left the dining room at the inn.

"Not immediately," said Frodo. "Why don't you pop in on Rudmer at his shop first? I have one more question for him. You can bring his answer to me, and bring him along as well."

They walked up the high street. Sam went into Rudmer Thursk's wood-carving shop, and Frodo continued on up the lanes on the steep hillside, up to the little smials at the very top. He knocked at the door of the Thursk home.

Tansy answered the door. Wariness appeared in her large, dark eyes once she saw who her visitor was, but she didn't refuse Frodo's request to be let in. She showed him into the small sitting-room; the little girl was playing on the rag rug, but Tansy immediately scooped her up and carried her off into one of the back bedrooms while Frodo took a seat on the suttee.

When Tansy returned, she regarded Frodo with eyes that were still wary and asked, "What'd Tad Toptree tell you?"

"He's denied everything you told me, Mrs. Thursk. Did you expect he'd do anything else?" Frodo rose from his seat. "I've always tried to be kind to you, because I've felt sorry for you. You've suffered some terrible tragedies since you came to Tookbank as a girl. I can't blame you for the resentment you feel over the loss of your father and brothers. But I wonder now if my sympathy hasn't been misplaced. You've told me a pack of vicious lies against two innocent people for no fathomable reason. You can't deny that you deliberately lied."

Tansy didn't deny it. She said nothing at all.

"I've not only spoken to Tadler Toptree, but to other people who confirm his story," Frodo went on. "My friend Mr. Gamgee has asked around and found that no one's whispered a word against Tadler. There's been no gossip about his friendship with Everard, nor about his conspiring with Melly. I can't even find any tale of him quarreling with Tibby. You made it all up, from first to last."

Tansy still didn't respond, but sat down on the settee.

"What on earth did you mean by it?" Frodo demanded. "I thought that Turgo Buspey's tattle-taling against your husband was appalling, but at least Buspey only meant to make Rudmer uncomfortable. It was petty and spiteful, but he was horrified to learn that Rudmer might've been hanged because of it. I can't believe that was your intention when you told Buspey that your husband had bought the lathe. Were you trying to see Tadler hanged when you came to me? What about my cousin Melly?" His voice had been rising; at this last question, it snapped like the crack of a whip. He hadn't meant to lose his temper, but this woman's poisonous behavior infuriated him. Who knew what damage she might've done if she'd repeated her lies around Tookbank, or gone to Thornbreak with them? As long as the murderer remained unidentified, they might readily believe they'd been right in the first place and that Melly was responsible after all. Tansy flinched, and Frodo made an effort to speak in less angry tones. "When I first came here to talk to you, you said that you believed she was innocent of your brother's murder. Did you mean that?"

"Yes," Tansy replied in a subdued whisper. His outburst had shaken her. Head down and arms loosely across her lap, she looked as incapable of moving of her own volition as her daughter's jointed wooden doll, which lay abandoned on the carpet near her feet.

Frodo felt like a cad, bullying a pregnant woman, but he was determined to have the truth from her. "Do you have some grudge against Tadler Toptree? He says he barely knows you."

She shook her head and mumbled, "I didn't want 'm to talk to you."

"But that's very silly," Frodo pointed out. When he sat down beside Tansy, she didn't try to draw away. "It would never have occurred to me to question him if you hadn't given me his name last night. What did he have to tell me that made you so afraid?"

"I couldn't think what else to do," she said without looking up at him. "I didn't want you believing him."

This made even less sense to Frodo. Did she mean that she'd made up her lies about Tadler to discredit him, so that he wouldn't be believed if he did come forward with important information? But what information did Tadler have? By his own account, Tadler had never been near the cottage; he knew nothing of Everard's or Tibby's comings-and-goings in the days before their deaths beyond the fragments of news he'd received from his father.

The front door opened, and Rudmer came in with Sam. The two stood by the sitting-room door; the young husband looked from his wife to Frodo with concern, but he didn't interrupt.

"When I realized you were lying, I first thought that you'd made up this story to protect your husband," Frodo told Tansy quietly, "but I later learned that this wasn't the case." He wouldn't say more about what she'd done to cast suspicion on her husband--not while Rudmer was there to hear. "No matter what I might've heard about your husband's whereabouts on that night, he could provide an adequate explanation of where he'd truly been. He was in no danger from me. You must've known that by the time you came to me with your story about Tadler Toptree. Surely Rudmer told you he'd spoken to me?" He glanced up at Rudmer, who nodded. "You've been afraid of me from the first time I called here, Mrs. Thursk. All these lies you've told were meant to protect someone else. Who? Not yourself?"

Tansy suddenly glared up at him with a flash of her usual spirit. "You think I killed Tibby?" she demanded. Rudmer stepped forward as if he meant to defend her, but Frodo raised a hand to quell their indignation.

"No," he answered. "I can believe you'd happily murder any one of the Tooks, especially Evvy for his part in Toby's death, but you wouldn't kill your only surviving brother. It's unthinkable. You'd take a knife to your own heart before you'd harm him."

Tansy nodded at this. "It'd be the same as stabbing myself."

"Tibby is the only person you care enough about to make up such terrible lies for," said Frodo. "It's him you've been fighting to protect, even though he's been dead a week. You've known the truth all along, though you never wanted me to find it out. I can guess at it now, but I must hear it from you. Tansy, will you tell me what secret you've been keeping?"

In answer, Tansy rose and went into the bedroom. The three hobbits in the sitting room could hear the sound of a drawer being opened, then slammed shut. Tansy returned with what appeared to be a blood-stained square of paper pinched gingerly between her fingertips.

"'Twas in his waistcoat pocket," she told Frodo.

"Tibby left a note?"

Tansy shook her head, and held the paper out to him. Frodo could see that it was folded into a neat square and addressed on the outer surface to Adelard Took in Everard's handwriting. There had once been a wax seal on it, but this had been broken off.

"And the sherriffs didn't find it?" asked Sam.

"They didn't have the chance to." Frodo recalled what Shirriff Thornbreak had told him. "Tibby was curled into a ball when they found him. He lay frozen that way throughout the day."

"That's right," said Tansy, grim at this description of her brother's body. "It was hours after they brought him here that I could start to lay him out proper. I found it when I was taking his clothes off to wash him up."

Frodo took the letter. The dried blood that had soaked half of it made it difficult to open, but Tansy had already done so once. He read the first words, "Father, I know you will be pleased... " the rest of the sentence was obscured, but he understood it all.

"Here," said Rudmer, "Tansy's not in any trouble, is she?" Tansy had returned to her seat on the suttee; Rudmer stood over her, holding her hand.

"She should've brought that straight to Chief Thornbreak when she found it," said Sam.

Frodo agreed. "It would've save many people a great deal of grief and misery."

"Tooks," Tansy said dismissively.

"Not only the Tooks," Frodo reminded her. "Your own husband, and others who have been unfairly suspected. My cousin Melly."

Tansy had no answer for this.

"You understand that I will have to show this to the Chief Shirriff and Thain Paladin?" asked Frodo. "I can't allow innocent people to remain under a shadow when I have proof of what really happened."

"He's right about that," Rudmer said to his wife. "It's no fun, knowing folk're looking at you and thinking you're a murderer."

Tansy didn't look as she wanted anyone to know what had really happened, but she had no choice in the matter. The truth must to be told.
Chapter 33 by Kathryn Ramage
A short time later, Frodo returned to Thain Paladin's study accompanied Sam and Chief Thornbreak; he asked the Thain to send next door for Adelard Took before he brought out the letter to show them. "After all, Uncle Addy, this is addressed to you. If it's anyone's rightful property, it is yours. I thought you'd like to hear what Everard wrote you on his last night."

"Yes, of course," said Adelard, though his eyes were on the bloodstains on the outer part of the letter as he took a seat. "But wherever did you find it, Frodo?"

Frodo explained how Tansy had come by it. Chief Thornbreak had already heard the story before he had left Tookbank and shook his head ruefully over her concealment of this vital clue; he declared that somebody ought to give her a good talking-to about it, but the Thain insisted that nothing be done.

"Ev must've written it that evening after Melly and Elvegar had visited and gone," said Frodo. "He hadn't made up his mind until then, otherwise I think he would've said something to them about his plans. Half the letter is unreadable, but more than enough is left to for us to guess what he intended."

Holding the letter up to the bright sunlight shining in through the room's one window, he read the pertinent phrases aloud: "'Father, I know you will be pleased... after I've given you so much trouble... missed you all so terribly and cannot bear... doubt that Melly will take me back ... my son, whom I haven't seen...' I think it's obvious what he what he was going to do."

"Evvy wanted to come home," Adelard said in a choked voice.

"He hoped to be restored to his family--to you, at least, Uncle Addy. He didn't want to be in exile and disgraced any longer. Even if he and Melly couldn't reconcile, he wanted to be near his son. He must've meant to send this to you the next morning by way of one of the delivery boys. Perhaps he left it lying on a table near the door, and that's where Tibby found it. However it came about, Tibby opened the letter and read it. He saw that Ev meant to leave him. There's a sentence here, asking that Tibby 'be provided sufficient money to go' where 'he was happier'. Back to the place where they'd lived in the north? Poor Ev meant it kindly. He felt some responsibility for Tibby and didn't want him to suffer by being cast off callously. But whatever Tibby truly felt for Ev, his chief reason for running away with him was to injure the entire Took family. He couldn't allow Evvy to return to his family and his old life. To him, that would mean the Tooks had triumphed over him. Then to be sent away by the very people he wanted most to hurt--it was more than he could stand. I'm afraid that by writing this letter, Evvy's fate was sealed.

"I'm not quite certain what happened next. Since Ev was in his nightshirt, we can guess that he'd gone to bed. Tibby was still fully dressed, presumably up and about. Perhaps Ev awoke and discovered Tibby reading this letter not meant for him. Perhaps Tibby woke Ev in a rage over what he saw as an attempt to abandon him. There was almost certainly a conversation, if not a quarrel, as they stood at the bedroom doorway. If Tibby had used the knife to break the wax seal on the letter, he would've had it at hand. Whether by accident or by cold deliberation, Ev was stabbed. But instead of fleeing afterwards, Tibby chose another way to escape the hangman, a way that cast suspicion away from himself and upon the people he hated most."

"Us," said Thain Paladin. "On Everard's wife most of all, but on all our family."

"The knife should've told us the truth of it right away," Frodo concluded. "No other murderer would have reason to fling it out of the cottage window. Only Tibby, since it was the very last thing he did after stabbing himself with it. He didn't wish to be found with it in his hand, but he wasn't capable of moving about to conceal it somewhere else."

"Why didn't he destroy the letter?" Paladin wondered.

"It was a warm night, and there was no fire," said Frodo. "He might've lit one to burn it, true, but I suspect that he had another plan. He tucked it into his waistcoat pocket in hopes that his sister would find it and share in his secret. She was the one person who would appreciate his final act of revenge."

"Hateful creature," said Chief Thornbreak. "But anybody could've seen that he'd come to a bad end. He was more'n enough trouble before this."

"And that sister of his is no better," Sam agreed. "Telling lies to get folk in trouble."

"The letter explains that too. 'I'll send a message to Toptree...'" Frodo read aloud. "There's the phrase that set Tansy upon Tadler. Everard of course meant the father, presumably to make arrangements to have his things brought back to the house, but to Tansy 'Toptree' meant the son. She'd heard, probably from Tibby, that Everard had once been on friendly terms with Tadler, though she guessed too much about the nature of their friendship. Given Ev's friendships with her brothers, that was a natural mistake, but it made her afraid that Evvy had confided in Tadler. She thought that he might tell me something that would give her brother away, so she came to me to discredit him.

"Both Tibby and Tansy were horribly affected by their brother's death." Now that Melly was safe, Frodo could afford to be generous and try to understand the Clovers. "Their father had brought them up to despise the Tooks, and the manner of Toby's death was very hard for them to accept. I'm afraid it turned their minds and made them poisonous and spiteful. There mayn't have been any hope for Tibby--he seemed determined to follow a path that led to his destruction as long as he brought the Tooks down with him, but perhaps Tansy's husband will help her to turn for the better."

"He's a good lad," said Sam, pleased that his liking for Rudmer had been vindicated.

"Yes, and there are the children too. They're her family. I hope she can learn to care for them as much as the family she lost before she destroys herself as well." Frodo folded the note and was going to put it into his pocket when Adelard held out a hand for it.

"Can I have that, Frodo?"

"You want it, Uncle?" Frodo was surprised.

"Please. You did say that it's my rightful property, and it's the last thing my poor son wrote me. The- ah- part that can't be read can be cut off. It's not needed by you or the shirriffs any longer, is it?"

Frodo said, "No, Uncle Addy," and the Thain and Chief Thornbreak agreed that there was no reason, now that the case had been solved, for anyone else to keep hold of it.

While Adelard sat reading Everard's letter, tears began to well in his eyes. Paladin tactfully led the others out of the study so that his cousin could grieve in private.

"Thank you, Frodo," the Thain said softly as he shut the study door. "I'm going to tell the rest of the family the news. Will you come with me? After all this unpleasantness, it may do them some good to hear the truth of the matter from you."

Frodo politely refused. "I'll come back later, Uncle, if you don't mind. I'd like to bring the news to Melly and Merry as soon as I can."

"Yes, of course. I don't suppose they'll want to come back with you and join us for dinner, but pray extend my invitation to them. They are welcome here whenever they'd like to return."

"There, now that's ended better'n any of us had a right to expect," said Chief Thornbreak as he left the Thain's Hall with Frodo and Sam. "You had the right idea about all of it, Mr. Baggins. We ought've seen that there was sommat odd about the way that knife was tossed out the window--though you say yourself you didn't see how it was at the time. And you was right about that Tadler lad too. I hope Master Merry and Mrs. Took won't be holding a grudge against his Thainship nor me for suspecting her now everything's come out right. When you see her, tell her I'm sorry about it and I'm happy it's turned out to be that Tibby rather'n her or anybody else that's alive hereabouts."

Frodo promised that he would, and Thornbreak offered to buy him an ale that evening when he returned to the Bullroarer's Head. Could he buy Sam one now with an early luncheon, "seeing as we didn't have our half-pint yesterday, Mr. Gamgee."

"You wouldn't mind if I don't go off to Green Hill with you?" Sam pulled Frodo aside for a quick, murmured conference before he accepted this offer.

"No, not at all. I'll see you here again at dinner-time, or else at the inn tonight?" Frodo smiled. "We've hardly made use of our room, and I'd like to do so before we go home." He didn't give Sam a kiss, since Thornbreak was standing only a few feet away. They parted at the stables.
Chapter 34 by Kathryn Ramage
Frodo rode swiftly to the Green Hill Inn and found Merry had taken Aderic out for a walk in the Wood. Melly was alone in the sitting room adjoining her bedroom, reading the book she'd brought with her from Tuckborough by the sunlight streaming in through the one, large window. Frodo decided to tell her what had happened immediately, instead of waiting for Merry to return. While Merry would be delighted at the news, this matter concerned Melly in a much more personal way.

He sat down beside her on the settee beneath the window before he announced, "I've found Evvy's murderer."

Melly nearly dropped her book. "Frodo! Who is it? Are you certain? Has he been arrested?"

"I'm quite sure. He hasn't been arrested, and he won't ever be. He's been dead a week himself."

Melly listened to Frodo's account of his conversations with Tadler and Tansy as well as the contents of Everard's letter with eager attention and a few astonished exclamations. It was only after he'd finished his story that she said, "Tibby. That Tibby," and a stronger emotion passed over her face. "That wretched little beast couldn't even let Evvy go home-" then she sobbed--a loud and hard gulp that spasmed through her body. Frodo could see that the force of it took her by surprise. Other wrenching sobs followed, then the tears she hadn't been able to shed for her murdered husband before this moment.

Frodo didn't try to try to stop her, simply put his arms around her and let her cry herself out against his shoulder.

"The thing is," she said in a weak voice after this outburst had passed and she was blotting her face with a clean handkerchief Frodo had pulled from his waistcoat, "I don't believe I would've taken Ev back. We'd grown too far apart to try and pretend we were the same girl and boy we'd once been. I don't love him as I did when I married him. But it isn't fair that that choice was taken from us. Ev should've at least seen Addy. Tibby couldn't stand for Ev to have even that little bit of happiness again. He would rather die than lose. He hated all of us that much."

She was still nestled against Frodo's chest when the sitting-room door opened and Merry returned with Aderic. "I hope we're not late for lunch- Oh." Merry stopped to take in the tableau before him. "What is it? What's happened?"

"Is Mamma all right?" the little boy at his side asked with some concern.

"Perfectly fine, darling," Melly answered as she sat up and gave her eyes one last swab with the damp handkerchief. "I'm all right," she added to Merry. "Frodo's brought us some wonderful news."




Frodo hadn't expected his cousins to accompany him back to Tuckborough for dinner at the Thain's Hall, but in the end they did accept Thain Paladin's invitation. While they appreciated the gesture toward reconciliation, both were still too bruised and resentful over the Tooks' treatment of Melly to return so soon after and pretend that nothing had happened. Merry was at the point of refusing, when Pippin arrived; he'd come riding after Frodo as quickly as he could once he'd heard the news, and he spent a breathless moment laughing and hugging everyone before he repeated his father's invitation.

"He was so overjoyed," Frodo told Sam late that evening after they'd returned to the Bullroarer's Head for one last night. "You would've thought it was Merry who'd been free from the threat of gaol. Of course, Merry couldn't refuse Pip's invitation on top of the Thain's."

"Master Merry was still a bit stiff when you showed up at his Thainship's, though," Sam noted. "Mrs. Took too. She barely said a thing to anybody unless they spoke to her first--except for you and him."

"Everyone was feeling rather awkward," Frodo agreed. "It'll be awhile before they can be comfortable with each other after all that's happened since Evvy was murdered, but it shows the right spirit that they're at least willing to try. Even Aunt Eggie went out of her way to be civil to us."

"That'd be his Thainship's and Pippin's doing."

Frodo agreed to this as well. Although Lady Eglantine had been perfectly composed and coolly gracious throughout the evening, he'd observed how her husband and son kept a close eye on her lest she insult their guests. Paladin and Pippin were as determined to mend the breach between the two families as he was.

"And they're all glad that it's turned out to be that Tibby," Sam went on as he shed the best suit he'd brought with him and carefully hung it in the wardrobe.

"Of course. No one wants a murderer to be someone they know, and since we couldn't find a complete stranger to suspect, they're relieved that it's someone no one liked--except for his poor sister." While he undressed for bed, Frodo considered Tansy. The Tooks and Tookbankers might rejoice at the result of his investigation, but Tansy had done her best to keep the truth from him. She wouldn't be feeling anything like relief tonight.

"Are you betrothed now?" Sam asked him, breaking into his quiet moment of contemplation.

"No, not yet. I expect Melly will give me her answer tomorrow." Frodo climbed into bed and held out a hand. "Come along, my love. We ought to take advantage of what may be my last night as a completely unspoken-for hobbit."

"Oh, you're spoken for," Sam said with definite meaning as he climbed in beside Frodo. "Whether or not Mrs. Took says she'll marry you, you're that already and you'll always be."
Chapter 35 by Kathryn Ramage
When they left Tookbank the next morning, Sam rode on ahead to Green Hill with their baggage while Frodo stopped one last time at the Thain's Hall to make his farewells. The Tooks were more cordial this morning, since his investigation had been successful, and he was now leaving. If Reg was still somewhat cool, Pearl offered her sincere thanks, and Adelard grasped his hand with real warmth. Ferdi hugged Frodo and asked him to convey "my best wishes" to Melly, and Peri kissed his cheek and said she hoped they'd be happy.

Pippin also asked Frodo to deliver a message. "Tell Merry I'll be joining him in Buckland next week. I'd come sooner, but I thought I ought to stop at home for at least a few days so that Mother doesn't think I'm abandoning my own family to go running off after him."

"She isn't still blaming us, is she?" Frodo asked him.

"Well, she's feeling better now that we know how Ev died. I don't think she'll really change her opinion about anything she said, but at least she won't go around saying it anymore. Ada and Filo have offered to take her back to High Banks with them to stay at her old family home for the summer. She hasn't been back for a visit in years, but it'll do her some good to be among Bankish-minded folks for awhile and away from us Tooks--don't you think so? I'll come away after they go. Don't worry--I won't miss your wedding!"

Once he left Tuckborough, Frodo rode on swiftly toward Green Hill. Approaching the Inn from the westward road, he could see two people sitting on the bench on the terrace above the crossroads. As he drew nearer, he perceived that they were Melly and Sam. They appeared to be engaged in a serious conversion; their heads were close together and, while Frodo was still too far away to be certain, he thought that Melly had placed her hand over Sam's.

The sound of pony's hooves on the road drew their attention. They both looked up. Melly remained seated while Sam stood and waved his hand. He remained where he was until Frodo reached the inn's dooryard, then came around from the terrace so that he could hold the pony's bridle while Frodo dismounted. Melly came as far as the low wall that divided the paved terrace from the curve of road approaching the inn's door.

"We've been talking about you," she informed Frodo. "I think we've come to an understanding."

"Have you?"

Frodo looked from Melly to Sam, who nodded. His eyes did not leave Frodo's as he said, "I'll take your pony 'round to the stables so Mrs. Took-"

"Melly, please," she interjected.

"Melly," Sam corrected himself, "can have a word with you."

"Thank you, Sam," Melly said.

This use of first names was an encouraging sign. "You've decided then?" Frodo asked her as Sam led the pony toward the stable yard on the other side of the inn. He went through the little gate that led onto the terrace.

Melly nodded. "Mr. Gamgee--Sam--and I have had a long talk. I wanted to be certain he agreed with any plans you've made before I agreed too. You know, Frodo, I did have a great deal to consider. Marriage is no light undertaking, even between friends. It's the most binding promise a hobbit can make. I do feel rather cold and uninterested in romance right now, but I'm still young. I'm not yet forty. It's possible that I might fall in love again. What if I were to accept your proposal, on your terms, then found I wanted to marry someone else a few years later?"

"If you find you do, I won't stand in your way," Frodo assured her. "You know about the state of my health. You won't have to wait very long to be free of me and marry again."

"That's what you said the last time," Melly reminded him, "but you're still here, my dear, and in reasonably good health as far as I can tell. You don't look nearly as fragile as you did when you first came home from your travels."

"I didn't have much hope of living 'til forty then," Frodo admitted. "I still don't know if I'll see fifty, but I just might live that long."

"Oh, I've no doubt you'll live as long as that. You've outlived Evvy and Sam Gamgee's poor wife. You'll outlive us all." They had returned to the bench. Melly sat down and gazed up at him solemnly before she announced, "I'm going to tell you a secret, Frodo--something I once vowed I'd never, ever tell you. After things began to go wrong between me and Evvy, I regretted that I didn't accept your offer instead. Do you remember that night in the garden, when I kissed you? Merry tells me that you're a good kisser. I trust his judgment in such matters--he's surely kissed more boys than I have. I wouldn't know what sort of kisser you are, for myself. Whenever I've tried to kiss you, you- well, you don't quite pull back from me, but I feel no response from you either. There's nothing in it."

"I'm sorry," Frodo murmured. "I'll try to do better, if that's what you want." He sat down on the bench close beside her, as if he meant to attempt it now, but Melly put one hand on his chest to stop him.

"No." She shook her head briskly, refusing this offer. "Sometimes, I used to think that if you'd kissed me properly that night in the garden, as if you'd really meant it, then everything would've been very different. I see now that that's it precisely--if you were able to kiss me as if you mean it, then you would be different. If you were to kiss me now, I know you'd try your best but, Frodo, it shouldn't have to be so much effort. It ought to be the most natural thing in the world. It isn't an effort when you kiss Merry or Sam Gamgee, is it?"

"No..."

"I made one bad mistake, and I don't want to repeat it. My husband shouldn't have to feel that he's trying very hard to do something that should be simple, if he loves me. I don't know if I'll ever marry a second time, but if I do, I'd like to marry a hobbit who loves me best of all, not someone else. That isn't unreasonable."

"No, it isn't," Frodo agreed. He was disappointed, but he couldn't blame her for making the choice she had. How could he deny her the opportunity to find fulfillment in love, when he knew very well that it was the one thing he wasn't able to give her? "All the same, I'm sorry you won't come to Bag End."

Melly smiled. "Ah, but I don't intend to refuse that! I can't marry you, Frodo, but I do hope to come to Bag End if you'll have me. Sam Gamgee and I have talked it over. I've been thinking about the Gamgee children, poor motherless little things. If I've been tempted to accept your proposal in spite of my misgivings, it's for their sake and for Addy's. He ought to have someone stand in place of his father. And so, Addy and I will come for a visit and if we find ourselves happy there, and Sam and his family are amenable and you haven't changed your mind about having us underfoot, we'll stay on."

"Melly, are you certain that's what you want to do?" he asked, surprised at this part of her decision, but understanding now why she and Sam had become so friendly. "There might be some gossip if you come to live with us and nobody's married."

"We've all withstood enough scandal not to mind a little more," Melly rejoined. "Besides, it's not as if I'm an unmarried girl with a reputation to be ruined. And it's not remarkable for a widowed sister to look after her brother's household. We're a little younger than most who do it, but I think it's a more realistic arrangement for us than to try and play at being husband and wife. Will you accept my offer, dear Frodo, on those terms?"

"Yes--yes, of course."

"Then I'll come and be an aunt to the little Gamgees, if you will be an uncle to my Addy," she declared, and held out her hand to seal the bargain. Frodo took it. "I'm going back to Buckland today with Merry to settle things at home, but you can expect us at Bag End before the month is out."
This story archived at http://www.libraryofmoria.com/a/viewstory.php?sid=3098