“You have got to be joking,” said Ened.
“I assure you, I am not joking,” said Valdor stiffly.
“Right, because you wouldn’t know a joke if it shot you with one of your own arrows.”
“Larin, shut up,” said Ened succinctly, and Larin shut up, although he shot Valdor a mutinous look. He was still inordinately prickly when it came to the Elf, although now at least he confined his comments to not-quite-teasing gibes. “We cannot be almost in Rohan. There’s no way that’s possible.”
Valdor frowned fearsomely. “You must trust me in regards to journeys, Lady, as I trust you to guard that ring. Although not as excellent as the Elves of old, my senses are still far better than yours -“
“You don’t have to rub it in,” muttered Larin.
“And I tell you that thanks to the pace we have kept, we are now barely half a day’s walk from the Mering Stream, and once we cross that, we will be in the Eastfold of Rohan!” Valdor finished and glared haughtily at Ened and Larin.
“But – but – we can’t have crossed Gondor already!”
“We have done so,” gritted Valdor. “And it would seem to me that you should be glad of these tidings, for in Rohan you will be able to lodge in houses, not on the ground.”
“Pointy-ears is right about that,” Larin said. “I wouldn’t mind sleeping in a bed again.”
Ened glared at them both. “The whole question is moot, gentlemen, for two reasons. One, we’re not close to Rohan. And two, I am not going near any houses.”
“Why not, for Elves’ sake?” asked Larin in exasperation.
“Because I happen to be a runaway Gondorian princess!” Ened snapped. “And I have no intention of giving some horse trainer the chance to turn me in when I have a quest to complete!”
“You are what?” Valdor asked, and Ened only remembered then that she hadn’t told Valdor what she was. She hadn’t even told him her name – he’d only picked that up from Larin, and most of the time he called her “Lady” anyway. Drat, she thought, wincing.
“I’m a princess of Gondor,” she admitted. “It’s nothing important, I just want to avoid towns.”
“Ah,” said Valdor, still looking surprised. “That is most understandable.”
“Good,” Ened said, relieved. “So we can avoid them?”
“Perhaps. People have a way of coming across those who wish to remain secret.”
“Oh, lovely, now you’re talking in riddles!”
Ened didn’t tell Larin to be quiet that time, since he had pretty much voiced her own thoughts.
Valdor tossed his bow a little higher on his shoulder. “Come,” he said. “Let us move on.”
Much to Ened’s chagrin, by late afternoon they did indeed reach a stream that Valdor instantly pronounced the Mering. “We’ll see about that,” muttered Ened, to which Valdor did not deign to give a reply.
By evening, however, she was forced to admit that the Elf was right. She had been to Rohan on a diplomatic trip a few years ago, in the hopes that it would teach her something about politics. It had turned out that the most valuable thing she learned on that trip about politics was that they were basically very courteous machinations to get the most out of the other country, but she had also been able to see a bit of Rohan, and the plains they had traveled across for the entire evening dovetailed perfectly with her memories.
Of course, when Valdor asked, “Well, Lady?” that night over dinner, Ened was hardly gracious. “All right,” she grumbled, “I admit it. You were right. This is Rohan.” She glared up at the Elf. “Happy now?”
“No,” he returned smoothly. “I shall not be happy until that ring is secure in Valinor.”
“Oh, excuse me!” flared Ened, her embarrassment contributing to her built-up anger at his attitude. “So am I to assume by that that you’ve never been happy in all your life? Did you just walk around the forest and wail for the good old days before you met us?”
Valdor deliberately set down his dinner (deer that night) and fixed Ened with a blue, blue stare. “You know not of what you speak,” he said evenly, “and yet you seek to insult me, when I have known more than you ever will. Do not be too rash, runaway princess. It does not become you, and it makes you appear as though you know nothing. Be cautious with your words when you speak to me.”
He picked up his dinner again, but he did not look away from her. Ened felt pinned in place, like a butterfly in a wooden display case, by his stare. Only vaguely was she aware of Larin beside her, looking from her to Valdor and back again, a frown forming between his unnerved eyes.
Valdor swallowed his mouthful. “Eat, Lady,” he said, and Ened came back to herself with a jolt and picked up her dinner, choking on her first hasty bite.
She stirred under the cloak, wondering if she was waking up and if anyone was calling her name.
“Ened, wake up!”
Someone was definitely calling to her, and since she could only see darkness, she assumed she must be awake. Her eyes were sticking closed. She lifted a hand to wipe the stickiness away, and realized that it was cold. It must be getting on toward fall, Ened thought bizarrely.
Something warm gripped her shoulder, and she started up and opened her eyes. “Ened!” hissed Larin, his face mere inches away from hers. “Ened, you have to get up!” He shook her shoulder again, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw that he was already fully awake, with his cloak and harp on his back. Behind him, Valdor was dousing the remnants of their cooking fire, also cloaked, carrying his bow and quiver.
“Larin,” Ened muttered, not moving except to wipe the stickiness out of her eyes, “what is going on?”
“It’s not safe here,” he said under his breath. “Get up, put your cloak on, I’ll tell you as we go.” He handed her a soft, warm bundle of cloth – her cloak.
Ened groaned and pushed herself upright, struggling to her feet. Her head spun, and she knew she was moving too fast, but with both Larin and Valdor waiting on her, she felt awkward going slower. It was just perfect timing, she decided, looking ruefully at her dress. She had been planning to wash the tattered garment in the Mering and put on one of the other dresses she’d brought. Plainly, she would have to wear the dirty raw silk for a few more days. She rubbed her face to wake herself up a little more and threw her cloak on. The clasp was too difficult for her newly-woken mind and fingers to manage, and Larin finally sighed and reached over to clasp the cloak for her. She was too sleepy to be conscious of their close proximity, but Larin was not – he did up the clasp hastily and stepped back, swallowing. Ened dropped to the ground and reached for her shoes, shoving her feet blindly into them, and miraculously got them on the right feet. Staggering upright again, she blinked in the dark at Larin and asked, “So what is happening?”
Larin took her by the arm and pulled her over to where Valdor stood by the saddled horse. “Get on, quick,” he said. “Your pack’s already on it.” Ened checked anyway that the scroll tube was still wedged firmly into her satchel before she gritted her teeth and swung up into the saddle. She slipped halfway up, and Valdor grabbed her knee and shoved her up the rest of the way. Ened thudded into the seat and grabbed for the reins.
Valdor glanced around their camp, checking that they had left nothing. Apparently he was satisfied, because he gave a short nod and took the horse’s head. The three of them headed off into the darkness.
“All right, what’s happening?” Ened whispered to Larin. Walking beside the horse, he whispered something back that she couldn’t hear. “Wait, I can’t hear what you’re saying,” she whispered back, leaning down.
Larin caught the horse’s bridle and pulled it to a stop. Valdor glanced around, but Larin was already climbing up onto the horse behind Ened. “Keep going,” he called softly, and the Elf took the horse by the head again and walked it forward.
Now Ened was awake enough to register the fact that Larin was sitting right behind her, that he had put his arms around her waist to keep himself mounted, and that he was leaning in to whisper in her ear, and she began to fidget beneath her cloak. “Remember the Orc?” he said, and she nodded, not quite trusting her voice to remain stable at the moment. “This is something like it.”
“Another ‘last Orc in Middle-earth’?” Ened asked in sudden panic, memories of the last one crowding very vividly in on her.
“Not an Orc,” Larin said, “at least Valdor doesn’t think so. It’s just the same kind of feeling, like there’s something out there.”
Involuntarily Ened glanced behind her toward the scroll tube, and ended up bumping her head into Larin’s shoulder. “Oh, sorry,” she muttered, and swung her head the other way around again. If she had been able to look at him, she would have seen that he wasn’t looking at her either, but she was too busy memorizing the pattern on the saddle.
“And,” Larin continued, grabbing at her waist as the horse tripped over a root, “Valdor thinks it’s got something to do with that…thing.” Ened noticed how he avoided saying “ring,” at the same time that she noticed that the horse had regained its balance and he was still holding her very tightly.
“Don’t tell me the Orc -“
“Apparently so,” Larin whispered. “At least according to our esteemed guide.”
Ened giggled under her breath, thankful that Valdor had no conception of sarcasm.
“It’s not a laughing matter, Ened!” said Larin, and his voice was only half-teasing. “That little thing in your satchel is apparently some kind of beacon to things like that Orc.”
Ened shut up. “Oh,” she said, very quietly even for whispers. “That’s bad.”
“Kind of, yes,” Larin agreed.
“Is there anything that can be done about it?” she asked.
He shrugged behind her. “Get it to Valinor as quickly as we can,” he said. “That seems to be our best option.”
“Anything in the short term?”
Larin snorted. “When has there ever been a short term anything on this adventure?”
Ened conceded the point and leaned back against Larin as her eyes began to close again. He stiffened, but then he relaxed his hands around her waist, and her head dropped down onto his shoulder.
Right before the rain started to fall, it crossed Ened’s mind that it was very warm and comfortable, leaning back against Larin with his hands around her waist and her head on his shoulder. Even the horse was almost bearable. It would be so nice if I didn’t have to worry about that stupid ring, she thought, if I could just stay here on this horse…with Larin…maybe forever…
And then the rain started to patter down, bouncing onto her eyelids and leaping down her nostrils, and she choked and coughed and sat up and blinked her eyes clear and braced herself for a cold, wet, miserable ride in the rain.