Death on the Brandywine by Kathryn Ramage

When Frodo returned to his room, Sam was already there, crouching before the chest of drawers in the dressing room as he put away the clothes in Frodo's traveling bag. Frodo's nightshirt and dressing gown had been laid out across the foot of his bed.

"You don't have to do that for me, Sam."

"If I'm playing the part, I ought to play it all," Sam replied, and went on with what he was doing. "You'd only make a mess of it anyway. You don't know what's packed."

"I did tell you to pack my bag..." Frodo murmured, abashed as he always was when he caught himself treating Sam as if he were a servant.

"You know I don't mind it," Sam told him, "and it's just as well you did. The state you were in this morning, you wouldn't've remembered to bring your nightshirt, or something to wear for your cousin's funeral."

As Frodo lay down on his bed, he could see that the doors to the wardrobe were open and Sam had hung up one of his good lawn shirts, freshly pressed, along with his best black coat with the velvet collar and a pale gray, silver-threaded waistcoat.

"No, I wasn't thinking about the funeral," he said. "I've barely thought of anything but Merry." He lay his head in the crook of one arm; he felt very weary, and the glasses of wine he'd had with his uncles had gone straight to his head. "I'd hoped to go and see Pippin tonight, but I'm too tired now for the walk."

"That's no surprise, not after the day you had!" said Sam, and shut the drawers of the chest with a series of brisk bangs. "You rode fifty miles or more, worrying about Mr. Merry every inch of the way, and you've scarcely had time to catch your breath since we got here." He came into Frodo's room and, shoving aside the clothing laid out there, sat on the foot of the bed; with a little urging, Frodo moved his head to rest on Sam's lap. "You're not up to such running about anymore--you know you're not. It takes too much out of you. You won't get well again if you push yourself so hard."

Frodo sighed. "I know. I'll try to rest tomorrow before the funeral." As Sam stroked his hair, he shut his eyes. "Poor Berry. I've hardly given him a thought at all..."

"Did you know him very well?"

"Berilac? We both grew up in this house," Frodo answered somewhat evasively. "He was my first cousin, once removed, just the same as Merry. He was actually closer to my age than Merry is."

"I never hear you talk about him." Now that Sam thought about it, he couldn't recall ever meeting Berilac himself. But there were so many Brandybucks, it was hard to keep track of them all!

"I hadn't seen him in years. We were never very friendly, even as children," Frodo admitted. "His father didn't encourage it. Uncle Merimac was always at his brother's right hand, you see, and since Merry has no brother of his own, he seemed to think that Berilac ought to stand beside Merry in the same way. He never liked that Merry and I were best friends. After my parents died, Aunt Esme and Uncle Saradoc became like another mother and father to me. I think Merimac was afraid that they might adopt me. He saw me as a usurper, as if I were taking the place that his son ought to have. Berilac must have had some of the same feelings, even if he wasn't very fond of Merry, and Merry didn't like him."

"An old 'stickleback,' Mr. Merry called him," Sam remembered.

"And that's just what Berry was as a boy--clinging and sticky. He made up to the grown-ups. One doesn't like to speak ill of the dead..." Frodo hesitated, and then did so. If he couldn't tell Sam the truth, who could he confide in? "Berilac used to tattle on us. He was always sneaking off to his father or mine or Uncle Saradoc to tell them what mischief Merry and I were up to and making it sound worse than it really was. If he meant to come between us, it didn't work. It only made us more determined to stand together. We used to find ways to sneak around him, so that he couldn't prove his tattling-tales. I thought we'd outgrown such childish tricks, and our quarrel with him had ended years ago." He lifted his head and twisted around to look up at Sam. "But, do you know, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Berilac had carried tales about Merry and Pippin to Merry's father--and put their friendship in the ugliest possible light, if Uncle Saradoc's reaction is any indication."

"You talked to your uncle about letting Mr. Merry go then?"

"I've just spent the most awful hour in conference with him." Frodo sat up. "Oh, Sam, you should have heard him! Merry understands his father all too well. Uncle Saradoc doesn't believe for a minute that Merry's guilty of this crime. He's punishing him for their quarrel, for Pippin. He practically told me that he could have Merry released from the sherriffs' custody at a word, but he won't do it. He wants to teach 'the boy' a lesson by keeping him shut away. I can't talk him out of it--in fact, he wants me to talk to Merry and convince him to give Pippin up! Then there's Uncle Merimac, who's doing his best to poison his brother's mind against Merry. I heard him do it. He never misses a chance to remind Uncle Saradoc how wild and irresponsible Merry is. I can see now where Berry learned that sort of thing! It's no good--the only way I can possibly help Merry is to find some proof of his innocence that Uncle Saradoc can't ignore. He'll have to set Merry free then." His eyes earnestly sought Sam's. "You'll help me, won't you?"

"'Course I will," said Sam. "But you're not going to go running all up and down Buckland. You just said you'd rest."

"I promise I won't push myself too hard," Frodo assured him, "but I must do this. You can see how important it is. Merry's depending on me. None of the family believes he had anything to do with Berilac's death--except perhaps Uncle Merimac--but they'll only sit and wait for the sherriffs' investigation to take its course. I can't sit by with them. That's not what I came here to do. I have to look into this matter myself." He considered Sam as an idea began to form. "You can help me by being my eyes and ears, and save me some 'running about'. You had your dinner in the servants' hall, didn't you?"

Sam nodded, although he didn't see the point of this question. "They set a fair table--mushroom stew and some good beer, though not as good as what we have at home."

"And was there any gossip? What do the servants think of this business?"

"They talked of nothing else! They're all for Mr. Merry. They say he's 'a bit wild,' but good-hearted and would never do such a thing. Now, the other..." Here, Sam trailed off delicately.

Frodo looked curious. "What about 'the other'? I'd like to hear their opinion of Berilac too."

"Well, the Master of this here Hall might've had a high opinion of him, but according to them in the servants' hall, Mr. Berilac Brandybuck wasn't the proper little hobbit-lad he made himself out to be. They say he was something of a caution with the pretty maids."

"Was he? That's a possibility I hadn't thought of." Frodo considered it. "If there was some maid that Berry was trifling with, perhaps an outraged father or brother or jilted sweetheart tried to put a stop to it, and went too far."

"And there's more," Sam told him, then hesitated again.

"What, Sam? Out with it."

"It's second-hand news, you might say. One of the undercooks is sister to a farmer that lives on the other side of the river outside Stock and she went visiting him today, to get the mushrooms. Over dinner, she was telling how her brother said he'd seen a hobbit-lad and lass, a pretty, dark-haired girl, rowing up the river the day your cousin went missing. She has it that it must've been Mr. Berilac, up to something."

"Berry had a girl with him?" Frodo cried, astonished. "Can that be true? Everyone in the family seems to think he went out alone."

"It mightn't be so," Sam said. "Like I was saying, it's second hand and not everybody believed it. Some of 'em down in the servants' hall said that the cook's brother was making up a tale out of smoke and wishes to make himself important. And then someone else said it must've been this girl, and not Mr. Merry, who pushed Berilac into the water, and some more of 'em agreed with that. They said the cook ought to tell the sherriffs about it, and the ones who didn't believe it said there wasn't nothing to tell and she'd best keep her mouth shut. They were quarreling over it when I came away."

"It could be a fuss over nothing," Frodo had to agree. "It might've been another boy and girl. Lots of courting couples go out boating on the Brandywine...." He lay down again, pillowing his head on Sam's knee and shutting his eyes, but he was still thinking. After awhile, he said, "But, Sam, what if it's true? You see, don't you? If Merry didn't do this, someone else must have."
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