“You,” said Ened, “owe me an explanation.”
“May I provide it later?” Valdor gritted out.
“No,” said Ened flatly. “I need to know as soon as possible. That means now.”
The enormous bale of hay in Valdor’s hands was tipping precariously over his head. With a grunt, he heaved it up into the loft of the barn and turned to Ened. “You are aware, of course,” he said, wiping sweat off his forehead, “that that was possibly the worst moment you could have chosen to intervene?”
“I’m aware of it,” said Ened, closing the barn doors to make sure they had privacy. “However, Halla had equally abysmal timing this morning, so I have very few qualms.” She latched the doors shut and turned back to the Elf. “So tell me, Valdor, if you’ve forgiven me for interrupting your work. What does that ring do?”
Valdor looked like he wanted to flay her eight ways from Edoras, but he answered her, for which Ened was grateful. “The ring, as you may be aware, was a prototype for the One Ring of the Third Age.” Ened decided not to interrupt to say that she did indeed know that – it seemed wiser to keep him talking than to assert her knowledge. “The One Ring, you may also be aware, could control all of the other Rings, and thus had to be a most powerful object.
“This ring, fortunately, cannot contain the power of a living being as the One could, nor can it hold sway over any other Rings, even if they were in Arda.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Ened said, attempting to joke. “That thing was starting to scare me.”
“It is not,” said Valdor sternly, “a laughing matter. As I was saying, your ring cannot do what the One could in the Third Age. However, the Dark Lord who made the ring seems to have wanted to see if he could put something within such a ring before he forged the One. Therefore, the ring you carry cannot control the minds of creatures, but it can influence them. Its reach is much weaker than the One’s, but to simple-minded things such as Orcs, it is nigh irresistible.”
“But you said that was the last Orc -“
“The last Orc, yes,” agreed Valdor. “For now. The ring could change that. As I have said, the Elves are a fading race, and the first Orcs were Elves. I fear that, should this ring come into the presence of an Elf, one who is not strong in mind, it might work upon that Elf until it twisted him into an abomination much like an Orc in spirit. Your ring could prove a gateway for new horrors to enter Middle-earth and wreak destruction upon it. It could also work upon the minds of Men, and set within them a wish for slaughter and mayhem.
“And that,” Valdor finished, “is why you must never put it on again, for it could work within you. It is well that you have encased it in metal, for worked metal is long dead and can provide a damper for the ring’s influence. Yet should you take it out again, and surround it with living things, it will call to the minds of those things and twist them into creatures of the Shadow.”
All in all, Ened was not in a good mood at dinner that evening. Haleth’s merriment grated unspeakably on her, Larin’s silence seemed taciturn, Halla was unbearable as always, and even Marwyn was irritating. Fola was the only person at the table Ened could tolerate, so she kept her face directed down to her plate for most of the meal. And here I was, thinking that ring was just something creepy! Of course it had to be the most dangerous thing to hit Middle-earth since gunpowder!
Fola glanced across the table at the princess from Gondor, her forehead furrowing. Haleth had told her that afternoon who Ened was, and where her husband was mildly inclined to pity the girl, Fola felt sorry for her. She couldn’t be more than sixteen, and if Haleth and the king had their way, the child would be carted back off to Gondor as soon as the king’s troops could get to Wunbrand. And that, Fola told herself, is not the kind of ending that she’s imagining for whatever she’s doing. In fact, Fola was somewhat impressed by the fact that a princess had managed to make it out of Gondor and this far into Rohan. “More potatoes?” she asked Ened, passing her the serving dish.
“Thank you,” said Ened, accepting it and spooning mashed potatoes liberally onto her plate. Was it just her, or was there a look of apprehension on Fola’s face? Ened shrugged it off – if it had been there, it wasn’t something she should worry about, not when she had the ring to boggle her mind. She put another forkful of potatoes into her mouth.
Larin glanced at Ened, then glared at Valdor, who was deliberately avoiding Halla’s stare. If that Elves-cursed … Elf … had said something else to Ened, Larin was going to make it his personal mission in life to haunt Valdor until he begged for mercy. Wasn’t it enough that you made her face look like a smashed grape? he thought furiously, shoveling Fola’s excellent steak into his mouth. Do you have to make her jump at shadows, too? Hard on the heels of that thought came guilt, and Larin coughed and reached for his cup to hide his red face.
Something was very wrong. Marwyn had gotten accustomed to apprehension – she was the daughter of a king’s advisor, after all – but this was more than just her parents being concerned over yet another undercover investigation. This apprehension was emanating from every single person at the table. Marwyn frowned at Ened. What was her secret? She had learned long ago that every person alive had at least one secret, but judging from the single-minded way Ened was chowing down on the potatoes, hers was very serious. Hers was probably the key to the letter Da had sent to Edoras. Although, Marwyn reminded herself, that doesn’t mean hers is the only important one. I have to remember that if I’m going to be any kind of spy one day.
Halla pouted. Why wasn’t Valdor looking at her? She was certain he knew that she was staring like anything at him. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be avoiding her so obviously. She had never seen anyone like him before. Suddenly the thought of marrying a Rohirric boy seemed distasteful, even wrong. She had known, with a certainty like a bolt of lightning crashing into her chest, that he was meant for her from the moment she laid eyes on him. Everything would be perfect if he would just look at her. Halla knew if he did, he would realize that they were meant for each other. Except his eyes were steadily focused on his plate – no, that wasn’t true, they were flicking up sometimes toward Ened. Halla glared at the girl. Hatred for Ened had overwhelmed Halla from the instant that Ened had tackled her to the ground, bruising her elbow, jarring the back of her head, and knocking her spine out of alignment. It was only increased by the suspicion that Valdor was in love with Ened. Stupid girl, if I could just get rid of her…
If only that girl would stop staring at him, he might actually be able to eat. As it was, Fola’s excellent cooking stuck like dust in Valdor’s throat, knowing that Halla was watching every mouthful go down. He was on the verge of rounding on her and demanding to be left alone, but caught himself at the last minute. That would not be a gentlemanly action, and Valdor was determined to be as noble as possible since hitting Ened. The simple fact that he had done so scared him to death. Elves of the Tenth Age were greatly reduced beings, but even so, they still had control over themselves. He seemed to have lost that the previous night. It was the first time such a thing had happened to him. Never before had he struck another person. It was that ring asserting itself, he told himself firmly, pushing from his mind what Ened had said. It was the ring. It was nothing within me that made me do it.
The princess was uneasy, Haleth saw, swallowing a gulp of mead. He doubted very much that she had found out about the letter he’d sent to Edoras – the tales of Ened Telcontar that reached Rohan were quite descriptive about the princess’ reactions to anything negative, and he was sure he would know if she was actively displeased. But he was equally sure that she had picked up on something. Perhaps it was only a feeling, but it was something that put her on edge. Haleth shrugged and ate some more potatoes. Feeling or not, there was nothing she could do about events from this point onwards. Once the king read Haleth’s letter, Princess Ened Telcontar would have a one-way escort back to Gondor, and whatever spree she was on would be over. Haleth felt somewhat bad about this, but he had had equally little choice in the matter. Once he had found out that she was a princess, he had been honor-bound to alert Freawine. And that was that.
Edoras was not prohibitively far from Wunbrand. The next day, King Freawine of Rohan was holding court when he received a letter. He recognized the seal instantly, but he forced himself to hear out the case in front of him before he excused himself, slipped into a side corridor, and opened Haleth’s note.
“Sweet shieldmaidens, I knew you could do it, Haleth,” Freawine muttered in relief. The missing Gondorian princess had been quite an issue for the past month, especially since she appeared to have vanished close to the border of Rohan. Being able to produce a wayward Telcontar might induce Beldor to actually make some concessions to Rohan. Freawine didn’t think it was unreasonable to sue for the recovery of Gondor’s original land grant to create the land of Rohan. It would push their southern boundaries down noticeably, and Freawine desperately wanted Rohan to have its own means of trade with the Haradrim. Being closer to the southrons would also keep Rohan from having to pay Gondor’s outrageous tariffs on southron goods. The princess would be a very useful bargaining chip in his efforts to bring that about.
Freawine wasted no time. He was not a man to waste anything. A detachment of Riders had left Edoras for Wunbrand by that evening. His trade routes were so close, Freawine could almost touch them.