Hob Hayward was still the sherriff on duty when they arrived at the guardshouse.
"How is your investigation coming along?" Frodo asked as Hob let them in to see Merry. "Have you spoken to anyone at the Hall? The servants? There may be something there you've missed."
"We've finished our inquiries at the Hall," Hob informed him. "We don't wish to disturb the Master nor any of his household more'n is necessary 'til we have some news to report."
"And have you any?"
Hob shook his head.
"Have you asked the members of the family that live in the lane if they saw anybody?"
"We did, just afore Mr. Merry was arrested, but they didn't have much to say."
"Perhaps you ought to talk to them again," Frodo suggested. "My cousin Celandine tells me that she didn't see Merry go to the river that morning."
"That only shows he could've gone 'round another way so he wouldn't be seen," Hob responded. "Now you leave us to do our investigating as we see fit, Mr. Frodo."
"What've you been doing?" Sam wondered.
"We are asking them as live in Bucklebury and Newbury near the Hedge if they've seen any suspicious characters lurking about," Hob replied with an officious huff. Then he added in more conciliatory tones, "Don't you worry, Mr. Frodo. If Mr. Merry's innocent, we'll turn something up."
As they walked the length of the armory hall, Sam gave Frodo a quizzical glance behind the sherriff's back; Frodo fingered the edge of his waistcoat pocket, but said nothing.
Hob unlocked the door to Merry's room, then left them to speak in private.
Merry lay sprawled on the bed, just as he'd been the day before; he lifted his head to smile at them and say, "Hello! What's the news? Anything good?" but he did not get up until Frodo sat down beside him to convey Pippin's message and deliver his kiss. That brought Merry's spirits up a little, and he was even more cheerful when he heard that Pippin had not been cast out by the family.
"Mother went to see him?" Merry smiled. "She never said a word about it when she was here yesterday, and I never thought to ask her to look after Pip for me. And good old Dodi! I knew I could count on him not to let us down."
Frodo had given him the good news first. Now, he told Merry of his conversation with Saradoc.
The smile vanished. "I didn't have much hope of you talking Father over, but it was worth a try."
"I wish I could have done better for you, Merry."
"'Tisn't your fault. Father won't budge, and that's that." Merry flopped back onto the bed with a sigh. "I've been thinking things over, Frodo. Before the sherriffs came for me, Pippin and I were talking over what we would do if I was disinherited. We said we might leave the Shire for good and go back to Minas Tirith. If I get out of this mess, I think that's what we'll do. It's the best thing, really. We were both much happier there, you know, once the war was over. Pip has a place waiting for him in the King's court, and I could find something too. It was nice being home again at first, but I don't feel like I belong here anymore. We were heroes in Gondor--in the Shire, we're an embarrassment to our families. We're better off out of the way. If Berry was alive, I'd tell him he could be the next Master of the Hall and welcome to it! I suppose it'll go to Dodi now. He's next in line."
The other two hobbits exchanged worried glances. Merry was normally so high-spirited and optimistic; they had never heard him sound bitter like this before. The frustration of being locked up and falsely accused was beginning to tell on him.
"You shouldn't start packing just yet," Sam told him. "Frodo's working on a way to get you out of here."
Merry regarded his cousin with curiosity. "What are you going to do?"
"I've decided to conduct my own investigation," Frodo explained. "I'm going to prove your innocence beyond all doubt, then they'll have to let you go."
This made Merry smile again. "You'll do a better job than the sherriffs. You couldn't help it--you're smarter than the whole lot of them together!"
"They've focused their attention in the wrong places-" Frodo agreed. "They're looking for some outsider-"
"Hob says they're looking for 'suspicious characters' around that Hedge," Sam interjected with a derisive snort.
"-but I think they ought to be looking closer to home."
Now, Merry was intensely interested. "Really? Who do you think did it?"
"Well, it's only a theory of mine," Frodo answered, curbing his enthusiasm; he had no real proof yet, and didn't want to give Merry false hope. "I believe that there's a girl involved--a girl who was with Berry that day. I've been down to the river this morning to have a look at the spot where you and Pippin found Berry's boat, and I found this." He took the broken ornament from his pocket.
Merry took it, turned it over in his fingers to examine it. His expression, which had been so avid only seconds before, suddenly went blank. "This was down by the river, you say?"
"Yes. Do you have any idea who might have lost it there?"
"No, I've never seen it before." Merry returned the trinket to Frodo.
"It doesn't belong to anyone you know?"
"Not that I know of. Sorry, Frodo. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can't."
Merry was a good liar when he needed to be, but Frodo knew him too well to be fooled; he could see that his cousin was keeping something back.
"I though you were going to tell the sherriffs about that girl in the boat and the piece of jewelry you found?" Sam said once Hob had shown them out of the guardshouse and they were alone.
"I meant to," Frodo admitted, "but they wouldn't know what to do with it. The story about the girl is just that--a story, no more. The girl Uncle Dinodas saw might be anybody, or might've been there on another day. I need to find something more substantial. Until I do, I'm only a meddler. You heard how stuffy Hob became simply because we asked a few questions. The sherriffs wouldn't appreciate it if anyone, even a relation of the Brandybucks, went poking his nose into their official business. As for this- ah- clue of ours," he patted his pocket, "I think I'd better hold onto it awhile longer, 'til I learn more about it. I don't know if it has anything to do with Berilac, but it does mean something to Merry."
"He was lying," Sam murmured under his breath.
"I know. I'm certain that Merry knows who that trinket belongs to. But why won't he tell me?" That was what stung the most. "I'm trying to help him. Doesn't he see that?" Then he gripped Sam's arm. "Sam, it must be someone at the Hall! Merry's trying to protect someone there. One of the family? Yes, that's the only answer that makes sense. Merry would speak up if it were anyone else. A cousin? One of the aunties? Surely not his mother!" He shook his head. "I can't see Aunt Esme smashing anyone's head in. It's too absurd. In fact, none of the ladies at the Hall, even the dark-haired ones, seem likely as a murderess." He spoke as if he were joking, but a serious, unpleasant idea was forming in his mind: what if the broken piece of jewelry were Celie's, and she had lied about it? Would Merry lie for her? "When we get back to the Hall, I'll have to find out-"
"Not right off, you're not," Sam stopped him with a no-nonsense tone. "You've done your running about for the morning. When we're back at the Hall, I want you to lie down awhile before the funeral. You can do more investigating afterwards."
"I'll rest," Frodo promised. In truth, he was beginning to feel weary after his morning's exertions. "But you must work for me while I'm resting. Be my eyes and ears, remember?"
Sam nodded. "What d'you want me to do?"
"The servants won't attend the funeral. It'll be the perfect time for you to ask them some questions."
"Do you want me to show that bit of jewelry about?"
"No, I'll do that myself, discreetly, among the family. I'd rather not have very many people know about it before I know whose it is. But there are a few other things I'd like to find out more about. If we're going to conduct our own investigation properly, we must be methodical and go through every step in an orderly fashion." He enumerated the questions he wanted answers to, counting them off on his fingers:
"First, we have to find out if Berilac was alone or if he had someone with him when he went out--and if there was, who she was. I'd also like to know exactly when he left, and if he said anything about where he was going. The hobbits who work at the Hall boathouse will be able to tell you that. The boathouse is that big, wooden building that hangs out over the river at the northernmost end of the property. If you follow the path under the willows along the river's edge, you can't help but find your way to it.
"Second, I want to know where Doderic was. Ask the boatsmen about him as well. They can tell you when he went out and when he came back." He told Sam, "Last night at dinner, Dodi said that he'd been fishing at Standelf pool that morning, but that's not where he went, not if he was visiting Pippin at Crickhollow. You heard Pippin say so."
Sam nodded. "I saw how you took particular interest in that, but I couldn't see why. You don't think he-?"
"I don't know! I don't want to think anything so horrible about a cousin of mine, but I know he lied. It's hardly possible for him to have been in both places--the two are miles apart, on either side of Buck Hill. I think that he must have taken a boat, so that he could say he was going south to Standelf when he rowed upriver instead... perhaps to follow Berry."
"Why would he do that?"
Frodo voiced his worst thoughts: "What if this piece of jewelry belongs to Celie? What if she did go to the river to meet Berry, and someone else followed and found them there?"
"But why this Doderic, not her husband?" Sam looked confused.
"Yes, I thought it might be Merimas, at first--but, Sam, Dodi is Celie's brother." He could see Sam's expression brighten with understanding. "He wouldn't like it any better than her husband would. Perhaps he..."
Frodo tried to imagine what had happened: Berry had stopped at the landing at the end of the lane for a pre-arranged meeting with Celie. Doderic had known about it and followed him there in a second boat, and surprised the two in their tryst. To avenge his sister's honor, he'd struck Berry, knocking him into the river deliberately or by accident--and then what? Could he have gone to pay a friendly visit on Pippin after committing a murderous assault? Pippin wasn't the most observant hobbit in the Shire, but surely he would have noticed if Dodi were behaving oddly. And what about Celie? If she had witnessed Doderic's fight with Berry, that might explain why she had run up the lane past Uncle Dinodas's cottage instead of going home; she was seeking help or shelter from Mentha. But if she had seen the two fighting, she must also know or guess that her brother was responsible for Berry's death. She might lie to protect him, but would she be so composed about it? Celie had seemed upset about Berry when Frodo had spoken to her, but not as upset as a girl whose brother had just killed her lover might reasonably be.
It didn't make sense. Something wasn't right.
"No." He stopped himself. "I mustn't jump to conclusions before I have the facts. I need to know more. Ask about Dodi, and you might try to find out if there was any gossip about Celie and Berry, before or after her marriage."
"I doubt if you'll be able to learn what the family in the lane were all doing, but can you find out who else was away from the Hall that morning?" Frodo counted off a third finger. "After Dodi told us where he was supposed to have been when Berry was killed, some of the others at the table told where they were as well." He tried to remember. "Fatty said he wasn't here yet. Melilot said she was out for a walk. Perhaps someone can tell us where she went. Ilberic said he slept late. That one might be easiest to discover the truth of. Whatever you find, Sam, you can tell me about it after the funeral."
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