They kept going through the rest of the night. The rain kept Ened awake, but Larin finally fell asleep. Ened knew the precise moment when he did, because not only did his hands on her waist slacken their grip, and not only did his breathing become deeper, he also fell off the horse. She had to rein in the stupid animal and call, “Valdor, stop! Larin just fell off the horse!”
The Elf looked around, and with severe annoyance written all over his fair face, he stalked over to where Larin lay awake and smarting all down his back, hauled him up, and set him on his feet. “Walk, harper,” Valdor commanded, “until you are awake.” Larin shot Valdor an absolutely poisonous glare, but he shrugged his cloak over his shoulders and started walking. Ened thought about offering him her place on the horse, but decided that she would probably fall right asleep if it weren’t for the horse’s jolting gait. So Larin walked and Ened rode.
They ran into their first person that afternoon, camped momentarily behind the crest of a hill. Ened was cleaning up after lunch (“I feel useless sitting up on a stupid horse all day, at least let me do dishes!”, Valdor was out scouting to see if a town was nearby, and Larin was practicing his harp. Ened liked listening to the tunes from the harp, so it took her even longer than usual to finish the dishes, because sometimes she would just stand there and listen while the dishes sat unattended. More than once, she dropped a clean plate into the grass and had to wash it again while muttering expletives under her breath.
Suddenly, Valdor came out of nowhere and grabbed her wrist so hard she thought he’d cut off all her circulation. “Be silent!” he snapped at Larin, who jumped with surprise and stilled the harp’s strings. From where Valdor had pinned her to the ground – any movement of her wrist made her want to screech in pain – Ened glanced across their campsite at Larin. He looked back and shrugged expansively, as if to say he had no more of an idea of what Valdor was doing than she did. That wasn’t too comforting, as Ened hadn’t the faintest clue, and as her wrist was really starting to hurt.
Then Valdor released her, and Ened grabbed her wrist and tried to calm it down. “Gather everything,” Valdor ordered in an undertone.
“Can you give me a minute?” Ened demanded angrily. “My wrist hurts a little bit, you know!”
“There is no time!” hissed the Elf. “A Man is coming!”
It was Larin who leaped up then, all but dropping his harp into its case, throwing it on his back, and making a flying dive for the remnants of the campfire. Ened barely had time to snatch the last plate out of the bucket of hot water before Larin had grabbed it up and dumped it over the smoking coals. He held out the bucket, and Ened tossed the dishes into it, trying not to wince at the sound of unglazed pottery grating against itself. Valdor took the horse’s reins and threw his own pack over his shoulder, along with his bow and quiver –
And of course it was at that precise moment that the Man topped the hill and saw them.
The Man was a girl.
It occurred to Ened, standing there with the bucket full of dishes in her hand, that she really had to break Valdor of the habit of calling girls Men. Of course it occurred to her in the back of her mind, because most of it was taken up with inarticulate panicked thoughts. And it occurred to her in about a nanosecond, because after one moment when the girl stopped and stared at Ened, Larin and Valdor, Ened had dropped the bucket of dishes and made a flying tackle, bearing the girl to the earth with a yell. She banged her chin on the ground, but the Rohirric girl was in such a state of shock that Ened had time to yelp in pain and still keep her pinned.
And anyway, by that time Valdor had started to move.
Ened glanced up from where she straddled the girl to see Valdor standing in front of her, his bow drawn and an arrow on the string, pointing directly at the girl. “Do not move,” he cautioned Ened. She shook her head vehemently – as far as she was concerned, she wasn’t moving at all if there was a drawn arrow in the vicinity.
The Elf turned his attention to Ened’s captive. “What is your name?” he demanded.
The girl’s eyes were as big and round as plates. “Ha – Halla, my lord,” she gasped. “Halla, daughter of Haleth.”
The name clearly meant nothing to Larin or Valdor, but Ened frowned. She’d heard it before. Haleth…Haleth…who in the name of Elves is he?
The girl somehow managed to speak to Valdor, despite the fact that Ened was the one pinning her to the ground. “I was just going for a walk…” breathed Halla, staring transfixed at Valdor, “and – you’re not going to kill me, are you?”
Valdor looked repulsed at the thought. “No,” he said, lowering the bow. “I will not kill you.”
Ened took that as a signal that she could get off the girl. She rolled back on her heels, and Halla scooted away from her immediately, throwing a frightened glance Ened’s way. Ened coughed embarrassedly, and Larin took her elbow and helped her to her feet. “Thanks,” she muttered to him.
Halla, on the other hand, was still lying on the ground, staring at Valdor.
“You can get up, you know,” Ened remarked. Halla twisted her hair to stare in panic at Ened. “I’m not tackling you anymore. You are physically able to stand.”
Valdor set down his bow and lifted Halla to her feet. The Rohirric girl was still staring at him, only now her eyes were wide with admiration rather than fear. “Thank you, sir,” she whispered.
“Do you know of a town nearby?” asked Valdor.
Ened wanted to strangle the Elf more than anything at that moment. What is he doing? she thought furiously. I thought I made it very clear how I felt about towns! Larin, who was still holding her elbow, nudged her very slightly in sympathy.
Halla was oblivious to all but Valdor. “Ye -yes,” she stammered. “My village. Wunbrand. It – it’s just a few miles that way.” She pointed up the hill.
Valdor released Halla’s arm and turned to Ened and Larin. Ened found it very hard to believe that with his superior hearing, he hadn’t picked up her incoherent sounds of outrage, or that he wouldn’t notice that she was livid with fury, but he gave no sign of either. “Make ready to depart,” he said to her and Larin. “We make for Wunbrand.”
“I don’t think so!” Ened snapped, jerking her arm free of Larin. “You two can go, but I’m not going anywhere near a town!”
“Ened -” groaned Larin behind her.
“Do not be foolish,” said Valdor in an undertone. “We will not last long on our current supplies. We require assistance, and these people can provide it.”
“I’m not stopping you!” Ened yelled. “Am I saying you can’t go? No! Go ahead! Have fun! Stay up all night! But I’m not going!”
She whirled around, darted past Larin, and ran down the hill.
It was a long run until she found a place out of sight of the camp. Ened screeched to a stop and ducked behind a large rock, dropping herself across it and getting it wet with angry tears. She kicked it, and her foot hurt, and she kicked it again in retaliation.
But that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t the innocent rock she wanted to kick. It was Valdor, that stupid meddling Elf who by rights shouldn’t even exist, much less be on her quest. My quest! Not his! she thought. One gasp for breath escaped her, and the shivering sound made Ened throw back her head and scream in frustration. “He had no right!” she shouted. “Absolutely no right!”
“You say that any louder and they’ll hear you in Gondor,” said Larin.
Ened whipped her head around, her eyes widening in shock. She hadn’t expected anyone to actually hear her. “Um,” she managed. “Um – I’m sorry.”
Larin half-grinned and knelt down next to her, resting his arms on the rock. Ened coughed and brushed the tears off her face. “I’m not complaining,” he said. “It might do the idiot some good to hear that.”
“I didn’t mean -“
“Huh,” said Larin. “That’s really funny. I could have sworn you were pitching that to be heard across Middle-earth.”
He grinned shyly, and Ened couldn’t help it – she laughed. It was a clogged-up laugh because there were still tears in her throat, but it was a laugh. She dropped her face onto the rock and laughed, and somehow the laughing turned into crying again, and she kept her face concealed because after it all, she would have died if Larin had seen her cry.
He swallowed and reached out and put his arm around her.
Ened started in surprise, but Larin didn’t take his arm away. Instead he settled it more securely around her shoulders, and slowly she scooted closer to him, so that she was nestled against his side. Then he reached out and very gently turned her so that she was facing him, and he put his other arm around her, and then Ened was crying softly into Larin’s shoulder, and he was gently stroking her tangled hair, and she felt unutterably at peace kneeling by the rock on the plains of Rohan, crying under her breath while Larin held her.
Finally she had no more tears to cry, but she didn’t let go of him, and he held her closer. She put her chin on his shoulder and felt wetness beneath it. “I got your shirt wet,” she whispered.
“I know,” said Larin. “It’s not important.”
Ened giggled. “You remember, of course, that I had to blackmail you into coming on this trip?”
Larin laughed and shifted to lean against the rock, still not letting go of her. “I never forget,” he said wryly.
He nudged her head, and Ened tilted it back and looked at him. “Maybe we should head back,” he suggested. Ened stiffened and looked away, but Larin continued. “Ened, I hate to say it, but Valdor’s right. We’re low on food, and it’s not going to be easy for us to hunt on a plain. We could all do with a bath and a proper bed and a good rest.”
“I’m not going,” said Ened stubbornly. “I’m not taking the chance.”
“Ened, what kind of chance is there that someone will take that ring?”
She threw her head back and stared at him. “A pretty good one. Larin, do you know what I was doing when I found that thing? I was trying to sneak out of school, and I was going to get caught. I should have been thinking about how I was going to get out of expulsion, and then I saw that stupid ring and I had to take it. I didn’t even know what it was – I just saw something silver on the ground and I picked it up. I wish to Elves I hadn’t, but I really didn’t have any choice. That’s what could happen!”
“Not if you’re protected,” said Larin.
“It’s not me who needs protection!” Ened snapped. “I can look after myself!”
“Oh, right, you can look after yourself so well that you don’t even know how to get to Valinor!”
“That wasn’t what I was going to say!” Ened twisted out of Larin’s arms and moved away toward the other end of the rock.
Larin opened his mouth to retort, and stopped before he got any words out. Ened glanced up when no angry reply came to her words, and blinked in surprise when she saw that Larin had flopped across the rock. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Wondering why every conversation we have turns into a fight,” he said.
“Oh.” Ened looked down at the rock. “That’s…that’s a good question. I don’t know why.”
Larin snorted and tilted his head to one side. “Neither do I, but it seems to be a recurring phenomenon. Maybe it’s your rotten cooking.”
“It’s not that bad!” Ened protested.
“You’re somewhat biased. I happen to think my cooking is pretty good.”
“Of course it is, when pigs fly – oh. Point taken.”
Larin grinned and reached across the rock, catching her by the hand. “Come on, princess,” he said, “let’s go. We can argue about why we always argue in the village.”
Ened still didn’t think it was a good idea, but Larin was pulling her to her feet, and he was smiling in a way that made her stomach do back flips, and he was right – she really did need a bath.