Protecting His Own

by Auntkimby

Nearly oblivious to the tumult caused by 144 hobbits pointing, pushing, and exclaiming all around him in the wake of Bilbo’s abrupt disappearance, Merry left his parents and grandda and pushed through the crowd, looking urgently for Frodo. The nineteen-year-old spotted his older cousin through the knot of agitated hobbits that surrounded him, slumped dispiritedly in a chair, and giving no sign that he heard their shouted questions or was even aware of their presence.

For weeks, Merry had suspected something momentous was to happen at this Party. Frodo had been curiously reticent in both his letters and conversation in light of such a joyous occasion as Frodo's Coming of Age, but none of Merry’s gently prodding questions had elicited a satisfactory response from his elder cousin. As soon as Bilbo disappeared, Merry realized with a sinking heart exactly what had troubled Frodo. Unbeknownst to Frodo or to Bilbo, Merry knew of the object that had enabled Bilbo to disappear, and what his use of it in such a dramatic way in view of his family meant. It meant that Bilbo had indeed left the Shire forever, and Merry was not at all certain that Frodo could deal with that prospect alone, even though he clearly had known it would happen.

His worst fears were confirmed when he saw the bleak expression on Frodo’s face that said clearly, “I cannot believe he actually went through with it”. It did not matter that Frodo was now of age and that Merry was not even a tweenager yet. All that mattered was that Frodo was alone once again, and that he needed someone he loved and trusted near him to help him.

“Here now, let him be!” Merry called over the hubbub of voices as he tried to push his way over to his beleaguered cousin. Before he could get to him, however, Frodo abruptly stood up, called for more wine for the guests, and slipped out of the pavilion. The other hobbits looked at each other, threw up their arms in exasperation, and continued to wonder loudly and at length about those crazy Bagginses. Merry hesitated briefly and then ran up the path after Frodo, putting a hand on his arm to restrain him.

“Frodo,” Merry began, but Frodo interrupted him. “I need to be alone for a little while, Merry-lad,” he said softly, “but…I would like your company tonight, if you are able to stay.”

Merry nodded. “Of course,” he said quickly. “My parents planned to return to Tuckborough tomorrow morning with Pippin’s parents for a visit, but I could remain at Bag End as long as you wish it.”

Frodo nodded. “I’ll see you in an hour or two then,” he said softly, and then disappeared into the darkness.

It was nine o’clock when Merry met Frodo at Bag End and they began the arduous task of greeting their curious and concerned relatives and trying to explain what had just happened as briefly as possible. There was minor yet painful scene with eleven-year-old Pippin, who tearfully pleaded to stay too as soon as he learned that Merry was staying, and only promises of a late night treat of treacle tarts with custard and an extra special gift in the morning finally persuaded him, albeit reluctantly, to return to the inn with his family. The clock struck midnight as the cousins ushered the last questioning, querulous relative out the door. Merry shut the door and leaned against it with a mighty yawn. “Frodo, why don’t you go and get a few hours’ rest,” Merry urged. “Tomorrow is going to be even more trying for you, and you’ve been up since dawn, if not before. I will finish up here.”

Frodo rubbed his temples wearily. “I think I shall do that, Merry-lad,” he agreed. “Do not admit anyone, even if they should use a battering-ram in the attempt. However, young hobbit, I expect to hear your bedroom door close as soon as you make certain all is secure for the night and bank the fires in the kitchen and sitting room. You need your rest as well.” He smiled at his young cousin gratefully and headed to the kitchen to make some tea before going into his bedroom.

Merry completed the tasks Frodo had mentioned and then was sorting the gifts that Frodo was to give to his relatives the next morning when he heard the front door open and shut without a knock. Folk in Hobbiton were so trusting, keeping their doors unlocked. That was certainly not what Merry was used to in Buckland, and he had planned to lock the door just before he retired. He hurried out to forestall an intrusion, wondering who would be audacious enough to come around at this hour, unlocked door or not. He expected to encounter the irrepressible Lobelia Sackville-Baggins but instead found her spouse Otho, who had made his way directly into the study and was unashamedly shuffling through some papers on Bilbo’s writing desk. Merry cleared his throat and Otho jumped and spun around guiltily.

“I’m sorry, Master Otho, but I did not hear your knock for admittance, which would be standard procedure especially given the lateness of the hour. May I be of assistance?” Merry inquired with cool politeness.

Otho straightened, startled to see Merry there instead of Frodo. “And what may I ask are you doing here, young Master Meriadoc?”

“I am here at the request of Frodo, which you most assuredly are not. If you wish to speak to him, you will have to come back in the morning along with the rest of the family, as he does not wish any further interruptions tonight.”

Otho spread his hands and his lip wrinkled in a sneer. “No need to bridle so, young hobbit. I’d just like a word with Frodo, to wish him congratulations on his inheritance.”

“Frodo has had a long and trying day, Master Otho, and if you return in the morning I am sure he will heartily accept your congratulations. But for now, he gave express instructions that he was not to be disturbed further, for any reason.” As Merry spoke, he moved between the desk and Otho, and the other hobbit’s broad, ugly features darkened.

“You seem to know Frodo's mind quite well. What’s he done with my cousin then?” Otho demanded.

Merry raised his eyebrows. “I do not understand your meaning.”

“Old Bilbo vanishes from his party, and Frodo inherits Bag End and all that’s in it.”

“You grasped those two facts quite well,” Merry replied pleasantly. Otho flushed, even though Merry had not spoken insolently.

“Cousin Bilbo vanishes unexpectedly after announcing that Frodo comes into his inheritance, and then Frodo hides up here and will not talk to anyone about it or even see any of his kin. It just seems a bit too convenient, that’s all, and I want to know what he’s up to.”

“Frodo is not hiding. He spoke to several concerned family members that came to the door at a more reasonable time this evening. Frodo was as distressed by Bilbo’s disappearance as the rest of us, Master Otho,” Merry replied truthfully, “so you needn’t think he is…”

Otho stepped forward and jabbed one finger painfully into Merry’s chest. Something flickered in Merry’s hazel eyes but he did not respond to the physical affront.

“I know you’re looking out for your kin, young Master Meriadoc. However, I think it’s mighty peculiar that my elderly cousin is missing and Frodo has locked himself up here in Bag End. It could be that there’s more to this disappearance than a fancy party trick, and Frodo’s right to inherit could be called into question.”

Merry stared into Otho’s beady eyes and wondered how it was possible that he and Bilbo were first cousins; no two hobbits could more dissimilar.

“Well?” Otho barked. “Will you let me see Frodo or not?”

“I will not let you disturb him, Master Otho, now or ever, and especially not to allow you to cast aspersions or doubts as to Frodo’s integrity, his love for Bilbo, or his legal right to his inheritance.”

Otho’s nose was an inch from Merry’s. “And how do you expect to do that, young master? You cannot guard the door all of the time. And you are a mere child of nineteen - I should not even be having this conversation with you, nor should you be speaking to me in such a fashion. I am certain I am not the only hobbit who is wondering about this very thing.”

Merry returned the gaze unflinchingly. “It is true, Master Otho, that I am only nineteen, and it is also true that I cannot guard Frodo’s door all of the time. However, I can make certain that you will not do anything to hurt Frodo, and without resorting to the physical force you were hoping to provoke.”

Merry turned his back to Otho for a moment and then sat down at the desk, crossing one foot over the other and folding his arms with an almost negligent air.

“I know you have recently expanded the sales and distribution of your ale and pipeweed to regions outside the Shire and have realized quite a dramatic increase in profits. I also know that without the coopers and riverboat pilots of Buckland, you would have neither barrels for nor transportation for your products to these new buyers.” Merry tilted his head to one side. “In the event those services should be discontinued, your aforementioned profits would suffer a serious decline. And, too, many of your previous clients that you have turned your back on for larger profits elsewhere have now found new sources for their wares and would no longer trust you as their supplier should you approach them in future to try to make up your losses closer to home.”

Otho’s face was a dangerous shade of purple.

“You have also been slow in paying some of your bills to those same coopers and riverboat pilots, and my father has graciously made up some of the shortfall as it affects the financial well-being of these hobbits and their families.” Merry smiled mirthlessly at Otho. “My father could call in some of those debts, if need be. So you not only would lose your barrels and your boats, but you would be called upon to pay us for services rendered.”

Otho could barely speak. “What right do you have to make such threats and speak on behalf of your father? I have signed agreements with your father, who is the Master, and not you!”

“That is true, I am not yet the Master. However, my father not only trusts and values my judgment as his son and heir, but as you and Mistress Lobelia are fond of pointing out, Frodo is half Brandybuck and lived with my family for several years. Therefore, I am certain that once I informed him of your intention to maliciously slander and harass Frodo, whom we both love dearly, then your signed agreements, which, I am fully aware contain a clause stating that the debts can be called in at the discretion of the Master, will be so many mathoms and you may find your much cherished purse considerably lightened. I know you have been slow in honouring those debts that burden ‘the little folk’, but you would have no such recourse in honouring your debt to the Master. In light of those possibilities, you might find yourself unable to buy so much as a half pint at the Ivy Bush by this time next month, should you choose to pursue your line of inquiry.”

Otho sank into a chair, his ruddy face now pale and beaded with sweat.

Merry paused. “I may be a child in your eyes, Master Otho, but not one without some ability to protect my own, even though Frodo would likely be mortified if he knew I was speaking thus on his behalf. The choice is yours then, sir.”

Otho stared at him for a long moment, his chest heaving, and Merry wondered for a moment if he would have a heart attack on the spot. Then Otho turned and stomped out the door, slamming it behind him.

Frodo appeared in the doorway to the study in his dressing gown. “Merry, I heard the door slam. Was someone here?”

Merry smiled at him. “It was no one of consequence, Frodo. Do not worry- I took care of it. I hear the kettle whistling; I’ll fix us a cup of tea and perhaps a few crumpets, and we can both retire for what remains of this night.”

He put a hand on Frodo’s shoulder and they walked to the kitchen together.