Author’s Note: Here are the links to the previous four chapters, in case anyone missed them.
Sometimes Ened felt like the world existed to slap bad news in her face. This was definitely one of those times.
“You know something, Oronin?” she demanded wearily. It was probably two hours past midnight. The glassless windows were pitch black, with only a faint gleam from the white stones Minas Tirith was built of. The candles on their table had burnt down to stubs, and even the torches were starting to look lifeless. “Those chroniclers obviously had no lives.”
“Why is that?” asked Oronin, sounding just as exhausted as she was. He looked it too – he was practically sleeping on the table, his head propped up on his hands to stare blankly at a book.
“Because they tracked everything,” Ened said, shoving the scroll she’d been reading at him. “Look at this. Not only do the authors of this one state the names, bearers, accomplishments, and fates of every single Great Ring, they even tracked the lesser ones!” Oronin pushed his head up and ran dulled eyes over the scroll. “This one gives the number of lesser rings as thirty.” Ened steepled her hands one on top of the other and rested her chin on them. “Guess how many the authors managed to account for.”
Oronin pushed the scroll back at her. “Twenty-nine.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Ened gloomily. “And what’s more, those twenty-nine were all fancy rings, with stones and carvings and runes and all that nonsense. The last ring, the one no one can trace, was apparently a plain flat silver band.”
Both of them looked at Ened’s ring, still unmoved from where it had fallen on the table, and both of them looked away quickly.
Oronin shoved away his book and laid his head on the table. “It’s plain as day, Ened,” he muttered. “Do you see it now? Will you acknowledge that I’m right?”
“Yes,” she said. If she hadn’t been so tired, she would have yelled it, but her system wasn’t up to anything louder than a murmur. “And oh, how I wish I didn’t have to, but it is plain. It’s absurd” – she yawned hugely – “but it’s plain. Can I sleep now?”
Oronin didn’t answer. He couldn’t, because he’d already fallen asleep.
Ened might have smiled, had she been less tired. As it was, she dragged one of the books over, the one with the soft leather cover, and used it to pillow her head as she dropped into sleep.
* * *
It wasn’t the sunlight coming in through the windows that woke Ened up. As tired as she was, no small thing like sunlight could have roused her. It wasn’t even the sounds of the city waking up outside. It was the tromp of boots and the voice saying her name loud enough to wake the dead that did it.
Ened started up with a shock, and her head began to reel. She groaned and put it back down on the table. The voice yelled her name again, even louder, and she rolled her head over and looked up through sleep-bleary eyes.
Of course. Who else would it be but the captain of the palace’s personal guard? She could tell his station by the large White Tree embroidered large on the front of his tunic, rather than over his breast. And he knew her personally, too – he’d foiled many of her escapades when she was younger. “Go away, Mithorn,” she moaned.
Mithorn was a seasoned veteran of many campaigns to retrieve Ened from whatever mess she’d gotten herself into on any given day, but this time had been the worst of all. He was used to chasing his errant princess around the palace and once through the Institute, but never had she concocted and carried out a plan that had him running through all seven levels of the city. He was tired, and he was hungry, and he was not amused. “Ened Telcontar,” he said for the third time, this time through gritted teeth, “you will get up and come with us this instant.”
“I’m tired,” she pointed out groggily, “and you just woke me up. Can I have five minutes to sleep?”
“No,” said Mithorn flatly. “The order comes from the king himself.”
“That is all well and good, my very loud man,” came a voice as groggy as Ened’s from the other end of the table, “but even King Beldor must bow to the natural impulses.” Oronin shoved his head up mainly by force of will and stared blearily at Mithorn. “Give the princess her five minutes.”
Mithorn bristled and yelled some more, but Oronin was implacable, Ened was asleep, and he dared not manhandle the king’s granddaughter, for all that the king was furious with her. He had no choice but to retreat from the library with a threatening “Five minutes only!” and stand huffy guard outside.
The first thing Oronin did when the guard withdrew was to rub his head and moan. The man had a bellow fit to wake King Elessar’s army of the dead, and Oronin was not happy that he had borne witness to the power of the man’s lungs. Once he felt a little less worse, and once he had stopped seeing in shades of red, Oronin leaned over and shook Ened awake.
She jumped this time, looking around quickly with a vague sleepy look in her eyes. “Huhwhazzatunhugh,” she gasped, then dropped her head back down to the table. “Five minutes,” she moaned wearily.
Oronin was no less sleepy than she, and being sleepy made him impatient. “For Elves’ sake, Ened, wake up! We don’t have much time. This is urgent.”
She was sixteen and imaginative. It took no more than that to get her to raise her head, rub at her eyes, and look at him with recognition if not full awake understanding. But then, Oronin doubted if he himself was capable of that right now.
He reached for some of the papers, rolling them efficiently into tubes. “You’ll need to take these with you,” he said, forcing himself to think this through. “You need to read up on the rings in general. I recommend this one” – he brandished the newly rolled scroll – “as it talks about all the rings, not just the Great Rings.” He dragged himself to his feet and went in search of a tube. Some people were allowed to remove documents from the library, and the loose papers were then rolled into scrolls and placed inside long hollow tubes. Ened would need one to carry her materials.
He found one under his librarian’s desk and brought it back to the table, deftly slipping four scrolls inside. “Here’s that,” he said, “and take this too.” Oronin handed her the smallest of the books, and she slipped it inside her pocket, wondering how she was going to get the scroll tube past Mithorn.
“Oronin, what’s all this for?” she asked, bewildered.
Oronin looked as hard at her as he could when he was barely awake himself. “Ened, this ring” – he scooped up the flat silver band and dropped it into the bottom of the tube – “is dangerous. We know that. We found it out last night. Since it came to you, it’s your responsibility to see what can be done about it.” He clapped the lid on the tube, sealing the scrolls and the ring inside it, and turned it over to Ened. “I have no idea what that will be, and if you can get out of the palace again I’ll be more than happy to help you look for it, but I doubt it. That’s why I’m giving you these.”
“This is ridiculous!” Ened said, her voice tinged with weariness and not a little hysteria. “This doesn’t happen in real life! This is like something in a tale!”
“The rings are from tales,” Oronin groaned. “What makes you think any of this is like real life? You’ve walked into a legend, Ened, you’d better start expecting strange things to happen.”
Oronin’s no-nonsense scolding did more for Ened than comfort and consolation would have. She bit her lip and tucked the tube under her arm. “All right,” she said shakily, “so it’s a tale. Oh, joy.”
“At least it’ll make a good fireside story for your grandchildren,” Oronin suggested.
“True,” Ened laughed weakly. “Where should I put this?” She waved the tube around.
“Here,” said Oronin. “Tuck it down your dress.”
She gave him a withering look. “My dress is tailored to me, Oronin.”
“So throw your cloak over it and no one will notice.”
“I didn’t bring one.”
“It’s warm outside, I’ll look ridiculous!”
Mithorn pounded on the library door. “Five minutes are up!” he yelled.
Oronin winced. “Elves! Can’t the man speak any softer?” He looked at Ened – she’d turned away and was in the process of stuffing the tube down her dress. Oronin looked away to give her privacy and gathered up his cloak from his chair, where he’d left it the night before.
Ened whirled around. She had become angular and asymmetrical on the right side, and Oronin couldn’t help chuckling. “Here,” he said, handing her his cloak.
“But what if I can’t get it back to you?” she asked, throwing it quickly on.
He shrugged. “I have others. Now go, before that devils’-spawn guard wakes all of Gondor!”
Ened laughed at that. “Thanks, Oronin,” she said quickly as she pulled open the door.
“You’re welcome!” he called after her.
She shut the door behind her and turned to face Mithorn. “Well, jailer,” she said, much more jovially than she would have thought possible under the circumstances, “I’m ready to go.”
“Aye,” Mithorn grated, pushing her in between him and another guard, “but will you be ready to come back home?”
Now that I doubt, Ened thought ruefully as Mithorn and his companion marched her away.