“It could be worse,” Ened ventured.
Larin just looked at her. “How?” he asked.
She shrugged. “It could be hailing.”
“Instead of raining, you mean?”
Ened nodded. Larin rolled his eyes and squinted through the sheets of rain. Ened heard him mutter under his breath, “At least if it was hailing, I’d have a chance of seeing the road.” She poked him in the back, and smiled innocently when he whipped his head around accusingly. “No poking,” he said sternly.
Ened groaned. “No poking, no questions – what am I supposed to do?”
“Well, for starters, you could try learning to ride.”
“I can ride!” Ened said, stung. “I stayed on Horse when we were being chased by the guards!”
“Yes,” said Larin patiently, “but right now you’re sitting on my poor horse like a sack of potatoes. Carry some of your own weight, the horse has more than enough to do on his own. And the other thing you can do is cultivate silence.”
“Yes, sir,” Ened grumbled, purposefully smacking Larin on the back of the head with a salute.
“Ouch!” he yelped. “That’s it, Ened. Silence and stillness, or I’m dumping you off the horse.”
One of the things Ened had learned about her companion was that when he made an outrageous threat, he often kept it. She shut up and clasped her hands around his waist.
Her leg bumped against her satchel, and she felt a jolt race up her leg from the scroll tube. Ened jumped, and Larin nudged her in the side pointedly. Ened ignored him. There was no doubt in her mind where that jolt had come from. She didn’t really think that her clothes would send energy racing through her leg.
Besides, this rain had been going on for far too long. It had picked up that morning, and it was now late afternoon. Not once had the rain slackened – it had just been a steady torrent cascading down on them, and while Ened had been prepared to take that in stride before the ring bit her, it was now seeming very odd. And to add to all that, she had the uncomfortable feeling, which had been honed to the edge of a knife in the Institute, that someone was watching them.
“Larin?” she said, tugging on his sleeve.
“Ened,” he growled, “what did I just say -“
She reached up and clapped her hand over his mouth, effectively stifling his complaint. “Listen,” she whispered. The rain was coming down so hard and loud that she had to practically kiss his ear to be heard, but she wasn’t about to speak in a tone that someone else could hear. If there was a someone else around. “The ring just bit me again,” she said quickly, “and I think we’re being watched.”
Larin rolled his eyes at her and pried her hand off his mouth – and then froze abruptly, his mouth half-open to speak and his eyes flicking from tree to tree through the rain. Ened, one arm still gripping him around the waist, felt him tense and sit forward. He pulled the horse to a stop. Finally he nodded, slowly. “I think you’re right,” he breathed.
“Keep going,” Ened said. Her voice was trembling slightly – she forced herself to keep it level. “Maybe if we keep moving…” She decided not to say, “Maybe it won’t find us.” She was frightened enough already without adding melodrama. Larin instantly nudged the horse in the ribs, propelling it into as quick a trot as was possible in the rain. Ened twisted around in the saddle as they rode, watching behind them for – what? What was she looking for? A masked warrior who would burst out of the trees and challenge them to combat?
No, she thought without putting it into words in her mind. Not anything like that. Something older…something more dangerous…
“I think we’re rid of it,” said Larin after a while. He didn’t sound sure – his voice was falsely bright – but Ened could hardly blame him. She wanted to think they were rid of whatever it might have been – how could it see them through the rain, anyway? – but she was sitting closer to the ring, and as her leg bumped the scroll tube again, it shot excitement up her leg.
“No,” she said, breathless with fear. “No, we aren’t. Go!”
Larin kicked the horse – and something burst out of the trees behind them. Ened screamed instinctively. It was a perfectly natural reaction to a freakish monster out of someone’s worst nightmare, a shrunken, shriveled, wizened thing, built like some grotesque parody of a human but with greenish skin and rotted fangs for teeth and lank dangling black hair. “Go!” Ened cried to Larin, her voice high and panicky. “Go, go, go!”
But the horse, weary with plodding through the rain and unnerved by the behavior of its riders, refused to move. Ened and Larin both kicked it hard in the sides, but it would not budge, and the monster was coming closer.
Moving with the speed of sheer panic, Ened untied her satchel from the horse’s saddle and leaped to the ground. “Come on!” she yelled to Larin. He gave the horse a last futile kick, and then jumped down when it didn’t move, tearing his harp from the saddle as he reached the ground. Ened grabbed him by his free hand and started to run, but the monster, which had only been loping after them before, picked up speed. Ened glanced back and almost screamed again – and then she and Larin were both sent sprawling over a tree root that the rain had hidden from sight. They tumbled backward and hit the muddy road squarely as the monster reached them. Ened had time to notice that it was carrying a rusty, ancient blade before she tried to roll out of the way – and became aware that she had done something to her back, and she could not move without excruciating pain ripping through her entire body.
Larin got to his feet and threw a rock hard at the monster. It smacked into the thing’s rib cage, which was painfully obvious through its minimal skin, and the monster turned its attention on Larin. Ened tried sitting up, but hot pain slid down her neck, and she dropped back onto the ground, disgusted with herself and absolutely terrified. Could she move her arms? Yes! She grabbed for a rock of her own and hurled it – but as soon as she moved to throw it, the pain was back, and the rock slipped from her hands and rolled mildly over the monster’s bare feet.
Something sang through the air, and then there was a wet, meaty thud. The monster stood perfectly still, and then crashed into the mud face first. As it fell, there was a wooden snapping sound. Shaking all over, Larin stepped back from the thing and skirted around it to come over to Ened. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Ened was glad to hear that his voice shook as badly as hers did. “No,” she said, breathing heavily. “I did something to my back – I can’t really move – don’t touch it!” Larin quickly pulled his fingers back. “It hurts worse if I try to move,” she gritted.
“You require assistance,” said a new voice nearby. Ened, lying down and unable to look anywhere but up, could not see the newcomer. She could, however, hear Larin’s stunned silence. “Pray, sir, step aside,” the new voice went on. It sounded male and melodic. “I have some small skill in these matters.”
Ened wished she could sit up and look – not being able to see was driving her insane. She saw Larin’s feet get up and move away, slowly, and another pair of feet wearing elegant boots, boots that were thoroughly ruined by the mud of the road, take their place. Before she could tell the newcomer not to touch her back, his long fingers were delicately sliding between her back and the ground, probing lightly. Ened hissed in pain, and the fingers carefully withdrew. “This is grave,” said the voice seriously.
“You don’t – have to tell – me,” Ened said, breathing hard with the pain the fingers had caused. “I’m the one – lying here with – my whole back scrambled up.”
She heard Larin laugh faintly, but the new voice didn’t. Hasn’t got much of a sense of humor, has he? she thought. “Have you a horse?” the voice asked.
No horses! thought Ened. After the recent experiences with them, I never want to see the beasts again! I’ll fry the next person who says ‘horse’ in hot oil!
“Sort of,” said Larin with a half-laugh, half-snort. “He’s right over there, he wouldn’t move when that thing -“
“Orc,” said the voice coldly. “That was an Orc. To the best of my knowledge, the last Orc remaining in Middle-earth. I have been tracking it for a week now.” Oh, that clears things up. What the blazes is an Orc? thought Ened, who had not encountered them in Frodo’s narrative. The elegant and muddy boots moved away. “She will have to come with me,” said the voice.
“You’re just going to take her away?” Larin asked incredulously. “Shouldn’t you ask her?”
“If she wishes to die here,” said the voice, and there was a touch of impatience in it now, “she will not come with me. If she wishes to live, she will. It is not a difficult decision.”
“Yes, but you should ask her anyway,” Larin said stubbornly. “As a matter of courtesy.”
The voice asked Ened, “Lady, will you come with me or not?” The impatience was definitely pronounced now.
“Yes, yes, all right,” she muttered. “Just so I know – who exactly are you?”
“You Men,” muttered the voice. Ened was about to take offense, since she was most definitely not a man, but the voice cut off her unspoken correction. “My name is Valdor,” it said.
“That’s a really strange name,” said Ened. “I’ve never heard it before.”
“No, you would not have,” said Valdor, “because it is an Elvish name, and I would wager much that you have never seen an Elf before. Come, I will put you on your horse.”