There was a knock on the door and I opened it to see a windswept Nolan standing on the doorstep. Dressed in a white blouse, a hawk-feather vest, and with white gull feathers braided into his wild black hair, he looked liked he’d just escaped years of living in a bird nest. The fact that he had feathers sticking up at odd angles and was already covered with the dust of the road didn’t help either.
“G’morning,” he greeted me cheerily, sounding out of breath but bursting with energy.
Raising my eyes briefly to the sky, I said more soberly, “Morning, Nolan. You run here?” He nodded eagerly as I shut and locked the door behind me and I chuckled. “Why does that not surprise me?”
“I don’t know,” he said with a good-natured shrug. We walked side-by-side down the front path and then to the left, towards the trees that surrounded my little house. We hopped the fence of an enclosure built just a few feet within the trees and made our way through a relatively clear space. There was a compact, barn-like structure at the other end of the pen and a horse stood grazing outside it.
Nolan whistled and the brown and white paint mare raised her head and nickered, the sound rumbling and welcoming. Reaching her, I put my hands on either side of her nose and rubbed her fondly. “Morning, Faith,” I said quietly, patting her on the neck. She nudged me, hoping for a treat, but there were no pockets in my armour with which to carry carrots or apples. Nolan, on the other hand, had stuck a bright red apple in his backpack and pulled it out to give it to her. Faith bit into it happily, spraying Nolan with juice, and he laughed with pleasure and scratched her behind the ears.
I grinned as I went into the barn-like shelter to get Faith’s tack. Nolan loved horses with all his heart, and yet he didn’t want to get one of his own for some reason. Instead, he took every opportunity to spoil my young paint. I loved watching them together. Though I knew that Faith was loyal to me first, she had an incredibly strong bond with Nolan and they shared a mutual understanding that I didn’t think even I had with her. And seeing the broad smile stretch across Nolan’s face was one of the most heart-warming things I could think of.
Nolan hadn’t always smiled so freely. I had met him in the marketplace of the nearby town about eight years ago. He’d looked lost and alone, wandering without purpose, and had almost thrown a fit when he accidentally crashed into me while trying to avoid a passing horse. I remembered being irritated that he’d run into me, but my irritation had soon turned into confusion when he stuttered apology after apology, tears dribbling down his cheeks and a look of panic on his face. When he’d finally fallen silent, staring at me helplessly, I’d asked him softly, “Are you all right?”
That was when he’d truly dissolved. He’d sunk to his knees in the middle of the street, running anxious fingers through his hair, and had babbled incoherent words–the best I’d been able to make out was that he was lost and his home was gone. Embarrassed on behalf of this stranger blubbering on the road, I’d yanked him up by the arm and started pulling him down the street, back towards my home. At first, he’d done nothing but sob and jabber, stumbling along behind me. But as he’d calmed and caught his breath, his story had slowly begun to come out of him.
Nolan was an exile and an outcast. Eight years ago, before I’d met him, he had made a grave mistake. While out in the forest with a hunting party, searching for a stag to bring home for dinner, Nolan had been given the task of holding the leash of the big black hunting dog. Excited by the smell of prey and straining at its leash, the dog had suddenly rushed forwards when one of Nolan’s companions had walked out of some nearby brush, deer scent heavy on his clothes. Nolan was taken by surprise at the dog’s sudden movement and let the leash slip between his fingers. The other man had been badly mauled by the frenzied hound and was crippled too badly to hunt any longer.
Nolan had been thrown out of his village immediately. I had eventually come to understand that he hadn’t been very well-liked before the incident, apparently too clumsy for his fellow villagers’ liking, and so they had been looking for the first opportunity to banish him. I thought it was harsh punishment, but he had come to accept it, with time. It was for the best, he later told me. The pressure of living up to their expectations would have crushed him sooner or later, and at least this way, he was free.
Free or not, he’d still been a wreck, out in the big world all on his own, and I’d taken him to my house in town and let him stay with me for a while, secretly hoping that he would get over his grief and move out and I would never see him again. But in the few weeks that he’d lived with me, he had proven so comic and happy-go-lucky, it was hard not to enjoy his company. We’d soon become friends, and moved out together from the town to the surrounding countryside. Though we now lived apart, we had become as close as family.
Bringing Faith’s saddle and bridle from the barn, I came back out and started tacking up the paint. She stood patiently, nuzzling Nolan as he stroked her neck. His smile was gone, replaced with a straight-faced expression of calmness. I smiled to myself as I tightened the girth and buckled the leather straps. The best gift I’d given him, Nolan had told me once, was an end to the loneliness. Of all things, the loneliness had been worst for him. I’d told him then that he wouldn’t have to be alone anymore, as long as we were friends.
From that day on, I made sure it was true.
Just a little insight on Nolan’s background. You’ll know the whole story eventually, one snippet at a time. It just takes me a while.
How long have you known your best friend?
May your friendships be strong and dispel all of life’s loneliness.