They ran ahead of winter, picking up the North-South Road twenty or so miles south of the old city of Fornost. They passed Bree the second night, without a stop, the horses’ hooves loud in the quiet. The town’s gates were shut and barred — even now, it seemed, its citizens had not forgotten the Troubles of a few years previous — but no watchman challenged them. The Barrow Downs reared up on the right side of the Road, and Frodo pulled his hood over his head and held his cloak snug around his body, feeling as if something cold and sullen might reach out from those black heights to snatch him away. But there was only the night, and swift clouds scudding across the moon, and by morning they were past the Downs and riding down the Greenway through a tumble of low, tawny hills, watching the sun rise.
“Time for a rest,” said Radagast, and he halted them by a narrow stream, bridged with a few blocks of hewn stone, that ran across the road. “We have ridden through the night, and now we will sleep the day away.”
“Why?” Nano demanded. “Why did we not stop and sleep in that town? Are they evil folk, who live there?”
Frodo looked at him in surprise, but it was Radagast who answered. “Not evil, Nano, only curious.” He led them away from the road, down behind a little rise in the land, where they could lie unseen. “They are good folk, for the most part,” he added, “but they would have many questions, and plenty of counsel to offer, all unasked-for. It is more comfortable to pass by unnoticed.” Frodo nodded slightly, meeting the wizard’s eyes and smiling.
They traveled by night and slept by day for a week longer, passing the fork in the Road that led to Sarn Ford, across the Brandywine into the Shire. There were a few isolated farmsteads along that stretch, but the houses were dark, the inhabitants all sleeping. The dwellings were low, with round windows, and Frodo looked at them longingly. He had not seen one of his own kind since spring, and who knew when he would have another chance — but no, it was better not to stop. He could not return to the Shire.
He was very quiet the next day, but the following morning they came in sight of the marshes of the Hoarwell. It was the resting-place of many hundreds of wild swans, and the great birds rose out of the water at their approach, their cries of warning echoing to the four points of the compass. Frodo followed their flight with his eyes, open-mouthed in wonder, and the sun flashed on their white wings and glinted on the water of the marsh, and a thousand thousand dewdrops glittered on the tall grass that divided the marsh into random patterns of green and silver. His heart lifted and he laughed for the very joy of being alive to see it. “Look, Nano, look!” he cried. “Did you ever see anything so glorious?”
The child was nearly falling off his horse in his eagerness to see every part of earth and sky all at once, and Radagast reined in and lifted him down. Frodo dismounted and took Nano’s hand, and together they went to where the marsh began and stood staring, then turned and started walking along the edge of the water, one or the other slipping from time to time and going in up to the knees, and the other helping him up.
They came back half an hour later to find that Radagast had breakfast ready, fried bannock with bacon and hot, strong tea. He laughed in his turn at the state they were in, mud past the knees and elbows, and not a little of it smeared on their faces as well.
“You’d better take a turn in the river and get clean before you eat,” he said. “It’s shallow enough to bathe, there by the bridge.”
Frodo looked where he pointed and saw what he had not noticed before, a river flowing out of the marshes, spanned by an ancient stone bridge. “Where are we?” he asked, puzzled.
“The bridge, and I suppose some broken ruins on the farther shore, are all that remains of Tharbad,” said Radagast. “It was destroyed by floods, after the terrible winter of 2911.”
“2911 — that’s, let me see, 1311 in Shire Reckoning. The Fell Winter, when White Wolves invaded the Shire — Bilbo used to tell stories of it; it was a terrible time!” Frodo shaded his eyes, looking across the river. “And there was a city here? I never even heard of it! A few days travel outside the Bounds, that’s all it is, and I’ve never heard of it. I knew we were insular in the Shire, but this passes anything!”
“Well, it was a city of Men, you know,” said Radagast. “I don’t imagine hobbits would have had much to do with it, and it was abandoned before you were born.”
“That’s true, but even so –” Frodo shrugged. “Come on, Nano; we’d better have a wash — I’m ready for breakfast and some sleep.”
The next day he insisted on exploring the ruined city, picking his way through the toppled houses, trying to feel what it would have been like, when it was full of people. “The bridge is old,” he said to Radagast. “You can see how old it is. Tharbad must have been here a long time.”
“A very long time, Donkey. When the North Kingdom and Gondor shared the rule of this middle country, Tharbad stood where Road and River meet. It was never a large city, but it was an important crossroads — the Greyflood runs south from here, to the Sea. Ships came upriver to Tharbad –”
Nano ran up then, tripping over himself in his excitement. “Look, Donkey! See what I found!” He extended his palm to display a thin disk of corroded metal, and Frodo examined it carefully.
“It’s an old coin,” he said. “See, it seems to have had an inscription, Elvish letters I think, around the rim, and,” he turned it over, “a figure of some sort on the other side.” He squinted, but he couldn’t make out what the figure was meant to be, not even if it was male or female.
“You can have it, Donkey,” Nano said, but Frodo shook his head.
“No, you keep it, Nano. Keep it as a reminder; it was part of someone’s treasure once, I suppose, but there’s nowhere in Middle Earth you could spend it now.” He bent and picked up a small stone from the ground. “And I’ll keep this. The city stood through one age of the world and into the next, but it is gone now. Only stones remain.”
“You’ve taken a bleak lesson from Tharbad, Donkey,” said Radagast. He sounded worried, and Frodo smiled, laying his hand for a moment on the wizard’s arm.
“Not really,” he said. “The city is no more, but swans dwell in the marsh even so, and Greyflood runs to the Sea. The works of Men pass away, but the land remains, and life renews itself. There is comfort in that, I think.”
They followed the Road until it began to bend to the east, toward the Fords of Isen. Then they turned west instead, pushing into the unpopulated regions north of the river. There were scattered copses of second-growth trees on the uplands, but the valleys were thickets of greenbrier and blackberry, leafless now. Occasionally they found a heap of tumbled stones, remains of an ancient dwelling, to show that people had lived here once..
When they came to a shallow place in the river, they crossed it and continued south. “Have you ever seen the Sea?” Radagast asked Nano, and the lad shook his head.
“Is it like Lake Evendim?” he asked. “From Annuminas you cannot see the far side of the lake.”
The wizard chuckled. “Well, you cannot see the far side of the Sea either, but there the similarity ends, I think. I will take you to the utmost tip of Middle Earth, Nano, where the Sea is all around and snow never comes.”
For many days they rode straight into the sunset and the land smoothed out before them; they had left the hills behind. They came at last to a place where solid ground dropped away in a tall cliff, and there was the Sea. It frothed and churned on the rocks far below and spread out in the distance until it faded into sky, and they stood watching as the sky turned to scarlet flame and the water also. The sun was a disk of hot gold that dropped into the water — Frodo almost expected to hear it hiss — and there was a flash of green on the horizon.
They did not turn away until the sky was dark enough to show the first star. They made camp and ate, banked the fire and lay down to sleep, without speaking: Frodo was glad of the silence, as if words would have been sacrilege after such glory. But in the morning Nano had recovered his usual spirits; he was in a fever to get down the cliff and bathe in that shining water.
“Not today, lad,” Radagast told him, laughing. “We will keep the Sea to our right side for a few days, and the cliff will get lower. By the time we reach the land’s end at Andrast, you will be able to reach the water.”
And even as he said, the land dropped day after day as they followed the shoreline west, until they were riding across a pebbly beach and the little waves washed up and wet their horses’ hooves. Nano shouted with glee and struggled to get down.
Frodo reined in and dropped lightly to the ground. “Wait, lad; hold on a minute!” He helped Nano down from Radagast’s mount, and the wizard rode away from the water to where brush and stunted trees rimmed the beach, Frodo’s pony following rider-less behind him. But Frodo held tight to Nano’s hand, for the lad would have run headlong into the Sea.
“Wait, Nano! Do you know how to swim?”
The lad stopped pulling on his arm, looking up in surprise. “I waded in the Lake, back home. It’s only water, Donkey!”
“Livelier water than you found in your lake, or than I knew in the Brandywine,” Frodo said. “Look at the waves out there, how they build up and crash, and run up on the land. Water can kill you, Nano, if you don’t watch out for it. Keep a grip on my hand, now, and we won’t let the waves knock us down.”
The water was warmer than Frodo expected, and he laughed when Nano got a mouthful by accident and shouted incredulously, “It’s salty! Donkey, taste!”
He tried to teach Nano to swim, but the waves slapped the lad in the face and he couldn’t master the knack of holding his breath and putting his head in the water. Finally Nano settled for jumping up as each wave rolled in, letting it carry him back a few yards, but Frodo remembered his boyhood – he had swum like a fish in the old days – and threw himself backward into the waves as they broke, sinking under the water and swimming for shore, feeling the pull of the undertow but not afraid of it, and bursting out of the water with a shout when the wave receded. He was no more ready that Nano to get out, when Radagast called them to come and eat, but he caught the lad’s hand and pulled him toward the beach.
“Come on, Nano – he cooked the meal; the least we can do is eat it! The Sea will still be here tomorrow.”
And it was, of course. Frodo woke with the sun in his eyes; it had risen only a little above the trees that rimmed the beach, and Radagast was still asleep, on his back with his mouth open, snoring gustily. And Nano was – gone? Frodo started up in alarm.
“Nano?” The lad’s blanket lay in a tumbled heap, and on top of it, his clothes. It took Frodo a moment to take in the significance of the little pile of clothes, a moment before he was racing across the beach, his eyes straining to see out over the water. “Nano!” The sea breeze caught his shout and wafted it away, futile.
There was a dark speck on the water – no, he’d only imagined it – yes! There it was again! He ran into the waves, not stopping to strip, launching his body in a shallow dive as soon as the water was deep enough.
Nano was far out. It took all Frodo’s skill to buck the waves, swimming underwater until he had to breathe, searching for another sight of the lad when he broke the surface. When his fingers closed at last on Nano’s wrist, he thought for a moment the child’s terror would drown them both.
“Stop!” He meant it for a shout, but it came out more of a hiss, fortunately next to Nano’s ear. He pinched the underside of the lad’s upper arm, hard, wanting it to hurt. “Feel that, Nano? I’ve got you! Just go limp now, and let me carry you!”
He wrapped his arm around Nano’s chest, trying to swim one-handed with his face out of the water. It was too much; he was weary already, and the tide was running fast. “Nano! We’ll ride the waves, lad – hold your breath till I catch you again!” A wave lifted them and he threw the child ahead of him as far as he could, then ducked under and swam forward to catch him beneath the arms and lift his head out of the water. He gulped a breath and shouted in Nano’s ear, “Fun? Here we go again!” as he threw him forward once more.
His eyes stung from the salt; he tried to see how far they were from shore, but it was all a blur. “Hold on, Nano!” he gasped, and threw him forward. He hoped desperately that the lad was holding his breath on command; he could not stop to find out. If he could get him to shore it would be as much as he could do; Nano would have to see to his own breathing.
At last he stumbled and fell, his face in the water. An instant later his arm was jerked nearly out of its socket and he felt himself scraping over stones. “Donkey, get up! Donkey!”
Frodo raised his head, realization coming slowly that he was lying on the beach, half out of the water, and Nano was beside him, trying to drag him all the way out.
“Frodo! Lad!” Radagast’s voice, and the wizard was lifting him —
“I can walk,” he mumbled, wondering if it was true. “Put me down, Radagast; I can walk.”
The wizard steadied him on his feet, and he blinked and pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. His vision cleared and he saw Nano standing close by, looking frightened even now that the danger was past.
“Couldn’t wait for me to wake up this morning?” he said, forcing a laugh he didn’t feel. “Next time call me and we’ll go in together!”
The child threw his arms around Frodo, hiding his face against the hobbit’s shoulder. They were of a height and slightly built, both of them, but Frodo’s hair was touched with grey.
“It’s all right, lad; you’re all right. But the next river we come to, I’m teaching you to swim, no matter if it’s cold or not!”
Nano was afraid of the water after that, and Frodo had to coax him even to go wading, the little waves slapping their rolled-up pants as they searched for shells and bits of curiously-shaped driftwood. Radagast went up and down the beach and into the thin woodland behind, and what birds or beasts he found and tended to, Frodo never knew. For now, Nano was his concern, and he left the wildlings to the wizard.
Then one day they found a gull, hopping erratically along the water line, one wing dragging half-open. They followed her, but could not catch up, and finally Frodo sent Nano to fetch Radagast. “I’ll keep her in sight, so we don’t lose her — go on, lad, she’ll come to Radagast, if you can find him.”
He sat down after Nano was gone, feeling the gull must be tired and might be glad to rest, if no one was chasing her. The bird hunkered down against the stones with fluffed-up feathers, a portrait of misery, and Frodo watched her pityingly. There was a sudden flutter by his ear and something settled on his head, pulling his hair.
“Cuina!” His voice was louder than he intended, and the gull startled, moving away a few inches before settling down again. “Cuina,” he said softly, “where have you been? Back there in the trees?” She hopped on his upraised hand, and he held her to his cheek, closing his eyes. “You don’t like this windy beach, do you? You’re happier in the woods.” She cheeped and nibbled at his eyelashes, and he chuckled.
“Did you come to help me?” he asked. “Go tell that gull I won’t hurt her; you speak her language, don’t you?” He was playing, never thinking the bird might understand. He sat amazed as she left his finger and flew to the gull, circling her and returning to his head. She gave his hair a tug and took off again, flying a low circle around the gull before coming back to Frodo, landing this time on his shoulder. The gull watched her every move.
There was no sign of Radagast, or Nano either. Frodo scooted forward a few feet without standing up; maybe if he didn’t look so tall, the gull would be less afraid. She didn’t move. Slowly, with Cuina perched on his shoulder, he inched his way toward the wild bird, till he was within arm’s reach of her. He put out his hand and she lurched away; he didn’t move, and Cuina walked deliberately down his arm to his out-stretched hand, and back up to his shoulder.
“Come on, Gull,” he murmured. “Come let me help you.” The wild bird moved again, but toward him this time, and he slid his hand under her and slowly, so slowly, he brought her to where he could look closely at her.
Her heart was hammering wildly; he could feel it against his fingers. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you — what’s the matter with your wing?” His fingers felt carefully among the feathers till they touched something hard, something that didn’t belong there…
It was a stick, a little twig, caught in her feathers somehow and holding the wing in its unnatural position. He tried to remove it, but it was stuck tight, and she made a low sound of pain and struggled to escape. “Wait,” he said, “we’ll have to get it out, you know. Softly, now –” He opened the wing a little more and with the other hand eased the stick out. There was a drop of blood where it had dug into the bird’s skin. She fluttered to the ground, her wing still held half open.
“Now what is it?” Frodo wondered aloud. “Why can’t you close it?” He lifted her gently again, getting to his feet. “Radagast will have to see to you, White-wings. I don’t know what else to do for you.”
He walked as smoothly as he could manage on the stony beach, hoping the gull wouldn’t take alarm and flutter away from him again, but she seemed content now to ride in his hands, and Cuina rode on his head, giving a little cheep now and then, as if in encouragement. At last he saw Radagast approaching, Nano beside him. The wizard put out a hand to stop the lad from running ahead, and together they came to meet him, Nano staring in awe at the gull in his hands.
“How did you catch it?” the lad demanded as they came up.
“Shh, don’t scare her. Cuina brought her to me. Radagast, you’ll have to take a look at her.”
“She only needed to exercise that wing a bit,” the wizard said later. He had opened and closed the wing gently a dozen times or more, murmuring to the gull and delicately massaging the stiffened joints. Finally he had held her in his open hand and swung his arm in a wide movement, swooping up toward the sky, and the gull had lifted off his hand and flown, flapping her wings frantically for a moment, then, seeming to remember how it was done, catching the air and soaring out over the water. They had watched in delight as she dipped and rose above the waves, then with a strong downbeat of her wings, flew over their heads and inland away from them.
“You took the stick out, but the wing was stiff, that’s all. You are shaping into a good healer, Donkey.”
The praise warmed Frodo’s heart even as it embarrassed him. They had finished supper, and Nano was down the beach skipping stones over the water. Frodo fumbled for his pipe, something to busy his hands until the awkward moment passed.
“I found something today that reminded me of you, Donkey.”
“What’s that?” Frodo asked. He got his pipe lit and looked up. Radagast was holding something out to him, and he took it.
It was the skeleton of a shell, the outer portion broken away to reveal the intricate spiral of its heart. Ruined, and yet somehow beautiful, smoothed by the waves to a soft patina, the narrow remains of the outer shell worn to a diamond pattern that reminded Frodo of an old quilt his mother had made, years ago — creamy white and tan. He held his pipe stem between his teeth and turned the shell in his hands, marveling.
“Why does it remind you of me?” he asked.
The wizard smiled. “Broken just enough to show what it’s really made of, to reveal the beauty within. Worn and shaped by suffering, but not destroyed, only made more lovely. Keep it, Donkey. It is a precious thing — and so are you.”