Orophin did not let the horse rest. His face set in concentration, his hands clenched tightly on the reins, the Elf rode the mare nearly into the ground. Whenever Avnea began to venture a desire to slow, Orophin merely shook his head and pressed a finger to his lips. They rode in that manner, the only sound being that of pounding hooves, until near daybreak.
As dawn broke pink across the east, Orophin at last let the reins fall slack and Beida breathe. He dismounted, led her into a thicket of bushes, and guided her nose to a small stream running in the underbrush. Then he turned to look at Avnea. His eyes were flat and incomprehensible.
“I suppose you will want to know why I rushed you off in such hurry, and you in such a state?” His eyes flickered briefly to her wounded leg.
“Yes,” Avnea said angrily. “I am the lady of Gondor, sister to Lord Denethor, and I do not believe that I should be carted about like a bale of hay. Pray tell me why you did so.”
Something flickered in Orophin’s eyes; she could not name what it was. “Would you believe me if I told you it was your own dear brother?”
Avnea was taken aback. “No, it wouldn’t be Denethor. He’s – “
“Good, and noble,” Orophin finished grimly. “And perhaps he is, to you, but he is still his father’s son, and Ecthelion is a warrior. Or was, before he had so many children.” For some reason, Avnea flushed at his words.
“Lord Deran – ” she said suddenly. “Who is he?”
Orophin surveyed her with that unrecognizable emotion still in his eyes. “He is a lord of Minas Anor. Or perhaps he is not. I fear we shall not know until, perhaps, it is too late.”
Dissatisfied with this answer, Avnea tried a different tack. “Who are you?”
At this, Orophin smiled. “All I’ve claimed to be. I am Orophin, and I serve the Lady Galadriel.” His voice almost softened as he spoke the name.
“What is she the lady of?” Avnea thought she would know if the Lady Galadriel was a woman of Gondor, for she knew most all of the nobility in her father’s court. However, she did not recognize the name.
“Lothlórien.” The answer was given reluctantly, but it helped Avnea little, for she had never heard of the place.
“That’s a pretty name, what language is it?”
Orophin snorted, his usual brusque manner returning. “I see your father has taught you little of the outside world, and you are still just a child. It is Elvish, the language of my kind, Quenya to be exact. It is the Golden Wood, the refuge, one of the last safe places for my kind.”
“You are an Elf, aren’t you?” Avnea said. Orophin’s silver-blonde hair was stained red in the sunrise, and his stony eyes watched her with a hint of what she thought was curiosity. “How did you come here to Gondor? My father says little of the fair folk ride abroad any more.”
“Your father was right in that.” Orophin’s tone was crisp. “And as for the secret of my travels, I might have said that I will reveal it when I might. Suffice it to say that the Lord Deran was of interest to my lady, for she possesses the art to see into mortal minds.”
“Lord Deran was an idiot,” Avnea returned, trying to match his cool tone. “He spent entirely too much time hanging over me, when I didn’t find many redeeming qualities about him as it was.”
Orophin laughed shortly. “Yes, he was an idiot, girl, but perhaps you did not see all of it. I have reason to suspect that he was not even truly of the Dúnedain. That is a grievous sin, to lay claim to the ancient rights of Númenor, and the true Dúnedain would be within their rights to put him to death. He will deserve it, if we can reveal what he has done.”
“What has he done?” Avnea broke in impatiently. “Besides being an idiot. If I’m going to travel with you, I demand you to tell me. And my name’s Avnea, not girl. Lady Avnea.”
Orophin looked into the sunrise, clenching his teeth. She had the feeling that he was trying very hard not to snap at her. “Lady Avnea then, it please your little grace. As for the Lord Deran – he has done nothing, yet. What worries me is what he might do.”
“So he was the one who put me in danger!” Avnea said, with the triumph of one reaching an unassailable conclusion.
Orophin shook his head. “Not you, not directly. For all I know, Lord Deran could feel as he often and loudly proclaims to, that he loves you dearly, that you are the jewel and star-rider of his life. It is your brother he takes more interest in, and the main reason he seeks an alliance with you.”
“No true Dúnedain would be so self-serving!” Avnea said hotly.
“You have said it, gi – Lady Avnea. No true Dúnedain. How Lord Deran would manage to confuse the men of Númenor into seeing wrongly, I do not know. For they are wise and far-seeing, for Edain, and their gaze is not quickly clouded.”
Avnea noticed the earth was shaking at that moment, and by the frown on his face, Orophin had noticed as well. He shoved her toward Beida. “Up, girl. Ride as far as you can.”
“What about you?” Avnea said, surprised to note that she cared. “My brother will kill you if you fall into his hands.”
“And then all should be lost,” Orophin replied, in a tone of forced jocularity. “Rest assured, girl, I shall not allow that to happen. I have some unfinished business. I shall meet you at dusk tonight.”
“How will you find me?” Avnea said.
“I will,” Orophin said, tossing back his sheet of silver-blonde hair. “Now, if you like that pretty little hide of yours, I would advise you to ride.”
Avnea clambered onto Beida’s back and shook the weary mare’s reins. Obedient as ever, the horse galloped away, Avnea clinging to the harness.
She had feared that she would be overtaken, but the woods grew up around her and shielded her from pursuit. Avnea had some idea of how strange this must look – a girl, scarce sixteen summers, and skinny as a wet rat, clinging to the back of a mare while her wild mane of reddish-brown hair flew in tangled curls above her. Riding alone, wearing a rich, albeit muddied, golden-green dress.
She stopped when she was sure that the pursuit was behind her, near noon, when hunger gnawed at her stomach. She swung off Beida, and thought bitterly that Orophin had thought to give her some food. Yet there was some sustenance to be found in the thick underbrush. Hador had taught her some of the manners of roots and edible berries, and Avnea plucked a few from a bush and ate them.
When she had finished, she mounted up and rode some more, letting Beida choose her own course. If Orophin could find her, then he would…and nothing she would do would stop him.
Near dusk, Beida stopped, in a clearing surrounded by twisted, but tall, trees. A thin trickle of water ran in the dusty earth, and Avnea was tired and saddle-sore from riding all day. Her fine dress was ripped and dirty, and she kicked it out of the way as she climbed down off Beida.
The mare whinnied, pressing her nose against Avnea as she searched for some sugar, or an apple – treats Avnea had always given her at the end of their rides. They had never gone far, perhaps around the seven levels of Minas Tirith, and never beyond the white gates.
“I’m sorry, girl,” Avnea whispered. “I don’t have anything.”
She searched around, gathered some deadwood, and tried to remember how Hador had told her to kindle a fire. She had no flint or match, but there was another way. However, she was not remembering it.
At last, she gave up in disgust and kicked the wood with her good leg, holding onto a tree for balance. Her wounded leg still throbbed, and now it was stiffened with the riding and hard for her to walk. She pulled herself along the ground, searching for a stave.
She had just found one, a thick staff of oak with only a few small branches on it, when hoofbeats echoed in the woods. Before she had time to either be alarmed or run for Beida, Orophin cantered into the clearing on the back of his silver. He was accompanied by another.
“Where – where did you get her?” Avnea said, astonished.
Orophin swung down. “Found her wandering outside Minas Tirith, poor thing,” he said, and whispered some words to the horse in Elvish, stroking her neck. “Perhaps I don’t know what you did to her to make her run.”
The unfair accusation stung Avnea into words. “I did nothing! There was a thunderstorm, when you came, and she spooked and bolted. I tried to calm her, but she got away.”
“Ah,” Orophin said, raising an eyebrow.
“Who’s this?” Avnea said, gesturing brusquely to the other, a cloaked and hooded figure who rode a small bay mare in the Elvish fashion. “A friend?”
Orophin looked at the man. “Tell her,” he said.
“My lady.” The man swung down and cast back the hood of his cloak. He was young, no more than twenty-five, and handsome, with the dark hair and grey eyes of the Dúnedain, Avnea thought. He wore worn riding leathers, and a battered sword hung in a dull scabbard by his side.
“Who are you?” she said, astonished. “You look like a Dúnedan.”
The man shot a look at Orophin, so fast that she would have missed it if she had not been of a keen-seeing house, and then laughed easily. “You honor me, my lady. I am a simple rider, a man with some skill in blade, no more. I am Thorongil, son of Thoród. And you must be Avnea, a Lady renowned by all men.” He bowed.
“Yes, I am,” Avnea said cautiously.
Thorongil opened the saddlebags of his horse and pulled out strips of spiced sausage, a skin of wine, some stale bread and hard cheese. It was simple, the fare of a traveling man, yet Avnea found herself eyeing it and her mouth watering. She hoped Thorongil would share it.
“Can we have – have a fire?” she asked.
Thorongil and Orophin looked at each other, and Orophin shook his head. “No, girl,” he said. “Not unless you wish to draw them like moths to flame.”
“Oh,” Avnea said in a small voice. Of course. She’d forgotten.
Thorongil, Orophin, and Avnea sat together in the clearing, the thick trees shielding them from sight. The sky quickly faded to darkness after the brief flush of darkness, and the night grew chill. Avnea sat huddled in her dirty dress, her cold feet in their leather boots curled beneath her.
Orophin and Thorongil spoke at length in a tongue she did not understand, their voices little more than a whisper against the rustling of the forest. She picked at the cheese and sausage she was offered, and forced herself to wash it down with swallows of the bitter wine. At home, she would be garbed as a great lady, with jewels in her hair, and she would be eating at a high table with her brothers and her father. Her meat and mead would be the finest, and – and –
Lord Deran would be there, she thought sourly. That jerked her from her fantasies, and she remembered that she sat here, crouched on the ground in the darkness in dirty clothes, eating common fare.
At last, Thorongil looked at her. The darkness was too deep now for her to make out his face, but she could see the glitter of his eyes in the starlight. “Lady Avnea. I fear Elen-silya and I have been neglecting you. Are you comfortable?”
“Not very,” Avnea said resentfully.
For some reason, this amused Thorongil, and his teeth flashed white as he laughed. “It will not get better, my lady. However, I forget, you are a child of a noble house, and unused to such discomfort.”
“Thorongil, this is the daughter of Lord Ecthelion, and the sister of the Lord Denethor, as she keeps reminding me,” Orophin said dryly. “Of course she is not used to it. If she was, she’d be in better spirits.”
They laughed. They were mocking her. Avnea felt the heat rise in her blood, and she blurted, “Stop it!” Her fists were clenched. “If my brother was here, he’d make you sorry for saying that – “
“If your brother was here, all of Elen-silya’s careful work would be undone in a trice,” Thorongil corrected. “But I suppose a torn dress isn’t the most comfortable of garb. Here.” He tossed a bundle at her. Surprised, Avnea caught it, and fumbled at the strings.
She found a leather tunic, woolen trousers, and high leather boots and a rough cloak. Although her dress was cold and becoming uncomfortable, she had little wish to put on the crude clothes. “What’s this?”
“Your new garb, my lady,” Thorongil said, and this time he was not laughing. “Best put it on. Go behind a tree if you wish. It’s dark, and we can’t see. Your riders will be looking for a finely clad lady, not a rough-dressed lad.”
“A boy? I can’t pass for a boy,” Avnea said doubtfully.
Although she couldn’t see Thorongil’s face, she had the strange sensation that he was smiling. “We will see. You’re skinny enough, and you don’t have an especially womanly look about you.”
She almost decided not to put the clothes on, just for that. But to stay in her dress was not an option, so she went behind the largest tree she could find and struggled out of the wretched thing. The sensations of leather and wool were strange against her skin, and she still had to limp about with the aid of her oaken staff. She prayed that her leg would heal quickly.
When she had finished, Thorongil said, “Good,” in an approving tone. “Now for the hair. This should suffice, my lady. Here.” There was a soft rasp of metal against leather, and he handed her a dagger. She could see the bright gleam of steel in the night.
“Suffice for what?” Avnea said.
“I thought you’d prefer to cut your hair yourself. I don’t make a good barber.” There was amusement in Thorongil’s tone, curse him.
Avnea muttered something she would have been rebuked for saying if she were at home, and took the dagger. She touched her hair regretfully; she was very proud of it, its rich auburn color, the way it curled down her back. Then she grasped a handful of it, and pull and slash, pull and slash, cut off the thick cinnamon tresses.
“Would you tell me why you snatched me from my home in the dead of night and placed me in the center of your fights?” she demanded. She felt strangely exposed without her hair covering the back of her neck. “You must have some reason besides this Lord Deran.”
Thorongil and Orophin exchanged a look. “My lady, all may not seem clear now, but it will be,” Thorongil said, with what seemed to Avnea to be unaccustomed gentleness. “It will be. Now close your eyes, and sleep.”
Sleeping was about the last thing Avnea wanted to do. Here she stood, clad as a boy, with her hair lying in clumps about her on the ground, in dark woods with two men whom she barely knew, and one was telling her to sleep. “Why?” she said.
Thorongil sighed. “My lady, do you have any skill with a dagger?”
“A little,” Avnea admitted. “Not much. Denethor taught me when he had time off, but I never learned a lot. I can fight, though, a bit.”
“Against your brothers, you can, when they slow to match you and moderate their strokes against yours,” Thorongil replied. “I doubt you could against a real enemy, though. Someone intent on killing you, on slitting your throat and using your warm red blood to water the cold ground.” There was a grim amusement in his tone.
“Thorongil,” Orophin said, somewhat sharply. “Since you seem so concerned with the girl’s instruction, shall I leave it up to you to teach her?”
“You’re doing it again,” Avnea cut in. “Calling me girl.”
“First lesson.” Orophin rose suddenly to his feet; he was taller than she was and still a formidable opponent that she would not have liked going against, had it come to that. “We are equals here, girl. No ladies or lords or kings or queens. In fact, I think it’s time you had a new name. Avnea won’t do. You’re a boy now.”
Thorongil was watching her. “You’re of an age to be my brother,” he said, “so we will call you Thrador. Remember that, if anyone asks you your name, and do work on making your voice deeper and coarser, more of a peasant lad and less of a highbred lady.”
“Is Denethor in danger?” Avnea said. She found that she could not help herself.
Yet again, Thorongil and Orophin exchanged a look. She hated that, hated the feeling of not knowing what was going on around her.
At last, Thorongil answered. “Not at the moment, now, not from outside forces. Always Denethor has been more of a danger to himself than to other men. It will be so now especially, now that the palantír is found.”
“That word, palantír,” Avnea said, “what does that mean?”
“Nothing.” Thorongil spoke smoothly and easily, so she knew he must be lying. “Your brother Denethor, Av – Thrador, is proud and strong, and he is the scion of a noble house. He is not accustomed to having his will crossed. Yet if Lord Deran finds that palantír,” he added, almost to himself, “then let us hope that it will not be.”
“Tell me what a palantír is!” Avnea said.
“Thrador, no.” For the first time, an edge of anger crept into Thorongil’s tone. “As I said, this is not the time. I would hope that you never find out.”
This made Avnea angry, very angry. She said nothing more, for she was still possessed of enough sense to see that arguing with Thorongil and Orophin would lead her nowhere.
She walked to the far side of the clearing, curled beneath the spreading branches of an ancient oak, and closed her eyes, whispering stories under her breath to lull herself to sleep.