Many, many thanks to one of my main muses, PrincessofNúmenor, for great help on this and other stories in just about every way!!!!
Also to my readers: Thanks for bearing with me. I’m so busy and distracted these days. That said, a whole lot of new parts should be coming soon because I decided to get my lazy butt in gear.
When Avnea awoke, she was not sure what day it was or even where she was. Her room was lit in the colors of morning, as the golden sun rose in the east, and she couldn’t remember the past few days.
Then it rushed back to her with painful clarity. The thunderstorm, the injured Elf, the silver mare whose reins had slipped through her fingers. Where was her brother? Was Achlinn all right? There was little way that he could have escaped being struck by the tree. But such questions made her head pound, and she lay back on the pillows.
There were hushed voices outside her door.
” – Mustn’t disturb the lady – “
” – The spike they pulled out of her leg, it was a foot long at least, and splinters down the length of it. Some say that it went clear through – “
” – Some say she’ll be crippled for life now – “
” They say that, but Av’s strong,” said another voice, a voice Avnea blurrily identified as Denethor’s. “If I know her as well as I believe I do, she’ll walk, make no mistake.”
Yes, the wound. Avnea looked down at her leg. It was bandaged in clean linen from the knee to the hip, and hurt mightily. She winced, but there was no time for that now.
Taking a wooden stave from where it lay next to her bed, she limped across the room and opened the door. “Denethor, tell them -“
She stopped as she realized that everyone was staring at her. She was only wearing a rough muslin nightgown, her hair was untended, and she could not stand on her left leg for fear of opening the wound. “What?”
“Lady – Lady Avnea,” one servant managed to say at last. “Please. You have been injured most dreadfully, and have slept for the past two days. You cannot appear to the public like this; we must tend to you.”
“Tend to me how?” Avnea said, confused. “I know I’ve been hurt, am I expected to look like a lady?”
But the oldest maidservant bustled her back into her chambers, washed and dressed her, and styled her hair before even letting her set foot out of the room again. All the while, she muttered and clucked.
“A pretty lady like you’d not do well to look such a tattermuffin. You must look beautiful for the Lord Deran, he’s been most worried about you. He’s spent most of these past days at your side, even when he didn’t have to – you must show him some courtesy.”
“Lord Deran?” Avnea said sluggishly. Oh, she recalled him. The Minas Anorian lord who was worse than a bouquet of poison ivy. Why should she look pretty for him? He was a self-righteous, pompous idiot.
When she had been dressed in a golden and green gown, and her reddish-brown hair had been elaborately styled in a way befitting the Lady of Gondor, the maid at last released her. Finding that she was able to hop about fairly well on two wooden staves, Avnea immediately made her escape.
She limped about the castle for a while, asking about the silver mare, but no one had seen her. The talk of the castle was of the Elf, who had seemed to spurn all efforts to aid him. He was kept in the tallest tower of the castle, and Avnea decided to pay him a visit.
The stone steps were murderous to limp up on her staves and only one leg, but Avnea stubbornly refused help and made the long climb herself. Although before her injury she would have run up in five minutes, it took her nearly thirty.
At last, she came to the door. A guard was posted outside it, and he seemed very surprised to see her. After she told him what she wanted, however, he stepped aside. He didn’t dare to refuse the daughter of Ecthelion.
Avnea stepped inside.
The room was small and circular, and the morning light slanted in onto the stone floor. The furniture was simple, but comfortable enough, and Avnea recognized the room as the one in which she had often played marble games with Achlinn.
Curled on the bed was the Elf.
He was glaring at her with flinty blue eyes. His long silver-blonde hair was hanging loose around his face, an untreated gash on his forehead oozed a bit of blood, and his clothes were dirty and tattered. He looked like nothing so much as a wild animal.
Avnea carefully limped a little closer on her crutches. “Greetings,” she said. “My name is Avnea Star-rider. I don’t want to harm you.”
The Elf spat at her feet.
Avnea stopped and planted her hands on her hips. “I am Avnea daughter of Ecthelion. I am kin-blood to the great Anárion brother of Isildur. I am sister to Denethor. No one thwarts me, so talk!” She shook her fist at him.
“Foolish girl,” the Elf said abruptly. His stony eyes bored through her, but she didn’t flinch. Then he turned and sank into a mass almost indistinguishable from the plain bedclothes.
“Speak,” Avnea ordered. “Who are you? Where are you from? And why were you here?”
The Elf’s head reappeared. “Too many questions. Shut up, human.”
“Don’t speak to me like that!” Avnea flared. Sometimes she had a temper as hot as her hair, and right now the embers had been stirred. She stared at the Elf until he looked up again.
“Why do you care? Horsethief.”
“I was just trying to protect her!”
“Fine, don’t believe me.” Avnea moved closer. “But I am Avnea, the one whom the stars kissed and the heavens sing of. I am the brother of Denethor, the next to rule Minas Tirith and Gondor. Now answer me.”
The Elf gave a derisive laugh. “The heavens sing of you in your own land. You’ve never been beyond these sheltered walls, have you? Do you think that in the world beyond you will be the one who the stars kissed and the heavens sing of?” His voice was thick with sarcasm.
Avnea had no reply.
“Answer my questions, and I will tell you something in turn,” the Elf challenged. “An ear for an ear, an eye for an eye. Tell me something, and I shall return the favor. I have five questions I would like to ask you. Give me five answers, and I shall do the same.”
“I will tell you as much as I can,” Avnea answered.
“All or nothing. That is the bargain.” His eyes were hard again.
Avnea knew she had to tread carefully here. As eager as she was to learn more about the Elf and why he had come to Gondor in the first place, she also knew that she had to avoid giving away too much critical information. So she took a gamble.
“First question.” The Elf shook his silver-blonde mane of hair from his face and fixed her with an insolent stare. “Why do you call yourself Star-rider?”
This was the last question Avnea was expecting. She’d anticipated some difficult question about war and strategy, and instead he wanted her name? Getting information about him was going to be easy and virtually painless.
“Because that was what the wise women christened me at birth,” she replied. “Every child of the Steward of Gondor is titled appropriately. It is an honor representing rank.”
She’d never known it could be so hard to look directly into a pair of brilliantly blue eyes that were narrowed in dislike.
“Wise women?” the Elf said. For once, his voice was not filled with sarcasm. “If they are, then they must have had some reason…they named your brother Denethor the heir of your father. That title has meaning. Why Star-rider? And your other brother, Achlinn Storm-master…he calms the tempests. Each name has meaning.”
“I don’t know then,” Avnea admitted.
“Then you have failed, and I will not give you an answer to that question until you find out. Next question. Why did your mother die?”
Avnea stared at him. He had an uncanny way of seeing straight past all normal barriers. How did he know that her mother was dead? It had been a great tragedy in Gondor and its surrounding countries, but there were no Elves nearby. He could not possibly have heard the news. Or could he?
“She was killed in a riding accident.”
“I did not ask how, I asked why.”
“Because the gods deemed that she had done so many great things in this life that she deserved the rest given to few, and they took her to their heavenly breast.”
The Elf snorted. “That is a pretty cover story your brothers fooled you with to deter you from always asking about your mother. Why was she killed? Think.”
Avnea strained her brain. Getting answers from this Elf was going to be a lot harder than she had thought.
“There was an influential faction of upper-class men in Gondor that was rebellious,” she said at last, startling herself by recalling something that she didn’t know that she remembered. “They did not think that the White Tower should be rebuilt after it had fallen, that it symbolized the end of the Steward’s rule and that all men of Gondor should now rule themselves. When Father began to rebuild the Tower, they took it to mean that the Steward would enforce a regime of tyranny over them. They publicly declared that they would hinder any effort. Nonetheless, Father completed it. Scarce a few weeks later, my mother was dead.”
The Elf’s hard eyes widened, and Avnea could tell that he was impressed in spite of himself. “Good, girl, very good. Well, you have answered one of my questions, at least. Ask me one – one only – and I will answer it for you.”
“Why did you come here?” Avnea asked.
She’d expected the Elf to tell her some glorious tale of sacrifice and redemption, of how he rode here valiantly to save the rest of his company or to gain some great tool. Instead, his brow furrowed and he said, “Not now, girl. Not today. That is a story that should not be repeated even beneath the bright sun in the very keep of the Steward. When you understand more, maybe.”
Never in her entire life had Avnea been denied, even if it was something as simple as picking flowers in the courtyards with one of her brothers. She stomped her foot. “I answered your question, and you promised. Now tell me, or I’ll call my father and he’ll make you!”
The momentary acceptance in the Elf’s eyes faded. “You are a spineless little baby,” he snarled at her. “If I was to give the answer, you’d never sleep again in your life, and too many forces are at play for you to understand. However, I will be generous and let you ask another question to replace that one.”
It would have been better if he had spun some extravagant lie. Having the Elf flat-out deny her was worse. Avnea had never wanted to know anything as much in her life, even the time when she was nine and Denethor – then sixteen – kept disappearing with one of the ladies of the court. Choking back her anger with an extreme effort, she asked the next question that came to mind.
“What is your name?”
She was relieved that he answered, albeit grudgingly. “Orophin Elen-silya.”
“Orophin Elen-silya.” It sounded like music to her; what made it strange and alluring was the fact that it belonged to a member of an almost fairy-like race, given it was a cross and unpleasant member. She sounded out the syllables, although she had no idea what it meant.
“Yes. Third question. Why are you treated less than your brothers, even though you have intelligence and skill equaling theirs?” Orophin asked.
“In the Gondorian society, men are seen as having more influence than women. Women stay at home and watch the children. Men handle the politics, the rise and fall of kings. It has always been done this way,” Avnea answered, surprised that he should ask.
“Yet your father and brothers are of progressive minds,” the Elf spat back.
“My father believes that tradition is the best rule to raise a young girl by.”
“In my kind, your age makes you a baby, who should barely be free of your mother’s breast. But in your kind, you are not so young; you are almost a woman. Surely your father needs a woman’s touch in the house?”
“He has other courtiers; other nobles who do such things,” Avnea replied automatically.
Orophin’s lip curled. “Don’t you ever wonder why whatever Denethor, Argaryan, or even Achlinn does is widely praised, and whatever you do receives little, if any, notice, except if it is related to taking a husband?” His silver hair was stained with blood now from the seeping wound on his head, but he didn’t seem to care. “I heard the news of Lord Deran as I rode through Minas Tirith.”
“Not really,” Avnea said. “I mean, I haven’t wondered.”
“Have you ever wished for excitement?” Orophin’s words had dropped to a raspy whisper. “Have you ever wished you could join your brothers as they rode out to another thrilling fight?”
“Yes,” Avnea admitted.
“I could offer you that opportunity.” For a second, just a second, the raging animosity had left Orophin’s eyes; he was staring at her as if transfixed. “I could give you adventure such as you would never have had; fame and renown that would equal anything your brothers could possibly reap…”
Then he snapped back to himself. “What am I saying? You are a child, and a spoiled and overly pampered one at that. Pay no mind to what I said. Now ask me your question and make haste, for I will soon grow tired of being charitable.”
However, instead of feeling angry toward him, Avnea’s curiosity was rising. Still trying to comprehend what he might mean, she said, “Where are you from, and who sent you here?”
Orophin grunted. “One question.”
“All right, who sent you here?”
“The lady Galadriel, and if you know anything of the outside world, that should answer your first question as well.” Orophin had sunk back onto the bed and was glaring at her with fire in his eyes, which were colder than chips of ice. “If you don’t – well – ”
The truth was, Avnea had absolutely no idea who the lady Galadriel was – she could have been Lord Deran’s washerwoman for all that she knew. However, she was not about to admit this fact to Orophin, who was watching her with a ruthless challenge glinting in his face. She looked away from him; he was making her nervous.
A voice rippled up the stairs. “Avnea!”
“You’re wanted,” Orophin said in a chilly tone.
“I noticed,” Avnea said. However, she didn’t want to go. It was undoubtedly something about Lord Deran, and the less she had to hassle with that head case, the better.
“You’re wanted,” Orophin repeated, in an even more glacial tone.
Avnea got the hint. But as she limped to the door on her wooden staves, she turned back and said, “You still owe me two answers.”
“Blast you, witch, get out of my sight!” Orophin seized a pewter goblet and threw it at her. She ducked, and the heavy chalice left a dent in the door.
“Don’t forget, I get them for two questions you can ask me,” Avnea added.
She ducked again as a cheap, chipped ornament sailed over her head. Ecthelion used the uppermost tower rooms as storage chambers of sorts, for everything that he either didn’t have room for or deemed too ugly to display.
“I said, get out of my sight!”
Bewildered, rather than angered, by the Elf’s abrupt change of moods, Avnea limped down the stairs, this time glad that the return trip would take so much time. She could only stand on her right leg, and she was grateful for the staves.
However, she was only halfway down the massive flight of stairs when Denethor came running up toward her, panting. “Av,” he said through gasps for air, “it’s Father. Lord Deran’s made a proper proposal.”
“For marriage?” Avnea said, staring incredulously at her oldest brother.
“Of course, what did you think it would be for, to take you partridge hunting?” Denethor sounded surprisingly unconcerned. “Here, drop those staves and I’ll carry you the rest of the way. We’ll go faster. Father says I’m to fetch you as soon as possible.”
“I wanted to go slowly,” Avnea said as her brother scooped her up.
Denethor laughed. “Well, that makes sense. Deran’s a pompous idiot who wouldn’t know his head from a hole in the ground. Not that there is much difference anyway.”
As Denethor hurried off, Avnea looked over his shoulder and saw Orophin watching them. He was leaning heavily on one of the staves that she had abandoned. She saw with mounting curiosity that there was an expression of deep unrest on his face.
Denethor carried Avnea to the door of a meeting room, opened the door, and bore her inside.
Ecthelion turned with a smile from his elaborate carved desk. “Ah, Daughter. As no doubt your brother has already told you, Lord Deran has formally asked for your hand in marriage.”
Lord Deran, ever smooth, glided forward, bent down, and made an elaborate show of kissing her hand. “Ah, Lady Avnea, fairest of all sights on this earth. How my heart longs to behold your beauty when I am gone, how rich and full life seems when you are near – “
“Stuff it, Deran,” Denethor said.
Lord Deran looked affronted, but then decided that talking back to the future Steward of Gondor wasn’t the way to go. He made a supercilious bow and faded into the background.
“I’ve only known him for a night!” Avnea protested.
“And that night was far more than enough to convince me of your boundless charms, excellent wit, unsurpassed beauty, and superior intelligence,” Lord Deran added eloquently. “I mince no words when I say, my beloved Avnea, that to spend the rest of my life with you would be the greatest of all blessings.”
Oh, right, he minces no words. Just wastes them.
Avnea forced her face into what she hoped looked like a smile. “Well, Lord Deran, I am afraid that one night is not enough to convince me of the suitability of a future husband.”
Lord Deran’s sapphire eyes – so much like Orophin’s and at the same time so different – widened. “Oh, have I not impressed you?” He looked crushed.
No, just disgusted me. Avnea was an inch away from speaking her mind, but at the look on her father’s face, she resorted reluctantly to a lie. “You impressed me, but I know nothing of you. I – ” the next words killed her to speak, but she did so anyway – “I would wish to spend more time with you to see if you are appropriate.”
Lord Deran looked properly reassured. “Wonderful! We could go riding in a carriage, we could be serenaded together – ” He rattled off a long list of highly complicated and extremely boring-sounding activities, most of which Avnea had already done.
Denethor sighed and shifted his weight. He could not put Avnea down, as she could not stand without the aid of her staves. Both of them exchanged exasperated looks as Lord Deran prattled on.
At last, Ecthelion mercifully stemmed the tide of words. “That is sufficient, Deran,” he said, his gray eyes snapping. “No doubt you wish to freshen up for the noon meal.”
Lord Deran wasn’t entirely stupid, which Avnea found surprising. He took the hint. “As it please you, m’lord,” he said, swept a huge bow, and departed.
That noontime, Denethor and Avnea watched Lord Deran and Ecthelion closely. They could not tell whether or not Ecthelion was pleased that his daughter had rebuffed Lord Deran’s offer. One thing was certain, however, he wasn’t entirely crushed. Perhaps he was even a little relieved.
After lunch, with much persuasion, Avnea got Denethor to carry her back up the stairs to Orophin’s room. She still wanted two answers, and for those she was prepared to field two more of his biting, hard questions.
“Are you sure about this?” Denethor asked her several times. “He doesn’t seem the type who welcomes intrusions, Av. In fact, he seems like he’d be infinitely happier if you left him alone. He’s dangerous, Av, I feel it. Tense as a spring, that one. Ready to explode. You’d do well to leave him alone.”
“No, I still want the two answers he owes me,” Avnea insisted. Her hair had started to creep loose of its bindings, making a wild reddish corona around her pale face, and Denethor thought privately that his sister looked rather like a witch. “I can answer them – there was only one question I couldn’t.”
Denethor shrugged, keeping his doubts to himself, and reached out with one hand to knock on the door of Orophin’s tower room.
“He’s most likely sleeping,” Denethor said, relieved for some reason that he could not explain. “Let’s go, Av, come back some time else. I’m sure he’d hate it if we barged in on him.” He began backing away.
“No,” Avnea commanded.
Reluctantly, Denethor stopped.
Avnea extended her arm, grasped the doorknob, and turned it. The latch, for some mysterious reason broken, released without struggle and the door yielded.
The chamber was completely empty.