Avnea immediately went into a castle-wide search for Orophin, determined that such a small thing as a disappearance would not hinder her from getting her last two answers. She was desperate to know about the silver Elf who had come on a silver horse, and who the Lady Galadriel was. Those were secrets important to her.
Denethor helped, albeit reluctantly. He had no wish for his sister to continue associating with Orophin; in fact, he thought it was good that the Elf had vanished. However, this made him uneasy as well as reassuring him. Orophin only too easily could have been a spy.
At last, just before supper, an exhausted Avnea had to admit defeat. She stood on her staves in an empty tower room filled with unused banners and standards. After looking in every crook and cranny of the expansive castle, she had to concede that Orophin was nowhere to be found.
Denethor, breathing heavily, mopped sweat off his brow. “It’s time for supper, Av. Let’s go. He’s gone.”
“No, wait!” Avnea limped hurriedly to the window and looked out into the encroaching dusk. Her finger traced a line on the grimy glass. “Look there, that shadow in the south. It’s something I’ve never seen before. What is it?”
Denethor gulped. “That’s the Black Land, Av. The power of its master is roused again in the world.”
Avnea shrugged. “All right, then, fine.” She sighed. “Let’s go, then, or Father will be wondering if we took a swan-dive off the top of the highest tower.”
The brother and sister made their way down to the dining hall. It was again full, mostly with women who were hoping for another glance at the lovely Lord Deran. Avnea had no less than fifteen women tell her that she should unquestioningly marry him, and they’d be jumping at the chance if it was them.
Avnea just waved them off and limped over to her seat of honor. Ecthelion smiled at her; Avnea returned it halfheartedly. Denethor, Achlinn, Hador, and Argaryan were taking their seats as well. Lord Deran was talking, although she didn’t hear any of it.
After the meal, Avnea escaped just before Lord Deran opened his mouth to make a suggestion. Denethor gracefully lied for her, telling the lord that, as his sister had been injured, she needed her rest and should not be disturbed.
Avnea limped about the castle for a while in the growing darkness, watching as servants moved to light the torches and stars blossomed in the night. She named several heavenly bodies to herself, wandered about the open corridors in the higher reaches of the castle, and was just about to turn back to bed when she heard voices just ahead of her.
She immediately stopped and froze against the wall, grateful that the next torch was ten feet away and it was unlikely that its beams would fall on her. Standing completely still, she listened.
“But, my lord, I have completed it!” a whiny, raspy man’s voice said. “Trust me, I have nothing but undying loyalty to your liege – “
“Be quiet, you fool,” said a voice coldly, a voice that Avnea recognized with a shock as Lord Deran’s. “You must not have done something properly, or else he would never know, and would be still in that upper room, snarling off anyone who came to call.”
Were they talking about Orophin? Curiosity swelling like a balloon inside her, Avnea inched closer.
“But – my lord – I had no idea that he would comprehend – “
“Malath, you are unfit for delicate missions,” Lord Deran said, his voice even colder. “You must assume that everything will happen, and take the proper measures. Who’s there?” he added sharply, as Avnea’s stave grated against the stone floor.
Lord Deran angrily rounded the corner, his dagger out, then stopped when he saw Avnea there. “Oh – oh – my lady,” he said, putting up a convincing façade of surprise and the dagger back in its sheath, “I did not know that it was you. My sweet, fair jewel, what are you doing out so late?”
“Just walking,” Avnea said, surreptitiously eyeing the man he had been talking to. He was short and hunched, dressed in elaborate court finery, and had thin, stringy, colorless hair. His eyes were watery, and he was dabbing at them with a fine lace handkerchief.
“My lady, my lady,” he murmured, bowing in front of her. “Such a pleasure, always a pleasure to see you. Ah, even now you are so fair that I cannot find adequate words – “
“Don’t bother then,” Avnea said bluntly. She looked at Lord Deran. “What were you talking about just now?”
Lord Deran, just for a second, looked flustered, then his face smoothed out. “My lady, matters of a sensitive nature are oftentimes discussed between the lord of a castle and his retainers. I am sorry to have to put it so indelicately – but it is not a concern of yours. It only concerns the fortress of Minas Anor.”
“Oh, I am sorry to intrude then,” Avnea said, but she didn’t believe him. She narrowed her eyes and gave him a mistrustful look. Lord Deran widened his eyes and stared back innocently.
At last, he said, “My lady. It is late, and I am sure you are tired – after all, your brother did assure me that you were weary and injured, and needed your rest.” In the deepening gloom, she couldn’t tell if his eyes flashed or not. “Here, let me escort you back to your chambers.”
Avnea had no choice but to let him take her back to her chambers. The man with the stringy hair, the one that he had called Malath, stayed behind, murmuring words of allegiance to the fair Lady, the gracious Lady, the star-rider Lady.
Lord Deran stopped at the door of Avnea’s chambers, but stopped before reaching for the door. “I hope that I have not offended you. It was just that it was a matter of secrecy.”
“No, you didn’t offend me,” Avnea muttered, wishing that he would let go of her arm.
“You are indeed very fair,” Lord Deran cooed, his voice soft and sugary. “I did not mean to displeasure you. And I do hope that I can see you again.”
Avnea couldn’t see; his dark head was blocking out the moonlight. She could feel his breath on her face and she wanted to move, but he was too close and her back was against the wall. She could see his sapphire eyes gleaming faintly beneath his mane of shaggy hair.
He was moving nearer; he was going to kiss her. Avnea twisted her head away at the last second and his lips made contact with the stone wall behind her.
Looking surprised that the object of his attention was now a wall, Lord Deran pulled back and gave her a dreamy gaze. “Good night, my jewel.”
Avnea made a rude gesture at his back as he departed down the corridor, and hastily fumbled with the lock on her door.
She opened it and stepped inside, then shut and bolted it. She wasn’t about to leave it open with Lord Deran sneaking about.
The heavy silk curtains were closed, and it was pitch-black in her room. It was also strangely cool; she would think, with the thick draperies, that it would be stifling. Her staves grinding ominously on the flagstone floor, she looked around in vain for any source of light.
Immediately, Avnea froze as she heard a rustling from the general direction of her bed. She limped blindly toward the sound, tripped over something that she could not see, and sprawled painfully onto the floor. She gasped, and could not figure out how to regain her feet without even more agony. Unsure what to do, she lay there.
A second later, a small white spark of light flared, and she looked up in abject terror. The pale floating speck illuminated a pale face with silver hair falling about.
“Orophin, how dare you – ” Avnea snarled, pain forgotten in an explosion of fury. “Guards!” she screamed.
There were running footsteps outside the door, shouts, and pounding against the bolted door. Avnea grabbed a stave, staggered to her feet, and started toward the door, intent on opening it, but a hand seized her.
“No, you foolish girl!”
“I can do anything I please! Break down the door!” Avnea shrieked at the guards amassing outside. By the sound of thumps and crunches, they were indeed doing so. There was a faint call of, “My sweet lady! Avnea!” but it was lost in the clamor of voices.
“No!” Orophin snarled, dragging her over to the window. “Listen, this is for your very life. Climb down that rope ladder, and immediately!”
“No!” Avnea yelled back. She was trying to delay long enough to let the guards break through, but Orophin bodily seized her and dragged her to the window.
“I will carry you if I must, but get out that window!” There was a sort of fire in Orophin’s tone that Avnea had never heard from anyone. There was a crack in the door; light was streaming in. The guards were just about to break through.
“I am not leaving!” Avnea shouted.
Orophin gave her a look. She had never seen any such thing before. All sound fell away, and she suddenly knew that she had no choice in the matter.
She went almost obediently to the window and carefully climbed down the rope ladder there.
Above her, the sounds of the guards pounding frantically on the door increased. There was the sound of a hissed curse, and Avnea staggered to the ground, her leg throbbing. The next moment, lithe and silent, Orophin dropped to the ground beside her, his silver hair a halo in the night.
Avnea looked at him questioningly. She did not understand what he had done, what it was to make her lose her anger and willingly comply with him. She opened her mouth to ask, but Orophin gave her another hard look, and again she knew that she had no choice.
She followed him complacently down the narrow street of Gondor. When she fell behind, the throbbing wound in her leg hurting worse than ever, he silently offered her his arm, and she leaned on it gratefully. In that way, they approached the heavy gate of Minas Tirith.
Behind her, the fire of torches flared, and she could hear pounding feet. As she started to turn around, Orophin gripped her arm and hurried her forward.
The sound of Denethor’s despairing voice rippled through the air, and for a moment Avnea almost lost her resolve. “Av! Avnea! Where are you? If you can hear me, shout my name!”
She was so close, so close to crying back to Denethor. But Orophin just lifted her with ease, and he edged through the small gap in the gate. It swung shut with an echoing thud, and then they were beyond, on the moon-washed earth.
With a long sigh, Orophin lowered Avnea to the ground, but as her leg was still burning, she clung to his arm. With a muttered epithet in Elvish, he walked toward the nearest tree, which stood alone. Beneath it was a shadowed shape.
Avnea, with surprise, recognized her horse, Beida. The gray mare had been saddled and bridled, and saddlebags were strapped across her back. Orophin lifted her onto it, then swung up behind her.
“Orophin, why?” Avnea said. The words felt thick and clumsy in her mouth. “I did no wrong to you, I only wanted to help. Let me go back to my family.” Her body felt heavy and slow, as if there were weights tied to her legs, and she felt very tired. She slumped on Beida’s back.
“Girl, you were in danger there,” Orophin replied, reaching around her to take Beida’s reins in hand. He whispered something in the elvish language to the mare, and she started to canter as the gates of Minas Tirith burst open and a platoon of soldiers on fast horses galloped out.
Orophin’s eyes widened, and again he muttered something in Elvish that Avnea could not understand. “You are not safe here,” he continued in Westron. “You are in danger.”
However, the long, wailing cry of a Gondorian hunting horn sounded across the night, and Orophin kicked Beida in the sides. With a startled whinny, she stretched her neck and cantered into the night in a thunder of hoofbeats, leaving the soldiers far behind.
Sorry that this part’s a bit short – hey, at least I finished it!! I’ll be working on my other story, the Star of the Silmaril, next. Thanks to my readers for needling me enough to finally get this done. And, as always, thanks to PrincessofNúmenor, my best TORC friend, who helps out with everything!