Death on the Brandywine by Kathryn Ramage

Ivysmial was a half-mile down the lane from Crickhollow, and the four hobbits reached it within a few minutes. Smoke rose in thick plumes from the parlor chimney.

Frodo knocked insistently on the door, and was relieved when Melilot answered. "Melly, where's your sister?" he asked. "I want to talk to her, please."

"She's sleeping," Melilot told him, her eyes flitting from face to face with curiosity and wariness. "This has been horrible for her. You saw how upset she was at the funeral yesterday. I had to get her away from the Hall for awhile..."

"It was Mentha, wasn't it?" blurted Pippin. "She pushed Berry in?"

"Did she, Melly?" Merry asked.

"Hush! She'll hear you." Melilot opened the door to let them into the cottage and led them to the parlor. Even though it was a warm morning, a fire was blazing. As the boys gathered in the room, Melilot sat down on a tuffet by the hearth. Piles of papers tied with ribbons, open boxes, and other clutter lay on the floor, as if she'd been sorting through them when interrupted by their arrival.

Frodo crouched down beside her. "Melly," he began in a low voice, "when you were walking by the river that day, you were coming to see your sister. When you ran from Berry, you came directly here, didn't you?"

Melilot nodded.

"Did you tell her what he did to you?"

"I didn't need to," she answered. "Mentha could tell right away that something was wrong. I was crying. There was mud on my dress, and my hair was pulled about with that broken comb hanging down from one side. I only had to say Berry's name. Mentha took me inside, helped me put myself back together, gave me a cup of chamomile tea. I lay down, there-" she nodded at the rosewood settee where Pippin had taken a seat. "I must have fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew, it was afternoon and Mentha came to wake me. We went back to the Hall together. I didn't even know Berry was missing until later that evening, when I heard that you'd found his boat in the same spot where I'd left him."

"Didn't you think-?" Merry asked.

"No!" she insisted. "It never occurred to me 'til I talked to Frodo last night. Mentha was so calm, at first."

"She was quite calm when we spoke to her," said Pippin. "Remember, Merry? She was standing out in the garden when we came by. It must have been just afterwards."

"She didn't begin to be upset until Berry was found," said Melilot. "When they brought his body to the Hall and the sherriffs said it was murder. I was afraid that someone would find out I'd fought with him and I would have to tell what he'd done, but Mentha told me not to speak a word of what had happened. I was to forget about it. She said she'd look after me. She made me give away the other comb, the one that wasn't broken, to our maid. Even last night, when I began to wonder, I didn't- I didn't want to imagine such a thing, not of my own sister! Then, when we arrived here this morning, she asked me to burn everything she had to remind her of Berry--presents he'd given her, love notes he'd written. I found this-" She picked up a miniature portrait of Berilac lying on the hearthrug and held it up for the boys to see; the face had been stabbed through repeatedly. "The last time I was here, she was working on it to give to him. She knew about Berry's awful reputation for chasing girls--she couldn't help it, after the way he behaved with Celie last summer--but when he started keeping company with Mentha, he promised her that that was all past. She forgave him. But she couldn't forgive this."

"He told you he was going to break it off with her," said Frodo.

"He never told her," Melilot replied. "Maybe he meant to, if I'd done as he wanted, and would've broken her heart just the same. This painting is the only thing that shows how she felt." She tossed the portrait into the fire. "There." She turned to look up at them, lifting her chin defiantly. "It's gone now. There's no proof, and I won't speak against her. She's my sister, no matter what she's done. If you go to the sherriffs, I'll say I did it--I hit Berry harder than I meant to." Then she asked more timidly, "What will you do?"

"I don't want to bring the sherriffs into this," Frodo assured her.

"I don't think we've the right to do anything," Merry added solemnly. "As far as I'm concerned, Berry got what he deserved. It wouldn't be justice-"

A sharp bang in one of the rooms beyond cut him off and made them all jump.

"Mentha?" Melilot leapt up and went to her sister's bedroom, which was empty. "She heard us!"

The window was unlatched. One of the half-circle casements swung free; the other had slammed itself shut. Frodo went to look out. Like the front door, the window was flanked by trellises covered with ivy. The vines that climbed up the trellis on the right side were torn, and the flowers in the bed beneath the window were crushed. "She went out this way," he told the others. "Where would she go?"

But even as he asked, he knew where she had gone. They all knew. The river.

Without another word, they went out of the cottage after her, running down the lane as fast as they could go.

As they reached the lane's end and scrambled up over the raised embankment, they saw her: Mentha had waded out into the shallows of the river. She had not troubled to lift her dress clear of the knee-high water, but was walking slowly, dragging its sodden weight, as she headed toward the deeps.

At the cries of "Mentha!" and "Stop!" behind her, she turned. Her face was white and her eyes wild with despair, but she gave her sister a smile and called out, "You don't have to lie for me, Melly!" Then she threw herself into the deeper water. For an instant, her full skirts and long, dark hair spread out in the water, then she sank out of sight.

Melilot screamed.

Frodo didn't stop to think, but slid down the muddy slope to the water, and dove in.

The instant he'd done it, he realized that it was a very foolish thing. Even in the midday sun, the waters of the Brandywine were too muddy to see anything more than a foot beneath the surface. He could only grope blindly, hoping to catch Mentha's arm or a handful of skirts... but without luck. When he was forced to come up for air, he found he'd been caught the dangerous undercurrents. His head broke the surface; he cried out once. Frantically, his arms flailed to fight the current, but it was too strong.

After all he'd been through and survived, was it to end like this? He would drown at home, so near the place where his parents had died.

The last thing he heard before the water came up over his ears was Sam shouting his name and Merry saying, "Don't be stupid, Sam! You'll only get pulled down too!" Then he went under.

There was a great splash in the water nearby. A hand seized his coat and yanked him back to the surface. As his face cleared the water, an arm went around his collar. "It's all right, Frodo," a voice spoke against his ear. "I've got you."

Sam couldn't swim, but Merry could.

Sam had gone out into the shallows as far as he dared, dragging a large branch that had fallen from a tree overhanging the embankment. He extended it out into the water toward them; Merry caught it and they both clung to it as Sam and Pippin hauled them to safety. Frodo flopped onto the muddy bank and lay sputtering, choking, gasping for breath while Merry pounded his back to get the water out of him and Sam held him close and pushed the wet strands of hair from his face.

"Did you see Mentha?" he asked when he was able to speak.

"No," said Merry. "She went under even quicker'n you did, but she wasn't fighting to stay up."

They looked out over the murky waters, but saw no splashes or ripples on the surface except for the ordinary currents of the river. There was no sign of Mentha.

"She's gone," Melilot sobbed and sank down with her head in her hands.
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