In which Merry and Pippin have a laugh at Fredegar's expense
"This is the worst thing I've ever heard! Really!" Fredegar Bolger declared for the second time, as if we needed convincing. He seemed to be unable to process our news beyond his initial astonishment, making me wonder if I had in fact been wrong in my choice.
"Yes, quite," Pippin said impatiently, "but this is the way it is, and we mean to help Frodo all we can." He cast me a quick, cutting look and I knew I would never hear the end of it if Fredegar fell apart now. Pippin had thought that Freddy, though big-hearted and loyal, was simply not made for this type of deed, family ties and friendship aside.
Fredegar took a healthy swig of his ale. "Of course, of course, we must do what we can for the poor old lad, though what good we will be in the affairs of wizards and the like, I don't know."
"From what we have gathered, Gandalf intends to go with Frodo when he leaves the Shire," I said. "Now, I imagine Gandalf is about the best help Frodo could ever hope for, but, still, it is not the same as having other hobbit folk about. I don't pretend we'll be much good in the way of fighting, if it comes to that, and we may be more hindrance than help at times, but if Frodo must suffer the discomforts of the road, he at least may suffer them with the reassurance of some friends at hand to share in his hardships. We mean to go with him when he leaves."
Fredegar's eyes were as round as his face, and his mouth hung open. "Go with him!" he exclaimed, making me nervously check to see if anyone had heard him. "You mean leave the Shire? But you can't mean -- but hobbits just don't -- I mean to say, it isn't -- oh, bother! I wish I had not gotten out of bed today!"
He reached out with some type of ale-espying sense cultivated through long years at many inns and snatched a mug off a passing serving lass' tray, ignoring her, "Hoy! That's not for you!" He then downed the draught in one long pull, his neck bobbing. When he was done, he set the mug down with a thunk, heaved a great sigh, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"I thought you were wanting to talk about a lass, Merry, when you said you needed to discuss something of importance," he said miserably. "But, you're right, we can't let Frodo go off without his friends at his side, or what kind of friends would we be? I'm for it."
Pippin and I stared at Fredegar in stunned silence for a moment, and then we both burst out laughing. Of all the reactions we had anticipated from Freddy, it had not crossed our minds that he might offer to go with us.
"Oh, Merry, can you just see it? Fatty Bolger trying to live off the land, and sleeping on the ground, and, and, and marching, Merry, marching for hours on end! And without an inn in sight!" Pippin's voice gave out as he nearly collapsed onto the table in front of him in guffaws.
I poked him in the ribs and hissed, "Shhh!" while struggling to keep my own laughter quiet, never an easy task when Pippin's infectious giggles were pealing out. The Golden Perch wasn't even half full tonight and we were tucked into a corner table, but still, this was supposed to be a secret conspiracy.
"What?" Fredegar asked indignantly. "What did you come and ask me for if you think I'm not up to the job? I'm not warm to the idea, but friends are friends and we hobbits must stick together. What?"
"Fredegar, you ass," I said affectionately, wiping my eyes and trying to return my breathing to normal, "we aren't asking you to leave the Shire with Frodo. When I said 'we,' I meant Pippin and me. And Sam Gamgee, of course, he knows everything as well, and Frodo already plans for Sam to go along with him." I eyed our cousin Fredegar with pleasant surprise at this newly uncovered fortitude.
"Then what do you mean for me to do?" Fredegar asked, the emotions on his face warring between hope that he did not have to embark on a dreadful adventure, and fear that I was about to put him to some worse, unimagined task. I squelched a sudden evil urge to torment Freddy a mite.
"Cousin Frodo has gone to a great deal of trouble to make certain people do not know he is leaving the Shire, so that if anyone should show up in Hobbiton asking for him, it will be reported that he moved to the house in Crickhollow. But if Frodo is nowhere to be found at Crickhollow, the Bucklanders will notice quick enough, what with so many relatives ready to welcome him back across the River. We want you to stay at the house for a while and give folk the impression that Frodo is living there," I explained.
"Oh! Is that all!" Fredegar looked as though I had just pulled him from the mouth of a dragon. "But of course! I should be happy to do so. When the Bucklanders come to call, I will say he's gone to Hobbiton on business, and should folks from Hobbiton come to visit, I will say he's off at Tuckborough. And I'll just tell the Tooks he's not in the mood to see them and have his nice new home tore up with their drunken shenanigans." He looked pointedly at Pippin with his last words.
"Now look!" Pippin said, brimming with indignation at this defamation of his family name.
"Come on, Peregrin, that whole mess with the Hornblower estate, and don't tell me you weren't there," Fredegar began, as Pippin countered with, "Oh, you know the Boffin brothers were the start of all that!"
"Lads," I said warningly, amused despite myself, "we were talking about Frodo and his dire plight, remember?"
"Oh, yes," they said together.
"So that's settled, then. Fredegar will stay behind at Crickhollow, and Pip and I will set off with Frodo and Sam -- and Gandalf -- as soon as Frodo gives the word," I said, relieved to have one more task attended to. "He told me he has made up his mind to leave Bag End on his and Bilbo's birthday, but I do not know if he plans to leave Crickhollow immediately, or stay a while. I think perhaps he does not know himself, but intends to hear Gandalf's thoughts on the matter. At any rate, we must reveal ourselves to Frodo, so to speak, soon after he comes to Crickhollow. I do not know how much longer any of us can keep up this charade, anyway," I added, glad to know that soon I would be able to speak frankly to Frodo.
Pippin and Fredegar nodded their heads. "Well, you seem to have everything worked out well enough, Meriadoc, and I am glad to hear I can be of help without traipsing off to far lands," Fredegar said. "I would have done it, for Frodo, but I find this task much more to my liking. Still," he cast a hard look at our younger cousin, "I think I would have been some use on the Road."
Pippin snorted. "After that disastrous walk you took with us through the West Farthing? First, you started asking when we would stop after we had only just started. Then you nearly set yourself afire while setting up camp, and then to discover you had packed your bathing toiletries and wanted to know when bath time was!"
"Oh, I took a little bit to adjust, but it was my first ever walking trip," Fredegar said good-naturedly. "And I soon was marching along as well as the three of you."
Pippin had just taken a drink of ale, but he mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "poison ivy." Fredegar began to turn red.
"What was that, Pip? Sounded like you said, 'ivy,'" I said innocently. Pippin had sworn to Fredegar that he wouldn't tell a soul, so of course Frodo and I had known before the end of the day. Being of a more discreet nature, we let Fredegar think we were ignorant of the incident.
"I didn't say anything," Pippin said, setting down his drink, his face carefully schooled in the expression he used when he was about to say something he thought was complete muck but wanted the listener to believe was sincere. "You're right, of course, Fredegar, I'm certain you would have been a great, rugged traveler in no time, and of enormous comfort to Frodo. But someone must shoulder the burden of staying in front of the fireplace in Buckland and answering Frodo's front door."
"And happy I am to be of service to our dear friend," Fredegar said sincerely, graciously ignoring what I knew he recognized as verbal jabbing from Pippin. He looked from Pippin to me and back several times, his eyes misting over.
"Oh, now, don't start," Pippin said, his tone half irritation and half affection.
Fredegar's bottom lip trembled, and it occurred to me that perhaps we should have had this conversation somewhere that Fatty couldn't get his hands on quite so much ale, given how emotional it can make him. He snuffled a little, but managed not to begin crying outright.
"Look here, Freddy," I said in a low voice. "Frodo would do this and more for every one of us. I am frightened, of course I am, for Sam and for myself and for Pippin." My heart gave an especially hard thump at the last name and picked up its pace a little. "But most of all, I am frightened for Frodo. And more than that, if I understand everything from Sam rightly, I am frightened of what will happen should Frodo fail. I am so frightened by the thought that it near paralyzes me. But I can't see letting Frodo go off alone no matter how scared I am."
Fredegar nodded wretchedly. "You are right, of course, Merry, and I am glad to be of some help. But who would have thought we would ever be caught up in such a mess!" He raised a freshly filled mug (which I could not recall ever seeing him obtain). "May you come back safely. All of you," he said solemnly.
"I'll drink to that," Pippin said, hoisting his mug.
"So will I," I added, pleased to have another piece of my plan in place. I lifted my mug and we drank to the end of the Road we had yet to set out on.