"Would you just hurry up and get it?" my mother screeched, throwing an empty basket into my arms. "I'm tired of you just lazing around all day, with nothing better to do! Useless girl…" She slammed the door behind me, and I'm left by myself in the streets of Bree.

I looked up to the cloudy sky and sigh. The last thing I wanted to was go into that dark, damp forest filled with god knows what…but my mother had asked so politely… Sighing, I set off towards the town gates, giving a shy smile to the hunched gatekeeper as I passed. I knew that if I didn't come back by dark, it could be quite possible that I would be locked out of the town for the night.

Probably a good thing, considering I didn't want to spend one more night with my mother. I knew I wasn't a lazy, good-for-nothing girl. I did everything she asked, and more. But it never seemed to please her. I knew she had tried to mould me into a young lady, despite our low station. But her constant fussing and worrying turned me shy and distant from the other villagers, and they taunted her for it.

Taunted my mother for the way I turned out. It wasn't fair, because I was the one who should be blamed—not my mother, who had just wanted better for me. But the constant ridicule from the villages had turned her harsh and turned her against me.

In her resentment, she had become old and haggard. From what I'd been told, she'd been a real beauty. But after my retreat into myself, her hair had grown grey and her face lined. She walked with a straight back and a hard face.

They said that we had looked alike. Same grey eyes, upturned nose and heart shaped face. But my hair…but curly black hair I got from my father.

My eyes watered and my throat tightened. I held my head high and stalked into the forest, scanning the earthy ground for mushrooms— one of the main ingredients in my mother's famous stew. She received countless orders for it each night at the inn my grandfather, Barliman Butterbur owned, the Prancing Pony.

Most of the patrons were residents of Bree, but odd folk came in every once in a while. At those times, I couldn't help but stare. There sometimes even nobles who were passing through on ambassador duties. I liked to examine all the finery they wore.

And then there were the Rangers. They were very strange men, who didn't talk and covered their faces most of the time. Sitting in the back, smoking and drinking, they would survey the crowd quietly.

I always wanted to talk to them, ask them about their travels, but I could never work up the courage to go and ask them; I couldn't even look residents of Bree in the eye without stuttering.

My foot came down on something soft and squishy, and I raised it to look at the sole of my boot. Damn. The mushrooms. I quickly jumped out of the patch to avoid crushing anymore of them. I knew that if I didn't bring back the mushrooms, there'd be hell to pay.

I tugged at the mushrooms, and placed them carefully in the basket, being careful not to rip the delicate tops. I looked up at the sky quickly, and noticed it was getting darker. It was also getting colder, and I realized that I only had—


My breath caught in my throat, and I looked around the surrounding area. I could see the town gates, but behind me was a dark patch of trees, close together. It loomed ominously at me, and I was suddenly reminded of every single story I was told as a child of young maidens wandering into the forest and being captured by thieves or eaten by wild animals. Please be a squirrel, please be a squirrel, please, please…

There was a snort from behind me, and I felt hot breath on my neck. I grabbed the basket and sprinted off, not daring to look behind me for fear of what I might see.

There was loud chatter in the inn tonight, and I placed another round of beers in front of a group of raucous men, who cheered loudly and drank deeply.

I was clearing a table when the door opened, and a man with a dark hood and weather beaten clothes walked in. Everyone looked up, but he wasn't all that interesting, so they went back to their business.

I hadn't seen this man around here before, and I assumed, by the look of it, that he was a Ranger of the North. I took a deep breath and looked around for my mother or my father. Usually they checked guests in or greeted them, but they were nowhere to be found.

It was up to me.

I mustered up all my courage and walked to the front desk, and said, very quietly, "Um…hello…" My heart was beating furiously in my chest, like a young baby bird was flapping its wings against my chest in an effort to fly.

He turned his face—well, hood—towards me. I couldn't see his eyes, but I knew this meant he was acknowledging me.

"W—welcome to the P—Prancing Pony…"

"Room for one, please," he said shortly. He obviously sensed my discomfort and was either trying to get away from me as quickly as possible or spare me and make this short for me.


"I don't think that's necessary."

"It…kind of…is," I said. We had a policy to write down the names in our book just in case a guest didn't pay or vandalise the inn—that way we could track them down and get the money we needed. "I j—just need—"

"Just show me to my room!"

I immediately ducked my head, my eyes brimming with tears. It scared me half to death when people snapped—it didn't matter if it were me, or someone else. It always surprised me, and I hated it. "S—sorry…" I reached for a key and tucked it into my apron pocket. "F—follow me…"

I led him through the inn and upstairs to our rooms. We didn't have many, just ten, but they were comfortable and had a good view. I unlocked room seven, and opened the door for him. "Here we are…"

He stepped in and stood in the middle of the room, looking it over.

"Th—there's a fireplace and…some water…for your face…" I mumbled. I sounded so stupid, just rambling away while he says nothing at all. Nothing at all. I placed the keys to his room on a small table by the door. "I—I'm leaving your keys here…goodnight."


When I went back downstairs, a middle aged man called out to me. "Lass! Lass!"

I went over. "I—is everything all right?"

"Yes, it's all very good. But I just wanted to tell you one thing. That man you checked in. His name is Strider."


I'd heard of him, but never seen him before. Many said he was brave and kind, but he didn't seem that way to me when he asked for a room earlier that night. Maybe something's happened to him, I pondered as I wipe down the bar counter.

My grandfather was ushering the last of the patrons out, some with a little more force than others. "All right, lads, I'll see you tomorrow." He closed the door behind them and bolted it tightly, as he did every night. He turned around and smiled at me.

I smiled back. Grandfather was one of the few people—actually, he was the only one I could openly talk to. I didn't stammer, nor did I avoid eye contact. He was like my father, ever since my real father died when I was seven. I was seventeen now, and while most seventeen year olds were gossiping about marriage and clothing, I was learning how to run an inn from my grandfather.

"I'm sorry to do this to you, Ella, but it's been a really long day for me. Can you finish cleaning up?"

I sighed, but looked into Grandfather's tired eyes and nodded. "Yes. There's not much left anyway."

"Thank you." He patted my cheek goodnight and went upstairs to the rooms where he, Mother and I slept.

I sighed again, then finished wiping down the bar counter. I put up chairs and got a broom from the closet and started to sweep up broken glass from under the table. As I start to gather it to put in the trash, I nick one of my fingers on the shards. "Ouch!" I stuck my finger into my mouth to stop the bleeding.

"You're only going to infect that."

I jumped and hit the back of my head on the table. "Ouch!" I crawled out quickly from under the table and turn to face the speaker. It was Strider, who still had his hood up. Strange. Why would he want to keep his face hidden?


"Wash it in cold water then put a bandage on it to staunch the bleeding," he muttered and swept past me, going to the back door. He opened it, and a gust of wind blew in, sending chills down my spine.

"Oh. Um, t—thank—"


The door slammed behind him and I dropped my eyes to the ground. "Thank you…"