The Last Ring - Middle-earth, Tenth Age - Chapter Seven - In Which Ened Gets Her Quest Underway
By nightfall, Ened was almost at the far edge of Pelennor Fields. Who had the bright idea to build a city in the middle of a plain? she thought grumpily. Her feet beat with pain every time she put weight on them, and her knees were aching. "No more hiking," she grumbled to herself. "Never again." (She was conveniently forgetting, of course, that she couldn't exactly hire a carriage to take her to Valinor.)
The other thing Ened was determined on was slightly more feasible. I will not sleep on the ground! she thought, grimly pushing herself forward. Not only do I not have a blanket or anything, it's too dangerous. No, I'll just find an inn somewhere and get a room.
"Somewhere" turned out to be Osgiliath, uncomfortably close to Minas Tirith, but it would be even more uncomfortable to walk to another city. Ened felt ridiculous. Some escape this is, she thought to herself as she approached Osgiliath. I can't even get out of sight of Minas Tirith!
She gave herself away immediately as a noblewoman by her dress and her walk. There were no guards at Osgiliath - the ones in Minas Tirith were mainly just for tradition anyway - but as soon as she came into the city, she could have screamed out her name and she would hardly have exposed herself more. The less fortunate citizens of Osgiliath looked knowingly at each other and steered clear of the pretentiously independent little lady, while Ened peered at them under her cloak's hood and wondered why everyone was avoiding her.
The largest inn of the city was easy enough to find. Ened had been there a few times before, most notably three years ago when Aunt Malara's son Naur had gotten unbelievably drunk at a party with his friends, and the entire Telcontar family had turned out in full force to bring him home. Ened had hovered behind Jeniniel and stared with disgusted awe at her belching, farting cousin. She suspected that because of that party, the location of the Ranger's Rest was indelibly burned into her memory.
Again, the people gave her only a few sidelong glances when she walked into the inn. What's wrong with them? she wondered. Do I have leprosy or something? Ignoring the rudeness of the Osgiliath people, Ened tossed back her hood, marched up to the bartender, and said, "Good evening, sir."
He turned around. He was currently engaged in pouring a full tankard of ale, and Ened was vaguely impressed by the fact that, while looking at her, he managed to take the pitcher away at just the right time. "Yes, madam?" he said politely.
"I would like to take a room for the night," Ened told him.
"Ah." He put down the pitcher, carried the tankard over to the bar, and bellowed, "Here you go, Fargon!" Ened jumped at the volume of the roar, and a stocky man in common clothes came over and relieved the bartender of the tankard. "Sorry, madam," said the bartender without a trace of sorrow in his voice, turning back to her. "A room, you said?"
"Yes," said Ened, a little resentfully.
The bartender sighed. Just because these noble younglings are old enough to be on their own, they think they deserve the world. "Very good, madam," he said. Clapping his hands once, he raised his voice again and hollered, "Sareth!" At the far end of the bar, a plain and busty girl in a cap and apron turned around and headed up toward them. "Give her the room at the top of the stairs," the bartender instructed.
Sareth bobbed her head and motioned to Ened. Hoisting her satchel a little higher on her back, Ened followed the girl up the uneven wooden stairs for what felt like forever to her aching feet, up to a small door. Sareth pulled a ring of keys from her apron pocket and opened the door. "If you need anything, come on down to the common room," she told Ened, who had leaped inside the room as soon as the door opened and was now sitting down on the comfortable chair. Ened nodded, and Sareth closed the door.
It was an incredible relief for Ened to rest her feet, to kick off her shoes and rub her toes until they felt alive again. I can't keep going like this, she thought, getting up from the chair to flop onto the bed, back first. I won't have any feet left by the time I get to Valinor.
So what do the people in the stories do? Ened rolled over and pillowed her head on her arms, staring sideways at the wall. Either they don't go anywhere, they walk, or they ride. "So I'll have to get a horse," she said aloud. Ened pushed herself into a sitting position and hauled her satchel up onto the bed. "Where did I put the money?" she asked, more to hear a sound than for actual inquiring purposes. She knew where she'd put it, it was right in here under the dresses -
Wait a minute. There was nothing under the dresses.
Frowning, Ened pulled out the contents of her satchel one by one, putting them neatly aside on the bed next to her. The pile of clean underwear. Her flute, which Jeniniel had insisted she learn to play. Her favorite books. The books Oronin had given her - those she treated with special care, stacking them neatly one by one. The scroll tube - Ened shook it and heard the ring rattle around inside. And the dresses, the emerald-green gown and the riding habit and the cotton dress. She shook those out and rummaged around in the riding habit's pockets. But there was nothing else in the satchel.
Getting worried now, Ened turned the satchel inside out and shook it out, hoping against hope that some money would come dropping out of it - but nothing came. There was nothing that could fall out. That was it.
And what was worse, Ened realized with a horrible plunge in the pit of her stomach, was that she had already taken the room here and would need to pay for it. With money she didn't have.
Oh, no. Oh, lovely. Ened groaned and flopped face down onto the bed again. "How could I have been so stupid?" she demanded of herself, pounding her fist into the pillow. "How stupid was that? How do I forget to bring money?!"
There was knocking on the door. Ened bolted upright in surprise and shoved her things unceremoniously off the bed. They fell in a tangled, jumbled heap on the far side, the ring clattering metallically inside the scroll tube. "Miss?" called what sounded like Sareth's voice.
"Uh - uh - uh, yes?" Ened called back, flustered to the point of speech impediments.
"Everything all right in there?" asked Sareth.
"Yes!" Ened said loudly. "Yes! Yes, everything's - fine. Just fine. Just peachy, in fact. Couldn't be better."
"All right," Sareth said, sounding very disbelieving. But at least she went away - Ened heard her footsteps receding down the stairs.
Good. Now I can get back to panicking. Ened plunged her hands into her own pockets, but they were empty too. "Great. What do I do now?" she muttered.
Well, people in the stories -
"I don't want to hear about people in the stories!" she told herself firmly, putting both hands over her ears. "If I hadn't thought about people in the stories, I wouldn't even be here!"
People in the stories sometimes steal the things they need.
"Only the bad people! The good people work for them."
Do you want to go up to the innkeeper and say, sorry, you don't have the money, can you wash dishes instead of paying?
"Good point. How do I steal money and a horse?"
I have absolutely no idea. To add insult to injury, her inner voice even sounded smug.
"Well, you can just be quiet then!" Ened snapped at herself.
She got up and stalked over to the small window in her room. Nothing smart got accomplished on an empty stomach, she thought. I'll just go down and eat, and then maybe I'll be able to think straight.
The common room was still noisy. Ened had left her cloak upstairs, but people were still looking oddly at her. She ignored them, holding her head high, and sat down at a small table off in a corner, to avoid drawing any notice. That plan, of course, had the unwelcome effect of not being noticed by the maids, one of whom finally came over and asked Ened dully what she'd like. "A leg of chicken," she answered, "some fruit, any kind, and a bowl of pea soup. And a tankard of ale," she added on inspiration, feeling reckless. She had only ever had ale once before, when her father had left his own tankard untended at a feast for the nobility of Minas Tirith. Ened had managed to get one delicious sip before her maid, Asca, saw, and tattled to Jeniniel.
The serving maid looked nonplussed at the order, but nodded and moved away toward the bar, returning soon with Ened's ale. Ened accepted the tankard gratefully and took a long drink, relishing the fizzy sensation all the way down her throat. She had drained half the tankard when the rest of her dinner arrived. The chicken was a little cold, but well browned, and the soup was steaming. She couldn't say much for the fruit, but at least it tasted all right, if not good.
The tankard was almost empty when the inn door banged open. Ened jumped and glared at the people entering, for once making common cause with the other occupants of the inn, and then instantly looked down and brought the tankard back up to her face to hide it. The new arrivals all wore the uniform of the Guard of Minas Tirith.
Oh, no, Ened thought miserably, peeking out over the rim of her tankard. I'm really done for now.
The leader of the guards was asking the bartender some questions. Ened couldn't help hearing them, as he was blaring them in a rather obnoxiously loud voice. And the first one she heard was, "Can this inn stable our horses until tomorrow?"
And then Ened's mind starting working furiously, and she grinned a breathless, ridiculous grin into the tankard of ale.
"Of course," said the bartender, in answer to the guard's question. Ened braced herself for the inevitable bellow. "Ardonil!" he roared. Ened snorted to see the guards all flinch, and then choked on the ale she'd mistakenly snorted up her nose.
Ardonil, a boy about Ened's age with a mop of wildly curling brown hair, came out from behind the bar rubbing his head. "What?" he asked irritably.
"Take these gentlemen's horses to the back and stable them for the night," the bartender instructed. "And mind you do it right this time!" he added, his voice at top volume again to make sure Ardonil could hear him as the boy dashed out of the inn. Ened winced this time - her nose was smarting from the last snort.
The guards, relieved that they'd found a place to stop, drifted away from the bar and sat down at the largest table in the common room. Unfortunately, it was far away from Ened's. But even from the distance, she could tell that they had come prepared - the clink of their money pouches sounded like it would be audible all the way back in Minas Tirith. Well, at least they've got money, Ened thought. Now I just have to figure out how to get it from them.
It wasn't easy. Ened ordered mug after mug of ale, gulping down the drink and watching the guards avidly. They seemed relaxed, as though they'd been looking for her all day and by the Elves, they were going to take a well-earned rest! They slumped wearily in their chairs or tackled their food and drink as if they were starving to death. The leader had even tossed his pouch carelessly onto the table. Well, thought Ened, looking over the rim of her tankard at the bulging pouch, at least that'll be the easiest one to grab.
And finally, so organically that Ened could hardly believe it, her moment came. The leader got up, stretched, yawned, and went over to the bartender. "Got a few rooms?" he asked wearily.
"I got some," the bartender said, making a few speedy calculations. "Sareth!" he bellowed, and the maid came over, smothering a yawn of her own. "Rooms for the gentlemen," he said, turning back to pulling pints.
Sareth did some counting of her own, considerably slower than the bartender's, and yawned, "Come on, then." They followed her up the stairs. Ened could hear the clunk of their boots on the ceiling as they split off into different rooms.
And the leader had left his pouch on the table.
There was no time to lose. Any minute now he'd realize he'd left it. Ened drained her tankard, got to her feet, and walked fast over to the table, taking the long route back to her room. She glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and then scooped up the pouch as quickly as she could, stuffing it up her sleeve. It made her look like she had a goiter on her elbow joint, but she just kept the arm stiff at her side, went back to her table, tossed a few coins on it, and headed upstairs to her room.
Once she was inside, she collapsed on the bed with relief that she hadn't been caught.
That was good! she congratulated herself. And now...I have to get out of here. As in now.
It took longer than she'd expected to cram her things helter-skelter back into her satchel, but she did it in five minutes, wincing for the fate of the emerald-green gown. The scroll tube and books she packed with more care, wrapping the books in the soft riding habit and tucking them in on the bottom, and dropping the scroll tube in on one side. The flute she tossed in carelessly. I hope the Elves-cursed thing breaks, she thought mutinously, closing the satchel tightly. She threw on Oronin's cloak, tossed the satchel over her shoulder, and dropped a handful of money onto the bed to pay for her room. Ened had no idea if it was enough or not, but she guessed it was, especially with the coins she'd left on the table in the common room.
As before, the people in the common room avoided looking at her for the most part, so it was easy for her to get out of the inn. To find the horses, she headed "to the back," like the bartender had told Ardonil. Unfortunately, Ardonil himself was there, standing guard over the stables in what he probably thought was an intimidating pose. It made Ened want to laugh. Just in time, she remembered the value of secrecy and held her tongue.
Of course, she'd forgotten that secrecy was squandered, because for her to have seen him, Ardonil had already seen her. "Who's that?" he demanded.
Oh. Drat. "I've come for my horse," Ened said, trying to stand up taller and deepen her voice.
Now it was Ardonil who wanted to laugh. "Miss, you'd better run on home."
"Run on home?" Ened exploded. "Run on...! Why don't you show me how it's done, little boy?" What is this? I'm sixteen - I don't have to run anywhere!
Well, maybe out of Osgiliath...
Ardonil looked very peeved at the insult, and too late Ened remembered that the few boys around her age that she'd met were very sensitive about what they perceived as their newfound manhood. "Miss, I'm staying here with the horses, and you're not getting any of them," he said flatly.
Ened wished passionately that she knew some practical skills, like horse-stealing. It would have made all this so much easier. She shifted her weight nervously, and the satchel bumped against her back, the scroll tube digging into her side. She hissed in pain and moved the satchel - and then a last resort came to her. Desperately hoping she hadn't already blown her chance with the "little boy" insult, Ened threw open her satchel and pulled the lid off the scroll tube, rummaging around inside. "Fine," she said, injecting false bravado into her voice and hoping it was convincing. "But just so you know" - there! She had it! - "the chief librarian of Minas Tirith will never endorse the Ranger's Rest anymore." Ened held out her hand. The silver ring on her palm glittered in the darkness of the stable yard.
Ardonil glowered at her. "That's not real," he said. "It doesn't have a signet."
"You think a librarian wants some big ring that'll tear pages up?" Ened retorted. It was amazing how easily the lies and the indignant tone were coming to her. "Maybe this will finally convince you." Hoping Oronin would forgive her (if he found out), Ened extracted the scrolls from the tube and held them out. They looked particularly impressive in the dark, which emphasized all the cracks and wrinkles of the parchments. "The chief librarian wants these by morning," Ened said importantly. "Now will you give me my horse or not?"
Ardonil still looked unconvinced, but Ened could read the look on his face quite easily. He was choosing what seemed to him like the safer option. "All right, come on in then," he grumbled, opening the door to the stables.
Ened rolled up the scrolls and replaced them, dropping the ring in as well and clapping on the lid before she followed Ardonil into the stables. She could tell the horses from Minas Tirith right away - they were the most high-strung, the biggest, the glossiest. She pointed to what looked like the mildest of them. "That one," she said.
Ardonil crossed his arms over his chest. "That one?" he repeated incredulously. "How stupid do you think I am? I stabled that one myself for the royal guard not half an hour ago!"
There were no words for Ened's frustration at that point. "That one's mine," she said, turning on all the royalty she had in her, "and if you don't give it to me, I'm going to complain to the innkeeper."
That made Ardonil blanch with fear. "All right, all right," he muttered, going into the horse's stall.
He took his own sweet time about saddling the animal, but at last it was ready. "All yours, miss," he said churlishly, leading the horse out into the yard. Ened followed him, strapping her satchel onto the saddle herself - she knew how to do that - and mounting quickly. "Thank you," she said, tossing him a coin and picking up the reins -
And the door of the inn burst open as the leader of the guards came racing across the yard toward her.
Ened kicked the horse. The animal let out a shriek of a whinny and took off, leaping the gate without a second thought. Ened screamed in terror as her stomach took a plunge off a cliff, and she hauled back on the reins. Ignoring her completely, the horse increased its speed, racing around the Ranger's Rest and through the streets of the city, practically mowing down unsuspecting citizens. Sorry, sorry, sorry, Ened thought, when her mind wasn't so full of unspoken shrieks that she had time to think. Mostly, though, she just clung to the flimsy reins, too afraid to let go of them to grab the horse's flying mane and pull back on that instead.
The horse's whinny was the only warning Ened got that they were leaving the city. She had time to look up and scream, and the horse was soaring over the low gate. End closed her eyes, and then opened them again instantly - it was far scarier to be careening along blind than to just be careening along. And finally, she had time to notice that the horse was at least running away from Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, not toward it.
That was the last good thought that entered her mind for a long time...