Death on the Brandywine by Kathryn Ramage

Frodo retrieved the broken piece of comb from the pocket of the waistcoat he'd worn that morning and returned to the drawing room. The last of the visitors had departed and the tea things had been cleared away. The family was dispersing to their rooms to change out of their funeral clothes before dinner; Melilot had already left.

He hoped to see her at the dinner table, but Melilot stayed to watch over her sister so that Melisaunte, who had been sitting by Mentha's bedside all afternoon, could come down to dinner instead.

Since Melilot's room was not far down the hall from Frodo's own, he decided that his best chance to talk to her was by keeping his bedroom door ajar and listening carefully to catch her when she went to bed. After dinner, he pulled a chair close behind the door, and settled down for his vigil. Sam sat to wait with him, perched on the foot of the bed.

"D'you think this Miss Melilot's the girl who was seen in Mr. Berilac's boat?" Sam wondered.

"I don't know." Even when Frodo had first guessed that Melilot was the one Uncle Dinodas had seen go past his cottage, he'd never thought that she must be the mysterious dark-haired girl seen with Berry. And yet Berilac seemed to have at least flirted with every other girl-cousin at the Hall: Celie, Mentha, even Estella. Melly too? "It seems incredible, but how else could her comb have broken by the river if she hadn't been there herself?"

"It looks as if you were right in the first place," said Sam. "Mr. Merry must've known it was hers."

"Yes, and I think Celie must have recognized it when I showed it to her. I suspect Dodi and Ilbie did too." Frodo recalled the glance that had gone between the two brothers when he'd described the fragment of jewelry to them.

"Why did he lie about it? Mr. Merry's not sweet on this cousin of yours, is he? The way he's stuck by Mr. Pippin, I'd've thought he didn't care for any girl."

"It isn't like that," Frodo explained. "Melly's almost a sister to him. You have to understand how we were brought up together. You haven't been up to the nursery, have you? It's shut now, 'til there are children in the household again. It fills the entire top floor of the Hall under the crest of Buck Hill. There isn't one room, but a maze of playrooms and cubbies for nursery-maids and children to sleep in. We grew up there, the whole lot of us, tumbled atop each other like puppies in a basket. I didn't have a room of my own until I was thirteen. You grow very close under those conditions. We are a close family, perhaps too close." He played with the broken comb between his fingers, then turned to Sam. "I suppose your own childhood at Bagshot Row wasn't so very different, with so many of you in that little bungalow?"

"We were crowded in too," Sam answered, "and there was only six of us!"

"Wouldn't you do the same as Merry if it were one of your sisters, Sam? You'd lie to protect May or Marigold?"

"Probably," Sam admitted, "but I'd hope they'd speak up before I'd got myself hung for something I didn't do." Then, after a delicate pause, he asked, "D'you think she killed him?"

"Melly? No." Frodo shook his head briskly. "No, I can't believe that. Melly's a dear. She wouldn't ever deliberately harm anyone."

Sam huffed at this. "Well, it seems to me-" he began, when another door down the hallway creaked open.

"Hush!" Frodo hissed. He left his seat and crept toward the door to peek out; Melilot was just emerging from Mentha's room. Frodo went out.

Melilot was startled to see him. "Frodo? What-? Is something the matter?"

"I've been waiting to talk to you, Melly. It's important. I believe I've found something that belongs to you." He held up the broken piece of jewelry.

If he'd had any doubts, they disappeared as he watched the color drain from Melilot's face. "Wh- where did you find that?"

"In the shallows of the river, near where Berilac was drowned," Frodo told her. "It is yours, isn't it?"

Melilot stared at him wildly, then said, "Not here! Come inside." Grabbing Frodo's arm, she yanked him abruptly into her room. "Shut the door." While Frodo closed the door, his cousin took a small cherrywood jewelry box from the top of her wardrobe and set it on the dressing table; she opened it and brought out the other, larger piece of the broken comb.

"It's mine," she confirmed. "There was a pair of them. After this one broke, I gave the other away."

"How did it break?"

There was another long silence, another moment of decision. When she spoke, her voice was so low that Frodo could barely hear her. "Berilac tore it from my hair."

"You were with him that day, on the boat?"

She nodded.

Frodo asked the next question as gently as he could. "Melly, what happened?"

"It seems like you already know all about it," she responded wryly.

"No, not everything. Will you tell me?"

Melilot nodded again. She composed herself, sitting down on her bed and folding her hands in her lap before she began. "I was walking on the path along the river, when Berry came rowing by and asked if I'd like to ride with him as he was headed the same way. It would save me a mile's walk, so I got into the boat." Her hands in her lap clenched more tightly together. "When we were out in the midst of the water, Berry proposed to me. At least, that's what I thought it was at first."

"I thought that he and Mentha had an understanding."

The corners of Melilot's mouth turned down. "So did I, but when I said so, Berry told me, 'that's all over and done with.' He said he was going to break it off with her. She wasn't the one he truly wanted. He kept on saying such things, 'til I understood that it wasn't marriage he was proposing. He'd trifled with my sister's heart, and he meant to do the same with mine. I wouldn't hear another word of it. Then he tried to kiss me--and I wasn't having any of that from him! I made him row ashore. I said I'd jump out and swim if he didn't. I told him I'd tell Mentha. When we got to the bank, he got out of the boat too and grabbed my arm. Perhaps he only meant to stop me from running off to tell tales against him, or perhaps..." She shook her head. "I tried to make him let go, and he got hold of my hair. I hit him, and hit him again." The rest of it came out in breathless bursts. "Once I got free, I picked up a rock and threw it at him. It struck the side of his head and he fell into the water. Then I ran as fast as I could."

Frodo was breathing hard too by the time she finished. "Oh, Melly. Have you told anyone else about this?"

Melilot opened her mouth, then shut it quickly. After a moment, she said, "No." She let her head fall to her hands, dark ringlets flying over her face. When she looked up at him, her large, brown eyes were tearful and pleading. "Are you going to tell, Frodo?"

"No," Frodo answered carefully, "but I think you ought to go to the sherriffs. They should know the truth of what happened."

"Go to the sherriffs?" she repeated, baffled. "What good will that do? Berilac's dead now. Why disgrace his name?"

"What about Merry's name?"

"Merry-?" She looked more perplexed than before.

"If you'd come forward, Merry never would have been arrested. The sherriffs would have known it was you from the first." He sat down beside her and, feeling rather shy even though she was a cousin, took her hand. "You've nothing to be afraid of, Melly. No one would have blamed you. You struck Berilac in your own defense. A lady has a right to guard her honor-"

Melilot pulled her hand from his with a gasp. "Frodo, I didn't kill Berry!"

"You didn't?"

"No, of course not! When I last saw Berry, he'd climbed back to the bank and was sitting by the water's edge with his head in his hands. His head was bleeding, but he was alive when I left him."

"He was still alive..." Frodo murmured, struggling between relief and doubt.

Melilot was regarding him with an odd expression. "You thought I'd killed him, Frodo? That's why you came to talk to me?"

"Yes, I did," he admitted. "When I found your comb by the river, I wondered... I suspected. I'm sorry." His face turned red, and he felt ashamed of himself for the second time that day. "But, Melly, why didn't you say anything before? The truth wouldn't have harmed you, and it would have helped Merry."

"You'll think me a fool, but I didn't consider what happened to me in light of Merry's arrest. I was so upset--I didn't want anyone to know. When I heard that Berry was dead, I didn't think- I mean, I never thought that Merry had killed him, but that someone else must've come along..." Her face suddenly went pale and she sat very still, staring straight ahead. Then she asked in a choked voice, "Do you really think I might have done it, by accident? I never meant to strike him hard, only to make him let me go."

"I don't know," Frodo answered honestly. "Perhaps Berry was dazed and lost his balance and fell into the river. Or maybe he threw himself in because he couldn't bear the shame of what he'd done. Anything of the sort is possible. But it doesn't matter. Don't you see? However Berry died, it occurred after you'd gone. There's no reason for anyone to believe it wasn't an accident after all."
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