Ladies and gentlemen, time has come for the second episode of A Tale of Wide-Eyed Wonder. Join us as we set out to explore the wonders of this forgotten land, to misty mountains and cavernous halls; mysterious forests and the green hills of the Shire. We’re going on an adventure !
A Tale Of Wide-Eyed Wonder
EPISODE II – The Old Forest
Today was the day. She was an adult, and ready to abandon the Shire. Her backpack filled to the brim with victuals, a blanket and a towel, Niphredil closed the round door of her smial; her parents still asleep behind. No point in waking them up, she thought.
She now stood on top of The Hill, the main residential district of Hobbiton. Her long chestnut hair waving in the wind, chin up and gaze set on the horizon, she felt great joy and hope, for the first time in long years. Determined, she took her first step forward, out of her smial and out of her previous life, thus leaving the hurtful memories of her parents behind.
Towards a new life of adventure, where glory and mayhaps even love awaited her.
Walking down the streets she had known since forever, every step memories resurfaced and appeared before her eyes. Every step she chased them, freeing her mind of these shackles. She wanted to convince herself this was the right choice, the only choice, to get away from this land she desperately needed to hate.
The gardens of the Shire, always peaceful and still green despite the progressing Autumn, shone under the rising Sun. Quiet they were yet, only troubled by the rustle of leaves and the swishing of the grass blades in the wind.
On the edge of Hobbiton, near the Bywater river, she met the first person that was already awake in all the Shire, beside herself. Petula Brockhouse was already working her garden, trimming the cypress hedge.
“Hullo there ! Why, aren’t you out early today, Niphredil ? Going for a walk ?”
“Hmm ? Oh, yes. Something like that.” answered Niphredil, taken aback by the sudden interruption of her thoughts. Regaining her composure, she continued, “Yes. I’m going for a long, long walk. I don’t think I’ll be back this evening. In fact, I don’t plan to come back at all.”
It is known, hobbits are a simple people, and have difficulty finding an interest to the world outside of the Bounds of the Shire, or imagining why anyone would want to live in the troublesome lands of the Big People, Men. They call it simply Outside, and the farthest points of the Shire reflect this : the South, West, East and North Farthings. Beyond are things that are too far to be considered a matter of worry for decent and definitely-not-interested-by-adventure hobbits.
Petula’s answer will therefore come as a surprise to no one.
“Oh really, is that so ? Well, do be careful, eh ? Seems like the weather won’t hold for long. Oh, should you find any, would you be so kind and bring a handful of mushrooms back ? I’d like to cook something special tomorrow. See, ‘t’ll be the old Balbo’s birthday ! His 85th birthday already. How time flies, eh ! Ah, but I’m sure you young’uns only think it too slow. Always in a hurry instead of enjoying yourselves.”
Not wanting to engage in further fruitless conversation of which hobbits are so fond of, Niphredil simply nodded and went on her way.
She walked tirelessly the rest of the day and the day that followed, towards the East Farthing. She only stopped to rest at an inn in Frogmorton, before resuming her journey to the border of the Shire, through Whitfurrows and to the Bridge of the Brandywine river. There she finally marked a pause in her steps, for this was the farthest she’d ever been from home. On the other side of the bridge, the wooden fences on either side of the road quickly yielded to the sprawling vegetation, then succumbed under tall grasses, before disappearing entirely, consumed by briar and brambles. Unpruned, beech trees arched over the road. The rutted tracks thus faded, covered by a blanket of yellow and brown leaves. The road itself was however in very good shape. It was the main road in and out of the Shire, chiefly to Bree, the closest city of Men in the vicinity and principal trade partner of Hobbits. After a short meal, she took to the road once more, advancing swiftly.
Wilderness, at last. Beyond the Brandywine river was the Old Forest, though the road only traversed its outskirts. Most of the forest lay further south. An old forest indeed, left untouched since millennia uncounted. Only remnant of a once much greater primordial forest that spanned almost all of the continent. It had been awakened by Elves in the Elder Days, and Ents had roamed its paths, though none had remained to this day.
The forest seemed to stretch itself around the road indefinitely. Rows upon rows of moss covered trunks and roots wherever the eye could see. When the light grew dim, on her third day since she closed the door to her previous life, Niphredil set up camp in a small glen. A small brook burbled quietly in the distance. Tired but content from her first days of march, she ate, then unfurled her blanket and went to sleep.
Quickly, she realized that the forest wasn’t so still as it seemed at first. Noises of the night surrounded her. The sound of water, acorns falling and leaves whispering prevented her from sleeping. Although these were but the outskirts of the Old Forest, it remained a wild and peculiar place. Hobbits believed the trees of the Old Forest were in some manner “awake”. They would sway when there is no wind, whisper at night, and mislead and waylay travelers. These tales were of no concern to Niphredil, so she eventually fell asleep. For a while.
A particularly irritating child threw little pebbles on the window of her smial. The pebbles, clattering, formed a maddeningly irritating noise. It seemed that child had also emptied a bucket of water on her, for she was dripping wet. Drowsy and tired, she awoke from her dream, disturbed by an omnipresently annoying noise environing her. Accompanied by a very distinct sensation of sogginess. Sogged to the bone, that is.
It was bucketing down, and had been for a little while now, judging from the swamped ground. It pounded the trees, it churned and slopped the scrubby land into a mudbath.
“Ugh.” was the only sound she could utter, before gathering her things and running to the closest semblant of a shelter : a small hollow under the roots of a great oak. She lay there shivering, in a transitory state between sleep and waking.
Morning come, she was tired and sick but determined to go on.
“I was naive to think adventure would be easy”, she thought, looking with apprehension upon the muddy road before her. The road was submerged in parts, making her advance slower.
Come evening, her feet were covered in mud and she wished only for a warm meal in her smial, in front of a good chimney. With tea. She liked tea.
This time she searched for a proper place to sleep, and found a small burrow, not too far from the road. Exhausted, her mind didn’t have time to focus on anything other than a blissful void before her body plunged into a deep slumber.
The next day, the sun was shining again, and the water had already receded from the road. She realized she hadn’t yet looked at the forest around her, occupied as she was with avoiding to slip in the mud or thinking about her future.
With the humidity of the previous day’s draught, the forest sprang to life. Bright green moss sprawled on the ground between the trees. Brown, red and white capped mushrooms were scattered all over. She walked all day long, until the sun started westering.
At a turn of the road, she suddenly stopped in wonder, awestruck by the heavenly scenery that lay before her. Time halted.
Under the razing light of the westering Sun, colour and light were weaved into a vibrant tapestry, as the green foliage, forming a ceiling over the road, glowed with shades of red, orange and gold.
The road, straight ahead, was wreathed in the shade of linden trees. Dim should the pathway have been, yet it shone as if from its own light. As if no darkness was to be in this timeless place.
Further along the road, the forest dwindled and opened into a glen. The Sun shone through the opening upon the path, a circle of light like a portal to another time and place.
Shimmering leaves fell whispering, brought down by a slight breeze from the trees. Catching the westering rays of the sun through the foliage, they shone like so many sparks of light.
This warm, impossibly bright light gave an eerie feeling to the scene, and Niphredil felt as if she didn’t belong there. Or rather, that this scenery couldn’t belong to this world. For a fleeting moment you could catch a glimpse of a time that was to be no more, long gone countless millennia ago.
The moment passed. The Sun was hidden by clouds, the birds started chirping again, and Niphredil realized she had been holding her breath for, well she had lost count of time, but enough for her to need air. Quickly.
It took her a moment to realize someone else was standing there, in the middle of the road. A small man, seemingly middle-aged, red-haired.
“Pretty, ain’t it ?” he said, matter-of-factly.
Niphredil could but nod, speechless as she was. It was quite impressive that the man could speak at all, after such a moment.
“I didn’t know woods could be this beautiful.” he said, entering the pathway. “Looks like we’re going the same way, where are you headed ?”.
“Nowhere in particular.” answered the hobbit, finally finding her words.
“Oh. Well that’s as good a destination as any, I suppose. I am Thorbjörn, son of Thorgald. Shall we walk together towards nowhere in particular, for a while ?”
“That name doesn’t sound very hobbitish at all. It sounds very dwarfish, in fact.”
“Makes sense, I’m a dwarf. I come from the Ered Luin, far to the East. I believe you call them the Blue Mountains here.”
“You’re a dwarf ? But, you have no-”
“-beard, yes, I know. I’m a very young dwarf. And you, are a very impolite young lady. What’s your name ?”
“I am Niphredil, from the Shire.”
“A hobbit ? That much is obvious, I suppose, what with the walking-barefoot-in-the-forest business. But a hobbit with an elvish name ? Now that’s peculiar.”
“My parents used to travel a lot.” she said, not wanting to discuss this particular subject. “The Blue Mountains are very distant from here, what could you be looking for in the Shire ?”
“Nothing in particular. I’m merely passing through these lands on my way to the ancient capital of the dwarves, towards the vast halls of Khazad-Dûm. There, my folk is most numerous in all of Middle-Earth, and I hope to learn much from them in the arts of craftsmanship and lore. There is mithril in them darn mines. Can you imagine that ? Mithril !”
At the mere mention of mithril and highly-skilled smiths, Thorbjörn brimmed with anticipation. His brow twitched strangely, until he calmed down a little.
“Khazad-Dûm ? Would you mind if I accompanied you there ? I want to see the world, and what better way to discover the realm of the dwarves than guided by a dwarf ?”
“I see no reason to refuse. If we’re going the same way, might as well travel together.”
All the while talking, they had already reached the edge of the northern end of the Old Forest, which wasn’t very far from where they started off.
From there they now had to follow the Great East road (named from the Shire’s point of view), towards the city of Bree, and through the realms of Men. A long journey awaited them in these peaceful lands, until they finally reached Khazad-Dûm, jewel of the kingdoms of the Dwarves.
But that, is a story for another day.
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
This, dear listeners, was the second episode of A Tale Of Wide-Eyed Wonder. Next week (or two ?), we’ll follow Niphredil and Thorbjörn to the third episode of their tale, to the realms of men, in Arthedain.