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A Question of Truth
Nano had given his promise, but Radagast would not put it to the test. The lad was wild, as he said -- better to have him away from Druwaith Iaur before there was more trouble. They left two mornings later, following the coastline east. When their way was blocked by a wide river, they turned until they came to a fordable place, and there they crossed over.
"This looks almost like home!" Frodo exclaimed.
They were riding through a region of rolling hills with little villages dotted here and there, anchored by grand old trees. The drooping strands of weeping willow were turning yellow; soon they would be putting out new leaves. Now and then they saw a farmer out ploughing his fields, a yoke of oxen ahead and a flock of sparrows following behind, dropping to the ground and flying up again. Frodo watched, enthralled; it was so like the Shire that his eyes filled, and he turned his head so Radagast would not see.
The villages themselves were quaint and pretty, but they did not touch his heart. No earth-built smials here, with round windows -- the houses were white-washed stone with thatch roofs, and they were of a size for Men, not hobbits. Each village had its inn, however, with good ale and a few bedrooms for travelers; they slept there instead of camping out, and Frodo found it a strange and pleasant sensation to sleep between sheets again, with a pillow instead of his saddlebags tucked under his head.
Nano found playmates every place they stopped; he was eager and friendly, no longer the sullen lad he had been when they first met him. He had grown, too, over the winter; he was taller than Frodo now, and stretching out of all his clothes. Radagast made inquiries as they journeyed, for a horse for the lad, and eventually they found themselves in a farmyard examining a beast that was offered to them.
"No more'n three year old, gentle-broke and fit for t'lad," said the farmer. "Come on then, laddie, up ye go and try 'er out!" Nano put a foot in the man's clasped hands and swung onto the horse's back.
"Ride her round the yard, lad; let's see how she goes," said Radagast. Nano was bareback; the wizard had firmly refused the offer of a saddle, but he'd permitted bridle and bit, though he and Frodo rode with no more than rope harnesses. Frodo worried a little, watching the child, if he would be able to keep his seat.
Nano circled the farmyard sedately, looking happy and at ease on the animal's back. As he came opposite the gate the second time, he bent and whispered in the horse's ear, then he turned the beast and with a burst of speed, rode straight at the gate.
"Nano!" Frodo shouted, starting after him, but the horse cleared the gate with a soaring leap and disappeared down the road with Nano still clinging to her back.
Radagast stood shaking his head. "We'll take her," he said to the farmer, "assuming she brings him back in one piece." The man grinned.
"Assuming t'lad can hang on, he'll be all right. Jenny's a sweet goer, she'll never pitch 'im off if he holds on. Lad rides like 'e were born in the saddle, though; ah think he'll be all right."
Frodo had draped himself over the fence, watching the road; when horse and rider reappeared, he jumped to unfasten the gate and swing it wide. Nano rode in with the air of a returning hero, eyes shining, and swung himself down to stand beside the horse, stroking her satiny shoulder.
"You never told us you could ride, Nano," Radagast said, smiling down at him. He held out a gold piece to the farmer. "Will this do?"
"Aye, that'll do fine, and I'll throw in a suit of clothes for t'lad, besides. Not new, mind you; me own lad's been out-growing his britches, and so has yours, by the looks of 'im."
So Nano left the farm in fine fettle, on his own horse and dressed in the out-grown clothes of the farmer's son. They were a good fit, but to Frodo's surprise, shirt and breeches, jacket and hat, were all a deep, woodsy green! He thought Nano might complain about the color, but the lad was greatly pleased.
"The boys at the inn told me -- it's the color Hirluin the Fair wore, and all his men, when they rode to battle at Minas Tirith. This is the Green Hills Country, you see, and they clad themselves all in green to go to war."
"Indeed they did, and they fought bravely against the Dark," said Radagast. "Well, now that you're mounted and suitably arrayed, Nano, I believe we'll take you to Rohan. They appreciate good riding there."
The folk of the Green Hills were kindly, but curious; their stares followed the hobbit, although his companions drew little attention. Once or twice, at an inn, someone questioned Frodo; a few of the men had fought before the gates of Minas Tirith, and they had heard of Halflings. He learned to keep his maimed hand out of sight; serving maids were inclined to wince at it, but his greater concern was that someone would connect him with "Frodo of the Nine Fingers". In the Shire, no one had cared to inquire about his deeds while he was gone from home, but this was Gondor, if a far-flung part of it. Some tale of the Ring might be known here, and he dreaded being recognized.
Radagast sensed his disquiet, perhaps; in any event, they stayed only long enough to furnish Nano with what he needed. Then they turned north, and with Nano on his own horse, they traveled faster -- the lad would have galloped whenever the terrain allowed, and had to be reminded to set a pace that Frodo's pony could keep up with. They left the settled lands behind, stopping each day near sunset to find a camping place; Frodo began teaching Nano to cook over the campfire. They lay down to sleep as soon as it grew dark, and rose with the dawn.
Rolled in a blanket on the ground, his saddlebags for pillow once more, Frodo lay watching the stars. His companions slept; he would sleep soon himself, but for now he lay enfolded in quiet and peace. Frogs were croaking somewhere near-by, and a night bird called in the distance. The stars were bright and close; he tried to count them, then gave it up and closed his eyes. It was good, here in the wilds with only Nano and the wizard for company. The tangles in his mind began to sort themselves out.
They came at last to the river that marked the western boundary of Rohan. After they had ridden most of one day along its bank without finding a place shallow enough to ford, Frodo turned Strider's head toward the stream and waded in. Radagast called to him, but he waved without looking back and kept on. The current was not swift; when the pony began to swim, Frodo slipped from his back and swam too, till they were both climbing out on the other side.
Nano had followed him into the water, and came up the bank a few minutes later; he had stayed on his mount all the way across, and the horse had been strong enough to carry him while it swam. Radagast had taken time to kilt up his robe, and was still in the middle of the river when a group of horsemen cantered up to them.
"Hold, strangers, and give account of yourselves!" The leader looked intently at Frodo and Nano. "Two lads? Nay, you have no child's face. A holbytla? And who is that in the water?" But Radagast was climbing out by then.
"I am Radagast the Brown, of Gandalf's Order," he said. "Is there trouble in Rohan, Captain, that you patrol the border so closely?"
"No trouble that we will not be quick to settle, Radagast the Brown! We have not seen you in Rohan before, but I have heard of you. I thought you dwelt far to the north, between the Mountains and the forest of evil name."
"I did, for years uncounted. I left Rhosgobel when the Nine were abroad, and since then I have been a wanderer. I come now seeking your King; I have a lad in my care, who might do well in his service."
The man turned his attention to Nano. "You are the lad, eh? Let me see you ride!"
Nano needed no second invitation. He took off across the plain at full gallop, and the man who had spoken spurred his horse in pursuit. They rode till they were no more than specks on the horizon before they turned in a wide circle and returned, neck and neck, stopping a few paces away from Radagast. Nano hauled back on the reins, and his horse reared up, pawing the air; the lad kept his seat, laughing.
"He may do well enough, Wizard. So, I know who you are, and the lad – what of the holbytla?" said the leader, and Radagast hesitated.
"I am camp cook," Frodo said, meeting the man's gaze with disarming simplicity. The patrol leader regarded him doubtfully, and Radagast smiled.
"A hobbit is a fine companion for travel, Captain, hardy and cheerful, and his people are well known for their way with food. He has a thirst to see new places -- it is a good bargain for both of us."
"Hmph. There was one of his race rode with Theoden King at the end, but I never heard that he could cook! He returned to his homeland after the War; perhaps you know him, holbytla? Holdwine, Knight of the Mark?"
"I have seen him riding past in his mail and helmet, with his silver horn at his belt. He is called Meriadoc the Magnificent in the Shire."
The man nodded. "He was a great warrior, despite his size. And you are a cook, you say. What is your name?"
"Donkey!" said Nano, and the Riders laughed.
"My name is Baggins," said Frodo, laughing with the rest. "Hobbits are not warlike folk, Captain; Meriadoc and Peregrin are exceptions to the rule."
"Indeed? And what of the other -- hobbit, do you call yourself? The one the bards sing about, who destroyed the Ring of Doom," the man said. "Have you ever met him?"
Frodo's smile vanished. "No. Him I do not know."
Finally the Riders let them go, apparently satisfied that three such travelers posed no danger to Rohan. They journeyed another hour before they camped, putting the Rohirrim well behind them, and Nano chattered without cease about the beauty of their horses, their noble faces and long, golden hair.
"I'm going to let my hair grow long like that. Do you think it will have time to grow, before we meet the King?" He turned suddenly to Frodo. "Why did you never tell me your true name, Baggins? I thought you really were called Donkey!"
Frodo grinned up at the lad on his tall horse. "As I recall, Nano, you never asked me. You told me you already knew my name -- a lesson for you, not to jump to conclusions."
But that night when Nano was asleep, the wizard took Frodo to task. "You were not quite honest with the Riders, Donkey." He raised his hand, forestalling Frodo's protest. "Very well, lad, I understand your reasons. You are a hero to them, a figure out of legend, and you do not want the adulation they would have heaped on you. But you are not being honest with this child, and that is another matter altogether. He will learn the truth at some point, and how will you explain your lie?"
"I did not lie! My name is Frodo Baggins. Nano has not asked me the story of my life, and if he did, I would not tell him."
"And when he hears it, in your despite? For he will hear it; the lay of Nine-fingered Frodo is well-known in every land where Gondor holds sway; it is certainly known in Rohan. Nano will tell his children's children, one day, how he traveled with the Ring-bearer. Will he say you were a liar?"
Frodo stared into the fire, biting his lip.
"Your Quest is a tale of high courage and endurance, Donkey, and of mercy as well, to challenge a man to like deeds."
"For others it may be that. For me it was exile and terror and pain, and at the end, defeat. I am only a little donkey, Radagast, and glad to be rid of my burden." He stretched out on the ground, burying his face in his arms, and Radagast moved to sit beside him, rubbing his back.
"I know, lad. But Nano is not a fool; he will hear the tale sooner or later, and put two and two together. How many nine-fingered halflings are roaming the wide world, do you think? It will be better, if he hears the truth from you."
Frodo's voice was muffled. "I am ashamed to tell him the truth."
"You should be more ashamed to let him believe a lie," Radagast said sternly.
Some days passed before Frodo could bring himself to tell Nano, and then it was while they were cooking breakfast. They were nearing the Fords of Isen, and they had passed several isolated homesteads; plainly they were coming into more populated country.
"Pull the pan away from the fire now and cover it; the eggs will finish cooking while you brew the tea." Frodo took a deep breath. "Nano, my full name is Frodo Baggins."
The boy shot him a look, then went back to measuring tea leaves into the kettle. "You are Nine-Fingered Frodo," he said when he finished. "I thought you were." Frodo was speechless.
"Why did you tell the border patrol you did not know the hobbit who destroyed the Ring? I did not think you would lie!"
"I did not destroy it," Frodo said. He cleared his throat. "I was there when it went into the Fire; I did not throw it in."
"Then who threw it in?" Nano asked.
"No one did. Smeagol – the one who had the Ring for hundreds of years – he took it from me, and then he fell. No, I did not push him!"
Nano was watching Frodo's face as if he weighed the truth of every word. "So how did you lose your finger?"
"I was wearing the Ring. I -- I claimed it, for my own. Smeagol bit it off." Frodo's voice cracked and Radagast laid a hand on his shoulder, but the hobbit shook him off. "I am not a hero, Nano. Donkey is the right name for me; I carried the Ring to the Mountain, and that is all."
"The song makes you sound like a hero," said Nano. "Why didn't you throw it in, when you got to the Mountain?"
Frodo stared at the ground without speaking, and Radagast answered for him. "He couldn't, lad. The Ring had a will of its own, and it was too strong for him. But he was a hero all the same, to get it there."
Nano thought about that, biting at his knuckle. At last he said, "If you hadn't taken it to the Mountain, they would all have been killed at the Black Gate. Aragorn would never have become King." He stepped up to Frodo and put his arms around him. "You are a hero, Donkey." He was nearly a head taller than the hobbit now, but it was a child's hug and Frodo returned it, blinking back tears.
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