The wretched horse had stopped running as the sun was rising. Stiff in every part of her anatomy, Ened hobbled off the horse’s back, glowering at it as her attempt to walk failed miserably. From her vantage point on the ground, crumpled in a heap with shaking and cramped legs, Ened could see the horse calmly cropping grass. I hate you, you know that, horse? Hate you, hate you, hate you.
One thing was for sure – she wasn’t going any farther for as long as she possibly could. She needed to recover both her body and her wits – it seemed that they’d stayed back at the Ranger’s Rest. Ened crawled painfully to a tree and leaned back against it, trying not to wince as the bark rubbed against her aching back. “I hate you,” she muttered aloud for good measure. The horse did not appear concerned.
After a nice long rest (Ened finally gave up on the tree and just sprawled out on the ground, mourning for the silk gown but too much in pain to care overly), Ened felt capable of thought again. However, when she put her mind to the task of planning out a route, she ran into two insurmountable roadblocks – she didn’t know where Valinor was, and she didn’t know where she was, either. And without those, there didn’t seem to be a lot she could do.
At that point, it was getting on toward lunch, and Ened realized with frustration that she didn’t have any food with her. That was one thing too many, and she picked up a clod of earth and hurled it against a nearby tree with a wordless grunt of rage, pain, and hunger. The dirt thumped softly against the trunk and splintered, falling onto the ground in little chunks. It helped a little, but not much.
“It looks like I have to go somewhere on you,” Ened muttered, glaring balefully at the horse. She pulled herself upright, staggered over to the animal, and threw herself ungracefully into the saddle. Nudging the horse this time, reins in hand, Ened urged it forward along the small path snaking before them, no more than a dirt road which branched into a fork before long.
“Oh, lovely,” said Ened aloud. The horse twitched its ears. Ened supposed that if she’d felt any fondness for the beast, the motion would have been adorable. “All right, then,” she said. “You got us here, you can get us out of here. Pick a road.”
With no hesitation, the horse trotted forward, taking the right-hand fork. Ened hung on grimly as the jouncing ride jolted every one of her sore parts. “Knacker’s yard,” she muttered, “that’s where you’re headed when this is over, you miserable creature. Straight to the knacker to be made into cat food.” The horse whinnied unconcernedly and increased its gait.
By evening, Ened could hardly see that they had made much progress at all. She and the horse were still on the little dirt road, she’d done nothing to shake off whatever pursuit there might be, she had nowhere to sleep except the ground, and there was nothing for her to eat. “Lovely,” she growled, pulling the horse to a stop. “Well, we’re bedding down here for the night,” she told it, dismounting with increased stiffness and pain. “Go lie down or something.” The horse, once Ened had managed to figure out how to take the saddle and bridle off, stretched its neck down and out and nibbled delicately on the grass. “Oh, that’s right!” Ened yelled, her meager patience with the creature now completely exhausted. “Rub it in, why don’t you? Go ahead, don’t let me stop you! Chomp, chomp, friend, eat all you want, why should I care that I’m starving and you’ve got a feast?”
The horse didn’t even lift its head.
The emptiness in her stomach felt like a huge hole bored right through her. Groaning, Ened sat down hard and banged her rear parts on a tree root. Yelling some choice curses that had been favorites of the Institute guards and rubbing the smarting areas of her anatomy, Ened settled down in a different spot, much more gingerly, and pulled the wool riding skirt out of her satchel. She’d forgotten to bring a blanket, too – the skirt would have to suffice.
From some indefinable distance away, the horse snorted as it relieved itself, reminding Ened that her bladder was somehow full, even though she’d eaten nothing. Muttering, she got to her feet and performed her bodily functions, wishing that she could clean her teeth as well – already she could almost feel them getting coated. Her makeshift blanket and spot of ground didn’t feel nearly as comfortable when she lay back down, and it took her a long time to get to sleep.
The rest of that week passed mostly like that. Ened kept the horse to a walk, since anything faster jolted her entire body horrendously, which is why it took a week to get to the next town. On the third day, Ened found a few mulberries growing on a pitiful tree by the road. They were mostly still green, but Ened was starving at that point, so she picked all the ones that had even a hint of purple and gobbled them down. Her hands were sticky for the rest of the day, and her appetite was only sharpened by the taste of food. When she rode slowly into the small town of Telwen’s Ford, Ened felt like she could eat an oliphaunt.
No fiddling around, she told herself. This time, I’m going straight to the closest inn and I’m eating everything they can put in front of me! Feeling encouraged by the prospect of a bath and a meal, Ened nudged the horse’s sides. The horse snorted happily and broke into a brisk, bouncing trot that rattled Ened’s teeth.
Luckily, the inn wasn’t too far away.
“Stable him and feed him,” Ened ordered the boy who came running out to take the horse’s reins as she pulled up in the inn’s yard. Not even waiting for the boy to acknowledge her order, Ened wrestled the satchel off the saddle and fished out the guard’s purse from its depths, heading as fast as she could for the inn door.
It was loud and bright inside the inn, blacking out the coming darkness from the windows. Ened made her way to a table and sat down, tossing her satchel on the chair beside her and propping up her head on her hands. This time, she noticed, no one gave her a second thought, instead of carefully not looking at her. She wondered if it had anything to do with the grunginess of her overall appearance.
A maidservant came over quickly enough to take Ened’s order. “Roast chicken,” said Ened quickly – she’d worked it out on the ride into Telwen’s Ford – “some bread with butter, a mug of ale, a fried tomato, and whatever soup is hot.” The maidservant looked surprised, doing a double take at Ened’s slender form, doubt that she could eat all that written plainly in her face – but she didn’t say anything, and she brought the food with a speed that gratified Ened’s roaring stomach. The chicken in particular was excellent, but it was all good. Ened devoured it and ordered more bread and ale when the maidservant came back to clear away the used plates.
While Ened had been eating, true darkness had fallen, and every table now had two or three lit candles, as well as the lamps hanging around the walls. It was by these lights that the bartender got up on top of a table in the center of the room and bellowed, “Your attention, good people!” in what Ened now assumed to be the characteristic deafening bellow perfected by bartenders all over Middle-earth. It worked – he got the attention of every single person in the common room. “Tonight,” said the bartender, “we have a special treat for you! I’ve just discovered that one of our guests tonight is a professional bard!” There were a few cheers that sounded more than a little intoxicated, but mostly the sounds that filled the common room were grumbles and mutterings, as in, “Oh, for Elves’ sake leave us alone and let us drink!” Ened was solidly in the latter camp – the ale was very good, and the last thing she wanted at the moment was a bard. Stupid sentimental nonsense, she thought, chewing another piece of bread.
The bartender glared around the room at his unappreciative patrons and said, even more loudly, “So I would like to call Master Larin up here to entertain us on this fine night!” Apathetic grumbles issued from the people – the cheerers seemed to have been intimidated into silence. The bartender leaped agilely down from the table and a young man came out of the crowd rather unwillingly to take his place on top of it, a large and ungainly instrument case slung across his back. The case was what drew Ened’s attention. She watched curiously over the top of her mug as Master Larin unslung the case and removed from it a burnished chestnut-brown lap harp. He has a harp? Ened thought, surprised. The bards who came to Minas Tirith all had violins or flutes or modern instruments of that kind. Ened had hardly ever seen a harp before – it was, after all, a very old instrument, and not an easy one to carry.
Master Larin plucked a few strings experimentally, and then settled down cross-legged on the table, positioning the harp between his legs. “This,” he announced, “is the lay of the Princess Telwen of Gondor, and of the strange things that befell her in this very town.” That, at least, got a reaction from the inn’s patrons, and Master Larin bent his head to the harp, a slight hopeful smile touching his lips. His fingers danced over the strings, plucking out a bounding tune that he played for a few measures before he began to sing.
“‘Twas on a bright and sunny morn,
In a town by the river Morduin,
When the fair spring day was newly born,
And the bonny lambs were newly shorn,
Telwen came walking all forlorn
As the river’s waves were rolling in.”
The tune was a very simple one, but it was catchy, and eventually the villagers, who all seemed to know the song by heart, were joining in on the chorus:
“Sing hey for the land and the sky and the sea,
Sing hey for the river Morduin!
Lift me a cup and I’ll drink it all up
And sing hey for the princess Telwen!”
Despite her disdain of bards, Ened found herself laughing not far into the song. The basic story was that Princess Telwen of Gondor had run away from Minas Tirith to what was now Telwen’s Ford to escape with her one true love from an arranged marriage. Her beloved, however, was held up in his escape, and Telwen had to outwit her unwanted betrothed by pretending to drown in the river Morduin. As luck would have it, her beloved finally made it to the town in time to hear from the suitor that Telwen was dead, and he was about to go back in sorrow when out of the river came Telwen herself, not about to let her true love get away. He realized instantly what had happened, but the unfortunate suitor thought it was a ghost that was riding away with one of Minas Tirith’s stable boys, and he was never the same again. Master Larin’s lilting, wry voice fit the absurd song perfectly, and by the final chorus, Ened was obliged to admit to herself that, since he wasn’t playing ridiculous songs about the tragedy of love, he might be worth listening to.
Once the laughter from the “Lay of Telwen’s Ford” had died down, Master Larin started in on another rousing folk song. He sang it well, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as the first one, and while the villagers liked it well enough not to talk through it, Ened was starting to get bored. She turned her attention back to her bread and ale, biting off large pieces that would have scandalized Jeniniel and chewing noisily. She relegated the song to background noise, and barely noticed when the song ended.
In the lessening noise after the end of the second song, Master Larin retuned a few strings of the lap harp. The loud talk returned to the common room. Master Larin was starting a new song, but it was much softer, and Ened gave up trying to hear after a few fruitless minutes. Probably another stupid love song, she thought, disappointed. And here I was thinking that maybe bards weren’t all sentimental idiots.
Then Master Larin began to sing. His voice carried across the common room, even over the noise, and his voice was sunshine and sweet honey and swiftly flowing rivers.
“In the West where the sun lays its head,
Away from the land, from the road and the bed,
Far over the sea where it flows into lore,
You will find the isle of fair Valinor.”
Ened stared at him. Did he just say what I think he said? she thought, completely floored. He did, didn’t he? He absolutely did! He knows about Valinor! She barely heard the rest of the song, she was so astounded by what she’d just found out. If he knows about Valinor…then he might know how to get there!
It took Ened by surprise when Master Larin struck the last quivering note on his harp. The absence of the song created a sudden lull in the common room, which was quickly taken care of by even louder talking. Master Larin inclined his head graciously to his ignoring audience and hopped off the table, slipping the harp back into its case. As he headed back to his table, Ened watched Master Larin as if her life depended on him. Well…it sort of does. If he doesn’t know how to get to Valinor, that’s goodbye to the quest.
Ened ate fast so that when he stood and went to the stairs, she could get up and follow him. She tailed him to the end of the inn, and was starting up the stairs after him, confident that he hadn’t noticed her following him, when he said out of nowhere, “Miss, could you stop that?”
Ened froze. So much for him not noticing. Drat. “Sorry,” she muttered.
Master Larin turned around. “All right. Apology accepted.” He smiled noncommittally at her. “But I would like to go up to my room alone.” He turned back around and started up the stairs again.
Ask him now, you’re never going to get a better chance… “Master Larin!” Ened called.
“What?” He turned again to face her. “Miss, I’m really tired.”
“You sang about Valinor,” she said stubbornly, starting up the stairs after him.
He shrugged. “What of it? I could sing about Valinor, I could sing about the Harad Conquest. Elves, I could even sing about the War of the Jewels and make things up! What does it matter what ancient myth I make a song out of?”
Ened girded her loins. This was the tough part, the one where he was bound to think she was crazy. “I have to go to Valinor,” she said. “I thought since you sang about it, you might know…”
Master Larin was already shaking his head. “Miss, go back down and get a room for the night. You’ll feel much better once you’ve slept off the ale. A cup of hot tea does wonders for hangovers, by the way.”
“No!” Ened snapped, stamping her foot in indignation. “No – wait a minute! I mean it, I’m not crazy, I’m not drunk -“
He had gone – rather quickly – into his room and shut the door by the time she managed to stammer out the last few words. Ened sputtered vainly for a few minutes, blinking in shock at the door he’d pretty much shut in her face, before uttering a very nasty word and storming back into the common room, where she promptly managed to stub her toe on a table leg.
“Problems, miss?” asked someone. Ened looked up and recognized the maidservant who’d taken her order.
“Yes,” Ened groaned. “A lot of problems.”
The maidservant smiled. “Would you like a room?”
Oh, for Elves’ sake, does she think I’m drunk too? But…a room would be nice, and a bath… “Yes,” Ened said again. “I would.”
“Come on then,” said the maidservant. “We’re almost full, but there are a few rooms still available.” She led Ened back to the end of the common room and up the stairs again, stopping at a door only a few rooms beyond Master Larin’s. “Here, this’ll do,” she said, unlocking the door and pushing it open. “All yours for the night. D’you want anything else, miss?”
“A cup of hot tea does wonders for hangovers, by the way.” Ened glowered at the voice of Master Larin in her head, before she realized that in fact, a cup of tea sounded perfect. “A cup of tea?” Ened asked carefully, hoping that the maidservant didn’t think she was drunk. “And a bath?”
“Cup of tea coming right up,” said the maidservant cheerfully. “And we just got bathing rooms put in some of our rooms,” she added proudly. Ened was impressed – she would hardly have expected the inn at Telwen’s Ford of all tiny places to have such a modern convenience as personal bathing rooms. “I’ll bring you up some hot water with your tea,” the maidservant promised as she shut the door behind Ened.
There’s only one thing to be done, Ened reflected. I’ve come this far, I might as well open his door.
She opened it. As she’d remembered, he hadn’t locked it. She slipped in and closed the door quickly behind her. He was lying sprawled out on the bed, and now that he was asleep, Ened realized that he was at most only three years older than her. Considering his perfect voice, that was something of a surprise. “Master Larin?” she called softly.
He didn’t budge.
I guess I have to shake him. Ened inched over to the bed, stifling a momentary yelp as she wondered what Jeniniel would say if she could see her daughter at that moment, and shook Master Larin’s shoulder.
He started awake instantly, sitting up and gasping, “Who what where why huh?”
Ened turned what would have been a guffaw of laughter into a cough. “Master Larin, it’s -” She realized suddenly that she’d never told him her name. He would have nothing to identify her by. Feeling incredibly stupid, she finished, “It’s me.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Who’s that?” he groaned, squinting through the darkness.
She could see the moment on his face when he recognized her. “Oh, Elves!” he snapped. “What are you doing, miss? Will you please leave my room?”
Ened grinned. “Master Larin, calm down. I’m not drunk, I had a bath and a cup of tea, and I have to go to Valinor.”
“Not that fool thing again!” Master Larin rolled over and stuck his head under his pillow.
Ened pulled the pillow away. “I’m not joking, I’m absolutely serious. Will you come with me?”
“No.” He reached out and grabbed the pillow back. “I may be a bard, but I’m not so desperate that I have to go adventuring with a lunatic. Now go away, or I’ll get the innkeeper.”
Ened could have roared with frustration. Luckily, there was a method of blackmail at hand.
“That’s it, miss, I’m getting the innkeeper.”
“No, Master Larin, I really think you need to see this.”
He turned around, and his face went absolutely white with fury. “Put it down!” he ordered.
Ened permitted herself a smile as she dangled his lap harp out of the window, seven feet above the ground. “This harp is pretty old, isn’t it?” she asked conversationally. “It’ll break nicely if I drop it, right?”
“Put. It. Down,” Master Larin said tightly.
“Not until you promise to come with me to Valinor!” Ened snapped. “Master Larin, I like your harp. I think it’s very pretty. But I need to know how to get to Valinor. Now will you come, or shall I drop the harp?”
Master Larin’s fingers were twitching, as if he wanted nothing more than to put them around Ened’s neck and squeeze, and he was still perfectly white. But finally he gritted out between his teeth, “All right, I’ll come. Just put the harp down!”
Ened took the instrument in from the window. “Not yet,” she said. “I’ll take it outside your room while you get dressed and packed. Then we’ll go out to the stables and get our horses. Then you get your harp back.”
She scrambled out of the room before he could find something to throw at her.
In less than fifteen minutes, Master Larin opened his door. “Hello?” he called. “You there?”
“Of course,” said Ened from behind the door, making him jump. “You did leave money to pay for your room, right?”
Master Larin looked as though if Ened were not holding his harp hostage, he would have delivered a slap that would have stung for days. “Unlike some,” he gritted between his teeth, “I am not a thief. Of course I did. Now can we go?”
Ened decided she’d provoked him enough for one night and led the way to the stables. For once she managed to pull off the walking-silently thing – she could barely hear the stairs creak under her. I ought to walk around with stolen harps more often, she thought.
When they reached the stables, Master Larin stopped short. “Fair’s fair, you insane girl. Give me my harp. Now.”
“Not yet,” said Ened stubbornly. “Saddle your horse and I’ll saddle mine, and then I’ll lash the harp to your saddle -“
“You’ll what?” he demanded, horrified. “No, you will not!” He groaned and ran a hand through his hair. “All right. Now you listen to me. We’ll saddle our respective horses, and then I will show you how to secure my irreplaceable harp. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Ened said mutinously.
She had to rest the harp against her legs while she saddled the impossible horse, which she had decided to call Horse. It made saddling Horse very uncomfortable, but she wanted to be sure that Master Larin wouldn’t sneak up and grab the harp away from her. Honestly, Ened, snapped a small voice, you don’t even know the man – boy – person – and already you’re making assumptions! Ened chose to ignore the voice and finished saddling Horse. “Done,” she said cheerfully.
“All right,” said Master Larin. “Bring the harp here.”
“Uh-uh,” said Ened forcefully. “I think we’d better secure it to my saddle, so you don’t run away with it.”
He sounded positively outraged. “What kind of immoral creature do you take me for?”
She shrugged. “A human. In my experience humans do some strange and immoral things.”
The small explosion that followed her words was only Master Larin failing to contain his temper. “All right!” he growled. He was gritting his teeth again. “Fine! My harp goes on your saddle. Just keep that oversized beast of yours under control, all right?”
“I’ll try,” Ened said dubiously.
“You’d better succeed,” he said darkly. “Where are you? I can’t see a thing.”
Ened held out her arm for him to locate her by. He was a lot closer than she’d thought, and she ended up smacking him in the face. “Sorry!” she gasped.
“I’ll bet,” Master Larin muttered. “Where’s the harp? All right. At least it’s in its case. The harp and case fit into this saddlebag -” He held the saddlebag out, and Ened took it from him, sliding the harp into it. “And then the saddlebag buckles to the side of the saddle, like this…” He found the buckles on the saddlebag and fastened them to the saddle. “There.” His hand lingered on the saddlebag longingly. “You keep that safe, understand? If anything happens to it, not only am I leaving you, I will personally assemble and lead a hunt all over Middle-earth for you. Are we clear on that?”
Ened gulped. “Perfectly clear.”
“Good.” Master Larin sounded as though he wanted to say more, but he restrained himself and only mounted his own horse. Ened clambered up onto Horse’s back, and they rode out together from the Telwen’s Ford inn.