Too Many Tooks by Kathryn Ramage

The ladies were in the garden when Frodo and Ferdi left the meadow. Esmeralda, who was watching for Frodo, came to meet them at the bridge. "I see that Pal's asked you to look into this too."

It took Frodo a moment to understand that she was speaking of Thain Paladin; 'Pal' was a pet name that only his sisters and Adelard ever used. "Yes," he answered, "he thought I could be of help. He agrees that Everard couldn't have killed his friend Toby, and wants to be certain that the guilty party is found."

"Melly will be relieved to hear it. Pal's patronage will be of enormous help in clearing matters up. His authority will make it so much easier for you to ask questions of people, but..." she hesitated, then took Frodo's arm. The two walked more slowly and let Ferdi go on ahead. "I'm afraid that my brother has always been a little too concerned with the appearance of things," Esmeralda said softly. "He might not be as interested in the truth behind this boy's death, as in how it looks."

"I think that he thinks it's one of the family," Frodo murmured in response, "and it does look as if it might be so. Not Everard, but someone else. I can't yet tell who."

His aunt looked alarmed. "I hope you and Pal are wrong, Frodo. It would be too terrible if you were right!"

Melilot, who had been sitting with her mother on a bench near the pavilion, got up as they approached and came toward them. "Did you see?" she asked. "The High Sherriff has gone in to question Evvy, but Uncle Paladin says I mustn't worry. Do you think that means it'll be all right?"

"I don't believe Everard's in as great a danger as we feared," Esmeralda informed her. "Your uncle will see to it that he isn't falsely accused."

The girl looked greatly relieved at hearing this, and glanced at Frodo. "But surely you couldn't have done so much already!"

"I've barely done a thing," Frodo admitted. "As it happens, Uncle Paladin is certain that Evvy is innocent, and wants me to find the murderer." He didn't tell her his suspicions about the murderer; it must be enough for Melilot to know that Everard was safe. "I'm sorry about your wedding, Melly."

If this day had gone as planned, the ceremonies would have been concluded by this time. The wedding breakfast would have followed, and then there would have been hours of celebration afterwards: age-old customs to honor the new marriage, music, more food, and dancing that would go on through the afternoon and into the night, long after the newlywed couple had departed for their honeymoon cottage.

"Thank you, Frodo." Melilot's lips quivered, but she gave him a small, grateful smile. "I'd marry Evvy today regardless, to show I haven't abandoned him in his troubles," she declared, "but everyone says it's best to wait. We shouldn't begin our lives together under a shadow."

"Let's hope you won't have to wait too long, my dear," said Esmeralda encouragingly. "Once this matter is cleared up-"

A sudden flutter of excitement went through the group in the garden as a back door to Adelard's smial opened, and Paladin and the Chief Sherriff emerged. The Took girls and Brandybuck ladies did not dare to ask the outcome of Everard's interview, but Eglantine went to speak to her husband; after a few words from Paladin, the lady smiled.

"It's quite all right!" she announced. "Everard won't be arrested."

Soon after this, Everard himself came outside with his father. The young hobbit was pale and shaken and, as he looked out around the garden, seemed uncertain, as if he were afraid the people gathered there would shun him.

"Evvy!" Melly ran eagerly up to him. She would have thrown her arms around him, but Everard drew back from her attempted embrace. "Evvy, darling..." She hesitantly reached out to try and take his hand instead. "Don't be afraid. It's all right."

"Is it?" he asked back.

"Yes, of course. None of us believes it." She glanced at Frodo and Esmeralda. "We're doing all we can to prove it isn't true. We will prove it, and then no one can say a thing against you."

Everard let out a strange, hard laugh. "Oh, you mean Toby's murder!"

"Yes." Melilot looked even more puzzled. "What else?"

"You haven't heard it all yet," said Everard. "It's not so bad as saying I killed Toby, but it's awful in its way. And it'll be just as bad for you, being tangled up with the likes of me. You'll hate me for what I've done."

"Evvy, I couldn't! No matter what!"

"But you don't know! If you haven't heard the gossip about me and Toby, and what I was doing there in the grove with him last night, you will soon enough. Didn't you wonder about it yourself?"

"Well, yes, I did," she admitted. "But-"

"Then you needn't wonder any longer!" cried Everard. "People will talk. They must be talking already. I might as well give you the plain truth: I was in love with that boy! Do you understand? I've been seeing him, in secret. They'll say I killed him because of that, to keep it quiet--but there's no keeping it quiet anymore!" Indeed, his voice was rising, shrilly, hysterically. If anyone had not been listening to him and Melilot before, they couldn't help it now. "There, you know! You've had a lucky escape. Just think, we could be married this minute, and what a trap you'd be stuck in!" Then he moaned, "Oh, Melly, please go away! I can't bear you to look at me."

But Melilot continued to stare at him, eyes wide in disbelief. Since she did not go away, Everard did. He put up one arm to cover his face, and whirled to run from her and flee back into the house. Melilot stood where she was for a long, stunned minute. The garden was absolutely quiet. The girl turned to look around at all the people who had witnessed this, and then she began to cry.

"Melly!" Melisaunte rushed to take her daughter into her arms. "Hush, dearest. Come with me." And she led Melilot away.

"Oh, that ridiculous boy!" said Esmeralda in exasperation. As she followed the mother and daughter into the Thain's Hall, Frodo went into the neighboring smial to see Everard. Ferdi went with him.
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