Death on the Brandywine by Kathryn Ramage

They crossed the road and went up the lane toward Crickhollow, walking and leading their ponies. As they passed the first cottage on their left, a feminine voice called out from the other side of the fence, "Frodo, hello! When did you get here?" A pretty girl with profuse brown curls in pink ribbons came up to the gate and held out one hand to him over it.

"Celie!" Frodo handed Sam his pony's reigns and went over to her. "How are you? How is married life?"

Celandine was the youngest of his Brandybuck cousins, only 27; Frodo had been surprised to hear that she was the first to be married--and to Merimas, of all people! Merimas was forty, and generally acknowledged to be the most conventionally-minded Brandybuck of his generation.

"Wonderful! You can't know how nice it is having a home of our own, even if it's only four little rooms. We're just about to go back to the Hall, for poor Berry's funeral." Celie turned as her husband emerged from the cottage, carrying a pair of traveling bags, and said, "Darling, look who it is! Frodo Baggins, and his friend- I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

"This is Sam Gamgee," Frodo introduced him.

"D'you do," Merimas mumbled and nodded his head at the pair.

"Are you lads staying at the Hall?" Celie asked Frodo.

"Yes, we arrived last night. We're going to pay a visit on Pippin, then ride to Newbury to see Merry."

Merimas snorted at the mention of Merry and Pippin, and took the baggage around to a track at the side of the cottage, leading to a small stable at the back where a pony was tethered.

"You mustn't mind him," Celie said. "He never approved of Merry, and now-! Isn't it horrible?"

"Awful," Frodo agreed.

"But I don't believe Merry would ever do such a thing. I don't see how he had the chance. He was never by the river that morning, as far as I saw."

"So you didn't see Merry pass toward the river?" Frodo asked, then turned to include Merimas, who was leading his baggage-laden pony into the lane. "Did either of you see anyone?"

"No," Merimas answered. "No one who hadn't a reason to be there."

"We did see Merry and Pippin, but that was well after noon," added Celie. "I'm certain that Merry never came this way earlier."

"Were you here all that morning?" asked Frodo.

"What d'you mean?" Merimas asked back.

"Only that if you were out, you might've missed seeing something important," Frodo replied, "something that will help Merry. I want to help him, if I can."

"We were here," said Celie. "I was in the parlor from breakfast 'til lunch-time, and Merimas was in and out, but of course I didn't sit and stare out the window every minute. I never saw anyone pass. I wish I had! I'd tell the sherriffs and Uncle Saradoc that."

As she came out through the gate, Frodo asked her, "By the way, have you lost any jewelry, Celie? I found a broken piece by the river." He took it out of his pocket. "Could it be yours?"

The girl stared at the fragment of jewelry in the palm of Frodo's hand. "No," she shook her head. "That isn't mine." But Frodo thought she sounded reluctant, as if she weren't telling all the truth. "I haven't been near the river in ages. Merimas doesn't like to go boating."

"But Berry did?" Frodo asked softly.

"Oh, yes," Celie answered, and tears welled in her eyes. "Poor Berry. I'll miss him. He was such fun--but," she insisted with sudden urgency, "that was all a long time ago!"

"Celie, come along!" Merimas summoned her, then turned to lead his pony down the lane toward the main road.

With a glance of apology at Frodo, Celie ran to join her husband. "We'll see you at the Hall later!" she called over her shoulder as she took Merimas's hand and the two of them walked away.

"She's got dark hair," Sam observed once the newlyweds had gone. "And I'll wager anything you like she's been out a-boating on the river with Mr. Berry."

Frodo couldn't disagree; that was the impression he'd gotten as well. "I don't think Celie could kill anybody," he said. "She can be a silly little chit, but she's harmless. And besides, she sounded genuinely sorry that Berry's dead. It doesn't seem that very many people are." But there was a tickle of suspicion at the back of his mind that made his joke about murderous newlyweds seem not so funny anymore. The newly-married couple wouldn't commit a murder together, but if Berry had been paying attentions to Celie before her marriage--or even afterwards--who knew how her husband might react?

The idea was disturbing. He didn't want to suspect such a horrible thing of any of his cousins.

They walked a little farther along the lane, until they came to a shabbier cottage with an untrimmed hedge. An elderly hobbit was standing on the small front lawn, pipe clenched between his teeth, practicing his golfing.

"Uncle Dinodas! Hello!" Frodo shouted out loudly enough for the old hobbit to hear.

Dinodas looked up, squinted in Frodo's direction, then burst into a smile. "Is that young Frodo? Primmy's boy?"

"Yes, it is." Frodo went up to the hedge and pushed some of the untrimmed branches down to look over the top. "It's good to see you, Uncle."

Dinodas tucked his golf club under one arm and stepped over a number of little white wooden balls scattered in the grass to come to the hedge and speak to his nephew. "It's been quite some time since I last saw you, but I'd know you anywhere, my lad. You're the image of your mother, poor Prim." He shook his head sadly at the memory of his long-dead, much younger sister. "Have you come for the funeral?"

"Yes, that's right." But Frodo observed that his uncle was in a battered and patched old tweed jacket and trousers, and didn't look as if he were planning to go anywhere. "Aren't you going to attend yourself?"

"Oh, I'll have to go and stand by the vault with the rest of the family for appearances' sake," said Dinodas, "but I'm not going to the Hall before or after. The speeches'll be bad enough to listen to--I couldn't stand to hear all the women sobbing and everyone going on about how wonderful Berry Brandybuck was, when it wasn't the case at all!" Frodo's eyes widened at this frank admission, and his uncle continued, "Now, you haven't been home in awhile, lad. You didn't see how Berry was doing his best to take what was Merry's rightful place as heir to the Hall while the two of you were off on your adventures. It was disgusting, seeing how he wormed his way into Saradoc's good graces."

"But surely he was set aside once Merry returned," said Frodo.

"He was, but I know he didn't give up trying, nor had his father. They meant for Berry to be the next Master here, no matter what. I don't say Merry knocked him into the river, but if he did, then Berry had it coming. I'd say he got what he deserved, whoever did it." Dinodas gave a golfball on the grass near his feet a good whack and sent it across the lawn into an overgrown border. "Are you're going to see Merry at the gaol? If you are, mind you tell him I said so. I'm on his side in this."

"Yes, Uncle. I will."

"And the way he chased after girls!" the old hobbit went on. "None of the local maids was safe with him. 'Twas a disgrace. Why, I saw one myself just last week, running up the lane from the river. If Berry was chasing her, I can guess what that upstart was after her for!"

"A girl?" said Frodo, suddenly alert. "What girl?"

"I couldn't say. She went by very quickly, and my old eyes aren't what they used to be. I don't know who she was."

"Was she dark-haired?" Sam asked eagerly.

Dinodas peered at Frodo's companion. "I think she was."

"Did you see her on the day Berry was drowned?" asked Frodo.

"It might've been, but I can't be sure," Dinodas admitted. "Berry used to come up here often. Mind, I didn't hear about his drowning 'til days afterwards, when he was pulled out of the river, so it might've been a day or two before."

As he and Sam walked away from Dinodas's cottage, Frodo said, "If my uncle really did see a girl that day, she could very well be the one we're looking for."

"But you don't think it was this Mrs. Celie?" Sam asked.

"No, I don't," Frodo said quickly. "Even if she was lying and had been down at the river when Berry was there, she would have gone straight home. She'd no reason to come this far up the lane, for Uncle Dinodas to see."

"Unless she was running to somebody else. Didn't you say there was another cousin of yours who lived along here?"

"Yes, Mentha. That must be her studio, just ahead." There were other, unoccupied cottages in the greenery along the lane; Frodo pointed to one that was obviously inhabited, on the opposite side of the lane from the two they had just passed: the neatly tended garden was bounded by a low, wooden fence painted white and a row of red rose-bushes. Vines ran up tall trellises on either side of the front door and over the rounded roof. A sign on the gate that read 'Ivysmial' was likewise decorated with painted rosebuds and ivy vines around its borders. "But she isn't there now. She's back at the Hall."

"What about her? Has she got dark hair?"

"She does, and so do her sister Melilot and their mother. So do a good many other women in Buckland." Frodo laughed, a little nervously. "Enough of suspecting my relatives, Sam. If we're not careful, we'll begin to see murderers everywhere!"
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