Sharp Knives by Kathryn Ramage

The Lowbottom-Tooks were not one of the Took families who lived in the hill around the Thain's Hall and shared the Thain's stables; their home lay in a deep dell approximately a mile and a half to the south of Tuckborough--just off the same lane that eventually led to Adelard's cottage. If Tadler had gone to the cottage that night from his place of work, he would've had a much shorter distance to travel than someone coming from Tookbank or Tuckborough. He would take less risk of being seen as well, since he wouldn't need to go along the well-traveled road that passed through the two towns. There were only a few other cottages and a couple of small farms between Lowbottom dell and the cottage where the murders had occurred, and these could be avoided entirely by leaving the lane and instead taking one of the paths that crossed the woodlands and meadows.

The original Lowbottom Hall smial had been dug into the westward end of the dell long before the Lowbottoms and Tooks began to intermarry, and it had increased in size as the family prospered. Numerous round windows now dotted the steep slope. The bottom of the dell was given over to a garden and a paddock near the eastern entrance. Instead of crossing the garden to the far end of the dell to make his presence known to his relatives in the great smial, Frodo climbed over the paddock fence and went directly to the stable. There, he found a round-faced young hobbit in homespun tweeds, occupied with the task of brushing down a pony.

When the ostler saw Frodo, he raised his cap politely and regarded his visitor with open curiosity.

"Are you Tadler Toptree?" asked Frodo.

"That's right, Mr. Baggins." He grinned at Frodo's look of surprise. "'Course I know ye, sir. An't I seen ye come 'n' go at his Thainship's often enough?"

"Yes, I suppose that's so," Frodo acknowledged, though he had no memory of seeing Tadler before. Would Melly have remembered the groom's son under similar circumstances?

"What can I do for ye, Mr. Baggins?" Tadler asked him. "Is it Mr. Lowbottom-Took ye've come to call on?"

"No, actually, it's you I wanted to see." Frodo took a seat on the edge of an empty wooden trough. "You've heard about the murders of my cousin Everard Took and of Tibby Clover?"

"'Course," said Tadler, and went on currying the pony's flanks. "There's been no talk o' nothing else this week past. They say ye've been 'vestergating on account o' Missus Melilot, but I han't expected to see you here."

"Have you heard that your name has come up in my investigation?" Frodo broached the point of this interview gently.

"No, sir." Tadler didn't appear alarmed or wary, only politely puzzled. He scratched his head with the curry comb. "I don't see how that could be, Mr. Baggins. I an't seen naught hereabouts o' murderers, nor heard a word ye prob'ly an't heard at the Bullroarer's yerself."

"It's been said that you had a part in the murders," Frodo told him.

At these words, the young hobbit showed the first signs of real emotion. "No!" he cried out, startling the pony.

"There's a story going about that you acted on behalf of Mrs. Melilot Took--Everard's wife."

"No!" Tadler insisted with vehemence. "If somebody's been saying that, Mr. Baggins, then they've ye told the worst lie. 'Behalf o' Missus Melilot'? Now, I used to see Missus Melilot when she and Mr. Everard'd take their ponies out, but I never spoke more'n dozen words to her all the time she was at Mr. Adelard's. 'G'morning,' it was mostly. I han't seen her since she went home to her own folk in Buckland. I heard tell from my dad that she was coming back after Mr. Everard come home, but I never set eyes on her. I an't been nearer his Thainship's 'n my dad's in weeks. Why'd anybody say I'd want to go 'n' murder poor Mr. Everard on her say-so?"

"I was told that you had reasons of your own to resent Everard and wanted revenge."

"What reasons? I'd no reason to harm a hair on his head nor his littlest toe."

"You weren't jealous?"

Tadler frowned. "Jealous o' who? Are you making out that I was sweet on Mr. Everard's wife?"

"No," said Frodo. "Didn't you resent Everard's friendship with the Clover lads?"

Tadler was slow to understand what Frodo was insinuating; when he did, his face turned beet-red and flung the curry comb to the dirt floor. "That's another awful lie, Mr. Baggins! 'Twasn't so! Now, Mr. Ev was always friendly-like to me. He'd buy me and my dad a drop o' ale whenever we met him 'n' Mr. Ferdi at the Bullroarer's. He'd even give me a game or two o' darts. He was friendly as you like--as if the likes o' us was as good as him, his Thainship's own kin! But we wasn't never 'friendly' like that, not like he was with them Clovers if that's what ye mean to say. Ask Mr. Ferdi if ye don't believe me. Mr. Ferdi, he knows more about Mr. Everard'n anybody else. They was always that close since they was little lads and never kept no secrets between them."

"I'll ask Ferdi," Frodo agreed. If there had been anything between Tadler and Everard, then Ferdi was certain to know all about it. "When did you last see Everard?" he asked. "Had you seen him since his return?"

"No, sir. I only heard about 'm. Dad told me how they come home. Mr. Ev and Tibby Clover come into the stables one night, and Tibby wouldn't go into Mr. Adelard's house but stayed out with the ponies 'til they rode off again. I reckon if they was going to Mr. Adelard's cottage, they'd've gone by here, but I didn't catch sight o' them. I heard tell afterwards how old Brundle wouldn't let Tibby in at the Bullroarer's."

"Have you seen any other members of the Took family recently?" Tadler hadn't been in league with Melly to commit these murders, but he may have acted for someone else who was well-accounted for that night. "Everard's brother? One of his friends, perhaps? Have you spoken to them?"

"I an't seen much o' any of them since I come to work here," Tadler answered. "Mr. Ferdi, I see sometimes at the Bullroarer's of a night, and Miss Pearl and Miss Peri, they call upon the Missus and Miss Rosabella, but we don't have much to say to each other. Dad tells me the news when there's any to tell. He told me when Mr. Ev came home, like I told ye, and when Missus Melilot was coming back."

"And where were you the night Everard was killed, Tadler?"

"At my dad's, having supper with 'm. I go over to hear the news. He'll tell ye it's so, Mr. Baggins, but maybe ye won't believe 'em."

Tadler's whereabouts couldn't be verified--a loving father would certainly say whatever was necessary to protect his son--but Frodo believed that the ostler was telling the truth. He was also inclined to believe that there'd never been a special friendship between Tadler and Everard, for he'd seen nothing of shame or embarrassment in Tadler's response to his questions. Nor had he observed any fears at having secrets exposed. Tadler was simply indignant such terrible things were being said about him. If Tadler was telling the truth, then someone had gone to great efforts to make up these lies. But who? Was it Tansy, or was she only repeating rumors she'd heard elsewhere?

"Tell me, Tadler," said Frodo, "do you have any enemies?"

"Enemies?" Tadler repeated the word incredulously.

"Who would tell such lies about you? Are you on bad terms with Tansy Thursk--Tibby's sister?"

"I hardly know her."

"What about her husband Rudmer?"

"Oh, I know Rud," said Tader in tones that told Frodo the two were not friends. "But he an't the sort to go about telling mean lies. And why would he tell lies about me? I don't have no quarrel with Rud. It wasn't me he was fighting with, not like he was fighting with that Tibby."

"Did your father tell you about that too?" asked Frodo.

"I was there to hear to hear when it happened, Mr. Baggins. I heard Rud and Tibby shouting and pushing at each other in the street. But Dad was there and he heard it too."
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