"We can play shirrifs and robbers later, Ace," I told my cousin. "I'm on a case."
"I thought you worked alone, Deuce," said Ace Brandybuck. "Who are these two?"
"The mug sitting behind me on the pony," I said, "is Petals Gamgee, the best lockpick in the Shire. The Big Guy is Legs, my muscle."
"Hey, Deuce, can I get in on this?" said Ace eagerly. A couple members of his gang chimed in as well. Though they were still masked, I recognized their voices: Snotty Took and Fat Freddy Bolger.
Our conversation was interrupted by an unearthly shriek. I recognized it from Bywater: it was the sound of one of the ringers.
"What the Halls was that?" exclaimed Ace.
"That's my tail," I explained. "Nine Big Guys on big horses carrying big swords. You bozos want in? Your first job is to keep them busy while we catch the ferry." Legs and I got our mounts moving down the ferry road. Ace's gang scattered, Ace and Snotty following our party.
We had managed to coax our mounts onto the ferry and were casting off when Ace and Snotty charged up the road and jumped on. They barely made it ahead of three of the ringers, who stopped and stared at us as we crossed the Brandywine, just like Khamûl had on the dock in Bywater. One of them let out another shriek. Maybe it was their way of signalling Sauron for new orders.
Ace and Snotty had collapsed onto the deck of the ferry, gasping for breath. Ace managed to gasp out, "What . . . the Halls . . . are they?"
"I told you, Ace, they're tailing me. According to Legs, they're immortal, invisible Big Guys."
"Damn, Deuce, you get the weirdest cases."
I sighed. "Tell me about it."
By the time the ferry put in at Bucklebury, Ace and Snotty had recovered. "You guys are coming to Brandy Hall with me," said Ace. "I want the skinny on those ringers."
Ordinarily, getting into Brandy Hall was as hard as getting into a Sackville-Bagginses wallet, since the Brandybucks were clannish even by hobbit standards. However, since Ace was the son of the Master of Buckland, he could pretty much do as he pleased, and did. Legs' horse and the pony were taken off our hands, and the five of us entered the Hall through the main door, which was high enough that Legs could pass through without having to hunch over.
There was the usual crowd of Brandybucks bustling around the Hall, which was a warren of holes dug into the side of Buck Hill. There were good wax candles lighting the Hall, but I didn't need them. I had grown up here, and I could have found my way around blindfolded. Ace led us down the Big Hole, the main passage of the Hall, into the oldest part where the Masters of Buckland had lived the good life for 680 years. The Big Hole had a high ceiling by hobbit standards, high enough that Legs was able to walk upright without having to worry about hitting his head.
Legs leaned close to me and said quietly, "Do you think it's a good idea telling Ace Brandybuck about our business?" So now it was our business. Typical pushy Big Folk thinking.
"We're the ones who led the ringers here," I reminded him. "The Brandybucks are going to have to deal with them, and I want them to know what the scoop is." Legs looked dubious but didn't say anything else.
Brandy Hall was unusual among hobbit dwellings in having a library, and Ace led us there. It didn't see much use, so he had to light a couple of candles. There was a table in the middle of the room, and we all sat ourselves around it. Needless to say, there were no chairs built to hold Big Folk, so Legs had to settle for perching on a tuffet. Since he was supposed to be the muscle, Legs kept to the background and let me do the talking.
"Here's the deal," I said to Ace and Snotty. "Lady hired me to take a box to her brother in Minas Tirith." I pulled the box from Noakes' jewelry shop out of my pocket and set it on the table. Petals, who had seen me throw the original box into the fireplace in the Green Dragon, gave me a quick wink. Sharp guy, that Petals.
"What's in it?" asked Ace.
"Don't know," I said. "There's a spell on it. Only way to open it is with the key, and the lady's brother has the key."
"You can't open it, Petals?" Ace asked him.
"I don't do magic," Petals replied.
"For some reason," I continued, "the Big Guys in the black cloaks want it. I'm going to see to it that they don't get it." I picked up the box and put it away. "What you boys have got to decide is whether you want to come to Minas Tirith with us."
"How far is it to Minas whatever?" asked Snotty.
"About eleven hundred miles," said Ace.
"I'm out," said Snotty. He got up from the table, said, "See you later, guys," and left.
"How about you, Ace?" I said.
He didn't say anything for a while, then finally shook his head. "Those guys in the cloaks are just too damned scary, Deuce. But if there's anything you need from me, just ask."
I could tell Ace was ashamed at leaving me in the lurch, so I said, "No big deal, Ace. I'd back out myself, but I took the lady's money, so I'm committed. Just give us a place to spend the night, and some food and supplies to get us on our way."
"You got it, Deuce. I'll go find you guys a room." He got up from the table, and followed Snotty out of the room.