Lily awoke to her husband’s tender attentions.
“What of our hosts, Merry and Pippin?” she murmured.
Frodo paused in his caresses, and gazed into her eyes.
She saw the dark desire there, and the question, before he spoke the words.
“But we only just... last night...” She could not hide the smile in her voice.
She felt her husband bury his face against her neck, and murmur, “I know...” as he kissed her there.
She could not silence her wordless acquiesce.
He searched her eyes, for the answer revealed there.
She kissed her lover’s eager mouth, then she whispered against his lips, “Yes.”
His response was immediate, and she gladly found herself yielding to her husband’s gentle insistence to release the moment to him.
Lily shared with her husband their prayer of gratitude before relinquishing their bed. The aromas of breakfast had been growing more tantalizing for the past quarter hour.
At the bedroom door, Lily placed her hand on Frodo’s arm.
He paused and gazed down into her eyes, smiling.
Her breath caught, then she followed her heart’s desire, and offered her husband a kiss. She felt the change within him, from lightheartedness to deep hunger, as his arms wrapped about her, holding her close against him. Their kiss deepened, intensifying in an instant. From some distant place, Lily gradually sensed her lover’s struggle to break the caress.
When finally he succeeded, his breathing was ragged, and he gulped for air, but still held her close.
“Lily, dear heart, we must feed you...” With a shuddering breath, he whispered, “but how I want you...”
He covered her mouth again, and trembled as Lily tightened her hold on him, slipping her fingers into his curls, dark and silken and thick.
Again, he broke their kiss. He gazed at his wife’s upturned face. Her eyes were still closed, her lips parted, her breathing as uneven as his own, and he knew. He knew she would give him what he wanted, and joyously.
“Breakfast!” Merry’s voice filled the little house.
The couple started apart.
Frodo noted the worry in his wife’s eyes. “Merry’s heard nothing; he’s calling from the kitchen.”
Lily sighed in relief. She searched the deep blue of her husband’s eyes once more.
He drew her gently into his arms, holding her lightly as they endeavored to regain their equilibrium. Gradually, their breathing grew steadier.
Frodo murmured, “Are you ready, sweet?”
“Yes.” Lily giggled. “Oh! You mean for breakfast.”
Frodo laughed, and kissed the still-heightened blush on her cheek, then offered her his arm to escort her down the hall.
They lingered over their meal until it was time for secondies, then Pippin sprang to it and dragged Merry with him.
“It’s the least we can do, isn’t it, Merry?” Pippin beamed at Frodo and Lily. “Especially after the delicious meal you prepared last night! Besides, we’ve something special.”
Pippin gave them a mischievous grin. “Get them, will you Merry?” he asked congenially.
“Certainly,” Merry agreed formally, though he could not hide the twitching of a smile. “Arrived special this morning.”
Merry hauled a small crate from the corner of the kitchen.
Frodo’s eyes grew wide. “Does my nose deceive me?”
“Probably not, dear cousin.” Merry grinned. “Fresh from our dear friend, Farmer Maggot.”
“Mushrooms!” Frodo laughed.
“Well done!” Pippin cheered. “We sent over last night for some, just to celebrate the occasion.”
Lily giggled, enjoying the exchange between the cousins.
“Sit!” Merry demanded. “We’re capable of preparing them at least as good as you, if not better, dear cousin! After all, we’ve been enjoying them all summer.” Merry gave Frodo a smug glance, then grinned. “Keep your pretty wife company while we prepare it.”
Pippin laughed out loud. “Now there’s a hardship, I’m sure!”
“Now, who’s making her blush, Pip?” Merry questioned imperiously, while Frodo kissed Lily’s temple, smiling all the while.
Pippin blushed in his turn. “Sorry, Mistress Lily.”
“It’s quite all right, dear Pippin.” Lily smiled. “I’m very pleased indeed to have my husband keep me company. We’ll not have anyone to wait on us once we’re home.”
“So--” Merry glanced at the couple, then set to cleaning the mushrooms while Pippin sliced them into a fry pan of heated butter, “are you leaving for Bag End this afternoon?”
“Are you trying to get rid of us, Merry?” Frodo eyed his cousin.
“Me?” Merry intended to sound offended, but could only hold the look on his face for a moment. “Of course not, cousin. We just thought you’d be wanting to get back home.” Merry chuckled. “Besides, Sam’ll have our hides if we keep you to ourselves.”
“He’s right, for once,” Pippin stated, also unable to hide the twinkle in his eyes. “Sam would never forgive us. We’d never be allowed near Bag End, again, no doubt.”
Frodo laughed. “Indeed, we’ve missed Sam and Rosie as well, but in truth, we thought we’d take a trip to Deephallow to visit Lily’s sister Daisy, and Hal and little Pearl.”
“I’ve missed them so,” Lily confessed.
Merry nodded. “Not that we don’t enjoy having you here -- we do; but the sooner you’re there, in Deephallow, then the sooner you’ll be heading home to Bag End.”
Frodo eyed his cousins speculatively. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“What are you on about?” Merry demanded, though he glanced away, concentrating on cleaning the last of the mushrooms.
“Merry?” Frodo did not hide the warning tone in his voice, though he was wholly unable to hide the smile inching its way across his lips.
“Best we tell him, cousin,” Pippin lamented. When Merry nodded, Pippin continued. “We got a letter from Sam demanding -- demanding, I tell you -- we not keep you overlong.”
Frodo stared at his cousins, his dark brow knitting.
“There’s nothing for it, Pip. Sam’s right, of course, we’d keep ‘em here if we could.” Merry was quite pleased with himself for managing to keep his face serious.
“Indeed,” Pippin agreed. “Be that as it may, if we send them on their way, it isn’t our fault if they head to Deephallow and not home, so we’d escape Sam’s wrath. So, you’re headed out after elevensies? It’ll take two meals, at least, to eat all these mushrooms. You should make Deephallow by luncheon, if you don’t dawdle along the way, that is.”
Frodo and Lily blinked at the exchange, then started to laugh.
“All right!” Frodo touched his hand to his side, feeling the beginnings of an old stitch there. He was indeed back in the Shire again. “We can’t have anything happening to my dear cousins! Since you’re so determined, we’ll head to Deephallow, after elevensies, and not linger there too long, so Sam has naught to blame you for.”
Pippin and Merry shared a quick appraising glance, then nodded and chorused, “Done.”
Merry and Pippin retrieved the ponies from the stable, while Frodo and Lily packed their things. They met outside the round, blue door of the house in Crickhollow.
Pippin held Strider and the lead rope for the packpony.
Merry held Lily’s pony. He grinned broadly. “So, tell me, how did my namesake handle the journey? Held up well, I trust?”
“Indeed,” Lily giggled.
Pippin smiled, then drew his brows together. “And who’s this fine-looking pony? I’ve not seen him before. Where did you find him?”
Lily and Frodo shared a glance, then Frodo took the reins and lead rope from Pippin’s hand.
“He joined us in Bree. In truth, Gandalf picked him out for us. And a fine pony he’s been. He got on so well with Lily’s pony, Merry, we decided to keep him.”
Pippin smiled amicably, then his eyes widened. “You did naught... you didn’t name him... did you?”
Frodo’s smile widened, and he nodded. “Indeed. After all, Pip, we couldn’t very well have Merry without you, now could we?”
Merry crowed with delight. “So you named the packpony Pippin, did you? I must say, he’s not nearly as fine looking as my namesake.”
Pippin blinked, then huffed. “He is too! He’s better lookin’, or I’m not a Took!” Pippin’s indignant look was replaced by one of sly pleasure.
Merry eyed his younger cousin suspiciously, but before he could utter a word, Pippin continued.
“And my namesake is taller than yours, just like I’ve been telling you! But you refuse to listen. Now here’s the proof, indisputable: I’m taller than you are!”
Pippin chortled triumphantly.
The other three hobbits turned to look at the two ponies.
Lily spoke her amazement aloud. “It’s true. I’d not noticed the whole of our journey, but Pippin is a full ear taller than Merry.”
Merry sputtered. “And of just what significance is that?”
“I’m taller than you.”
“No, you’re not.” Merry drew himself up straight. “The pony named Pippin may be taller than the pony named Merry, but you are not taller than me.”
Pippin lifted his chin. “Think what you want.” Then he ran his hand over the packpony’s shoulder. “And look how strong he is. He truly takes after me, and even you, dear cousin, should be able to see that!” Pippin then flexed his arm. He was disappointed by the effect, as his shirt hid his efforts.
Merry laughed. “Come, Pippin, we’ve been neglecting our guests.”
Pippin brightened immediately. “Sorry.” He grinned.
Merry and Pippin embraced their older cousin, then quickly embraced his wife as well, smiling; but Merry’s smile was tremulous.
“Off with you, now,” Merry declared. “Or you’ll not make it to Deephallow in time for luncheon!”
Frodo helped Lily onto her pony, then turned to his cousins.
“We’ll see you soon, in Bag End?”
“Absolutely!” the cousins chorused, and laughed, but Lily noticed Merry’s overly-bright tone, and sensed his distress.
“Good,” Frodo stated with satisfaction, then mounted Strider.
The hobbits shared another round of farewells, waving, then Frodo and Lily turned their ponies south.
Lily breathed a silent prayer for their cousins, especially for Merry, and then turned her thoughts toward her husband. She noted that his eyes, too, were shining rather more brightly than usual in the late morning light of Buckland.
They rode past the Hall, where all the windows were open to the late summer breeze. Voices could be heard calling to each other. The couple shared a smile at the sound of children playing in a copse of birch, not far from the road.
The crossing at Bucklebury Ferry was uneventful and quick. Then they were headed south again, at a fair pace.
As they approached Deephallow, Lily sighed. “It’s good to be back in the Shire...”
Frodo glanced over at his wife. “What is it you’re wanting to tell me, sweet?” He grinned.
“As much as I look forward to seeing Daisy and Hal and dear little Pearl, in truth, I want to go home, to Bag End.”
She searched her husband’s eyes for understanding and was relieved to find it shining there.
“We’ll stay a day or two and head home. Would that please you, sweet?”
“Yes.” Lily smiled.
Then they were turning down the familiar lane.
“Lily,” Frodo’s brows drew together as he looked at the house. “There doesn’t appear to be anyone here.”
“Let’s try the smial.” Lily made no attempt to hide the uncertainty in her voice.
They rode on and dismounted at the smial a few yards away.
“It looks closed up as well, sweet.”
“Indeed. I wonder where they are. Let’s check the barn.”
The couple led their ponies to the barn and found the cart and pony gone.
Lily bit her lower lip. “Where could they be?”
Frodo gently rubbed his wife’s shoulder, and felt the muscles there relax a little. He was pleased she was at least slightly reassured. “Mayhap they’re visiting Will in Bywater?”
Lily immediately brightened. “Of course! I’m certain that’s where they are. I imagine he’s had his Reading of the Promisings by now.”
“Then what say you we have luncheon at the Bird and Babe, and continue on till nightfall? That would put us home on the morrow.”
An even brighter smile flashed across Lily’s face. “Oh, yes, let’s do, please.”
They mounted their ponies and continued on to the inn, where they turned the animals over to the stablehand for rubdowns and extra grain.
The couple stepped into the inn, and seated themselves at the corner table where they had shared meals during their courtship.
A pair of hobbits Lily did not recognize bustled in, and took seats at a table across the room. Their voices carried as they spoke disparagingly of Mad Baggins.
Lily swallowed hard and glanced at Frodo; he gave her a lopsided smile and shook his head with a slight shrug. But her own ire began to rise within her.
“They should not speak of you so. They don’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter, Lily, truly.”
“If they’re going to gossip, then it best be something worth gossiping about.” Her first thought was to promptly take Frodo’s face in her hands and kiss him thoroughly, but she balked as she realized it would, in fact, cause even more unpleasantness. Instead, she unclenched her hands on the table and endeavored to shut the voices from her mind.
Suddenly she realized that all sound in the common room had stopped. She glanced around and noted the other patrons were staring and whispering at the unknown hobbits.
It was now quite easy to overhear the serving lad.
“Excuse me, sirs, but my master says his missus ‘as been ill, and there’s naught left to eat. He’s terrible sorry, but he says it might be best if you traveled on.” The lad tugged his forelock and stood aside to allow the hobbits to leave the table unimpeded.
Lily and Frodo glanced down at their plates, filled with stew, as well as the loaf of fresh bread on the table.
“Well, if that don’t beat all!” declared the scruffier of the two hobbits as the pair headed toward the door, with the serving lad close on their heels.
“He’s awful sorry,” the lad repeated, sweeping his hand toward the front door where the two hobbits stomped out, huffing and muttering. The young server watched them go, and waved, then turned back to the room. He then cleared away the two mugs from the deserted table, and headed for the kitchen. Pausing at the door, he glanced toward Frodo and Lily.
Like all the other patrons of the Eagle and Child, the couple had watched the young lad intently. Now his eyes met theirs briefly, followed by a shy smile, then he disappeared into the kitchen. The other patrons gradually returned to their meals, speaking in hushed tones.
Moments later, the proprietor stepped into the common room. He paused and seemed to draw himself up as heads turned his way. Then he strode purposefully toward the table where Lily and Frodo sat.
He stopped next to Lily and waited for her to look up at him.
“I’m right sorry, Mistress Baggins, if those... those two bothered you any.”
“Thank you, Mr. Grubb.” Lily smiled appreciatively.
“Young Mos told me quick as he could.” The innkeeper gave Frodo an appraising look. “I’d wager Mister Baggins is accustomed to hearing such rot.” At Frodo’s enigmatic smile and nod, the older hobbit continued, “But a wife oughtn’t have to listen to it.”
He gave the couple a nod, and returned to the business of running his inn, checking the other tables, refilling empty ale mugs, and finally making his way back to the kitchen.
Mos approached their table and shyly asked if they needed anything else, then scurried away, blushing, before they could say more than, “no thank you.”
Once Frodo and Lily finished their meal, they left the common room for the stable to retrieve their ponies.
The stablehand was just finishing up the tightening of the girths.
“Lily, shall we head north, then, and see if mayhap we can make Frogmorton by nightfall? I wish there were a faster way to Hobbiton.”
Before Lily could answer, the stablehand cleared his throat. “Beggin’ your pardon, Mister Baggins, sir, but you could go through Willowbottom, and follow the Thistle Brook. It’s easy to see where to cross. Then just make your way along the south side of Woody End, until you cross the Shirebourn. Then it’s due west, and it ain’t much further to Pincup. There’s a nice inn there called the Wheatsheaf. If you keep a fair pace, you’ll be there by supper, easy. I make the journey myself pretty regular.”
Lily watched as Frodo mulled over the information, then drew his brows together.
“If I remember right, they make a pork roast with a marmalade and peach sauce that’s remarkably good.”
Lily thought the lad looked to be in his middle tweens. She hid a smile as he stood straighter and squared his shoulders.
“Me mum’s the cook for the Wheatsheaf.”
“Is she?” Frodo continued curiously, “Why are you a stablehand here, then?”
The tween shrugged his shoulders. “They didn’t need another one, and I’m not much good at anything but ponies. The master of the inn has five sons. His wife passed with the birthing of the last one, twelve years ago. He didn’t need stablehands, only a cook, and me mum got the job, making that roast for him.”
Frodo met Lily’s eyes, and they shared a smile.
Lily answered for them, “I think I should like to try your mother’s recipe. Would you like us to take a note for you?”
“I’m none too good at writing, ma’am -- never had the knack of it -- but if you could just tell her I’m all right and’ll be home to visit in a few days, I’d be much obliged.”
“Gladly,” Lily smiled.
Frodo pressed an extra coin into the lad’s hand. “Thank you --”
“Bandy, sir. And thank you, sir!” The stablehand smiled broadly, and tucked the extra coin into his pocket. “Be sure and ask for a piece of her summer fruit pie. She uses whatever’s sweetest that day.”
Lily almost giggled at the sight of the young hobbit licking his lips in anticipation. “We shall, Bandy. Thank you, again.”
Frodo pulled a satchel from Pippin’s pack, and produced another coin. “Bandy, could you fill this satchel with bread and cheese and fruit, just enough to see us to dinner? I’m thinking we’ll be in Willowbottom too early for tea, and terribly hungry if we wait until Pincup to eat.”
Bandy tugged his forelock. “Right you are, sir! I’ll be back in a snap.”
Lily and Frodo exchanged grins. By the time they finished checking the ponies, Bandy was back with the satchel filled.
The lad bobbed to them, his eyes twinkling and a dimple in his cheek. He returned to his duties with a lift to his walk.
Frodo and Lily passed to the north of Willowbottom and followed the southern border of Woody End. They were well across the Thistle Brook and almost to the Shirebourn by the time they decided to stop, though only long enough to eat and to rest the ponies. Then they were on their way once more, urging the ponies into an easy canter for short distances.
The Sun was sinking into the West, and still they were not in Pincup. They pulled up the ponies for a brief rest.
“Love, what if it is too dark to continue?”
Frodo could hear the worry in his wife’s voice, and gently soothed, “The moon and stars will light our way, sweet.”
He did not miss the concern in Lily’s eyes before she searched the horizon ahead of them once more.
“Come, sweet, we’ll see how far we may go.”
They clicked the ponies on, moving forward at a steady pace until the Sun dipped below the horizon. It was still light enough to travel a little further.
When the last light faded, they paused; then Frodo laughed.
“Lily-sweet, I can see a light ahead. I hope it’s Pincup. In fact, I’m certain it is.”
They urged the ponies forward, though not too quickly, letting the animals pick their own way, avoiding any unexpected coney holes.
Lily struggled not to weep when they reached the outermost skirts of Pincup. The light was a candle in a window.
As small as Pincup was, within moments they were at The Wheatsheaf Inn. The stablehand took their ponies, cheerfully, offering to bring their baggage to their room, so the couple could get in to supper.
A lass in her early tweens with bright golden curls and a friendly demeanor showed them to a table. “You just made it in time. We’ve had a busy night. The mistress hasn’t much left.” She lowered her voice, “but it’s the best.” She smiled. “I’m Pansy.”
Frodo smiled, “Hello, Pansy. I do hope it’s the mistress’s pork roast.”
Pansy’s brown eyes grew wide. “Indeed, sir! How did you know?”
“Bandy told me.”
Pansy blushed. “I’ll get your dinner, sir; mistress.” She curtsied and disappeared.
Lily smiled. “I think there is a bit of a fancy in that one’s eyes. I wonder if it is shared.”
Frodo grinned. “And I thought Bandy was only coming to visit his mum. Mayhap not.”
Pansy returned with a plate in each hand, generously heaped with the pork and sauce, as well as potatoes, mushrooms, peas, carrots, and large chunks of bread.
“I’ll bring some wine.”
“Pansy,” Lily spoke gently. “May I have a spot of tea, please?”
“Bandy packed us some lovely food for our travel from Deephallow, but we didn’t take time for tea.”
Pansy smiled. “Bandy knows how to pack for traveling, ma’am, so I’m not surprised he didn’t include the makings for tea. He’s learned what keeps well and what tastes best, but he’s usually in too big a hurry to get from there to here to think about the niceties...” She blushed, seeming to realize what she had revealed.
Lily offered a gentle smile. “He was very helpful and sent a message for his mother. Would we be able to speak with her?”
Pansy nodded. “She’ll be finished in the kitchen before you finish your meal. Was there anything else you might be wanting?”
“Yes,” Frodo nodded. “Bandy told us to be sure and ask for a piece of summer fruit pie, if there’s any left.”
“I think there might be a piece left...”
Frodo smiled. “My mistress and I don’t mind sharing.”
Pansy returned the smile and left the couple to their meal, only to return long enough to provide a partial bottle of wine and a pot of tea. And as they finished their meal, Pansy appeared with a large piece of pie.
“It’s the last,” she admitted ruefully.
“It’s more than enough,” Frodo assured with a smile.
Pansy curtsied. “I’ll get Mistress Biddle now.”
Frodo and Lily shared the pie, feeding each other and laughing softly.
They finished the last bite, and sat back comfortably.
A ladyhobbit started out of the kitchen, then stopped to take off her apron quickly, leaving it on a counter just inside the doorway. She approached their table, touching her brown curls, to be sure they were still reasonably in place.
“Pansy told me you wished to speak with me, Mister and Mistress Baggins?” She curtsied.
Lily smiled. “Yes, we saw your son, Bandy, in Deephallow today. He was very helpful, and we asked if there might be a message we could pass along to you. He said only that he’d be home soon for a visit.”
Mrs. Biddle smiled. “The question is: is he coming to see me, or Pansy?”
Lily giggled. “I wondered. But he did speak highly of your pork roast and your pie -- he recommended we order them when we arrived, and he was quite right to boast. The meal was delicious.”
“Thank you, mistress. He’s a good lad, and I’ll be glad to see him, even if his real reason is Pansy. She’s a fine lass. Is there anything else? I imagine you’re weary if you came all the way from Deephallow, today. If you like, I’ll show you to your room.”
Lily nodded. “Yes, please.”
Frodo helped Lily to rise, then they followed the hobbit out of the common room, down a narrow hall with only six doors.
Mrs. Biddle stopped at the last door, and opened it. “It’s the quietest and the nicest, I think. Some folk prefer the rooms nearer the front, as they’re a mite more bedecked. But pretty things don’t make a room comfortable, by my way of thinking.”
“Indeed.” Frodo noticed their baggage was already neatly stacked in a corner of their room.
“Will you be stayin’ long, Mister Baggins?”
“No,” Frodo smiled. “We’re almost home. I hope it’s no trouble to have first breakfast brought to our room?”
“Not at all. I’ll see to it. Is there anything else you’ll be wantin’?”
Frodo and Lily glanced at each other, then Lily answered, “No, this will be just fine. Thank you so much for a delicious meal and for seeing us to our room.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I appreciate you passing along my lad’s message. Good night to you, then.” She curtsied, and slipped out the door, quietly closing it behind her.
“Are you all right, Lily-sweet?”
“Yes, Frodo-love, but I am a bit weary.”
“We made good time.”
“We’re almost home! I’m tired, and yet so excited I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep.”
Frodo chuckled. “I suspect you’ll be asleep as soon as your head touches the pillow.” He could see the weariness in his wife’s eyes.
Lily smiled. “Oh, Frodo, I’m so happy.” The look in her husband’s eyes made her heart beat a little faster.
Frodo glanced away, not wanting to ask for what he thought she could not give, for weariness. He turned down the bed and began to prepare for sleep, listening to his wife change into her nightshirt.
Once Lily was in bed, Frodo blew out the candle, and slipped in next to her, gently gathering her into his arms. They offered prayers of deep gratitude, for being together and almost being home.