Death on the Brandywine by Kathryn Ramage

As he returned to the Hall, Frodo was intercepted by Saradoc. His uncle must have been waiting for him, for Saradoc emerged from the study almost as soon as the young hobbit was in the front door. "If you don't mind, my lad--a word or two before lunch?"

"Yes, Uncle, of course." With a glance at Sam, who nodded and went up the curving corridor alone, Frodo went into the study. He was relieved to see that Merimac was not there; he knew that his uncle meant to ask him about Merry, and it would be much easier for them to talk without those poisonous asides.

Saradoc shut the study door. "You've been to Newbury?" he asked. "Had your talk with Merry?"

"I've spoken with him," Frodo answered.

"And will he see reason?"

"If you mean 'does Merry intend break with Pippin,' the answer is 'No'. He refuses to do so." When Saradoc's mouth turned down in a disappointed frown, Frodo added quickly, "As a matter of fact, he spoke of returning to Gondor rather than agree to that." He believed that Merry had spoken in despair and anger, but he also thought that Saradoc ought to see how strongly his son felt about this intolerable situation.

"Leave Buckland!" To Saradoc Brandybuck, such a thing was unimaginable.

"That is what Merry said," Frodo confirmed. "He won't change his mind, but he doesn't wish to be an embarrassment to the family." This wasn't exactly what Merry had said, but it had the effect on Saradoc that Frodo hoped it would.

"He doesn't have to do that!"

"You must see how Merry feels at being shut up like a criminal, Uncle. He's longing to get out, and get away. Can you blame him?"

"Oh, I know the boy's in a tight spot, but that's no reason to do anything rash," said Saradoc. "If he'd just sit still another day or two, be patient until the sherriffs have investigated the matter fully and cleared him, then everything will be all right. And I do blame Merry for getting himself into this." The elder hobbit paced the room. "If only he'd be sensible, marry a nice girl, and do his duty to the family. That's all I ask. I wouldn't care what he and Pippin Took got up to in private if he'd behave himself in public. None of this would've happened if he'd just done that."

"Berry wouldn't have been killed?" Frodo asked, puzzled.

"No, I didn't mean that. But if Merry had done as I'd asked, we would never have quarreled. No suspicion would have fallen on him when poor Berry died, and I wouldn't be in the absurd position of having to arrest my own son--the son of the Hall!--for his cousin's murder. What else could I do once the sherriffs heard of our quarrel? I had no choice but to let them take him in. I wouldn't have put Berry in his place, not really," Saradoc admitted grudgingly. "Berry was a good lad, but he never had Merry's cleverness, if Merry would put his wits to good use!"

"Perhaps if you had told Merry-" Frodo began, when there was a tentative knock on the study door. The family was waiting to go into lunch, but could not sit down to eat until the Master was there to preside over the table. Saradoc, who made a point of never being late for meals out of courtesy to his family as well as personal inclination, went to join the others.

The same party was at lunch as had been at dinner the night before, with the additions of the newly married couple returned from their honeymoon cottage and Mentha, who sat red-eyed beside her younger sister Melilot. Mentha was dark like her sister, but taller and more plain, and of a somber disposition even at the best of times.

"Have all the arrangements been settled for this afternoon?" asked Beryl. "Are we quite ready to see poor Berry to his rest?"

"Nearly ready," said Esmeralda, "but we need another lad to carry the bier." By long-standing tradition, four young males were called to bring the body to the vault.

"It ought to be a son of the house," Doderic said pointedly, "but we seem to be short of them these days."

"There aren't enough suitable youths," Esmeralda agreed more tactfully, "but Fredegar has been kind enough to volunteer. I was hoping, Frodo, that you might stand in for Merry at the ceremony. Will you, please?"

"I'd be glad to, Aunt Esme." Frodo tried to recall exactly what the lead bier-bearer did. He had not played a part in the last family funeral he'd attended, old Rory Brandybuck's. That had been a very large and grand affair, with half the Shire turning out to pay their respects to the last Master of the Hall; today's ceremony, by contrast, would be a much smaller and more private occasion, but surely he would be called to do that same things that Merry had done then? "I won't have to give a speech, will I?" The speeches over old Rory had gone on for hours.

"Only if you'd like to, dear," his aunt assured him. "Otherwise, you have only to lead the procession out of the Hall, and stand by poor Berry during the farewells. Who is going to speak? Merimac, you will, certainly."

"Yes, of course," said Merimac. "And you, Saradoc? You were fond of my boy--that's only fitting."

"I'd like to say my farewells," said Beryl, "just as I did for my poor sister, his mother. I never thought I would live to speak over them both."

"What about you, Mentha dear?" Esmeralda addressed her eldest niece with tender solicitude. "Do you feel fit to attend the funeral? Would you like to say a few words about Berry?"

Mentha nodded. "I will be present, Auntie," she answered. She reached to take her sister's hand, and Melilot gave her fingers a comforting squeeze.

After lunch, Frodo approached the two sisters as they left the table. "May I talk to you?"

"We were just going up to our rooms," said Melilot. "Mentha ought to rest."

"Yes," Mentha agreed. "I need to lie down for awhile... before the funeral."

"I'm going to rest too." Frodo smiled softly. "I promised I would." The pair did not object as he left the dining hall and walked up the corridor toward the bedrooms with them. "Do you mind?" he asked. "I'm trying to help Merry. I'd like to ask you both a question or two, about the day Berry died."

Mentha gripped her sister's arm. "What do you want to know?"

"I wanted to ask about Celie."

"Celie?" Mentha echoed. Both sisters looked puzzled.

"She didn't pay a call on you, did she?"

"No," said Mentha. "I didn't see Celie that day. Only Melly."

"Melly?" Frodo was surprised. "Is that where you were going?" he asked Melilot. "You said last night you were out for a walk. You went to Mentha's?"

"Yes, if you must know," the younger girl answered. "I went to visit my sister. I spent the day at her cottage, and we walked back to the Hall together for dinner."

Frodo wondered if she was the dark-haired girl Dinodas had seen, and not Celandine. "Did you notice if Uncle Dinodas was out in his yard when you passed, Melly?"

"Uncle Dino? No, I didn't notice him." Melilot cast a glance at her sister. "Was he there?"

"He said he saw a girl go past his cottage," Frodo explained. "I thought it was Celie, but I'm afraid Uncle Dinodas doesn't see all that well any more." He felt rather silly; he'd been imagining a girl flying down the lane in fright, when all the time it had been Melly going on an ordinary visit. This was what came of jumping to conclusions and letting his imagination mislead him!

"Here, Frodo!" their brother Merimas shouted. As he came up the corridor after them, Frodo stopped, but Mentha and Melilot took the opportunity to go on alone. "What d'you mean by going around asking everybody questions?" Merimas demanded. "Well, no more! I won't have it. You've upset my wife, and now my sisters. What is it you're after?"

"Whatever proof I can find that Merry didn't kill Berilac," Frodo responded frankly. "Merry is my dearest friend, like a brother to me. I don't wish to distress the ladies more than they've already been distressed by this, but if they can tell me anything that will help to get Merry out of gaol and the danger of being hanged, then I will ask them. I want to see justice done, don't you?"

Merimas grudgingly admitted that he wanted justice, even if he didn't approve of Merry. "But just you mind, Frodo Baggins--don't go bothering them any more than you have to. I'll put a stop to it if you don't, Merry be hanged or not!"
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