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Just to be With You
9: Holding onto Hope
Estella kept herself busy for the next week. She assumed that Pervinca would be marrying that year, or early in the next, so making a dress for the wedding seemed like a good idea. Her parents, especially Odo, worried about her. She hardly ate, and rarely left her room. They had hoped she would open up when Fredegar returned, but a week after he had left, a letter arrived from Buckland stating that Freddie’s presence would be needed for several more weeks. Estella bluntly refused when Rosa suggested she visit him in Buckland.
Once she had finished her dress, Estella thought of making a matching outfit for an escort. She immediately thought of Pippin – what better way to make Merry mad than appearing at Pervinca’s wedding with his favourite cousin? The plan was soon rejected.
“What was I thinking?” Estella sighed. “I can’t pull Pippin into this.” She decided to make the matching outfit for Fredegar instead.
Two weeks after her fight with Merry, Estella finally decided that she had behaved rashly, and was willing to talk everything over with him. She explained to her parents that she planned to go to Buckland the next morning, and they agreed it was for the best. They all went to bed early that night.
Just before dawn, the Bolgers were woken by a frightening sound. None of them had heard it in their waking life, but they all knew it. The Horn-call of Buckland had been sounded, and answering calls from around the countryside were blowing.
Odo shut and locked the door. “I don’t know what this is about, but I’m not taking any chances. Let us hope that it was simply some foolish lad playing a prank!”
Rosa and Estella nodded. They were all thinking about Fredegar, in Buckland, but Odo tried to face the morning like any other. He asked Rosa to start on breakfast. Estella started to follow her parents to their kitchen, when they all heard an urgent knock at the front door. Estella ran to answer it.
Outside, stood Berilac Brandybuck, looking flushed and terrified. His pony was standing by the gate, steaming like it had just run a race.
“Berry! Whatever’s the matter?” Estella cried.
“You have to come to Brandy Hall at once,” Berry panted.
“No time to explain! Do you have a pony I might borrow? I’ve worn mine out.”
In the time it took to ready two ponies, Estella gathered that Fredegar had come into some sort of trouble, and the Brandybucks needed her assistance. She stubbornly refused to believe that Fredegar’s situation had anything to do with the Horn-call of Buckland being sounded.
Berilac set a good pace on Fredegar’s pony. He was lucky that Odo and Rosa insisted on both their children keeping ponies for cases of emergency. In fact, the Bolgers had four ponies, but two were for drawing the cart. Berry and Estella travelled from Budgeford to Buckland in several hours.
The hobbits they passed in the streets of Bucklebury seemed visibly shaken, and Estella’s worry was trebled. What had happened? She wished that their path had led passed Crickhollow so that she might have seen some sign of an accident, but Berry was leading them on the straightest route to Brandy Hall.
There was someone waiting to take their ponies when they arrived, and for that, Estella was thankful. Her little black pony, Onyx, had never been ridden so hard.
Berilac knew where he was headed and Estella followed blindly after him. Though she was a frequent visitor to Brandy Hall, she still could easily become lost. They soon came to what Estella knew was the Master’s chambers, and her heart caught in her throat. Had something happened to Merry too?
“No! I haven’t got it!” Freddie’s voice cried. Estella followed Berry into the room, and saw her brother lying on a sofa with a damp cloth over his head. His face was flushed and his eyes wide. Esmeralda was standing near bye. She looked like she had been crying.
“What happened to him?” Estella cried, tears already brimming in her eyes.
“Thank you for coming, Miss Bolger,” Saradoc said, formally. Estella acknowledged Saradoc’s greeting with a wave of her hand and rushed to Fredegar’s side.
“Freddie? Freddie! It’s Stella,” she sobbed.
“Crickhollow was raided before dawn,” Berilac explained slowly. “The Goolds found him on their doorstep crying all manner of nonsense before they worked out that the horn needed to be sounded.”
“Crickhollow raided?” Estella repeated. Then it hit her. “Merry! Where is he?”
Esmeralda cried out, and Saradoc moved to comfort her. “I sent a party to Crickhollow to assess the damage,” he answered. “There was no sign of Meriadoc, nor Pippin, Frodo or Master Gamgee, save one of Frodo’s cloaks, left at the front door. We’ve been able to find out naught from Fredegar. He just keeps crying out that he doesn’t have ‘it’.”
Estella felt crushed. She had left it too late and now something terrible had happened to Merry. She would never be able to apologise to him. In a wavering voice, she asked, “Does anyone know who raided the house?”
“We assume Freddie does,” replied Berilac. “But aside from him, the guards at the West-gate were nearly trampled by three riders on black horses. Said they were Big People, too.”
“Oh, Fredegar,” Estella whispered.
Fredegar’s eyes closed. When they opened a moment later, he seemed calmer. “Stella?”
“Oh, yes, Freddie! I’m here.” Estella laid her head next to her brother’s. “What happened?”
“Black Riders,” he muttered. “After Old Bilbo’s ring. After Frodo. They thought…”
“Old Bilbo’s ring?” Berilac asked. “Fredegar, what are you talking about?”
Before Fredegar could answer Berry’s question, Esmeralda demanded an answer for her one of her own. “Where is my Merry? And Peregrin and Frodo? What has happened to them?”
“Old Forest…” Fredegar whispered. The rest of the hobbits in the room gasped. Even the Brandybucks knew the fear the Forest, despite the fact that many of them were known to go into it. “I told them not to. Pippin…he said that he wouldn’t like to have my job. I told him he’d change his mind, but instead, I’ve changed mine. How I wish I’d gone to the Forest with them.” Fredegar’s eyes closed again.
“Fredegar, why did they go into the Forest?” Saradoc demanded, but Fredegar would not wake. The Master took pity on the lad, and ordered that he be moved to a proper bed. Berilac offered his own room.
Estella watched several Brandybucks carry her brother from the room. She remained with the Master and Mistress. A hand was placed on her shoulder.
“I will have parties organised to search the Forest,” Saradoc stated. “We will find them.”
But Estella’s logical mind had figured some things out. “They went into the Forest for a reason, sir. No doubt my brother knows that reason, and those riders had something to do with it.”
“Still, I would rather not have my son, nephew and cousin lost somewhere in that Forest hoping to be found.”
Estella decided it would be best not to argue with the Master, and left the room to see where they had put Fredegar. She wanted to be there when he woke.
* * * * * *
Fredegar Bolger opened his eyes, half expecting to be surrounded by menacing, cloak figures. Instead, he saw only his sister and Berilac, looking very concerned.
“Did I pass out?” he murmured.
Berry nodded. “The Master decided to let you sleep. Goodness knows you probably needed it. If nothing else, you ran a good distance, for you anyway.”
Freddie knew that Berry was trying to humour him, and he appreciated it. He suddenly became aware that Estella was gripping his hand very tightly. “It’s okay, Stella. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Are you able to answer some questions?” Berry asked. “Uncle Sarry asked that we let him know the moment you were awake. He has groups searching the Forest, but he’d prefer answers.”
“Fetch him, and I shall try my best.”
The minute Berry had left, Estella dissolved into tears. “Oh, Freddie, I thought I was going to lose you too.”
“Don’t be so certain that you’ve lost him, Stella.”
“We had a fight. Before he went to Hobbiton. I…I told him I never wanted to see him again.”
Fredegar struggled to sit. “He told me. And he was sorry for it. Forgive me, for I don’t wish to explain things twice. Merry had to leave the Shire, and I hope you will understand why once Saradoc is here.” He placed something in her hand. “Hold onto hope, Estella.”
Estella opened her hand and choked on a sob. “My necklace. He gave me this for his thirty-third birthday. I threw it at his feet.”
Freddie chuckled. “I wondered how he had come to have it.”
Saradoc burst into the room, with Esmeralda and Berilac close behind. “Master Fredegar, I am pleased to see that you are feeling better.”
“Make yourself comfortable, Sarry,” Fredegar boldly addressed the Master. “This will be a long story.”
“Then perhaps I should call for some tea,” said Esmeralda.
Fredegar nodded. “If you would not mind. I don’t believe I’ve eaten since last night.”
Esmeralda nodded and called for a servant to fetch enough tea for them all. For the next few hours, Fredegar detailed the conspiracy that he, Meriadoc, Peregrin and Samwise had devised and the reasons for it. He explained why, though rather vaguely, Frodo Baggins had to leave the Shire, and that the move to Crickhollow had been a diversion.
“This is beyond any of us,” Fredegar sighed. “We can do no more to help Frodo.”
“Oh, Merry,” Esmeralda sobbed. “And Pippin, too!” She gasped with sudden realisation. “Someone must be sent to Tuckborough! Paladin needs to know.”
“I did send a messenger earlier,” Berilac admitted. “But that was before we knew anything. Paladin will simply hear news of the attack on Crickhollow and that his son is missing.”
“Send Pimpernel,” Saradoc suggested. “And ask her to tell no one else of the news. Frodo meant for his errand to be a secret, and the one thing we can do for him is keep it that way.”
“It won’t stay quiet for long, Uncle,” Berry argued. “The hobbits in the search parties will talk.”
“Let them talk. All they know is that Merry, Pippin, Frodo and Sam are lost somewhere in the Old Forest. Perhaps that will help also.”
Estella squeezed Fredegar’s hand tightly. It seemed that she would not be the only one holding onto hope.
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