|The Prancing Pony|
"Do you know Bree well?" I asked. I had no idea where that simple question was about to lead us.
"I've lived here for as long as I can remember," Nephyn replied. It was so obviously a non-answer that I felt compelled to say what was on my mind.
"You'll pardon my mentioning this, but you don't seem to be like the others who live here."
The Woman did not answer. She lowered her eyes slightly.
"I mean no offence, of course," I went on, "It's just: your height, the colour of your hair, your darker complexion..."
Still, she did not respond. "I'm not from here," she said. She sighed.
"I'm not offended, Padryc. If I seem upset, well, it's because I don't rightfully know the answer to what you're asking me."
"And yet you've lived here all your life?" I queried. "What can your family tell you about your past?" She looked at me searchingly.
"Follow me," she said.
We left the parlour and Nephyn led me back to the Common Room of the Pony. The night was deep outside and the place was empty, yet the huge fire on the main hearth remained, burning brightly. In the still emptiness, the room had an almost mysterious feel about it. The numerous chairs and tables cast flickering shadows everywhere. For a fleeting instant I felt as if I was in some ancient temple or majestic tomb of long-dead kings. Yet, when I looked away from the fireplace at the room itself, I saw only dusty tables and overturned mugs of beer, just like always. Nephyn led me straight to the hearth.
"Do you see that basin?" There was a wide, flat cooking cauldron on the hearthstone, meant for keeping soups and stews warm. I nodded but said nothing.
"That is where I was found one morning when the fireplace was cold," she said, sadly. "A wee baby, dark as night, and asleep. No name, no note. Nothing." The fire crackled on as we stood there, side by side.
"How sad!" was all finally I managed to say. Nephyn sighed again.
"Barliman is a good Man, but he has no mind to be taking care of children. He can barely manage to take care of himself and his inn. I essentially raised myself here. When I was old enough, I started roaming outside, wandering further and further afield with each passing day. I would pry into every old ruin and ancient forest I could find, both to explore them and also to find old relics of long-dead Arnor. At night I would bring my treasures back here to the Inn, where I'd discuss my findings with the travellers and merchants who were always passing through Bree. Sometimes I would collect some coin for the rarer pieces, and that sustained me without having to resort to a life of thievery. On a few occasions, I even met with some of the folk that are called Rangers, since now and then one or two of them could be seen here. The ones I met took a particular interest in me, though I have no idea why. They seemed to know I was not like the rest of the Bree-folk, but they never told me what they knew or suspected. I learned much from them: some took the time to show me the basics of hunting, tracking, and basically living off the land. One of the Rangers, Saerdan was his name, who taught me most of what I now know of surviving in the Wild, became something of a father figure to me, although he never stayed in Bree long. But he has a cabin not far up the Greenway -- he seems to be more settled than the rest of his kin. Anyway, I asked him once why he was willing to spend so much time training me."
I think that, one day, the Bree-land is going to need folk to defend it, he told me. And I think that you have the strength and courage to do just that.
I decided to ask him if he could tell me anything about my past. But he only looked at me.
I could guess, but it would be only a guess, he said. If Fate has not deigned to reveal this to you, then I believe my guesses would only harm matters and not help them. If you wish to learn of your past, that will be a journey you must undertake. I can help you prepare for that journey, but you must walk the path yourself.
"And so I kept learning, kept wandering, and kept wondering. Who I really was. Why they left me behind. I never asked Saerdan about the subject again, but I have never forgotten his words to me." There was a long pause.
"Is that why you joined this Elvish Company?" I asked finally. "I have heard the Road has become quite dangerous of late, but a group of experienced travellers might have less difficulty than one alone."
"In part, yes," she said. "I've searched and asked of anyone in this little land who might possibly have glimpsed whoever it was that abandoned me here, but always the answer is the same: nothing. I know all of Bree-land's wilderness, but I have yet to journey beyond it. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps by some misguided notion that I should remain here just in case someone decided one day to come looking for me. But I think I have finally given up on anyone ever coming to seek me here."
"How sad!" I said again. "It must be hard for you, having no one to tell you of your history."
"It is a little sad," she replied, "But I've never wanted to be just another sob story to be gossiped about by busybodies. I keep these things to myself and try to make the best of the rest of my life. Just because the life I've had thus far has been sad doesn't mean the rest of it has to be!"
"I think that's a very wise way to look at the situation, if you don't mind me saying so," I said. "Why, one could almost say your own identity is an adventure, in a manner of speaking."
"Indeed you could," Nephyn said, similing warmly. "I like the way you think. And while they may have given up on me I've not yet given up on them. So I'll search beyond the borders of the Bree-lands, come what may, and perhaps one day I will find my answers. And I am glad to share my tale with you, friend Padryc. Though we've known each other for only a little time, I feel as if I can trust you." A pause.
"I lost my home too," I said softly. "But at least I knew it -- once." The fire roared on unchanging.
"You mentioned that briefly when we first met," she said. "Something about an inheritance snatched away wrongfully? I am sorry for you." I shrugged.
"Well, it could have turned out better, you know, but I keep thinking that, if it had, I would have never met all of you otherwise! I was becoming more morose by the day, having to live in the Shire and service its petty residents. In an odd way, this adventure is probably the best thing for me, after all."
"I'm certainly glad you are with us! We might not have know it if things had happened otherwise, but we would be missing your uplifting spirits and wonderful songs out there on the Road." Another silence. "Were you very close?"
"To my mum and dad? Yes," I replied. "I was their only child, you see. You never really appreciate what family means to you -- until it's no longer there. After the incident with the will came about, I kept trying to find ways to reacquire my family's land. I felt as if that would somehow bring them back, but I know that will never happen. Besides, I don't see how even getting the land back would be possible now."
"Have the authorities in the Shire no respect for next of kin or blood relations?" Nephyn asked with some heat.
"O, certainly!" I answered. "But there is also great respect for rules and traditions. The manner in which inheritances have been governed has been that way since time out of memory, but I don't think there's ever been an instance of it actually being enforced, save mine."
"I hope that is true," Nephyn said. "I hope that one day soon the Shire-folk will awake from their little slumber in time to recognize the very real danger they -- and all of us -- are truly in. Perhaps then their petty rules and disputes will not seem so important and they can focus more on doing what is right by others." I chuckled.
"Sometimes I think an invasion of brigands or another Fell Winter would be good for them -- to teach them to love their homes and not take what they have for granted," I said. "But I don't feel that way now. I feel that so long as the Shire lies behind me, safe, confortable, and familiar, I shall find adventuring more bearable because I know it is still there for me to go back to; just the way it always has been."
Neither of us spoke for some time. The fire was starting to burn down while the walls creaked around us. The Inn itself seemed to be preparing for sleep.
"Well, I should get to my scribblings before the night gets much older," I said, trying to sound cheerful. "Hopefully Luean is able to make something out of that rubbing of ours. I would hate to have today's efforts wasted!"
"I hope so too," Nephyn said to me. "Thank you for talking with me Padryc. It has been a while since I've had the opportunity to talk like this to a friend. So, forgive me if this seems forward."
To my surprise and delight, the Woman knelt and embraced me tightly. I embraced her back: I will not deny I had exactly the same impulse at exactly the same time. As we parted, I breathed deeply and looked up at her.
"I guess we are just two wayward friends, fated to journey together!" I said with a sheepish grin. A smile played lightly on Nephyn's lips.
"I like the sound of that," she said, softly.