“What’s your name, anyway?”
Ened blinked at Master Larin, startled by the question. “What?”
Master Larin rolled his eyes. “I said, what’s your name?”
“Oh, that’s right, I never told you!”
“Smart girl,” Master Larin said sarcastically. Ened turned to glare at him, and was surprised to see mirth in his face.
“Are you – teasing me?” she asked cautiously.
“No, I’m calling you the daughter of a thousand snakes boiled in lard. Yes, of course I’m teasing you!” Master Larin sighed and cast his eyes melodramatically to the heavens.
He’s a lot nicer now that he’s got that harp back, Ened thought. They had ridden for half the day before she’d returned the instrument to him, and he had instantly relaxed. I’ll have to remember that.
“So what’s your name?” he asked again.
“Oh. Right. Um…” Had he heard anything about her running away? Probably not – it had been fairly recent, after all, and news would only have reached Telwen’s Ford with the search party looking for her. So it was safe to tell him her real name. Not that I have a fake one, she reminded herself. Next time I go on an adventure, I’ll make a checklist. “Ened.”
Master Larin choked. Reining in his horse to catch his breath, he stared at her. “Not Princess Ened?” he said incredulously.
How did he know? she wondered frantically. How in Elves’ name did he find out? “Um – uh – well – yes, actually,” she finished lamely. “Sort of. Yes.”
Master Larin seemed to have recovered by now. “How can you be ‘sort of’ the princess? Are you, or aren’t you?”
“I am,” she admitted. “And if you tell anyone, I’ll – steal your harp again and I really will drop it!”
He blanched, and his hand on the harp case tightened protectively. “All right!” he said quickly. “Understood. Got it.”
They rode along in silence for a while, until Ened finally asked, “How old are you, anyway?”
To her amusement, Master Larin went just a little bit red. “Why do you ask?”
“Because fair’s fair,” she said. “We know each other’s names now, and you can’t be much older than me.”
“Well, how old are you?” he retorted.
“Sixteen,” said Ened. “And now I know you’re near my age. What you just said is classic behavior for our age group.”
He went really red then and coughed. “Eighteen.”
She nodded. “Why are you embarrassed? You can’t help your age, after all.”
Larin – it seemed ridiculous to think of him as “Master” when he was only two years older than she – fidgeted with his reins. “Doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” Ened shrugged. “How did you know I was the princess?”
He reined in his horse again. “Are you ever going to stop asking questions?” he demanded. “Because if you’re not, I’m leaving.”
His anger startled Ened. “Calm down!” she said. “I’m not attacking you, for Elves’ sake! It seemed like a perfectly sensible question.”
Larin kicked his horse forward. “I don’t like questions,” he said flatly, and Ened had to boot Horse in the side to catch up with him.
Silence reigned over the road for the next hour.
It was Larin who eventually spoke, and Ened could barely contain her mirth when, of all things, he asked a question. “So, since you’re a princess, does that mean that all the might of Gondor is chasing after you to bring you back?”
“Maybe,” she said evasively.
Larin rolled his eyes. “Oh, that’s helpful. What I mean is, are we going to have to elude people?”
“Yes.” Ened reached over and hitched her satchel closer. From inside, she heard the clink of the ring on the scroll tube.
“Elude all people, or just the guards out to get you?”
“And you don’t like questions?” Ened teased.
“Not when I have to answer them,” he said. “But you have to answer mine. It’s kind of important.”
She sighed. As long as I don’t take the ring out and show it to people, we ought to be fine… “Only the guards,” she said. “Inns and towns are fine.”
“As long as the guards don’t come through the towns.”
“Well, if they do, we’ll just have to get away from them!” Ened didn’t look at Larin. His questions were too uncomfortable. They were making her see that this whole scheme was very half-baked. Forget half-baked, she thought, I’ve only just put it in the oven! “How far are we from the nearest town, anyway?”
Larin shot her a very expressive glare. “The nearest town is the one we just left.”
“How can that be?” Ened demanded. “It’s near Minas Tirith, for Elves’ sake! There have to be lots of towns around the capital city!”
“There are,” said Larin. “However, having traveled around Gondor a lot more than you have, Princess, I know for a fact that we are heading away from the towns and into the country.”
“Ouch,” muttered Ened. “You don’t have to be so harsh.”
“I don’t have to be so harsh?” Larin yelled. “I don’t have to be so -! Never mind.” He took a deep breath and blew it out. “I’m just going to ignore you for a while.”
“Be my guest,” snapped Ened. “It’s not as if I would mind!”
Another hour went by before the silence was broken again.
“Are you finished ignoring me?”
“No,” said Larin irritably.
“Because I was just wondering, how long will it take to get to Valinor?”
This time Larin reached out and grabbed Horse’s bridle, pulling Ened to a stop. “All right. Let us clarify this one very important point. I. Do. Not. Like. Questions. Are we clear on that?”
Ened rolled her eyes. “I’m the princess, not you, remember? I should be the one ordering you around.”
“But you don’t know how to get to Valinor!” Larin retorted. “Therefore, princess, you’re dependent on me. Which means I’m in charge.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Ened. “That doesn’t make sense -“
“We’re not going to argue the point,” Larin told her flatly. “All we’re going to do is make sure that you understand that you are not to ask me any questions.”
Ened kicked Horse to make the animal go forward. Horse didn’t move. “All right. Can we keep going?”
Larin let go of Horse’s bridle and said, “Yes.” He nudged his horse forward, and Ened booted Horse in the ribs. The uncooperative animal glared at her before starting to walk again.
About twenty minutes later, Ened started to feel uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with the non-encouraging bard in front of her. It was much worse than that. It was a familiar sort of uncomfortable, too, a kind that she hadn’t known existed until a few days ago. It was focused intently on her satchel, and Ened knew that she wouldn’t feel this apprehensive if something was only after her dresses. It was the ring. It had to be.
“Larin,” she called, succeeding at keeping the nervousness out of her voice, “I’m assuming you’re not that great with any kind of weapon.”
“That would be correct,” he called back.
Well, isn’t that just my luck, Ened thought, clenching her fists to keep her growing nervousness from exploding out of her. Of course I get the cranky guide who’s useless in a fight. What else would I get? Would it be too much to ask for a little bit of a hero?
It didn’t take long for her feelings of unease to become full-blown paranoia. There was something out there, something cold and inexorable that was focused entirely on the silver ring in her satchel. Ened took to glancing behind them, peering into the trees on her left and over the hills on her right, feeling her skin prickle with every glance. “Um – Larin?” she said. “Are you -” Wait, Ened, no questions! Gritting her teeth, she said slowly, thinking carefully about every word, “Larin, I’m feeling a bit odd -“
Larin reined in his horse. “We are not stopping so you can go to the bathroom.”
“I wasn’t going to say that!” she snapped. “I was going to ask if you feel odd, or if it’s just me.”
He opened his mouth to retort, but he caught himself before he said anything. “Now that you mention it,” he said, glancing around as furtively as Ened had a few minutes ago, “something does feel a little strange.”
Ened relaxed marginally. At least she wasn’t going crazy and imagining things. “I think it has something to do with -” Now it was her turn to catch herself with her mouth hanging open. Probably not the best idea to tell him that you’re carrying the thing that’s setting off the strange feelings. “With the reason we have to go to Valinor,” she finished.
Larin regarded her for a minute. Ened wasn’t sure what to make of the utter lack of concern for her in his face. Then he shook himself. “Let’s keep going,” he said, and kicked his horse forward.
“Wait a minute!” Ened fought with Horse until the animal brought her level with Larin. “Slow down. Shouldn’t we be – I don’t know – looking for shelter or something?”
He glanced at her as if she were insane. “Princess, we both had an odd feeling. That doesn’t mean that monsters are going to burst from the trees and attack us.”
Ened felt superbly chastened. In fact, she felt supremely stupid, once he put it that way. “Oh,” she muttered. “But -“
“Whatever this is, it’s not a grand quest to save the world,” said Larin. “We’re not going to come under attack.”
Ened glanced at her satchel. Her fingers suddenly stung, as if the ring had pinched them again like it did in the library. She shook her hand to get rid of the tingling and looked away from her satchel, focusing her glare on Larin’s back. “Well, what if you’re wrong?” she muttered, hoping at the same time that he was absolutely right.