Frodo stirred. Something disturbed his sleep. What? Then he heard the gentle tapping on the parlour door again. Lily’s arm was draped across him, her head on his chest, and he wondered how to extricate himself. He did not truly wish to, but he needed to answer the door before it woke her. He inched his way out from under her, easing her head to his pillow.
She noticed and whimpered softly, missing him.
Frodo tenderly kissed her temple and whispered, “I won’t be gone long; I promise.”
Without opening her eyes, Lily nodded and settled quietly.
Frodo wanted to kiss her again, but settled for caressing her with his eyes.
Again, the soft tapping at the door.
Frodo shrugged his way into his dressing gown and ran his fingers through his hair. He closed the door connecting the bedroom to the parlour and opened the door onto the hall.
Nob stood holding a tray and dropped his eyes in apology, slipping quickly into the parlour to set the tray of tea and scones on the table. “Sorry, Mr. Baggins, but you did say you wanted first breakfast bright and early, sir.”
“I did. It’s all right, Nob. Thank you. I hadn’t realized how weary my wife and I were. What’s left to be done, then?”
Nob looked up and shook his head. “Nothing, sir. Everything’s ready. You’ve only t’ tell me when it is you’ll be wanting t’ leave, and I’ll ‘ave the ponies ready and waiting in the yard for you and your mistress.”
Frodo blinked in surprise. “Everything? How?”
Nob was pleased to be in the know, and stood taller. “Mr. Gandalf, sir. When he came t’ visit and told us you were comin’, he also gave the strictest instructions about what t’ gather up ‘n pack; so between what he ordered, ‘n your letter confirmin’ your plans, sir, well, everythin’s taken care of, and then some...”
Endeavoring to sort out this unexpected news in his mind, Frodo decided it was too early for such a mystery. “When was Gandalf here?”
“Nearly a month back, sir.”
“And he arranged everything, then?”
“Yes, sir. Is there somethin’ wrong, sir?”
“No, no, there isn’t, Nob,” Frodo smiled, then continued more to himself. “Nothing is wrong, except Gandalf knows me better than I know myself.”
Nob decided he would never understand the gentry. They were an odd lot indeed.
Frodo shook his head. “Never mind. Thank you, Nob. Would you bring us second breakfast, a little on the late side, if you please, and then bring the ponies round?”
Now that they were back on familiar territory, Nob eagerly nodded. “Yes, sir.” He turned and hurried down the hall.
Frodo stretched slowly, then yawned, and turned his mind again to the information Nob had given him. Did Gandalf know him so well that he could prepare weeks in advance a trip Frodo admitted to himself he did not know he was going on until a fortnight back? He shook his head, smiling to himself. He knew there was only one answer: yes.
He wondered for a moment if he should stay in the parlour to keep from waking Lily, then remembered what he told her: ‘I won’t be gone long; I promise.’ He remembered another promise made long ago, and realized he missed Sam.
Mayhap this was really what Gandalf had meant about them getting to know each other better. Frodo had always had Sam to lean on; now there was only Lily. He instantly worried what it might cost her, vividly recalling what had been required of Sam. Then he firmly reminded himself that this was not the same. And he was healed now. Surely he was truly healed. The voice had not come to him since the wedding...
He balanced the tea tray in one hand and carefully opened the door with the other, then stepped to the foot of the bed.
Lily stirred and felt with her hand where her husband should have been. Her eyes fluttered open and searched for him.
“I’m here, my dearest Lily.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. “Beloved, is it time to get up already?”
“Not quite yet. I’ve some scones and tea here for you. Would you like them in bed?”
Lily smiled. “That sounds lovely, as long as it’s with you.”
“Try to stop me,” Frodo grinned, as his wife sat up, propping her pillows behind her.
He set the tray at the foot of the bed, and joined her. They shared their morning prayer of gratitude and fed each other the scones, and tea, with small kisses in between, until the kisses became more interesting than firsties.
With some difficulty, Frodo left her caresses and removed the tray to the parlour. When he returned to the bedroom, he endeavored to keep his voice even.
“Lily, sweet, this is your last chance for truly comfortable rest, for the next few weeks. Why don’t you try to get a little more sleep; our journey gets a bit rougher from here. You might want to enjoy that feather bed for as long as possible.”
Lily heard the smile in his voice, and smiled back. She captured his eyes with her own. “Not if you’re not with me.”
Frodo decided he did not need to be invited twice.
They enjoyed a plentiful second breakfast and found Nob holding Strider and Merry, and the new packpony, a dapple-grey gelding, ready and waiting in the courtyard.
As Frodo prepared to help Lily onto Merry, he wondered aloud, “Mayhap it would be better to wait one more day... another day to rest...”
Lily stopped and turned to him fully, then smiled. “I’m quite well, dearest. And not sore at all today. Truthfully, I’d like as much time as possible with Uncle Bilbo.” She made no mention of his nightmare, or her hope that leaving Bree would leave it behind, as well.
Frodo pursed his lips in an effort to hold back the tears springing to his eyes. His wife’s innate ability to hold their hope aloft, dispelling the fears lurking in the corners of his heart, touched him deeply. He ignored the presence of all those coming and going in the courtyard and clutched her to him, whispering in her ear. “I love you, Lily Baggins, with all that’s in me.”
Lily’s voice caught. “I love you, dearest Frodo.”
Nob gasped and glanced away, blushing at the couple’s openness, while others nearby in the courtyard stared for a moment, then hurried about their business, carefully averting their eyes.
Frodo gently pulled away and searched Lily’s eyes, finally returning her warm smile, as she brushed the tears from his cheeks. He quickly kissed hers away, and they laughed softly.
“All right, then,” Frodo grinned. “I’ve embarrassed you and Nob quite long enough.”
Lily smiled shyly at Nob.
“No need t’ apologize t’ me...” Nob cleared his throat and recovered his cheerful demeanor. “Safe journey, Mister and Mistress Baggins.”
Barliman Butterbur approached and dismissed Nob, smiling broadly. “We’ll keep an eye open for you this fall. If you see Mr. Gandalf on your travels, give him my regards, thank you kindly...”
Frodo and Lily nodded together, and Frodo replied, “We’ll do that, and we look forward to enjoying your fine hospitality again, Mr. Butterbur. Thank you. The suite was perfectly wonderful.”
“I’ll be sure to have it ready for you!”
Lily hid a smile as she wondered if Butterbur might burst a button, then Frodo turned Strider with the new packpony, and Merry followed after.
They took an easy relaxed pace out of Bree, their ponies quickly settling into the routine. The packpony was content to follow his new companions, wherever they might lead.
Frodo carefully considered the remainder of the trip. It would not be at all like the last two days. It was one thing to have a destination in mind to reach by nightfall. It was quite another undertaking altogether to have the next fortnight or so ahead of them, simply to head towards Rivendell. There would be no particular stops or locations.
From the corner of Frodo’s mind, a memory whispered: except Weathertop. Voices of memory stirred again... he still did not remember falling asleep and leaving the other three awake, with Strider off and about, scouting the perimeter... but he remembered the waking...
He heard their cheerful voices, smelled bacon and tomatoes frying, and woke...
Frodo pushed the dark chain of memories as far away as he could. Lily was with him. Surely it would not be so bad this time. It could not... he was healed. He sighed, but softly. There was no reason to alarm her. Nothing was wrong...
Lily glanced sharply at Frodo, feeling uneasiness within him, but did not ask any questions, deciding for now to allow him to do with his memories as he saw fit. Dearest Creator, she prayed, reveal to me when and how to help my husband when he most needs it...
Frodo made a concerted effort to continue to share stories of the earliest part of the Quest. As they entered Chetwood, he found himself recounting the story of their first days with Strider.
The Sun was high in the sky, filtering through the canopy of elms and silver oak as they rode beneath.
So different was today from those cold fall days... just enough Sun, Frodo decided; it warmed them but was not too hot...
“I still cannot explain why I accepted Aragorn -- Strider -- so quickly. I took him at his word. Merry and Pip, and especially Sam, were not particularly pleased with this sudden turn of events... I spent the next few days endeavoring to reassure them all would be well. In my heart, I knew I was risking all our lives by following a Ranger we knew so little of and who could only boast being recommended by Gandalf. But I could see no other way. When Merry asked me if we could trust him, I finally admitted that we had no choice... I dared not show them how nervous I felt myself. They looked to me; I was the eldest, and they were there only because of their love for me. They trusted me...”
Frodo drew the reins up gently, and as Strider paused, Merry slowed to a halt with the merest touch from Lily. The packpony stopped as well, and only protested once with a stomp, settling in with the others to wait, cocking a back leg.
Lily could see Frodo was lost in thought, but could not discern clearly what he was feeling. His eyes were fixed on some distant place or memory. She had listened intently to him, and noted the occasional catch in his voice, but since he did not seem too distressed...
“Merry and Pip shouldn’t have been along, Lily. We had no idea of the true extent of the danger we were in, but -- I knew it wouldn’t be safe. Gandalf told me I was being hunted. I tried, but I couldn’t stop them from coming along. They refused to let me leave alone; they all refused. I felt responsible for them. They are so much younger, Lily. Like children, almost, then, but of course, no longer... Merry nearly died at the Pelennor Fields... the Black Breath nearly took his life. Pip was in mortal danger, first in facing Denethor’s madness... and then going into battle himself... If I had known what was coming...”
Lily found it difficult to imagine the depth and breadth of Frodo’s burden. Her own memories of the power of the Ring -- of It growing heavier over time and of the darkness that marred Frodo’s soul -- flooded back from when she took care of him during his illness in March. Then, when they exchanged their vows... she shuddered involuntarily. She now began to comprehend that the Ring Itself was only a portion of the burden her husband carried.
“Frodo -- that is in the past, dearest.” Lily’s tone was plaintive. “Merry and Pippin are well. Sam is better off now than ever in his life. Please don’t torment yourself.”
She was close enough to reach across the space that separated them; she grasped his hand.
Frodo turned his face to hers and met her eyes.
Lily saw his glistening with unshed tears; she thought he had heard her words, but she could not be sure, as he continued as though she had not spoken.
“Sam... Gandalf sent him with me purposely. I realize now; Sam was protective of me from the very first day... Gandalf knew that about him... I would never have guessed he knew so much about Sam--”
He cleared his throat, and started again. “Sam never trusted anyone, Lily” -- at this he smiled to himself -- “except me. He didn’t like Strider one bit at the beginning, you know.” The smile left him. “But Sam did trust me, and I was taking him straight into Mordor. Though I didn’t know it then...”
His voice trailed off.
“Frodo -- dearest. Sam is fine. He is well. All is well now.” She was desperate to comfort him.
Frodo looked at Lily’s hand, still holding his.
“When Gandalf didn’t meet us in Bree... I didn’t know what to think or what to do... I should have sent them back to the Shire. But they wouldn’t have gone, would they...”
Lily realized his words were more a statement than a question.
He sighed, and when he spoke again, Lily felt his calm.
“I was responsible for the Ring, and for my friends, and then I came to feel responsible for Strider in some odd way as well. They all wanted to help me... protect me. And I can never repay them.”
When he looked fully into her eyes, Lily saw he was not quite sad, so much as thoughtful. She sensed he had come round full circle to the idea that he truly could only choose now between looking forward, or back, and he was looking forward, with gratefulness.
She could feel her husband directing his gratitude toward her, his eyes shining. He leaned over a little in order to kiss her hand, then released it; the ponies sensed they would be on their way again soon, and began to shift their weight from three hooves to all four.
“I am all right now, Lily. I must accept that I can’t ever repay all of them -- any of them. It was meant to be, all of this... Each of us needed to fill our part... I -- I simply have never understood it all at once, and I’m sure I never shall. I seem only able to understand it in small bits and pieces. Thank you for helping me.”
He smiled at her, and clicked Strider back into an easy walk, making sure Merry was keeping up, and the packpony. That pony needs a name, he decided.
Lily was pleased and relieved for him, but wasn’t sure how she had helped, except perhaps by listening carefully. All that mattered was that he felt better.
Close to the three o’clock hour, the Sun was her hottest, and Chetwood Forest offered blessed shade to the travelers, filling them with the sweet fragrance of pine and hickory, and flowering dogwood, the white blossoms lying heavy in the warm still air.
Frodo kept a watchful eye on his wife, gauging their travel on how she was faring. Whenever she seemed to tire, they would stop and rest a while, and eat, drinking from the flasks of water they carried. They found a stand of wild cherry trees where Frodo had remembered it, and they plucked the sweet cherries from the trees, gathering and eating their fill.
That was at tea-time. Frodo wondered again if they should have stayed in Bree a little longer, and smiled as he reminded himself Lily would have none of that. She wanted to go to Rivendell. Still, they would need to take an easy pace; and after tea, once they were on their way, he reined Strider in from their earlier brisk walk. For a moment, Frodo wondered if the pony knew where he was going and was eager to get there, but the animal seemed quite content with the slower pace.
An hour before dinner, Frodo decided it might be best to stop for the evening, and turned off the main road as he recognized one of the turns Gandalf had taken for a night’s rest on another day, last autumn. He knew his memory was sharp, but it surprised him to be able to recall the place. He wondered if his memories would fade as they went along, or become more vivid yet...
A fair distance into the trees, the way opened into a small clearing with a bubbling stream. Though Frodo did not mention it at first to Lily, it would be the perfect spot to rest for an extra day. She had not complained once, but he could see the weariness in her face and the drooping of her shoulders.
Frodo helped Lily down from Merry and in doing so, she was once again held close against him. He realized that he could perhaps give in to the longing he felt whenever she was this close to him, if she felt so inclined. This is what being a newlywed is like, he smiled to himself. Always wanting her, every moment of every day...
He kept his hands on her waist and searched her hazel-blue eyes. Though she matched his gaze steadily, she could not hide her weariness. He recognized the fatigue there. He would save his request for another time. Tonight, she needed rest.
Lily was not so weary she missed the question flicker in Frodo’s eyes before he hid it. She smiled as she realized that though she was tired, she wanted him as well. With her hands still on his shoulders from the lift down, she reached up and gently caressed his lips with her own.
Merry impatiently swished his tail and stomped a hoof, reminding them there was still a camp to settle.
With a wry smile, Frodo thought how much the pony was like his namesake.
They settled into what Lily imagined would become a comfortable routine: Frodo took care of the ponies and sleeping arrangements, while she prepared the meals.
Though Lily knew they should have stayed in Bree another day, she was happy to push her weariness aside to cook their dinner and enjoyed sharing it with her husband, mostly in companionable silence. It was good simply to hear the sounds of the earth all about them. Crickets were chirping in an ongoing chorus of serenading.
Before making final checks on the ponies, Frodo spread out the bedroll so Lily could rest before supper.
She lay on her back, staring up at the blue sky; she’d only rest a moment.
When she opened her eyes again it was dark; though she must have fallen asleep for several hours, she still felt tired. Frodo was sitting next to her, staring into the fire. Lily struggled to waken. As she shifted to sit up, he was there to help her.
“Frodo, you should have awakened me.”
He studied her carefully. “No, I should not have. There was nowhere to go, and no place we needed to be tonight but here; just here.”
Lily leaned her head gratefully on his shoulder, and slipped her arm through his to help steady herself. She sighed. “What would you like for supper?”
Frodo resisted the impulse to wrap his arms around her and draw her close. He could see and hear she was still worn. Instead he gently laced his fingers with hers and held her hand to his breast.
“Might I suggest, my lady, we keep supper simple: apples and seed cake and mayhap a bit of cheese and a few more of those cherries should do.”
Lily giggled and nodded, then moved to get it, but Frodo would not release her hand. She turned to him with a questioning look.
He smiled and handed her a plate already filled, ready for her to eat. Then he released her hand.
She kissed his cheek as he picked up his own plate. He had waited to eat with her...
They gave thanks for their meal, and drank from the water Frodo had collected upstream. The water’s coolness was a welcome respite from the warm weather.
“While you napped, sweet, I sorted through what’s packed on our new pony.” Frodo smiled, and took another drink of water. “Would you like me to read you the list I made up? It’s quite impressive!” he grinned.
Lily nodded, smiling, and he went over the list with her. Everything they needed Gandalf had seen to, including a bit more athelas and a couple of bottles of small ale.
Frodo crumbled some athelas in the water warming on the fire as they finished supper. When it had steeped for a few moments he carefully moved the kettle and retrieved one of the cloths Gandalf had thought to include in the packing. He dipped it into the water and checked to make sure it was not too hot, then handed it to Lily. It wouldn’t be a proper bath, but she could wash off some of the dirt of the day and mayhap the athelas would restore her a bit more.
When she finished scrubbing her face, neck, hands, and arms, Frodo took the cloth and bathed himself similarly; then he gently washed Lily’s feet, first one, and then the other. As he bent to his task, Lily reached out and softly touched his curls.
Glancing up, Frodo could see she was fading, and he worried a little. Was he still pushing the pace too hard? This was so different from his last journeys. Leaving the Shire, they were barely one step ahead of the wraiths, and returning -- Frodo let his mind wander. Well, returning, they just wanted to be back home in the Shire.
He and Lily would have to take a more leisurely pace. Her delicate nature would make it impossible for her to ever become accustomed to the traveling schedule he was so familiar with. He had a mind to stay up and watch the stars or gaze into the fire but knew Lily needed to sleep, and would do so only if he were near.
Lily was surprised by just how tired she still felt, even with the athelas. This was her first night under the stars, outside the Shire -- and with Frodo. She so wanted to enjoy it with him, but was struggling to stay awake. Bree was a day’s ride behind them and Rivendell still far ahead. Lily silently reminded herself that Weathertop lay between. She shivered a little.
Frodo banked the fire, recalling it would be easier than trying to start it again in the morning. He also had not forgotten how cold it could become by morning even in summer, when one slept outdoors.
He fleetingly remembered again those first few days of traveling with Aragorn. They simply rolled up in their bedrolls and cloaks wherever they stopped. For tonight, he had taken great care to find a soft patch of grass and gathered extra grasses to add softness, then spread the bedroll, which Gandalf ensured was packed. Though Frodo had at first been mildly bothered by Gandalf taking charge of everything, he was now very grateful; he hadn’t thought of a double bedroll -- or, mayhap it was Man sized -- nevertheless it was large enough for the two of them, and then some...
“Sleep well, my love,” he murmured into her ear, and gently tucked the blanket around them. He drew Lily close to his heart and kissed her hair.
“I love you, Frodo,” she breathed, looking up a little within his embrace to meet his gaze; but she was unable to keep her eyes open, and rubbed her cheek against the warmth of his breast, then sighed contentedly. Within moments, her breathing grew deep and even.
By firelight, Frodo watched her sleep for a few moments. Then he whispered, “I cannot tell why it is, my love, but when you sleep in my arms, the joy I feel is so deep, it seems something akin to pain. The sweetest pain I’ve ever known...”
He sighed softly, and Lily nestled closer in her sleep.
Frodo smiled and offered a silent prayer of thanks. Faramir, in one of their long discussions after the days of Elessar’s wedding to Arwen, had told him to pray when joy was so intense as to hurt. Someday, he would thank Faramir personally for his counsel. That journey could wait...
He breathed in the scent of Lily’s hair, ignoring his longing for her. He had waited till long past his coming of age before knowing the love she offered, and now that he had tasted its sweetness, he could certainly wait another night... He glanced up at the stars once more, before closing his eyes to the cool of the evening.
His thoughts centered first on Lily, enveloping him with unexpected peace as he carefully explored his memories of the beginning of the Quest. Sleep began to overtake him, and he remembered learning to keep Strider’s fast pace. Frodo smiled as his last thought was that he meant Strider the man, and not the pony.