Summary: A dark AU tale (bookverse) in which Meriadoc keeps the Ringbearer captive at Crickhollow "for the good of the Shire and the salvation of hobbits." The Ring will contort Merry's motives, Frodo will begin to break, Sam will fight to save him, Pippin will be forced to choose sides, and all four hobbits will be challenged and changed in unexpected ways.

Rated R for violence, adult themes, some plot-driven slash, and Ring- induced hobbit abuse. _______________________________________________________________________

Ring around the Merry Prelude Part 1/5

"Goodbye Little Master" ___________________________________________________________________________

Year 2988, Third Age

(Frodo is 20, Merry is 6)

Frodo plopped his body down upon the bed in his now nearly empty room at Brandy Hall. Clustered about the bed were all of his earthly possessions, now packed away in large lumpy bundles bound with twine and in a motley group of different sized chests coated with a thick veneer of dust from their long sojourn in storage. Many of his so called "possessions" Frodo had not laid eyes upon since his parents untimely demise, since this guestroom had become his permanent lodging, since his tranquil life at home had been replaced by life in a perpetual crowd at the broilsome Hall, since his privileged position as an only child had degraded to just another ward of the Master of Buckland.

"So Frodo," he mused to himself. "This is it!"

Bilbo, his dear eccentric cousin whom he'd always called "Uncle," was coming to collect Frodo from Buckland and bring him to live at Bag End as his heir. Frodo knew intrinsically that moving in with Bilbo was much more than a change of location. It would not only alter the rhythm of his life but its trajectory as well. Frodo leaned back onto his silk feather pillows and took a moment to trace his eyes along the fine brocade on the emerald- colored covers and the gorgeous silver inlay along the rim of his stately oak bed stand. He had been denied nothing here at Brandy hall, nothing that money could buy. Frodo let his eyes drift shut, taking in the muted echoes of a hundred voices emanating from any twenty tunnels, the rumble and bustle of an enormous smial that never seemed to sleep. Yes, that was it. Frodo lacked the benefit of solitude. More than that, he lacked any guardian who could lap him with all the undivided attention he required. For most hobbits such guardians took the form of parents. For Frodo, it had taken the form of Bilbo.

Bilbo - the one adult relation in Frodo's constellation of relatives who took the time to pay attention just to him. Between the old hobbit's wild tales of dragons and elves, to which Frodo had listened with rapt attention as a small lad, and their long walks in the country Bilbo had engineered for the benefit of the doleful-eyed lad, a true, deep affection had grown between the two hobbits that transcended generation. The eccentric old bachelor and the bookish young orphan shared much more than the same birthday. It seemed to Frodo that each supplied something the other was missing; in Bilbo, Frodo found an adult guardian, and in Frodo Bilbo found a kindred spirit with whom to share his twilight years. "Two peas in a pod," folks would whisper, though in hindsight Frodo was now quite sure it was not meant as a compliment.

If the letter that arrived bearing Bilbo's spidery hand had surprised the Brandybuck patriarch, it had certainly not surprised Frodo. That wily old hobbit had been dropping hints delicate as boulders that he had half a mind to bring Frodo to Bag End should he wish it-and Frodo had known that "half a mind" would transform to "whole mind" should he give the slightest indication he'd desire it. Frodo had suspected the old hobbit would come out with it at last, as Bilbo seemed determined the lad should spend his birthday at Bag End that year. And upon that September 22nd - Frodo's twentieth birthday and Bilbo's ninety-ninth, Bilbo's ham-fisted hints finally coalesced into a solid, unmistakable invitation. "You had better come and live here, Frodo, my lad," Bilbo had said after taking a great swig of the Gaffer's homebrew "and we can celebrate our birthday parties comfortably together."

Of course, Bilbo's invitation was much more than a way to throw combined birthday parties; it was the old bachelor's way of opening up his home and his life to the one hobbit in the Shire who Bilbo knew truly needed it. So the letter to Frodo's guardian, Saradoc Brandybuck, was written on the spot and in Frodo's presence, to be posted even as Frodo made his way home to Buckland. When Saradoc had entered his room, a familiar roll of parchment in one hand, a serious expression on his face, Frodo knew.

"Are you sure you want to do this lad?" Saradoc had asked, his firm hand upon Frodo's shoulder. "Your Uncle Bilbo is nothing if not.peculiar."

"That is why I love him, Uncle Sara," Frodo had replied. "And, yes, I am sure. Though what you've done for me, you and Aunt Esme---"

Frodo found he could not finish, and his normally reserved Uncle captured Frodo in his arms, tears threatening at the corners of his eyes.

"Our Merry will be terribly put out, Frodo," the Master of Buckland finally pushed out in a voice laden with emotion. "You are his favorite relation- oh, I know the lad can be a terror, but he only torments you because you're so patient with him."

Frodo nodded, his own face glistening with unexpected tears. "I shall miss his tugging at my knees more than anything in Buckland, Uncle," laughed Frodo, and he felt a new flood of sorrow rise up, knowing that last words he had spoken were absolutely true.

That has been a fortnight ago. Now the time had finally come to replace the chaotic life at Brandy Hall with something akin to his childhood home. Once again he would be part of a very small family, albeit an unconventional one. "Family," sighed Frodo and a smile danced upon his lips as he did so.

A real family at last! Frodo's new position as Bilbo's heir was the least of Bilbo's gifts. After all, Frodo thought, he'd only lay reluctant hands upon these things once his most beloved Uncle had gone. Yes, the larger- than-life bachelor was a hobbit of considerable wealth - even if much of it only existed in the overactive imaginations of the townsfolk. Bag End would belong to Frodo, the grandest smial in Hobbiton, and all his uncle's marvelous collection of books, and even that strange "magic" ring Bilbo always seemed to finger but never wore. Yes- even that mysterious trinket would pass to Frodo in due time. But to Frodo, Bilbo's greatest gift was, and would always be his uncle's fine company and his undivided love.

Frodo's reverie was shattered by the unmistakable patter of small hobbit feet scurrying to the door. Frodo knew who it would be even before the door swung open, hitting the wall with a great thump. There standing in the threshold, arms akimbo, face wearing a furious expression, was the future Master of Buckland, all two feet of him, aged six.

"Merry," said Frodo.

"Frodo!" yelled the lad, stomping a furry foot for added emphasis. "You were going to sneak off without telling me, weren't you!"

"Come here, Merry-lad." said Frodo with a sad smile, his arms thrown wide.

The stern line of Merry's little jaw melted and his lower lip began to quiver. By the time he bounded into Frodo's enclosing embrace, he was full sobbing.

"Frodo! Frodo! Please don't leave me!"

"There, there, Meriadoc," cooed Frodo has he ran his long fingers through Merry's thick mop of hair. "It's not like I'm leaving the shores of Middle- earth, lad! I'll just be down in Hobbiton. And I'll visit all the time!"

"IT WON'T BE THE SAME!" wailed Merry, collapsing into a fresh flood of tears. "Who will read to me? Who will tell me stories?"

"Oh Merry," sighed Frodo with no small measure of regret. Frodo's mouth turned up in a wry grin. "And, as I recall, you seemed to hold precious little interest in your book lessons, unless I've been tutoring another rascally little hobbit lad that looks just like you!"

"I liked spending time with you just fine, Frodo," sniffed Merry. "It's the lessons I hated." "Well Merry, I'm sure that your parents or one of your army of cousins will be happy to teach you your letters and read you stories."

"But they're not you!" whined Merry, and Frodo felt a lump rising in his throat and tears creeping into his own eyes.

"Frodo," continued Merry, "You're special! Why won't you stay home wif me?"

"Merry dear," answered Frodo as he drew Merry's small gaze up to meet his own. "Out of all the hobbits here at the Hall, I hold you the most dear. You know how much I love you! No amount of distance can erase that, Merry."

Merry's bright eyes lit up suddenly as a new idea flew into his mind.

"I can come with you, Frodo!"

"No Merry," said Frodo gently. "Not this time. Perhaps later when you are older. I'm sure your Da will allow it then. Don't you worry, Merry, you'll grow up before you know it."


"Yes Merry?"

"Frodo, why didn't you tell me you were going?"

Frodo heaved a heavy sigh, "I was just afraid you would take it hard. I didn't want to hurt you."

"Well!" exclaimed Merry, setting his small face in a determined look that belonged on much older features, "I shan't let you give me the slip again! I'll let you go live with Bilbo but, but," Merry screwed up his face as he tried to dig up one of his father's favorite phrases, "I'll have my eyes bolted upon you, lad!"

Frodo choked back an affectionate laugh.

"Very well, young sir!" replied Frodo enthusiastically. "I'd expect nothing less from the future Master of Buckland! What would Frodo Baggins do without Meriadoc Brandybuck to keep him in line?"

Merry cast Frodo an impish grin before burying himself back in his older cousin's arms.

"Don't you worry, Frodo! I will always take care of you!"

TBC ____________________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________

Ring Around the Merry Prelude Part 2/5

"Coming of Age" ____________________________________________________________________________


Sept 23, 3001, Third Age

(Frodo is 33, Merry is 19, Pippin is 11)

The afternoon after Bilbo's Eleventy-first birthday, and consequently, also Frodo's official coming-of-age, was a trying one for the new master of Bag End. Bilbo had slipped on his ring at the end of his farewell speech and amid a gaggle of astonished hobbit gasps, disappeared into the ether. Then he was gone. Bilbo, the bedrock of Frodo's tween years, was gone. And Frodo missed him desperately already.

The blow had been softened by the presence of his dear cousin, Meriadoc Brandybuck, now a sturdy lad of nineteen. Merry had offered to put himself between Frodo and the hoards of callers and intruders alike who had come to claim (or demand) their parting gifts from the recently vanished Bilbo Baggins. Frodo had acquiesced gladly; his mind worn out with concocting a hundred different ways to say essentially the same thing- "Mr. Bilbo Baggins has gone away; as far as I know, for good."

Merry flashed Frodo a winsome smile as he clapped his older cousin affectionately on the back.

"Well, dear cousin!" said Merry. "How does it feel to be the Master of Bag End?"

"Exhausting!" laughed Frodo and gave his eyes a mighty rub.

The stream of visitors had been relentless, and Frodo wanted nothing more than to retreat to his study and have a belated cup of tea in peace and quiet.

"Let your Merry stand guard for a bit then, Frodo dear!" offered Merry. "I promised to take care of you, and take care of you I shall!"

"You were six when you made that promise, Mer," smiled Frodo, "So forgive me if I haven't held you to it!"

"I've held myself to it, Frodo," said Merry. "You may be older, but don't assume you're wiser. Perhaps you are just more decrepit now and need me more than ever!"

Frodo chuckled. "Irrepressible Brandybuck! You haven't changed a bit, aside from your height. You are still a terror, just a bigger one."

"I'll take my compliments where I can, Cousin," exclaimed Merry and took a deep drought of his afternoon ale. "Now let me handle those visitors for a spell while you relax."

"Thank you, Merry."

As Merry padded out of the room, Frodo had a sudden epiphany. Merry was now almost the same age as Frodo had been when he had bid the lad good-bye at Brandy Hall. How had the years passed so swiftly? The fussy baby had turned into a terrifying toddler, the toddler into a mischievous lad, and now here was Merry, a plucky but fully mature tween. Though Merry was fourteen years younger than Frodo, Merry had already surpassed him in height. Merry had grown not only in stature. With each of Merry's annual visits to Bag End, he seemed more comfortable in his own skin, more confident, perhaps even more clever. Yes-the lad was smart, perhaps too smart for his own good. His practical jokes, many of which had been at Frodo's expense, were legendary. Frodo recalled affectionately how Bilbo would sink into his chair after one of Merry's visits, and sigh, "Well then, another year to recover from that one!"

Merry also had a trait that, although uncommon with hobbits in general, was a hallmark of the Brandybuck line; Merry was ambitious. At some point between childhood and his late teens, Merry had begun to take his future position as Master of Buckland very seriously. Perhaps it happened two years previously when Saradoc had fallen grievously ill and Merry feared that he might have to succeed to his office before the full flower of his maturity. Sara had recovered, but all in a position to see noted the change in Merry. The carefree rascal had seemingly grown up overnight. Saradoc was nothing if not pleased (perhaps a little surprised) and began giving his son greater and greater responsibilities, preparing him slowly but surely for the mantle of leadership he would one day wear. To the family's delight, Merry completed these tasks with aplomb, and even showed uncanny promise with formerly elusive skills such as mathematics and writing - both essential skills for the Master of the Hall. Aside from the obvious stamp of common ancestry that rested upon the lad's face, he shared his father's deep desire that Buckland, and the Shire in which it lay, remain prosperous and protected.

As Frodo sat thinking, a cup of tea untouched between his elbows, his eyes half-closed, a rap at the door called him back to the present.

"Frodo!" called Merry's voice. "Sorry, I could not keep them out! The Sackville-Bagginses are in the hall, with faces as sour as half-ripe lemons."

Frodo heaved a defeated sigh.

"Well show them in!"

The Sackville-Bagginses stomped in, all sneers and snorts, and Merry noted with more than a little curiosity how Frodo seemed to finger something in his pocket at the sight of them. Merry smiled inwardly, knowing exactly what the mystery object was, and thinking to himself that he hardly blamed Frodo for wanting to use it.

The S-Bs were clearly put out, and upon being shown a copy of Bilbo's will (offering irrefutable proof that they were not in it), they thundered out under a cloud of disgust, but not before Lobelia turned to Frodo with her final riposte.

"You'll live to regret it, young fellow! Why didn't you go too? You don't belong here; you're no Baggins - you- you're a Brandybuck!"

"Did you hear that, Merry?" asked Frodo. "That was an insult if you like!"

Merry laughed as the sound of a slamming door shook the room.

"It was a compliment, and so, of course, not true."

"Well," laughed Frodo, "we two are equal parts Brandybuck, aren't we; just you carry the name."

Merry bowed with flourish. "At your service!"

Frodo stared wistfully at his closed door. "I wish those rumors of all the gold hidden in secret tunnels here would just die."

Merry smiled sympathetically. "What-no secret troves here?!" he asked with fake incredulity.

"Just one aged Baggins, his Brandybuck guest, and a whole stack of dusty books," sighed Frodo.

"Surely Bilbo left you //something// of value, dear cousin," said Merry, his face growing suddenly solemn. "Mementos of his travels? Weapons from strange lands?" Merry paused for a long moment. "Jewelry?"

Merry made a quick study of Frodo's face as he dropped the last word. A barely perceptible spasm of alarm passed over his cousin's face. Merry's suspicions had been correct. Frodo had inherited Bilbo's magic ring, the one which rendered its wearer invisible.

Merry made as if he'd spoken in jest and had not expected a reply.

"No matter, Frodo, let foolish mouths prattle! And if you don't mind me saying, let the rest of your visitors wait until tomorrow. You look as if you're just about done in."

Frodo nodded.

"Let's shut the front door, then, Frodo love," Merry suggested as he gave his exhausted cousin a gentle pat on the back. "Besides, I should nap a bit before popping over to see Pip. I made the ill-considered promise to give young Master Took a full report of the day's events before supper."

"The same promise you'd always wheedle out of me after every 'adult' gathering, as I recall!" Frodo replied with a knowing grin.

"What a pain that little squirrel has grown into!" but as Merry said it, there was affection in his eyes.

"Oh, yes, Pippin!" said Frodo with a grin. "The so-called little imp is almost a teen, and eventually he'll be Thain, mind you!"

"Always dangling about my knees." continued Merry. "And teaching the imp to read was like taming a wild pony."

"You'll be looking up to that 'imp' in more ways than one before you know it, so you'd best be careful how you treat him," teased Frodo. "And I seem to remember a nuisance of a hobbit lad that used to dangle about my knees at that age. A hobbit who'd make each lesson a study in patience for his beleaguered older cousin. A hobbit who is now about yeah high."

Frodo brought his hand up to rest on Merry's head. "Yes-exactly your height!"

"I turned out alright! Merry snorted.

"As will the small rag-tag that you're trying to mold into a proper Thain!"

Merry suppressed a snicker. "At least his folks appreciate my efforts."

"Just as I appreciate all your help today, Merry lad," said Frodo as he collapsed into a chair in the hall. "Well, you're right about calling it a day. It's time to close the shop, Merry. Lock the door, and don't open it to anyone today, not even if they bring a battering ram."

Frodo dragged himself up from the chair and plodded to his study. In minutes, Merry came through the door with a steaming cup of tea.

"You've earned this, Frodo," said Merry. "Or shall I say, //Master// Frodo?"

Frodo groaned and shut the door.

The soft knock at the front door as Frodo sank back in his chair was soundly ignored. The second louder knock was treated in the same fashion. The rap on the window accompanied by baritone voice threatening to blow the door down, wisely, was not ignored.

Frodo rushed down the hall and opened the round door.

"Gandalf!" Frodo exclaimed, though hardly surprised.

Merry, who had been in an adjoining room ignoring the same series of knocks, could not have pressed his ear to the door any harder. Gandalf always had interesting things to say; and these things presumably got more interesting when Merry wasn't meant to hear them. The conversation had become irresistible when the discussion landed upon Bilbo's ring. The ring had been one of the chief objects of his curiosity even since he had spotted Bilbo using it to vanish from the S-Bs. 'What now?' Merry whispered to himself as Gandalf warned Frodo not to wear it. Perhaps this ring was a more serious matter than Merry had suspected. Perhaps his beloved Frodo was in some kind of peril. The side of Merry's face that was mashed against the door grew numb, yet the inquisitive hobbit did not budge. Merry did not wish to miss a single word.

"Keep it safe, and keep it secret," Gandalf warned Frodo inside the firelit room.

Unbeknownst to them both, they had already failed in this matter. Merry had heard everything, and his mind was swirling. If this ring had, as Gandalf had said, 'other powers than just making you vanish when you wish to' then what might it do to his Frodo? Did the wizard even know? And if he did not know, why did the wizard leave the thing in Frodo's care while he disappeared 'for a good while'? As much as Merry was in awe of the old wizard, he could not help but feel deep resentment. He did not trust Gandalf. No, Frodo needed someone of his own kind, of his own blood, to protect him. Frodo needed a friend who would have only his interests in mind. From behind the door, Merry vowed to himself that he would be that friend.