The Last Ring - Middle-earth, Tenth Age - Chapter Twenty-one - In Which Larin Starts to Recover and Ened Does a Good Deal of Sneaking


More lessons in politics, Ened thought, staring fixedly at the napkin in her lap. No matter how angry a king is with a princess, if she's in residence, they have to eat dinner together and pretend to be civil.

Given her choice, Ened would much rather have been plaguing the life out of Edoras' doctors for constant updates on Larin's health - or even, in fact, riding across Rohan to Valinor. As things currently stood, she had been given no choice, and was compelled to join Freawine at dinner. I bet he'd rather not have had to endure my presence, either, she thought, glancing malevolently at the king, who sat next to her. But he had to offer, and I had to accept. Politics are sort of stupid, when you get down to it. It seemed darkly humorous to Ened that, now that she had been barred from the succession, she was getting a fine course in politics.

She forked up a piece of beef and chewed it steadily. Freawine, too, was eating in stubborn silence. Ened glanced quickly up and down the long table, where the king's family was arrayed - they all looked swiftly away from her as her gaze fell on them. The king's two sons, Frealaf and Aldwine, even seemed to smirk at her as they returned their eyes to their food. Ha! Spy on me, will you? she thought, flaring up in indignation. Sneer at me, hmm? I'm a princess of Gondor, and I'll show you what's what! Turning resolutely to Freawine, she said loudly, "Your highness, is my companion quite recovered?"

Ened clenched her jaw as she heard the two princes snort into their plates. To her embarrassment, she felt herself blush as well. True, it was highly unorthodox for a princess to be traveling alone with only a young man for her companion, but the mere thought - the mere idea - ridiculous! She narrowed her gaze on Freawine and willed the blush to go away.

The king looked no end of surprised that she had initiated conversation. He didn't look too pleased either, but Ened ignored that. "I - the last my doctor informed me, he was doing better," Freawine answered.

"No fever?" Ened pressed. "No swelling? No inflammation?"

"Princess, this is hardly a fit topic for conversation over dinner," said Frealaf, on her other side.

Ened whirled in her seat and fixed her glare on him. The prince was twenty-one and had been a Marshal of the Mark for two years, and he fidgeted under it. "On the contrary," Ened said. "I think it's an excellent topic of conversation, since if I don't get my answers from your father, I'm going to batter down the door and demand them from the doctor or from Larin. What do you think?"

Aldwine, who was eighteen, handsome, and cocky, took advantage of his brother's discomfort to raise his wine goblet to Ened in a salute.

Ened was in no mood to either appreciate or answer the proposed flirtation. "Well?" she demanded, turning back to Freawine. "Is he really going to be better?"

The king had by now regained his composure, and was able to answer her with a chilly "I believe so."

"Good," said Ened decisively, chomping down on another slice of beef.

"You seem unusually concerned about your companion's welfare," said Aldwine, turning a smile on her that set half the maidens in Edoras to swooning. "May one ask why?"

"One would think," Ened said shortly, "the answer would be obvious. He's my friend, he's my guide, he's my traveling companion, and he's saved my life a few times. Is that good enough for you?"

Aldwine had the sense to shut up at that point.

***

Nothing to be lost, she told herself, and a lot to be gained. You can do it.

Gritting her teeth and hoping that the soft bed slippers she had been given would muffle her footsteps, Ened stepped out of her room.

The floorboards creaked under her feet, and she froze instantly, waiting for someone to burst out of one of the rooms on the hall. But no one did. She stared, disbelieving, for a very long minute, and then dared another step. The floor creaked at that too, but still no one emerged.

Could it be, she thought, that no one was in any of the rooms on the hall?

It certainly seemed that way. And it was an excellent method of intimidation - for fear of being caught, she had almost not left her room! Taking heart, Ened started to creep down the hall.

When she reached the king's hall and no one had yet accosted her, she decided she was pretty safe.

She stayed in the shadows as she tiptoed across the hall, in case there were guards here. But either she was sufficiently quiet, or there were no guards, for she made it across the hall without being caught. Hardly believing her luck, Ened took the door out that the servant sent to fetch a doctor had taken before. Luck was still, unbelievably, with her - she found herself in a corridor with absolutely no doors except one at the very end of the hall.

Ened forced herself to creep. Her own hall might be without habitation, but that was no guarantee that this one wasn't. But these floors didn't creak, so she made better time to the far end. Her heart pounding with anticipation, she pushed the door open.

It creaked loudly.

She froze in terror, but the only person in the room was lying on a small, narrow bed close by the door, and he flinched awake at the sound. As her eyes adjusted to the complete dark in the room, she saw him jerk upright, wearily rubbing at his eyes, and saw his right hand grope insistently for his harp, which lay beside him. "Who's there?" he hissed, his voice so weary that it made Ened swallow a lump in her throat.

"Me," she whispered, stepping into the room without closing the door behind her. "It's me."

He squinted, and then made a sound somewhere between a choke and a laugh. "I might have known," Larin murmured. "Only you would sneak in here in the middle of the night and wake me up so rudely, Ened."

She scowled. "I'll have you know that I went through quite a few trials and tribulations to get here!"

"I'm just teasing you," Larin groaned. "Learn to take a joke."

Ened groaned herself and pulled up a chair by his bed. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just not in the mood for jokes. I had dinner with the family, and they would hardly tell me anything."

"About their plans for sending you back?"

"About you, you dimwit!" she muttered. "I wouldn't waste time asking things I already know."

"Then you're ahead of me by a long shot," Larin grumbled. "What are their plans, then?"

"They'll trade me back to Gondor for something they want," she said. "Probably land grants or something. I think the stupid prince is trying to flirt with me."

It was too dark for Ened to see Larin go very tense. "And?" he asked, his voice determinedly light.

"What do you mean, 'And?'" she demanded. "He's an idiot. As far as I can tell, his main concerns in life are to break hearts and show his brother up. There is no 'and' if I have anything to say about it, and I do!"

"All right, all right," Larin whispered in relief. "Sorry I opened my mouth."

She snorted. "Don't be silly. How are you feeling?"

Larin raised an eyebrow in carefully calculated amusement. "How am I feeling? Well, let's see. First off, I was riding a horse at full gallop and trying to steer it, which is hardly beneficial to the legs and abdomen. Then I got shot. I did receive speedy medical attention, but it was, as it were, 'on the go' doctoring. And then I had to ride back on a jouncing horse, get knocked out with the latest improvements in tranquilizers, which aren't much improvement over hitting a patient over the head with a boulder, and be woken up out of a deep and healing sleep. So I'm not feeling that great, if you'll forgive the bluntness."

"Do you know how many times I'd like to hit you right now?" Ened growled warningly.

"Ah, but you won't," said Larin, "because then you'd set my recovery back even more!" At Ened's glare, he sobered quickly. "Actually that was pretty low of me, since you've been the only person here who was actually concerned about me. I apologize."

"Apology long overdue, but accepted," Ened replied with a resigned smile. "I'm not sure how we're going to be able to get out of here."

He grinned. "I should have known you'd already be working on plans. What've you got so far?"

Ened rested her elbows on her knees and propped up her chin in her hands. "Not much. I refuse to move you until you're completely recovered, in the first place. How long do you think that'll take?"

"Not sure at all," Larin admitted ruefully. "If it were up to me, I'd say half a week" - he ignored Ened's inarticulate sound of indignant protest - "but the doctor will want me immobile for at least the full week."

"That's actually a good thing," Ened reflected, "since it'll give me time to think."

"Do you want me to stall him, then?" Larin asked. "I can pretend to be sick if you need the time."

Ened shook her head. "No. If it's too long, they'll get my family here to drag me home before we can make our escape. It's a good idea, and I'll let you know if I need more time, but for now just get better."

"At once, my lady," Larin grinned. "What else?"

"Not much," she sighed. "The worst part is that I think it's got to be on horses." Larin snorted with laughter, and completely missed the withering look she shot him. "Oh, right, go ahead and laugh!" she grumbled. "It's not my fault that I can't ride!"

"Well, maybe if you'd practice -" The remainder of Larin's words were lost in a general torrent of hilarity, as he tried vainly to smother his laughs with a pillow.

"The rest of the palace probably can't hear you, Larin," Ened snapped, "but I certainly can, and I don't appreciate the so-called humor one bit!"

"And that," he gasped, emerging from the pillow, "is because you still can't take a joke."

"I'm a princess," she shot back. "No one makes jokes about me. At least not to my face."

Larin instantly assumed the most innocent face Ened had ever seen on anyone. "Oh, then forgive me," he said, mirth struggling through his words, "I hope I haven't transgressed by making jokes to your face!" He lost the battle with laughter again and grabbed both the pillow and the blanket.

"Well, you have," Ened answered, struggling with a bit of laughter herself, "and I'll never forgive you."

"Oh, no," said Larin, his voice so thick with sarcasm that it could hardly be cut with a saw, "this is dreadful. How will I ever survive?"

Now Ened lost her own battle. She fought gallantly for one last moment, and then she pounced on Larin's deserted pillow and shoved it over her face, hooting into it. "Too noisy!" Larin chided, and before she knew what he was doing, he'd grabbed her by the shoulders and plopped her head down on the cot. Ened clung to it until her laughter died away.

And as the last muffled peals faded, they both heard footsteps coming quickly toward the room.

"Elves take it!" Ened hissed, dropping both pillow and mirth. "Larin, I need to hide!"

"Door!" he whispered, motioning her toward it. "Stand to one side of the door, and hop out of the room when it opens!"

There was nowhere else to go, and the footsteps were coming closer. Ened darted to one of the walls, where the door was hinged, and waited, hoping the door wouldn't bang towards her and crush her.

It didn't, mercifully. The door simply swung creakily toward her without the doctor even noticing it was already a little ajar, and she leaped out of the room as soon as he and his assistants had entered. Crouching in the relative darkness of the hall, she saw the door snick shut, and she sagged against the hallway with immense relief. Her luck even held out until she regained her own room and collapsed, weary with nerves and sleep-deprivation, across her bed.

***

How did I let myself get into this? Ened berated herself. I hate politics! Hate it hate it hate it! Why couldn't there have been a polite way to say, no thank you, I hate horses and I wish I never had to see one again?

Unfortunately, there hadn't been such a way, and so Ened was sitting in a most ungainly manner on yet another fine Rohirric horse, with Prince Aldwine mounted beside her and looking far more confident than he had a right to. Not being stupid, Ened had not failed to realize the reasons behind the prince's solicitous care of her. Were she still in the line of succession, Ened would probably have married one of the princes of Rohan - come to think of it, probably this one, since Frealaf would be king. Since Freawine had no daughters, she might still have to marry Aldwine, if Beldor didn't want to lose the alliance. There was hardly any need for it, as Ened saw things - Gondor and Rohan had been traditional allies since prehistory - but Beldor's prevailing philosophy when it came to ruling was that you couldn't be too careful.

However, not being stupid, Ened was also resolved after five minutes in Aldwine's company that she would rather jump off the tower of Ecthelion than marry him. In the first place, he was handsome and he knew it, which in Ened's (albeit limited) experience was never a good thing. The Institute had had far too many cautionary tales about such men for her to seriously consider marrying one of them. Also, he was very used to getting his own way, as his behavior with his horse gave ample proof of, and which had Ened wanting to bash his head against the stable wall. Ened knew that very few marriages ended in perfect, or even relative, happiness these days, but she was hoping to at least be able to stand the presence of her future spouse. And lastly, which got under Ened's skin more than anything else, Aldwine laughed at her. Constantly. Anything set him off. He had laughed at her at dinner the night before, and he laughed now at her inept seat on the horse, at her questions from between gritted teeth, at her scowl, at her curses, even at her first marginal success in getting the horse to obey her. "Well," he said, expertly and obviously maneuvering his own horse beside her, "you'll never be a horse jockey, that's for sure!" A smirk on his handsome face, he stretched down a hand to help her to her feet - the horse, after turning left as she'd told it, had decided enough was enough and had promptly pitched her onto her back.

Ened glared furiously, her entire face red and her riding costume dirty. "Shut up," she snapped, ignoring Aldwine's hand and pushing herself back up, trying not to wince at the roaring aches from every single part of her anatomy.

He grinned. "Such rudeness, Princess!" he scolded. "Hardly becoming."

Shading her eyes from the noon sun, Ened glared up at him. "Well, neither is that smirk, so take it off or I'll slap it off for you," she retorted angrily. "And no, I won't go for a ride with you, because I refuse to fall off my horse and have you leap to my rescue while I faint."

Aldwine's grin grew rueful, and despite herself, Ened found that she was thinking that he really was very good-looking. "Very well, I won't even ask," he said, swinging down lightly from his horse, thus giving Ened yet another reason to hate him. "May I help you back to Meduseld, at least?"

"No!" Ened growled. "You can take that infernal horse back, though." Turning her back on him, she began to limp with all the dignity she could muster back up the hill to the palace.

"Did you learn anything about riding, at least?" called Aldwine, all politeness.

She could hear the laugh in his voice, and she wanted to hit something. "Yes," she replied over her shoulder, still walking. "I learned that if you try to flirt with me once more, I'm not going to be able to stop myself from breaking your arm."

The debonair prince had no answer to that - at least, none that Ened could hear.

***

"Sounds rather hopeless to me," said Larin, grinning. "He doesn't seem capable of not flirting with you, and you definitely won't be capable of not breaking his arm - at the least. No, I think he can't escape some kind of injury."

Ened scowled. "I didn't sneak here again so you could laugh at me!" she said testily. But for all her words, she couldn't quite stop herself from smiling in answer to Larin's grin. "He's a lousy teacher, too," she muttered. "I still don't know the first thing about riding."

"Stands to reason, doesn't it?" asked Larin, his face perfectly straight. "He wants to have an excuse to keep you with him for as long as he can."

"How charming of him," said Ened, the sarcasm so thick in her voice that she could have used it to smack the offending prince. "I'll thank you to remember that I'm hardly a beauty. I'm not even grown up yet. There is absolutely no reason he should be behaving so stupidly."

Larin wisely kept his own opinion of Ened's physical charms to himself. He had the feeling that she would have broken his arm if he had told her his thoughts on the matter. "Aside from romanticism?" he suggested. "Maybe he wants you to be in love with him, since he's probably going to marry you."

"Ha!" said Ened, very decisively. "The day I marry him will be the day that...that...that Valdor stops sighing for the golden days of yore!"

That drew a quiet laugh from Larin, but it put instant and painful guilt pangs into Ened. "Larin," she said, "is there any way we could get Valdor out of Wunbrand?"

"I doubt it," he said. His entire tone had changed in an instant - he was short and terse now, and he had stopped smiling. "Besides, aren't you forgetting that he hit you? Rather hard?"

She flushed. "He just - I - well -"

"Yes," Larin supplied. "You did forget."

"All right," Ened muttered, "I did. But I feel horrible thinking about him being trapped there with Halla! I mean, to some degree it's my fault! If I hadn't started on this quest to begin with, he'd just have stayed where he was and moaned for the good old days."

"If," said Larin shortly, "is a game for fools. 'If' doesn't matter, because it's not going to happen. What matters is what did happen, and what is happening, right now."

"Well, that's a pretty nasty view of things!" Ened snapped.

"But it's true," said Larin, without malice.

"And it doesn't change the fact that I still feel terrible about it," Ened answered. "And I want to go back and get him. Or at least send word to him, somehow."

Larin seemed to have exhausted his nasty streak for the evening. Leaning back against the thin pillow of his bed, he said, "Well, if you want to send word, nothing could be easier. Write a letter to Haleth, thanking him for his hospitality. Valdor's pretty dense, but if you word it poetically enough, I bet he could pick up a hidden message. And even King Freawine can't object to a letter to his own spy, now can he?"

Ened grinned. "You're a genius sometimes, you know that?"

"But of course," Larin grinned, shrugging elegantly.

***

To Haleth of Wunbrand, by the hand of Ened Telcontar, Princess of Gondor:

I thank you, sir, for your gracious hospitality during the first days of my sojourn in Rohan. Your kindness was most unlooked-for, and I cannot think of the time spent in your house without happiness. Please convey my thanks to your excellent wife as well.

Sir, it has been much on my mind that such kindness as yours must be returned. Would you allow me, therefore, to introduce you to my father, the heir to the throne of Gondor, when he arrives in Edoras to escort me back to Minas Tirith? It would be my pleasure to present to him such worthy examples of generosity and goodness as yourself, your wife, and your daughters. If you would allow me this honor, my gratitude towards you would be multiplied tenfold.

In closing, sir, I hope to see you and your family in Edoras shortly, where I daresay I will be able to dazzle you with my improvements in horsemanship.

Ened Telcontar, Princess of Gondor.

Valdor needed no help to decipher the meaning of Ened's note. It was clear as anything. Ened was setting up a plan, and his heart leaped to think that it might even be on his behalf.

Of course, his clarity of perception meant that Haleth saw through it even more clearly. After the time spent in Haleth's house, Valdor had come to a grudging respect for the man's extraordinary mind. Haleth was capable of seeing through every single action, even Valdor's - once he had accosted the Elf barely a moment before Valdor had been about to steal a horse and ride away. Once he was on the horse, he knew no Man could catch him - but Haleth had prevented him, had maneuvered him back into the house and placed him in Halla's frightful care, and Valdor had been forced to admit that in spite of his anger over his lost escape, Haleth was good.

But not even Haleth could find a way to escape Ened's trap. Not this one. Not once the princess of Gondor had all but commanded the entire family to attend her in Edoras. Valdor could have danced for joy at the nearness of his escape. Haleth was caught, well and truly, and nothing could politely prevent him from answering Ened's summons.

Valdor wasn't so sure about the horsemanship reference - that seemed a bit much for Ened to aim for - but he did know that it meant escape on horseback.

He glanced up at Haleth, who was scowling at the letter with intense concentration. There is no way, Valdor thought jubilantly. She's forced your hand. You must obey her now!

And then Haleth proceeded to crush Valdor's hopes with one sentence.

"What a pity that my illness will prevent us from going."

Valdor felt as though someone had pulled the world out from under him and sent him reeling into an abyss. Haleth had been taken with a cough a few days ago, but it was getting steadily better. And he could hardly imagine that a mere cough would prevent anyone from answering a royal summons - unless the someone was as sneaky as Haleth.

But Valdor had reckoned without Marwyn.

"Please, Da?" she piped up from Haleth's other side. "You'll be better in a week. And it'll take longer than that for letters to get to Minas Tirith and back, and for her father to come get her." She grinned mischievously. "And it would give me good spying practice."

Haleth shook his head, but Valdor could see his eyes soften just a little. "I think not, Marwyn."

The girl groaned in frustration. "I've learned everything you can learn in Wunbrand. I think I'm ready for the court! Don't you trust me?"

"Please, Papa?" begged Halla, her eyes wide with awe. "I'd love to see the court!"

"I could do with a break myself," Fola murmured, looking carefully at her lap.

"I do need the practice," Marwyn went on. "I'd love to match my wits with a few courtiers. And we would get to meet the future king of Gondor, and it's going to be really important to know him."

Surrounded, Haleth sighed heavily - but Valdor caught the irritation in his eyes. "We will see," he said. "If my cough is better - I would not want to risk infecting the nobles of Rohan. We will see."

Halla whined a little and complained as she reached for more bread. Fola said nothing and kept her face neutral. But Marwyn sat back with a satisfied look on her face.

And she winked once at Valdor before she returned to her food.

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