It was incredibly annoying how, even when they were in the village, Halla never took her eyes off Valdor. “Did someone glue her eyeballs onto him?” Ened muttered to Larin, who choked with laughter and earned them both a scornful glance from the Elf in question. Halla, not being equipped with super Elf hearing, didn’t catch Ened’s words.
They were drawing near to a fairly large house, and as they approached, a girl of maybe eight stuck her head out of a window and yelled, “Halla, get in here, Ma’s going wild!” Halla blanched and quickened her steps, and Ened, Larin and Valdor had no choice but to follow her.
Halla pushed open the door and walked quickly into the dimly lit house. Ened blinked in the darkness, but Halla’s step never faltered. The girl pulled her head out of the window and turned around as they came near. “About time,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “Have you any idea -“
“Please, Marwyn,” said Halla beseechingly, grabbing for a shawl that she wrapped quickly around her hair. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Oh, yes, you’re here,” scoffed Marwyn, “but I had to do your chores today, and Ma says if you shirk again, she’ll get Da to come after you with the belt!”
“Then your father is no true father,” said Valdor, his quiet voice very cold. Oh, no, thought Ened. Here we go with the honor thing. “No father who beats his children should be allowed to keep them.”
Marwyn tipped her head back and surveyed Valdor critically, although there was no small amount of awe in her eyes. “What’re you doing here?” she demanded. “Halla? Where’d they all come from?”
“I found them,” Halla muttered, grabbing for a broom and fumbling so badly with it that it clattered to the floor. Marwyn rolled her eyes and reached down, but Valdor was quicker – he was presenting the item to Halla before Marwyn had touched the floor. The little girl scowled and stepped back. “On the plain,” Halla added unnecessarily, her hands quivering where they had brushed the Elf’s fingers.
“Oh, really,” said Marwyn sarcastically. “You mean you didn’t find them in the great forest just south of here? Where else would you have found them?”
Ened snorted with suppressed laughter. The girl had clearly missed her calling. She should have been born in the Fifth Age; she would have made a splendid court jester.
Marwyn transferred her sarcasm to Ened without missing a beat. “The pigs are out in the barn if you feel like talking to them,” she said pointedly.
“I’m sure they are,” Ened retorted – the girl was a lot funnier when her caustic wit wasn’t turned on Ened herself. “And I can’t imagine why the crows aren’t begging you to come croak with them.”
For a minute Marwyn stared hostilely at Ened. Ened did not look away – that would be conceding defeat. And it paid off, because finally Marwyn laughed and held out her hand, palm up and fingers flat. “Good, you can think,” she said, sounding relieved. “Greetings of the house, then.”
Ened was glad for once that she had had to learn protocol. She returned the gesture, placing her palm flat down over Marwyn’s. “Greetings of the heart,” she replied. “My name is Ened, and my companions are Larin and Valdor.” She indicated which was which with a nod of the head. “We thank you for your hospitality,” she added for good measure.
Marwyn grinned lopsidedly, and her Da came loudly into the room.
It was the boots, Ened decided a second later. The man was wearing a pair of the clunkiest boots she had ever seen, and every time he put a foot down, the ceiling rattled. Valdor, with his sensitive ears, was even wincing. Of course, it might also be the fact that he’s as tall as the Tower of Ecthelion… Halla shrieked something about the floors, but it was Marwyn who careened across the room to plant a hand firmly over her father’s stomach to halt his progress. “No,” she said firmly. “You can stop right there, Da, and you can take off your filthy boots. Ma cleaned these floors this morning, and she won’t be pleased if you track horse dung all over them.”
The huge man stared at his tiny daughter, blinked, and said in a shockingly mild voice for such a massive personage, “Sorry, Marwyn, wasn’t even thinking.” He promptly sat down and unlaced his boots. “Be a love and help me get these off,” he said, tugging fruitlessly at one. Marwyn eyed the dung-covered soles distastefully, but she wrapped her hands in her apron and hauled on the right boot. It popped off with a soft sucking noise, and she winced as she tossed the boot out of the open window. Her father propped up his other foot, and Marwyn pulled that one off and pitched it out as well.
“There you go, Da,” she said, practically tearing her apron off, “you can walk now.”
“Right,” he said pleasantly, and descended in stocking feet on Ened, Larin, and Valdor. Ened was shocked to see that Valdor stood a full head shorter than Marwyn’s father. “Sorry about that, I never remember,” he said cheerfully. “Who would you be?”
“Ened, Larin, and Valdor,” called Marwyn from the doorway, where she was cleaning up her father’s boots’ mess. “Greetings of the house and all. Da, Ened can think!”
“Wonderful!” cried her father. “Which one is Ened?”
“Me,” said Ened quickly, stepping forward and offering her hand palm down to him. He clapped his underneath hers quickly, and she added, “That’s Valdor, and this is Larin.”
“I found them,” Halla interjected sullenly.
“Good for you!” said her father, patting her on the shoulder. He beamed at her, but Halla was too busy glowering at her broom to notice. “Well, welcome!” he said, turning back to his guests. “I’m Haleth.” He held out his hand palm up, and Valdor tentatively copied Ened’s gesture. Larin followed suit with more confidence, and Ened wondered if he had traveled to Rohan in his bard journeys. “And what brings you here to Wunbrand?”
Valdor opened his mouth, but Ened cut him off brusquely. “Nothing important,” she said. “We’ll be moving on in a few days.” No sooner was she done speaking than she found herself subjected to a haughty look from Valdor and a positive glare from Halla. Ened squared her shoulders and glared back.
“Ah,” said Haleth jovially. “Well, if you’ve accepted house greetings and all that, may we offer you our hospitality until you leave?”
“Certainly you may,” said Larin, speaking quickly as Ened opened her mouth again. She twisted her head up to stare at him, but he only caught her hand in his and squeezed it very hard. The gesture could not have been clearer, and Ened subsided.
Marwyn straightened and threw a cleaning rag out of the window. “Well, if that’s settled, I’ll just get the guest rooms ready,” she said.
“Should I help?” quavered Halla, freezing in place.
“I’ll do it,” said Ened quickly.
“You don’t know where anything is,” Halla objected.
“Neither do you,” retorted Marwyn. “Come on, then, Ened. I need some sensible conversation anyway.”
Ened grinned as she followed the imperious little girl through a side door. Marwyn pulled sheets and blankets off the shelves they passed, handing each armload to Ened. “I’m guessing you don’t like your sister,” said Ened once they were safely inside a room.
Marwyn snorted and took a set of sheets from Ened. “Try living with her for your whole life and then see how much you like her. ‘Where should I put this?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘How do I do it?’ It drives me insane.” Marwyn tugged on one corner of the sheet. She didn’t have the arm reach to get it across to the other end. Suddenly she seemed like a little girl, rather than someone Ened’s age with a cynical streak to rival Ened’s own.
“Here, I’ll get that,” said Ened quickly, grabbing the corner and tucking it under.
“Thank you,” said Marwyn, smiling.
“You lost a tooth!” cried Ened, noticing the gap in Marwyn’s smile.
“Mm-hmm,” said Marwyn proudly. “My fifth.”
“Congratulations,” Ened grinned.
Marwyn grinned back and tucked down another corner. “Where did you learn to make beds?” she asked. “I mean, I can tell you’re not Rohirric, and your Westron is very precise, so I’m assuming you’re a noble of some sort.”
Ened sighed. Someday I’ll have to get Larin to teach me how to talk like normal people. “My maid at school never made my bed the right way,” she said. “So I had to learn how. Of course, she would always come back and mess it up, and then I’d have to fix it again, but at least I learned how to make a bed the right way.”
Marwyn nodded understandingly. “I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes we get people here to help us with the house. Ma always ends up kicking them out after a week. She always tries to be nice, but they never do anything right. It’s better when it’s just us – well, her and me and Da, Halla doesn’t know how to keep a house.”
Ened frowned. As far as she had guessed, Marwyn’s family was a fairly ordinary one in Rohan. How would they get hired help sent to them? “Where do you get them?” she asked, spreading a blanket over the bed. “And why do you keep getting them?”
Marwyn smoothed the blanket down and put the pillow in place. “You must be a pretty minor noble to not know. Da’s an advisor to the king.”