Sam and Rose invited Lily and Frodo for an early morning breakfast so they would not need to cook or clean up. The friends began to say their goodbyes on the front porch of Garden Hill. As Rose and Lily embraced once more and reassured each other, Sam drew his master aside.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mr. Frodo, and I don’t think I can wait until you come home for the answer.”
Frodo thought of how much he would miss his dear friend in the weeks to come. “What is it, Sam?”
“Well, sir, it’s about the--” he lowered his voice “--the darkness. I’ve been watching you and Mistress Lily, and well -- It’s gone, isn’t It?”
Frodo grinned broadly as he met Sam’s gaze. “Indeed, It is.” His face grew serious. “I’m -- sorry I haven’t told you before. There’s some small part of me which still can’t quite believe it... I didn’t want to raise your hopes... but yes, I believe It’s gone.”
For a long moment Sam stood rooted in place, stunned by the news. He beamed at Frodo, his delight undisguised. It was more than he’d hoped for. Something had happened at that wedding...
Frodo held his friend’s wide-eyed gaze.
Sam laid his right hand on Frodo’s arm. “That’s wonderful, master, sure and certain! But -- how?”
“Dear Sam, I don’t know, but Lily seems to... though she requested I not pursue my queries until mid-October.”
Sam knitted his brows.
“I know...” Frodo agreed. “It puzzles me as well -- very greatly, truth be told -- but I trust her completely.”
“O’ course, Mr. Frodo, o’ course, and no mistake... But -- It’s not coming back, is It?”
“I don’t think so. You and I have lived too much with fear, Sam, and for too long. It seems to have become a habit; worrying about what worse thing waits round the bend.”
Sam looked down, and when he raised his head again, Frodo saw a trace of sadness in his eyes.
“I reckon we learned the lesson taught us, Mr. Frodo.”
Frodo smiled, endeavoring to convey his understanding; only the two of them would ever really know what happened on their journey into Mordor. “Mayhap we did, dear Samwise, but I think now it’s time to learn something new.”
“And sure and certain, you can’t complain about your new tutor.” Sam winked broadly.
The two friends laughed out loud and embraced each other warmly, as their wives joined them.
Frodo grinned as he shook Sam’s hand in both of his. “Don’t forget to offer prayers for us as we travel, Sam; we’ll not forget you and Rose.”
“Never, Mr. Frodo. We’d never forget. We’ll miss you, sir.”
The couples wished each other well, saying more farewells, and promising to see each other in the fall.
Sam stood with one arm around his wife’s shoulders as they watched the ponies make the first turn toward Bywater and the East Road. He wiped a single tear away from his cheek.
“He’s going without me, Rosie-love.”
“Yes, Samwise, but he’s not going alone, and Lily’ll bring him home safe; she loves him even more than you.” She smiled up into his tear-filled eyes. “You’d give your life for him, and so would she... she’s picking up where you needed to leave off, if you take my meaning...”
Sam nodded, smiling through his tears as the tiny forms of Frodo and Lily on their ponies receded in the distance. “I reckon I love him just as much as her, only she loves him in a different way... in a way he needed... She’s truly a gift to him, Rosie, from Ilúvatar.”
Frodo had arranged for the ponies to be fed before dawn so they would be ready for an early start. The day before, their masters had not come to see them even once, and having missed the previous morning’s ride, they now felt frisky.
Once they were on the East Road, Frodo and Lily let the ponies have their heads a bit, laughing and racing each other, then reining the ponies to an easy walk to cool them down.
Between Bywater and Frogmorton, they searched for a spot to take a light second breakfast, and found an open meadow full of daisies and buttercups just off the road. A stream bubbled nearby, curling away in the distance.
Frodo quickly dismounted, then helped Lily down from her pony, his hands on her waist; they were suddenly close. He smiled into her eyes and finished slipping his arms about her, then gently caressed her lips with his own, teasing her with short kisses.
Lily kissed him back deliberately and warmly, slowing him down, then broke it off with a giggle. “Frodo, we’ll never get to Crickhollow, tonight...”
Frodo sighed as he released her. “How right you are, beloved... I think I’d best water the ponies.”
He picked up Strider’s reins, while Lily retrieved her saddlebag filled with bread and cheese and pears. Lily handed him Merry’s reins, and he led the ponies toward the stream.
Lily watched her husband for a moment, wondering if he truly wished to go to Rivendell at all. He seemed very happy; but she felt an undercurrent of tension which, try as he might, Frodo could not conceal from her. She pushed the worry aside and prepared their second breakfast.
The sweet heady fragrance of the summer grass assailed Frodo’s senses as he tethered the ponies for grazing. He returned to Lily’s side, pushing thoughts of the coming journey aside and concentrating on the moment.
The beauty of the day filled him full to overflowing with a joyful giddiness; his heart whispered that Lily had opened his spirit wide once more to the loveliness all about them. By its end, the Quest had worn down his capacity for all feeling, even his pure joy at the beauty of nature. Now he felt as he did before he had known the Ring. Memories of his mother’s delight in daisies sprang to mind...
He wanted to sweep his lover into his arms, but this was not the time. Not yet.
“Beloved Lily, are you certain you’ll be all right skipping elevensies?”
Lily smiled, sensing his carefree mood. “Yes, as we’re eating secondies quite late; just as long as I get a proper luncheon, I’ll be fine indeed.”
“You needn’t worry about that, sweet.” Frodo returned his wife’s smile and kissed her brow. “Remember when I was caught in the rain coming home from visiting you in Deephallow?”
Lily’s smile was joined by a sparkle in her eyes. “You sent me a letter from Frogmorton.”
Frodo’s heartbeat quickened, then he reminded himself they were on the East Road, and someone might approach at any time. He swallowed hard and continued. “While I waited out the rain at The Floating Log, I sampled a bit of their food--”
“--you disconcerted the innkeeper by providing your own jam,” Lily giggled.
Frodo laughed. “Indeed. Be that as it may, their mutton was quite good, as well as their small ale, and though the bread’s not nearly as delicious as yours, it’ll do.”
Lily glowed at the compliment as she passed Frodo his food on a linen cloth.
They sat down in the soft grass, and started in on secondies with an appetite.
The rest of the morning passed quickly as they continued on, keeping their ponies to a steady pace. They chatted and laughed about nothing, delighting in the beauty of high summer in the Shire.
In Frogmorton, Frodo helped Lily down from her pony but refrained from kissing her, though his eyes told her clearly it was not an easy thing to do. They left their ponies at the livery to be lightly grained and groomed.
Over luncheon, they were wholly unaware of the curious stares directed their way as the innkeeper lavished his attention on them; Frodo felt sure the older hobbit remembered the gold coin he was paid the last time he’d visited.
Once the innkeeper left them to their meal, they spoke of the rest of their travel for the day. Frodo admitted to hoping they could cut across country a bit to reach Crickhollow earlier. At first reluctantly, then gradually growing enthusiastic in the telling, Frodo regaled Lily with the tale of his run-in with Farmer Maggot when he was young. He reveled in sharing stories with her; between his obvious enjoyment and the story itself, Lily laughed out loud and then blushed, for drawing more stares. Then she continued to giggle.
When Frodo and Lily finished, they found the ponies standing outside the inn, ready and waiting: Strider’s dark bay coat and white star shone, as did Merry’s white coat with flecks of rose.
As they approached the Brandywine and the Bucklebury Ferry, Frodo and Lily spotted a newly built pub, The River House, and decided to indulge in a spot of tea before making the crossing.
After the pub’s owner set the cups and pot on the table, he introduced himself as Pondo Hardbottle. Frodo remembered him from the pub in Crickhollow.
Hardbottle possessed a stentorian voice, and it filled the tiny pub, which at this hour held only two other hobbits. He eyed Frodo and Lily, but his gaze was not unfriendly; then he grinned at Lily.
“Ye’re not from ‘round here, are ya’?”
Frodo answered for Lily as she blushed and he smiled. “I’m remiss. Lily, this is Pondo Hardbottle. Pondo, this is my wife, Lily -- she was a Burrows, from Deephallow, before we wed.” Frodo was glowing as he held her right hand in his left, across the small table.
Lily felt faint at Frodo’s words. I am his wife! Truly his!
She blinked, endeavoring to recover quickly. Pondo was bowing slightly.
“Pleased t’ make yer acquaint’nce, Mistress Baggins. If ya’ don’t mind me sayin’, ye’re a lovely lass, ‘n I would’ve bet every mushroom in Maggot’s garden ol’ Frodo here’d never marry! But sure and certain I can see with me own eyes why he did. Always knew he was a smart lad, even if a bit of a rascal. Now never y’ mind, I’ll meet ya’ at the dock in three-quarters ‘n hour. Aye, I’m the ferrymaster, too,” he exclaimed, at their look of mild surprise. “It’s a livin’! The missus wishes I’d do one or t’other, though, truth be told.” He moved off to see to his other patrons.
Lily struggled not to show how nervous she felt as she sipped at her tea.
Frodo searched her eyes. “What is it, dearest Lily?”
Lily glanced away, and then back. “I’ve never been across the Brandywine, let alone outside the Shire.”
Frodo sat back in surprise. “I remembered you telling me your da moved from Bree as a young lad, and you’ve few if any relatives there, and none that you know yourself...” He kept his voice low and his tone gentle. “But Lily, you lived next to the Brandywine the whole of your life, and you never crossed it, not even once?”
“No, not even once,” Lily admitted quietly. “I’ve never had a real adventure.”
“Until you married me,” Frodo smiled, and he held her with his eyes.
Lily giggled, feeling less nervous. “The very best adventure.”
They finished their tea and untethered their ponies, walking them the short distance to the ferry. There, as they waited for the ferrymaster, Frodo spoke soft words to her, and they shared a tender kiss.
Frodo heard a slight clatter from the direction of the ferry, but ignored it. Lily was warm in his arms, and it couldn’t be the ferrymaster yet; it was too early...
“Ready, Mr. Baggins?” Pondo boomed from the ferry.
Frodo and Lily stepped apart abruptly. “Indeed we are, Pondo!” called Frodo in reply. “One pony at a time?”
“I reckon it’s best, what with the river flowin’ faster ‘n usual. It’s hard ‘nough handlin’ one spooked pony, let alone two; next thing ya’ know one of ‘em takes a misstep, landin’ us and both ponies in the drink. No indeed, sir, we don’t be needin’ to be takin’ any unnecessary baths! -- oh, beggin’ your pardon, mistress. We’ll stand the pony in the middle, ‘n you at its head. Which one o’ you wants t’go first?”
Frodo searched his wife’s eyes with a warm smile, endeavoring to give her calm. “I think it might be best if I go first, then you can see how easy it is.”
Lily nodded, struggling to hide her fear.
A sudden thought struck Frodo. He stood in front of Lily, between her and the ferrymaster. “Lily, can you swim?”
“Yes; it’s not the swimming that worries me, dearest, but what if one of the ponies gets scared and then gets hurt?” She peeked past Frodo.
A smile spread across Frodo’s face. “Don’t mind Pondo. He’s a practical sort, but a bit of a fussbudget. The ponies shall behave themselves admirably.” He eyed the animals. “Won’t you, lads?”
Strider snorted, and Merry shook his head.
“See?” Frodo grinned.
Soon they were all back together again on the other side of the river, and Frodo expressed his pleasure when both ponies did well, by rewarding them each with a pear. He handed Merry’s to Lily; the pony had been slightly skittish, it was true, but Lily was already settling him, speaking soothingly and offering him the pear.
Frodo glanced back at the swift-flowing Brandywine and the small ferry, and shivered, as the too-vivid memory of a Black Rider flashed through his mind. The Rider he barely escaped...
He was relieved Lily had not seen or felt his distress. She was still turned away, stroking Merry’s mane, and speaking to him softly as he made short work of the pear.
Closing his eyes for only an instant, Frodo took a deep breath and willed himself to put the memory behind him, as well as that other far-distant memory; that of his parents being pulled from the river, so very, very long ago.
On the edge of Crickhollow, Frodo noted Lily’s drawn face and berated himself for pushing too hard and too quickly.
Lily caught the self-reproach etched on her husband’s face and smiled warmly for him in an effort to quell his distress. She endeavored to shake off the weariness, then realized just how tired she truly felt. But how could she show him she was holding up well enough?
As they rode down the lane toward his old Crickhollow home, Frodo pointed it out to Lily, and she sighed in relief.
“I’m so glad we’re here, Frodo. Thank you for planning our first night here. It isn’t home, but I feel more comfortable here than if we’d stayed at The Floating Log. I’m looking forward to The Prancing Pony, as well, but -- I’m so glad we’re here tonight.”
Frodo smiled at her gratefully, knowing she was trying to ease his mind.
They rode through the gate of the Crickhollow house and reined in at the front step. Frodo helped Lily off her pony and lowered his head to kiss her.
“Frodo! Lily!” Pippin threw the door open wide, grinning broadly. “Merry! Come quick! They’re early!”
Frodo sighed, not bothering to hide his regret at the interruption of their anticipated kiss. He held Lily’s gaze a moment longer, then turned to greet his cousins.
“Welcome!” Merry and Pippin chorused boisterously, embracing their cousin both at once; this never failed to make Frodo laugh, and today was no different. Then they bowed toward Lily apologetically, recalling their manners.
As they released Frodo, Merry and Pippin were glad their older cousin was preoccupied smiling at his wife, for they were struggling not to stare in their effort to assess his overall state of health. Had he been healed fully at the wedding? They had promised Lily never to speak to Frodo of what they knew would happen at their vows. They glanced furtively at Lily, who carefully avoided their gaze.
“Mistress Lily, you’re lovely as ever,” Merry grinned. “And Frodo! You’ve put on weight! Although I daresay you’ve got a ways to go... Married life certainly agrees with you!”
“Indeed, it does,” Frodo smiled. “Sorry to put you out by showing up early, but the ponies were impatient to get underway.”
“We’re not put out at all, cousin Frodo! Dinner’s not yet ready, but it shouldn’t take too long,” Pippin assured them, as he gathered their saddlebags. “I’ll take care of the ponies as soon as the two of you’re settled.”
The young cousins guided their guests to the room prepared for them. The windows were open, and a cool breeze billowed the muslin curtains. Fresh flowers filled a bowl by the bed.
Lily exclaimed in delight and buried her face in the fragrant blossoms.
Frodo endeavored to push away the flood of memories from his single night spent in this house... How they were already being pursued, and how Fatty had been happy to stay behind and hold the fort, as he called it, blithely ignorant of the very real danger the Riders presented. Frodo closed his eyes. Fatty could easily have been murdered that night; it was a miracle from Ilúvatar he had been spared...
With an effort, Frodo wrenched his mind away from the memory. He took Lily’s hand in his own, and sighed once, glancing around the carefully prepared room and then at his cousins, asking wordlessly who took the time and care to make it so inviting.
Pippin gave himself away by blushing to his ear tips, and Frodo nodded once, smiling with gratitude.
The youngest cousin bobbed his head in reply and turned his attention back to Lily.
“I’m sure you’re wanting a bath to wash off the dirt, and ease some aches. The water’s nice and hot; I’ll show you to it.”
“Pip, you were supposed to say that to Frodo, not Lily!” Merry hissed. “Your mum would tan your hide. You don’t say that to a lass! It’s understood she’ll be having a wash...”
“And just where did you learn this bit of lore, Meriadoc?” Pippin smiled, amused.
Frodo blushed pink for Lily’s sake, but was still enjoying his cousins’ banter.
Merry whispered into Pippin’s ear.
“Oh! Estella! You learned it from her, did you? Now, Merry Brandybuck, when would you ever have been anywhere near Estella Bolger when she was about to take a bath? Hmmm?” Pippin laughed at Merry’s sputtering, but Merry was beginning to laugh as well, no longer able to feign outrage.
“Got you, cousin,” Pippin lilted.
“All right, lads, you’ve got my dear wife blushing,” Frodo grinned. “Enough’s enough.”
Lily only smiled appreciatively and took a last glance around the bedroom as Frodo retrieved a cloth pouch from his saddlebag.
Pippin led the group down the short hall to the room in which two cousins and a friend had washed and sung rollicking songs in praise of hot water. He opened the door.
For a moment, Frodo stood lost in memories, then spoke so softly the others nearly missed his words.
“We’ve lived whole lifetimes since that night. It can’t have only been twenty-two months ago...”
“Aye, Frodo,” Merry replied, endeavoring to see the room through Frodo’s eyes. Though Frodo had been in this house but one night, the Crickhollow home had been shared by himself and Pippin since their return, November last.
Pippin stepped aside to allow Lily inside the bathing room.
Here, as in their guest bedroom, a bowl of flowers had been placed on a table; there were white and yellow daisies, and purple pansies with yellow and white faces, and bluebells.
Lily smiled again, and standing on her toes swiftly kissed Pippin on the cheek, causing him to blush even more.
Frodo followed Lily into the room, and Merry opened his mouth, only to find himself on the wrong end of a very sharp jab in the ribs. He turned a hurt look to Pippin who returned it with a warning glance of his own. As they turned to go, they both paused as they caught sight of Frodo opening the pouch and pulling out a leaf. He crumbled it gently in his hand and sprinkled it in the water; the scent of the athelas drifted through the room. He then dropped a tender kiss on Lily’s head, and ushered the other two out of the room, closing the door behind him.
He caught the surprise on his cousin’s faces, and wondered what it was for. His brow furrowed as he smiled at them questioningly. When they said nothing, still staring, he realized they could not comfortably ask him... what? There was something like wonder in their expression; amazement, even.
Suddenly he knew, and he lowered his head for a moment, shaking his head slightly to keep from laughing. Merry and Pippin had not seen him since the wedding, and his open confidence with Lily was completely novel to them. They had never seen this side of him; it occurred to him they may have thought, for a moment, he was going to be sharing a bath with his bride...
Frodo smiled inwardly. It was true; this side of him had never existed before his wedding day. Indeed, he was not the same hobbit they had seen on the first day of June. He smiled at them but did not address their unspoken question.
“Well, now... are you two quite all right?”
He gave them no time to sputter out a reply, still smiling. “Pippin, I’ll help you settle the ponies. Merry, are you going to be starting dinner?”
“What?! And let you leave me out of all you’ll be telling Pippin?” pouted Merry. “It’s stew, and it’s almost ready. You two can help me finish preparing dinner when we get back. You’ve changed, Frodo Baggins, for the better, and I want the details as much as Pippin.”
“It’s true,” Pippin grinned. “They say marriage changes a person, some for the worse and some for the better, but you... it seems like--”
Pippin searched his mind for how to ask about the darkness without seeming as though he were asking. He started again.
“It’s like a weight’s been lifted from you. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Yes,” Merry piped in. “I’ve been trying to put my finger on it, and that’s it exactly, Pip. We’ve not asked you to explain anything about what happened -- before – before...” Merry’s voice trailed off, as he looked down for a moment. Then he raised his eyes to meet his cousin’s again.
“Well, anyway... even we can see you’re the happiest you’ve ever been.”
Frodo smiled. “I am. I’ll tell you while we settle the ponies. There’s space at the stable across the way?”
“We made certain of it, and we’ve an extra measure of grain for them, as well,” Pippin grinned.
Once the ponies were fed and bedded down for the night, the three returned to the kitchen to lay the table with the stew and fresh bread.
Dinner was nearly ready, but Lily had not appeared.
Frodo went to investigate, worried. He stopped at the door and was about to knock when he heard soft singing from within. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head on the door, captured by the simple joy of listening to the sound of her voice.
After several more minutes, curiosity got the better of Pippin, and with a nod from Merry, he left the table, ready to tease his older cousin. He glanced down the hall and stopped, wondering at the quiet scene before his eyes.
Lily had obviously finished her bath and was dressed in a chemise and skirts. Frodo was holding her lightly in his arms, gazing into her eyes; her right hand was in his curls.
Pippin suddenly felt as though he were intruding, and backed quietly into the kitchen. Merry threw him a questioning glance, and Pippin dragged his eyes from the hall, still seeing the pair in his mind. He gave Merry a quiet smile.
“They’ll be along,” he murmured softly.
Down the short hall, Lily reached up and kissed Frodo’s cheek, then smoothed back a stray curl lying there. Frodo buried his face in her hair and breathed deeply. They both knew where this could lead, and Merry and Pippin were waiting. They sighed together, sharing a rueful smile.
“I’ll keep my bath short, dearest Lily. I don’t want to hold up dinner.”
“I’ll make sure yours is ready,” Lily smiled.
Frodo lingered a moment longer, kissing his wife once more before retreating for his own bath.
Lily sighed again, then made her way to the kitchen where Pippin and Merry were finishing up, setting a bottle of small ale on the table with the other food.
The cousins turned together to face her.
Merry cleared his throat, then whispered, “Is It really gone?”
Lily smiled, warm and radiant, her eyes sparkling. “Just as Gandalf promised.”
“And you’re well?” Pippin whispered.
Lily giggled. “Better than ever before in my life.”
Merry and Pippin sighed heavily. “What a relief,” they chorused, then laughed nervously, as their fears for their most beloved cousin and friend were set to rest.
Lily embraced each of them in turn, and glanced past them at the table. “It smells like your wonderful stew, and it looks like everything’s ready...”
Merry wore a puzzled expression. “How do you know I make a wonderful stew?”
“You made some when the two of you came to Bag End in March to see Frodo... I believe, for right now, some silver might be helpful, Master Merry -- unless you planned on us eating it with our fingers, of course -- though it’s not my place to say, this being your home and not mine,” she finished, with a mischievous grin.
They laughed together and finished setting the table.
The four talked through dinner without stopping until well past supper; then they retired to the parlour and put their feet up, picking up where they’d left off. Pippin lit a pipe.
Frodo watched as the day seemed to overtake Lily. She grew quieter and settled more deeply into the crook of his arm. She was having trouble keeping her eyes open.
He stood and took Lily by the hand. Bidding Merry and Pippin goodnight on behalf of his bride, he smiled when she sleepily added her own goodnight.
Frodo led her back to their room. He helped her into bed, where she fell asleep as her head touched the pillow. Frodo gently kissed her brow and made sure she was comfortable. He then went back out to the parlour to continue visiting with Merry and Pippin.
Frodo was certain Lily would not miss him, and so he talked late into the evening with his friends. He also wanted Lily well and truly asleep, so he would not disturb her when he finally slipped under the covers next to her.
The trio finally bid each other good night; Frodo guessed it was at least an hour past midnight.
Though no fire was needed, it was still cool enough at night to need a quilt in their bedroom. A single shaft of moonlight painted a silver-white path from the window to the middle of the coverlet on the bed, inviting Frodo to rest. He lay down quietly next to his wife, not quite touching, in the hopes she would stay asleep. He was all too aware of how tired she was, and they had another long day tomorrow.
He settled carefully and slowly relaxed, relieved he had not disturbed her, then froze as Lily stirred. She desperately needed sleep, and he knew it. It would not do to tire her out before the journey had really begun. He realized he took for granted all the traveling he had done. How had he forgotten how much it changed him? Memories of the start of his last journey drifted in; Frodo gave thanks they were not unpleasant ones.
Lily stirred again, and Frodo worried that somehow his thoughts had awakened her. She was so aware of him. For a moment he wondered if he should have slept in another room, leaving her in peace; then he heard her softly murmur, “Frodo, I’m cold...”
Frodo’s heart ached with the love he felt for her as he gently gathered her into his arms and pulled her close to him.
She shifted slightly until she was comfortable and sighed, “Better.” Her breathing became even again.
He could have wept.
Oh, beloved! his heart sang. You want me nowhere else but here, with you. You take comfort in my presence, in whatever I offer you. And you ask for so little; tonight you want only warmth. I can give this to you. This journey shall be difficult for me, I know. But I promise to make it as pleasant for you as possible, my dearest love.
Frodo could feel Lily completely relax in his arms, her breathing deepening. In amazement, he realized that in this moment he brought her peace, and he drifted off to sleep.