On the day that it all started, Avnea was lying in the stables again. She liked the smell of horses, of leather and sweat. She liked the sounds of creaking leather and the stamping and snorting of the horses. She liked lying in the straw and pretending that she wasn’t a princess.
She sighed. It was her second-oldest brother, Argaryan, and also the one shortest of temper and quickest of tongue. He was dressed in fine velvet and silk, which meant that there was to be another visitor that night. He had risked soiling his garments to find her. She must have done something very awful this time.
“Avnea!” He was losing patience.
Giving a sigh through her teeth, Avnea stood. “Yes, Argaryan?”
Her brother whirled and looked at her. “Look at you,” he groaned. “Lying in the straw like some common stable hand. Don’t you have any shame, Avnea? Your father’s the Steward of Gondor, for the sake of the Valar, and you hang around in the stables in these filthy rags.” He twitched a corner of her plain brown tunic.
“They’re not filthy!” Avnea exclaimed.
Argaryan rolled his eyes. “Where did you get this, Avnea?”
“Kylir lent it to me,” Avnea answered. She knew this answer would only infuriate Argaryan more, even though it was the truth. Kylir was the cook’s boy, a tow-headed little slip of mischief that was always underfoot. Argaryan hated him.
Instead of exploding, as she’d somewhat hoped that he’d do, Argaryan’s face closed. “We’ll see what Father has to say about this,” he said tightly. He seized her arm in a crushing grip and propelled her out of the stables at alarming velocity.
Shortly afterwards, Avnea stood in front of her father, the Lord Steward, Ecthelion of Gondor. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders, and a crop of shaggy gray hair that just reached those shoulders. His eyes were gray as well, giving him the appearance of a weathered statue. Right now, he looked half-exasperated, half-resigned. He had had to do the work of two parents since Avnea’s mother had died a few years ago.
“Avnea, child. Argaryan tells me that you were in the stables again.”
“And no less that you were wearing clothes borrowed from Kylir, the cook’s brat. You are a princess, Avnea, and my only daughter out of five children. Surely you can act your rank, rather than a little pig girl?”
“Father, I like the stables.”
Ecthelion blew out a frustrated breath. “What am I going to do with you? You are lacking the skills a lady must know, such as sewing and cooking and the like. You’ve already chased half a dozen governesses out of here in the same number of years.”
“I don’t like governesses. They nag and snit and complain that my stitches aren’t small enough,” Avnea answered.
Ecthelion shook his head. “Avnea, my dear, some things aren’t a matter of choice. You have seen fifteen summers, and soon it will be time for you to marry and bring honor to our house. In fact, that is part of the reason that I sent Argaryan to find you. A lord of Minas Anor is coming to feast at our table tonight, and he is young and strong and handsome. An alliance with the fortress of the Dúnedain would be sensible.”
Avnea’s eyes went flat. “So, you are scheming to marry me off.”
Her father’s face closed like Argaryan’s had. “Dearest, there is such thing as tradition. It is what keeps families anchored to reality in these troubled times. Surely you know that the power of the Black Land is stirred again? And it is tradition for fathers to find their daughters good husbands.”
“Can’t fathers trust their daughters to find their own good husbands? I do not want to end up married to some thickheaded idiot.”
“That is why fathers make the matches, Avnea,” Ecthelion answered, sounding weary. “So that I can ensure that you are married to a man who is deserving of you. Someone who is strong and kind and tender and handsome, someone who will treat you like the princess that you are. You are heir to one of the strongest houses of Men in Middle-earth.”
“Which of course also entails that he be wealthy and high-ranking,” Avnea spat disdainfully.
Ecthelion’s face seemed old and weary. “Go, child. Your servants will help attire you for the feast.”
As Avnea left the chamber of he father, she saw her oldest brother, Denethor, waiting up the hall. His gray eyes were twinkling with mirth, and he came bounding down the hall in a way most unfitting to the heir of Gondor.
“Av, my girl,” he said, slinging his arm around her shoulders. “What’d Father say?”
“He’s scheming to marry me off,” Avnea sighed. “Some lord from Minas Anor is coming tonight.”
“Oh,” Denethor said carefully. “I – I could have told you that, Av. It’s tradition. I’m sure he said that. But, Av, he’s got to make sure that he has his druthers in the husband you get. Be glad it didn’t happen sooner. Last year a girl in Father’s court got married at thirteen.”
“Did she even have a choice?” Avnea said, surprised.
“If you meant when she got married, no. She was betrothed to some lord in Gondor’s nobility by the time she was five. When her betrothed’s father took sick and died, he needed to act fast to claim his post.”
Avnea nodded. “He told me to go get freshened up.”
“Figured,” Denethor said, stopping by her door. “See you later then, Av. And don’t make Father any more exasperated with you than he is. Look nice, if not for his sake, than for mine. Here, take this.” Something glittered in his hand.
Avnea looked at it. It was a delicate ring, made from silver and set with a pearl. “It’s beautiful. Where’d you get it?”
“It used to belong to Mother. She gave it to me before she died, and told me to give it to my lady love. Since I don’t have a lady love, and most likely never will, I’m giving it to you.” Denethor’s smile was confident, almost cocky.
“But, Denethor, you’re the heir,” Avnea protested. “It’s your duty to find a wife and produce an heir of your own, to continue the bloodline of the Stewards.”
Denethor’s expression did not change. “That’s my lookout, isn’t it, Av?” He gently ushered her into her rooms. “Now change, and look so beautiful that the Minas Anorian lord completely loses his wits. Turn him into a drooling idiot. Father can’t possibly marry you to a simpleton.”
Watching him go, Avnea sighed. Denethor, rebellious Denethor. One day, this would all catch up to him.
However, she did as her brother had asked. After taking a bath to wash the stink of the stables off, she put on her best gown, of moonlight silk, and tied a pale blue silk cord about her waist. She disinterestedly combed out her thick mane of auburn hair, and covered it with a soft net of silver with small pearls on each strand. For the last touch, she slipped on her mother’s ring.
By now, the sun was sinking. There was a hustle and bustle in the castle, and Avnea walked among the commotion unnoticed. She slipped down to the dining hall, where her father was waiting beneath the white banner of the Stewards.
“Avnea. You look lovely. Just like your mother, Eilín.”
Avnea sat down, on the left-hand side of her father, where her brothers Achlinn and Hador were seated. Denethor was already sitting on the right-hand side, along with Argaryan. He gave her a conspiratorial wink, which she returned halfheartedly.
Just as the other lords and ladies were sitting down, there was a blast of trumpets, and the doors of the great hall were flung wide. A man who cold only be this lord strode through, accompanied by enough servants to make a traveling circus. The banner of Minas Anor was raised over his head.
“Announcing his grace, the Lord Deran of Minas Anor!” a man called.
Lord Deran was young, as promised, strong, also as promised, and handsome, again as promised. He was tall, well-muscled, and dressed in black and silver. His hair was dark, and hung in shaggy waves over his ice-blue eyes. He walked easily, proudly, with a noble bearing. Avnea heard a collective sigh sweep among the women gathered in the hall. Pathetic.
Lord Deran walked up to the highest table. “Lord Ecthelion, my liege.” He swept a graceful bow. “A thousand pleasures that you deem me worthy enough to honor your table.” His stunning eyes turned to Denethor. “And your son…a pleasure, Denethor Crownlord.” Clearly, Lord Deryn or whatever his name was had learned the titles that the wise woman had gifted each of Ecthelion’s children with at their births.
“These are the rest of my children,” Ecthelion replied. “My second-eldest, Argaryan Darkbane, the third, Hador Elfwind, the fourth, Achlinn Storm-master, and the fifth, and my only daughter, Avnea Star-rider.”
Lord Deran looked at Avnea, who returned his gaze coolly. His ice-blue eyes widened. “This fair maid is your daughter? I thought her to be what you named her as, a star-rider. For surely such beauty has never before been seen by the likes of men.”
With a silent growl of aggravation, Avnea saw her father looked extremely pleased.
All through dinner, Lord Deran sat beside Avnea and talked, in between offering to hold her wine goblet as she drank, or offering to cut up her meat. He spoke of Minas Anor, in moderation, and himself, in excess. This was all punctuated with “my-lady’s, my-sweet’s, my-silver star’s,” and other sweet words.
They had just finished the first course when thunder rumbled outside, and lightning crackled through the polished windows. The sound was loud enough to disrupt the feasting going on in Ecthelion’s chambers.
Avnea ignored it until a particularly loud crack nearly shattered the hall. The accompanying explosion of lightning nearly blinded her. She distinctly thought that she heard a horse scream.
She gathered up the layers of her fluttering moonlight-silk skirts and dashed out of the hall before anyone could stop her. If a horse was screaming, the stables could have been hit. If they had, they could be in flames. Horses were a main part of Ecthelion’s and Gondor’s lifestyles.
“Oy! Avnea!” she heard her brother Achlinn yell. “Hold!”
Avnea didn’t stop. Then she heard Achlinn’s feet pounding after her. He was not called the Storm-master for nothing.
The brother and sister pelted out the door into the driving rain. Avnea was soaked to the skin within seconds, and her beautiful dress splashed with mud. She didn’t care. If the horses – her best friends – had been hurt –
But no. There was someone lying nearby, obviously thrown from their horse. The frantic beast was rearing and snorting, and had trampled the person at least once. Avnea’s heart jumped into her throat.
Behind her, Achlinn was screaming words to calm the storm, words that, with him, had always worked a potent magic. But tonight, his powers failed him. Achlinn ran to Avnea’s side, to find her desperately trying to calm the horse.
“Av, are you insane, look to the man!”
But Avnea paid no attention, hanging desperately onto the reins of the frantic silver mare. “Calm, peace, friend!” she yelled over the storm, but the mare was screaming and rearing.
“By the Valar, Avnea, leave the horse, look to her rider!”
His sister was not so easily swayed. Achlinn ran to the side of the man himself.
He was lying in the grass facedown, his long silver-blonde hair spread about his head in a crown. Blood was running from a deep gash in his pale skin. As Achlinn stared, he moaned and reached out to claw at the grass, trying to pull himself forward.
“Stop, you’ll kill yourself!” Achlinn screamed.
The man looked up at him with uncomprehending eyes. His face was so delicate, fine of bone and feature, that Achlinn felt sure that this was one of the Elves his father spoke of. The right side of his face was quickly becoming stained with blood. Still, he tried to crawl on.
“Stop, you crazy fool!”
“Amin n’rangwa!” the Elf screamed back, words in his own tongue that made no sense to Achlinn.
The Elf tried again to crawl forward, but collapsed, his strikingly blue eyes falling shut. With a stifled moan into the wet grass, he pitched forward and lay still, the rain drumming his unconscious form.
“Avnea!” Achlinn yelled. “Avnea Star-rider of the house of Anárion, get here right now!”
At last, his words seemed to have caught his sister’s attention. She stopped struggling with the silver mare, which bolted away into the darkness, and, picking up her soaked skirts, ran toward him.
“What?” she gasped.
Achlinn pointed at the Elf. “He’s going to kill himself. Help me get him inside.”
“He’s just an Elf!” Avnea protested. “Father says they’re haughty and reclusive. Why should we – ” A crack of thunder split her sentence in two. “Help him?” she finished.
“I don’t care what Father says!” Achlinn snapped. “He’s a living creature. Now help me.” He lifted the Elf, who was shockingly light, and dashed back toward the castle, slipping on the wet grass.
Avnea dashed after him, kicking her sodden skirts out of the way. “Achlinn – wait!” she gasped.
Achlinn slowed to look back at her, the Elf draped over one arm. He kicked feebly out at Achlinn, and muttered, “N’kola amin.”
“What’s he saying?” Avnea gasped.
“Who knows?” Achlinn responded testily.
Of Ecthelion’s five children, Achlinn was the most kind-hearted, unable to pass even a wounded squirrel without taking it home, dressing its wound, and keeping it until it was better. There was no way he would pass up a person.
Avnea opened her mouth, but lightning struck a tree so near that she saw the white bolt arrow down the heart of the ancient oak. She was not sure if it was herself or the tree that screamed. It was a horrible noise.
The tree split into shards. Pieces like knives flew everywhere. Avnea only remembered ducking before one struck her in the thigh.
There was a brief space of what seemed dead silence. Then there was the horrible pain, a spreading circle of crimson, and the ghastly sight of the wooden spike lodged in her leg, sharper than a knife, before the world tilted at a crazy angle and darkness took her.