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, and they 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 that'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 midsummer." The child's voice was flat, and Frodo wondered at his lack of emotion, till he noticed that Nano's hands were clenched so tight that his knuckles shone white. " 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 crown 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 Justice 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, 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 said in alarm. 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 to play the healer yet! 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 that you are on the mend, I will sleep while I may."
Nano sliced the bread and they cut off pieces 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, Nano, 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 tell him you are here."
He went in, closing the door firmly. 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!"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.