Edited by the Illiterate Hill Troll
Not for the first time Meriadoc Brandybuck cursed himself for his own foolishness in coming out on a night like this. He had been staying at Bag End with his cousin Frodo and set out rather too late the previous day for the journey home. The innkeeper had advised him to stay over another night but he had pressed on eager to gain The Hall and the comforts of home. On the last stretch of the journey snow had started to fall and by the time Merry had reached the Brandywine the snow was thick on the earth and the sky dark with approaching evening.
His pony had stumbled a couple of times forcing its rider to dismount and lead it. Snowdrop, aptly named for the weather but no appreciator of the current element nickered in what seemed to Merry to be rebuke as he stroked her nose. “I know,” he told her and his breath plumed out in a visible stream on the frigid air. “You want your stable and your supper – and I want mine.” He sighed and wondered how on earth he was going to find his way now. The Brandywine was a little distance away but he could hardly hear the rush of the water over the cloying fall of the snow that seemed to deaden all other sound. There were farms along this way and it was with hope of reaching one that he turned slightly at a sparkle of fire light through the dusk and headed that way.
Merry thought he knew most of the smials in this area but he found himself presented with an unfamiliar blue-painted round door which bore a surround of briar rose. Stamping his feet clear of snow he knocked on the door and hoped he would be heard within.
It did not take long and the door was opened to let out a flood of warm light and the sounds of music and voices from within.
“Who is it?” cried a light girlish voice and Merry found himself looking at the prettiest hobbit lass he had ever seen.
He bowed low. “Forgive me for disturbing you. I seem to have got myself lost.”
The girl laughed and the sound was like the tinkle of bells on a pony’s harness. “You have indeed! Abe!”
It took a moment for Merry to realise that the girl was shouting not at him but at a shambling figure that shuffled into view behind her.
“I hate to impose,” Merry said. “Especially as I think you are having a party.” Indeed the air was redolent with the smell of mulled spices. He did feel bad at interrupting, but really there was little else he could do to avoid risking freezing in the snow. “If you would have a stable or barn I could shelter in…”
He was cut off. “Nonsense,” cried the girl. “You are perfectly on time.”
“I am?” Merry found his arm taken and he was pulled across the threshold at the same moment as Snowdrop’s reins were taken from him by the shuffling figure who with no more ado threw a piece of sacking over his head and shoulders and was gone into the snow.
Merry discovered himself in the wide hallway of a cheery-looking smial. He blinked drops of water falling from his wet hair from his eyes as his cloak was taken from him and his scarf was unwound from around his face and neck. His saviour was a slim hobbit lass with eyes so dark as to be almost black, ruby red lips and hair dark as a raven’s wing. She was dressed all in white with red ribbons in her hair and about her slender throat. Merry bowed. “Merry Brandybuck at your service and your families.”
“And Bella Willow at yours,” the lass curtsied.
“I am so sorry to impose upon you…” Merry tried to say again, and was once again greeted with a laugh.
“Forgive me,” Bella said. “Tonight is my birthday party and we were playing a game. We were trying to guess who our true loves would be and my fortune came out that mine was at the door. And here you are!” Giving him no more time she pulled him forwards and Merry was greeted with a cheer as he half staggered, half was dragged into a brightly lit room full of hobbits. “Bravo!” cried several, and “Good show,” several others. He was clapped on the back and greeted quite as an expected late arrival though he was puzzled to note there were no faces he recognised.
Merry gathered himself and bowed low to the assembly. Fortune seemed to have put him in a charming position, and so charming he would be. Before his mind had barely made the transition from the freezing night to the warm party a glass was in his hand and a plate in the other and he was ushered to a place by the fire. Bella set herself on a footstool by his feet and was determined to make sure his plate was full and his glass never empty.
“You should return to your guests,” he laughed at her.
“You are my guest, and my true love,” she laughed back.
A group of hobbits in one corner of the room recommenced their playing of drum and flutes, and sets formed to dance.
Merry certainly seemed to have fallen on his feet. He was snugly ensconced by the fire, warming his toes and generally thawing out. A plate of food and a cup of mulled wine had been served him by the lovely birthday girl herself and she sat now at his feet laughing and chatting with him.
“Should you not be dancing?” Merry had asked but Bella had waved her hand and laughed. “I’ve danced with everyone here a hundred times.”
“And she steps on all our toes!” retorted a lad and toasted his fair host with his cup.
“Away with you Milo!” laughed Bella. “As you have the biggest feet in all the Shire I can’t help but tread on them. Away with you. I’ve no birthday gift for Master Brandybuck and so must mathom him with my own fair company.”
There was more laughter, hoots and exaggerated sighs of pity for Merry.
“Let me thaw my toes and you can dance on them,” he offered gallantly.
As he sat he had a chance to observe the party into which he had found himself pulled. The smial looked a reasonably well to do one, spacious and comfortable. The party hobbits were well dressed in their best but did not look as prosperous as their clothing indicated. There were a few ill fitting waistcoats and breeches looser than usually worn and as Merry observed further there was almost a gaunt look upon some of the older faces. In fact the party victuals did not seem to be in quite as plentiful quantities as was usual.
Merry was puzzled. He had not heard of any local families who had fallen on hard times.
The winter had been unusually mild and last summer’s harvest had been plentiful. No one should be going without. He made a note to ask his father when he got home. If the Willow family were short of anything then it should be made up. This was the duty of the Master and nothing to do with the laughing eyes of the beautiful daughter of the house. As Merry thought about it there were no faces in the room he recognised and that was also strange. He thought he knew all the families in Buckland at least by nodding acquaintance.
At that moment though his attention was distracted by a tweak to his left big toe. He turned his attention back to Bella who was smiling up at him.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“Checking for thaw,” she responded.
Merry grinned back and wiggled his eyebrows, “And I think I promised you a dance once they had done.” He got to his feet and pulled her with him.
They took their places in the next set and Merry found Bella not only a charming hostess but also a lively and graceful dancer. Rather than being tired he felt his energy growing as they danced down the set together hand in hand, to duck under the arched hands of the couple at the bottom, separate and head the dancers round again.
In fact Merry’s feet were so well defrosted that he found himself dancing first one set and then another with his lovely partner. She was a joy to dance with, light on her feet and energetic, knowing all the steps and performing them with lively grace and enthusiasm. Merry found himself quite enamoured of his lovely hostess and wondered again why he had not seen her around before.
At last, breathless, they returned to the tables which contained the punch bowls and Merry filled a cup for Bella and one for himself. In passing he noticed how strange it was that the food platters had not been refilled as they would normally have been. Supplies were plentiful at Brandy Hall and if some were going without they should be provisioned.
In fact the punch bowl was nearly empty but Bella pulled on Merry’s arm. “I know where there is a bottle of something better stashed,” the girl laughed. “Mama keeps it for her trifles.”
Merry followed his charming hostess back down the short corridor and into the kitchen which was lit now by only the glow of the banked fire. As they entered the room the heavy old clock which stood in the hall began to tone out the hour.
“Midnight,” laughed Merry when the strokes faded into echoes but Bella did not laugh back at his. She stood a few feet away from him, a bottle in her hand and a look on her face so strange and stricken.
“What’s wrong?” Merry asked and heard, born on the wind, the sound of a howl.
At the moment the last echo faded there was a loud thump at the kitchen door at Merry’s back as though a heavy body had propelled itself against the wood. The noise seemed to reverberate in Merry’s head and he wondered fleetingly if he had had too much to drink already.
“Bella, what is it?” he cried. The girl’s face, so animated and full of life a moment before was now drained off all colour. He watched, as if in slow motion, the bottle fall from the girl’s hand to smash upon the flagstones in a spreading pool of dark red liquid.
Merry tried to step forwards but had the oddest feeling; as though he were falling backwards. He knew he had not had that much to drink. He reached out towards Bella who seemed to be fading before his eyes. His fingers grasped, missing her and catching only the end of the red ribbon, pulling it away from around her neck. His eyes focused one last time, but were still playing tricks on him. Where the ribbon had been there was still a gash of red, a great bloody wound tearing open her throat. He thought he cried out, and heard her voice echoing him. Then he was falling backwards, the world fading around him; he felt rotten wood give at his back and then knew no more.
“He’s coming round.”
Merry lay with his eyes closed letting awareness seep slowly back into his body. He was lying on something warm and soft and a weight seemed to be holding him down. A hand slid beneath his head, tilting it upwards and a cup was pressed to his lips. He swallowed; warm tea, a little bitter with herbs but welcome.
Slowly he opened his eyes and blinked.
He found himself looking into the eyes of a round-faced hobbit lady with sprinkles of grey in her brown hair and wrinkles on her plain face. She smiled at him. “There now Master Brandybuck,” she said. “Lie back and rest you.”
“What.. “ Merry tried to say. “What happened?”
Another hobbit approached from the end of the bed and Merry recognised him as Farmer Goodbody, a tenant of Brandy Hall.
“We were hoping you could tell us young Master,” he said. “I was coming home when my pony called out to your pony. Found you lying in the snow. I brung you home to the Missus and all’s well now. You must have taken a fall in the snow. Right lucky I happened on you.”
“Yes,” Merry frowned and tried to sit up but he felt too unsteady to do so yet. “Where was I?”
“On the banks of the Brandywine,” replied the goodwife.
“By the Willow’s smial.”
“Why yes,” Mrs Goodbody frowned. “Though I didn’t know it was called that anymore. No one hardly remembers the Willows now.” She fed Merry another sip of the tea.
“Snows about up now,” said Mr Goodbody. “Reckon I’ll pop over to the Hall and tell them we have the young Master.”
“Thank you,” said Merry. “I am very grateful to you.” The farmer nodded as he took his leave of the room and his wife got up to move to the hearth.
“I have some broth ready if you could manage it?” she questioned, swinging a little cauldron from its hook over the fire.
“I wonder why they did not take me in?” Merry spoke to himself. His mind was a whirl of confused images.
“We’re the nearest smial now to the river.” Mistress Goodbody came back to the bed with a small bowl of broth from which a steam redolent of mushrooms rose.
“I meant the Willow’s. Did they leave me lying on their doorstep?”
“On their doorstep, yes,” the woman stirred the broth slowly. “But there ain’t been no Willows there. Not since the Fell winter when my mother was but a girl. Not since that awful night when the Brandywine froze and the wolves came across.”
Merry pushed himself upright. “The wolves?” he did not understand.
“Aye, right into the Shire they came in that winter. The Willow’s smial is right up next to the Brandywine. Was the night of the party. They say the daughter herself opened the door to them. No doubt expecting her beau to call on her party night.”
Merry felt sick. “Bella?”
The woman looked taken aback. “I suppose someone at the Hall told you. Beautiful she was they say, with eyes like sloes and hair to match. Was her birthday party they were celebrating when the wolves came like silver shadows across the river. Frightened me something terrible when I was a lass and heard the story. The thought of her in her white party dress all over red with blood. I hoped she died quickly.”
Merry sat in the warm farmhouse room and felt as though he were miles and decades away. His mind was swirling but all he could clearly focus on was a slash of red ribbon at a girl’s slender throat.
He went back, days later, when the snow had been cleared away by the rain. It took some doing to find the path again and his pony was not happy. He dismounted and walked the rest of the way. The snow had made everything look so different and it was double the shock when he came upon the smashed door of rotten wood. Part of the roof had collapsed over time and the windows were like gaping eyes. He did not go in. There was no point.
Around the door there was a tangle of an ancient rose briar, overgrown and thick with dead wood but it would probably flower again come summer, and Merry knew that the roses would be deep dark red.