I should have known, thought Ened, flushing red with embarrassment even in the privacy of her guest room. She pulled the blanket over her head, but it got stuffy very quickly, and she had to come up for air. I should have known! I mean, the man is only one of the king’s top three advisors. But then why would he be living in a tiny little place like Wunbrand? How was I supposed to know?
Her excuses sounded very feeble, even to herself. Ened grunted in disgust and flopped over on her stomach.
Then she sat up suddenly and stared into the corner of the room where her satchel lay. The scroll tube was poking out of one end. Ened threw off the blanket and tiptoed over to it, walking quietly so the wooden floor wouldn’t creak.
The metal scroll tube was a hard glimmer of light in the darkness of the room. Ened pulled it out of the satchel, opened it, and tipped it upside down. The silver ring fell neatly into her palm, and she closed up the scroll tube and carried the ring over to the window. The moonlight glittered on the flat band, and Ened ran an absent-minded finger over its smooth curve. Her fingertip glided across the ring. She smiled and slipped it on over her finger.
Nothing happened, at first. When she put the ring on, Ened felt no difference, except for the odd comfort of wearing the ring. Then, very gradually, she became aware of sounds all around her, thousands, millions of thin, vibrating notes twining about and centered on the ring on her finger. It was a very pleasant mélange at first, the gently discordant tones hovering around each other like swaying spiderwebs. Ened smiled. But then the discords became more prominent, and another sound emerged, a pulsing note of profound impact, wrapping its sound around the others and reeling them in, twining them unceasingly around the ring, and growing ever louder until it drowned out the gentle notes. And then it grew raspy and harsh, and the note turned into a high, vicious cackle, and transmuted the other notes into accompaniment for its grating noise, and Ened yanked the ring off her finger and dropped it unceremoniously on the floor, gasping for breath and staring at the innocent-looking circle of silver.
She didn’t want to touch it. She opened her window and broke off a twig, and used that to pick up the ring and drop it back into the scroll tube. Then she returned to her bed and sat down hard on it, staring at the finger she had put the ring on, not daring to lift her head and look at the scroll tube.
Ened lost ten years of her life to fright when her door suddenly opened. She yelped and scrambled backwards, but it was only Valdor, clad in nothing but breeches and looking haggard. “What did you do?” he demanded.
“I -” It took Ened a few moments to organize her thoughts again. “I put on the ring,” she whispered.
Valdor’s face darkened like a storm cloud. He crossed the room in three steps and slapped Ened across the mouth.
Ened reeled back, her cry of pain muffled by both her hands, clasped over the struck area. Her entire face was stinging, and she looked back at Valdor with furious disbelief in her eyes.
“If you value our lives,” he snarled, leaning close to her so that she could catch every hushed word he spoke, “you will never touch that thing again. If you do, I swear by Mandos that I will make that blow seem like a caress.”
Ened’s hands flew down from her mouth, and she spat back, “I’d love to see you try!” She shoved the Elf hard, and he toppled off her bed with a look of almost comical surprise on his perfect face. When Ened leaned over the edge of the bed, Valdor looked up at her with a trickle of blood coming out of his nose. “I do know it was a stupid thing to do,” Ened hissed. “I don’t need you to come in here and hit me to figure that out, and I don’t appreciate how you keep assuming that I’m too weak to do resist it, and I’d like to see you carry it all the way from Minas Tirith and only put it on once, sir Elf!”
Valdor sat up painfully, and Ened sat back on her heels and stared coldly at him. “Now get out of this room,” she finished.
Valdor got to his feet, slowly, painfully, but still effortlessly graceful. “I do not hold grudges,” he said. “I will not blame you for this. It is the shame of putting on the ring that is speaking, not you.”
“Oh, please, don’t trouble yourself!” Ened cried angrily. “Spare me the nobility and just get out of here!”
“Because you are aware that I am right?” Valdor demanded. “Because you are ashamed of what you have done and what you have said, and you wish to be alone with your shame? Is that why you order me to leave?”
Every word he spoke was a needle in her heart. Ened whirled around and fell face down onto the bed, burying her face into her pillow as far as it would go. She felt tears coming, and she wanted to kill the Elf for making her cry twice in one day, and she knew that he was right.
The floorboards creaked – he was coming closer. “Didn’t I tell you to go away?” she snapped.
“Indeed you did,” said Valdor. “But I choose to stay. You will not throw me out when you are in the wrong.”
Ened threw up her head in disbelief. “Fine,” she spat. “Have it your own way. I’ll leave!” She pushed herself up and leaped out of the bed. The floor winced under her stomping feet as she stalked over to her satchel, grabbed it up, and stuffed the scroll tube under her arm. “I won’t touch it again, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she snarled over her shoulder as she made for the door. “And if I do, you can always come in and slap me, can’t you?”
Then she was out of the room, and she slammed the door heedlessly behind her. The crash it made as it closed went a little way toward calming her anger – but not much. Ened bumped her way into Valdor’s abandoned room, locked the door behind her, and flopped across his bed.
The tears that had filled her eyes wouldn’t come out. Ened was grateful for that – at least she wouldn’t have to explain to Valdor why his pillow was soaked.
“So what happened last night?” Larin asked mulishly.
Ened stuck her head deeper into the pillow, hoping he would stay away. “Larin, you woke me up five minutes ago. I’m not capable of thought yet. Come back in a week or two.”
“I don’t think so.” Larin marched over to where she lay flopped out on Valdor’s bed and pulled up a chair. “Let me enumerate the reasons why I don’t think so. One: I came into your room this morning and found the Elf there, which was something of a shock. Two: There was a particularly obvious disturbance last night, which in my opinion had everything to do with that ring. Three: You don’t want to tell me, which is a clear sign that something is really wrong. So essentially, I’m staying right here until you talk to me.”
Why couldn’t he have been a thick-headed muscleman instead of a smart bard? Ened wondered dismally. “All right,” she grumbled. “All right. You want to know? Here’s what happened. I put on the ring.” She threw up a hand to shut him up. “I know it was stupid, you don’t have to tell me. Valdor made clear how stupid it was last night.” For the first time that morning, Ened turned her face to Larin.
He went white, and his eyes grew huge. “Did he hit you?” Larin breathed.
“No, he patted me on the head and said what a good girl I was! Of course he hit me! Do you think I’d do this to myself?”
Across Ened’s mouth and left cheek spread a huge purple bruise.
Larin stared for a moment at it, speechless, and then he hurled himself up and smashed the chair against the wall. Ened jumped, stunned, as the broken pieces of wood rained down around Larin. “You – you broke their chair,” she said weakly.
“I’ll make them another one,” said Larin tightly. “Elves, Ened! He hit – that pompous, righteous – Elves!” Ened couldn’t tell if his last explosion was the common oath or a venting of fury against one particular Elf. It might have been both.
“Larin,” said Ened, getting to her feet, “calm down.”
“No!” he snapped. “I will not calm down! He had no right to do that to you, Ened! He’s not the one who’s carting that ring around, he’s not the one who made the decisions about what to do with it!”
“I was stupid to put it on -“
“But he didn’t have to hit you, Ened!” Larin cried furiously. “He could have yelled at you, he could have talked to you about it, he could have left you alone – he would have had the right to do any of those things! But he had no right to hit you!”
“I know!” Ened said, grabbing Larin’s hands to hold him still. “But running off to yell at him isn’t going to make this go away.” She took a deep breath and let it out, tightening her grip on Larin’s hands when he opened his mouth to speak. “So instead of tearing him limb from limb, could I ask you to get me something to take care of this bruise with?”
Larin let out his breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “All right,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He was as good as his word. He returned in less than five minutes with a small jar of ointment in one hand and some ice wrapped in a clean rag in the other. “You didn’t tell them, did you?” asked Ened, taking the ice and holding it over her face.
“Tell them what?” asked Larin. He took off the jar lid and considered the sticky substance within it.
Ened took the ice away from her face so she could speak. “Tell them that Valdor hit me.”
“Oh,” said Larin. “No. No, I just said you’d had an accident, and could I please get something to take care of a bruise with.” He gave her a small grin. “Marwyn went outside and chopped some ice off a block in their icehouse as soon as I asked. Put that back on your face.”
Ened obeyed, grinning herself at the thought. Grinning hurt.
“Well, at the very least, Princess, you’ll have a fascinating tale to tell your family,” Larin went on.
“If they want to even see me when I get back,” Ened muttered, her words getting muffled by the ice. She moved the rag to her cheek to leave her mouth clear for speaking. “I was disinherited, did you know that?”
Larin stared at her in shock. “No,” he managed at last. “No, I didn’t know that.”
“Well, of course you wouldn’t,” Ened amended quickly, “it was only five days before I left, and since then we’ve kind of been avoiding towns. But yes, I was disinherited.”
“But who are they going to give the throne to? Prince Naur?” demanded Larin incredulously. “They can’t be that stupid!”
“You would be astonished at how stupid they can be,” Ened said wryly. “I think they top the stupidity scale for the whole Tenth Age.” Larin laughed at that, and Ened shrugged. “So the fascinating tale will have to wait until they’re willing to speak to me again.”
Larin offered her a half-smile and the jar of ointment.
“I can’t put that on,” Ened protested. “Not without a mirror, anyway. I can’t see my face. I only saw this bruise in the windowpane this morning, and the sun’s too bright for me to get a good reflection now.”
Larin sighed and sat down next to Ened on the bed. He stuck a finger into the jar and rubbed the ointment over Ened’s cheek. Ened held still, very aware all of a sudden of exactly how close Larin was to her and how gentle his finger was on her bruise. She glanced up once at the same time he did, and they both looked away quickly. Larin put the ointment on her mouth almost as fast as a thought.
Finally he wiped off the finger on the ice rag and scooted a little away from her. Ened sighed, and it sounded very loud in the still air. “Thanks,” she said quickly.
“You’re welcome,” Larin answered, his voice a little strained. “I’ll just take this back to them.” He picked up the jar of ointment and slipped out of the room, leaving Ened to clap the ice back on her mouth, stare out of her window, and think very, very hard.
“What happened to you?” gasped Marwyn when Ened finally emerged. Thanks to the ice and the ointment, the bruise had faded from a vivid purple to a dull violet-gray, but it still spread across her mouth and cheek like some kind of absurd birthmark.
“Accident,” Ened said. “I banged into a chair when I first got up.”
Marwyn shrugged, accepting the excuse. “Anything else hurt?”
“No,” said Ened. “Can I help you set the table for breakfast?”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Marwyn admitted, and handed Ened a stack of plates.
Breakfast turned out to be very heavy on bread. It was delicious bread (“Ma makes all the bread, and I helped her with the biscuits!” Marwyn said proudly), but Ened found herself wishing for a slice of meat with it, or maybe an egg or two. She had to admit, however, that it was wonderful to eat real food again instead of road fare, and even more wonderful to not have to cook it herself.
“So, where are you three bound?” asked Haleth, spearing some toast with his knife and dropping it onto his plate.
“To the West,” Valdor said.
“Ah, you’re going to be secretive? All right, then, I’ll not press you.” Haleth spread some butter on his toast and took a bite out of it. “I know about secrecy. Topic is dropped. You’re from Gondor, aren’t you?”
Larin threw Ened an accusing look. Well, it’s not my fault I talk like a princess! she thought. That’s kind of what I was brought up to do! “Yes,” she said, including Valdor in her gesture so that no questions might be asked about him.
“Wonderful!” said Haleth. “We’ve been strapped for news from Gondor lately, I haven’t been to court for a month. Tell me what’s happening there.”
“Haleth, maybe they’d like to eat before you interrogate them,” suggested his wife, a short, slender woman by the name of Fola.
“Ah! Right. Sorry, friends, I’ll hold my tongue,” said Haleth, smiling fondly at his wife.
Halla was still staring at Valdor. Ened might have found it amusing if her bruise hadn’t started throbbing as soon as the Elf’s name crossed her mind. She glared at him from under her eyelashes and chewed her bread vigorously.
“Actually, sir, there’s not much news from Gondor,” Larin said.
Haleth frowned. “But didn’t some princess run away a month ago? Have they found her?”
Larin covered his discomfort with a very artful cough. The bread in Ened’s mouth suddenly tasted like paper, and she began to suspect that for all his jovial nature, Haleth was far sneakier than she would have given him credit for. There you go again! she thought, displeased with herself. You’re a princess – you should have known that if he’s a royal advisor, he’s got to be sneaky! It’s part of the territory. Fat lot of good I am if all I do is give myself away and fail to pick up on things.
“Not yet,” said Larin. “At least, not since we came into Rohan. They’re probably closing in on her by now, though.”
Cut it short, Ened thought, don’t babble to fill up the silence, then he’ll know you know something – She spoke up lightly, swallowing her mouthful of bread. “If it’s runaway princesses you want to hear about, Master Haleth, Larin can sing you a wonderful ‘Lay of Telwen’s Ford’!” She grinned at Larin and clapped him on the back, and Haleth laughed. “Well, we’ll have to hear it then, lad! You a bard, then?”
“Yes,” said Larin. “The youngest bard to complete the training, in fact.”
“Then we’ll hear your song as soon as breakfast is over!” Haleth exclaimed. Fola started to protest, but Haleth shook his head. “No, Fola, I’ll not muck out stalls when we have a piece of bardic history under our very roof! The horses won’t die if I tend them ten minutes later than usual.” Fola grumbled, but she subsided.
Once the dishes were done, Larin did indeed sing the ‘Lay of Telwen’s Ford,’ and when he was done, Haleth demanded another song. It was in the middle of that one that Ened felt long fingers close carefully over her arm. She knew it was Valdor without even turning around. “Let go of me,” she said, keeping her eyes on Larin.
“I apologize for hurting you,” Valdor said under his breath, so that Haleth’s family and Larin would not hear. “I fear I too had come under the influence of that ring.”
“Nice little excuse there, but I don’t believe it,” Ened answered, still without turning. “You don’t see Larin going around and slapping people, do you? You don’t see me doing that, and I’ve been exposed to it for the longest time. When you think of a better one, come back and tell me.”
She heard Valdor sigh impatiently. “I know not what else it could be.”
Ened finally turned around and used his grip on her arm, which he had not released, to tow him out of the room and into the corridor where she and Marwyn had gotten the sheets to make up the beds. “You don’t?” she asked, pulling her arm free. “Well, let me tell you, because my answer makes a lot more sense than yours. I think you were just really, really angry with me, and you let it get the better of you. Now I know you pride yourself on your ridiculous supernatural control, but sometimes even you lose. I think you just don’t want to admit the fact that you lost out to something inside you. And I’ll believe that a lot sooner than I’ll believe that it had to do with the ring.”
“You say this, and yet you are blind!” Valdor hissed, grabbing her hands. “You do not know what that ring can do!”
“Then tell me!” Ened said defiantly. “If I’m so blind about this dangerous ring, you should tell me what you know about it. Why don’t you actually tell me something for once?”
For an instant Valdor looked as though he wanted nothing more than to hit her again. Then it was gone, and he said coldly, “Very well. You wish to know? I shall tell you.”
It was, in Ened’s book, the lousiest timing in the world. At that precise moment, Halla came around the corner, looking both concerned and jealous. “Your bard friend’s looking for you,” she said brusquely to Ened.
Well, you don’t have to be so rude, Ened thought sarcastically, all I did was tackle you and pin you to the ground! “Later,” she snapped at Valdor. “You need to tell me.” He nodded, pressing his lips thinly together, and Ened left the corridor, but not before she heard Halla ask petulantly, “What did you need to tell her?” Ened snorted with laughter and emerged into the large central room.
“Ened, there you are!” Larin said with some relief as she emerged. “Haleth wants a talent show.”
“Count me out,” she said automatically, “I can’t do anything. Unless you want to see me hold harps hostage,” she added, grinning at Larin, who grinned back ruefully.
“Nonsense,” said Haleth. “Can you play an instrument?”
About to answer no, Ened suddenly remembered the flute she’d thrown into her satchel when she left Minas Tirith. That had been more out of guilt than anything else – the stupid instrument had been her Telcontar grandmother’s, and Jeniniel would have had a fit if, on top of Ened’s disappearance, she hadn’t even taken her instrument with her. “Well,” she said hesitantly, “I can squeak out something on a flute, if you’d care to have me torture your ears.”
Haleth waved a hand in an expansive gesture. “All talk, I’m sure. Let’s hear it, come on!”
It was the work of a minute for Ened to run to her room, fish out her flute, and dash back to the central room. Valdor and Halla had come out of the corridor, and they were sitting back down at the table when Ened came back with the flute.
Oh, Elves, do I remember anything on this? she thought, clearing her throat. Oh, well, here goes. She raised the flute to her lips, drummed her fingers along it until they remembered the proper fingering, blew a few experimental notes on it, and began to play one of the prettier beginner pieces that her teacher had made her learn. They were ridiculously easy, but they were the only ones Ened could count on playing perfectly. Anything fancier, and she went flat and played fifteen bad chords. The beginner pieces were also nice and short. Ened finished in two minutes and lowered the flute.
Haleth clapped loudly. “Lovely, just lovely!” Larin was clapping politely too, and Marwyn was grinning. Ened was pleasantly surprised – no one had greeted her flute performances so nicely before. She bobbed a small curtsy and slid back into her seat.
That afternoon, a courier left the village of Wunbrand with a letter to King Freawine. It ran:
“To the most royal Freawine, King of Rohan, from Haleth of Wunbrand, greeting and hail. I’ve found the missing Gondorian princess. She’s not half bad on a flute. Proceed with caution and secrecy. If Beldor finds out prematurely, he’ll have both our heads.”