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 his 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."
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.