Pieces of Pippin's armor lay scattered on the lawn at Crickhollow, and sounds of singing and bursts of shrill laughter came from the cottage as they approached.
"Sounds like they're having a party," Sam observed as he climbed off his pony. "Should we go in?"
"Yes, why not? They won't mind, and I want to see Merry." Frodo walked up the path through the untended garden. The front door of the cottage had been left ajar, and he went inside.
Merry and Pippin were dancing in the parlor. Arms around each other, the two sang loudly to provide their own music as they bounded back and forth across the floor. They paid no attention to where they were going, and nearly bumped into Frodo as he and Sam came into the room.
"Frodo, hello!" Merry flung one arm around Frodo's neck; the other was still around Pippin. "Come in! We're celebrating my freedom! We would've sent you an invitation, but I wanted a little time with Pip first, you understand. I haven't seen him in days."
He kissed Pippin, then kissed Frodo. When he offered to kiss Sam too, Sam drew back quickly and said, "No, thanks." But Merry was in too effusive a mood to be refused, and Sam got a wet slop on the cheek anyway.
"Well, as long as you're here, join the party!" Merry let go of both cousins and, out of breath, flopped into the nearest chair.
"Have something to drink?" Pippin offered. "There's some ginger-beer in the kitchen left over from last night's special rescue meeting." He went into the kitchen to get it.
Frodo sat down in another chair near Merry's. "It's good to see you out of that wretched place."
"It's good to be out of it!" Merry responded cheerfully.
"Do you know why you were released?"
"New facts came to light that showed I didn't do it, so Hob said, but he didn't say what they were."
"It was Melly," Frodo told him, and noted that Merry looked very interested, but not very surprised. "She came forward and told your father that Berry had accosted her. She didn't kill him, but she did hit him in the head to escape."
"Is that how it happened?" Merry smiled. "Well, then, if Berry fell into the river after that, it was only his own fault--and good riddance!"
"Merry, why didn't you tell me about Melly?" Frodo asked. "You knew she was there, didn't you? You knew that piece of broken comb was hers when I showed it to you."
"I knew," Merry admitted. "Mother gave her those combs as a birthday present years ago." He blew out a puff of breath, and explained in more a mollifying tone, "I didn't tell you, Frodo, because I thought that if Melly was the one to knock Berry into the river, then she must've had a good reason for it. I wasn't eager to be hanged, but I wasn't going to put a noose around her neck either. Still, I'm grateful she came forward at last, and I'm glad to hear she didn't kill Berry after all."
"That was Frodo's doing," Sam informed him. "He convinced her to tell what'd happened."
"Then I'm grateful to him too." Merry grinned at Frodo. "I knew if anyone could do it, it'd be you. I said you'd be a better investigator than any shirriff, didn't I? And I was right!"
"He would've done better if you'd told us the truth yesterday," Sam grumbled.
"I don't see how you could've worked it out more quickly," Merry retorted. "You found out about Melly without my help. The shirriffs never got so far as that. If it were left up to them and their official inquiries, I might've sat rotting in the guardshouse for weeks and who knows how I would've ended up?"
Pippin returned from the kitchen with four mugs of ginger-beer and handed them around.
"But everything's turned out all right," Merry went on. "We won't have to leave the Shire in disgrace," he told Pippin as he took the mug his cousin held out to him.
"I never wanted to go," said Pippin.
"We'll stop at the Hall for dinner tonight and I'll make peace with Father. I'll promise to marry... oh, whoever he likes and whoever'll have me--Estella Bolger, Minda Banks, one of your sisters. How about you, Pip? You ought to have a wife too. One each. That's only fair."
"What about Melly?" Pippin teased. "She's a nice girl, pretty too-"
"And she isn't afraid to knock a fellow over the head if he gets too presumptuous! I daresay a knock in the head might do you good once in awhile, but Melly deserves a better husband. Besides, she's had an eye on your cousin Everard since they were children." Merry gulped his beer and scowled. "I'm not at all sorry Berry's dead now I know what he did to her. If I'd heard about it before, I would've given him a good shove into the river myself, just as the shirriffs said I did."
Frodo glanced apologetically at Sam; so he'd been right about that.
"Perhaps it's what any brother would do in such a case," he conceded. "As a matter of fact, I wonder if Merimas actually saw Melly running up from the river, just as Uncle Dino did--only he knew who it was and kept his mouth shut about it. He was very angry when I started to ask questions about whom he'd seen in the lane that day. He wouldn't do anything to endanger either of his sisters. I wonder if he guessed what'd happened..."
It occurred to Frodo then that there was one other person who might have known that Berry had assaulted Melilot on the day it had happened. Who had to know.
Suddenly, he saw that it was exactly as Sam had said: I'd gladly knock anybody over the head if they went grabbing at my sister. But it wasn't Merry who had claimed that vengeance, nor even Melly's own brother. There was another who, by striking Berilac down, was not only defending her younger sister, but also taking a special revenge of her own against a faithless lover.
"Melly went with Mentha to her cottage earlier this morning," he spoke urgently. "We've got to go and find them. I want to see Mentha."
"Whatever for?" asked Pippin.
But Sam had followed Frodo's thoughts. "You think it's her? It's Miss Mentha?"
"Mentha!" Merry echoed, sitting upright. "Frodo, are you sure of that?"
"I've been wrong before," Frodo admitted, "but I don't think I am this time. Who had a better reason for wanting Berry dead?" He rose from his chair. "I'd like to see her, to have the truth. I'm worried for her--for both of them. If I'm right, what do you think Mentha will do now that Melly's told her story?"
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