The Last Ring - Middle-earth, Tenth Age - Chapter Nineteen - In Which a Crisis is Reached
"Like this," said Marwyn. Ened watched as the girl squatted down next to the large cow, positioned a metal bucket, and deftly started milking. "Don't be so timid," Marwyn instructed Ened, squirting away. "She's used to it. You'll make her nervous if you don't act like you know what you're doing." Marwyn got up and motioned for Ened to take her place.
This is not a good idea, Ened thought, but she knelt down where Marwyn had been and, wincing, grabbed the cow's udders. I'm going to get kicked, I just know it, this stupid cow's going to bash out my brains. She pulled down on the udder, squeezing it as she'd seen Marwyn do, and to her surprise, milk squirted out of it and splashed into the bucket. "I did it!" Ened cried.
"Yes, you did," said Marwyn, too patiently. "Now you have to keep doing it, or poor Ila will get nervous." She patted the cow's flank as Ened dubiously started milking again.
My mother would have a fit, Ened thought gleefully, if she could see me right now. "The princess of Gondor, on her knees in a barn, milking a cow like some common Rohirric peasant!" Wouldn't that be fun to see...
Ened looked up when the barn door banged open, and she let go of the udders in surprise. Fola had just come into the barn, and her face was flushed, as if she'd run in from the house. "What is it?" Ened asked.
Fola had a basket on her arm. She slipped it off and wrapped Ened's fingers around it. "You have to get out of here," she said in an undertone.
"What?" Ened said, confused. She lifted the cover of the basket. Fola had put enough food in it to feed the Telcontars for a week. "Fola, what -"
Fola cut her off. "I know you're the princess," she said bluntly, ignoring Marwyn's stifled cry of astonishment. "My husband knows too, and he wrote to the king. The Riders are here to take you to Edoras."
Ened finally understood what people meant when they said that their world had come crashing down on them. Suddenly she couldn't stand. Her knees gave way, and she dropped like a stone into the hay on the barn floor. They knew? They knew all along?
And if I go to Edoras, then I'm a hostage, a bargaining chip for Rohan to use to get whatever they want...and the ring won't make it to Valinor...
She got as quickly as she could, which wasn't very quickly, to her feet. "Where are Larin and Valdor?" she asked.
"Saddling horses for your journey," Fola said. "The stables are just behind the barn."
"Do they have our things?"
Fola frowned. "There is no time. The Riders are in the house looking for you -"
Ened shook her head. "Fola, I need my things," she said urgently. "Please, can you get me into the house?"
"Not without them seeing you!" Fola said. "Ened, there is no way, you simply have to go now -"
"I can't go without my things!" Ened said desperately. The mere thought of leaving the ring here was terrifying. "Fola, please -"
"I'll get them," said Marwyn.
Ened and Fola both turned and stared at the girl. Ened had completely forgotten she was there.
"I'll go," Marwyn said. "Give me the milk. I'll bring it in, and I'll bring your things out. Where are they? Your room?" Ened nodded and handed Marwyn the bucket. "I'll be fast," the girl promised, and she positively flew out of the barn, her eyes sparkling.
Fola shook her head fondly. "That girl," she said. "She wants to be a spy, did you know that? She probably thinks this is good training."
"She wants to be a..." Ened gave up. It was too much at once. In fact, it was almost too much to know that her jovial host had gone completely behind her back without one suspicion from her.
I can't wait for this to be over, she thought, and was surprised at the thought. Adventures are fun, to be sure, but I want to go back to Minas Tirith and live a normal life from now on. That would be nice.
Fola stuck her head out of the barn window and withdrew it almost instantly. "Of course," she groaned. "There had to be trouble. You'd better go and save your friend from my daughter."
Ened ran to the back of the barn and peeked out of the door. From where she stood, she could see the stable - the door was open - and she could also see that Halla was standing squarely between Valdor and the horse she guessed he'd been saddling. Halla looked bound and determined to make a loud fuss, and that would bring the Riders back here, and then they'd take Ened to Edoras, and without a second thought Ened darted out of the barn and ran across to the stable. "Halla, move," she ordered, handing Larin Fola's basket. "Larin, can this go in a saddlebag?"
Larin took the basket and shoved it into one of his horse's saddlebags. Halla did not obey so easily. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Ened. "I might if you said please," she pouted.
"Sorry, haven't got time to be polite," Ened said shortly. "Only two horses, Larin?"
He grinned tightly. "I told Fola you couldn't ride very well, and she wasn't that keen on giving us even one of her husband's horses. So you're riding with me."
"Couldn't you have said I got hay fever, something a little less inglorious? She's Rohirric, she probably thinks I'm a baby for not being able to ride." Ened craned her head around the edge of the stable. Where was Marwyn? They couldn't leave without the ring.
"Why are we not leaving?" Valdor demanded.
"Because I don't have my things!" Ened said tightly.
"Because you aren't leaving at all!" said Halla.
Ened whirled around. "What did you say?"
"He's not leaving," smirked Halla. "He has to stay here and marry me."
For once, the emotion on Valdor's face was purely human - human disgust. "I most certainly do not," he said emphatically.
"Oh, yes, you do," Halla retorted. "I found you. I have the right of first claim on all of you."
Ened wanted to scream. Oh, Elves! She would have to know about that stupid thing.
"The what?" asked Larin, looking utterly bewildered. "What are you talking about?"
"It's an ancient custom," Ened snapped, "that was used in the late Fourth Age for arranging Rohirric marriages across villages. Say a male was traveling from Edoras to Wunbrand. If the first person from Wunbrand who saw him was a girl, that girl had the right to marry him if she wanted to. Generally, it was more orchestrated than the girl being ambushed. And it's been out of use for five Ages!" Boiling with rage, Ened glowered at Halla.
The barn door slammed open all the way. Marwyn came tumbling out of the barn, Ened's satchel in her hands. Ened heaved a sigh of relief, but it was incredibly short-lived, because there were five men running after Marwyn, each bearing the Rider insignia on their tunics. Ened stared in horror for an instant, and then yelled, "Get on the horses!" Larin scrambled quickly onto his, and pulled Ened up after him.
"Catch!" Marwyn yelled, her voice rasping with effort, and she threw the satchel across the remainder of the space between her and Ened. It thudded into Ened's arms. Larin wasted no time - no sooner had Ened caught the satchel than he kicked the horse forward. It obeyed him instantly, leaping out of its stall and racing through the town. Ened yelped as the horse started to run, and she threw one arm around Larin's waist, holding on for dear life.
Then she glanced over her shoulder and realized that Valdor was not following them.
"Larin!" she bellowed in his ear.
"What?" he yelled back.
"Valdor's not behind us!"
Larin said nothing for a moment. Then he shouted, "He'll catch up! Ened, we've got to keep going!"
The bruise on Ened's cheek throbbed as she opened her mouth to yell. "We can't just -"
"We can," Larin shouted, "and we will! Do you want to get caught?"
Ened choked back the rest of her protest. He was right. They had to keep going, if they wanted to have any chance at all of getting the ring to Valinor. But it didn't seem fair that Valdor should be left behind after all he had done for them because some idiot girl wanted to marry him. Ened gripped Larin's waist with both hands and pressed her forehead against his shoulder, gritting her teeth against the unexpected pain of abandoning the Elf.
It wasn't long before she felt the ground shake under their horse's pounding hooves. Ened lifted her head and twisted in the saddle. "Larin!" she shouted. "They're coming after us!"
He didn't look to check, for which Ened was grateful. Instead, he pulled on the reins. Their horse veered right, away from the distant mountains and across the plains. "What are you doing?" Ened yelled.
"They've just ridden here from Edoras!" Larin shouted. "This horse is fresher than theirs! Trust me, Ened!"
He had trusted her unquestioningly when she reported their pursuers - the least she could do would be the same. Ened said nothing, but she held on grimly to his waist, and threw many glances behind at the chasing Riders.
If their chasers had been Gondorians, Larin's plan would have worked. Gondorians were not nearly so well adapted to the technique of multitasking as the Rohirrim were. And Larin's reasoning was excellent - sooner or later, the horses of the Rohirrim would have to react to having been ridden almost nonstop from Edoras to Wunbrand and back.
However, the Rohirrim were experts in mounted warfare.
Ened yelped in terror as she felt an arrow whiz by her face, and she clutched Larin so tightly that he choked. "Not in my ear!" he snapped. "Scream anywhere but in my ear!"
"They've got arrows!" she cried, disregarding him completely and speaking directly in his ear. "They're shooting at us, Larin, they're going to hit us, for Elves' sake slow down!"
"Are you crazy?" he demanded, kicking the horse hard - it neighed in protest and ran even faster. "We can't slow down, not now!"
"I don't want to die!" Ened yelled, furious almost to the point of tears. It was all well and good for him - she was the one who was going to take any arrows that came their way. All he had to do was hunker down and kick the horse. He hadn't felt that arrow fly so close to his face that it could have taken a chunk of his cheek if he had been an inch closer to it. Why should he slow the horse?
Another arrow sang by, on Ened's other side this time, and she jumped and pounded her fist into Larin's back. "Slow the horse down, Larin! Slow it down!" She didn't dare twist around to see what distance there was between their horse and the Rohirrim, for fear of another arrow, and she couldn't jump off the horse and surrender herself to the king of Rohan. For one thing, the ring would still be in Larin's saddlebag - for another, she still had no idea how she could reach Valinor on her own, not to mention the fact that she would probably break her neck if she tried a stunt like that. So she was trapped, stranded on the horse, easy prey for any archer -
Why would they be shooting at her if they knew she was a princess of Gondor?
Clinging to Larin's waist, Ened forced herself to think rationally. The Rohirrim were splendid marksmen - a common saying that she had heard around the streets of the Sixth Level was, "One Rohirric archer's worth a whole Gondorian brigade." Therefore, if the Rohirrim had been shooting to injure or kill, they would certainly have gotten her with the first arrow they sent her way. But they hadn't, so they must know who she was - which meant that their shots were intended to frighten only, to spook rather than to maim. And she had gone right along with their plan.
Furious at herself, Ened wrapped her arms tighter around Larin and yelled, "I'm sorry, I was wrong, don't you dare slow down this horse!"
"Make up your mind!" Larin shouted back, but he gave the animal another nudge.
The plains were unending. Ened focused her eyes on the horizon, watching desperately to see if they got any closer, but the faster they ran, the farther away the horizon got. It was very disheartening. Secure in the knowledge that the arrows weren't going to hit her, Ened turned half-around in the saddle and glanced behind. Her heart leaped as she saw the Rohirrim losing ground. Larin's plan had worked! They were going to escape!
In the moment that she turned around, she gave them an opening. Their orders had been to not harm the princess in any way. There was nothing in them about the youth she was traveling with. And now that she had moved, there was a window. It would be a daring man who would take that shot, but the Rohirrim had never lacked for daring.
And as Ened was about to turn back around to tell Larin the good news, an arrow flew past her and buried itself in Larin's lower back.
Ened choked in horror; Larin let out some horrible kind of groan. His hands dropped from the reins, and Ened flung out a hand and snatched them before both he and she fell off the horse. The horse, sensing the loss of a confident rider, instantly started to shy and slow down. Ened hauled back on the reins with one hand and clung stubbornly to Larin with the other, curving her body away from him so as not to drive the arrow in any further, but the horse refused to listen to her and started to veer off to one side. Larin's head fell back, and for a heart-stopping moment Ened thought he was dead, but it was only the horse's uneven gait that had thrown his head back. She spared a frightened glance into his face - his eyes were wide with panic and pain. She could feel a thin trickle of blood leaking onto her leg.
Ened knew she couldn't calm the horse. Nor could she spur it to go faster, nor would she want to, with Larin injured and possibly bleeding to death. She didn't even know how deep the arrow had gone. There was only one thing to do.
Although she wanted to scream, Ened yanked back on the reins.
The horse neighed in outrage at such treatment, but by then the Rohirrim were thundering up on them, their green cloaks flickering back and forth in the wind. One removed his helmet, bowed, and said graciously for being out of breath, "Greetings, princess, from King Freawine. I am Garroth, Second Marshal of the Mark, and I am at your service."
"Forgive me if I'm skeptical of your service," Ened snapped, almost in tears with rage over her situation and fear for Larin. "I tend not to trust people who shoot my friends."
Garroth bowed, no small feat when in a saddle. "You have my apologies on that account."
"Apologies aren't going to get this arrow out of him, Marshal!" Ened cried. A traitor tear leaked out of one eye - she fiercely wiped it away. "If you want to provide service, then see that my companion is tended to! Now!"
Garroth's eyes widened in surprise. He had known that Ened Telcontar had made it all the way here from Minas Tirith, but he had somehow imagined her to be a soft-spoken, delicate flower of a young woman, as most of the young female Gondorians seemed to be. This angry, imperious explosive masquerading as a person was not at all what he had expected. "Ulf," he said, "see to the man."
I'll have to remember not to tell Larin that, Ened thought, rather dazedly, as Ulf dismounted and came over to her horse to lift Larin down. He'd never let me forget it if he knew they called him a man. They'll probably all pat me on the head and tell me to go home to my mother.
But I might go, came the stunning realization as she watched, from horseback, as Ulf spread out his cloak and laid Larin on top of it. If I have to, I'll go back, as long as Larin doesn't...
Ened refused to even think the word. To think it was to make the possibility real.
And besides, the mere concept of abandoning her quest for Larin's sake was - well - disturbing.
It was a momentary lapse, she told herself firmly. A lapse in judgment. It won't happen again.