The Last Ring - Middle-earth, Tenth Age - Chapter One - In Which We Meet Our Heroine, Who Is Not All That Heroic
There was a student out of bed. The dean knew it was against the rules, and so did the student in question. But one cared very little and the other cared very much.
Sir Willin, dean of the Gondorian Institute for Young Ladies, had been aroused by the shrill cry of alarm he kept near his bed. This alerted him whenever one of his pupils left their rooms after lights out. Tonight had been the fifth night in a row he had been awakened at an unElfly hour of the night and this time he was determined to catch the offender. So he had crawled miserably out of bed and pulled his robe in the school colors over his nightclothes and staggered into the hall.
"By all my forefathers," he muttered gloomily, "I'll catch the sneak and give them a week's worth of early morning laundry duty as punishment."
But the one who cared little, the student, was unaware of the malice that was being sent her way. She was only aware of the general danger of her situation. No student at the Institute was allowed to leave without official permission. But she had wanted to get out into the Third level of the city, and the only way to get to the Third from the Sixth was out of the Sixth and through the Fifth and Fourth. There was no particular reason for her risking all she had. She just wanted to look around the Third level, as you were rarely allowed into it for more than a few minutes when you reached 16. It was almost like an initiation to all the 16 year olds at the Institute, as none of the older girls would treat you like a person unless you had crept out once.
She had thought out her plan for escape very thoroughly, and the only flaw was that she had never practiced. Still, the hardest part was being fast enough, and the next hardest part was scaling the wall of the kitchen garden. It was seven feet high, and the student was tall for her age, so she didn't think it would be that hard. And anyway, loads of people do it in stories. Like that...oh, what was her name...Luthien, that was it. Luthien was ancient history, but at some point she must have scaled a wall.
That doesn't mean you can, she thought to herself, but pushed it out of her mind. Of course she could climb a wall. How hard could it be?
The moon had risen and shone the tiny sliver light it could give down upon the courtyard. The pale white cobble stones shone in the night, but the many hangings representing each noble house were dimmed by the darkness. The high walls rose up fast as soon as one's eyes left the ground and went all the way to old-fashioned spires and peaks. Everyone who came here wanted a tower room, but only troublesome girls got them. The whole building was as white as the cobble stones in the courtyard, but all the spires and towers were of burnished silver. The Institute was one of the finest buildings in all Minas Tirith.
The girl looked away from the enormous building. If she was kicked out of the Institute, her family would be disgraced, and her house. They could probably get her out of expulsion, but the bad reputation would remain. But she was bored here, and she had always been given her way at home, so why should she really worry? She could just slip away and then slip back in.
She had reached the wall. It suddenly looked much taller. But the girl would not be daunted by nothing more than a nine foot wall. She put her hands up as far as she could and one foot on the highest outlying stone she could find. Then she gritted her teeth, closed her eyes and pulled up her other foot and fell straight back down to the ground.
"Ai!" she cried out, then bit her tongue and cried out again. Then she clapped her hands over her mouth and slid into the shadows of the wall on the eastern side. She heard a cry go up in the building and saw a few lights on the seventh floor, where the teachers lived. Her breathing came fast, her tongue and back hurt from her fall, and her heart was beating louder than a drum. She had to get out of the Institute before they found her. She sank to the ground, suddenly overwhelmed with terror of what might happen if she was found.
Her teary eyes rested for a moment on a small glimmer in the dirt by her foot.
Her mind went black.
She saw a volcano. Except that there were people running all around it, and up and down its sides, and no one did that. Then she saw that they were not people, they were misshapen beasts that were only vaguely humanoid. And a great fire burned from the top of a tower nearby and she was pulled closer and closer to the tower and she suddenly realized that something terrible would happen if she got any closer to that thing. But her mind was coming closer and closer-
And then she looked away from the glimmer, gasping and coughing.
She silenced herself hastily and looked around. Doors were slamming open and light and people were pouring out. She saw the scrawny form of Sir Willin, but she wasn't really worried anymore. They were going to find her, and she wasn't to cry and snivel in front of them all. She had her pride, and she had pride in her house. They would not really dare to throw her out.
She was about to get up and show herself to them, when she looked back at that glimmer of... something in the dirt. Without really thinking, she reached for it and picked it up, tucking it into her sash. Then the shadow of Bren, one of the safety guards, loomed over her.
"Well, Ened," he drawled in a slow gloating voice, making her name sound like a curse. "I guess you'll just have to try to sneak out some other time, won't you?"
"You nasty %$@$$," Ened remarked calmly as she stood up.
Ened, daughter of Madron, fifth lady of the house of Telcontar, the ruling line of Gondor, sat in front Sir Willin's desk looking at the poor dean very much as if he were the student caught out of bounds, and she was about to punish him. And if that was not enough for the poor man's heart, her formidable mother Jeniniel, daughter of Lanin and wife of Madron, fourth lady of the house of Telcontar, sat beside her giving Sir Willin much the same look as her daughter.
The dean cleared his throat and bucked up his courage. "My Ladies," he said, his voice quivering. He was addressing two people who were at least four families higher than him in social standing, and yet both were many years younger. Ened was only 16, and her mother only 38 and Sir Willin was the ripe age of 66. Still, he was Ened's dean, and her mother had to respect that, so he continued.
"My ladies," he repeated. "I understand the circumstances of this rule-breaking, that it is somewhat of an initiation right at this school and something I have worked tirelessly to put a stop to, but it is nevertheless a breach of the rules. Lady Student Ened will have to be dealt with as any other girl caught in such action. Expulsion from our Institute is the tried and true punishment having been used since the second anniversary of this establishment in the 7th age, and shall commence in three days time."
Jeniniel sat up straight in her chair and Sir Willin resisted the urge to cower. When the Lady spoke, her voice was as cold as frost.
"Sir Willin, could you please inform me exactly of my daughter's offense?" she said coolly, but there was heat behind her façade of control.
Sir Willin gulped. "She attempted to leave the grounds of the Institute and enter the Third Level. You are only allowed there after you are sixteen years old and she has just turned sixteen and-"
Jeniniel cut him off. "I know my daughter's age and I know the age restrictions on the Third Level. It was my branch of the family that instituted them I believe. I myself set the age at 16."
"Yes, of course," Willin stammered. "I am sorry."
Jeniniel barely inclined her head in recognition of his apology. "Then continue."
"That's all. We heard her fall as she tried to climb the wall and the safety guard Bren found her and brought her in here. Then we called you my lady, and you know the rest," he finished weakly. "And the punishment is expulsion."
"Why is she being expelled?" asked Jeniniel mildly and Willin knew that he would have to defend every rule the school had ever made to this imperious woman. "I think I must have missed something. I did not hear you state that she told you she was sneaking out to the Third level. When did she tell you that?"
Willin blushed to the roots of his gray hair. "My lady, it can easily be assumed."
Jeniniel raised one eyebrow. "So she never told you straight out? Interesting. And did she in fact get over the wall?"
"Ah. And I seem to remember you saying when we toured this Institute that as all the ladies here were of nobility, all students were allowed out of their beds after the sun had set. Has this rule been revoked since last year?"
"Then what is the problem?" Jeniniel's face was set into a smirk that she could only barely hide. She had played her hand and won.
But Sir Willin had a trump card to play. "My lady, as you say, your daughter never left the Institute, so she is not punishable for that offense, and she is certainly allowed to be out of bed after regular school hours. None of this do I deny. But there is one other thing which is punishable by expulsion. It is in the student's manual, and they are asked to recite a passage of this every morning. So every lady is well acquainted with it. In passage 72, line 25, page 567, it is said that students, and I quote, students must never use Level slang with any teacher or verbally abuse any member of the staff. Lady Student Ened, when she was found beneath the wall, was, as I have told you, discovered by Bren, a safety guard. She spoke to him words I will not utter here in such company and then went with him to my office. This offense, no matter how small the degree, is also punishable by expulsion." Willin finished with a triumphant glow on his face.
Jeniniel's expression didn't change, but Ened sank lower into her chair and fidgeted with something in her pocket. She looked at her mother, but Jeniniel stared only at Sir Willin. For maybe the third time in her life, Ened was impressed by the dean. Anyone else would have turned to jelly under that look. She had seen it happen. But Sir Willin was meeting Jeniniel's best glare with total calm.
Jeniniel stood up regally, her chin high. "Come, Ened!" she ordered. Ened got up, dragging her feet in deliberate contrast to her mother. "Good night, Sir Willin," Jeniniel said icily. "We will collect my daughter's possessions ourselves. You need not trouble yourself with us any longer." And she walked out of the room. She didn't drag Ened out with her - that was unbecoming to the house of Telcontar - but she turned in the doorway, and the gimlet look on her face was enough to send even Ened quickly after her.
Sir Willin sighed in relief and sank back in his chair as Ened pulled the door closed. "Thank the Elves," he muttered to himself and wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. And then, because a victory over Jeniniel Telcontar was something that didn't happen every day, he opened his desk, took out a decanter and glass, and tossed back a gulp of fine wine.
It was just like Jeniniel, Ened thought mutinously, to make her go back into the dormitory and pack her things. "It'll take forever!" she had protested. To which plea Jeniniel had replied, "I'll send Asca in to help." So in came Ened with the insufferable Asca, who generally resembled a wart, to pack and leave the Institute.
The others were all awake. "You got caught!" crowed Nethinn, sitting up eagerly. Her annoyingly perfect golden ringlets tumbled around her shoulders in artistic disarray. Ened thought briefly about walking over and yanking hard on them, but decided against it. "How far did you get, anyway? Halfway out the door?"
"Funny," said Ened, opting for the ignoring technique. "Asca, you can start packing." Asca bobbed her pimply head and opened Ened's largest trunk.
"How far did you get?" pressed Maparnie. Ened didn't even answer her - not only was the answer embarrassing in the extreme, Maparnie's family didn't even live on the Sixth level. At least Nethinn, snob though she was, lived on the Sixth. She might have been from a lower class, but Maparnie wasn't stupid. She picked up on the slight and sat back, shutting her mouth.
Asca tapped Ened's shoulder. "Beg pardon, Lady Student, where should I put the jewels?"
"Just Lady now," called Nethinn. "She's not a student anymore."
Ened was not having a good night, and Nethinn was one thing too many. "You know, Lady Student, I seem to recall that when you sneaked out, you got so drunk you fainted right over the counter in the Grey Havens Tavern and had to be carried back in a wheelbarrow." Her sally drew a few laughs, and she smiled charmingly at Nethinn.
"At least I got out," Nethinn snapped.
Ened didn't deign to reply. Asca was intolerably slow, and Jeniniel was waiting outside. Huffing impatiently, Ened took over the packing, stuffing gowns, shoes, jewelry and books together pell-mell in whatever trunk was handy. Finally she stood up, announced, "There! All done," and let Asca carry the trunks out of the room. The girls lay back down to catch up on their sleep once she left. The excitement was over, anyway. No point in being awake when nothing was happening.
Jeniniel restrained herself until they were seated in the carriage, a fairly remarkable feat. She made up for it once the doors were shut and the carriage was rumbling uphill to the Seventh level. "What in the name of the Elves were you thinking?" she demanded. "What did you say?"
"Nothing I didn't learn from Bren," Ened muttered. "Can I go to sleep now?"
"You obviously didn't feel the need for sleep earlier tonight," Jeniniel said acidly. "So you will stay awake now and listen to me. You have embarrassed the family! Do you know how long we have been sending young ladies to the Gondorian Institute?"
"For three Ages, since its founding," Ened recited dully. She lifted the blinds on the carriage to peer out at the city at nighttime.
Jeniniel reached out and shut the blind. "And in all that time, do you know how many young Telcontar ladies have been expelled?"
"No." And why should I care? Other girls get expelled.
"One." Jeniniel fixed Ened with the glare she had trained on Sir Willin. "In three Ages, only one. You. Ened, daughter of Madron, fifth lady of the house of Telcontar, in this year 217 of the Tenth Age."
Ened refused to look away. She couldn't stop a flush from rising to her cheeks, but Jeniniel didn't know it was from anger, not embarrassment.
"That is a disgrace," Jeniniel went on.
"Why?" demanded Ened. "It's a better statistic than most families. Look at the Alcarin family! Three of their girls were expelled in the 9th Age alone!"
"The Alcarins come from the Fifth level," said Jeniniel. "You, on the other hand, are a Telcontar, a descendant of the ancient men all the way back to Númenor."
"All the way back to who?" asked Ened, who had never been strong on history.
"Not who, what," corrected Jeniniel. "Numenor, the first kingdom of men -"
"In mythology," Ened grumbled.
"In history! There are documents from Numenor."
"Might as well be mythology," Ened answered. "For Elves' sake, it was hundreds of thousands of years ago! Elves were just wandering around - Elves! Sounds like mythology to me."
"You have gotten off the subject," Jeniniel said coolly. "To return to it, you have shamed the family and will be suitably punished. I will consult your father and grandfather, and they shall determine what is best to do."
"Can I go to sleep?" Ened interrupted.