‘Step forward, Sam!’ said Merry; and Sam stood up with a face scarlet up to the ears. ‘Here's our collector of information!
And he collected a lot, I can tell you, before he was finally caught. After which, I may say, he seemed to regard himself as on parole, and dried up.’

(FOTR I.5: A Conspiracy Unmasked)

by Cara J. Loup

They paused on the northern slopes of the Green Hills. Sunlight tickled Pippin's forehead, and he raised his face into the warm airs. From this vantage, it felt as if they'd left spring behind in Tookland and summer started here, inches before their feet, its bright greens drowsing under the sparkling sheet of last night's rainfall. Further in the distance, the grassland was dotted with shrubs and sheep, drifting about like untimely snowflakes.

Beside Pippin, Merry traced his thumb over the knob of his walking-stick that he'd thrust into the muddied ground. You could tell from the way his mouth pursed, as if he were pulling hard on his pipe, that his mind went after some confounding riddle like a fox digging up a mole. Pippin resisted an urge to dance back and forth and looked to the golden oriole that perched on a goat-willow below, smoothing its feathers with a busy beak.

Frodo would welcome their visit, of course he would. But to all appearances, Merry's mind was already skipping ahead, to the hundred questions they'd stirred up between them, and perhaps a dozen more that he'd uncovered since.

"Time for a short break," Merry said finally, dragging his eyes from the dark line of trees that grew alongside the East Road, miles away in the north.

"And a bite to hearten us for the rest of the tramp," Pippin agreed. He helped Merry unsling his crammed travel pack and pulled a wrapped parcel of cheese and nutbread from it. Only a few steps away, a fallen log offered them a seat nearly as comfortable as Bag End's stuffed chairs, covered as it was by thick, springy moss. Pippin hopped onto it and stretched his feet into the hazy sunlight, setting out their wayfare among the tiny white blossoms that sprinkled the moss like the bright pinheads on Aunt Isadora's needle-pad. Though Merry scooped up a chunk of nutbread readily enough, he didn't lose his ruminating look.

He'd arrived in Tuckborough the day before, unannounced like a stray that the wind had swept to the front steps of Great Smials. One glance at his face, at the dirt spatters and damp stains on his trouser-legs, had told Pippin that his cousin had made the journey at an urgent speed, and that something bothered him awfully. When they embraced, he'd felt a tired slump in Merry's shoulders and would have burst into questions right away, if it hadn't been for the luncheon-bell ringing from the south wing just then. A good meal would surely settle Merry's mood, Pippin had thought, himself quite distracted by the smell of fresh mushroom pie that wafted across from the kitchen. He could hold his own curiosity in check a little while longer.

Between the finishing course and afters, the questions were pressing up thickly behind his teeth, but Merry sat wrapped in his own distraction and all that Pippin could prod out of him was that he'd received a letter from Frodo. He wasn't making a mystery out of it on purpose, Pippin knew, but it was beginning to nettle him nonetheless. Determined to claim Merry's full attention, he steered his cousin from the dining-hall while they were still munching their last bites of honey-tart.

They took the shortest route to the sheltered coppice south of Great Smials and the sprawling kitchen garden. There, behind the washing-line and the cabbage bed, the old walnut reached out a low, curved branch that looked as if it was only waiting to pick up a few young hobbits and fling them skywards. They settled comfortably into the crook of the branch that creaked beneath their weight. The wind blew briskly, and the spots of sunshine that filtered through the shapely leaves felt cool to Pippin. Compared to the rattle and din of the dining-hall, it was now very quiet.

His eyes fixed on his own toes, Merry told him about the content of the letter – and when he finished, the tale left Pippin truly puzzled.

"Frodo wants to move back to Buckland," he echoed, his legs swinging back and forth, making the branch dip lightly in the same rhythm. Merry answered with a short nod and tugged on one of the leafy boughs that dangled before their faces. "Why do you look so worried then?" Pippin asked. "You'll have him right under your nose. If Frodo still shows any signs of wanting to travel, you will be the first to know."

Privately, Pippin felt not a little disappointed that Frodo wouldn't venture further than the familiar marches of Buckland. Bilbo had brought back such riches of stories and songs from the wilderlands – stories that Pippin had mostly heard from Merry first. Late one evening that they'd spent imagining the Battle of Five Armies and the last flight of Smaug the Tremendous, they had agreed that they must become Frodo's trusty travel companions when Frodo, too, set out to follow Adventure.

"Pippin." Merry turned towards him with a look as exasperated as his mother might give when he returned too late from a ride down Misty Glen. Just that: "Pippin."

But Pippin knew that tone, that brow-knotting, inward expression, well enough. Something inside him went quite still and waited for Merry to untie the knot that seemed to hold his thoughts and his tongue in a snare.

"I don't think he means to move to Buckland and stay there," Merry said at last.

"Why not?" Fresh excitement squirmed around in Pippin's stomach, but it didn't feel so pleasant anymore.

"Think about it," Merry returned, with rather less impatience than Pippin had expected. "Would Frodo ever give up Bag End, even if he didn't have a penny left to buy candles, or salt for his stew? The last summer's harvest was one of the best in years, and if he worried about passing the Mastership on to a sensible person, he could always adopt an heir, just as Bilbo did."

Pippin stared down at his feet and stretched his toes, feeling a fool. "No, he wouldn't... He wouldn't give up Bag End for a bit of travelling either."

For a moment his thoughts churned wildly as the Leaping Brook after the spring melt, and it seemed that through those swirls he was peering at the dim shape of a mystery.

"No," Merry agreed, his voice dropping so much that Pippin leaned a little closer.

"But if that isn't what he means to do, why–"

"Why would he have me believe that he's returning to Buckland?" When Merry looked back at him, the discomfort was so clear in his eyes that Pippin could see to the bottom, to a dark and turbulent worry. "I don't know, Pippin, but he wouldn't do it unless..." Merry trailed off with a gesture. A sudden quiet settled about them and clung like autumn fog.

Something had happened, something completely unexpected that they had never imagined – that Pippin couldn't guess at now. It was a strange sensation, as though something in the very air had changed, and he cast about to relieve it somehow. At the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Pervinca's yellow skirt flash among the orchard trees, but when he looked, nothing moved there.

Great Smials with its noise, its stuffy lower rooms and crammed tunnels seemed incredibly far away, as faint as the soft green shadows that played on the ground beneath the walnut. Pippin found himself straining for the sound of voices – the laughter of kitchen-maids from the windows, a shout or a whinny from the stables – a sound to end this moment and call him back.

There was none though, and all he could do was reach across to lay a hand on Merry's arm and squeeze it. Merry lowered his head a bit, but didn't look at him.

They were both thinking of Bag End, Pippin knew for a fact. Of pleasant evenings in the study, where the pipesmoke curled about Frodo's books and papers, of the tapers' vivid lights that fluttered to the laughter at one of his dinner-parties. Of early mornings, when Frodo flung the front door wide and stood there in his shirt-sleeves, smiling while the chill reddened his cheeks.

"We will go and see him tomorrow," Merry had finally said. Pippin agreed at once, relieved that Merry had so unthinkingly included him in his plans. Yet surely Merry was mulling over further plots and ideas, and he wasn't sharing all his thoughts.

Right now, with the sun in noon, dappling their path, Pippin felt more confident that they would solve the riddle and find it less disturbing than Merry seemed to think. Why, it was Merry himself who often said that Frodo could never match Bilbo's habits of being secretive. Perhaps Frodo was merely awaiting a chance to talk about things he wouldn't entrust to a letter.

They crossed the great East Road a furlong to the west of Tuckborough Road. The meadows hummed in the fine, warm afternoon that had brought out all the bees, and the hedges cast shadows like soft blankets that footsore wanderers might rest on. When they climbed the next ridge, Pippin stretched his arms above his head with a long, pleased sigh. Not far on their right lay Bywater, and among rows of trees, the Pool glittered gold as though a magic lamp had been kindled beneath the water.

It was Merry who'd suggested that they approach Hobbiton by this longer route, instead of cutting straight towards the bridge and Bag End. "Let's hear what the village gossip is," he'd said. "Perhaps folk have picked up rumours that will be helpful to know."

After all his eagerness to leave Tuckborough at once after breakfast, that decision seemed a bit odd to Pippin. Yet he couldn't imagine either why Merry should suddenly want to delay meeting Frodo.

"We'll miss tea," he'd said with a regretful thought for the soft white scones that Sam's sister often baked for the Master's table.

"We'll get there in time for supper," Merry had replied, but in the same moment, he'd slipped a hand into his coat pocket and drew out a handful of sweet dried walnuts with a flourish. "A bite to strengthen yourself meanwhile, Master Took."

Pippin made a grab for his offering and was glad to see a grin brighten Merry's face. "Since you're planning to starve yourself, Cousin, I'll have them all, thank you."

"They'll be good for you," Merry answered drily. "I've heard it said that they aid the growth of wits."

Pippin's mouth was by then too full to reply, and the walnuts' ripened taste too absorbing to even want to.

He had finished the walnuts a while ago, and now, as they headed towards the north end of Bywater, he quickened his step to a saunter: one-two, one-one-two. Bright cow-parsley flowered everywhere along the lanes, and blossoms dotted the hedgerows. The chestnuts wore their tall candles, and the beeches were decked out in the loveliest green. There was talk, food and rest ahead, and all of it together made Pippin sing at the top of his voice:

Spring! Spring!
Come again to field and bower,
Come to bring us flax and flower!
Cast off the winter-drowse and sing:
Spring! Spring!

"Carry on like this, and you'll scare the cows!" Merry made a show of covering his ears, but he joined Pippin for the next verse anyway. Spring! Spring! they went, until they turned into Hobbiton Road.

By the Green Dragon, innkeeper Noakes's lads were busy tidying up the yard with broom and scuttle. The innkeeper himself was just latching the barn and, noticing them, strode up with a broad smile.

"Master Took, and Master Brandybuck!" he called. "A fine day to you – not that it needs me wishing," he added with a wave into the bright day.

"And to you." Merry stopped by the open yard gate, inviting conversation. "Things are well, I trust?"

"Oh, very well." The innkeeper spread his hands. "If you can take Eldfather Noakes by his word, we're about to see the finest summer in many, and my weatherbone says aye to that. Why, Farmer Longholt's setting to the hay next week, if you can believe it! But the grass has grown that high, I reckon it'd be a waste waiting longer."

Merry nodded. "It will be a good year for the brewers and alewives as well. The hops that I saw on my way looked as though it should be ready for picking by Lithe."

"We'll not be short of beer," the innkeeper agreed and smacked his lips. "Not but what our kegs are still full, and you'd be welcome to a sup o' the winter stout. You're a tidy while on the road, from the looks of you."

"We're here to visit Cousin Frodo," Pippin put in, although the innkeeper must surely have guessed.

"So I thought." Noakes tipped his head aside. "Bag End has seen stranger visitors of late, Master Peregrin, if you don't mind me saying." He lowered his voice. "There's that wizard as kept haunting Mr. Bilbo returned last month, when nigh everyone thought him gone for good."

"Gandalf," said Merry, his voice just as low and his brow creasing. "He's still here then?"

Frodo's letter had made no mention of Gandalf, and Pippin wondered why. Had Frodo meant to stop him and Merry from rushing to his doorstep for news and tales from the wider world?

"Aye, he is," the innkeeper confirmed, "though he stays locked up behind doors most days and only ventures out after nightfall." His face darkened. "'Tis not natural, and who knows what mischief such a one is up to? Very worrisome it is, at any rate, meaning no harm to Mr. Frodo and all."

"No, of course," Merry answered thoughtfully.

"Mr. Frodo's bound to welcome a visit from decent folk," said Noakes with emphasis. "Don't let me keep you now! I'll save you the finest of our spring ale – and bring the Master with you when you come. He's not shown his face here in a fortnight."

"We'll be sure to mend that!" Pippin promised.

As they stepped back into the road, Merry cast him one of his speaking looks: see? Pippin shrugged and smiled at him, excitement shivering up his arms at the notion of meeting Gandalf in less than hours. He'd hardly caught more than a glimpse of the wizard during one of his visits to Bag End, and that was years ago, before Pippin had even reached his tweens. Still, he wasn't likely to forget a moment of it, ever.

He'd been awake early, and when he opened the window to a damp spring morning, a tall grey figure stood by the hedge in the lower part of Bag End's garden. When he thought about it later, Pippin supposed that he should have been startled, perhaps even afraid, but he wasn't. All that he felt was deep astonishment, and a great curiosity about the fall of whitish-grey hair that streamed down over a ragged cloak, frost-pale like the mist that covered the lawn and curled about the stranger's feet. What was he looking – or listening – for? For a moment, Frodo's garden no longer seemed a familiar place, as if everything should melt to new shape in the day's first beams that touched hair, cloak, and mist with a tint of embers.

Gandalf must have arrived late in the night, and – much to Pippin's disappointment – he set out again soon after breakfast. But while they were all seated around the great oak table in the dining-room – Frodo, Merry, and Pippin's older cousin Reginard – Pippin hadn't been able to take his eyes off the wizard, never mind that Merry kicked him for the rudeness. It was only when Gandalf met his stare at last that he wanted to look away.

Merry had teased him about it later and called him a trapped rabbit of a Took, rendered mute and witless under the wizard's gaze. And it wasn't far from the truth either, Pippin had to admit. Yet he in turn had never found the words to describe the deep gleam in Gandalf's eyes, and why he felt so very certain that it held traces of long, silent laughter.

"Will he talk to us?"

"Hmm?" His question must have startled Merry from a serious bit of thinking. "Will who talk to us?"

"Gandalf, of course!"

They were alone on the road at the moment, strolling along the stretch that folk called Hobbiton Road or Bywater Road, depending on the direction they were heading in. Years ago, when he was a lot younger, Pippin had insisted that there must be some mark that told where the road changed its name, and he'd spent one long, dusty afternoon looking for it.

"Oh, he will talk to us," Merry answered with a shrug, "but whether he'll tell us anything is a different matter."

"I'll keep my ears pricked, in that case." Pippin remembered how, at the end of that long-ago afternoon, he'd sat watching the tree-frogs by the ditch, amazed that the sounds leaving these small bodies could travel so far. But when you closed your eyes to their creaking, croaking song, you pictured them fat as toads.

By the time they reached Hobbiton, the trees stretched long shadows towards them. Pippin wondered if Merry would want to stop by the Ivy Bush, too, but no-one showed at the inn's open door, and Merry pressed on now with a determined stride. Yellowed sunlight lay in the road like pools of spilled milk, and all along its course, folk were busy finishing their day's work. You could tell that tomorrow would be a Highday by the loose sway in everyone's step, by their lively voices as they called out greetings.

In the midst of it, Pippin's own expectation rose steadily, little flicks of pulse in his throat drawing his attention here and there and off again, so that he almost bumped into Merry when his cousin slowed. They'd just come to the spot where the lane that ran down from the Hill and across the bridge joined the main road. But Merry wasn't glancing up towards Bag End, he had turned the other way.

Some paces off the waymeet, under a gnawed old chestnut, stood a stone trough where the village folk watered their goats and sheep. And bent over the trough was Sam Gamgee, a bulky packet on his back, washing his hands in the remaining water. The chestnut threw a ragged shadow over him and the trough, shaped like a pony that reared up on its hind-legs.

Before either Merry or Pippin could say a word, Sam straightened and met their eyes. Something in his pack clinked softly.

"Mr. Pippin," he greeted them, "and Mr. Merry. Good day to you both."

"Hullo there, Sam!" Pippin answered with a bit of startlement. Though Sam's face showed a high colour, his voice hadn't betrayed the slightest touch of surprise.

"I hope we'll still call it a good day when it ends," Merry said with greater frankness than Pippin had expected. "At any rate, we are prepared for some rather disturbing news."

Sam took a step away from the trough and lowered his voice. "Mr. Frodo's letter's arrived then."

"It did, four days ago," Merry confirmed, his brows rising a bit.

It must have been Sam who handed the letter to the post messenger, but more than that, he seemed to know what the letter contained. A piece of good luck indeed, thought Pippin, that they'd run into Sam here. They'd learn more from him than from all the rambling innkeepers of the Westfarthing.

"A word with you..." Merry said, both hands joined over the knob of his walking-stick that he'd planted before him.

"I'd ought to be heading back, Mr. Merry." Sam gave his packet's strap a brief tug. "Bag End's lamps are running short of oil, and sunset isn't too far off." Those must be thick, round-bellied bottles in his pack then – and each the weight of a piglet, Pippin had no doubt.

"We can talk on the way," Merry insisted.

"That we could." Sam passed a wet hand over his forehead so that his curls stuck up damp above it. A look of caution seemed to grip his entire face, but the chestnut's shadows stirred across it, and Pippin couldn't be sure.

When he followed Sam's glance, past Merry's shoulder and over towards the Hill, he saw that Miller Sandyman was out in the mill-yard, chatting over the wall with a neighbour. No, heading that way wouldn't do at all. They'd be seen talking every step up Hill Road, and anyway, it was too short a walk to give them enough time.

Pippin was just opening his mouth to say as much when Sam gestured towards the south-bound lane. "We could walk round to the old half-bridge, if you don't mind the delay."

"Not at all," Pippin said cheerfully, and Merry joined him at once with an agreeable murmur.

The narrow lane climbed over a long low ridge, then took a sweep towards the west, where it ran past fields and pasture. It was little more than two dried-out ruts made by cartwheels, full of pits and pebbles, and didn't leave enough room for all three of them to walk abreast. For a while, Sam strode ahead as though he should lead them.

On the fringe of the fields grew some old and battered trees, most of them crack-willows with a few oaks and chestnuts mingled in. Pippin joined his step to Merry's, the afternoon warm on his face. Sunlight streamed towards them over Sam's shoulders, and the grasses whispered with the first drowsy stirrings of the crickets. On the southern slope, half a furlong away, a couple of brown cows were grazing. It was a pleasant enough walk, Pippin supposed, but his mind was beginning to run through loops as he tried to guess at Sam's news.

As the lane dipped and the banks rose more steeply on either side, Sam finally slowed his pace, but Merry didn't. Without quite looking at him, Pippin knew he was bristling with the same impatience inside.

"Well, Sam." Merry had almost caught up to him. "I don't think anyone will overhear us now."

Sam turned sideways at that, and Pippin caught in his face a look of surprise – or thought he did – as if secrecy and getting out of earshot had been the last things on his mind. He took a pace and another, and stopped not too far from a stumpy oak that leaned over the lane and seemed mostly withered. Its trunk was covered in trailing skeins of ivy.

"Frodo doesn't truly plan to live in Buckland," said Merry.

Could you find me a suitable hole or a cottage in a quiet corner? he had quoted the letter to Pippin: I trust your judgment. I would like to move before autumn comes, but do not mention it to anyone yet. I will explain when you next visit.

When Sam turned fully to face Merry, his look was entirely calm – calm and smooth as a stone long in the river. Pippin stayed where he was, a step behind Merry, and felt a little twitch in his stomach.

"It's like this, Mr. Merry," Sam began. "I've given him my word. 'Tis no more a matter of watching and listening and not being noticed at it, without doing any harm – if you understand me."

"You were caught then? By Gandalf," Merry guessed, surprise sharp in his voice.

"He's got keen eyes, aye, and his ears everywhere," Sam replied, steady as before, but he glanced aside a little. Was he ashamed that he'd been found out? Pippin wondered, but then he thought it might be something else – and likely Merry did, too.

"I did give my word, at any rate."

And that made it a matter of honour, nothing less. Pippin pursed his lips and breathed out in disappointment. Merry would understand, better than anybody, though surely that meant he was better suited to finding a way around it, too. He nodded, slowly.

"But you know we're not asking out of idle curiosity, Sam," Merry said, a weight behind each word. "Everything that concerns Frodo is safe with us. You must tell us."

From the clutch of cranesbill and hellebores on the bank came a sudden twitter, and a flock of sparrows shot up. Pippin followed them with his eyes, squinting against the late sunlight.

"What I must do, Mr. Merry..." Sam's voice didn't waver, but when he paused, Pippin dashed him a quick glance and looked away again just as fast. Yes, this would be difficult, and he was starting to feel wound up inside. After all his fretting before, did Merry have the patience for it?

"Go on, please," Merry said quietly.

The birds dived, chasing back into the undergrowth. Pippin saw that Sam shook his head, the barest movement released with a slow breath.

"I've thought on it ever since, so I have, but I reckon you already know what's most needful, Mr. Merry."

"That Frodo has finally made up his mind to leave?" Merry shifted from one foot to the other, not quite fidgeting as Pippin was about to, should things carry on like this much longer. "He means to leave at some time in the autumn. We could guess this much from his letter, and if I know him at all, he will want to set out on Bilbo's birthday."

But why from Buckland? Why go through the trouble of selling Bag End? Sam must be reading these thoughts in both their faces. He nodded. "He's been planning for it since April."

"But what has Gandalf got to do with it?" Pippin burst out before he could think better – or worse – of it. "Does he know where Bilbo is? Is that where he's taking Frodo?"

"That, I don't know," Sam answered him frankly. Pippin thought he saw something vexed in his gaze, a stirring of something, at any rate, that he wasn't used to finding in Sam's eyes. And if he could put a name to it at all, it reminded him of... Merry. Sam had shouldered a load of some sort that he wasn't willing to release. Or couldn't, perhaps.

Merry cleared his throat slightly. It was meant as a caution for him, Pippin supposed, to keep his peace now. Well, he would, but something tightened his middle, and in the low burn of the sun he felt hot and short of breath.

"Do you earnestly believe," Merry asked, "that we know enough to be ready when the time arrives?" As honest a question as it was, no-one who knew Merry could have missed the will behind his words. Sam certainly didn't. He braced up to it, and his chin rose a little.

"That's not for me to say," he answered in the very courteous tone he'd use when a bumbling Bracegirdle came strolling through Bag End's kitchen garden and trod on freshly turned beds in search of apples or raspberries.

Merry shook his head. "Oh, but it is."

He'd played the ball back to Sam and wouldn't yield any further, that was clear. Pippin scraped his big toes at the dry mud and looked down at the coarse grass between the ruts. He was every bit as eager as Merry to get to the bottom of this mystery, but he hadn't expected the discomfort that Sam must be feeling – and worse than he had through all the months before.

How much, Pippin wondered now, had it bothered Sam to gather and pass on the news about Frodo's doings, in the months since they'd become conspirators?

We're only doing it because we care for Frodo. We can't let him run off alone. That was all well and right, of course, but it wasn't enough now. Now, Pippin found it annoyed him how Merry left the words hanging, left Sam alone with them in the stillness that had somehow pushed every sound far off. But what could he say or do?

In another moment, Sam turned away and with a slow step walked up to the oak. As if studying the thick braids of ivy that had overrun it, he tilted his head up to the crown, where only a few outer branches still wore their own leaves. Unmoving, Merry stood and watched him, as though willing Sam to speak.

It's not easy for him either, Pippin thought, his irritation evaporating, to wish so much that we could help Frodo, and not to know...

"It's the ring, Mr. Bilbo's ring." Sam's voice was low but steady. He'd apparently decided what to tell them. And what not to tell them, too. Pippin curled his toes in tightly.

"Mr. Gandalf found out that it belongs to the Enemy – the Dark Lord in Mordor."

Pippin felt his breath burst up on something that wanted to be a shout and barely held it in. Merry had been right. There was something deeper and far more troubling behind Frodo's letter than a tramp out into the lands of dragons, trolls and giant spiders.

"He made it and lost it long ago, in the war, and now he wants it back," Sam continued, without a glance back over his shoulder. "He's learned its whereabouts, what's worse, from that Gollum creature that Mr. Bilbo got it from. Mr. Gandalf found that Gollum, seemingly, and got part of the tale out of him."

For the briefest of moments, Pippin pictured Gandalf in those dark and riddled mountain caves that Bilbo's tale described. A wizard would not get lost there, of course, he would have hunted Gollum by light of a torch that flashed in his eyes like the sizzlers and fire-crackers he was so famous for.

"The Enemy's searching for his ring in every corner of the world," Sam was saying, "and he'll find what he wants, sooner or later. It can't stay in the Shire..." His voice had run dry, and he paused a moment. "After hearing all that Gandalf had to say about it, Mr. Frodo agreed to take it away and keep it from the Enemy."

The words drifted about Pippin like large snowflakes he might snatch after but couldn't keep hold of. He moved forward before he knew it, yet Merry clapped a hand on his arm at once and caught him back.

"He's leaving," said Sam, "not to find Mr. Bilbo, nor adventures and treasures, but to draw the Enemy away from the Shire, as far away as may be." He told them all this without turning, even an inch, the heavy packet still strapped on tightly.

Merry's fingers trembled a bit on Pippin's arm, but he was already loosening his grip again. He was listening hard: perhaps that left no room for the confusion that Pippin himself felt. It scattered into scores of questions he knew he couldn't ask – not now, anyway.

Sam said no more. He turned again at last and looked almost at ease, if such a thing could be. Yet his face was shaded against the light, impossible to read.

Merry let his breath out in a low whistle, trying for a bit of ease of his own, Pippin guessed.

"I'm going with him," said Sam.

"And so are we," Merry answered, quick enough to break into Sam's words. "We can't let him go alone."

Though Sam dipped his head, it wasn't quite a nod, even if Merry seemed to take it that way.

"Very well." Merry breathed out a sigh and adopted a tone most suited for serious matters, something to take comfort from. "That is news indeed! I don't wonder now that Frodo has been so close-mouthed about his plans. What a wretched business." Arms crossed before his chest, Merry began to pace forward and back in short strides. "We still have enough time to shape our plans, and that is fortunate. It will be months before Frodo can move to Buckland."

Sam watched him pace with a hooded glance, but made no reply.

"It is difficult to take in!" Merry swung about again. "How did the Dark Lord lose his magic ring? And what does he want it for?"

"You heard what you heard, Mr. Merry," Sam gave back as though someone else had done the talking, and he'd merely stood by. "You'll hear no more from me."

Despite the whirl of questions tickling him like ants, Pippin lowered his head. Sam must feel that he'd broken his word, that he'd betrayed Frodo's trust, even if it was for the best – Frodo's best, and perhaps the best for them all – and they couldn't thank him properly for it. Not even that.

Merry came to a halt beside him. He wasn't happy to have all his questions thwarted, Pippin could tell, but he knew better than to insist. Sam kept his own mind about his duties to Frodo – he always had.

"Frodo has already asked me to find him a house in Buckland," Merry said as if Sam hadn't bluntly denied him answers just a moment before. "I shall make sure that it is quiet and sheltered, without too many inquisitive neighbours nearby. I will make all the necessary arrangements..." He rubbed his hands together, then let them drop. His mind was most likely spinning through a hundred considerations, through things he could do, now that the worst was out. Watching him, Pippin breathed a bit easier.

"We will need sturdy ponies, and stores for the journey. When the day comes and Frodo wants to set out, he'll find us fully prepared. That will give him fewer chances of arguing against our going."

"Prepared," Sam repeated. "How?" With that last, blunt word, a roughness entered his voice that Pippin had never heard before. Sam turned his head with an abrupt motion, to glance past Merry and in the direction where Bag End lay. And his own home, Pippin remembered after a moment.

How? The sun stung through the oak's barren lower branches and the crickets' singing rose around them as it would on any other warm evening, late in spring. But the sights and sounds struck a forceful blow to Pippin's chest at that moment, hard as a fall off a pony. "I don't know," he said softly, although Sam hadn't asked him.

"You can't, Master Pippin, meaning no wrong. None of us can." Sam's voice and expression softened again, and the moment passed.

"Well." Merry cleared his throat. "There is one more thing that we really need to know, Sam..." He waited until Sam met his eyes. "Where will we be going? It's difficult to prepare for a journey if you don't know its end, or how long it will take to get there."

"Mr. Merry." Sam shoved his hands into his breeches' pockets. "I'm not to speak a word of this to no-one, for if I do, Gandalf means to turn me into a spotted toad."

Struck mute, Merry stared at him, but Pippin noticed how the corners of Sam's eyes were starting to crease just slightly.

"Well, toad or no toad, I reckon you must be told," Sam said after a moment, and a short smile bent his mouth. "'Tis Rivendell where we'll be heading first."

Oh now, this was exciting! While Merry muttered awkward thanks, Pippin beamed at Sam, recalling all at once the splendour and marvel attached to the name.

It seemed to bring quite different notions to Merry's mind though. Grave thoughts cast their shadows across his brow as they all followed the lane again. Most likely he was wondering what Sam had meant when he said first, and where else the journey might lead. But – Rivendell! Pippin's mind began to hum with it, and his steps paced out a new rhythm. To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell...

In a few more minutes, the ridge on their right sank towards level ground and opened up the view all the way to the Water. Through a gap between the stocky willows, they could see the half-bridge, too. A single big plank crossed the Water at a narrow point, where it was fairly deep and easily choked up with leaves and twigs and other flotsam. Farmhands and errand-boys used the half-bridge as a short cut, but Frodo often came this way as well and made a sure-footed pass over the plank.

They crossed one after the other, the wood beneath their feet damp from recent rains. Following Sam and Merry, Pippin felt the spray wet his toes and breathed out through a wide smile. To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell! His feet would soon itch for the journey, yet right now his stomach was beginning to grumble for a proper meal. And that meal would be well-earned after another walk through the fields and a scramble up the flank of the Hill.

"I hope Frodo's larders are well-stocked," Pippin said to Sam as they walked down Bagshot Row from the western end. "I could eat for two after this trip!"

"Well enough to feed three of you for three weeks, I'll warrant," Sam reassured him. "What with Mr. Gandalf staying about, and taking meals at odd times too, I've seen to it that there's naught wanting."

Merry had been striding ahead, but when they neared Number Three, he slowed to an amble that brought him back to their side.

"It might be wiser if the three of us didn't arrive at Bag End together," he suggested, stopping by the Gamgees' garden gate.

"I'd like a word with my Gaffer anyways," Sam agreed readily. "I'll bring the lamp-oil in a little while."

"Thank you, Sam," Merry answered in all earnestness, but his face revealed a relief, too, that Sam couldn't have missed. "You must know that you are doing Frodo a great service."

For a moment Sam looked as if he would say something to that, but then he merely nodded and started to jostle the pack off his shoulder. When he raised his free hand towards the gate, Pippin moved to open it for him. He wasn't quick enough though. Even while he let his pack slide to the ground, Sam had clasped and lifted the latch. The lamp-oil would await his return by the fence.

Pushing at the gate with his elbow, Sam went inside with a brief smile for Pippin – but it didn't clear out the caution that had been in his eyes all along.


"Yes?" Merry's reply came at the very moment when the door to Number Three was pulled shut with a dry creak, and Pippin lost his thought.

"Let's make sure we reach Bag End before Frodo can start preparing supper for two rather than four," he answered instead.

They strolled quietly up to the Party Field where the grass stood knee-high, waiting to be shorn. Pippin breathed in deeply and tasted the cool damp of evening on the air. The setting sun lit its last beacons in the trees and hedges and washed the top of the Hill in a copper glow. If not for the great old oak, it would have looked like a bald head.

The night before, in his own room, he and Merry had talked until very late, well after the little lamp had burned off all the tallow. In low, sleepy voices, they had wondered at Frodo's intentions and how they might go about discovering his true plans. But the questions that had filled his head now seemed flighty as bats to Pippin, here and gone in a moment, changing course as they went.

"Bilbo's ring," Merry muttered, quite obviously to himself. "I don't suppose he knew what it truly was, or he wouldn't have..."

"Wouldn't have what?" Pippin asked when his cousin fell silent again. "Kept it about? Used it?"

He wished he remembered Bilbo more clearly, at least as much as Merry did, who hadn't known him before his Adventure either. Nor had Frodo, Pippin reminded himself.

Merry pulled up his shoulders and merely cast Pippin a sidelong glance. The crickets' chant was heaving through the Party Field, growing louder with each round.

"We must convince Frodo to take us with him." Merry's voice rode above the rasps and chirps with sudden urgency. "Sam is the stoutest and most reliable servant he could possibly wish for, but–"

"But no match for a company of thirteen dwarves and one wizard?" Pippin winked at Merry and was rewarded with the twitch of a smile.

"Well, no. Neither are we." Merry snorted. "What I mean is, there are matters to consider that Sam can't be expected to handle. And I don't think he ever travelled further than a day's walk from Hobbiton, either."

Pippin shrugged. "Still, it seems that Frodo has decided to take him along – and only him, as far as we know."

"Yes..." Merry frowned, as if the thought hadn't occurred to him before. "Yes, I suppose he must have, or Sam wouldn't be so sure of his own going."

Although it had never been mentioned in their conspirators' meetings, Pippin hadn't doubted for a moment that Sam meant to leave with Frodo. Poor old Sam, he had thought sometimes. For he'd also expected that Sam would be sorely grieved when the day arrived – certainly more so than he had seemed today.

"Frodo trusts him."

"Of course." Merry drew his walking-stick through the tall grasses beside the lane. "But we are his kin and friends."

Only a few yards ahead, Bag End's gate stood dark against a glowing fringe of foxtails. Had Gandalf noticed their coming by now? Did wizards know such things? Those of Bag End's windows that Pippin could see flashed with mirrored sunlight and revealed nothing.

Frodo didn't mean to tell us a word. Just as they reached the gate, the thought came to Pippin like the slap of a gale. Did Merry still hope that he would, though? Did he think that, at some point after supper, when they'd settled down by the hearth with their pipes, Frodo would draw them into his confidence and disclose all the things that Sam hadn't told? There must be more, after all.

Pippin found that he couldn't imagine it. The secret that Frodo now kept seemed to rise before him in a vast shape, steeper than the Hill, and for a moment, he felt quite shaky. He turned back around – but how could he tell Merry? At another time, he might have reached for Merry's hand.

"We must convince Frodo," Merry repeated slowly, as if tasting each word. He pushed the gate wide open, but then took no further step. "Though perhaps... not tonight, perhaps not for a while. Not while Gandalf is still here."

"No, that's only sense," Pippin agreed, and found that he'd lowered his voice to a near-whisper.

The air seemed oddly stuffy about them. It made him wish for one of Tookland's brisk and roving winds that carried far-off noises close and clear. Like the tin-bells of wandering goats, the messengers' calls as they entered the borough, or his mother's laugh that pealed out like the song of a thrush. And other voices, voices like memories caught under the firs' hanging branches, long after the travellers had passed on down their road.

Pippin felt the most peculiar thrill right then, so sharp that it nearly pushed tears into his eyes. It's true, he thought, it's all true. Bilbo's tale and our story, our journey that will come, so very soon now...

Soft lights from Bag End's windows dotted the lawn with yellow spots. Instead of taking Merry's hand, Pippin tugged on his elbow and smiled when Merry started from the musings that furrowed his brow.

If Merry was a brook, he was the wandering kind and often got himself riddled with little eddies of trouble. He could use a helping hand to remove the knots and tangles he'd wound himself up about.

"Let's go."

"I'm not the one dawdling, Pip."

"Of course not, you never are."

And with that, Pippin took off at a run, certain that Merry would follow and catch up before he'd reached Bag End's door.

* * * * *

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