I am so sorry for the long wait between chapters. Much thanks to Alassë, Princess of Númenor, who nags me to get these chapters out!
When Avnea awoke, it was already dawn, although she thought she had only been asleep for a few minutes. Rose light rimmed the eastern edge of the world, and the clouds framing the rising sun were red.
She sat up and automatically her hand went to the shaven stubble of her hair. Thorongil lay nearby, wrapped in his cloak, and his breathing was deep and even. He was still asleep, but even then, his hand rested on his sword, which lay on the ground beside him.
Orophin lay nearby, but his eyes were open, and he was staring up at the sunrise. He was so motionless that Avnea wondered if he was in thought, or perhaps meditating.
“Is there anything to eat?” she asked him in an undertone.
Orophin did not answer.
Wondering if perhaps he was ignoring her on purpose, Avnea tried again, louder. “I said, is there anything to eat?”
Still, Orophin ignored her.
Annoyed, Avnea tried a third time. “I said – “
There was a rustle from behind her, and Thorongil sat up, shaking the leaves and twigs out of his hair. He looked at her and smiled. “Oh, I see Elen-silya failed to warn you. Elves sleep with their eyes open.”
This was passing strange, but Avnea did not mention it. Relieved to have someone to talk to, she said to Thorongil, “Do you have anything to eat?”
“A bit, if you want the sausage and cheese of last night,” Thorongil said, standing and sheathing his sword. “Or we could try Elen-silya’s provisions. Here.”
He bent down and extracted something from Orophin’s pack. It was a small package, wrapped in leaves.
“What’s that?” said Avnea.
“Elvish waybread, Thrador,” Thorongil said, and she thought that he purposefully called her by her new name. “Just a bite,” he added, laughing, when she snatched the cake from his hand. “It’s filling stuff.”
Avnea nibbled at it and was surprised to discover that he was right. She took a single bite, then passed the cake back to Thorongil, who wrapped it.
“What is a palantír?” she asked. Her questions of the night before were not easily forgotten.
“Something dangerous, that is all you should worry about at this moment,” Thorongil answered. “Let me wake Elen-silya, and we’ll move on.”
He bent over Orophin, but he had scarcely touched his shoulder when Orophin sat bolt upright, snatching his knife out and holding it before him. His eyes were wide and unseeing, and for a moment, Avnea was frightened of him.
Then Orophin heaved a sigh, and laughed ruefully, and his eyes, already open, at last saw. “I see that I haven’t let myself slip,” he said, slipping the knife back into its sheath. “I hope I didn’t shave you too finely, Thorongil.”
“No, although you did surprise me,” Thorongil replied, laughing and holding out a hand to help Orophin to his feet. Orophin ignored it and sprang up on his own, then looked at them.
“Very well,” he said. “We’re still too close to Gondor. We need to ride. Don’t forget, Thrador, you know none of the errand-riders constantly abroad. Look down and mumble if we should meet one.”
Orophin leapt onto the back of his silver, Thorongil mounted as well, and Avnea reluctantly swung to Beida’s back. Her leg was hurting again, and she held it at a clumsy angle.
“To the North, then?” said Orophin.
“To the North.” Thorongil gave a roguish grin and kicked his horse, and the dust rose amid a flurry of hoofbeats as they rode away.
Denethor walked down a hall of the White Tower, angry and dejected. Why in the name of the Stewards had that wretched Elf stolen his sister? They had done nothing to him that merited revenge – they had taken him in, tended his wounds, given him room. And how did he repay them? He stole Avnea, lady of Gondor.
Denethor turned a corner. The expression on his face must have been fiercer than he thought, for the serving maids scattered, looking meek.
Pleased for the respite from their nervous chatter – half thought Avnea was dead, the other half opined that she had been wed against her will to some savage wildling – he went down the hall, turned another corner, and nearly ran headlong into Lord Deran of Minas Anor.
“My lord Denethor!” Deran said at once, bowing. “I heard the news of your sister. Terrible, most terrible, if I ever do find the brute that stole such a fair jewel, I shall personally – “
“I don’t care what you would do,” Denethor barked. “I will handle the Elf myself. I will make him sorry that he ever laid hands on the blood of Anárion.”
Lord Deran, looking immensely pleased, nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes, I understand perfectly, my lord. Just do me the small favor of letting me ride with you. I am to marry her, you know.”
This thought cheered Denethor not at all, but he was the heir of the Steward, and Ecthelion’s eldest son, and it was his job to be polite and chivalrous, even when he was having delicious visions of seizing a certain Dúnedan about the neck and throttling him. He took a deep breath and smiled. “I know. My heart is cheered for thinking of the day when you shall be my brother.”
This sufficiently mollified Lord Deran, and he hurried off. Denethor glared after his back, then continued on his way.
He had barely gone two paces when he crashed into someone else. However, this was a face he was more pleased to see. It was his brother, Achlinn. There was the same sort of disgust and disquiet on his face that Denethor had seen much among the people in the White Tower.
Achlinn was wearing riding gear, and his sword was sheathed at his side. He wore a dark cloak with a hood, and there was no Tree of Gondor worked on his tunic as was customary for the sons of Ecthelion. He quickly stepped away, but not before Denethor had recognized him. He grabbed his brother’s arm and whirled him around to face him.
“Achlinn son of Ecthelion. What foolishness is in your mind?”
Achlinn did not answer, hoping that perhaps even now Denethor would mistake him for another. Denethor sighed and pulled the hood back. Achlinn’s dark hair, flecked with red, spilled down his shoulders.
“Denethor, let me go! I was going to find our sister! That Elf will never get away with kidnapping her as long as Avnea still has at least one brother to defend her.”
Denethor shook his head and sighed. “Achlinn, are you mad? Father will never let you ride out alone. He would insist on guards, soldiers, standard-bearers – “
“I know! And I was trying to slip out before he noticed – ” Achlinn began heatedly.
“Not unless I come with you,” Denethor interrupted.
Achlinn looked at him a moment in shock, then laughed. “Denethor, you are indeed a hard man to fool. So be it, then. Gather your things. A few extra provisions wouldn’t hurt. We shall go together.”
Scarce an hour later, the eldest and the youngest son of Ecthelion II of Gondor stepped into the stables, hooded and cloaked and girt with sword, and saddled their horses. They were dressed plainly, and Denethor had left instruction that if their father should inquire as to their whereabouts, he was to be told that they rode abroad on an errand of great importance.
They had almost reached the gates of Minas Tirith when there was an undignified clattering of hooves behind them, and Lord Deran came galloping up on a black courser, swinging around to neatly interpose himself between them and the heavy portcullis.
“My lords! I saw you depart, and guess at your purpose, I hope not wrongly. I beg leave to accompany you. This is my fair betrothed we speak of!”
Achlinn shot an uneasy look at Denethor from beneath his hood.
“Indeed, you did guess our purpose rightly,” said Denethor, resisting all urges to put his heels in his stallion and leave Lord Deran to eat his dust, “but secrecy is of the utmost, and your presence is not required.”
“But – but – my lord!” said Lord Deran. “I am to wed your sister when we bring her safe back, and I cannot abide the thought of her in some rough wildling hands!”
“Be quiet,” said Denethor. “I would go with only my brother.”
Lord Deran looked displeased by this. Suddenly his voice had lost its syrupy, flattering tone, and had become something quite different, something harder and colder.
“So, you would leave me behind, when all I seek is to do as you do? I would search for the lady, even as you would, and if you do not let me accompany you, I will search for her on my own terms, terms perhaps not to your liking.”
“Be silent!” Denethor had heard all he cared to. It took a great effort of will not to go for his sword. “Perhaps, behind the walls of Minas Anor, Deran, you have authority, but here, in Minas Tirith, I am still the lord and Steward’s heir. My word is law. Now, you are obstructing me. Will you remove yourself willingly from the way, or must I ride you down?”
Lord Deran shot a black look at both of them before yanking his horse’s head around and pulling it out of their path. “There, and I surely hope I haven’t given insult to the little lordlings.”
Denethor ignored it, rode past, and called for the gatekeepers. With a low rumbling, the gate swung aside, and he and Achlinn rode through and onto the wide field of the Pelennor.
Avnea, Thorongil, and Orophin rode for most of the day with little rest and little food. The wind felt strange in Avnea’s new-cut hair, and the man’s garb coarse and rough. She had left her dress behind, thinking that there would now be little use for it.
Avnea looked down at her finger and was surprised to discover that she had managed not to lose Denethor’s ring. It was still there, somewhat muddier for the wear, but intact. A wave of homesickness rose in her, and she looked down before either Thorongil or Orophin could see the treacherous water in her eyes.
In the late afternoon, Orophin stopped. They had left the dense thickets of forest behind and ridden out onto open plain, with dun-colored mountains rising in ripples on the horizon. It made Avnea feel strange, to be so far from civilization and home.
“Here,” said Orophin, climbing down off his horse and holding out his hand. “Give me your ring.”
Avnea felt a sudden wave of possessiveness sweep through her, and she took the ring off her finger and clutched it tight with both hands. “No,” she said, “I won’t. It was my mother’s, and my brother gave it to me to keep. You can’t have it.”
Thorongil and Orophin exchanged a look. “Give me the ring,” Orophin repeated, as if she was a small child.
Slowly, Avnea opened her hand. Orophin took the ring, then brought his arm back and threw it. The silver flashed in the sinking sun for a moment and spun away through the air, then sank into the grass, vanished.
It startled Avnea badly, and made her anger, kept beneath the surface from the time being for her curiosity, boil over again. “What in the name of Anárion do you think you’re doing? If we were in Gondor, I could have you imprisoned for that – “
“Firstly, we are not in Gondor, and are not like to be again for a good while,” Orophin cut in brusquely. “Secondly, I am trying to keep you from being found, do you understand? That ring is the only thing that will convince your riders that you are lost.”
Tears boiled under Avnea’s eyelids. “That belonged to my mother!”
She looked back and forth at Thorongil and Orophin, but found no support from either of them. Her fists clenched on Beida’s reins. “If you’re going to do this to me, I refuse to go another foot until you tell me what’s going on! This is about that palantír, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” said Orophin, with more than a touch of his previous asperity. “In all the world, there were only seven. The Palantíri are seeing stones. Very powerful. Very dangerous. One has been found, and Thorongil and I are trying to lay claim to it before…others can.” The way in which he said others made a cold chill run down Avnea’s back.
“And what does this have to do with you stealing me from Minas Tirith?” she said.
Thorongil and Orophin exchanged a glance. Again. Avnea was growing to hate that. It meant they knew something she didn’t.
“As I have said, there are others looking for the palantír,” said Orophin. “Including, I am sure, Lord Deran.”
“Lord Deran?” The idea of him having a powerful, magical stone made Avnea uneasy. She was starting to think there was something to him besides his vapid flattery.
“And, if he finds it, how better to cement himself as a force to be reckoned with than to marry the daughter of Gondor?” Thorongil added. “The strongest Kingdom of Men, the home of the heirs of Anárion…and of Isildur, if they live.”
Orophin shot a warning look at Thorongil, and immediately the other seemed to think he had said too much. He subsided into the background.
“Have you heard enough now?” said Orophin, looking up into the sunset. “Or would you like a complete history of them?”
“That’s enough.” Avnea shifted on Beida’s back; the wound in her leg was starting to throb again. “So you’re saying that Lord Deran wants to marry me to make himself….well…stronger?”
“Yes. If he was married to the sister of the Steward’s heir, and he had a palantír – who would dare refuse him? In time, he could even find a way to see that his line is the one that is the house of the Stewards.”
“I don’t like this,” said Avnea. “Not at all.”
“Neither do we,” Thorongil put in. “So you see why Elen-silya had to take you away? It was for your own good….and for Gondor’s well-being as well. Remember, you are Thrador now. You won’t be Avnea again for a while, I think. Now come on. It’s getting darker.”
Thorongil set his heels into his horse again, and galloped off into the spreading ring of red light from the setting sun.
Orophin looked back at Avnea, said, “Come on,” and followed.
They had barely gone a league when Orophin’s horse reared and shied. Frowning, the Elf laid a hand on the beast’s neck, then stood in the stirrups to look into the sunset. He sniffed the wind, and the disquiet on his face deepened.
“What?” said Avnea.
“Orcs,” said Orophin grimly. “A large band of them, some two hundred I would say by the stench. I had hoped that the power of the Dark Land would remain sleeping, but I see now that it has not.”
He urged his horse off the narrow dirt track they were following and into the underbrush. Thorongil kicked his stallion and wheeled about. His hand went to his sword hilt. “We should fight.”
“Be sensible, Dúnadan!” Orophin barked. “Two hundred of them against three of us, and the girl not even any good with a dagger? It’d be certain death.”
Avnea rode over to join Orophin, concealing herself in the scrub. Then she looked up to see that Thorongil still hadn’t stirred, a statue staring into the wind, heavy with the scent of orc. “Aníron undómiel…” he murmured to himself. “And none less than the king of Gondor and Arnor reunited should claim her…”
Avnea stared at Thorongil in astonishment. Could he mean what she thought he meant?
“Thorongil!” Orophin hissed. “Estel!”
At last, that seemed to catch Thorongil’s attention. He wheeled his horse around and rode to join them, dismounting and pulling thick clumps of hedge over his horse. Then he dropped flat beside Avnea, peering through the small gaps in the bushes.
A second later, Avnea felt the earth shaking, and a dull roar grew in the distance that came steadily closer. She stared through the bushes, gripped with a strange fascination.
Then she saw them. A dark wave, undulating across the land, and a harsh song of snorts and shouts. Torn black banners fluttering in the wind, bearing the legend of a great fiery Eye.
Thorongil was tense, hand clutching at the hilt of his sword. Avnea cast a worried eye up at the restless horses, praying that they wouldn’t panic and break free at precisely the wrong moment.
They had almost gone when suddenly the last of the Orcs stopped. His small, cruel eyes peered out from beneath the beaklike protuberance of his helmet. He sniffed, then turned and spat something to his companion.
The other Orc nodded, gargling wetly, and pulled a rusted scimitar from its sheath. The two of them advanced on the cluster of bushes where Avnea, Thorongil, and Orophin lay hidden, cackling with excitement.
Before either Avnea or Orophin could stop him, Thorongil leapt free, snatching his sword from its sheath. For a moment, it seemed to Avnea’s eyes as if the blade burned with white fire, terrible and beautiful and deadly all at once.
There was a scream, and she blinked bright haze from her eyes. The Orcs collapsed, dead, as Thorongil drew the blade of his sword from their bodies. It was stained black with blood.
The rest of the troop had already gone on ahead, and did not even seem to notice the sudden demise two of their number had met. Thorongil wiped his sword on the ground, then sheathed it again.
“Lady Elbereth, Thorongil, but what are you doing?” Orophin said, tossing the cover of the bushes away and stepping out. “Asking for death?”
“I have never asked for death, and I don’t intend to start now,” Thorongil replied, digging the toe of his boot into one of the dead Orcs’ ribs. “The filth would have butchered us, given the chance. It’s probably better cover. Here, Thrador, put this on.”
Thorongil handed Avnea a heavy tunic of orcish armor. The chain mail links were filthy, but the garment was sound. With it went a pair of black gauntlets with small metal discs sewn into the back and a thick leather belt.
Avnea stared at it in revulsion. “First boys’ clothes, and now this?”
“Do you have a skin that will repel arrows?” said Thorongil. “Will your bare arm stop a blade? Put it on. It’ll keep you well enough.”
Avnea shrugged most reluctantly into the hauberk and pulled the gauntlets over her hands. They were rough and unwashed, and she felt dirtier within a moment. “Do I have to?” she said, struggling to fasten the belt.
Orophin laughed, watching her. “You look a proper little orc,” he said. “All that’s missing is the ferocious scowl and willingness to kill anything that moves. You might wish to add a helmet, as well.”
Avnea tugged what seemed to be the cleanest helmet off the Orc’s head and shoved it on her own. It was far too large, and obviously the Orc hadn’t been over-concerned with cleanliness. It reeked.
“Why?” she said, coughing.
“Just for a short while,” Thorongil promised. “Then we’ll find you something better.”
Darkness had swept across the sky now, and the cold stars blossomed. Avnea shivered beneath the layers of cold metal.
“Now we can – ” Orophin began, but no sooner had he started when the earth started to shake again.
“Not more Orcs!” Thorongil muttered, going for his sword.
But it did not seem to be Orcs, unless Orcs rode horses and flew blue banners. There were not many of them, twenty at most, but they saw Avnea and immediately altered their course toward her. Many snatched bright swords from long sheathes.
“Wait!” Thorongil yelled, and threw himself in the way. There was a ringing shiver of steel when swords met, and suddenly he flew backwards, cracked his head against a stone, and did not move.
Orophin roared. He snatched a dagger from his side and threw it. It whistled past a rider’s head with only inches to spare and landed somewhere in the grass beyond.
A firm hand gripped Avnea and hoisted her like a bag of turnips across a saddle. She yelled and kicked, trying to twist her head around to bite her captor, and as she did, her helmet fell off.
She saw then that the man had raised a dagger above her head, obviously intending to kill her, but when her helmet fell away, she saw shock in his eyes.
“A girl!” he shouted to his companions. “It’s a girl!”
“I’m not a girl!” Avnea said, trying desperately to sound like Thrador. “Put me down!”
Too late. She saw Thorongil lying motionless, Orophin running after the horsemen as hard as he could go, and then darkness.