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"Sam..." The door to the garden shed opened, letting in a blast of cold air.
Sam put down the hoe he was sharpening and oiling, and turned, wiping his hands on his breeches.
"Good morning, Mr. Merry! When did you get here?"
"Oh, Pip and I just arrived. He's headed on up to the smial. I'm collecting cousins."
Sam chuckled at Merry's wry tone. "Yes, Mr. Frodo told me that the Thain and Lady Eglantine are keeping Yule at the Great Smials this year." Pippin's parents were reluctant to allow him to travel alone during the winter, though he'd not been ill for at least three years.
"I just wanted to thank you for writing to me, Sam."
Sam's smile faded. "We did agree, Mr. Merry, that I'd let you know if he was doing aught different--and he's shown no sign of making his usual trip to Buckland." In fact, most years, Frodo would have already been on his way by now.
"I agree that's out of the ordinary, but your letter seemed to hint at more."
Sam nodded. "He's been having old Mr. Bilbo's maps of the Outlands out, and looking 'em over. He's been asking after any word of travellers coming through the Shire--'specially Dwarves. I also think as how he was trying to meet up with Elves--he took a goodly time walking back from Buckland this fall." And now Sam raised a finger significantly. "And the other day, he said as how he wondered why he'd heard naught from Gandalf."
Indeed, Gandalf had been absent from the Shire for nine years now. And Frodo had only one letter from him the whole time.
"And finally," and Sam frowned here, "he's been looking sad and singing Mr. Bilbo's old walking songs to hisself."
Merry gave a low whistle. "He's going to do it, Sam! Come warmer weather, he's going to pack up and follow Bilbo. I just know it."
"You really do think so, sir."
"It's why he's putting off his visit to Brandy Hall. He's afraid I'll figure it out."
"Mr. Merry, what do you think will happen?"
Now Merry grinned. "Simple enough--we keep close watch on him, and as soon as he shows imminent signs of flying, we let him know we're coming along to keep him company. You, Pip and I. We'll pick up Cousin Bilbo's trail, and find him wherever he is." Merry paused, and looked grave. "You know, Frodo's going to want to stay with the old fellow for however much longer he's got."
"He's a hundred and twenty-eight, Mr. Merry--if he's still alive. Even the Old Took didn't last much longer than that."
Merry sighed, but before he could answer, they heard Frodo calling down to them: "Merry! Sam! Come up for elevenses! We've mulled cider and toasted cheese!"
"Ah, Sam," said Merry, "now how can we refuse such a treat?"
Sam put away the hoe, and the two hobbits trotted up to the kitchen door. The plans were all laid, after all. What could go wrong?
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