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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

7 July 1420sr

A Black Rider reached for him, then faded away, replaced by warmth and light and love.

Frodo woke at the break of dawn and made certain Lily was warm enough before attempting to drift back into light slumber. Aware of his lover’s every move and breath, sleep eluded him. He closed his eyes and enjoyed another hour of simply listening to her steady breathing, allowing his thoughts to wander, and hearing the muted sounds of morning life all around them in their glade.

He smiled as he noticed again that sometimes her hand opened and closed in her sleep. At times, it almost seemed as though she were patting and caressing him gently, to be certain he was there. The first time it happened, he thought her awake, and accidentally wakened her. Now he garnered sweet comfort from knowing she was aware of him, even in sleep.

A silent sigh escaped his lips as he stared up through the pine boughs of their bower for a time, then studied the peaceful beauty of his wife’s face, illuminated by the waning starlight and waxing sunrise filtering through the branches; radiant, she was. He wanted to touch the silkiness of her long auburn tresses, but refrained.

Finally, unbidden, he whispered, “I love you, Lily Baggins. Never shall I be able to thank Ilúvatar enough for you.” He kissed her forehead and smiled softly as she nestled closer to him. “Sleep, beloved, sleep a little longer, safe here in my arms...”

A sudden slight fear gripped him. What if she were taken from him? No... no. He told himself these were old fears, old feelings of being pursued, old memories... phantoms, only. It was foolish to feel this way. It was because they were on this road... She would not be taken from him.

This is not the Quest, he reminded himself. I am no longer on any quest... It was difficult to remember, difficult to dislodge the feeling, an embedded stubborn ache within his breast. She would not be taken. Dearest Ilúvatar, protect us. Please...

Where was this coming from? A tear slipped down his cheek, and he wiped it away lightly against her soft curls, so close. He sighed; Lily would sense the old fears within him, and she would worry. Then he prayed for the peace Ilúvatar had given him so many times before, and when it came to him, he allowed it into his heart.

The Sun rose above the horizon, still veiled by the surrounding trees, and Lily stirred within her husband’s warm embrace.

“Good morning,” Frodo murmured.

“Mmmm...” She nestled deeper, and sighed. “Good morning.”

“Would you like to spend another day here?”

“No, I think not. Thank you for asking...” A smile touched her lips and a giggle escaped her.

Frodo felt the quickening of his heartbeat. Did she mean she was thanking him for asking to stay this morning, or for his asking for her love last night?... Her giggle implied it was more than just this morning’s query.

She giggled again. “I’m quite well, truly. If we take too long to get to Rivendell, they’ll wonder where we are... how would we ever explain...?”

Frodo chuckled. “Lily Baggins, you are full of surprises; pleasantly so...” He turned serious once again. “Are we traveling too quickly, dearest?”

“No, love,” she sighed, and nestled her head against him, her eyes still closed, warding off the day a few moments longer.

“But sometimes... you seem so weary...”

“It’s not the same as -- as before. There is so much to take in...”

“And you feel overcome by it, mayhap?”

“A bit... it’s -- so expansive,” she intoned softly.

Frodo could not say why he made the suggestion. “If you wish it, we’ll turn around now and head home...”

Lily endeavored to sense her husband’s feeling on the matter, then decided to ask instead. “Do you want to go back?”

He hesitated. He wanted to touch her face, to feel the softness of her hair; to kiss her -- but it would be unfair to influence her thoughts in this manner, while she was yet undecided. He had seen how quickly his simplest caress could affect her; in a matter of moments she would be responsive, and no longer thinking clearly... at least, not about the subject they had been discussing.

“Do I want to go back?” he repeated aloud. He could only ever tell Lily the truth. “Yes, and no...”

With a touch of teasing in her voice, she met the utter seriousness of his gaze. “Didn’t you tell me once that one shouldn’t go to the Elves for advice, because they answer both no and yes?”

Frodo laughed, and Lily reveled in the sound of it, as it warmed her from the inside out. His eyes lit with a smile, and she attempted unsuccessfully to keep her breathing steady. Truly, her husband did not yet perceive -- not fully, at least -- how his mere glance, his tiniest smile, could move her. She concentrated on his words, idly fingering the buttons on his silk shirt, anything to keep from gazing into those eyes...

“Dearest wife, if you wish to turn back, we shall, with no regrets. And yet I look forward to seeing Uncle Bilbo and showing you the Last Homely House -- Rivendell. There are gardens there unlike anything we’ve in the Shire, and the library -- I believe I’ve mentioned it to you before... the innumerable tomes...”

“Indeed. Then we’d best be on our way,” she smiled, looking up again into the blue depths. Maybe she needed breakfast, or mayhap it was simply his nearness, or both; she felt slightly faint. It was not an unpleasant sensation...

Frodo saw the slight change in her eyes; she needed breakfast. He slipped out of the bower and handed Lily out.

When she was on her feet, she swiftly kissed his cheek, and again played with the buttons on his shirt, briefly glancing up to meet his steady gaze. “May we stay here on our way home?”

Warmth and love lit his smile. “Yes, we may.”

“Good,” she sighed, as her husband lifted her hand away from the buttons of his shirt, kissing each of her fingers in turn.

She continued, with only the smallest catch in her throat, “W - would you like a warm breakfast?”

“Mayhap we ought to keep it cold...”

Lily laughed, regaining most of her poise. “Mayhap. It’ll certainly be easier. And there are still blueberries on the bushes. No sense letting them go to waste. They should keep well enough for our travel today.”

They made short work of their morning ablutions and chores, and started the ponies off on the day’s journey at a brisk walk.

After a time, Frodo broke their comfortable silence. “By our map, I believe we’ll pass the Midgewater Marshes over the next three days with the pace we’re taking... that is, if we don’t rest an extra day...”

Lily smiled. “I think I’ll fare well enough. How long did it take you, and the others, to pass the Marshes?”

“Three days -- and we didn’t actually pass them, but went straight through them.”

“Through them? That has an unpleasant sound to it.”

“Indeed. I don’t imagine you’ll want to hear about it.”

Lily considered for a moment. “Actually, I think I would, if you don’t mind, but first... I want to fix the distance in my mind... it took you three days to pass through on foot, and you and I’ll be taking about three days to go around it... do I understand that correctly?”

“Yes.”

“But we’re on ponies... shouldn’t it be much quicker?”

“Yes. And it is. It would have taken us much longer on foot, if we’d gone around. We took a shortcut on the Quest, so to speak, as we were endeavoring to ensure we were not followed and remained unseen from unwanted watching eyes.”

Lily felt the chill evoked by the memories those words stirred, and became quiet for a time.

They rode on, listening to the songs of the birds, and they began trying to use the songs to identify them.

---------

Frodo had not planned to dwell on those miserable days, but found himself telling Lily nearly every detail he could recall of the Midgewater Marshes. Even now, the name of the place caused him pain, as horrible memories of the Dead Marshes, so far away from their road, vied for his attention.

Yet in the back of his mind, he knew he was only postponing the inevitable, avoiding thoughts of -- Amon Sûl. It helped, barely, to call it by its ancient name. But each time he started to open the door to that particular memory, he was overcome, and would slam the door shut once again.

He chattered away throughout their meals, as well, and was grateful Lily let him. He imagined the whole thing would be quite boring for her, this talk of Midgewater. However, Lily was not only interested, she encouraged him to continue. The questions she asked, and comments she offered, told him she was not merely endeavoring to please him. She truly wanted to know...

Dearest Ilúvatar! he marveled silently. She wants to know--! Please protect her from harm. Please, when we pass that place, let no evil come to her... let it be a sacred place once more, and not an evil place...

Frodo suddenly came to himself and realized he had been staring off to the northeast, silent, and Lily was waiting for him to speak. He forced himself back into some sort of composure, for her sake as well as his own, endeavoring to recall what he had spoken of last. Ah!

When he told his wife of the songs Strider shared, she asked if he could remember them, then assured him she wanted to hear them. He found himself softly chanting the tale of Tinúviel, just as Strider had all those nights ago.

---------

Lily noted silently that at times throughout their day, Frodo would scratch first one hand and then the other, and finally his neck, and then repeat the process. She wondered for a moment why he was in so much discomfort when she was not. Then she realized he was not in any actual discomfort now, but was experiencing again the old remembered ones. She also sensed he was not aware of it.

Shortly after tea, his story finally drew to a close, and she sighed heavily in relief, stating firmly, “I am heartily grateful we need not pass that way.”

They both shuddered at the thought of the misery they would be avoiding, and then just as suddenly, they laughed. He kissed her once, for their shared laughter, and she returned it.

---------

Afternoon faded into early evening, and Frodo turned south off the main track to find a quiet place to camp.

Lily stared about her. She was not accustomed to all this open space. The Shire was large, with rolling hills and woods, but one could not wander far without passing one home or another. They had not seen any sign of another living soul, besides their animal companions, since leaving Bree. The vastness almost overwhelmed her.

Frodo briefly kissed her as he helped her down from Merry, but did not linger. He was still attentive and yet distracted. Lily carefully hid her disappointment, and wished for the moment they had not traveled further on this day after all. And yet an urgency to move forward was quietly taking hold of her heart. Is it my own desire to get to Rivendell, or Frodo’s dread of what is to come? she wondered.

She felt the distance growing between them, and wanted to ask him what it meant, but her heart whispered she already knew. His memories were returning, clearer and stronger, with each passing day. She reminded herself she had told him on more than one occasion she wanted him to share his memories with her, but that she was willing to wait until he was ready. With difficulty, she chose to trust he would open to her, when he felt able. She prayed it would not be too much longer.

Though he still did not mention Weathertop, Lily knew they would pass it soon. Something within her intimated it was the source of Frodo’s discomfort.

They went about their evening tasks, and when it was time for the meal, they prayed together, giving thanks. They shared their supper in companionable silence, with the varied sounds of life all about them, lost in thought.

Lily glanced briefly at the evening star. What is it called, again? I can’t remember. Sam told us the story in April, after their Promising, but there were so many names... I can’t seem to remember any of them. Frodo promised to tell me the story -- once we were married...

She smiled, then sighed. She suddenly felt tired, too tired to hear it tonight, too weary to puzzle it all out. Frodo seemed almost grateful when she told him she wanted to turn in early.

The day had been more wearing on Frodo than he wanted to admit. He wished to tell her of the fears his memories were stirring, even though he knew she probably sensed them. Yet he could not find the words. Every time he thought he could tell her, the words stuck in his throat, and again he would say nothing. As they settled in for the night, he gathered Lily close, feeling the familiar comfort her nearness brought, and sleep came quickly to them both.

---------

Deep in the night, Lily woke to find Frodo stirring fitfully. Moonlight bathed them, and in its light she saw her husband’s face clearly, his brow furrowed, his face reflecting some unseen anguish. No words escaped him, but she sensed his terrible disquiet, and his fear.

She held him close and soothed him, murmuring soft words of comfort, and breathed a prayer of thanks when he slipped back into sound sleep.

After a time, she followed him, lulled into slumber by the evenness of his breathing and the peace which surrounded them both.

---------

8 July 1420sr

With the coming of dawn, Frodo stretched and then pulled Lily closer. A vague disquiet touched his heart. Sooner or later he must tell Lily of these memories, but how could he tell her when he could not bring himself to dwell on them for more than a moment -- only long enough to push them away?

I am certain you are aware, my beloved wife. I would be a fool to believe you do not sense my foreboding.

Lily stirred in his arms. “Good morning,” she whispered.

“Good morning,” Frodo smiled. “You are more asleep than awake, sweet. You may sleep a little longer, if you like.” Then he listened carefully to hear her words.

“May I...”

He smiled. “Yes, you may.”

She sighed and nestled closer.

Gratitude rose in his heart. The darkness was gone, as was the voice, and no longer drew on Lily’s strength, but these memories... did they draw on her?

I’ll tell her, Frodo assured himself, but not today. He relaxed a little; but at the back of his mind, he knew he was merely delaying the unpleasantness.

---------

The only evidence of the Marshes just to the north was a faint grey haze in the distance and the occasional swarm of insects. They avoided the worst of them by nudging the ponies into a quicker pace, without any complaint from the ponies, who were seeking to escape the pests as well.

“It wasn’t too unpleasant on the return journey,” Frodo admitted, “since we were traveling in late October, and the insects were sparse.”

“Yes, that would follow,” Lily agreed.

“Isn’t it odd,” he mused quietly. “It’s easier to speak of the return journey, though by then the -- the darkness was a part of every waking -- and sleeping -- moment...”

Lily was uncertain if he expected any reply, then found herself answering. “Returning, you had seen and felt and endured so much; when you set out, you possessed only your knowledge of the Shire, and its peace... For me, well -- even facing no danger at all, here on our journey, I’m still in awe of everything we’re seeing... Middle-earth is so much larger than I ever imagined... I don’t know how else to say it -- and this is only one small corner of it, and you’ve seen ever so much more...”

“The Quest truly did change me...”

“Yes, Frodo, it did.” She felt an edge of distress within him. “It was not a bad change, Frodo. It simply wasn’t what you expected.”

Frodo halted Strider and Pippin, and Lily pulled up Merry alongside.

“You are quite remarkable, Lily Baggins.”

She gave him their private smile. “I know. But so are you, so we’re suited.” She searched her husband’s eyes and felt a mix of warm pleasure and disquieting memories stirring within him; memories she knew he needed to share. She offered him another smile, to reassure him. Once he sorted them out in his mind, he would share them with her, she knew.

Frodo returned his wife’s smile, lingering for a moment as his eyes read hers, then clicked the ponies on.

----------

They halted for luncheon near a copse of ancient willows. Water was near, and Frodo and Lily led their ponies to a large pond stained brown by untold ages of oak leaves having found their resting place in its depths. It was not nearly as large as the Pool at Bywater, yet life teemed all around them. They heard sparrows and warblers in the huge oaks and elms surrounding them, as well as the chittering of unseen squirrels.

“Feel that breeze,” Frodo offered, looking around them, and up at the sky. “It may rain, I’m guessing...”

“Rainwater would be wonderful for our water flasks. I’ll need to set out the bowls...”

“In anticipation?”

“I’m hoping... I love rain, in any case,” Lily replied, partly to herself. “I love it more with you, though.” She blushed lightly. “I love everything more, with you.”

Frodo kissed her hand, then kissed her cheek, and her forehead. “Everything does mean more, Lily. We are indeed blessed.”

The ponies drank noisily, splashing their noses in the water. When they were done, Frodo lifted a blanket and a satchel of provisions from Pippin, the packpony. Lily relieved him of their things to prepare their luncheon, and Frodo led the three ponies to the eastern end of the pond, to graze in the open meadow of grasses and wildflowers, speaking softly to them as he went.

He made his way briskly back to Lily, who was laying out cheese, a barley loaf, and dried cherries.

“That looks very good indeed. I’m famished, are you?” he smiled.

“Yes, I am, love,” she agreed, “so much so that it pains me to have to cut off even a little of the green edges off this barley loaf. At least it’ll be a treat for the creatures who live here.”

Frodo watched as Lily applied herself to trimming the loaf. He did not have the heart to tell her what a feast a loaf of bread -- any bread, no matter how green -- would have been on the barren plains of Gorgoroth. He shook himself. It would not do to think of those days now.

“Frodo-love?”

She was sitting on their red woolen blanket, gazing up at him. He caught himself staring at nothing, and smiled down at her.

“Come and sit, dear Frodo; you are hungry. The cheese is ready, and here are some cherries, and the bread. And a bit of our small ale.”

He sat beside her, and after a short prayer they tucked into their simple meal. Frodo knew, as ever, that Lily was thrilled to see him eat; she was even more thrilled when he ate well. Every time he teased her about it, she told him it was because she had seen him starve for several days in March, during his illness, and knew the Quest had been much more difficult. He had been doing his best to eat well since their wedding, not having had a proper hobbit appetite during their betrothal, when excitement had dulled it.

Lily set her cup of ale beside her, balancing it against her hip. “Frodo, have you ever had an appetite like -- well, like Hal’s, or Will’s? Or even Pippin’s or Sam’s?”

“Not that I remember. I can’t think of a time... mayhap when I was quite young. But I was growing like a weed then, as Da used to say. After Mum and Da... after they were gone, I kept quite busy exploring the woods around Brandy Hall. I didn’t want to come back, not even for meals. I’d take food along with me, as much as I could pilfer from the kitchen, and fit in my pockets or the little knapsack my da gave me...” He smiled at an old memory, then took a sip of his ale.

“Cook would attempt to be angry with me for nicking food without asking, but even at that, she never seemed to stay angry...” He laughed. “I haven’t thought of her for so long! She was wonderful. She endeavored to appear stern and overbearing, but she was too soft-hearted; we all saw through it.”

“So Auntie Esme didn’t do the cooking?”

“Not very often. Cook was there... and you know the Brandybucks never went without!” He smiled as she nodded her head, drawing her knees up to her chin and wrapping her arms around them. “There were dozens of people... whole families, cousins, siblings, grandparents, all living there. We always had a cook and her kitchen maids, not to mention the other household maids. It was quite a change, going to live with Uncle Bilbo, cooking for ourselves, and heating our own water for the bath!”

Frodo watched his wife grin and laughed again. “It was good for me, to be sure... listen to me! I’m chattering like the squirrels!”

“You may chatter all you like, dear heart,” Lily teased. She leaned over to kiss his cheek, then tossed the small bit of green barley loaf into some tall grasses. A bird appeared from nowhere and then another, and another.

Frodo stopped eating and sat perfectly still. “I think those are song-sparrows...”

“Look!” Lily pointed, and the birds scattered, but one was black, with splashes of red, the colours blurring as it flew.

“A redwing blackbird!” Frodo exclaimed. “I wonder if there are any nests about... they make their nests on the ground, near water.”

“I don’t know much about the ground-nesters, but I know something of robins and thrushes; we had those everywhere in Deephallow...”

“Would you care to take a walk with your poor tired hobbit husband after luncheon?” he teased. This was still a running joke between them, months after they had invented it.

“If you think you can keep up with me, my poor tired husband,” she giggled.

“We’ll see if I can,” Frodo replied, matching her tone. “But if I catch you...” His eyes twinkled as he watched her blush pink.

“Frodo!”

“You are beautiful when you blush, dearest love. Forgive me. I said it to see you blush...”

Lily’s blush turned crimson, and she giggled again. “Two can play at this game... I love your mouth... Ah, there, see? You’re blushing the colour of this blanket!”

Frodo choked a little on his ale, laughing. “Not while I’m eating, sweet!” he chided. “Although, come to think of it, you were eating, too... all right. I’ll desist, for the time being. But I hope you’ll still walk with me.”

Lily’s expression turned serious. “I will walk with you anywhere, day or night, forever...”

She leaned forward again and they met halfway in a kiss. When they pulled away, his eyes held hers.

“Your lips are sweet, dearest Lily. I shall never want for dessert, with you near.” He kissed her again, then broke it, grinning, and stood up. “Are you ready for our walk? You appear to be finished; are you satisfied with our simple fare?”

“Yes. More than satisfied.” She was still blushing, and allowed him to take her hands and lift her up to stand. “Let’s be on our way.”

They walked hand in hand toward the eastern end of the pond, where the ponies grazed.

“Oh!” Frodo stopped suddenly. “Look, Lily-sweet! See here, a nest! I nearly stepped on it!”

They stooped down together to more closely inspect the nest, made of water-grasses and twigs, and hidden on one side by a stand of cattails.

The breeze which had cooled them earlier ceased, and a stillness settled over the pond and the meadow.

“It is going to rain,” Frodo decided, glancing up once more. “I can smell it.”

“Yes, so can I -- Frodo? What is it, love?”

“I’m sorry; I was gone again, wasn’t I? I do apologize, Lily. It’s -- odd things set off memories of the journey. I never know what will set them off. I’m not sure what happened just now, to make me think of the Emyn Muil... Oh... it was -- I remember. Sam and I were lost... we were going in circles. Then it rained, and Gollum--”

He stopped, and met Lily’s eyes. “It’s nothing. We can talk about it another day.”

“If you wish, Frodo. Only when -- only if -- you want to.”

He thanked her with his eyes, and she smiled and nodded. They turned back together to watch the nest.

“I wonder where the parents are,” Lily observed softly. “These look to be sparrow’s eggs, I think? They are light blue...”

“Yes, but look closer... see the lavender in that one, and that one? I’m certain these belong to the redwing blackbird.”

“Did you like to study birds as a child?”

“Yes, some... yes. And as a tween, with Bilbo. We went on many a long hike together, and in truth it was he who taught me the things to watch for. Mum loved birds and flowers of all kinds, but she didn’t know which nests went with which birds, but for robins... we all knew the colour of those eggs.”

A light rain began to fall, and at the same moment one of the eggs began to move, a fine pattern of tiny cracks on the eggshell appearing before their eyes.

“Where are the parents?” Frodo worried. “The chicks won’t be safe anymore, if they hatch out into this rain. They need the shelter of the parents’ wings. They’ll drown.”

Lily watched in wonder as another egg showed lines, and moved. The first egg had broken open, and a tiny beak poked through it.

Lily’s confusion showed on her face. “I don’t know where they are... and I suppose they could drown, being so young like this. But, Frodo -- do you truly think they might die? Won’t the water flow over them and out of the nest?”

Frodo’s brows knit, and he removed his waistcoat.

“Sometimes, but being as tiny as they are, even a drop can impede their breathing, if it falls on their beak. I’ve seen it happen, once, not realizing the consequences... They’re helpless when they’re first born. They can’t seek shelter on their own, not even to protect themselves from the raindrops -- and it’s getting heavier...”

He spread his waistcoat out over the nest.

Lily eased one edge of the material from Frodo’s grasp and they shared a smile at their effort to provide shelter for the newborn creatures. They watched in wonder as the chicks escaped their fragile homes and entered the summer day.

“We’ll need to stay here until the parents return, Lily. You don’t mind...”

“No, dearest, of course not. We’ll stay. The parents won’t stay away forever.”

“No,” Frodo assured, but Lily heard the doubt in his voice.

---------

They stayed on, the rain turning steady, but not drenching, until they heard a harsh cry overhead, and a bird swooped down at them, calling again in warning.

Glancing up, they saw the parent, much closer now, his red markings edged with pale buff vivid as the brightest paint against the inky black of his wings.

Frodo rose first, and helped Lily up from her crouched position; they felt slightly unbalanced after being stooped so low to the ground for so long. He slung his soaking-wet waistcoat over his shoulder, and reached for her left hand with his right, as they turned to leave the nest.

The redwing blackbird took another angry sweep at them, then settled on the edge of the nest, covering the hatchlings, and protecting them from the worst of the rain. Another bird, dark with streaks of buff, but with only a suggestion of red on her wings, sailed down to perch on the other side of the nest.

Frodo and Lily stood far away, and watched.

“It’s the female.” His face still held some worry.

She squeezed his hand. “They’ll be fine now, Frodo.”

“Yes, I’m sure...” He sighed deeply. “I’m sure of it,” he repeated, and smiled for her.

---------

The rain slowed and then stopped before one hour had passed. When the Sun reappeared, Frodo and Lily changed into their second set of travel clothes, and Frodo dried the saddles with a soft cloth, then brushed the ponies down, to speed the drying of their coats. Lily gathered the luncheon dishes and made short work of them at the large pond, near enough to the ponies that Frodo could hear her.

“Will you teach me how to brush the ponies, Frodo?”

“Do you truly wish to learn?” he grinned. “I’d never expect you to care for the ponies.”

“I know, but I’d like to learn anyway. Will and Da tried to teach me to help with the pony we owned when I was growing up, but with my fear of them after my friend fell, I didn’t even like going near them.” She set the last clean dish in the satchel.

“I’m pleased you’ve overcome your fear,” Frodo smiled.

“With a bit of help from you and Strider, and Diamond, of course.” Lily grinned, then stopped, and stared out across the clearing to the west. “I miss Daisy and Pearl.”

Frodo joined her at the water’s edge, and she turned to look up at him. “I miss them too, Lily, and Hal as well.” He sat down next to her and began to wash his feet thoroughly, then his hands, and lastly he leaned forward on his knees to wash his face. He turned back to her, water dripping off his nose and clinging to his long lashes. “We can make a side trip to see them on our way home...”

“I’d like that... what a picture you make!” she laughed. “Here’s a towel, dear heart. It’s a bit damp, but it’s clean. A real bath would be wonderful, but that’s not until Rivendell...” she sighed. “We could heat some water tonight to wash off with...”

“Indeed, we shall, with a leaf of athelas... thank you, love,” he smiled, drying himself off. “On the Quest, we’d grown accustomed to not having luxuries like towels. Luxury was sleeping more than four hours a night. Now, when I’m out of doors like this, I still forget them. We’d simply let the Sun dry us... that is, when we had water, and the Sun...”

His face clouded. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I fear my mind is truly wandering quite a bit. I think it’s being on the road again... I am sorry.”

Before Lily could protest at his apology, he held out his hands to lift her up, then took the satchel of dishes, and replaced it where it belonged on Pippin’s pack.

“Shall we go?” he asked brightly, but he was certain Lily had seen through his seeming change in mood. “I think we’ve lost a bit of time, what with the rain, and our bird-watching,” he smiled.

“Not lost, dearest... but we’d best be on our way,” she smiled, and Frodo helped her place her foot into the stirrup; she was just short enough that reaching the stirrup was difficult on her own. Merry whinnied, anxious to be moving again, but Lily bent down to kiss her husband’s mouth, unable to resist his nearness.

Frodo reached up to touch her hair as they kissed, then broke it, smiling up at her, his eyes dancing in the bright sunlight.

“Dearest Lily, I’ll -- we’ll not put another mile behind us today, if we keep this up...”

She smiled at him enigmatically, only nodding. He kissed her left hand, then swung up easily onto Strider and they set off, Pippin following.

---------

They rode silently, and Lily could feel the tension building; Frodo was lost in another memory. She wondered if perhaps it was the same one he had reacted to at the pond.

She sought to ease the strain by encouraging him to speak of adventures he shared with Merry and Pippin and Sam just after Bilbo adopted him. Frodo seemed glad for the diversion, and after a moment he threw himself wholeheartedly into telling her several stories from those days.

Speaking of his adventures with Merry and Pippin and his other friends in the Shire, Lily’s curiosity found its voice.

“Frodo?”

“Yes?” He was still chuckling over the ending of the story he had just told about getting a soaking when wrestling with his cousins too close to the Water’s edge.

“I know this may be a difficult question--” She searched his eyes and saw the permission to continue written there. “If not for the -- the Ring, would the Quest... well, it would not have been a Quest, then... but, say you journeyed anyway... was the traveling difficult for you?”

“Do you mean in comparison to now?”

“In part, I suppose.”

“You worry, beloved.” Frodo smiled gently.

Lily glanced away.

“Sweet, you are no burden. It is a pleasure to be able to truly see the country through which we pass; a gift not afforded me even on the return home.” A smile lit his face as he turned to her. “Other than our niwealdor, I cannot remember the last time I could indulge in the moment, with no thought for what was behind me, or what lay ahead.”

Lily returned his smile, then gathered all the gentleness she could into her response. “At least, not entirely,” she murmured.

He glanced at her once, then stared down the road ahead, speaking softly. “True, but we’ll not think on it today.”

---------

Lily woke wearily in the middle of the night, knowing before she was fully awake that Frodo was once again struggling with a nightmare. No words escaped him, at least none she could understand. She wished she could blame this on the relative discomfort of sleeping on the ground, but knew in her heart that was not the answer.

“Shhh, my dearest. You are safe with me.” She caressed his face, damp with sweat. “No harm shall come to you. I am here.”

Frodo trembled, then settled, holding her fast.

Lily sighed with relief, and kissed his brow. “Dearest Ilúvatar, thank You.”