Sam packed a traveling bag for Frodo and one for himself, since he wouldn't dream of letting Frodo go without him, and they left Bag End within the hour. It was 40 miles from Hobbiton to the borders of Buckland, and Frodo was eager to get there as soon as possible; they rode swiftly, stopping only at Frogmorton and Whitfurrows for a bite to eat and to let the ponies rest, and crossed the Brandywine Bridge late that afternoon.
The Buckshead Inn lay at the crossroads just beyond the Buckland side of the bridge. The innkeeper, who kept himself apprised of all the important news, told them that Merry had been locked up in the guardshouse at Newbury. Although both he and Sam were weary after their long ride, it was only another seven miles to Newbury; Frodo decided to press on without further delay.
The guardshouse was a long, low, wooden structure, built during those uneasy days when strange folk were too often seen on the Shire's borders. It was intended to store weapons and supplies in case of invasion or other emergency, and also served as a central office where Bucklanders could always find a sherriff when one was needed.
Hob Hayward, who was on duty when Frodo and Sam arrived, allowed them in to see the prisoner.
"We don't have no cells to lock people up in," Hob explained as he led them through the long hall of the armory, to a door at the very back. "We had to put Mr. Merry in the room where the sherriff on duty sleeps, as there was nothing else we could do with him." He knocked on the door. "Here's some visitors for you, Mr. Merry."
The door opened into a small room with curving walls in the traditional hobbit style, furnished sparsely--sparse, at least, by hobbit standards--to provide basic comforts to the sherriff who must occupy it for a night or two. There was also usually a rack for pipes and a locker full of food supplies, which Hob had removed to the hall, along with other small comforts, when he'd vacated the room to accommodate his prisoner.
Merry lay on his back on the narrow bed, a pipe in his mouth and his eyes on the ceiling, but he sat up when he saw who his visitors were. "Frodo! And Sam too! I didn't know you were here."
"We came straight away when I heard the news," said Frodo. "How are you, Merry? Have they been treating you well?"
"I've been in worse places," Merry answered with a grin. "It's not so bad. Hob here has seen that I get decent meals and plenty of pipeweed. He just won't let me go past that door."
"You know I can't, Mr. Merry," Hob said apologetically. "I was told in particular not to, not 'til we've finished conducting our investigation-" he pronounced these last words carefully, relishing each official-sounding syllable, "and the matter is sorted out. You've got it better than I do. That's my bed you're sleeping in, while I'm left a-sitting out against the door all night. I've got to keep guard over you and see you don't walk out."
"If I did, I'd only go back to Crickhollow," Merry retorted. "You'd just have to go over there when you want me."
"Then you might as well stay here," said Hob, "and save me the trouble of going to get you."
"May we speak to your prisoner alone, please?" Frodo requested, interrupting this badinage.
"There's no rule against private conversations, is there, Hob?" Merry asked.
Hob considered it. "No one's said you could, and no one's said you couldn't either. Seeing as how it's Mr. Frodo, come all the way from Hobbiton to see you special, I guess it's all right. But mind now, Mr. Merry, if you're going to confess to anything we ought to know about..."
"You'll be the first one I tell, Hob. I promise."
Hob left them alone to talk.
"I've never seen the sherriffs so happy," said Merry once the door had shut. "They're enjoying themselves, you know. Even for all his grumbling, Hob's having a high old time of it."
Frodo glanced at the door--and Hob somewhere beyond it--with a scowl of disapproval. "Horrid lot of brutes," said Sam.
"Don't be too hard on them. They've got a real, live murder to investigate. It's the most excitement they've seen in all their years on the job."
"What happened, Merry?" Frodo sat down on the bed beside his cousin. Sam stayed near the door to ensure that Hob didn't eavesdrop. "I want to help. I'll do anything I can, but I don't understand why you've been arrested. Why do they think you've got something to do with Berilac's death? What proof do they have?"
"No proof," Merry answered, "but there's enough against me that looks suspicious."
"Were you anywhere near the place where he drowned?"
"It's just a mile or so from Crickhollow, where Pip and I have been staying. You remember that end of the lane, where it meets the footpath along the river? That marshy bit where the rushes grow tall, and the bottom's muddy?"
A strange look came over Frodo's face. "Yes," he said, "I know it."
"Pip and I found the boat pulled up there."
"Pulled up, not washed up?"
"No. Someone had dragged it half onto the bank. There's a muddy flat below the path that's a sort of a natural landing. We didn't know who'd left it there. We didn't know about Berilac's being missing. No one did, not 'til he didn't come home for dinner that night. He left the Hall that morning from the boathouse, and that was the last anyone saw of him. Pip and I never saw Berilac, dead or alive, but of course the sherriffs have it that I met him by the river earlier in the day. They say I fought with him and, by accident or deliberately, hit him on the head and killed him."
"But why? Why do they think you fought with him?" As far as Frodo knew, even if Merry and Berilac were not on the friendliest terms, they were not openly hostile toward each other. "That's nothing to arrest you for. Unless they have some proof, they've no right to shut you up here like a criminal." Another question occurred to him. "Merry, who's ordered Hob to keep you under guard?"
"The local magistrate," Merry said dryly. "You know who that is."
Frodo did know. The office of magistrate was traditionally held by the most prominent hobbit in the vicinity. In Buckland, that was the Master of the Hall. "Oh, Merry, not your father?"
"Surely he doesn't believe you did this?"
"I don't think that has anything to do with it."
"Merry..." Frodo lowered his voice, "what's going on? Tell me. There's more to this than Berilac's death, isn't there?"
"Berry's death is only the end of it." Merry sighed. "I suppose all this business began when we left the Shire- No, it goes even farther back than that. Father was always fond of Berry. Remember how he used to hold him up as an example of a properly behaved hobbit-lad, and wonder why I couldn't be more like him? And you know what an old stickleback Berry was! He never got into trouble, or wanted to go off on adventures. He wouldn't disappear for more than a year without a word of warning. When we left the Shire as suddenly as we did, no one could tell what'd happened to us. As far as the family knew, I'd fallen off the face of the earth. They had no idea if I was ever coming back, and so Father started looking to Berry as the next in line."
"And when we came home-?"
"I was put back in my rightful place, and Berry went back to his."
"If you don't mind me saying, that sounds more like a reason for Mr. Berilac to push you into the river than the other way 'round," Sam observed.
"Maybe it was. We never got on very well--Frodo can tell you about that--but if Berry bore me any grudge, he was smart enough to keep his feelings to himself. He said he was glad to see me alive and well, and welcomed me home just like the rest of the family. If anybody was obviously disappointed to have me back again, it was Uncle Merimac--not that Uncle Merry would wish me dead, but he's ambitious enough to like the idea of his son being the next Master of the Hall if I never came home. In any case, there wasn't any trouble, not 'til the day before Berry went missing. I had a quarrel with Father. He threatened to disown me. He'd found out about Pippin, you see."
"Found out what about Pippin?" asked Frodo.
Merry regarded his cousin with eyebrows archly and meaningfully upraised.
"Oh," said Frodo. "But surely he knew about that ages ago."
"He did, but he never minded it when Pip and I were just boys playing around. It's serious now. Since I've come home, Father's decided it's time for me to settle down. I've had half a dozen girl-cousins paraded before me, until I couldn't stand it any more. We finally had it out. I went to Father and told him that I might get married one day, but I'm not in any rush and whoever I choose, she has to understand how things are between me and Pip. After all we've been through together, we don't want to let each other go. I'm sure you know what that's like--you and Sam."
Sam blushed, but Frodo smiled and said, "Yes, I know exactly what that's like."
"Well, Father didn't see it that way at all. He said it wasn't natural. I wasn't a boy playing games anymore, and I had to stop seeing Pippin before it became a scandal. I told him I wouldn't. I'm not afraid of scandal, and I'd leave the Hall for good rather than break it off. I'd never seen Father so angry before.
"Everyone knows we've quarreled--half the household must've heard him shouting that he'd cut me off--but no one knew what it was about before Berry's body was taken out of the river all battered and bruised, and the sherriffs started to wonder who would want to do him harm. Once they heard of my fight with Father, they came up with the idea that Father was going set me aside and put Berry into my place, and so I must have knocked him over the head and tossed him into the Brandywine to get rid of him way once and for all. Yesterday, they came round to Crickhollow to tell me I was under suspicion and to ask me to account for my whereabouts at the time of the murder."
"Who told them about it?" asked Frodo.
"I don't know. Anyone might've. It could even be Father himself. He didn't lift a finger against it when the sherriffs took me. When he came here yesterday to give Hob his orders, he said that justice must take its course, but that's not the reason he's doing this. I'm being punished, and not for anything to do with Berilac. At least, Father can't hold Berry over me anymore."
Frodo understood. The sort of "boys playing games" relationship that Merry and Pippin had shared since their late tweens went on all the time between young hobbits; it was not openly acknowledged and rarely spoken of in public, but it was accepted... up to a point. The Shire could turn a blind eye to it as long as it didn't go on too long to be called child's play, or become too indiscreet to be overlooked. Merry and Pippin had breached that limit of acceptability, just as he and Sam had--but they had been caught out, and Merry was paying for it.
"Couldn't you account for your whereabouts?" Sam asked Merry.
Merry shook his head. "The morning that Berilac drowned, I was off by myself. I was upset after the quarrel, so I went for a walk. I wanted to think things through, to figure out what we would do if Father made good on his threats and Pippin and I had to go somewhere else. I was out 'til lunchtime--nowhere near the river, mostly on the path to Bucklebury along the Hedge--but I've no proof of that. There's only my word for it." He smiled. "Pippin was ready to say he'd been with me, but I wouldn't let him do it. They'd only think he was lying for my sake, which he would've been. No one's accused him of helping me to get Berry out of the way, and I won't give them the chance to."
"Where is Pippin now?" asked Frodo.
"Still at Crickhollow." Merry grabbed Frodo's sleeve, suddenly earnest. "Look in on him for me, will you? I don't like to think of him being there alone, not knowing what's going on. Stop by and let him know I'm all right. Tell him not to worry."
"Do you want us to stay with him while we're here?"
"No, if you're going to do any good, you'd better go to the Hall. Mother will be glad to put you up, and you can work on Father. He likes you. He's always said you were a young hobbit of uncommon sense, even if you did go off on an adventure and took me along. He might listen to you."
"Yes, of course," Frodo promised. "I won't let you sit in this awful place a minute longer than I have to."
"It isn't so bad, really. I don't like being caged up, but I can stand it. I don't even begrudge the sherriffs the fun of their investigation... as long as I don't get hanged at the end of it." Merry's smile faded and the cheerful facade dropped. They saw how frightened he really was.
"Oh, Merry-" Frodo hugged him. "That won't happen. I won't let it, even if it means rescuing you from the gallows at sword-point." Merry laughed against his shoulder, and they went on clinging to each other until Sam began to fidget. As they drew apart, Frodo took Merry by the arms and said, "I'll come back tomorrow and, with luck, I'll bring good news."
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