The Last Ring - Middle-earth, Tenth Age - Chapter Ten - In Which Our Heroes Get Pursued
Despite being as grumpy as Ened herself, Larin was a useful companion. Ened grudgingly told herself that it was a good thing to have someone along who knew how to make a campfire. It came in handy on the first night they slept out in the open. Ened woke with a start when she heard a howl not too far off, but Larin only rolled over and muttered, "Go back to sleep, the fire will keep the wolves away." Ened wasn't that confident, but in the morning she was not wolf dinner, so she assumed the fire had succeeded.
And eventually, Larin relaxed his attitude on questions. That happened on the third day of traveling, when Ened couldn't take the silence anymore (it forced her to think about the pain in her rear instead) and said, "Larin, do you think we could maybe - I don't know - talk?"
He turned around in the saddle to look at her and shrugged - but Ened was almost certain that relief had flashed across his face for an instant. "All right," he agreed. "What do you want to talk about?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Oh, wait, I do know. How did you guess I was the princess?"
Ened practically dropped out of the saddle as she encountered something she'd never seen before. Larin was grinning. "Well," he said, "there aren't all that many noble girls in Gondor named Ened, you have to agree."
"But how did you know - oh. Was it that obvious?"
"Mm-hmm," Larin said, nodding. "The dress is too nice, you're too clean to not be a noble, and the imperious attitude is somewhat hard to miss."
"You're just having a barrel of laughs at my expense, aren't you?"
"Pretty much, yes," Larin agreed. "You were the one who wanted to talk."
Ened sighed. "Point taken. Now you get to ask me questions."
"Oh, good. Why do you need to go to Valinor?"
Ened paused for a moment. "All right. Let's revise my earlier statement. You can ask me any question but that."
"Well, since I'm involved in this too, I think I have the right to know what we're doing," Larin said reasonably.
Why does that have to make so much sense? Why? "You're not going to believe me if I tell you," she protested. "You're going to think I'm crazy."
"I already think you're crazy," Larin retorted. "Anyone who'd threaten to drop a harp made exactly like the ones from the Fourth Age is crazy by definition. I'm asking to assure myself that there is some sanity left within you."
Ened bristled. "Just because I don't know the style of harps from ancient history doesn't mean I'm insane!"
"Are you going to answer the question or not? Fair's fair." With his horse still moving, Larin let go of the reins and crossed his arms over his chest. Ened glared enviously.
"Fine," she agreed. "You've probably heard of the War of the Ring."
He rolled his eyes. "Considering that it would be excellent bard fodder if anyone else knew about it besides bards, of course I know about it."
"Well, did you know that there was more than one ring?"
Larin had to uncross his arms fast and grab for the reins to keep himself from falling over. "What?"
"There were prototypes made," Ened said doggedly, "so that whoever the villain was knew what he was doing when he made the important ring. And all the prototypes were accounted for, except one. And that's the one I've got, and we have to get it to Valinor so it can be dismantled, or something like that."
It took Larin a while to speak again. When he did, all he said was "Can I see it?"
Ened's eyes widened at the idea of taking that thing out again - but she did need Larin's trust that this was real. "For a few seconds," she agreed, tugging Horse to a halt and reaching back for her satchel. Larin pulled his horse next to hers as she opened the satchel and flicked the cover off the scroll tube. The ring dropped into her open hand, shining and silver in the daylight. Ened held it out flat on her palm. "There," she said. Without knowing it, she had whispered.
Larin's eyes were huge. His finger inched toward the ring and brushed lightly against it - and then he pulled his hand back with a gasp of pain. Ened quickly shoved the ring back into the scroll tube, closed the lid, and tied up the satchel again. "It - it -" stammered Larin, staring from his finger to Ened and back to his finger. "Oh, Elves," he gasped at last. "That thing is real."
Ened nodded. "That's the problem," she said. "Am I crazy now?"
He shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I think we're both frighteningly sane."
It was at just that time that Ened heard the horns of the royal guard of Minas Tirith coming up behind them.
Larin glanced over his shoulder, his face even paler than when he had touched the ring. "Is that -?" he asked.
"Yes!" said Ened, kicking Horse in the ribs. For once the animal responded in the way she'd meant it to - it took off down the road. Ened choked off a screech and clung desperately to the saddle, pinning it between her knees. Don't hold the reins! she reminded herself frantically. If you pull back on the reins, the horse will stop! But she felt grotesquely insecure on top of a galloping horse with nothing to hold on to with her hands.
Larin was racing alongside her. Ened threw a quick glance at him - he was crouched over his horse's neck so that he didn't have to break his own wind and make it harder on the horse. Gritting her teeth at getting any closer to her obnoxious mount, Ened leaned down until Horse's rough mane was slapping and stinging her face. The relief was obvious at once - since she was now riding in Horse's wake, the wind wasn't tearing madly past her face. Ened tangled her fingers in Horse's mane and hung grimly on, trying to squint through the free-flying mane and see the road ahead. It was quite useless.
The horns sounded again. "LARIN!" Ened bellowed at the top of her voice. He craned his head around to look at her. "I THINK THEY'RE GETTING CLOSER!"
He clenched his teeth and yelled something into his horse's ear. The horse sped up, and Ened kicked Horse, which produced the same effect. Out of nowhere, her belly rumbled, and Ened thought violent guard-learned curses at the inconvenience of an empty stomach during a mad rush for freedom.
There were the horns again, getting closer. "Princess Ened!" roared a voice, perfectly steady despite its owner being on a galloping horse. "Princess Ened, halt!"
I can't very well halt this animal! Ened thought in frightened irritation. She glanced over at Larin. I bet he could stop his horse, but I can't stop mine!
Larin looked over, and it was as if he'd read her mind. He threw a quick glance behind him and shouted to Ened, "Jump!"
"WHAT?" she yelled back.
"I said, jump!" Larin shouted. "Jump onto my horse!"
"Are you crazy -"
"Very! Now jump!"
Ened stared with wide eyes and pounding heart at the horses' churning hooves, and the distance between Larin's horse and hers, and the very narrow space between Larin and his horse's rear end. This is insane, she thought, gripping Horse's mane so tightly that her fingers cramped. I'll fall, I'll die. She had no illusions about what would happen to her if she landed under either set of hooves. In a few moments, she would be a nicely trampled princess.
Then again, in a few moments if she didn't jump, she would be a nicely caught princess.
And something in her was rising to the challenge, something bred within her that had never, ever come even close to the surface of her before...something eager for any adventure, even if it was jumping two feet from one horse to another.
"ENED!" roared Larin. She looked back at him, surprised. "DON'T FORGET THE RING!"
She went pale - she had forgotten. She unclenched one hand from Horse's mane and fumbled with the straps holding her satchel to the saddle. In a few minutes she had it untied.
"Good!" Larin shouted. "Now jump! Quick, they're catching up!"
Ened didn't stop to think this time. If she'd stopped to think, she could never have done it, not even with the newly-woken adventurer inside her. She just threw her satchel over one shoulder, pried her legs loose from the stirrups, and flung herself with a yell across the distance, catapulting toward Larin's horse.
And she knew as she left Horse's back that she was going to miss.
Her yell cut off in the middle as Larin reached down and grabbed her wrist. Ened gasped for breath and yelped in pain at the same time as the gravel road scraped mercilessly against her legs. She had indeed missed, but now she was being dragged at the speed of a gallop along the pebble-strewn road with her wrist screeching in pain and her satchel banging roughly into her back with every movement she made.
Why can't anything in my life be easy?!?
Ened threw her free arm up and scrabbled wildly along the saddle for any kind of handhold. The back ridge seemed to be solid and graspable enough for her purposes. She clutched it tightly between her cramped fingers and hauled herself and her satchel up onto the horse behind Larin, twisting his arm behind his back in the process. "Sorry!" she yelled through her gasps once she'd gotten herself settled.
Larin said nothing, but the stiffness of his back spoke for him. He kicked his horse forward, but even Ened could tell that it was useless. They were now two people on a tired animal, and the guard was approaching even faster. "We're not going to make it!" she shouted. Larin didn't answer.
And then she saw the stream looming up in front of them, the wide, fast-flowing stream that had no ford in sight and had a forest on the other side - and that Larin was urging their horse directly towards.
Ened yelped and grabbed the satchel with one hand and Larin's shoulder with the other as the horse sailed neatly over it and pounded into the trees.
Only then did Larin pull the horse to a stop. That was apparently his limit - he drooped across the horse's neck like a dead man, and Ened slipped off the horse's rump and fell onto the ground. Every single one of her bones felt liquid. She collapsed on the ground, wrapping shaking arms around her satchel and tucking the scroll tube's protruding end under her chin. Heavy breathing was rasping in her ears. It took her a minute to realize that it was both hers and Larin's.
It took her somewhat longer to regain the faculties of speech. When those caught up with her, she was lying splayed out on her back, one hand still holding the satchel, and her breath was beginning to normalize. "Larin?" she gasped.
"Mmmph?" he groaned from his equally recumbent posture on the ground next to her.
"Can we just - stay here - for now?" she managed to get out.
"Mm-hmmph." Speech seemed to be taking him a little longer than it did her.
Ened closed her eyes and promptly fell asleep.
When she woke up, it was nighttime, and Larin seemed to have woken himself enough to get their fire started. He'd dropped right back off to sleep afterwards, though - he was sprawled out a little ways from the fire and was gently snoring. Ened blinked to accustom herself to the firelight and the dark, and then sat up cautiously.
Mistake. She stung and smarted all over from the insane ride. She could hardly move without straining some muscle that emphatically didn't want to be used at all at the moment.
And she was still hungry.
Ened forced herself to her feet, wincing at the pull in her legs, and stumbled over to Larin's horse. The horse was not very eager, after its race earlier that day, to be tugged around, but Ened managed to get the saddlebag off before the horse revolted and kicked her. At least he remembered that we'd need to eat, Ened thought, feeling stupid as she pulled out a neatly wrapped pair of roasted chickens, a small loaf of bread, and a wine skin. One more thing that she had never even considered. I'm really not doing so well with this adventuring thing, she thought, embarrassed at her own ineptitude.
At least she didn't have to get the fire going. Ened experimented with a stick until she had a chicken spitted on it, and she held the improvised spit over the glowing fire. In about two minutes, her arms were sore. She folded her knees up under herself and braced her elbows on them. "I may be useless with mad dashes to get away from pursuers," she muttered to herself, "but for Elves' sake, I will be a proper cook!"
Eventually she judged the chicken nicely warmed. Ened took away the spit, propping it up on a rock, and tiptoed around the fire to kneel beside her traveling companion. She squinted at him in the firelight. He looked his age when he was asleep, and Ened grinned to herself - now that he wasn't scowling, she could believe that he was only eighteen. Ha, only eighteen, she thought. And what am I? An aged grandmother at sixteen?
This was an interesting dilemma. Besides looking his age, Larin also looked exhausted. Even in the lousy firelight Ened could see the lines carved around his mouth and eyes. But it was general wisdom that food perked people up, and he probably wouldn't be that pleased with her if she glibly ate one of his chickens and didn't even wake him to share it. Sighing, hoping that he wasn't going to snap at her for wasting food, Ened reached over and shook his shoulder.
Master Larin the bard rolled over and emitted a loud, explosive snore.
Ened couldn't help it. She burst out laughing and had to catch herself on one hand to keep from toppling over into the fire. Half-crouching on the ground, she tried to keep her voice down, but it was no use. Larin didn't help matters when he snored again, just as loudly. "Larin," she gasped through peals of laughter. "Larin - wake up - stop snoring!"
He opened his eyes groggily and blinked. "Wha -?" he muttered, shielding his eyes from the firelight.
Ened forced herself to tame her laughs into snorts and giggles. "I heated up one of the chickens," she said, expertly turning a snort into a cough. "Would you like some?"
To her great relief, Larin didn't make a fuss about her having cooked one of the two chickens. Instead his eyes brightened somewhat, and he sat up. Ened grinned in relief and twisted off the drumsticks, handing him one. "Enjoy," she said, a bit apprehensive. "I don't know how good these will be, I've never cooked before."
He shrugged and accepted the drumstick. "You can't have ruined it too badly, they're already cooked." Ened shot him a glare, and stopped mid-expression when she saw that he was smiling. She offered a tentative grin back and bit into the drumstick.
Larin, who'd taken his first bite at the same time, looked up in pleasant surprise. "Nicely done," he approved.
Ened realized with horror that she was blushing. At least the fire threw a red light onto everything, so Larin couldn't tell. "All I did was warm it up," she muttered.
He sighed. "All right. Nice warming up, then. Happy?"
Ened swallowed her bite and grinned at him from across the fire. "Quite," she said.
They finished the chicken in less than half an hour, but what Ened regarded as the real accomplishment was that they had a conversation over dinner that lasted until Larin wrapped himself up in his blanket and Ened threw her cloak over and went to sleep.