When Lily awoke, Frodo was already up and laying out the preparations for breakfast. He stopped what he was doing and came to help her stand up. Lily stretched, but midway through reached for the small of her back.
“Oh... that did not feel at all good...” she mumbled.
He kissed her forehead. “Good morning, my love...where does it hurt -- there? -- would you like me to help with that, or no?”
“Yes, I think -- I am so sore there... good morning, love,” she smiled, still sleepy.
He moved to stand behind her, then began to knead the small of her back very gently through the nightshirt; she had told him how tender and sore she would be at these times.
“How is that so far?”
“Very good, thank you... over to the right, a little? Ohhhh, thank you... I think our sleeping spot was not as soft as what we’ve had up till now... I believe I am spoiled, dear Frodo.” A relieved smile crept across her lips as his fingertips dispersed the worst of the ache, moment by moment.
He continued rubbing her back, and was glad for the distraction of conversation. “It really was the softest spot I could find last night. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of bedding lying about, only a little grass, which the ponies needed for grazing, and no conifer to speak of; I did endeavor to avoid the rocks and tree roots... but you’re right; it wasn’t the best we’ve had. I am sorry, especially as you’re sore anyway... is this still all right? You’ll tell me when to stop?”
“Yes, but not quite yet... Frodo, where did you learn this? It seems you know precisely what to do...” she yawned the final phrase.
“Are you sure you want to know?”
She could hear the smile in his voice, just behind her ear.
“Yes... now I am curious,” she replied.
“I learned this particular trick on the Quest, from one of the horsemen of Rohan, as we traveled from Minas Tirith to Edoras. It was after the wedding of Arwen and Aragorn... I was in Minas Tirith, this time last year...”
He paused, then caught himself falling into memory.
“...No matter. With it being more than a two weeks’ journey, we took advantage of the opportunity to practice, with their guidance... We learned how and where to feel for knots in our ponies, so as to not cause more pain, and then how to help ease their discomfort. The ponies were quite grateful, I can tell you.”
“Frodo -- you learned this caring for ponies? You’re teasing me... are you teasing me?”
He laughed a little. “I am sorry, Lily... I tried to warn you that you wouldn’t want to know. How is it? Enough?”
Lily winced; it was just enough. “Yes... Thank you so much; that truly does feel better.” She turned round to face him.
“I would say I’d be pleased to do it every morning,” he smiled, “but that would mean you’d have a backache every morning... so, I won’t be pleased to do it, unless you ask me. How are you feeling otherwise?”
“I have felt better, truth be told...but a bit better than yesterday. Thank you.”
He kissed her brow again, very lightly. “How does first breakfast sound? If you aren’t up to preparing it, I will...”
“No, no... actually, I -- I think, well... would you, please?”
“As you wish. I’m going to the stream for more water.”
“Do we need to leave right away, Frodo-love?”
“Would you like us to stay here for the day?”
“No... mayhap through second breakfast?”
“As you wish, sweet.” Frodo wanted to kiss her cheek, but refrained, and fetched the water bucket.
“Take your ease, dear Lily. Rest a bit more. We’ve all the time in the world.”
He smiled, and was off.
The morning stillness surrounded Lily again. She sighed, wishing she felt better, and knew it was a futile wish. It would be at least another full day until any significant change occurred, and she truly noticed an improvement.
Lily felt more refreshed after second breakfast, and they set out again, the ponies whinnying at the start, happy to be moving.
Frodo squinted a little at the brightness of the Sun as they rode due east.
“I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better, love,” he remarked to Lily. She was squinting too, he noticed.
“So am I,” she replied, but Frodo heard some reservation in the sound of her voice. He kept his tone light.
“I think I’d rather gaze on your loveliness for a while, sweet, and not look straight ahead for now. The Sun is exceptionally bright this morning.”
He caught her blush at his comment, and smiled.
“Lily? Do you feel up to telling me the story about your naps, and the poplars... how the sound of them in the breeze would lull you to sleep, when you were very young? I mean it sincerely when I say I truly cannot get enough of you. I want to know everything about you, and the sound of your voice is such a comfort to me...”
The earnestness in his face took her breath away for a moment, as his eyes met hers steadily. She took in a deep breath, keeping her voice even.
“Yes, Frodo-love, I would enjoy very much telling you the story, and it will help me keep my mind off feeling... it will help me remember something peaceful and comforting...”
He looked at once pleased and relieved. “I hold every story you’ve told me within my heart. You are a source of strength for me, dearest; even the music in your voice is something I can hold to... surely I’ve told you...”
Lily nodded almost imperceptibly, moved by his words, unable to reply.
Frodo pulled Strider to a halt, and Lily followed suit. Merry snorted and shook his head.
“And hearing you speak -- ” Frodo began, then stopped.
He sighed contentedly, and continued. “When I hear you tell me stories of your childhood, it reminds me why I set out from Rivendell, on the Quest. I did want to save the Shire, if indeed I could... I wanted to save it for the very stories you tell, and all the thousands of stories like them. For our life in the Shire is not like anywhere else in Middle-earth, Lily. We are more peaceful... Gandalf, who has seen all the world, told me this, and I believe him. After what I saw on the Quest--”
To Lily it seemed he shuddered.
“--it made me want the Shire to go on, more than ever...”
“I -- I understand, dearest Frodo. As best I can... never having even been out of the Shire before now... And although I was not with you on the Quest -- in a way, I was. For I carried you in my heart the whole of the time you were away, and before it -- long before it.”
Frodo edged Strider close to Merry, and took Lily’s left hand in his right, raising it to his lips and kissing it softly, then kissing it again. He reached across the short space between them, still holding her hand, and kissed her lips once, lightly. He did not want to overstep --
Her eyes closed at her husband’s kiss. All too soon it was over, and as she opened her eyes Lily hoped Frodo could see the deep well of contentment and joy within her heart, the joy he had given her with his love.
Yes, he could see it, she knew; his eyes reflected it back to her, and the joy grew more intense, until she felt her heart could no longer hold it.
Frodo sighed again. “How I love you. If only I had known you were there all along, waiting for me --”
He shook his head slightly in wonder, then met her hazel-blue eyes once more.
“But no -- I realize it again: I would never have been able to leave you, had I known your love, when Sam and I set out from Bag End. I would have endeavored to give the Ring to someone else. I would have begged Gandalf... I’d have begged him to find another, someone else to bear the Ring.”
Though his eyes were downcast, she caught a glimpse when she leaned forward, over Merry’s neck, as if to stroke it, and their deep blue depths were filled with an old sadness.
“No... I understand, all too well... the truth is that I could not have given It up,” he sighed. He kept his eyes focused on the dirt road, though he did not seem to see it. “It was impossible for me to give It up, even then -- for I did try to give the Ring to Gandalf, and I remember my vast relief when he refused It. I hid my relief from him that day, ashamed as I was...
“But Ilúvatar knew... He took care of all of us. For I had to bear It. I know that, even as it saddens me. I had to bear it.” He met her gaze once more.
“And to know you were waiting for me -- !”
He stopped, unable to continue, and Lily saw the familiar expression of gratitude, love, and wonder in the bright beauty of his eyes. He blinked several times, then kissed her hand once more, finally releasing her.
“I would like very much to hear your story, my dear wife. I shall endeavor to keep quiet now, so that you may speak.”
He grinned at her, and she chuckled. They nudged the ponies forward again.
“Very well, Frodo-love. I shall tell you... I was, I believe, four years old, or thereabouts. On summer days, Mum would feed me a luncheon of cheese melted on toasted bread, or sometimes scrambled eggs on toast -- it was my favorite -- and milk and biscuits, and then tuck me in for my afternoon nap. She would sing to me if I asked, and kiss my forehead. When she left the room, I would try very hard to stay awake.”
“Forgive me, love, I’m already interrupting... may I ask a question?”
Lily expected Frodo to be curious about her stories, but was a little surprised at the depth of his interest. Her surprise turned to a smile, which she kept to herself; of course he loved hearing them. She warmed at the memory of his words only this morning on this very subject. And he had been intensely aware of her every word since they met last November...
She smiled their private smile. “Yes, you may...”
He returned it, his eyes suddenly brighter than before, as if tears were there; but she was not sure.
“Was your hair the same lovely colour, then? When you were small? Or was it different? And did your eyes change colour when you were young? Or are they only that way now, since your coming of age, mayhap--?”
Lily giggled. “My eyes -- yes, they did change colour, even then. Mum would tell me about it, and smile, and Da would say I was his little water-lily, with eyes of green and blue. Daisy and Will merely teased me. Daisy was slightly envious of it, I know... as for my hair... it was lighter then. The reddish tones were only noticeable in sunlight...”
She blushed pink as Frodo grinned broadly at her.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “I’m trying to picture you as a little one, and that helps me. I shall endeavor once again to remain quiet...”
“Not to worry, love; you may ask away...”
She gasped slightly at the ache in her back.
His eyes shadowed with concern. “Is the pain very bad? Should we stop?”
“No, beloved...” Lily smiled inwardly as it occurred to her that this pain was as nothing compared to that of delivering a child; Frodo would be as nervous as a mother hen, when -- if -- that day came...
She gulped back sudden tears at the thought of a child; her heart had been caught unawares.
“Lily?” Frodo’s voice was small.
“I’m all right, dearest. It was just a sudden slight ache, nothing more.”
He felt she was hiding some deeper pain, but sensed she did not wish to be questioned further.
“All right... do tell me if you change your mind about stopping, however...” His voice trailed off.
“I shall, I promise... thank you, love. Ah, where was I?”
“You would try very hard to stay awake, after your mum tucked you in...”
“Yes, that’s right! Thank you... I would try my hardest to stay awake, resisting sleep, as children always seem to, as though they fear missing out on even a moment of life... And the poplars would be whispering in the breeze, just outside my window. They seemed to be in league with Mum, for no matter how hard I tried not to fall asleep, the leaves would whisper to me; it felt as though they were telling stories; sometimes it seemed like a lullaby...”
Her voice grew soft. “And they whispered, until I fell asleep. Even after all these years, I think of those trees as my friends, somehow...”
She turned to Frodo and smiled. “It was not a very long story --”
The forest around them was suddenly still, and Lily stopped speaking, seeing the tenderness in Frodo’s eyes. His voice was hushed in the surrounding quiet.
“The Elves shall adore you, sweet Lily. They hold little else dearer than trees, save Ilúvatar. Mayhap because the trees are some of the longest living things, and yet still the Elves are older... And Bilbo will love you as well, although he may not get the chance to say it; he’s not much one for sentimental words, and he spends much of each day sleeping, now...”
He grew more serious. “Thank you for braving this long journey with me. I know it cannot be easy for you, sleeping on the ground... especially these past few days... I wish I had thought ahead to such things. But...”
“Frodo-love," she murmured, and her smile reached her eyes. “I am exactly where I want to be, which is by your side. I knew there would be no feather-beds on this portion of the journey. Please put your worries aside... I very much wanted to come with you, and each day has been wonderful. You have made it so, dearest love. I look forward to meeting Uncle Bilbo, and Lord Elrond, and the others, and, to seeing dear Gandalf again --”
Lily paused. “As for my monthly course--” She blushed, but then met his eyes frankly. “I’d have been just as uncomfortable at home, these past few days. I wish I could say it was never a discomfort to me, but that would not be true. As it is, I am happier than I’ve ever been. And you do give the most marvelous backrubs, even if you learnt it so you could help the ponies --!”
She giggled, and Frodo laughed with her. A cloud passed over the Sun, giving them shade. Frodo was tempted to kiss her again, but did not give in to the desire he felt. She was not comfortable, he knew, no matter how much she enjoyed his kisses. He dragged his mind away from thoughts of loving her. There was a time and place for everything...
“I thank Ilúvatar for you, dear heart,” he murmured, a laugh still playing about his eyes.
“And I for you, beloved.”
They traveled in silence for a time.
“The birds are so quiet this afternoon. Mayhap the heat has made them sleepy,” Frodo observed. “But I do hear some bees, or at least, what sounds like bees. Off to the left. Can you hear it?”
“No, truly I cannot,” Lily marveled. “How can you hear that? I only hear some leaves rustling, nothing else. Well... the ponies,” she corrected, “but no bees...”
Frodo’s brows drew together as he frowned slightly.
“It’s a leftover gift, of sorts, if you can call it that, from the Quest. My hearing and sight are much sharper now than they were before it. And, truth be told, it’s because I held -- the Ring for so long, and carried It. I’m surprised I haven’t lost these sharpened senses, since I’ve -- ”
Though he hesitated, Lily felt sure of his next words, and urged him on softly, “Yes -- ?”
“Since I’ve been healed.”
Lily saw her love staring straight ahead, fighting what seemed to her senses a torrent of emotions.
“Yes, sweet.” He was struggling to keep command of his voice.
“What is it?”
“I -- forgive me, please, Lily,” he implored, turning to gaze at her, his blue eyes clouded.
She saw the supplication there. “What is it, beloved? Please tell me.”
“It’s difficult for me to believe I’ve been healed. It only strikes me now and then, the doubts... I’m sorry,” he entreated. “It seems so ungrateful. It’s just that -- ”
“I know, dear husband. You were told you would never be healed in Middle-earth. Your trepidation is understandable, Frodo...”
Then for a moment she panicked. “You’re -- you’re not feeling the darkness again? I haven’t sensed any within you...”
“No, no, not at all -- oh I am sorry, dearest love, I’ve frightened you. No, not at all! The freedom I feel is indescribable. Remember I owned -- I owned the Ring for seventeen years before we set out... the evil was growing, all that time... then, another year on the Quest, and then you came to me... Oh, Lily...”
He bowed his head for a moment, composing himself, as the ponies kept an even pace.
“After more than eighteen years, it must be difficult to remember how life felt before you owned It,” she offered.
He lifted his head and turned his gaze back to her.
She nearly lost her breath at the wonder in his eyes, his expression...
“Yes. And of course you would understand; you have suffered so much in all this... It’s quite difficult to comprehend -- the burden of It is truly gone, after such a very long time... I am more than grateful. Every morning when I wake, and every night when I go to sleep, and each time I look upon you...”
His smile told more than his words could express, and again her breathing became unsteady, as relief for him poured into her.
“And my own suffering on account of It is gone as well, dearest love,” Lily reminded him. “We can thank Ilúvatar again, for His great gift to us,” she suggested, and they did.
After tea, as they were taking an easy pace with the ponies, Frodo grew quiet. Lily eyed him curiously, wondering what he was thinking. She could almost see him make the decision to speak.
The corners of Lily’s lips lifted in a smile. It was drawing closer to dinner, and she had been watching the debate on his face for most of the afternoon. She was relieved the mystery was about to end.
“I -- would you mind if I asked you about something?”
The smile spread across Lily’s face. “Of course not, dearest. Ask me anything. Why should I mind?”
“It’s about a rather unpleasant day for you.”
Lily became a little wary, but trusted him implicitly. “Ask me.”
Frodo hesitated another moment. “The day of the grasshopper incident...”
Lily’s head lifted just a little, but then she nodded, signaling him to continue.
“You mentioned that you’d been in the garden, and by the time you were done, there was more dirt on you than in the garden, almost... I’ve spent a bit of time in the garden with Sam, but cannot imagine being covered in so much dirt. Unless you were playing in mud -- but I can’t imagine your da letting you do that... What were you doing?”
Lily glanced at him to make certain he was serious; it gave her an extra moment to think about her answer. “Oh, that.” She blushed lightly. “Remember that I wasn’t very old at the time. Mum had been...”
Lily halted Merry.
Frodo pulled up Strider. He noted that her face had paled.
“Lily? Lily, dearest, what is wrong?”
Lily’s gaze was far away. Slowly, she turned to focus on him, and saw the concern in his eyes.
“I -- Mum was so sad. That’s why I was out in the garden all the time. She sent me to be with Da...”
Frodo waited patiently, but it was easy to see she was on the verge of tears, and he was saddened for her, even before she continued.
One tear and then another started to flow down Lily’s cheek. “Oh, Frodo! I had forgotten!”
Frodo slid off Strider, dropping the reins; he knew the pony would graze, and Pippin would follow suit. He went to Lily’s side. Her eyes were staring far off again, but she looked back to Frodo when he gently touched her knee.
She reached down for him, letting him ease her off Merry and into his arms, where she cried with her face buried against his chest.
He held her tenderly, stroking her hair, and whispering comforting words in her ear.
When the tears had subsided, Frodo softly asked, “Are you ready to tell me?”
Lily kept her head pressed against his shoulder as she nodded. She took in a deep, shuddering breath and released it slowly. Her arms were wrapped around Frodo’s waist, and she absently began to rub his back.
For a moment, Frodo thought it odd that she would seem to be comforting him, when she was the one who needed it. Her touch on his back was relaxing, and without conscious thought he returned it, rubbing hers, holding her close.
Lily sighed raggedly.
Perhaps if I only touch her in the way she touches me, it will not be too much for her during these times, Frodo reasoned to himself.
Lily sniffed and continued. “I was sent out to be with my Da because Mum had been so sad for so long. Oh, Frodo, she had lost the babe she was carrying, the third in as many years. It was never intended that I be the youngest. I was so hurt, then, that she couldn’t be happy with just me and Will and Daisy... I didn’t understand. I remember thinking that it wasn’t like really losing a brother or sister. I didn’t know, then...”
Her tears started afresh. Frodo closed his eyes and kissed her hair and murmured, “The child you were and the maid you are have met...”
Lily’s tears turned to sobs. “And I cannot tell my mother I’m sorry, and that I understand now...”
Frodo spoke softly in her ear. “I’m certain she knows, Lily.”
Lily’s embrace tightened. Her tears slowly subsided as she took in several deep breaths, calming herself in her husband’s arms.
They stood holding each other until Lily rubbed her cheek against his breast, drying the last of her tears, her breathing even again; then she pulled back her head to look up into Frodo’s eyes. Her face reflected the awe she felt at her husband’s gentle understanding -- she saw that his face, too, was streaked with tears, and realized he had wept with her. She cupped his cheek with her hand, and reached up to tenderly kiss him.
Frodo was careful not to deepen it, still trying to mirror whatever she did, to give her whatever she wanted...
Lily took one more deep breath and took a small step back, straightening her shoulders. The smile she offered Frodo crept slowly into her eyes.
Frodo visibly relaxed his shoulders as he smiled back, gently releasing her.
Reaching up one hand, she placed it lightly on his breast. If he had not seen her do it, he might not have known; her touch was so light.
Again she looked into his eyes and smiled. “I love you.”
Frodo returned her smile. “I love you, Lily.” He paused. “Are you ready to move on? Or would you rather we found a place to camp?”
“I think I’d like us to move on a bit. Shouldn’t we be coming to the Hoarwell soon?”
“Yes. I thought we might camp close to it, and spend an extra day tomorrow. The ponies could use a good washing down, and mayhap you could use an extra day of rest?”
Lily nodded and let Frodo help her back up onto Merry.
Frodo was about to turn away when Lily leaned over to touch his cheek. He consciously controlled his breathing as they shared their customary kiss.
He found Strider and Pippin grazing nearby. After rearranging Pippin’s lead rope, he remounted, and they continued for a time in silence, until Lily broke it.
“Would you still like to know what I was doing in the garden that day?”
Frodo’s eyes closed briefly and a smile spread across his face. He had not dared to bring it up again. “If you would like to tell me, I would dearly like to know.”
“Da had been turning the soil for the spring garden. I, of course, was helping, so to speak. He always told me I was helping, though looking back, I’m certain I was more trouble than help.”
Frodo smiled. “It’s difficult to imagine you weren’t of some help to him...”
Lily laughed, “You haven’t heard the whole story yet. Da had finished the first section of the garden and looked back to survey his work, only to find my footprints everywhere; I had tamped all the dirt back down. I suspect he knew it was pointless to do it again, without giving me some sort of explanation. He tried at first to tell me of the importance of having loose dirt to start, but all I could think was that the plants might fall over if the soil weren’t packed tight.
“After telling me the same thing several times, he still hadn’t managed to convince me, so he endeavored to say it another way, and explained that the worms needed room to move. I was amazed that worms were thought helpful, but Da explained that whenever there were worms, things seemed to grow better. I was fascinated.
“Da took me to a corner of the garden, and carefully dug up a few of the unsuspecting creatures, and showed me how they buried themselves back into the dirt. I lay on my belly, watching for hours -- I was entranced, and he was able to dig up the remainder of the garden without any further hindrance from me! I was too busy digging up worms and placing them on top of the dirt and watching them dig themselves back in.”
Laughter escaped, despite Frodo’s attempt to hold it.
Lily continued with all the remembered excitement of childhood.
“Oh, yes! It was amazing... they would wiggle and push until they were quite covered again, and then I would dig them up again and the whole process would start anew...”
Frodo laughed heartily, then caught his breath enough to speak. “Oh, Lily-sweet, what a picture you’ve drawn in my mind -- !”
She giggled at his obvious delight, and he laughed harder, until at last he needed to lay his forehead on Strider’s neck; the pony’s ears pricked up and swiveled back, and he turned his head to look back at his master.
Lily shrugged and laughed along with him, holding her side against a stitch. She felt silly with fatigue, but more joyful than fatigued; and as they neared the end of the day’s travel, she fondly recalled other times spent with her father in the garden.
Frodo enjoyed hearing the stories as much as she enjoyed the telling of them. He listened intently, asking her to elaborate every now and again, and to repeat some parts.
She felt loved. Her husband cared so deeply about her every thought, her every hope and dream... and he cared about her sorrows, as well. Even her sister Daisy, the person closest to her in the world next to Frodo, did not hang on her every word as he did. And when she tired of talking, he enjoyed the silence with her, as well.
For his part, Frodo was joyous at his wife’s sharing of her childhood tales. He added each detail from every story to the portrait of Lily he carried in his heart.
When they pulled up the ponies to camp for the night, it was in a clearing not far from the Hoarwell. They were close enough that they could hear the river tumbling over the rocks and round the brush along its shore. Though Lily had not voiced it, Frodo knew she craved the opportunity to get into some deep water for a real bath, cold or no. He was certain they could find a quiet pool where she might indulge herself in a bath of sorts.
Lily started to prepare their supper, but stopped to watch Frodo care for the ponies. For a moment, she hesitated. “Would you show me how to do that?”
Frodo was first surprised, and then delighted. She did not realize how much he admired her for her love of learning.
“This can be a bit of a messy job, Lily. Are you sure you want to learn it?”
She laughed, “It couldn’t possibly be dirtier than digging up worms!”
“No -- most likely it isn’t,” he agreed, and laughed along with her, again picturing her covered with black dirt and playing with worms.
“There’s an order to doing this...”
Beginning with Strider, Frodo led her patiently through the entire routine, checking the hooves for rocks, feeling the legs for sore spots, and finally giving Strider a good rubdown before tethering him close to both water and grass.
Then he stepped back and let her care for Merry by herself, giving reminders and encouragement whenever she became uncertain of what to do. The task took longer than it would have, had Frodo done it himself, but he did not mind; he was pleased to see Lily was more at ease than she had been for the last three days.
Frodo then took his turn at helping Lily prepare their supper, and did all the cleaning up. He could see her weariness had caught up to her. She barely made it through the meal without falling asleep.
When they lay down for the night, Lily curled up in Frodo’s arms and was instantly asleep. For himself, Frodo enjoyed being able to cradle her close and remember the day. He was careful not to laugh aloud again, when he thought of her and the worms.
He breathed a prayer for her comfort, then smiled to himself as he realized the prayer might perhaps be selfish. He had not intended it as such, but... Ilúvatar would sort it out.
Finally, he kissed her hair, and settled into peaceful sleep, enjoying the comforting warmth of her body next to his.