I stood back nervously as Hemlock rapped on the largest front door of Brandy Hall. I was quite familiar with the Town Hole and Mathom-house back in Michel Delving; in Hemlock's company I had even visited the Great Smials in Tookborough. But all of those magnificent burrows paled in comparison to Brandy Hall, the vast complex of tunnels which filled Buck Hill to overflowing.
As Hemlock raised her hand a second time, the door swung soundlessly open. In most well-to-do homes we would have been greeted by a minor cousin of the family, or perhaps a dedicated servant; but Marmadoc Brandybuck had been answering the front door of the Hall since the reign of his grandfather, and wasn't about to stop just because he was now Master of Buckland himself.
"How can I help you lasses?" Marmadoc the Masterful asked, resplendent in his finery. "Hopefully it won't take too long - we were about to sit down for dinner."
Hemlock smiled, seemingly utterly unaware of how intimidating he was. "Greetings, Master," she said with a deep curtsey. "I apologise for interrupting your meal, but this is a matter of some urgency."
Marmadoc's eyebrows rose, and I wondered what he must think of us: two Hobbit-girls barely half his age, our clothes tattered and grass-stained, our voices betraying our Westfarthing heritage. I felt sure he would have some choice comments to make on our appearance, at the very least.
My friend didn't give him a chance. With a small cough, she straightened up and met his eye. "Forgive me, I have quite forgotten my manners. Hemlock Holmes, at your service."
The Master of Buckland slumped, as if he were a balloon and all the air had been let out of him at once. "Miss Holmes," he said, in a weary voice. "I had heard a rumour you and Miss Whitson were in Buckland; I hoped it was wrong."
Hemlock said nothing. She merely stood there, smiling faintly, as Marmadoc let out a long sigh.
"She is in one of the cellars," he said. "I can take you to her." He began to turn, then hesitated. "I trust… that is, I would ask you to be gentle with her."
Hemlock inclined her head slightly, but her eyes were flinty. "As gentle as I can be," she said, and that, the Master and I both knew, would have to suffice.
Marmadoc led us through the warrens of Brandy Hall to a small chamber, a waiting-room of some sort from which a single closed door led into the cellar. Curiously for an indoor setting, there was a bell-pull hanging beside the door, wrapped about with a ribbon decorated with small stars. Hemlock gave it a glance, then turned back to the Master of Buckland.
"I don't think you should be here," she said bluntly. "It will go… easier if you are not."
Marmadoc nodded his acceptance. He opened his mouth, but could find no words; and so with a bow he left us.
"Whitson," Hemlock said in a low voice, "I know you have deduced much of what has happened." (I had done nothing of the sort.) "But I would ask that you allow me to explain it myself. There is only one acceptable outcome to this adventure, and I must guide everyone involved to it."
"Of course, Miss Holmes," I said with a slight curtsey. "As always, I am at your service."
Hemlock gave me a quick smile, and crossed to the bell-pull. She took it gingerly between two fingers, examining the winding ribbon, then drew in a deep breath and pulled. Before the sound of the bell had died away, she tugged a second time - then another, and another, until seven chimes had sounded in all.
With a protesting creak, the door swung open. The girl who looked out was younger than me, with dark circles under her eyes and tear-stains on her cheeks. "Hemlock Holmes," she said, "and June Whitson. I suppose you'd better come in."
There were seven of them, seated about a long table covered with the remains of at least three meals. All seemed to be Bucklanders, but beyond that they ranged from a man who must have been at least eighty to the girl who had opened the door. She could barely be into her tweens, but she was the clear leader of the group.
"I don't believe there is much need for introductions," Hemlock said, standing at the head of the table as the girl returned to her seat. "You all know my reputation, and I assure you it is not exaggerated; and I know what I need to of the Starry Wain." A gasp rippled about the table, and Hemlock smiled thinly. "In a way, I can admire your work - you offer comfort to your people, in a way that harms no-one." She turned to fix the girl with a hard look. "Usually."
One of the other Hobbits stirred. "It isn't just comfort," she protested. "We're protecting people from the Old Forest. It's Elvish magic, is what it is."
"Perhaps," Hemlock said, with a flick of her head. "Certainly it has the shape of it. I suppose it began in the inn, when one of you remarked that the real Starry Wain, or the Burning Briar, or whatever one calls it, was first known as the Sickle of the Valar, and placed in the sky by Elbereth herself as a guard and warning." She looked about the group, her eyes darting from one to the next. "And so you began to use it as a token of protection against the… Forest. You saw its image in the ladles you hung from the Hedge and on your doors, and you began to inscribe its name in the Elvish letters."
The girl hunched over in her seat. "Was that how you found me?" she asked. "The writing?"
"In part," Hemlock said. "You were on patrol, like a Shirriff, yes? Walking the boundaries of Buckland to hang your spoons."
"The trees have been restless," one of the group said angrily. "Everyone in these parts knows there's something stirring in the woods - we have to keep it from attacking the High Hay again!"
"And so you looked out of the Gate," my friend said, looking only at the girl, "and you saw a figure, tall and dark and terrible. And you knew, you knew that it was a… a creature from out of the Old Forest, sneaking around the Hedge. You slipped through - he could never have heard you, not one of the Big Folk - and you came up behind him, and you took out your little knife…"
The girl gave a strangled sob. "I didn't know!" she wailed. "He looked so huge and monstrous, all covered in furs like a great bear! I had to- had to protect-"
"And so you killed him," Hemlock said flatly. "You killed a Ranger of the North, and he never even knew you were there. His own knife," she glanced at me, "was still in its sheath. And then you took his blood, and you used it to invoke the protection of Elbereth on the gate."
"Then the bridge guard came by," the girl said hollowly, "and he had his lantern, and I saw…" She shook her head, then dropped it to lie on her folded arms.
Hemlock sighed and turned to face me. "So she fled," she explained in a low voice. "The spoons at the road-fork were a message. Had there been seven, they would have meant the group should gather again at the inn in Newbury; with only six, the meaning was that something had gone wrong, and they needed to retreat here." She looked down at the weeping girl. "Back home," she said. "Isn't that right, Miss Brandybuck?"
"You don't know that." The oldest of the band spoke up, folding his arms and glowering at us. "You've never seen her before - she could be anyone!"
"The hounds," Hemlock said. "Do you remember, Whitson? The hounds were all at home."
My eyes narrowed as I finally put the pieces together. "But the Master must have heard about the killing by now," I said, "just as he had heard about your arrival. He would not want a killer loose in Buckland, so they should have been out hunting."
Hemlock nodded. "Or, if they had already caught the killer," she said, "there would have been uproar in Bucklebury, and we should have heard that. The peaceful scene we encountered could only mean that the Master knew who the culprit was - and had reason to protect her."
The girl stiffened in her seat. She raised her head, wiped her eyes, then shook off the comforting hands of her fellows and got to her feet. "Miss Cleome Brandybuck, at your service," she said in a firm voice that barely betrayed her despair. "I am prepared to suffer punishment for my-" She faltered a little. "My mistake, but please, I beg of you - my father knew nothing of this. Not until I…" She wrung her hands together, unable to say the words.
"I believe you," Hemlock told the daughter of Master Marmadoc gently, "and I do not want to see you punished."
A wild hope flickered in Cleome's eyes. "You… you don't?"
"No," Hemlock said, her own eyes hard. "I want you to make restitution; and that is a far harder thing."
"I…" Cleome looked down and clasped her hands together. She took a deep breath and nodded. "I am ready," she said. "What do you demand?"
I took a step forward and touched a hand to Hemlock's shoulder. I wanted to remind her of the Master's request - gently, gently! - but could not find the words.
My friend understood me all the same. "That is not for me to say," she told the girl softly. "Your victim was a Ranger of the North. His people are few and scattered, but they maintain a camp up at Deadman's Dike. You must go there, bring his kinsmen news of his death, and seek their judgement."
Cleome shuddered, tears falling afresh down her face. I could not help myself: I stepped past Hemlock and wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders. "It won't be so bad," I told her, though the thought of making that journey gave me shivers of my own. "There haven't been any battles up there for hundreds of years, and it's only a hundred miles. It could be quite the adventure!"
My words didn't have the soothing effect I was hoping for. Cleome Brandybuck looked up past me, meeting Hemlock's gaze with pleading eyes.
Hemlock held her like that for a few moments, then nodded slightly. "Miss Whitson is quite correct," she said. "I don't think the Rangers up at King's Norbury - that's its true name, Miss Brandybuck, and the dead there lie peacefully in their barrows - I don't think they will be too harsh in their judgement." She pursed her lips in thought. "Nor do you need to go alone. There's a young lady of my acquaintance, a few years older than you, who would be more than happy to guide you." She nodded again, decisively. "Yes - I think you and Miss Belladonna Took would be very good for one another."
The year is 1285 in the Shire Reckoning, just about 60 years before one Bilbo Baggins went off on his own adventure. Belladonna Took is his mother, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took. Cleome Brandybuck is one of the two unnamed daughters of Master Marmadoc; her brother Gorbadoc is Merry's great-grandfather. Cleome is the Latin name for a type of flower; her extended family includes both Salvia (sage) and Malva (mallow), so it seemed a plausible option. I'm calling her younger sister Arivela, another name for the same flower.
Not mentioned, because I didn't want to add any more endings, is that Hemlock has absolutely no belief in mysterious powers out of the Old Forest - they sound like superstition to her, not testable facts. In this she is completely wrong. :)
And no, June doesn't get to have dinner with the Brandybucks! They're heading out immediately for Tookborough, and will have to grab something on the way.
This was fun. ^_^ Perhaps someday I'll come up with another one, but for now, Hemlock and Whitson: A Scandal in Buckland is complete.