For Lily Baggins for her birthday. Beta by RiverOtter.
Merimac Brandybuck surreptitiously watched after the wagon as his nephew drove it out of the stable yard toward the road leading to the High Hay and Crickhollow. Merry was up to something, of that he was certain. There had been something furtive about the lad for months, and it did not bode well in his estimation.
But it wasn’t until he was approaching the main barn itself that he realized that his brother was there, his own face troubled, also watching after the departing wagon.
“What is it, Sara?”
Saradoc turned toward the sound of his brother’s voice, and immediately the signs of his concern smoothed away. “And what are you doing up so early, Mac?”
“I told you last night I’d be here early this morning checking the harnesses and saddles to see how much work will be needed over the winter to prepare for spring plowing and the travel and carting needs for the coming year. You let Merry take the smaller wagon?”
“He said he might need it to get supplies for Frodo once Frodo arrives with Sam and Pippin.”
Mac snorted. “With all you and Esme have sent over to Crickhollow, do you really think they’ll need anything more?”
Sara sighed and looked down the track toward the road to the Ferry. When he spoke there was no further attempt to hide his worry. “I doubt there would be anything Frodo would find wanting, although Sam Gamgee might want something that his family favors that we might never think of. I can’t really think that they’d need anything more in the way of furnishings, though—between what Frodo sent ahead and what we’ve taken over, I swear that there couldn’t be anything else they’d need—mattresses, lamps, bedsteads, wardrobes, tables, lamp oil or candles….”
He turned suddenly back to face his younger brother. “Mac, did you see any sign at all that those ponies Merry bought were suffering from the scours?”
Mac shook his head. “Not a symptom. Seemed very sound last I saw of them before Merry suddenly took them out to the fields near Crickhollow. Not that I understood why he’d lie about it.”
“Unless he wanted them close at hand for some reason he didn’t want us to know about.”
Mac found himself nodding at his brother’s words. “You think that they are considering doing something…?” He couldn’t finish.
The lines of concern were back on Sara’s forehead. “I am afraid there is something going on.”
At last Mac added, “Something centered on Frodo and why he lied about running out of money?”
Saradoc looked off in the direction of Crickhollow and the High Hay beyond it. “Yes.”
“Why would he think anyone would believe such a story, Sara?”
It was Sara’s turn to snort. “You know Hobbits, Merimac Brandybuck—we’ll believe what we want to believe, and a good many folk would love to think that the Bagginses were finally running into a spate of bad luck for a change. Oh, I do believe that Frodo merely told the good people of Hobbiton what many of them wanted to believe anyway, and that others were afraid of.”
“That still is no excuse for selling Bag End to Lotho Pimple, though.”
“No. You’re right there, Mac.”
The two of them stood, staring blindly back toward Crickhollow, for some time. At last Mac asked, “Did you look to see if Merry already had something in the wagon, Sara?”
“He had several new packs—larger ones than Frodo usually carries when he intends to be walking for two or three days between one place and the next. And I saw a bag or two, also.”
After a moment Mac commented, “I noted that someone had taken a good deal of the mixture of raisins, dried berries and fruit, and nuts that we send along with those who take the wagons into the Shire, to the Great Smials, Hobbiton, and Michel Delving. And at least eight of the loaves of travel bread were missing. And a metal tin was missing, and the seal on one of the honey stores had been broken.”
“And he had Treasure prepare some trail foods and jerked meats as well,” Sara added, rather reluctantly, or so it seemed to Mac.
The Hobbit who watched over the poultry yards was approaching them. “Master Sara—someone was into the chicken runs during the night, and took all of the fresh eggs. Appears to have packed them into baskets and pillowed them with fresh hay from the signs I saw.”
Mac and Saradoc exchanged looks. “So, it would appear that there is a journey of some sort in the offing,” Sara said softly. He spoke more loudly to the waiting Hobbit. “It’s all right, Merkidio. Apparently Merry was taking some extras for Frodo’s use—he will have Fatty and Pippin staying at Crickhollow with him, after all, and you know how much those two can eat.”
Merkidio appeared relieved. “Oh, well—if it was simply Merry taking them for Frodo—Frodo can always have as much as he wants, after all. So good to think he’s coming home again, back to Buckland. But with the word we had of strange Big Folk breaking into the Shire across the Sarn Ford last week….” Whatever else he’d thought to say went unsaid as he gave a pull at the bill of his cap and returned to his duties.
Mac found himself searching his brother’s eyes. “Do you think that these black Big Folk have anything to do with Frodo leaving Bag End when he did?”
Saradoc was shivering. “I certainly hope not! And how would Frodo know about them anyway? There’s not been time to send word to him about it—we just learned last night about it ourselves! And Frodo’s said for months that he would be leaving Bag End as soon as his birthday was over.”
Mac turned once more eastward toward Crickhollow and the road to the High Hay. “I wish I had some idea what those lads have going on. No matter that Frodo’s about the most responsible Hobbit in the Shire—when Merry, Pippin, and Fatty Bolger all get their heads together I become concerned.”
But there was nothing else they could do for the moment. Mac decided that tomorrow he’d find some excuse to ride toward Crickhollow and the High Hay, and check things out. Perhaps Merry had actually intended to give Frodo and Samwise Gamgee a choice of ponies to ride around Buckland on—it wasn’t as if all would be as close for them as it was in Hobbiton when it was but a five minute walk to the marketplace, after all. And since Merry had bought the ponies with his own money, it wasn’t as if the Master of the Hall or his stable master had any say what he did with them.
But he still felt foreboding in his heart as Sara turned to return to the Hall and as Mac went into the barn with his note pad and writing stick in hand. Yes, Mac reflected, something was not right concerning Cousin Frodo and the young Hobbits who were at his side at the moment, and he was determined to find out just what that was.