The next few days were warm, and Radagast had Frodo sitting outside in the sun on the second day, well wrapped up against any possible chill.
“I want to be gone from here as soon as may be, Donkey. Do get your strength back as quickly as you can.” There was a twinkle in his eye and Frodo laughed, but he heard the sober truth behind the jest.
“What worries you, Radagast? That we may be caught by the first snow?”
There were people working in the gardens now, filling baskets with their harvest and carrying them under shelter. The Forest around the village was shedding its leaves; the turn of the season was at hand. On the far side of the clearing a few boys were playing with a hoop, and Nano was just coming back from the well with a filled bucket.
“There is something brewing here, and that lad is at the heart of it. I want him out of here before the storm breaks.” Radagast looked troubled. “I do not want to leave you here alone, Donkey, but I must get Nano away. If you cannot travel by week’s end, I will have to come back for you after I have got him to safety.”
“I’ll be able to travel, Radagast. Hobbits heal quickly.” He had felt it too, the sense of brooding disquiet among the villagers. He would have understood sorrow – there had been nearly twenty deaths – or even giddy joy, because the sickness had passed and those who still lived had escaped it. But there was neither sorrow nor joy, only this uneasiness that seemed to hang in the air. People came by ones and twos to the house where he and Radagast were staying, bringing food and firewood and a word of thanks for help during the weeks of pestilence, but no one would meet their eyes directly, and the villagers hastened away as if they were afraid to be seen talking.
The hoop the boys were playing with veered off course, apparently out of control. It spun across the open area and straight into Nano, bumping his arm so he dropped his bucket, spilling the water out on the ground. He turned on the boys in a rage, sending the hoop back at them with a furious push and a string of invective. But before he could pick up the bucket, Radagast was there.
“Come along, lad, back home with you. I’ll fetch water later on.”
“Home! That is no home of mine – that is Widow Sorra’s house!”
“And where is she, then?” Radagast asked. “Are we keeping her from her home?”
“No, she died,” Nano said.
“Then she will not begrudge us the use of her house. We will be leaving soon in any event.” He steered the child through the doorway, and Frodo gathered up his blankets and followed them inside. The wizard added some sticks to the fire and hung the kettle to boil.
“There’s water enough for tea, anyway. Now, lad, isn’t it time you told us your story? This was your father’s village – how can it be that you have no family here? Surely you have aunts and uncles, cousins maybe -?”
“No! My father had kin here, but they are none of mine.” They stared at him in bewilderment, and he added, “They will not claim me. My father broke tradition when he married my mother; he brought her from a distant land, and the village held it no marriage at all. He was the headman, or they would have turned us out.”
“Ah. I begin to understand,” said Radagast. “I remember your father – a hard man, but he was honorable. And he is dead? So who is headman now?”
“I am,” said Nano, and he drew himself up proudly, as if he dared them to contest it.
The wizard nodded. “Of course. It passes from father to son, and you are the only son. What if you were not here, Nano – who would it be then?”
“My father’s brother. He pretends that he is headman, but it’s a lie! I am my father’s heir!”
The water boiled and Radagast made the tea before he asked, “When did your father die, Nano? And how?”
“At mid-summer. We had been to the Lake, my father and I, where the King’s Men are rebuilding the old fortress. We went to seek news of the King; my father rode with Aragorn long ago, when he was only a Ranger. So we went to see, but as soon as we got home he took to his bed. He was the first to die, and then I took sick, but my mother nursed me through it. Then we thought it was over, but a couple of weeks later old Sorra got it – she was the only woman in the village who was ever kind to my mother – and she died, and some others, and my mother -“
“And the village blames your family for bringing the pestilence.”
Nano shrugged. “They already hated us. See, our men take their wives from Olorra, off to the west.” He pointed. “And their men marry from Beechie – you can take what bride you like, only from the proper village. But my father was traveling with Aragorn, and on the far side of the mountains he met my mother and loved her. So he wed her and brought her back with him, but the village would not accept her as his true wife. They could not stop him from becoming headman, though, when my grandfather died, and they cannot stop me!”
Frodo sipped his tea, observing the lad. A true child of Men – proud as the Old Took and jealous for his prerogatives. But not all Men were like that, he reminded himself. Aragorn had accepted his high destiny, but he had not grasped for the scepter as this child was grasping for the headship of a tiny village. And Nano’s father had ridden with Aragorn! He wondered if the father had been of like temper to the son.
It was different in the Shire. Pippin would be Thain, when the time came, but he would be glad to get out of it if he could. No sane hobbit desired that burden, to be the guardian and Chief Magistrate of the Shire. There was some competition to be Mayor, but that dignitary was mainly occupied with opening festivals and attending banquets; it was seldom the Mayor had any heavier duty than naming the Shirriffs and Bounders who patrolled the Shire, and even that was largely a matter of confirming hobbits whose fathers and grandfathers had served in the same capacity.
“How will you govern them, Nano, if they hate you so?” he asked quietly.
“Let them hate! I do not care what they think of me, so they do what I say!”
Frodo shook his head. He did not envy anyone who came under this lad’s rule.
“How old are you, Nano?” asked Radagast.
“Twelve. Oh, I know you will say I am too young – it is what they all say – but the truth is they do not want me because of my mother!”
“Perhaps, but twelve is very young to be headman, even of a small village. If you had older kinsmen to advise you – but you say you do not.”
Nano gave a bitter laugh. “My father’s brother advises me! ‘Run back to your mother, little boy, and be thankful we do not drive you both naked into the forest to starve!’ – that’s what he told me! He thinks he can take my inheritance because I am too young – but it is my blood that matters, not my age!”
“Is there anyone who supports your claim?”
“Sorra did -“
“But she is dead. Your mother is dead. Is there anyone now living who will accept your headship?”
The child scowled and did not answer, and Radagast got to his feet with a groan. “I fear it will be blood that decides, indeed,” he said. “Your blood, Nano, spilled in the dust. You cannot force your will on a whole village that does not want you, however much you may be in the right.”
Someone had brought them bread and a round of cheese wrapped in a damp cloth, and he set them out on the table. “Come and eat. I am too weary to cook tonight; this will do for supper.”
“Are you ill, Radagast?” Frodo asked. He had never known the wizard to admit fatigue. Would Radagast catch the sickness now, at the very end, or was he immune to such things? I am not skilled enough yet, to play the healer, he thought in panic.
“Just tired, Donkey. Come and eat, you and Nano, while I lie down. I have missed too much sleep, these last weeks, and we must be going soon. Now you are on the mend, I will sleep while I may.”
Nano sliced the bread and they cut off hunks of cheese to eat with it. Neither of them had much appetite. They watched Radagast as he stretched out on the bed and pulled up a blanket. When he began to snore, Nano said, “Where are you going? Where do you live?”
Frodo smiled. “Nowhere – and everywhere. We will follow the birds south, is what he told me.”
“Is that all? You really don’t know where you’re going?” Disbelief mingled with envy in the boy’s voice.
Frodo smothered a laugh, not to wake Radagast, and suddenly it seemed the most delightful thing in the world to live everywhere and nowhere, following the wizard into each new day, south or east or wherever he decided to go.
Mordor, said a little whisper in his mind. Will you follow him to Mordor? He shivered, his eyes turning inward for a moment, but his resolve held. Yes, even there, if that is where he leads me. Even to Mordor – but that will not be for a while yet, after all –
He shook himself and turned back to Nano. “Would you like to come along?” he asked. “Your father rode with Aragorn; will you ride with us?”
Nano stared from him to Radagast, plainly taken with the idea. “But I am headman,” he said, like one who puts aside a great temptation. “I should not leave -“
“Nano,” Frodo began. He was afraid the village would murder this child, if he tried to force his claim to be headman. But to use that argument would only make him more determined – he was a bold lad, not to be put off by fear.
“You are your mother’s son also, not only your father’s,” he said finally. “Would it not be good to try and find her people, before you take on the headship? If once they accept you, they may not let you go.”
He let that sink in while he wrapped up the food and banked their fire for the night.
“Good night, Nano. Think on it. I for one would be glad of your company.” He lay down on his own bed and closed his eyes, but Nano sat motionless at the table.
It was good they had talked that night, Frodo thought later, for the storm broke the next day. He was sitting outside again, reading this time, for at his impatience with his enforced idleness Radagast had pulled a book out of his sack and tossed it to him.
“There, Donkey, you’ve been without books all summer and not complained – you deserve some reward! Let that keep you from boredom while you recover your strength.”
It turned out to be an herbal, with beautifully detailed pictures of the plants and a full description of their uses – not Frodo’s usual choice of reading material, but he was grateful for any book after being so long without. He was poring over it, trying to decide which simples would have been best to use in the recent pestilence, when a little knot of people approached the house.
“Where is the wizard?” their leader demanded. He was tall and dark, not only in his coloring but also in his facial expression. He glared down at Frodo as if he thought him almost beneath notice, but Frodo remembered him raving in fever and vomiting into a basin, and was not impressed.
“He is within. If you will wait, I will say you are here.”
He went in, shutting the door firmly behind him. Radagast patted his shoulder. “Nicely done, Donkey,” he said. “This is your uncle, is it, Nano?”
“My father’s brother – he is no kin to me!”
Radagast nodded and stepped outside. They could hear him clearly through the closed door.
“Good day to you, friends. How can I serve you?”
“We have come for the child, Nano. It is time he returned to his family.”
“Ah. And who may that be?”
“We are his kinsmen.”
“Indeed? You were at his side, the day he buried his mother.”
There was a confusion of sound from outside the door, and a voice rang out, “That she-wolf! She brought ill-fortune, she brought death – glad the day she left this world!”
Nano sprang for the door with a cry of rage, and Frodo threw himself on the lad to hold him back. They crashed to the floor together.
“Stay, lad, stay!” he whispered. “You knew already that they hated her! Let Radagast deal with them.”
Nano went limp, weeping silently in Frodo’s arms, and Frodo held him, patting his back and listening.
“We will have him in spite of you, old man,” said the voice of Nano’s uncle.
“Will you?” Radagast sounded amused. “You desire a contest with me, do you? Who led you out of the shadows, by the way, when you wandered at the edge of death?” Frodo heard a musical whistle, and he laid Nano gently down and rushed to the window. He was in time to see a bird in swift flight away from the house, back to the encircling forest.
Cuina? He had not seen her since they entered the village, and had thought she must have flown South with the wild birds. Had she been waiting for them, back among the trees?
And now – what? Radagast must have known she was there and called her, and sent her now on some errand. But to whom?
“Go home, Hardart,” the wizard said outside the door. “You are meddling with something too strong for you. And you others – make him your headman, if that is your will, but do not follow him again to my door!”
“They are not worth my trouble,” Nano said furiously. “I will go with you. Let my father’s brother be head, and may the pestilence return and finish them all!”
Frodo had worried in case the lad would refuse to go with him and Radagast, but this savage judgment chilled him. Truly, Men were a merciless breed, implacable in their hatred. He glanced at Radagast, wondering how he would respond to Nano’s outburst, but the wizard said nothing. Only the thin line of his lips betrayed his thoughts.
“How will we get away?” Frodo asked at length. “Won’t they try to stop us, maybe even lame the horses? Where are the horses, anyway?” He realized suddenly that he had not seen Strider or Smoky since he fell sick.
“They are in the forest – Smoky can fend for himself in the wild, and Strider has the sense to stay with him. Hardart might be fool enough to try and hold us, but I have sent for a friend to help. Go back to your book, Donkey; Nano and I will cook supper.”
The friend came soon after dark. There was a scratching at the door and Nano went to open it, but Radagast was before him. “Stand back, lad, over by the fireplace. This guest will be for me.”
He opened the door a crack, and a black nose pushed in, followed by a shaggy grey body. Nano gasped, but the wolf did not look at him, only padded across the room to Frodo.
“Greyling,” Frodo murmured. He stroked the massive head, and felt with his hand along the beast’s shoulder. “All healed, I see, and the hair is growing back.” He kissed the soft fur above the wolf’s eyes. “Well met, Greyling!”
The wolf ignored Nano, standing stiffly as if he’d lost all power of movement, and went to Radagast. He stared up at the wizard, his eyes seeming to catch sparks from the fire, and Radagast laid a hand on his head.
“You brought them all? Keep watch for us, my friend. The second rising of the sun, we will leave – we will need you then.”
Greyling licked his hand and slipped away into the night, leaving the door standing open. In the dark clearing they thought they could see more wolves moving in the dim light cast by the windows of the other houses.
“We could leave this morning, Radagast. I am well enough to travel,” Frodo said.
The wizard touched a hand to his forehead and peered into his eyes. “Perhaps, perhaps. But another day of rest will do you good, Donkey, and me as well. We will stay within doors and let Greyling patrol the village. It will be good for them, too, to see that Radagast is not defenseless. They have grown hard, indeed, that they repay us with threats, who risked our lives caring for them!”
So they rested; in fact, most of the day Frodo slept – he was not as strong yet as he wanted to believe. Nano woke him once, pulling him to the window to see Radagast out by the well drawing water to fill the animal trough, and a dozen big wolves pushing for their turn to drink. And even that was not all of them; there were still others pacing in between the houses, watched by pale faces at the windows.
“Would they kill anyone who went out – besides Radagast, I mean?” Nano spoke in a whisper, as if the wolves might hear him.
“I think they would obey Radagast, and he would not tell them to kill. But I suspect anyone who went out there would need a healer before he got away.”
“Except you, Donkey. That wolf acted like he was your friend.”
Frodo grinned. “Greyling is my friend, I think, but I don’t know the others. I will stay inside until Radagast tells me to go out – and you had better do the same!”
He got himself some bread and cheese, as long as he was up, but before long he went back to lie on his bed, and soon was fast asleep again.
When Radagast woke him, there was only a faint light showing at the windows. “Come have breakfast, Donkey; we will travel far today. I wish to put many miles behind us before we stop for the night.”
Frodo stretched, pulling on his clothes. “You don’t expect anyone to follow us, surely? Guarded by great wolves out of the forest?”
“Men will hunt wolves, sometimes,” said Radagast. “I do not like the temper of this village, and if they take Nano’s uncle as headman, they may be capable of anything. We spent ourselves in saving their lives; I would be sorry to have them fall to Greyling and his pack.”
“Or have Greyling take another arrow,” said Frodo. He crossed the room to wake Nano. “Come, lad, up you get, or I’ll eat your breakfast and mine as well!” He stripped the blankets off Nano’s bed and chuckled at the boy’s owlish expression, blinking and rubbing his eyes.
“Are we leaving now?”
“At sunrise,” said Radagast. “Is there anything you wish to take from your own house?”
Nano shook his head. “I took what I wanted the last time I left that house; someone would have stolen it.” He fastened his belt and pulled a hunting knife from the sheath that hung from it. The blade was fine steel, and the bone handle beautifully shaped. He held it out so they could see the stag’s head engraved on the handle. “My father’s,” he said. “And this was my mother’s.” He touched a choker of rough-cut amber around his neck.
Radagast nodded. “Good – you have your treasures, then. Let us eat and be on our way.”
They stepped outside into a wall of mist, the morning light a strange golden color. There was neither sign nor sound from any of the houses they passed, but the grey shapes of the wolves were all around them, and Greyling stalked stiff-legged between Frodo and Radagast. Frodo rested his left hand on the animal’s back, caressing the rough fur, but Nano held his right hand in a painful grip. He could measure the lad’s fear by the tingling in his fingers, but no one looking on would have known Nano was afraid. He held his head high and walked with a firm step at Frodo’s side.
At the top of the hill, where the trees began, the mist thinned and drifted away. Heaps of leaves rustled around their ankles as they followed a narrow path away from the village. There was a piercing whistle, and a blur of wings dived at Frodo, coming to rest on top of his head.
“Cuina!” He laughed and reached up his hand, and she settled on his finger. “Oh, Cuina!” He held her to his face, rubbing his cheek against the smooth feathers, and she pecked gently at his nose. “Have you waited all this time for us? You are a faithful friend, indeed!”
“Did I not tell you, Donkey?” Radagast said. “And it was not purely for my sake, that Greyling brought his wolves to our aid.”
Nano was staring at the bird in wonder. “Is that your pet?” he asked.
Frodo considered. “No, not a pet. She was my first patient, was she not, Radagast? And now she is my friend.”
“She will be your friend as long as she lives. A pity that Men sometimes lack the gratitude of wild things,” said Radagast, and Frodo nodded.
“Will they pursue us, do you think, Nano?”
“Those cowards?” the lad scoffed. “They will hardly dare to draw water from the well, till sometime tomorrow! How long will the wolves stay with us?”
“A day or two at most – then they must hunt to stay their hunger,” said Radagast. “But by then we will be mounted and go faster.”
They pushed on through the day, and when they stopped at nightfall, the wizard drew meat for the wolves from his sack along with their own food, laying it on the ground some distance from their camp. The following day they set off again, walking, but halfway through the morning they came to a little clearing in the woods, the grass well grazed, and there were Smoky and Strider, whinnying a welcome.
There were a few excited yips from the wolves, and Greyling growled. Horse and pony pushed close to Radagast, watching the wolves warily and stamping their feet.
The wizard went to one knee by Greyling. “Thank you, friend,” he said. “You have well repaid your debt to us, and we will not forget. Take your people now and go hunting, and we will follow our own path. May you eat well and den warm, this winter!”
The wolf laid his chin for a moment on the wizard’s shoulder, then turned and nosed Frodo’s hand until the hobbit stroked his head.
“Farewell to you, Greyling, and thank you!” he said. Greyling backed away and melted into the surrounding forest, and within moments there was not a wolf to be seen anywhere. Radagast lifted Nano onto Smoky’s back, swinging up behind him, and Frodo mounted Strider.
“Now for the Southlands, before the winter catches us!” the wizard cried, digging in his heels so Smoky sprang away. Frodo laughed aloud and tightened his knees.
“Come on, Strider – show him your heels!”