Pushed or Pulled? by Kathryn Ramage

Since it was after dark when Frodo reached his destination, he didn't intend to go into Brandy Hall. The dinner hour was long past and, while there were lights in many windows, he was certain that most of the family was on their way to bed. He went no nearer than the stables, but after he had left his pony in the care of the ostler and was going out again, he heard Merry's voice calling his name from the darkness of the Hall lawn.

"What're you doing out wandering in the night? You haven't been keeping watch for me?" Frodo asked his cousin once Merry had emerged into the pool of light cast by the lantern over the stable door.

"No," Merry answered. "It's Milli's day off tomorrow, so I walked over with her and Jem to her mother's house in Newbury since I had some business in the town. I was just having a pipe before I went in." He held up his smoking pipe as proof of this last statement. "I just heard the pony coming up, and I knew it was you."

"Sam's not still at the Hall?"

"No, he took the children back to the cottage ages ago, after dinner. Milli and I went with them, and helped to carry the twins. I wanted to talk to you, Frodo. I missed the chance to this morning before you'd gone off to Budgeford."

"You aren't angry about that, are you?" Frodo asked. While Aunt Asphodel wasn't under the Master's protection, as the residents of Brandy Hall and its environs were, she was nevertheless an elderly lady member of the family; Merry might feel that he wasn't honoring the spirit of his promise by getting around it this way. "I didn't say anything to upset Aunt Del. I didn't mention that letter to her at all."

"It's not that," said Merry. "It's you I'm worried about as much as Mother or any of the older folk. I know how you are when you're investigating, Frodo. You don't stop `til you find what you're after. I've seen you like this before, but the way you're behaving--it's worse this time. Suspecting your mother of murder distresses you as much as anyone else, no matter how much you say you're being objective and detached about it. It's too close to you."

"Closer than you know," Frodo answered with a nervous laugh.

"Why?" His cousin was alert. "What did Aunt Del tell you?"

"She answered a question I went to her specially to have answered: Did my mother have a sweetheart before she met my father? Yes, she did." As they walked away from the stable, across the lawn in the direction of the Hall, Frodo told Merry the story of Iselgrim Took.

"What of it?" Merry said once Frodo had finished. "Lots of girls are sweet on a boy or two before they settle on the right one. I was just the same myself before Pippin came along."

"But, Merry, consider this--after this Took cousin went away, my mother waited nearly ten years for him to come back before she married. She wanted children, or else she was afraid of becoming an old maid. She was making a gesture to show that she never truly cared for Iselgrim Took, or she was trying to forget him. There are plenty of reasons why a woman who was disappointed in her first love might marry someone else. From what I've read in her journals, she wasn't unhappy with her choice of a husband. I don't believe she made Drogo Baggins unhappy either. But they couldn't have a child together. Then, after they've been married a few years, Iselgrim returned. Maybe he hadn't noticed her particularly when she was a girl, but he thought about her while he was wandering the wide world and remembering his home and all he'd left behind. Perhaps he only then realized that she cared for him and he was a fool not to say something to her before he went away. But when he returned, he found her married. That isn't far-fetched, is it?"

Merry agreed that this was not far-fetched.

"From what Aunt Del told me, it's what may have happened. Iselgrim visited Brandy Hall immediately after he came back to the Shire. He came to see her. And not long afterwards, I was born. Iselgrim never married, you know, but lived alone in a cottage beyond Tookbank. After my mother died, he shut himself up there until he died too."

Merry stopped walking and stared at him. "Frodo, do you realize what you're suggesting?"

"Yes, I do, Merry. I've thought of little else since I left Budgeford."

"You believe they had a love-affair?"

"It's entirely possible, given what I know to be true. Tomorrow, I'm going to look through my mother's old journals to see if I can find exactly when Iselgrim was here in relation to my birth."

"But, Frodo, that's ridiculous!"

"Is it?" Frodo asked back. "I am my mother's son. Everyone says so. I take entirely after her, a Brandybuck in all but name. There's nothing of Drogo Baggins about me. Why couldn't my true father be someone else?"

"Well, he isn't, that's all! A love affair is one thing, but playing a husband false? That's a horrible thing to think about one's own mother--almost as bad as murder! Honestly, Frodo, I think you've allowed your imagination to conjure up too much up out of very little. And now you're running after anything that looks like a scrap of proof. Even if it turns out to be possible, that doesn't mean it's so." Merry folded his arms. "And what else, Frodo? I suppose you've got an idea in your head now about your mother trying to drown your- ah- her husband so she could be free to marry her true love and the father of her child?"

"It had occurred to me," Frodo admitted.

Merry shook his head. "I think you're quite mad!"

"Perhaps I am. Since I first found that letter, I've been imagining all sorts of absurd, fantastic, and terrible things about my mother. She said that what she had to tell Aunt Esme would be shocking, and so I keep thinking up things that would shock me if they were true."

"If your mother did intend to drown your father, why did she wait so long?" Merry pursued the question. "If you're right, she and this Iselgrim must've been carrying on for about thirteen years before they got around to murder."

"It might've taken that long to work up to it," Frodo responded. "I don't believe she was naturally a cruel or deceitful woman, Merry. Murder wouldn't have come easily to her. Maybe she thought she could give her lover up, and found she couldn't in the end. Or she might've been waiting for her husband to die without any assistance from her, and got impatient. Or else Iselgrim got impatient and put her up to it."

"Or maybe your father--or should I say Drogo Baggins--knew what they were planning and laid a trap, then fell into it himself," Merry retorted with no small hint of sarcasm. "Have you considered that?"

Frodo had, and had already discarded the idea. "Everything I know about Drogo Baggins suggests that he was an indolent hobbit. I don't see him making that sort of effort," he explained. "Besides, it'd be rather foolhardy and dangerous for a hobbit who can't swim to lay a trap for a hobbit who can swim in the middle of river at night. And then there's that letter of my mother's--if he was planning to get rid of her, she wouldn't have written to your mother about it the way she did beforehand. If she suspected a trap, she wouldn't have gotten into a boat with him that night..." A new idea occurred to him at that moment. "Unless they both meant to go down together."

Merry laughed. "You aren't serious, Frodo. You can't be! All these odd ideas--you don't truly believe a word of it, do you? It's all nonsense."

"It might well be... but then again, maybe it isn't."

"Frodo!" Merry huffed at this equivocal response.

"That's the best answer I can give you right now, Merry. I imagine a great deal, some of it horrible, but I don't know." They were approaching the northernmost front door of Brandy Hall and Frodo stopped before they reached the doorstep. He still had no intention of going into the Hall tonight. "The only thing I am certain of is that something very odd happened that night. I don't believe it was an accident, but I can't say yet what it truly was. Since I've begun to look into their lives, I've found very little, but what I have found troubles me. And it's not enough yet to for me to see the truth."
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