Sacrament

by Ladyhawk & CRB

Chapter 50

30 May 1420sr

Frodo tossed once more in his bed, then threw off the covers and sat up.  He sighed and left the comfort of the pillows to stand at his window.  Only one more night must I sleep alone...

But for how long?  She'll grow weary of always lifting you, dragging you along on the journey.  She'll let go, just as you did...

"Please, Ilúvatar, help me," Frodo pleaded.  "It grows inside me.  Lily did not ask me not to doubt, but she did ask me not to question our decision, and I shall hold to that promise."

But she's not here...

"It doesn't matter.  I promised."

You made another promise, and did not keep it...  What's one more?

Frodo cringed, and closed his eyes tightly.  His voice emerged strangled, but strengthened as he spoke.  "That wasn't a promise I made to her.  She trusts me.  I shall never betray her trust.  It means more..."  He paused in his thought.  "You do not understand trust.  I pity you..."

He felt an unexpected rage swell up from the darkness.  Then It continued Its rant.

Pity is what took your finger and that which you cherished...

Frodo sighed.  "It saved her.  A small price to pay...  Now, go away."

Where would I go?

"Anywhere."

But this is my home; this is where I belong... always.

Frodo shuddered at the sinister intent.  "Please, Ilúvatar..."

An increasingly familiar sense of peace spread through him; the same peace Lily offered, but deeper.

Trust to Me.  Remember her.

Frodo sighed heavily, and turned his thoughts to the past fortnight.

Everything had gone as planned.  Sam and Rosie left Deephallow with a loaded wagon of Lily's belongings on the 13th, and Frodo and Lily, with Will and Bell, returned home on the 14th.  Sam and the Gaffer completely unloaded the wagon before the other two couples arrived back, and Rosie had a warm supper waiting on the table.  The Gaffer declined the invitation to stay, saying he'd be eating with the Widow Rumble.  The six friends enjoyed the meal, sharing their new memories of their trip to Deephallow.

Lily had told Frodo later she felt a little uncomfortable at first, staying in Sam and Rosie's home, only because of them being just married, but they assured her they were more than happy to have her.  Both Lily and Frodo admitted that rather than it being difficult to be just up the Row from one another, as they had imagined it might be -- so close, and yet separated -- it was unexpectedly comforting.

The days had passed more quickly than any of them anticipated.  Sam and Frodo helped Will daily with the building of his new home in Bywater, though he made sure it wasn't for too long each day.  He chuckled about his younger sister devising some way to make his life miserable if he stole too much of Frodo's time.

Will also admitted to Sam and Frodo there was no rush, as he did not expect it to be finished until the end of June, or perhaps even July.  He wanted to take his time and enjoy the crafting of the place.  A blush, starting at his collar and reaching up to his red hair, revealed before his words did that he wanted the home to be special.

Bell and Will had completed all the toys they were making for the children, while the gifts Frodo ordered from Bree for the adults, escorted by Merry, Pippin, and Fatty, arrived on May 22nd, the day before the festivities were to begin.  The buzz throughout the Shire was deafening.  This would be a wedding like no other.

Fatty, Merry, and Pippin enjoyed dinner at Fatty's cousin's smial in Bywater that evening.  Fatty decided to stay and visit his cousin, while Merry and Pippin returned to Bag End.

They knocked, and walked in and found Lily and Rose chatting together on the settee in the greatroom, while Frodo and Sam were bent over papers at the kitchen table.  The cousins greeted the ladyhobbits, then entered the kitchen and looked over Frodo's shoulder; he and Sam were studying a sketched layout of a garden.

"What are you doing?"  Pippin could not hide the confusion he felt.

Frodo smiled broadly.  "We're finishing up the plans for the summer garden."

"Yes," Merry nodded.  "We can see that.  But why aren't you with your lasses?  You're married" -- he looked pointedly at Sam -- "and you're getting married in just over a week!"

Frodo's face became serious.  "Yes -- that's why we're in here, and they're in there."

Sam could not hold inside the laughter that burst out at the comical look of confusion on the younger cousins' faces.  He whispered to them, "It's getting harder for them to be together without really being together, if you take my meaning.  No disrespect to you, Mr. Frodo."

The cousins stared in amazement as Frodo turned several shades of red.

Pippin persisted.  "What're you saying?"

Sam sighed and tried to give Pippin a meaningful look.  "I'm saying, if they could wed and be done with it tonight, they would, but seein' as how it's not for more than a week, they're doing whatever they can to keep things proper -- if you'll forgive me for being so bold, Mr. Frodo..."

Frodo had been staring blankly at the fireplace; he turned and looked at his cousins, beseeching them to understand.  He was trying to imagine how red his face was.  It was warmer than he had ever felt it.

Understanding dawned in Merry's eyes.  "You're saying they want... now?  Even without a wedding?"

"Yes," Frodo hissed, and blushed an even deeper shade of red.  "But, we also both want even more to wait, so everything's right and proper."

"And being in separate rooms makes it easier?" Pippin observed, still confused.

"Yes, Pip, it does, a little," Frodo sighed.

Merry shook his head.  "Good thing there's all the festivities and such beforehand, to keep you occupied, or this last week would be downright miserable."

"Indeed."  Frodo did not bother to hide his growing frustration.

Sam decided to take matters into his own hands before the cousins could make matters worse.  "Are you two here to help or hinder?"

"Help," Pippin replied meekly.  "Sorry, Frodo.  Didn't mean to make things difficult."

Frodo sighed and smiled.  "It's not your fault.  What say you we have some songs and stories this evening?  Have you eaten supper yet?"

Pippin cheered.  "Songs! and supper! -- No, we've not had supper as yet, dear cousin..."

"Stories and songs and a good solid meal sound like just the thing to get your mind off--"  Merry's eyes grew wide, and then he laughed.  "Maybe not completely, but hopefully it'll help."

When they joined Lily and Rosie in the greatroom a few moments later, Lily gave up her seat on the settee so Sam could sit next to Rosie.  Then Lily and Frodo sat on chairs next to each other, but a little apart.  They held hands, but nothing more; Merry and Pippin thought they looked a touch forlorn, somehow.

---------

Frodo had asked Sam for advice several days ago, Sam being an experienced married hobbit now.  His friend was so embarrassed, Frodo wondered if he would be of much help.

But Sam took his request seriously, and thought a moment, then cleared his throat.  "Don't you go worritin' about that, Mr. Frodo.  It'll all work out.  You and Miss Lily love each other, that's the important thing, and if you remember to put her -- well, her, and her wants, that is -- first, everything'll work out just fine.  She might be a little afraid of -- well, you see, there's a little pain for them, the very first time, and all -- it's just a bit, Rosie said--"

Sam was blushing now.  "And -- well, try not to rush things, Mr. Frodo...  And it's all right to have a laugh now and then, if you take my meaning, sir..."

Frodo didn't take his meaning at all, but endeavored to hide the confusion he felt.  I hadn't imagined there was so much to it, he mused, although I'd never assumed it would be easy... I so want to make Lily happy...

To Frodo's surprise, Sam continued, warming to the subject.  "If she's anything like my Rosie, she'll have a way of knowin' how to help you through the rough spots."

Then Sam had turned bright red, as if he had said far too much.  Frodo laughed and thanked him, then apologized to his friend for putting him in such an awkward position, as it should have been his da advising him, or mayhap Uncle Saradoc...

Sam had assured him it was no trouble at all, then coughed nervously, and said he needed to run and check on the new morning glories he planted the day before.

---------

Frodo was pulled from his reverie by a soft tapping at the front door.  He shook his head.  It was still pitch dark.  "Surely it's not yet four o'clock in the morning...  Who?..."

She's leaving.  I told you she would.

"Nonsense."

She's fallen sick.  She'll not be able to marry you, now.  You've made her far too ill.  It's your fault.  Your doing.  You should have stayed away from her.

Fear grew in Frodo's heart.  What if she is ill? he wondered.

Yes...

Frodo flew down the hall, and without a thought for wearing only a nightshirt, he flung open the door, out of breath.

It was not the healer.  It was not Rose, nor Samwise...  Lily was all right!  But who--?

"Easy, my friend," a rich, deep voice soothed.

Frodo looked up, and then up some more, into a well-loved face, lit by the porch lamplight.  The tall man was flanked by two others whom Frodo loved as dearly.  Seeing them, tears stung his eyes.

"Aragorn--?"

The Man in well-worn Ranger garments knelt so he might speak face to face with the hobbit, and pushed back the hood of his Elven cloak, and smiled.

Frodo threw his arms about his friend and protector.

Aragorn's smile deepened; then he gently enfolded the weeping hobbit in his arms.

He's still too thin, Aragorn worried; his smile dimmed.  How he longed to ask Gandalf to explain more of the healing he intimated would take place at Frodo's wedding! -- but Gandalf had warned him no mention was to be made of it.  His smile broadened again when Frodo pulled away from him.

Frodo swiftly embraced both Legolas and Gimli, unable to speak for a moment for his sudden, joyful tears, then composed himself quickly and invited them into the smial, taking their cloaks and knapsacks, and hanging them on the hooks in the front hall.  Frodo paused for a moment, and glanced up at Aragorn.

"What is it, my friend?"  Aragorn gave him a knowing smile.

"Why have you come?"

Aragorn laughed.  "Why, for your wedding, dear Frodo!  I would fain miss the wedding of the Ring-bearer!"

Frodo's eyes grew wide.  "Lily and I prayed you would come!...  But how did you know?"

The Ranger-garbed king gave the hobbit another broad smile.  "Gandalf, of course."

"Is he here?  Did he come with you?"  Frodo could not hide the excitement he felt.  He started to make for the front door again.

Aragorn put out one gentle restraining hand to Frodo's shoulder.  "Not yet; and no, he didn't, but I'm certain he'll be along in plenty of time," Aragorn reassured him.  "No Butterbur, nor anything else, to interfere this time."

Frodo smiled, and the entrance hall, lit only by the low fire from the greatroom beyond, seemed suddenly brighter.  It was infectious; his three guests smiled in return.

Frodo could not contain himself.  "He is coming, then?"

Gimli chuckled, a low, gruff sound.  "But of course he is, laddie."

Legolas added, "Nothing could keep him away."  His voice was musical and light, just as Frodo remembered it.

Gimli continued, "He probably just wants to make an entrance.  You know what these wizard folk are like.  Big on unexpected appearances..."

Frodo laughed, and his friends joined him.  "Come in, come in.  I'll put tea on."

---------

Lily turned over in her bed again.  She murmured softly to the moonlight shining through her bedroom window.  "The cock shall crow soon, Lily Burrows, and I think you've not slept the last hour, at least.  You need rest.  How else shall you make it through the day properly?

"Only one more night, and then I shall be Mistress Lily Baggins."  She giggled and covered her mouth with one of her pillows.  The smile disappeared from her face.  "But where is Gandalf?"

She turned her thoughts to things closer to home and more in her control.  The preparations, and the week of feasting and music and dancing before today had seemed endless.  All she wanted was to be with Frodo, every hour of every day.  The months of courtship had been a sort of exquisite torture for them both.

Now there was only one more day; one more day of being together and yet separate, one more evening of saying goodbye, and parting to sleep in different homes, different beds...  She hoped the day would pass swiftly, as swift as a summer night...

---------

Merry and Pippin and Fatty stumbled into the kitchen at Bag End complaining of being awakened, until they took in the scene.  The cousins crowed for joy and embraced their friends.  Fatty was quickly introduced, and then the old friends fell into catching up on what they had been doing the past months, until they came to the past weeks.

"How did you come here?" Frodo smiled, still awed his friends were truly present, sitting in his kitchen, when not an hour ago this room was empty...

Aragorn smiled.  "We met south of Bree, where I left my entourage.  We hoped to avoid undue attention, which of course would have been impossible had we not traveled as commoners.  This is your day, dear Frodo.  We left our mounts with a Ranger outside the Shire."

"Remarkable men are these Rangers," mused Gimli.  "Everyone knows everyone, and they're spread far and wide."

"Indeed," Legolas added.  "We'd no sooner arrived at the appointed meeting place than a Ranger appeared."

Aragorn smiled quietly.  "It was unexpected, but very good, to see Anborn again.  He served with Faramir, in Ithilien.  Mayhap you met him, then..."

Frodo furrowed his brow.  "There is much I don't remember..."

"It matters not.  Sometimes, forgetting is for the best."  Aragorn's heart tightened at the sudden cloud in Frodo's eyes.

"Tell me," Aragorn continued, with a gleam in his eye, "when shall we be privileged to meet the fair lady? ...who has clearly won your heart--!  One need only mention her in passing, I see, for her to stir you to the depths.  She must be quite remarkable."

Frodo smiled and blushed.  "She is indeed..."

"I'll fetch her for first breakfast, and Sam, and his Rosie, too... shall I, Frodo?" Pippin suggested eagerly.

"Seeing how as the Sun only arose a short time ago, don't you think it's a mite early, now?" Gimli wondered.

"She's a game lass..." Merry assured them.

Fatty placed a hand on Frodo's shoulder.  "She'd have to be, to marry a Baggins," he laughed.

Laughter rang through the smial, and more yet at Frodo's blush.

Aragorn finally caught his breath.  "So, the Baggins' legend lives on: thieves worthy of hire by Dwarves and Wizards.  Now, you've stolen a lady's heart."

Frodo's eyes softened.  "Nay, my dear Aragorn.  She's given it to me freely, with full knowledge of what an alliance with me entails."  Wonder filled his face.  "Even still, she chooses me..."  His voice trailed away.

"She seems to be a lady of clear understanding," Aragorn replied gravely.  "And in possession of a rare gift: knowing what is of true worth.  I look forward to meeting her."

"I'll see to it."  Pippin turned and dashed out the door.

---------

Lily opened the door with a curious smile, wondering who would pound on it so early in the morning.

"Pippin!  Come in!"

"Pardon me, Lily, but you're wanted up at Bag End."

Worry immediately etched Lily's face.

"No!  It's nothing like that.  Sam and Rosie are wanted too.  You're all invited to firsties, but please do hurry."

Lily relaxed as she noted the twinkle in Pippin's eyes.

"Pippin, I thought we were all having firsties here?  Scones are on the fire."

"Bring them with you, and finish them at Bag End.  You must come to Bag End."  His voice took on a pleading tone, "Please.  And do hurry, but truly it's nothing to be worried over."

Rosie and Sam stepped up behind Lily.  Sam cocked his head, yawning, and gave Pippin a dubious look.  "What's this I'm hearin'?  We're having firsties at Bag End, instead of here, where everything's readied--"

"Please!  Why must this be so complicated?  It's quite simple, really.  We're having firsties at Bag End just as soon as you can get yourselves there, and the sooner, the better."

"And nothing is amiss?"  Lily searched Pippin's eyes.

His agitation subsided, and he smiled broadly.  "Not a thing.  We've a surprise for you, and you too, Sam.  So please come."

"Don't worry, Pip," Rose smiled.  "I'll get them there in two shakes of a lamb's tail.  I'll bring what I've readied so far and finish it there."

Pippin smiled his gratitude.  "Thank you, dear Rosie."  He turned to go, then stopped and turned back.  "I'll help you carry it."

---------

Pippin entered Bag End first, calling behind him to the three who followed.

"Come in!  Come in!  Make yourselves at home in the greatroom!"

Lily passed Pippin with a sidelong glance of question and curiosity, followed by Rosie and Sam.  She turned toward the familiar room and stopped, her eyes wide, then she tore her eyes from the strangers, seeking Frodo.

Frodo stepped forward from his place next to the tall Man, and held out his hand to her.  She crossed to him, and returned his smile when their fingers touched.  Then she felt the darkness lurking, and all but Frodo faded away.  She slipped her arms about his waist, and pressed her head against his shoulder, willing the darkness back to Its distant corner.

Frodo breathed deeply of her, and wrapped his arms tightly about her.  He closed his eyes, and breathed more easily, then whispered in her ear.  "Thank you."

Lily lifted her head.  Searching the blue in his eyes, she smiled warmly.

He returned her smile.  "Dearest, it's early, I know, but I've received some very special guests; please, let me present them to you..."

She eased away from her beloved and grasped his hand, then turned to the three strangers.

Frodo gently squeezed Lily's hand, and gave her a reassuring smile, then cleared his throat.

"Lily, may I present Aragorn--" Frodo blushed.  "Elessar, the King of Gondor and Arnor, the leader of all the Free Peoples of Middle-earth!"

Lily paled for a moment, then realized her mouth was open.  She closed it and curtsied deeply, still holding Frodo's hand; the gesture between the couple was lost on no one.

"Aragorn," Frodo continued, "Miss Lily Burrows... soon to be Mistress Lily Baggins."  He grinned, and tightened his hold on Lily's hand.

Aragorn bowed, and eased her hand from Frodo's, then kissed it lightly.  "Now that I see you, I understand well...  Frodo's wisdom reveals itself again, to allow the capture of his heart by one so fair in appearance and manner."

Lily blushed crimson, smiling.  This Man truly was a king.  Her gift of sight revealed it at once, but so did his bearing, and his words.

Her voice trembled, despite her attempts to steady it.  She could only meet his grey eyes for a moment.  "Thank you, Sire."

"Get out of the way, laddie!  You're not the only one wanting to meet the lovely lass," the Dwarf scolded gruffly.

Lily's eyes grew wide.

He then stepped forward and tipped his head slightly to one side, indicating Aragorn.  "We knew him before all the fancy titles and what-not," he continued with a grin.

"Lily, this is Gimli, son of Gloin, with whom Bilbo went adventuring, long ago."  Frodo's voice was now outwardly calm, but still she felt the intensity of his excitement and joy at the presence of these three beloved friends.

Lily curtsied and extended her hand.  She was surprised by how gently he held it.

"Master Gimli," she offered, smiling.

"I'm honoured to meet a lady of such beauty and intelligence.  Sometime perhaps you'll tell me how you caught this hobbit, when no one else ever could, I hear?  I love a good story!"

Lily saw his eyes twinkling, and he was smiling as he bowed over her hand without kissing it, then released her and stepped back.

Finally, she raised her eyes to meet the Elf's.  He smiled slowly, almost shyly, it seemed to her, and stepped forward, his grace at once startling and calming...

"Lily, Prince Legolas, of Mirkwood."

She again held out her hand and began to curtsy.  Then she felt herself becoming faint -- this was all so much to take in -- these were her beloved's guides and protectors on the Quest, his friends, just like dear Sam...  With an effort, she breathed as evenly as she could, and prayed for calm.

"Nay, dear lady, the honour is mine."  He went down on one knee, and smiled into her eyes.  "To greet such a maiden, so fair of heart and face..."

"Thank you..."  Lily smiled shyly at Legolas, then glanced at the other two once more.  She leaned over and whispered in Frodo's ear, blushing crimson, again, for doing so in front of company.  "Please forgive me," she asked of the three guests, before Frodo could reply.

Frodo grinned broadly up at Aragorn, full of teasing affection.  "No, I don't suppose he looks much like a king, but it's how he appeared when we met the Ranger, Strider, in Bree."  Frodo's eyes twinkled.  "Though mayhap this morning he's a bit less unkempt..."

The friends laughed together, Pippin and Sam still nearly beside themselves with happiness and surprise.  Merry's joy seemed deeper, Lily decided, then smiled to herself.  Perhaps he was still simply trying to believe they were here...

Aragorn went down on one knee to more easily address Lily.

"We did not wish to draw attention to ourselves.  This is your day; yours and Frodo's.  And yet we desired to share in the joyous occasion and hoped by appearing as mere travelers, we'd pass with less notice."

"Thank you, Sire."  Lily warmed to the Man.  "May I ask--"  She blushed, glancing down, and then up again.  "Where is your lovely queen?  Frodo has spoken of her beauty and kindness, and I wish to thank her..."  Lily glanced at the jewel hanging at Frodo's throat.

Aragorn stood slowly, and followed her gaze.  "As I told Frodo when I first arrived, my Lady Arwen sends her warmest greetings and wishes she could join in this celebration..."  He smiled suddenly.  "...but she is expecting our first child."

Lily's eyes widened.  Aragorn's smile was quiet; everything about him was quiet, she sensed.

He continued gravely.  "She insisted I come, dear lady, though I shall stay only through the ceremony on the morrow.  Then I shall depart as quietly and as quickly as I may, for indeed I do wish to be near her."

Lily curtsied deeply again.  "Thank you, Sire.  And please thank your gracious queen for us as well.  We are delighted for you.  What joyous news!"

Frodo's smile broadened with her every word.

Aragorn inclined his head.  "Your sweet lady would outshine most of those at court, dear Frodo.  Thank you, Miss Burrows."

"No, Sire..." Lily's voice caught.  "It is I who owes you a debt of gratitude I shall never be able to repay."

"How is that, my lady?"  Aragorn eyed her, softly questioning.

"Without you, Sire, Frodo would not be standing next to me now, living, and breathing, and warm."  Tears gathered in her eyes.  "Such joy have I known since his return from the Quest... and it all would be lost to me, but for you and the others."  Several tears spilled over.

Aragorn took her hands in his and raised them to his lips to kiss them.  "Nay, dearest lady, we all only did our part, as Frodo and Sam did theirs..."  Aragorn glanced past her to the gardener, who blushed and held Rosie more closely to his side.

"Without them, my kingdom would be in ruin and slavery, as would all of Middle-earth, as I am certain you realize -- for I see it in your eyes.  And without you, fair Lily, I would not now be privileged to share in Frodo's joy..."

Lily saw his grey eyes clearly for the first time, and blushed at the admiration she read there.  Aragorn released her, and she leaned a little against Frodo.  He wrapped his arm around her; her dear hobbit was sharing a knowing smile with the King.

"I have a personal message for you both," Aragorn continued.  "The Lord Faramir and his Lady Eowyn wish to express their deepest regrets at being unable to attend the ceremony on the morrow."

He broke into a grin, suddenly less like a king and more like -- Strider? Lily guessed.

Aragorn looked to Merry and Pippin, meeting their eyes as he spoke.  "The Lady Eowyn is in all likelihood delivering her firstborn as we speak, so it was quite impossible for them to attend.  Her time was very near to my Lady Arwen's.  I have taken the liberty of expressing your felicitations to them in your stead."

The young cousins at first stood speechless, until Pippin broke the silence.  "Aragorn, what happy news!  If there's any more, I'm not sure I could bear it; I might burst!"

Merry stood beaming and silent, but there were tears in his eyes.

"Have no fear, young Master Took," Aragorn soothed.  "You've heard all the news of great import.  I've plenty of stories to share; perhaps there might be time this day before tonight's festivities..."

He smiled down indulgently at all the hobbits, then met Frodo's eyes once more.

Frodo bowed slightly.  "Thank you, my Lord...  Pippin speaks truly... what happy news this is!"  Frodo's eyes were alight with excitement.  "Lily, we'll send a gift to them, as is the custom of Men!"  He turned back to look up at Aragorn.  "Lily is a very gifted seamstress.  Her creations would grace even the Lady Eowyn and her child."

He realized suddenly he was showing her off, and for a moment regretted putting her in such a position; but Lily seemed pleased.

Aragorn put one of his large hands on Frodo's shoulder, and the hobbit looked up again at the King.

"Frodo Baggins, your Lily is as beautiful as her name.  I see her heart is full of kindness and wisdom, and it is plain she loves you deeply.  Fortune has smiled on you, my friend.  May I ask -- how did you find her?"

Aragorn was smiling down at her again.  Lily sensed within him humility, power, and compassion -- an amazing mixture, to be sure... and... he was a healer.  That was what she had not been able to place, until now.  She heard Frodo speaking.

"This had nothing to do with good fortune, my Lord."  His voice lowered to nearly a whisper; he looked at Lily, but spoke to the King.

"I did not find her, except by happenstance -- or what seemed like happenstance -- for I was not looking for her.  Lily is a gift, given to me by Ilúvatar, the One... she has loved me from before the Quest -- from a time when I didn't even know she was here in the Shire at all."

Frodo held her closer and placed his hand on hers.  His voice took on a new note.  "Aragorn, her love keeps the darkness at bay--!" 

Lily glanced at Aragorn, and saw the King staring at Frodo with wonder in his eyes.  His voice dropped as well.

"I understand, my friend.  I am happy beyond words for you both.  It is fitting that the Ring-bearer should have such a gift.  This time you shall not be deceived by a treasure, Frodo, but richly rewarded.  Cherish her."

Frodo's eyes filled with tears.  He searched Lily's eyes, then whispered, "I shall, with all my heart."  A soft smile touched his lips.  "One cannot disobey the King."

As the couple embraced, Aragorn turned his attention to the other couple in the room.

"Come, Master Samwise."  Aragorn held out his hand.  "Introduce me to the lady who is so clearly fond of you."  He smiled.

The couple stepped forward.  Rosie glanced at Lily, who offered her a reassuring smile.

"Rosie-love, this is Strider.  Strider, this is Rosie Gamgee, my wife."

Rosie curtsied, then raised her eyes higher and higher yet to meet the King's eyes.  "It's a privilege to meet you, sir -- Sire."  She blushed lightly.

"There's no need to stand on formality with me, Mistress Gamgee!  Your husband never has."

Rosie giggled as she caught the twinkle in his eyes.  She glanced again at Lily.  "Beggin' your pardon -- Sire, but might we have a bit of firsties?"

"Of course; please forgive me.  It has clearly been too long since last I enjoyed the company of hobbits.  I've somehow forgotten your need for frequent nourishment."  He glanced sidelong at Pippin, who grinned back at him somewhat defiantly.  Aragorn laughed, and looked to Rose once again.

"Please, all of you, make yourselves comfortable.  I am Strider for my time here in the Shire."

He turned to Merry and Pippin.  "I wish to become better acquainted with these charming ladies.  Do you think the two of you can manage to put a meal together?"

The cousins bowed.  "Yes, Sire."  Then they smiled.  "Good to be in your service again."  They laughed and disappeared into the kitchen.

---------

As the meal drew to a close, Aragorn sighed with satisfaction.  "I must remember, from time to time, to request of my kitchen staff a bit of hobbit fare."  He turned to Sam.  "Would you fetch my satchel by the door?  And handle it gently.  It's the one with--"

Sam grinned.  "I reckon I can guess which one it is...  Back before you know it."

Within moments, he returned and handed the knapsack to Aragorn.

"When my Lady Arwen and I learned you were to wed, we discussed long what gift we might offer the Ring-bearer and his bride."  He gingerly opened the pack, extracting a sackcloth-wrapped package, a leather pouch, and a book.  He gently removed the coarse cloth of flax revealing a plant within.

"Kingsfoil," Sam breathed.

Aragorn smiled.  "Athelas.  This healing herb is from my own garden, ready for planting in yours, Frodo, and in this pouch are dried leaves, ready for use.  This book I asked my scribes to compile; it includes instructions on the care and uses of athelas."

"I know right where it ought to go in the garden, Mr. Frodo!" Sam exclaimed excitedly.

"Thank you, Aragorn -- my Lord," Frodo corrected himself.  "These are gifts without price..."

"Thank you, Sire," Lily murmured, blushing.  "You are too kind."

Frodo ran his fingers reverently across the book's cover, his expression clouding for a moment as dark memories of Weathertop came unbidden.  He composed himself quickly, and turned bright eyes to Sam.

"Would you like the book for your library, Sam?" Frodo asked, with a smile for his friend's enthusiasm.

"It's yours, Mr. Frodo; yours and Miss Lily's."

Lily smiled.  "We'll share it.  Keep it at Garden Hill so you may learn all you need to ensure it thrives.  Rosie and I shall learn all we may on how to use it..."  Her eyes widened, and she turned to Frodo and Aragorn.

"Sire, I know you wish to keep your presence secret.  There is someone who desires to meet you; not--" Lily hesitated, hoping she was phrasing her request properly.  "Not Elessar, the King, but Aragorn, the Healer.  She's our own healer; she serves Hobbiton as well...  May I bring her to meet you?  Would that be permissible?"

Aragorn glanced at Frodo.

"Mrs. Longburrow, our healer, noticed how well my hand mended," Frodo explained; then he smiled.  "She declared it fine work, and did express a desire to meet you."

"Can she be trusted?"

"She's the healer for Bag End," Frodo stated simply.

Aragorn nodded.  "And loyal to you, above all others...  Fetch her here."

---------

Secondies and elevensies were spent in pleasant conversation, mostly between Aragorn and Mrs. Longburrow, with occasional questions from Merry, Pippin, and Rose.  Sam, Frodo, and Lily listened intently.

Luncheon was nearing when a knock came at the front door.

"I'll get it," Fatty offered.  A moment later he returned.  "Mrs. Longburrow?  They're needing you down at the Hornblower place.  Seems young Largo ate a few too many of the new apples..."

"It's not serious, then," Mrs. Longburrow replied.  "Why his mother can't take care of such things...  Oh, fuss and bother.  I'm sure she's heard I've spent the morning here, and wants to know why."

Aragorn eyed her calmly.  "We shall not make our presence known until this evening, and even then, we'll not reveal who I am."

Mrs. Longburrow raised one eyebrow, but failed to hide a smile.  "If it's gossips you want, then we'll need to fetch Belba Greenholm, Dalfinia Bracegirdle, and Prisca Goodbody."

Aragorn smiled appreciatively and bowed.  "Please, forgive me, dear lady.  I did not intend to offend."

"Of course not," Mrs. Longburrow stated matter-of-factly.  "It's not like no one's going to notice you the moment you step out the door, but that doesn't mean the whole Shire needs to know exactly who you are, now do they?"

Aragorn threw back his head and laughed.  "My lady, if ever you find yourself in Minas Tirith, your company would be most welcome in my court."  His grey eyes twinkled.  "But then again, I believe our dear Frodo has greater need of you.  I wish my Lady could but spend a little time with you, Mrs. Longburrow.  How it would gladden her heart to know one such as you looks after our dear friend and his new bride!"

Mrs. Longburrow's confidence melted into girlish blushes.  "Oh, bosh."  Then she giggled.  "Mind how you talk there, or you may find yourself with a hobbit healer on yer doorstep sooner than you know."

"We would be honoured and delighted, I assure you..."

The healer struggled for composure, between more blushes and giggles.  "It's a good thing my Filby's passed on.  He'd never let me hear the end of how I let a lad get the better of me."  She took a deep breath and released it.  "It was a pleasure meeting you," -- she paused, then smiled -- "sir, whoever you may be."

Aragorn bowed over her hand.  "The pleasure was entirely mine, dear lady."

Mrs. Longburrow curtsied and smiled broadly, then turned to Lily.  "Thank you for fetching me.  Please do call upon me for anything."

The healer recovered her self-assurance.  "You're a fine mistress for Bag End, Miss Lily, and long overdue."

With that, she swept out of the smial.

---------

After luncheon, Merry and Pippin invited Gimli and Legolas to the lush back garden for a pipe.  Aragorn declined, preferring to remain as unseen as possible.

Lily excused herself to nap in the room Frodo had given her.

Frodo kissed her cheek, and watched her go, then Aragorn murmured, "Is she all right?  There was a weariness about her..."

Anguish filled Frodo's face.  "My fault.  It's my fault..."

"Stop it, please, Frodo," Rosie scolded gently, laying a hand on his arm to soften her tone.  "She'd not let you speak that way, if she were here, and I'll not let you, either."

"It's that cursed darkness, left behind by the Ring," Sam explained bitterly.

"Please, Sam, that's enough," Rosie warned, suddenly choking back tears.  "No brooding, today!  Or tomorrow, for that matter."

She composed herself, and turned to Aragorn.  "Lily can sense the darkness; we don't know what else to call It.  But we do know It refuses to leave Frodo...  Lily can ease the darkness, somewhat, though It wears on her.  They've managed -- with patience, and hard work -- to keep a fair balance.  Sure and certain, it's quite a feat, by my way of thinking..."  She almost mentioned Frodo's illness in March, but caught herself.  After a quick glance at Frodo and then Sam, she realized there was so much she could not tell either of them.  She addressed Aragorn again.  "It's something I'd've never reckoned anyone could do."

Rose sighed and went on, directing her pleas to her husband and Frodo, as Aragorn listened in silence.

"So don't be feedin' the nasty creature with any more despair.  It helps itself quite well enough, thank you."

"I'm sorry, Rosie," Frodo replied, hushed.  "You're right."

"So that is what you meant, my friend, by her choosing you, despite what an alliance with you might mean."  Aragorn smiled in wonder.  "I underestimated her."

Frodo smiled ruefully.  "You're not the only one.  She truly is my gift, Aragorn; a gift of indescribable value from Ilúvatar... priceless.  I only hope I may love her as she deserves."

Aragorn considered the hobbit's words for a moment.  "Frodo, from my own experience, I've learned Ilúvatar does not seem to offer one-sided gifts.  More times than not, His gifts work two ways..."

Frodo eyed the Man quizzically.  "Do you mean... as she is my gift from the Creator, so am I hers?"

"Yes, Frodo."

"But what she must endure to be with me...  What she must sacrifice...  I must endure nothing, and I only benefit from being with her.  Surely, Ilúvatar would not require sacrifice from one and not the other..."

"Frodo, sacrifices are seldom required simultaneously--"

Before Frodo could pursue the conversation further, they were distracted by a knock at the door.  He glanced toward Lily's room, and hoped she slept still, as he excused himself from his guests and hurried to the door.  He hoped it wasn't a peddler.  Hadn't everything for the wedding already been delivered--?

He opened the door quietly, then whispered, for he could not find his voice.

"Gandalf?"

The wizard laughed, then found himself hushed.

"Lily sleeps..."

"Is she well?" Gandalf asked, though he knew the answer already.

Frodo paused before answering.  "Well enough..."  He searched his dear friend's eyes for understanding.

It occurred to Frodo he had not yet invited Gandalf inside.  He stood aside and held out his right hand in welcome.  Gandalf nodded once, but made no attempt to enter.

"Mayhap I should visit her presently..."

Frodo's blue eyes lit up with hope.  "Would you?  Oh, please, Gandalf..."  He reminded himself to keep his voice low.  "Please, come inside..."

Gandalf nodded again.  "I trust the others are here?" he winked.

Frodo offered his first unshadowed smile.  "In the kitchen.  Thank you."

The wizard ducked into the hall.  "No need to thank me, dear Frodo."  He glanced beyond Frodo, to the end of the hall.  "Is she in her room?"

"Yes..."

Gandalf continued down the hall to Lily's room.  He squeezed into the crowded space, now filled with her things.  His eyes caught sight of a simple basket, next to a chair close to the fireplace.  Slips of fabric spilled from under its hinged lid.

Then he saw Lily curled up under a single coverlet, asleep, and smiled.  Carefully, he pulled up a sturdy-looking trunk of oak and sat on it next to the bed.  He braced himself and laid his hand on Lily's head.

He almost gasped in spite of himself.  "So much more do you bear, child... and only since March.  How?" he whispered.  He eased his hands away from her head, slowly.

Lily woke with a start.  Her eyes popped open wide.  "Gandalf?"

"Yes, child.  I am here.  Just as I promised."  He gave her a warm smile, then startled when she burst into tears.

She threw her arms about the wizard, and sobbed into his robes to muffle her crying.

He hesitated for only a moment, then gently enfolded her in his arms.

Amidst hiccups and sniffles, she whispered, "I feared -- something might have happened -- to you and -- and you would not come and -- I would marry Frodo anyway, but then -- you wouldn't have been here to -- to lift the darkness from me -- and I would become ill -- and Frodo would never forgive himself, and--"

When she paused for breath, Gandalf laid a single finger on her lips.  "I am here, and there's no need to fear, dear child.  I see the darkness is working Its way in you as well.  But still, I am amazed and heartened by how well you've held up.  How do you feel, now that your fears are at rest?"

Lily took a deep breath and released it slowly.  "Better... much better--!"  She paused and cocked her head.  "You refreshed me, as you did last March, just now--"

"I did.  It only seemed fitting you should be with Frodo, especially now...  Tell me, dear Lily.  What else troubles your heart?"

She fingered his robe, then gazed up at the wizard, all her worry revealed on her face.  "I fear It knows."

"Knows what, Lily?"

"Its end is coming," she whispered.

"Mayhap It does, but I think not.  You see, what you speak of is a truth, and the darkness is unable to conceive of it.  More likely, It knows something important is coming only; but no matter.  I am here -- we are both here -- and together, by the grace of Ilúvatar, It shall be defeated.  Breathe easy, child.  You've borne the burden well; just a little longer, now.  You're all right?"

Lily sighed and nodded her head.  "Yes, Gandalf.  I'm all right."  She met his kind blue eyes, and smiled.

"Good.  Let's join the others.  I'm quite certain I'm not mistaken a particular gentlehobbit would welcome your company."

Lily blushed and giggled, then grew serious again.  "Gandalf, thank you..."

Gandalf bowed slightly.  "I am at your service."  He needed to leave the room first, as he was blocking the door.

He carefully entered the kitchen and greeted the circle of friends.  Frodo had called in his cousins and Gimli and Legolas from the back garden.

Aragorn and the others stood immediately when they caught sight of Gandalf, resplendent in his shining white robes.

Frodo gazed up at the wizard, only the slightest fear clouding his eyes.  He trusted his friend.  "Is she all right?"

Lily appeared from behind Gandalf's robes, and smiled as Frodo caught his breath.  He wrapped his arms about her, unaware of anyone else.

"I'm quite all right, my dearest Frodo."  Then she whispered in his ear.  "Good as new."

Frodo pulled back and searched her face.

Lily allowed all her love for him to shine in her eyes.

A tear slid down Frodo's cheek.  "I--"  He glanced at Gandalf.  "Thank you," his voice trembled.

Lily reached up and kissed the tear away, then tightened her hold on Frodo as she smiled at Gandalf.  He blushed slightly at the radiant look in the couples' faces.

"What must a wizard do to get a spot of tea around here?"

Laughter filled the room.  Frodo and Lily briefly tightened their embrace, then took their seats at table as Rosie, with Merry and Pippin's help, prepared an early tea.

---------

The afternoon passed amid stories and songs, and shared food and laughter.  Lily and Rose were not accustomed to the presence of a Dwarf, an Elf prince, and a king -- a real king -- in their midst.  They spent much of the time simply watching and listening, in awe.

Lily delighted in the regaled story of the battle of Helm's Deep, as told by the three hunters; she noticed they call themselves by that name, much as the Shire folk called Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin the Travelers.

"For we were hunting stray hobbits," Gimli explained, then eyed Merry and Pippin severely as he laughed.  "It turned out these rascals were taking very good care of themselves, even indulging in the stores at Isengard, including the best leaf... and somehow, during our brief separation, they seemed to add a few inches as well."

"The Ent-draught!" Rosie giggled.  "Glad I am, my Sam got none of it, as he's quite tall enough."

Sam blushed and kissed her cheek.

Lily felt Frodo's eyes on her often, as they listened to their visitors.  She met his gaze with love and warmth, reveling in sitting closely, held against him, his arm encircling her.  She held his right hand in her lap, their fingers intertwined.

This was the closest they had been since returning to Hobbiton.  She struggled to remember others were in the room, and not give in to her desires, mirrored there in Frodo's eyes.

---------

Just after dinner, and before guests were to begin to appear on the party field, Hal and Daisy arrived arm in arm, with Will carrying Pearl on his shoulders.  She was happily singing a wordless, tuneless song, clinging tightly to Will's hair.  He struggled not to wince when she pulled harder and shrieked when she saw Frodo and Lily.

Daisy laughed.  "She had a good nap.  Can you tell?"

The babe dove trustingly into Frodo's arms, then chortled and gasped at the expected kiss from Lily.  The family laughed at her shrieks of delight as Frodo danced her around a few turns, landing her safely in Hal's arms.  Then the much-anticipated game started all over again.

Soon thereafter, the guests began to arrive in droves, and side by side, Lily and Frodo welcomed each of them to the supper, games, and dancing.

Frodo could hardly contain his excitement.  Nearly all the Fellowship was here -- Aragorn was here!  And Gimli, and Legolas... and Gandalf would give them a blessing tomorrow, as part of the ceremony...

Gandalf had made Lily feel immeasurably better.  It was a blessing unlooked-for, and welcomed; for Lily had become emotionally exhausted after a week full of crowded parties, despite her daily naps.  Mayhap the miracle he had prayed for...

The darkness attempted to reach into him again, but Lily was by his side and It could not gain purchase.  Frodo sighed deeply before greeting their next guests, the Hornblower family.

As Frodo asked after Largo's health and the green apples, Lily squeezed his arm gently.  She knew the darkness was lurking, waiting only for Frodo to weaken and fall into despair.

Frodo sent the Hornblowers on toward the tables laden with every delicacy Hobbiton and Bywater could boast.  As he watched them go, he felt Lily's touch on his arm, and the darkness retreat further.  He refused to think of what living with him might do to her, and clung to what faith he possessed.  They would take each day as it came...

The evening was fair and warm, and the crowd was the largest of any that week.  While it was common for the party on the wedding's eve to be well-attended, rumours had flown throughout all four Farthings that Gandalf the Conjurer was here, and his fireworks were not to be missed.  Still, he was passing strange...

To make matters worse, a Man, a Dwarf, and -- it was said, although many would not believe it -- an Elf were here, in the largest of the pavilions...  These Bagginses had a knack for attracting foreigners.  The Dwarf fit in well enough, being almost the same size, but for that beard...  Several of them had seen the Man.  Tall he was, but not very well-dressed; not for a wedding, anyway.

---------

Lily and Frodo greeted the last guest.  She pointed to a small pavilion close to the fully-leafed mallorn, and giggled.

"Look, Frodo, the children have found Gandalf..."

Frodo laughed.  "I cannot tell which amazes them more -- his small fireworks, or his beard!  No doubt the youngest ones haven't ever seen one before, and now they've seen two, Gimli's and Gandalf's...  But look--!  He's setting up the real fireworks now."

The first of the fireworks drew the visiting members of the Fellowship out of the pavilion, where Frodo and Lily joined them to watch the show.  Legolas made his way past the others to stand next to the four hobbits, Lily, and Rose.

A spectacular firework burst into the shape of the White Tree, filling the entire sky and turning night into day, causing the crowd first to gasp and then to roar in delight.

Legolas spoke in a hushed tone, so that they had to strain to hear him over the hum of the celebrants.

"That was for Boromir," he said simply.

"And fitting it was," answered Pippin softly.

"Aye," whispered Merry.

The others were silent, and Lily felt a mournfulness in all of them, but most especially Merry and Pippin and Frodo, who tensed with sadness, his hand holding hers.

The Fellowship watched as the crowd murmured and gasped in awe, exclaiming and applauding as the displays appeared, each one grander than the last.  Parents held their small children in their arms, and pointed skyward.

As the last magnificent shower of colours faded, the stars took their place, sparkling bright white against the black canopy of night.

"The stars are more beautiful than ever, now that you love me," Frodo whispered to Lily.

"Dearest Frodo--" she answered back, and she felt his wish to kiss her.  But they could not kiss in public until the wedding; instead they joined the dancing.

---------

Lily and Frodo danced together most of the evening, though from time to time they were spied to be sitting alone, in plain view but wholly unapproachable even by the most brazen busybodies.  Rosie nudged Sam and smiled as she noticed Belba Greenholm attempt to sidle closer to the couple, mayhap to overhear their words, but promptly found herself swept into the dancing by a Dwarf.

Closer to midnight the festivities began to wind down, and it was permissible for Frodo and Lily to retire.  Daisy had put Pearl down for the night several hours earlier, with Rosie's mum offering to keep an eye on her.  She returned to keep Hal company and finish the night, while Rosie and Sam accompanied Lily and Frodo home.

Sam and Rosie entered their smial, stopping at the door.  Sam grinned at the couple, though they were barely aware of him.  "We'll give you fifteen minutes, then I'll see you home, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo nodded absently, his eyes returning Lily's searching gaze.

The door to the smial closed and Frodo whispered, "After tonight, I'll not be able to say this ever again..."

Lily drew her brows together, questioningly, and gave him a curious smile, her heart beating madly.  There would be no more goodbyes after tonight...

"I love you, Lily -- Burrows..."

Lily's breath caught.  "Beloved Frodo," she sighed.  "Never again to be separated..."  She began to tremble, and her breathing became uneven.  She laid her palms on his chest, and whispered against his lips, "I love you..."

Then she gave in to their desire, kissing him softly, tentatively.  She was not sure it was even allowed, but Sam had left them alone...

Frodo's breathing stopped.  He held perfectly still, and the teasing glint vanished from his eyes.  "Lily..."

He abandoned his voice as she tenderly caressed his lips again.  Her attentions were slowly breaking down his control, and desire sang in every fiber of his being.  He trembled with the effort to remain calm, and then he tenderly returned her offering, taking her face into his hands and teasing her with only the lightest of kisses.

She shuddered, and they smiled at the same time within a kiss, knowing each other's hopes and dreams.  Frodo gave her one last kiss, his mouth searching against hers, still gentle.

She tasted sweet.  He had to stop.

"I love you, Lily."  His voice was resonant against her cheek.  "Can we manage, for one more night?"

"We have no choice, but I can wait... barely," she breathed.  "I love you."

As they prayed, giving thanks, the warm soft breeze of May transformed into June around them, full of blessing and mystery.  In silence they held fast to one another, until Sam returned.