Too Many Tooks by Kathryn Ramage

Commotion followed the discovery of Toby's body. Everard was in hysterics. The girls were screaming too; the fading light and trees had blocked their view of the dead hobbit, but they had seen enough. Melilot stood pale and silent, staring in bewilderment after Everard as his brother half-dragged him away. One of the younger boys was sick.

Paladin shouted over the chaos, trying to master the situation and restore order. "Ferdi! Get hold of yourself." He gave the stunned boy a shake to bring him to his senses. "You know where the High Shirriffs' home is, don't you? Run over to Tookbank and bring him here. Tell him there's been an... accident. The rest of you, go back to the Hall. There's nothing you can do. Pimmy, dear, don't come any nearer. You shouldn't be here at all." But the young hobbits remained where they were. "Go on! Pip, lad, take your sisters and the other girls in. See that the boys go too. Help Dodi- Ilb- whichever one that is."

Melilot moved slowly to help up her cousin, who had fallen to his hands and knees. Pippin took one of the girls by the arm and tried to shepherd the rest of the party in the direction of the bridge. As the young hobbits left the meadow, Paladin turned to find that Merry had crouched to examine the body. Frodo too had stepped closer. "What are you two up to?"

"I've been in battle, Uncle," Merry told him. "I've seen plenty of bodies before, much worse than this."

Frodo felt a little queasy, but he also wanted to look over the scene. In spite of his previous experience of murders, he had never before been on-the-spot like this.

Paladin knelt to have a look at the body himself. Night had fallen by this time and the grove was dark; he lit a match, which gave them a few seconds of light to see by, and then he had to put it out before he burned his fingers or dropped it in the grass. "Yes," he said. "He's certainly dead." He touched one cheek with the back of his hand. "Dead and cold, poor lad. I'll have to send a message to his family too. They'll have to know of this tragedy. Oh, by the stars! And they'll hear about it from a Took!"

Frodo didn't fully understand this last remark, but he was more surprised when Ferdi returned with Chief Sherriff Thornbreak, and Paladin said, "It's Toby Clover, the butcher's son." He hadn't realized that Paladin knew who the dead boy was.

Sherriff Thornbreak listened to what they had to say about how the body had been found, and by whom. "And Mr. Everard," he asked, "where is he now?"

"His brother's taken him home," Paladin answered. "He'll be there if you want to speak to him." He drew closer to the shirriff for a private conference. When he said, "You lads can go," Frodo, Merry, and Ferdi went obediently.

"It looks bad for Evvy," Merry said as they walked back to the Thain's Hall. "But I don't think..."

"No." Frodo believed that Everard's shock and grief at finding his friend dead was genuine. It might have been pretense, but if that were so, then Everard was a much more cold-blooded hobbit than anyone would have guessed. And there were one or two odd things Frodo had noticed concerning Toby's death; he and Merry would have to discuss them when they had a chance.

"It's going to be awful for him, and for Melly too." They were in the garden now. Ferdi looked up as they passed under the garlands. "I wonder if there'll be a wedding tomorrow."

As the trio passed the water-tubs, they caught a glint of something metallic in the grass before their bare toes. Ferdi stooped to pick it up and held it up to see. "It's Evvy's pocket-knife."

Frodo and Merry exchanged a glance.

Inside the Thain's Hall, they met further commotion, for the young hobbits had brought back the news of the dead boy in the grove, but could only report the little they had seen before Paladin had sent them away. The ladies were all shocked and distressed, but they were also eager for more information; they turned to the three boys with a multitude of questions as soon as they came in. Hilda, who was coddling her sickened son, wanted to know what had upset him so, and Ferdi's mother likewise fussed over her own son as she asked him what had happened. Eglantine demanded to know where her husband was. Some of the girls were weeping, but Melilot was notably absent from the group, and so was Esmeralda.

There was to be no formal dinner that night--most of the household cooks had been busy all day preparing for tomorrow's feast--but platters of fresh fruit, bread, and cold foods were set out on the dining-room sideboard in the Thain's Hall for the Tooks and their guests to eat as they chose. In light of this unexpected tragedy, most of the company was too disturbed to think of food at all. Frodo, after having a little bread and an apple, went up to his room. It was still early, but he wanted to be by himself, out of the noise and crowd, and to think.

The tunnel that led to the guest bedrooms took a sharp, steep, upwards turn; at the top, a small, round window had been cut into the wall to look out over the garden. Here, Frodo paused, for he had caught a glimpse of flickering firelight in the darkness outside. When he peered out of the window, he could see a procession of hobbits was walking across the distant meadow, some bearing torches, and others bearing a makeshift stretcher between them. The sherriffs were bringing Toby's body in.

The door to the nearest bedroom opened, and Esmeralda peeped out. "Is that-? Oh, Frodo, good. I was hoping it might be you. I've been waiting for you to come. Will you step into my room for a moment?"

"Yes, of course, Aunt Esme."

When he followed his aunt into the room, he found Melilot there, curled in a chair by the hearth. She clutched a handkerchief in one hand, and looked as if she had been crying.

"There was such a lot of screaming and to-doing, I thought it best to take poor Melly out of the bustle," Esmeralda explained. "She's told me what happened, how Everard was found with this dead boy. Frodo, this is awful! I never thought we would have to endure anything so horrible again--and it hasn't even been six months! You don't think Everard's done this dreadful thing, do you?"

"No," Frodo said. "I don't believe he did."

Melilot lifted her eyes to him. "Do you really?" she asked. "You aren't just saying so to be kind and comfort the ladies? Tell us honestly, Frodo, please."

"I don't," Frodo answered sincerely. "I have some reasons to doubt."

"Good!" said Esmeralda, and gave her niece a triumphant look. "I told you, Melly, didn't I? Frodo, I want you to investigate this murder. If Everard isn't responsible, there must be some proof of it--or proof that someone else killed that poor boy. I want you to find it."

"Me, Aunt Esme?"

"Yes, of course, you, dear," his aunt responded. "Who better? I know you've done it before. It was wonderful how you saved Merry, and he's told me that you boys had a hand in solving that awful business with Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Will you look into this, please, for Everard's sake?"

Frodo turned to Melilot. "Do you want me to, Melly?" he asked. "After how badly it turned out the last time I intervened?"

"I bear you no grudge, Frodo," Melilot answered. "What happened to Mentha wasn't your fault. I think that it would have ended just the same sooner or later even if you hadn't been there--except that you helped Merry, and helped me. If you can help Evvy now, I will be grateful."
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