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The ferry bumped against the landing and Merry jumped out quickly to make it fast. His hands were trembling as he tried to tie the rope, and his heart was pounding. He could hear it thudding like the gallop of that horrible black horse.
Pippin was helping Sam clamber awkwardly off the ferry. Sam stood on the dock, bent over, hands on his knees, breathing hard. Then Frodo stepped up, and he walked a few steps further along the deck. Merry could see his face, blue in the moonlight, his eyes shadowed, and he followed Frodo’s gaze across the Brandywine…
And wished he had not, for the whoever- or whatever-it-was that had been pursuing them was still there, and after an instant it was joined by two more. All three figures stayed there for an instant, and then there was one of those terrible screeches, and the three turned and rode off.
Pippin walked over and put a hand on Frodo’s shoulder. “Frodo, what are they?”
Frodo shook his head. “Not here, not now! We have to keep moving.”
Merry glanced over the distance behind them to Brandy Hall. Many of the windows were still alight.
Frodo had seen his look. “No, I don’t want to have to explain anything to your parents. Uncle Saradoc and Aunt Esmeralda would ask too many questions.”
“Crickhollow,” said Merry. “We have some time. It will take those creatures hours to get across the River, and then come back this way. Even on horses, they shouldn't be able to get here before morning.”
“That’s perfect,” Pippin added. “We can get a breather there. And I think it’s time for Cousin Frodo to come clean.”
Frodo shot a shrewd glance at Pippin and bit his lip, but he nodded, and the four of them headed off into the darkness.
Merry led the way to the almost hidden lane that led to the little cottage called Crickhollow. It was built just north of the grounds of Brandy Hall, and was used by the Brandybucks as a guest cottage when they had visitors who wished a little more privacy than Brandy Hall, with its dozens of inhabitants, could provide. It was a low house, built of whitewashed stone, with a thatched roof, and a round blue door, and many round windows. All of the windows were dark as they approached. He took out a key and opened the door, and then turned to light the lantern that was on the hook next to the door.
Sam was behind him, gazing about curiously. Pippin tugged at Sam’s sleeve. “Sam, Aunt Esme makes sure the place is kept clean and ready for company. I’m sure there is food in the kitchen.” Sam followed Pippin into the kitchen, while Merry led Frodo into the small adjoining parlour.
Frodo walked over to the window, as Merry laid a fire in the hearth. He rubbed his arms, and then made sure the shutters were closed.
“Not yet, Merry. Wait until we are all together.” Frodo sat down in one of the armchairs by the hearth, but Merry noticed how he sat on the edge of the chair, leaning forward, as though he were going to leap up and run at the least provocation. The kindling caught, and once the fire was burning, Merry moved to sit quietly in the other armchair.
A few minutes later, Pippin and Sam came in. Sam had the tea-tray and Pippin had a plate of bread and cheese and pickles. “You were right, Merry. Your mum had filled the larder not long ago. No meat though.”
Merry nodded. “I think the Bolgers are expected for a visit at the end of the week.”
“Too bad,” said Pippin, “that we won’t be here. I would have liked to have seen good old Fatty.”
Frodo shifted uneasily. “What do you mean?”
Merry shook his head. “Frodo, you can’t think Pip and I will allow you to go off to Bree without us, do you?”
“You don’t understand, Merry--” Frodo began.
“Oh, yes we do.” said Pippin. “You don’t think Sam was the only one eavesdropping on you and Gandalf do you?”
Frodo’s eyes shifted to Sam, who managed a weak smile and said “I was just the only one as was caught, Mr. Frodo…”
Frodo set his teacup down with a thump. His eyes glittered angrily. Uh-oh,thought Merry, we’re in for it now.
“Why were you all spying on me?” Frodo said tightly. “I thought you were my friends! I suppose that I can’t trust anybody.”
“We were ‘spying’, as you put it, because Pippin went out of the Green Dragon, and spotted Gandalf heading up to Bag End. No one’s seen him in the year since Bilbo left. We were curious, so after you and Sam separated, we collared Sam and went up to find out what was going on. A good thing we did! We stayed around long enough to hear where you two were going, and then did our best to keep just ahead of you both. As for trust, Frodo, you can trust us to keep any secret of yours-- closer than you keep it yourself. And you can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin to the bitter end. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”
“Anyway,” added Pippin, “we heard what Gandalf said. We saw those Black Riders. We know what we are up against. And we’re coming too--or following you like hounds if we have to.”
Frodo gaped at them, and then chuckled, and then laughed. “That explains it!” he exclaimed. “I could not understand what the two of you were doing in Farmer Maggot’s fields, or why you acted so strangely when you saw me! The two of you deceitful scoundrels were lying in wait for me, weren’t you?”
Merry rolled his eyes, and glanced at Pippin. “ ‘It’s Frodo Baggins!’" he mocked. "You sounded completely daft, Pippin!”
Pippin sighed. “I know. I was trying to act surprised! And Merry, you know, Farmer Maggot was a surprise! We should never have tried to grab those vegetables!”
Merry shrugged. “I just wanted an explanation for why we were there. Since it was Frodo who took us raiding there in the first place a few years back, it seemed logical…”
Now all four of them laughed, but then Frodo sobered quickly. “We can’t stay here long. We must get to Bree without being caught by those Black Riders.”
None of the others said anything to this, and Frodo added, "I think we should take a shortcut through the Old Forest."
Merry shook his head emphatically. "No. It's too dangerous. It's been too many years since you lived in Buckland, Frodo. The Old Forest is worse than it used to be, and it was quite bad enough back then."
Pippin and Sam were silent. Neither of them knew much about the Old Forest which bordered Buckland on the East.
"But Merry, what can we do? We cannot outdistance those horses even with a head start."
Merry's heart sank. Frodo was right--and yet-- he felt the glimmering of a notion. Even if they did not go into the Old Forest, perhaps they could still use it. "What if--" he stopped, to think again.
Frodo leaned forward. "You have an idea?"
"What if we lay a false trail? Make them think we went into the Old Forest? I have a key to the gate in the hedge. We could leave some signs, and then the four of us could go just inside the High Hay, but not into the wood beyond. We could follow the hedge north, all the way up to the Road, cross it, and then…"
Frodo smiled. "…and then travel just out of sight, with the Road on our right! And if we walk steadily, we should reach Bree by nightfall! Brilliant, Merry!"
Merry leaned back, feeling satisfied. "With any luck, the trees will delay those Black Riders long enough for us to reach Bree."
"I like it," said Pippin. "Perhaps the trees won't let them out at all. I've heard stories that those trees eat people!"
Frodo shook his head. "I don't think it will be that easy. Those-- things-- seem dangerous enough to deal with the trees. But Merry's right-- the way the paths in there shift about should at least delay them by a day or more. I think it seems the best plan at the moment."
"Well," said Sam, "We can pack up some of that food, if you don't think your mum would object overmuch, Mr. Merry."
"She may object, but she will never know how it went missing, Sam. And if she knew that it would help us, she wouldn't object at all. While you and Pippin pack up that food, Frodo and I will take a lantern and see to laying that false trail. Then we can come back here and perhaps get one or two hours of sleep before we leave."
"Yes, but not more than that," said Pippin. "We'll have to do as they did in the Dwarves' song: 'We must away ere break of day.' "
"Quite right," said Frodo. "But I must confess, I am a good deal easier in my mind to know that I shall have the company of you two deceitful scoundrels."
Merry found a couple of dark lanterns, and he and Frodo went outside, to see what signs they could leave. Merry had brought Frodo's pack with him, and he dragged it on the ground behind him, as they stomped across the back garden. Frodo pulled the back gate askew, and then unraveled a few threads from his cloak to catch them on the edge of the gate. There was a stand of wild flowers just outside, some dragon's teeth, their yellow petals furled in the night. Merry regretfully stomped on a few of them. They made their way the short distance to the Gate, and Merry opened it with his key. Its rusty squeak was alarmingly loud in the quiet of the night. The two of them went inside for a couple of furlongs, being careful to avoid actually going beneath any of the trees. When they had gone as far as they dared, they turned back, and carefully and lightly retraced their steps, being sure to avoid the "trail" they had made.
"We'll all stomp a bit more when we leave, but we shall have to be careful when we turn aside," said Frodo.
Merry nodded. They returned to Crickhollow, where Sam and Pippin had seen to the packing. "A shame we don't have a pony," said Sam.
"Well, we'll carry as much as we must on our backs," answered Pippin. "But right now, I think we need to rest."
They decided not to go to bed, but Frodo and Sam sat in the armchairs, and Pippin reclined on the settee. Soon the three were sleeping-- Sam and Pippin soundly, Frodo restlessly.
But Merry did not try to sleep. He went out upon the doorstep for a sniff of air and a pipe, and watched the stars. How long would it be until he saw Buckland again? he wondered. When the Moon had set, he turned and went to wake the others. Dawn would find them well on their way.
More Author's Notes: There were several things I wanted to address in this story. I tried to explain why Merry and Pippin behaved as they did when they were caught in Farmer Maggot's field, I managed to get in a little bit of a conspiracy between Merry, Pippin and Sam, if not THE Conspiracy, and I tried to also address Merry's and Frodo's blood relationship. I also wanted to explain how come the Black Riders did not catch up with them before they got to Bree, and to get Crickhollow into the story. I could not figure out how to get in mushrooms or a bath song, though.
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