“What were you thinking?” roared King Beldor as Mithorn marched Ened into the throne room. Ened blinked at her grandfather – there were dark circles under his eyes, and he was wearing the same tunic as he had yesterday. Had her family been worried about her?
“Clearly,” cut in Jeniniel’s frigid voice, “she was not thinking at all.”
I love you, too, Mother, thought Ened sourly. So much for being worried.
Mithorn left her right before the throne and turned quickly – he did not want to be witness to a display of Telcontar temper. Ened groaned and pulled Oronin’s cloak closely around herself, partly for the ridiculous feeling of protection it gave her and partly to conceal the scroll tube.
“I asked you a question, Ened,” said Beldor, his voice throbbing with fury, “and you had best answer it.”
If she had thought even once before speaking, Ened would never have said what she did. But she was tired, and that made her careless, so she looked up at her grandfather and said, too casually, “I’m guessing that this means my prohibition is over?”
Beldor Telcontar, King of Gondor, was not a man who gave in to emotion. Fifty-three years on the throne had taught him the value of control. However, he had spent an insane day and a sleepless night waiting for news of his granddaughter, the only child of his son and heir. He had even permitted himself to worry over her safety, to fret that come morning they’d find her body tossed in some alley on the Second level. And after all his concern, after all his efforts to locate her and bring her safely home – this was his reward, this petulant, haughty response? The least he could do was what he did then – to grip the scepter until his knuckles went white and bellow, “On your knees, Ened Telcontar!”
Shocked into silence, Ened did as she was told. Her knees gave way on their own, in fact – she had nothing to do with it. They hurt as they smacked into the stone floor. She retained just enough presence of mind to move Oronin’s cloak to keep covering the scroll tube.
Beldor had regained control of himself, but just barely – his nostrils were flaring wildly, and his eyes were trained so intensely on her that she couldn’t find it in herself to meet them. “Madron, son of Beldor, second lord of the house of Telcontar, step forward,” he gritted out.
Ened went cold all over. She knew what this was, just as she’d known when Beldor was about to lay her under prohibition. Her tutor had insisted she know all the ceremonies and such that the royal house was required to perform. Even now she could recite word for word the investiture of a scion of the house with the right to the succession or the vow for accepting an oath of fealty, could describe down to the detail of the embroidery the garments worn by a sovereign when he or she ascended the throne. So she knew exactly what her grandfather was doing, and it sent shivers all down her spine.
It’s no more than I deserve, really, she told herself frantically, after my behavior it’s to be expected, for Elves’ sake, it’s not a surprise! You knew this might come, you knew it, don’t be a fool… But knowing it might come, and kneeling in the throne room while it happened, were two entirely different things. This was no speculation in the library, this was real.
Pale as snow, her father stepped before the throne and in front of Ened, effectively blocking her view of her grandfather, for which she was grateful. If she couldn’t see Beldor, he couldn’t see her. “I stand before my king,” said Madron, his voice chilly with a purposeful lack of emotion. “What is your will?”
Ened closed her eyes. It was incredibly hard to breathe all of a sudden, incredibly hard to give this up. Maybe it would be easier if she just couldn’t see anything…
“I, Beldor Telcontar, King of Gondor in this year 217 of the Tenth Age, do declare that we have found the line of succession faulty. Your daughter, who stands third in line for the throne, has by her actions forfeited her right to this honor and responsibility. I therefore remove from her the right to succeed to the throne upon my death and the death of my heir, and confer it upon Naur, son of Malara of the house of Telcontar. Let this decision be recorded, for all time to look upon in the future.” He struck the scepter into his open palm with a resounding thwap.
And that was it. Ened knelt, numb, before the throne that she would have sat in a few moments ago. Now she permitted herself to open her eyes, to look between her father’s legs at Beldor, trembling with anger on the throne. To her shock, she found that tears were stinging her eyes – not tears of sorrow, but tears of humiliation. This was disgrace – not a mere expulsion from some stupid Institute, but this callous stripping away of her birthright, her future, her very life. She was shaken to the very core of her being in a way she’d never been touched before.
And hard on the heels of humiliation came anger – sweet, burning anger that flared up as Ened got to her feet, pulling Oronin’s cloak tightly around her like some talisman of defense. “Nicely done,” she snarled, clenching her fists to keep them from shaking in rage. “Congratulations, Grandpa. I hope you’re happy.” And just to make him blanch in shock, and to make herself feel the tiniest bit better, she topped it all off with the choicest curse she’d learned from the Institute guards, the one she’d ripped off at Bren when he discovered her, and smiled savagely to see Beldor’s hand go limp in astonishment around the scepter.
Without another word, feeling more tears prick her angry eyes and knowing they’d come out if she stayed another minute, Ened whirled on her heel and left the throne room, biting her lip until it bled to keep herself from crying. The closing of the door behind her felt like the end of her life.
“Ened, I mean it! Open this door right now, or Elves help me, I swear I’ll get an axe and chop it down myself!”
“I’d love to see you try!” Ened yelled back. She heard a long-suffering sigh from the other side of her door, and then her father’s footsteps moving away slowly. Not exactly the purposeful stride of a man about to chop down a door, Ened thought bitterly, stretching a little farther out on her bed.
She’d had quite a few other-side-of-the-door visitors in the past few days. None of the Ondohers, of course – apparently Ened’s conduct and disinheritance had put Irwath’s marriage in danger, and the entire Ondoher clan was devoting itself to repairing the damage. Irwath had come by once, though. The memory of that visit still made Ened laugh. Irwath had stood outside the door – Ened had sent Asca out of her suite and locked the door the moment she came back from the throne room – and screamed tearfully, “You little brat! You’ve ruined my life! I’ll never forgive you!” for about half an hour. Ened had timed her, finding it unspeakably amusing, and had collapsed in laughter when Irwath finally got tired and hoarse and left her in peace.
Her other visitor had been far less pleasant than her cousin. Beldor had not deigned to come yell outside her door at all, but Jeniniel had of course turned up not five minutes after Ened had locked the door to demand Ened’s presence and apologies. “You have behaved abominably,” Jeniniel had said coldly, “and the least you can do is offer your apology for your conduct.”
“And the least you can do,” Ened had retorted, struggling to keep from shouting, “is go away.”
Jeniniel had retreated, probably the picture of composed defeat, and had returned the day after, and the day after that, and every day for five days to demand an apology. After the second day Ened had stopped talking to her – she knew Jeniniel’s speech by heart by then.
Her father had come too. That, she had not expected. He had just turned up that day and had been the only one to knock instead of yelling ultimatums and threats of lifelong hatred. Ened had almost been ready to talk sensibly to him – but then he’d lost his temper, made the threat about the axe, and she knew that his calm was the trick to lure her into reconciliation.
I won’t, she thought mutinously. If I have to apologize, so do they. It was childish, and she knew it, but it was nice for once to have her world uncomplicated, with her as good and anything opposed to her as bad.
Thinking of “bad” made her glance warily at the scroll tube. At the bottom there was a faint glint of silver. Ened looked quickly away from it and returned to rereading the scroll she’d been studying when her father arrived. “Then was come the passing of the Elves from the world. Many were the grey ships that left Middle-earth, but the last carried the greatest burden. For on that ship was Frodo Baggins the Halfling, who had been the Ringbearer, and on it too were Gandalf the White, the Lady Galadriel and the Lord Celeborn of Lothlorien, and Elrond Peredhel, who was father to Queen Arwen. And these were the bearers of the Three Elven Rings, and with their passing the last of the Great Rings left Middle-earth and came to Valinor, where at last they could be safely used.”
Ened sat up with a start and cricked her neck. “Ow…!” She reached around and rubbed it, then lay down with her head on her most comfortable pillow, staring at the ceiling as the idea came back to her.
The three Elven Rings supposedly went to Valinor, wherever that is. And there they were safe, or neutralized, or whatever. Might that do the same for my ring?
Ened started to shake her head impatiently and reconsidered when her cricked neck reminded her of its painful existence. She settled for muttering to herself, “Come on, Ened. It’s a crazy idea. You don’t even know how to get to Valinor.”
“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.”
“Not in the mood for that, Oronin,” she said. “Sometimes you have to use common sense.”
But the ring itself defied common sense, so why should she apply common sense to it? In fact, everything that had happened to her since she found the ring had defied common sense. She’d played her game and wreaked havoc among her family, and look where that had gotten her – barred from the succession, forbidden to be queen, and cordially hated by all of her family, except maybe her father. Maybe it was time to do something completely different, something nonsensical…something like taking her ring to Valinor.
I can always change my mind, after all.
Ened rolled her neck from side to side. It still hurt. Nothing to be done about that. She glanced out of her window – it was late morning, which meant that if she moved fast, she could be in the Seventh level by noon and – if luck was with her for once – out of the city before dark. She bit her lip to keep from squealing in sheer excitement. A Telcontar who wants to have adventures, Oronin had called her – well, thanks to her ring, she was going to get plenty of them!
She forced herself to get up, to find the battered satchel she’d used as a child on her various expeditions. It was in better condition than she’d remembered, which still wasn’t saying much – but at least the bottom of the satchel was still in place. Ened rummaged through her closet and frowned in dismay. Naturally, all her clothes were gowns, and she couldn’t quite see herself running around in silk from Harad and fine embroidery.
I could just pick the plainest dresses. The thought seemed like a good one to her, and she removed the three unembellished gowns from the closet. One was her riding outfit which, though embroidered, was made of strong wool. One was raw silk, which looked serviceable, and the last was the plainest and least-worn of all her gowns, a soft cotton one with a faint sheen to it. That one she rolled into a ball and stuffed into the satchel, along with the riding outfit. The raw silk dress would probably get her through the Fifth level with no suspicions – the material was costly, but the dress itself was plain enough to belong to anyone from the Fourth or Fifth level. As a concession to vanity, Ened also carefully folded and packed her favorite gown, an emerald-green satin affair with faint tracings of leaves along the neck and sleeves. Her skin prickled at the thought of going for Elves knew how many days with only three wearable dresses, but there seemed to be no help for it. She certainly didn’t intend to go traipsing around Gondor in ball gowns!
Ened added the scroll tube and the books Oronin had lent her, making sure the ring was still inside the tube and that the tube was sealed tightly. She put in a few of her favorite books, her flute (out of obligation more than anything else), and hastily added lots of clean underwear when she realized she’d almost forgotten that. Tossing Oronin’s cloak over her shoulders and following it with her satchel, Ened went to her bathroom and peered cautiously out the window.
No one had thought to post a guard under it.
Ened grinned evilly and let herself out of the window again. A small rush of adrenaline lanced through her, but this time it wasn’t about getting out of her suite – it was about getting out of the city. That was the real test, and Ened, considering her previous attempts, was not that convinced that she could do it. But she wasn’t going to get to Valinor by messing up again, so there was nothing for it but to try.
The guards were probably on the alert for her. Despite her apprehension, Ened started to get excited. This was exactly like a tale! She’d been entrusted with a dangerous object, and now she had to go on a quest to rid the world of its evil, all the while facing peril at every turn. She had to not look like a Telcontar, like the (former) heir to the throne of Gondor. Ened started to use a mincing walk, tripping along as she’d seen some of her classmates at the Institute do, swinging her hips from side to side and keeping her hands demurely folded. She thought her new physicality very good, and approached the gate confidently.
“Password?” asked one of the guards. The other looked beadily at her, and Ened avoided his gaze – she had a feeling that security had been upped while she was locked in her room.
“The Tree blooms,” she quavered, doing a credible impression of an intimidated noble’s daughter. The first guard looked over at his companion and muttered, “For Elves’ sake, look at her! Does this look like a high-strung princess to you?”
“‘Spose not,” grumbled the second guard. “What’s in the satchel?” he asked gruffly, speaking directly to Ened.
She jumped – she’d been halfway through already. “Nothing,” she said hastily, “just some things for Mama.” She opened the satchel partway and rummaged frantically inside, hauling out a sleeve of her green embroidered dress. The guard subsided and let her go, which she did, very quickly, stuffing the sleeve back into the satchel and tying it securely shut again.
Ened’s heart was beating very fast as she walked away from the gate, trying not to look as agitated as she felt. That had not been pleasant, and she sincerely hoped that they hadn’t put an inquisitor guard at every gate.
She decided to forego mingling. There was absolutely no need to run into Nethinn again, and anyway, it was a warm day and she was in a cloak – she was bound to be noticed. Better to get out of the city right away. Besides, striding boldly through the city streets had a certain appeal.
Of course, there was a special guard at every gate. Ened found that out when she made it to the Sixth level gate and saw the two guards. One was lounging carelessly, but the other was standing at attention and scanning the crowd. Oh, lovely.
Ened made her way toward the gate, bringing her mincing walk back and clasping her hands again. The lounging guard looked up lazily at her and said, “Password?”
She giggled on purpose, batting her eyelashes at him – he was around her age, and according to the Institute pupils who managed to sneak out, flirting was an excellent way to get through gates. “Hail to the King,” she chirped, and he nodded and leaned back against the wall. The inquisitor guard glared at her, but mercifully didn’t ask her anything. Just to be safe, Ened continued to mince until she was out of eyesight of the gate – then she stopped in the middle of the street to get her breath and wits back.
The Fifth level was prosperous, but not nearly as fine as the Sixth and Seventh levels. Although, she told herself, that was hardly surprising – the Fifth level consisted of low-ranked nobles and rich merchants, not the great houses who lived on the upper levels. Still, if it glittered less than the Sixth and Seventh, the Fifth level was nonetheless similar to Ened, and she passed through it fairly quickly, getting through the gate under intense scrutiny and questioning by the interrogator guard there – but she got through, and that, as she told herself, was the important thing.
The Fourth level was altogether different. The middle-class citizens lived on the Fourth level, and theirs was a world Ened had never been in. The first time she slipped into a gutter and plunged her foot ankle-deep into dirty rainwater, she was shocked and disgusted by the filth of the Fourth level. The third time she did it, her foot was already dirty and wet – what was the point of complaining about it? There was a horrible oily feel to the wetness, though, one that set Ened’s skin tingling in disgust and made her want to sit down with a cloth and wipe it all off.
She was getting noticed, too. People who’d rarely seen silk in their lives were staring at her dress, which showed even when she hugged the cloak tighter around her, and she thought she could hear whispers following her as she walked along. Ened reached up periodically to touch her satchel and make sure that everything in it was still there, a nervous gesture that, though she didn’t know it, marked her instantly as a noblewoman, someone so scared for the fate of her belongings that she had to check them constantly.
The investigator guard gave her a wary look as she came up to the gate and gave the password, with her voice colored by nerves. “What’s your name?” he barked once she’d said the password.
Ened cursed herself. Why hadn’t she bothered to come up with a fake name? Why?! “Um – Mareth,” she invented hastily, and then hated herself for it. That was a stupid name, the name of some Fifth-Age princess who’d eloped with a peasant instead of marrying the Rohirric prince her father had betrothed her to. It was almost as popular a tale as the mythology – or history, or whatever it was – of the Third Age, and one that Ened had heard often, since she and Irwath had often shared a nursery, and her cousin had a particular fondness for silly romantic stories. “Mareth Alcarin,” she added, using the name of the family with the worst Institute-expulsion statistics in the history of Gondor.
The name did not go unnoticed by the guards, both of whom snorted with laughter upon hearing it. Ened went red – obviously they didn’t believe her. So I’ll just have to brazen my way out of this, won’t I? she thought with no little amount of panic. “Look, I know it’s stupid,” she snapped, “but I can’t change my name, so you might as well stop laughing and let me through!”
That sobered them up. Embarrassed and pitying, they stood aside and let her through the gate. Ened grinned gleefully once she was out of sight.
The Third level was altogether different. Ened found that she was afraid, and the knowledge made her angry. She had nothing to be afraid of, after all – it wasn’t as though these people were evil. They were Gondorians, the same as she was – they wouldn’t harm her. But she still caught the haunted looks in the eyes of the people she passed, and she still shivered and drew her cloak even tighter around her as she tried to remember who lived on the Third level. The First level she knew was the most suitable-looking of the lower four, since that was the one that people entered the city through. It was the Second level that had the bad reputation. Some king in the past had launched an effort once to clean out the Second level to clean it up for visitors. He had lost more men in that effort than Hafath Telcontar had in the last war with the Haradrim. The bodies had turned up eventually, with their throats cut in alleyways and their pockets and clothes scavenged ruthlessly. The dregs of Minas Tirith lived on the Second level. It was only the less poor citizens who managed to move up to the Third level. Ened hurried through the Third level – the sooner she was out of it, the sooner she’d be out of the city.
The Second level was squalid and rank. She wrinkled her nose in distaste and kept to the shadows cast by the buildings. She drew her cloak even tighter around her and kept one hand on her satchel all the time.
And of course, this was the level where she attracted some notice.
Ened was so focused on getting out of the Second level that she never even heard the footsteps behind her. Out of nowhere, one hand grabbed her arm, and as she whirled in sudden fear, another descended over her nose and mouth. She inhaled the stink of sweat and grime, and as she reached out to strike at the man holding her, someone else pinioned her arms behind her back. Her satchel swung out from under the cloak into view, and Ened gave a muffled yell as a third man snatched it nimbly. If he gets the ring, that’s it, it’s over, it’s all over…
She writhed, yanking desperately against the hands holding her arms in place, but the man’s grip was too tight. The third robber had her satchel in his hands, had opened it, was pawing through – and only then did Ened realize that they hadn’t crippled her legs.
She loosed another smothered shriek and kicked out blindly behind her. She missed – she knew from the sudden and dramatic overbalancing – but she stumbled back upright and lashed out again with her foot. This time she connected with something, out of sheer luck. She heard the man behind her swear violently, and Ened wrenched her arms free – and out of their sockets, it felt like. “Get her, Bern, you lazy fool!” snarled the man holding a hand over Ened’s mouth, and Bern made a wild leap for her again. Ened lurched away from him with a speed born of pure terror, and her sudden movement tore the first thief’s hand away from her mouth. She gasped in a breath, tore her satchel from the third robber’s hands, and took off down the streets, the thieves in hot pursuit.
Why did anyone invent skirts? she wondered frantically. They were an incredible impediment to her mad dash, but she could hardly stop running to tie them up higher. All she could do was grab them in her free hand as she ran and pull them up and hope she wouldn’t stumble. The thieves’ pounding footsteps behind her were drawing closer, and closer, and there was a painful stitch in her side as she ran. Of course the Second level would have to be the second-biggest level in the city…!
Ened didn’t see the loose stone in the road. She tripped, and the satchel flew out of her hands and went spinning across the road. Ened stumbled to her feet with a cry and grabbed it up, but the thieves were even closer now that she’d been held up, however briefly. And now her knee was stinging painfully, and her breath was coming in labored gasps, and her throat wanted nothing so much as a drink of water, and there was the gate looming ahead.
Ened threw herself forward, stumbling over her hem, clutching her satchel to her breast. The guards at the gate were tough material, and Ened avoided looking at the inquisitor guard altogether as she gasped out the password. She had the distinct impression that they might have halted her for serious questioning had she not been being chased by a band of thieves. Instead, the inquisitor guard bit his lip, but let her pass with no worse than a beady look, and Ened collapsed against a wall to catch her breath, blissfully safe in the First level.