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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

16 March 1420sr continued...

Lily appeared at Frodo’s bedroom door. She had grown increasingly nervous, wondering what it was Gandalf could want to discuss. Perhaps Frodo would not survive after all. No; that could not be so, surely... only the faintest hint of the darkness reached her -- perhaps she had even imagined it. But what did Gandalf have to say?

She gazed up at the intricately painted ceiling, covered in green leaves, all edged in silver and gold, wanting to look anywhere but at the wizard.

“Don’t be frightened, Lily. It’s quite all right. Come. You may sit next to Frodo if you like. I suspect your touch would do him good.”

“Oh, thank you, Gandalf, sir...”

Lily wanted to kiss his weathered face.

“I could do with a bit of that, yes. Just here.” He pointed to his cheek. “And, just ‘Gandalf’ will do; no need for formality between friends.”

Lily kissed Gandalf lightly and smiled as he chuckled, then positioned herself on the bed close to Frodo, taking his left hand into her right. His hand was no longer cold nor hot, but warm... the warmth calmed her, easing first her body and then her soul. Tears sprang suddenly to her eyes.

“I knew this would happen,” she laughed, and sniffed as her tears fell. “I told myself not to, but here I am weeping, because I can be near him again... and without pain.” She touched his brow with her left hand, brushing aside a stray chestnut lock.

“Not all tears are evil,” Gandalf assured. She heard the smile in the wizard’s voice as she continued to gaze at Frodo, watching the even rhythm of his breathing.

Gandalf continued, kindly, “As your chaperone, I say you may kiss him once. He shan’t waken. Don’t worry; that shall be on the morrow.”

Lily glanced at Gandalf, her eyes full of tears, thanking him wordlessly. She returned her gaze to her beloved. After his bath last night, they had dressed him in a light green silk nightshirt. About his neck hung Arwen’s gem, glowing on a new chain of fine silver. The light which seemed to shine from within him could be seen once again. It was faint, but it was there all the same.

She longed to kiss him again and again, but once was better than not at all. His face lay turned a little toward Gandalf, as though they’d been conversing only moments before. She leaned forward and whispered caressingly into his ear, “Come back to me, dearest. Come back to all of us. You’re asleep, so I shall tell you I love you. Rest well, beloved.” She kissed his cheek softly. He was warm. Not hot, but warm. She lingered close, wiping her tears from her cheeks as fast as they came, for teardrops on his face might truly wake him.

Lily sat back, still clasping Frodo’s hand. She raised it gently to her cheek for a moment, reveling in the warmth, and then reluctantly laid it back on the coverlet, over his breast. How she wished to go on touching him. But that would be on another day, if Ilúvatar willed it...

Lily’s eyes closed, and she prayed for his healing. Give him freedom from this accursed darkness, Creator. Thank You for sparing his life and mine.

“You are done with your prayer, then?” Gandalf asked quietly.

“Yes. I do not know if such a thing is permissible, but I thought I might say also that if Frodo dies, I shall die as well, of a broken heart.” Something about the wizard helped her to feel peaceful and free; she felt she could open her heart to him.

“Those are very strong words, for such a mild hobbit lass. You love him very much.”

She raised her eyes to meet his. “Yes, I do.”

Gandalf smiled, but not in the teasing way she had come to know. “I can see you do. It is quite clear within you, and revealed on your face and in your eyes -- not to mention what you endured yesterday for him... I must ask you a very personal question, if I may? You are free to answer, or no, as you see fit.”

“You may ask me anything, and I would answer you, if only because you saved him yesterday.” Her eyes filled again with tears. “Oh, this weeping! Will it never cease?”

Gandalf smiled again. “Here is one of Frodo’s handkerchiefs. I’m certain he won’t mind you using it. And Ilúvatar is the One who saved Frodo. I was merely an instrument of His Will.”

She accepted the square of cloth from the wizard’s hand and recognized her own handwork in the blue-green embroidered initials in the corner. It was one of the ones she had given Frodo on her birthday, almost three months ago. Her tears fell more freely, and she held the handkerchief to her face, and breathed in Frodo’s gentle scent. Knowing he had held it close comforted her. She sat up straight and ceased her weeping, drying the last tears from her cheeks.

“You are doing well, Lily. Very well indeed. Here is my question: do you and this dear hobbit intend to wed?”

Lily paused a long moment, then turned to study Frodo’s face. She sighed heavily.

“Yes; Frodo wants me for his wife, and I want him for my husband. He told me of his desire on the 25th of February. It was not a formal proposal... he wanted me first to see him at his worst, in one of these -- these illnesses which plague him. He felt I should know how life with him might be. He does not know how long he shall live; I’ve tried to tell him none of us knows such things, but he pushes it aside. The darkness does not want to leave him; it may be beaten back, but only for a time. I would give all that I have, and am, to remove it from him. He feels marriage would be unfair to me, since he shall not enjoy a long life. I told him I would be happy, more than happy, for a week, a month, a year, with him... I long to share with him some measure of joy, a bit of happiness, and if the price is my life, I offer it, if such a thing is possible. But then again, my death would bring him only sorrow... I know this now. So, although I am willing, I know it offers no hope in the end.

“As you have seen, I become rather ill myself if I am near him for more than half a day. Frodo feels better and better, as I feel worse and worse. The darkness seems to lessen within him as it increases within me. Frodo does not know how we could ever be married if this continues forever, and neither do I. What married couple could live only a fraction of each day together? How -- how could the children be raised? He fears the darkness shall eventually claim my life. He may be right. I cannot deny it -- I believe it could happen. But, I want nothing more than to be with him...

“Frodo and I do not know what to do. We know the Creator loves us; He wants happiness for us. But perhaps this courtship was never truly meant to be anything more than this moment. We cannot see all ends. Frodo taught me that.”

“Did he now? I usually hear those words within a more positive context...” The wizard’s eyes twinkled once more, but it was lost on Lily; she gazed steadfastly at Frodo.

“And a very wise thought it is, Lily.” When she turned her attention to Gandalf, he continued. “It is quite true that we cannot see all ends. However, it is also quite true that each of us must do the best we are able with the time we are given. I think Frodo’s time, however short or long, might best be spent with you. He feels more whole, and well, when you are near, and you are happier when you are together, though you feel unwell. And yet it seems the two of you have managed to strike a balance of sorts, except when these illnesses come on; then you are both overwhelmed. But if you have learned to use your time wisely from day to day, then perhaps a balance may also be found at times such as this...?”

“It would be difficult... But how do you know it is really possible?” Lily’s hope rang clear.

“I am a Maia, child; remember! We are not all-powerful or all-knowing -- thankfully only the Creator possesses such power. But we can see much. I think you have answered my question as best you may.

“Thank you, Lily. Get something into yourself for elevensies; no faintness is allowed today by order of Gandalf the White.” He smiled fondly. “Then perhaps you ought to rest briefly, and enlist Miss Cotton to help you get some of that wonderful broth into Frodo here; it will be luncheon by then, and Frodo needs to look and feel more like a hobbit... and less like an Elf... I had no idea Meriadoc was such a good cook.”

Lily smiled to herself as she remembered the conversation over second breakfast. “I had no idea either, and after our blackened first breakfast, I must say it was a pleasant surprise...

“Thank you, sir -- Gandalf. I shall do as you say; elevensies and some rest. In truth, it sounds wonderful; I am a bit tired. But I am also anxious to get some sustenance into Frodo. The sooner I nap, the closer it shall be to that hour.”

---------

Lily would have foraged in the kitchen for elevensies, but Merry and Pippin were ahead of her, laying out cheese and dried apples from the cellar stores. Tea and cider rounded out the meal. Merry announced he’d be sending someone to get more eggs and butter at market, but Lily knew the Gaffer would have such things on hand and would not begrudge anything for Frodo and his guests.

“Let Rose and me fetch it after luncheon. She wanted to walk anyway, and the fresh air will do us good. Besides, the Gaffer will be hurt if he hears we sent out all the way to market while Frodo was ill, with him two doors away.”

Merry nodded. “All right, then. I’ve got just enough of the beef broth left for us for luncheon, Frodo included; but then the future Thain and the Master of Brandy Hall shall have to start peeling potatoes and carrots for another stew. Should be ready for supper.”

Merry raised his hand at Lily’s protest. “Peregrin, tell her she’ll never win with us. We’re unbeatable.” He winked at Lily.

“He’s right, you know, Miss Lily! Merry’s always right; just ask him!” Merry cuffed him, and Pippin laughed.

“Your accent is stronger when you’re happy!” Lily observed, smiling at Pippin.

“Is it?” Pippin seemed surprised, as if no one had ever told him before. He looked to Merry. “Is it?”

Merry sighed, then grinned. “Sam would call you a ninnyhammer for this. Yes, it is. You never noticed it yourself?”

Pippin laughed at Merry. “No -- I don’t listen to myself talk! But you must! Why am I not surprised?”

Merry had no answer but laughter as he realized he’d been bested by his young cousin and closest friend.

Lily smiled as she watched them. They were both as relieved as she that Frodo was healing...

Pippin continued to chuckle as he turned to speak to her. “Besides all that, Miss Lily, it’s hard waiting ‘round for old Frodo -- I can call him that, but only me, being youngest! -- to wake up. I think Merry and I would agree...” He eyed Merry somberly, and then both hobbits turned back to Lily.

“We’re bored,” they stated in unison.

Lily laughed with delight and embraced them both as she thanked them. Merry only smiled, but Pippin stammered and blushed to his toes, just as he had at the Fair, long ago.

---------

Lily allowed Rose to sleep through elevensies. For a moment, she envied Rose not growing faint from missed meals, then pushed the feeling aside as foolish; things were what they were. Rose would benefit more from the sleep than from any food.

Just before luncheon, Lily woke her friend gently.

“Wake up, Rose dear, it’s time for luncheon... did you rest well?”

Rose was lying atop the coverlet. She sat up on the bed and yawned, then stretched.

“Ohhhhhhh! I don’t think I’ve stretched for days!”

“That stretch was worthy of a good mouser, Rose!”

“I should say...” Rose rubbed her eyes. “What did you say before, Lily?” She stood slowly and made her way to the washbasin, pouring water into it from the carafe, and began to wash her face.

“I was only saying it’s luncheon... and, did you sleep well...” Lily waited for a reply, but Rose was still drying her face, so she offered, “We can take luncheon -- and then, could you help me get some broth into Frodo?”

Rose was smoothing her skirts. “Of course, Lily! I’m awake now, I think!” She laughed softly. “I had a pleasant nap, but I didn’t want to wake up, just then.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Rose -- I should have let you sleep!”

“No, lass, that wasn’t it. I was dreaming about Sam. That’s why I didn’t want to wake.” She smiled for her friend.

“Oh... oh Rose, I know what that’s like. In truth, now, I really wish I’d let you sleep... those are the loveliest of dreams.”

“Yes, indeed, and no mistake, as my dear Sam would say... come. Let’s eat, I’m hungry, and no doubt Frodo is hungrier yet, even if he is still asleep. Are we still taking our walk afterward?”

“Yes,” Lily replied. They started for the kitchen. “And, Rose -- do you think the Gaffer may have a few eggs and some butter on hand? Merry was going to send one of the neighbor lads to market for them, but I think the Gaffer would be hurt if he knew, what with Frodo being -- being ill.” Lily quieted.

Rose stopped and put her arm around Lily; they continued to walk. “He’s going to be all right. Mr. Gandalf said so, and I believe him. No; no peeking in the bedroom at Frodo! The sooner we eat, the sooner we can get some food into him, but not if you get distracted!” Rose smiled.

“Oh!” Lily returned the smile. “Of course you’re right, Rose. Dear me, I’m not thinking clearly...”

“The walk’ll do us both good. And the Gaffer’s bound to have whatever we need, and if he doesn’t, then we’ll send young Toby down the way for the rest of it.”

--------

They managed to spoon a fair amount of the warm broth into Frodo, with a little advice from Gandalf, who looked on. Lily helped Frodo sit up a little by holding him in her arms, and letting him lean against her. Although he did not open his eyes, he awakened enough to do as he was asked. She spoke soothingly into his ear, saying they would feed him, and asking him to open his mouth a little for each spoonful. Rose fed him the broth, and both were pleased at how well he did.

It was difficult for Lily to release him when they finished. He was warm, and he turned his head toward her, falling back into a deep sleep. She wept again, unable to stop her tears as they fell on his dark curls. She had longed to hold him close, but not for this reason; not because he had been so ill!

Finally she laid him back against the pillows once more. Her tears were short-lived; she realized she barely felt the darkness within him. It was there, but weakened. And she only felt a little ill, herself.

“I don’t feel the darkness as much in him, Gandalf,” she murmured, turning to the wizard.

“Mmm,” he answered, in the middle of a sip of ale. “Pardon me, ladies. Yes, well, he’s had some real healing, that’s evident. But he is not free of it. You are still yourself drawing some of it away from him, do not forget. Am I correct?”

“Yes. I cannot forget,” Lily assured him with a resigned smile. “But I am happy. Do you still think--” she turned to look at Rose, and then at Frodo “--that he’ll wake on the morrow?” She made no attempt to hide the worry in her voice.

“I believe so, yes. He was much like this at Rivendell. He’s a most sturdy hobbit, but he has had a rather fierce battle with the darkness these past three days.”

“My Samwise told us you had a terrible battle of your own on the Quest, Mr. Gandalf... but listen to me, openin’ my mouth and talking about I don’t know what,” Rose mumbled, lowering her eyes.

“It’s quite all right, Rose. That battle is over, for good and all. And that was the old Gandalf. You mustn’t be sad. Everything happens for a purpose, but we cannot often see what that purpose is. It’s best to leave these things to Ilúvatar for safekeeping.”

They were listening intently. He smiled. “Time for your walk, ladies? Don’t be gone too very long. I shall want to have a word with Lily again when you return.”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused. Lily turned once more to Frodo and kissed his left hand... warm... she sighed to herself, and they left the room together.

They were putting on their coats when Lily wondered aloud, “I don’t think Gandalf has left Frodo’s room since he arrived...”

“Only once, when he slept for a time, yesterday -- after we prayed and used the Phial... but you’re right,” Rose agreed. “Other than that, he’s never left.”

---------

It was not a bright day; the sky was overcast. But the air was brisk and refreshing, and they took in deep long breaths as they walked down the front steps and toward the road.

“I’m nervous to leave him, Rose,” Lily confided. She wrapped the coat more snugly about herself. They turned left, away from #3 for a time; that would be at the end of their walk.

“I’d be the same way.”

“I think Gandalf knows something he’s not telling me,” asserted Lily. She stared straight ahead as they walked, and let the chill air sting her eyes a bit, till they watered. It felt good.

“I can’t see it myself, but then there’s a lot I can’t see; but you can, dear,” Rose offered. Her voice held a trace of wonder. “You’ve had that gift o’ sight ever since you were but a babe -- isn’t that what your mum and da told you?”

“Yes. They spoke to me of it often. And they warned me never to misuse it. I hardly knew what they meant! It’s odd. I hope I’ve never misused it.”

“Oh, lass, you worry too much. You’ve not got a mean-spirited bone in your body. You won’t even gossip, not even when I want to, just a little.”

They laughed together. “I’ve gossiped my fair share, but I -- Rose?”

“What’s got you, dear?” Rose asked. “My, but this walk does a body good, to move about a bit.”

“I was wondering if you could tell me -- and then I suppose we ought to turn back for #3 -- Why does Sam still call Frodo ‘Master?’ Surely Frodo doesn’t require it of him...”

Rosie laughed outright. “No, he doesn’t, and in fact, Mr. Frodo’s tried to break Sam of the habit, more than a time or two... I didn’t understand it myself, at first, but then I started to listen a bit more careful-like. What does your sister call you, when she doesn’t use your name?”

Lily smiled with fond remembrance. “‘Sweet;’ she almost always calls me ‘sweet.’ But what’s that to do with Sam calling Frodo Master, and sir?”

“They’re endearments, Lily... yes, I know it seems a mite odd. Sam called him those things first out of respect, as his gaffer brought him up, but as time’s passed, especially the last year, I reckon it’s Sam’s way of remembering how close they are. He uses them now, not because he’s required, but because they remind him of the simpler times, and all they’ve been through together -- because of how things started out, if you take my meaning.”

“I think I do... So, Sam uses it to help remember when things were still pleasant for Frodo, and he doesn’t use it to separate them, but to express their closeness. A bit like when I tell Frodo I miss him... I do miss him, but it’s also -- also a way of saying ‘I love you,’ without actually saying it...”

Rosie stopped their walk, laid her hand on Lily’s arm, and looked her kindly in the eyes. “Frodo does the same thing. You do know that, don’t you?”

Lily searched her friend’s eyes uncertainly. “I rather hoped, but I couldn’t be sure, for he only says it after we’ve been apart...”

“So do you. Yes, I’ve been watching.” Rose grinned impishly. “A bad habit my Sam taught me, but I’m finding it comes in handy. Anyway, I’ve been watching you both, and it doesn’t matter how short the time apart is -- you both always say ‘I missed you.’”

Tears trickled down Lily’s face, and she threw her arms around Rosie, who gently patted her back as though she were but a babe.

“There, there, Lily -- he really does care for you, as you care for him. I don’t know how it’ll all manage to work itself out in the wash, but somehow it will. Now, let’s clean up that pretty face of yours. Who knows but the master mayn’t wake up this afternoon? And we don’t want him seeing red, puffy eyes on the lass he adores, or he’ll know something’s up, sure and certain. Then we’ll have to find a way of explaining it, and then it gets tricky-like. Best to stick to the truth, or not say nothing at all.”

---------

That afternoon, Lily and Rose returned with two baskets full of foodstuffs, compliments of the Gaffer. Merry and Pippin had started some fresh stew, and were back with Gandalf, keeping watch over Frodo and conversing softly from time to time. Rosie joined them, and noticed the cousins were mostly silent; she wondered if they were lost in thoughts of the Quest.

Gandalf sent Pippin to fetch Lily to the bedroom. He found her sitting by the kitchen window, gazing over what would be the herb garden come spring.

“Lily,” he called softly.

She turned and gave him a tired smile.

“I didn’t want to startle you. I wasn’t sure you heard me come in.”

“Thank you, dear Pippin. Is it time?”

“Yes, Gandalf says it’s time.”

The wizard had asked Lily to rest for a while before she came to speak with him again. She tried not to feel disappointed, but it hurt to leave Frodo, no matter how briefly.

“I’ll come.”

The air in Frodo’s room was heavy with anticipation.

“Ah, Lily. I trust you rested well?”

“Well, sir... I mean, Gandalf, no I didn’t, not really.” Lily bit her lip nervously.

“Honesty is always easier in the long run; saves a lot of time and nonsense. Besides, I’ll learn the truth one way or another, and I appreciate you sparing me the trouble of ferreting it out. Now, now, what’s this with all the long faces?” His eyes were twinkling.

“I think I’m just a bit nervous, Gandalf; I suspect they are too.” Lily smiled a little, looking round at all of them, and then let her eyes rest on Frodo once more. He looked so peaceful, his cheeks tinged with a healthy glow of colour again... her heart seemed to stop for just a moment. Even at rest, so beautiful...

“I see,” Gandalf nodded, interrupting her reverie. “Well, I suppose it’s only to be expected.”

“Gandalf’s talking in riddles again, fair ladies,” Merry grinned; but he was nervous as well, while Pippin smiled in silent agreement.

“Well, I shan’t keep you in suspense any longer, but I do need to speak with Lily privately,” the wizard explained, not unkindly.

The other hobbits stood to go. Lily raised her hand and shook her head slightly in protest. She approached Gandalf and sat down on the bed again near Frodo. The gem glowed, and still she could see the light within him. She took a deep breath and released it.

“Oh, please, sir -- please, Gandalf... Merry and Pippin were on the Quest with Frodo, and with you... They are his dearest friends, and with Rose here, well, it’s as if Samwise is here too, in a way; you’d let Sam stay... please don’t make them leave. Surely they may hear whatever it is you must tell me.”

“Very well.” The wizard inclined his head to the other three hobbits. “You may all stay.”

They sat down quietly. The only sound was the crackling of the fire in the grate and Gandalf’s puffs on his long pipe. Frodo slept so peacefully that Lily could not hear him breathe, although she saw the gentle rise and fall of his chest. She clasped his left hand with both her own.

Gandalf finally spoke to Lily. “You recall yesternight I prayed Ilúvatar would give me some sign or knowledge, some insight into Frodo’s illness. I also prayed for insight into how it is you seem to heal him for a time -- at your own expense.”

“Yes, I remember you said you would ask Him...” Lily’s voice was nearly a whisper.

“The Creator rarely gives His answers so quickly. Very rarely, indeed. But He did answer me, in dreams. He spoke rather clearly about it all, actually. Most unusual.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gandalf raised his eyebrows at her.

“Yes, Gandalf,” Lily smiled. She struggled to be cheerful, but it was difficult. She felt her whole life hung on what he was about to say.

“Lily, we already know you were born with the gift of sight. No doubt you saw Frodo’s pure spirit long ago because of it. But you possess another gift, one of much greater worth, if one may measure such things.

“You possess the gift of healing -- that is, the power to heal the soul of another. Yours is different from the gift of healing the body. All healing is in essence accomplished by Ilúvatar, but some of His children are blessed to become His special servants.”

Lily was dazed. She tried to recall everything Frodo had taught her about healers, beyond what she knew of those in the Shire. Lord Elrond was one -- Frodo and Sam had spoken of him -- King Elessar, as well--

“I’m sorry,” her voice faltered. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“A person with your gift is able to take on some or all of the suffering of another soul, and can provide the way to partial or complete healing in the process. Frodo might very well have died by now were you not with him from the start of this illness. For he has fought not only a physical battle these past few days, but one of the soul, as I think you well know.

“Indeed, the darkness which pervades him was left behind by the knife and deepened by the Ring; it was left to eat away at his soul. It has slowly but surely undermined his will and his spirit, even though the Ring itself was destroyed. Frodo had to carry the evil for far too long a time. No mortal could withstand this without being marked in some way, and Frodo withstood it longer than anyone else could have... or should have...” he finished under his breath.

No one spoke. Lily was pale, and her heart beat fast; she tried to focus on Frodo’s even breathing, but her eyes stared at nothing as she listened to the wizard.

“The darkness is able to take even greater advantage of Frodo when he is ill, as it did at this time. His body remembers Shelob’s terrible sting; all of you were occupied elsewhere, of course, but the dreadful poisoning occurred one year ago, March 13th. Samwise thought him dead, so cold and pale he was, and could feel no life within him. Sam was in deep despair...

“Frodo’s body has responded much as if the sting were new. Between the pain, the chills, and the fevers, his inability to take in any sustenance, and the black dread the darkness brings, he might have slipped away from us. He’s a strong hobbit, but he was weakened on the Quest, wounded by knife, sting, and tooth, and the long burden of the Ring. He never expected to grow old; he knew that from Weathertop. But I think this illness was far more severe than even Frodo ever expected. No doubt he tried to warn you away from him?”

Lily was unable to answer for a time; finally her mind and her voice worked as one. “Yes. He tried very hard to warn me away. He feared for me. He said, ‘I don’t know what I may say, or do.’”

Her thoughts raced on; wild hope mixed with the confusion and fear in her heart. Why had such a gift come to her? How could she use it? She heard Gandalf’s voice as if from far away.

“You took much of his suffering onto yourself yesternight as we prayed for his healing, whether you knew it or no, and much even before that. I know it, because I took it from you, and gave the suffering up to Ilúvatar. I can withstand such darkness far better, and recover easily, because I am able to give it away, as it were, to the Creator.”

Lily was trembling. She bent down and gently kissed Frodo’s hand. No pain accompanied the kiss.

“But -- can a hobbit really be born with this power -- this gift?”

“Yes, of course. Ilúvatar provides as He pleases...” Gandalf was smiling.

“I -- I can hardly believe it... can I help -- heal him again now, in this moment?”

“Your healing powers are not something you have any means of controlling, Lily. Though from what you have told me, you have learned a certain balance. The healing comes from Ilúvatar; you are but the vessel for it. It was revealed to me, yesternight, that Ilúvatar has given you this gift to share with Frodo. He it was who brought you together, for this purpose. The love shared between you is also a gift, as is all love, in addition to the healing.”

Lily looked up, and turned to search Gandalf’s smiling blue eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but could think of nothing to say in the face of what he had just said. She closed her mouth again, and continued to search his eyes as tears began to flood her own.

“Since you have told me of Frodo’s intentions toward you, and yours toward him,” Gandalf continued, “and since you also gave permission for our friends to hear our talk, I tell you now that when you take wedding vows with Frodo, the gift you possess shall have very great power to heal, indeed.”

Gandalf glanced at the others; Lily was too preoccupied with Gandalf’s declaration to realize Merry, Pippin, and Rose were hearing this particular bit of news for the first time.

The cousins stared at each other for a moment. Pippin’s jaw dropped; Merry’s was set in concentration. Rose felt her own joyful tears fall as she sat on the far side of the bed opposite Lily and Gandalf. She knew Lily hoped for this.

Merry smiled first. He whispered one of his old favourite taunts to his cousin, who was still in shock. “Pip, close your mouth, there, before something flies in...”

At this Pippin grinned, and then allowed himself to smile broadly at the news. His eyes stung with tears. But for Merry’s teasing, they were all silent, and listening.

Gandalf winked at Rose, and turned once again to Lily. She was using another of Frodo’s handkerchiefs to wipe away her tears.

“How are you, Lily?” Gandalf queried gently.

“How -- how am I?” She needed to think hard to answer. The old wizard had caused her heart to leap into her throat by saying ‘when you take wedding vows’ -- Gandalf was a Maia -- surely he could see the future! And Ilúvatar revealed this to him--

“Truthfully, I feel rather faint,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“No fainting permitted, child; not today,” Gandalf chuckled, and he touched her brow for a moment, closing his eyes. He opened them again and removed his fingertips from her brow.

“Better? You must calm yourself; I sense those strong emotions wreak havoc with you from time to time.”

“Yes, they do; and yes, I am better, thank you, far better...” Lily breathed deeply. She had to remember to release it. Her heart beat faster than ever, despite Gandalf’s help, but the faintness was gone.

“I believe you answered my earlier question about your feelings sufficiently. Let me go on, while I have my thoughts in order. We old wizards do sometimes have scattered thoughts, you know, just as do mere mortals. But your expression is so serious, dear Lily!”

He smiled directly at her in an effort to persuade her to return it. She smiled, and then laughed softly, blushing at his teasing.

His voice reflected a gentle warning tone, like a loving father’s.

“Your joy fills the whole room, Miss Burrows, but I need to tell you the rest. There is a slight risk, I fear. Perhaps only slight. Ilúvatar sometimes gives us general impressions, instead of actual words... let me explain.

“Marriage is far more than the union of two hobbits, as I am sure you know, Lily. It is a sacred bond between two souls. Once the vows are made, Ilúvatar removes all barriers that once existed between the two; they become as one soul. Frodo’s soul-sickness, his darkness, will enter your soul as a result of this. But there will be nothing ordinary about your vows. Because of your healing gift, you will not only share the darkness equally with him... You shall take it entirely onto yourself.”

Lily paled just a little, and gazed back at Frodo. “Will I then take on -- this?”

Without waiting for a reply, she squared her shoulders. “I am not afraid. I would do anything to make him whole again.” She endeavored to sound brave, though her heart quailed; but only a little.

The wizard smiled at her, his eyes twinkling.

“You shall indeed make a fine mate for this hobbit, brave as you are,” he assured. His voice was full of kindness and admiration.

“Gandalf!” Merry exclaimed suddenly.

Pippin remained quiet, keeping his thoughts to himself. Whatever happened now was meant to happen, he decided. It’s always been so, just as it was on the Quest. He continued to listen attentively; he knew the wizard was not finished.

Merry stood up. “I’m sorry, Miss Lily, I must speak -- Gandalf, you cannot let her do this! Frodo would be grief-stricken! He would never allow it if there was any bit of risk for her... Miss Lily--”

“Meriadoc! Please allow me to finish.” The wizard turned back to Lily once more. “I shall be in attendance at the wedding of Frodo Baggins, no matter when it occurs. Nothing could possibly keep me away. Lily, allow me to bestow a blessing upon the two of you, just after your vows are exchanged -- in that moment, the darkness shall enter your soul -- and I shall lift it from you almost as soon as you receive it. No harm shall come to me. I have fought past battles with evil, and by the Will of Ilúvatar been strengthened by them. I shall simply give the evil to Ilúvatar; for Him, it is as nothing. Darkness cannot survive such Light.”

Gandalf laid his hand gently on Frodo’s head, then turned to face Lily once more.

“You’ll have taken this terrible darkness from Frodo, and you shall be free of it, as well. Frodo shall be healed. This was revealed to me.”

Merry dropped into the chair next to Pippin in silence, shaken, but no longer protesting. Pippin still sat quietly, trying to comprehend Gandalf’s news.

Lily began to weep, then tried almost immediately to stop the tears, for fear of waking Frodo. She could hardly believe such good tidings. She nodded to Gandalf, wiping the tears once more from her cheeks.

“I -- I shall arrange for you to bless us. Frodo would welcome that gladly. I -- I wish I could take it from him at this moment.” She sniffed, and looked at Rose, whose tears were flowing as well; but Rose bit her lip to staunch her crying, as she so often did.

The wizard removed his hand from Frodo’s head with a small sigh. “All things in their due season, Lily.” Gandalf smiled. “Frodo should be safe from serious illness till October next. If you are wed before then, he need never face another illness of this kind, nor any darkness. The memories will always remain, of course. His body shall feel less of the old remembered pains as each year passes, and with no darkness to worsen them, the pains will fade to nothing.

“Lord Elrond and I said once that Frodo would never fully heal; but we did not know about you, dear child!” He smiled, but became serious once more.

“It bears repeating: Frodo’s memories shall always remain. Those are in his mind, not his soul. But he need not be taken into torment and death by the old evil of the Ring. Not at all.”

Lily kissed the wizard’s large hands and laid her face on them. She could not speak.

Merry came and stood near them, looking intently at Frodo.

“Gandalf?”

“Yes, Meriadoc?”

“If you can take the darkness away from both of them, at -- at the wedding, why can’t you lift if from Frodo now? Here? Or why not in Ithilien, after he and Sam were brought down from Mt. Doom?”

“An excellent question, Master Brandybuck,” Gandalf nodded. “The Creator wants His children to do as much as they are able for one another. Sometimes this involves sacrifice. You have experienced this in your own life...”

Merry only nodded, but Pippin spoke. “Yes,” he murmured. He remembered Merry returning broken from the Pelennor Fields.

Gandalf continued. “If Ilúvatar reaches in to mend our troubles at every turn, the souls of His children will never grow. He watches and listens; He hears our prayers, and offers help when it must be given, according to His Purpose.”

Lily had raised her head, but her eyes were closed, and she remained silent.

Gandalf regarded Lily; he knew she was listening intently. “Lily is part of the Creator’s design for Frodo, just as Frodo is part of His design for her. Her gift was meant for Frodo alone; it is part of their bond and their love. We must trust to the Creator’s Providence; He sees all ends, but we cannot. So you see, Master Merry, it was not in His design for me to take the darkness from Frodo directly, or I would have. Only Lily may give him this, within the sacrament of marriage. It is one of Ilúvatar’s greatest gifts to his children...”

The hobbits sat in silence for a while, each trying to understand the message Gandalf shared. Pippin spoke first.

“But, Gandalf -- if it has all been part of a design, as you say, then so was the Quest -- am I right?”

“Yes.”

“But that means Frodo never had a choice -- none of us did -- if it was planned, Gandalf. You told us once we’ve got free choice under Ilúvatar, free will...”

“Well, Pippin! You and Merry are asking fine questions tonight; as good as Frodo’s, I must say! You are in rare form.” He chuckled to himself.

Merry was impatient. “Gandalf, please, why must you always keep us waiting for direct answers to questions?”

Lily listened with tired fascination to the three old friends, and was just as curious for the answer. She looked at Rose; her friend wore an impatient expression like Merry’s, but softer.

Gandalf’s hearty laughter filled the room. The others looked to Frodo, expecting him to wake at the sound, but he slept on.

“My dear hobbits! Let us discuss the idea of free will,” Gandalf announced. Lily thought he sounded almost gleeful.

The wizard held his pipe in his left hand, and used it in gestures from time to time to emphasize one point or another as he spoke.

“Each of us is free to choose good or evil in all that we do. We make these choices constantly; sometimes we know we’ve made a choice toward one direction or the other; but very often we aren’t aware of having chosen anything at all... oh, yes... I should stress it’s best to be more aware, not less, in such matters...”

“But--!” Merry was still impatient.

“And--” Gandalf continued implacably, “Ilúvatar stands above all Time. He can see the past, the present, and the future. He knows, for example, what prayers we shall offer before we utter them. This does not mean He controls our prayers. He knows which paths we shall choose -- the choices we’ll make -- before we make them.”

Silence pervaded the room once again as the hobbits sought to understand Gandalf.

Rose spoke up, more intrigued now than irritated. “But -- why doesn’t He stop evil from happening, if He knows it’s coming?”

“If the Creator stopped the evil we do to one another, and to ourselves, we should no longer have free choice, my dear hobbits. He allows each of us to choose between doing evil and doing good. Anything less is not truly free choice, is it? It’s just that we must live with the consequences of how others have chosen, and how we’ve chosen. Sometimes those choices are quite evil indeed. Morgoth chose evil; Sauron chose it, and--” he sighed, “--so did Saruman -- the list goes on; all choose as they will, including each of us here...”

Rose nodded thoughtfully and sighed. “I think I understand.”

“So Frodo was not forced to take the Ring,” Lily stated simply, her voice far away.

They all turned to look at her, and Gandalf smiled.

“She has a clear understanding, gentlehobbits!” he declared. “That is correct, Lily. Frodo was not forced. He chose to serve, as Ilúvatar knew he would. But Ilúvatar did not make the choice for Frodo; he made it -- of his own free will.”

Gandalf allowed them time to consider his words.

Pippin cleared his throat. “Why doesn’t He just control how we think? Wouldn’t it be easier all ‘round for Him? We wouldn’t know the difference, would we?”

Gandalf laughed. “Very good questions, Peregrin... Frodo wondered the same things, and asked on the trip home. Ilúvatar wants our love, but does not want it forced. If we are forced, it is not truly love, is it? Free choice, dear friends... I could go on and on, but I believe you understand. I think, though, you might enjoy hearing a bit more about the efficacy of prayer at this moment.”

Lily searched the wizard’s face, her eyes full of hope; Gandalf could not suppress a smile at her expression.

“Several hobbits have prayed very hard for Frodo’s healing, Lily not the least of them... Ilúvatar is all-merciful. He has heard these prayers, Lily... as He shall hear all the ones to come.”

Lily blinked and struggled to speak over the lump in her throat. “Oh, Gandalf... thank you...”

“Don’t thank me, dear child. Thank Him.”

The wizard chuckled, and leaned back. “Anyone for a pint of ale? I could do with some, after all that thinking.”

“I’ll see to it, sir,” Rosie murmured, but she waited a moment, watching Lily.

Lily lifted Frodo’s left hand to her lips and kissed it. Then she carefully laid his hand on the coverlet, again. She smiled and stood to leave, her fatigue suddenly evident in her eyes, as if all her reserves were spent.

“Pardon me... I need rest, and I think I must take it now, so I may feed Frodo his supper later...” Lily blushed lightly. “Dear friends, thank you, all of you.”

Rose helped her to bed, and Lily drifted off to sleep in a daze, Gandalf’s words filling her heart to overflowing. She gave thanks, and slept deeply.

--------

When she awoke refreshed, several hours later, Lily stretched and sighed, a smile spreading across her face. Gandalf said they would marry.