“I don’t care what he says,” Ened whispered. It was the middle of the night, and she had just poked Larin awake. Valdor was snoring peacefully in a corner. “We have to get there. Anyway, you know the way – it shouldn’t be that hard.”
Larin coughed. “Ened, you did catch that part that he said about sailing? That the Elves can’t sail from somewhere to Valinor?”
She shrugged. “We could – build a boat – or something…” She trailed off, reality crashing right into the middle of her imagination.
“Do you know how to build a boat, Ened?” Larin asked. “Because I don’t.”
“No,” she admitted. “I don’t know how you would sail one, either.”
“Then in that case,” said Larin, “it would seem that Valdor’s right. If the Elves won’t help us, we can’t get there.”
“All we’d need is one boat!” Ened protested. “We could find that somewhere! We could buy it, we could steal it, but we have to go to Valinor!” She grabbed the scroll tube out of her satchel and took the top off. Recklessly she dumped the ring out. It sailed onto the straw mattress, and Larin recoiled. “That’s why!” she hissed, jabbing a finger at the ring. “That thing right there! You can feel it – you didn’t jump back for nothing! Do you really want to leave this thing flying around the world?”
“No,” said Larin, in a tone somewhere between a laugh and a sob. He looked away, gritting his teeth, and suddenly whirled back to face her. “Ened,” he began, “I don’t -” He stopped. Ened could see his face go white around his lips and eyes.
“What?” she asked, more softly.
He stared at the ring, glittering on the straw. Ened saw its reflection in his wide eyes. Then suddenly he lifted his head, and he looked directly at her, and she was utterly unprepared for the fright that was blazing in his face. She could almost feel it stop her heart.
Then he looked back down at the ring, and she could breathe again as he said, very quietly, “Nothing. It’s nothing.” He sighed, heavily, as if he carried the world on his shoulders, and said, “Valinor, then?”
Ened was so relieved she could have kissed him. “Yes,” she said, unable to keep the relief from her voice, and she scooped up the silver ring.
Then they both froze in terror as an animal shriek split the still night.
Valdor struggled to his feet, kicking his blanket aside inelegantly and staggered over to them. “What are you doing?” he demanded, his voice still raw from his shriek. “What have you woken?” He grabbed Ened by the shoulders and shook her harshly. “What is it that you do?”
Immobilized by shock and fear, Ened let the ring slip from her hand to the floor.
Valdor heard the soft clink, and he released Ened instantly and stepped back. The starlight that glimmered into the wayhouse lit the silver ring on the floor for him to see. His face turned white, a perfect snowy white, and he recoiled from it just as Larin had.
Ened found her voice again. “That’s why we’re going to Valinor,” she choked out. “It’s dangerous -“
“Indeed,” breathed Valdor, his voice shaking like an autumn leaf in a stiff breeze. “Indeed.”
Valdor stared at the ring on the floor, his hands clenching and unclenching. His deepest-blue eyes sent shivers of unease down Ened’s spine – she had never seen anyone look so horrified as Valdor did at that moment. She glanced over at Larin as he reached out and slipped his hand into hers. Grateful for the comfort, Ened kept quiet.
Finally Valdor looked up. “I spoke in error,” he said. His voice was still shaking. “This has changed many things, and may change many more. It is now of the greatest necessity that you reach Valinor.”
Ened sagged in relief that he wasn’t going to gut them both for owning the ring. Larin, on the other hand, coughed and muttered under his breath, “Make up your mind, why don’t you?”
Ened nudged him in warning. If he offended Valdor, the Elf just might change his mind again – not likely, but there was a slight possibility. Then again, her companion might have a point. “I thought you just said that was impossible,” she pointed out, somewhat more politely than Larin’s grumble.
Valdor spoke very slowly, as though to a child, although his voice was still trembling worse than a feather in a stiff breeze. “That is correct. However, the presence of this…object…makes it necessary for a way to be found. And I can assist you in that.”
You mean we get to have Sir Alas-For-Ye-Olden-Days-But-I’m-Still-Better-Than-Any-Of-You along? Oh, joy. Ened could think of a lot of other people she’d rather have join her quest…but better a Ranger than a Ringwraith, as the saying went, and despite all his complaining about what the Elves weren’t, Valdor was probably excessively good at any kind of woodcraft or foresting. And apparently Valinor was an Elvish place, and it might be good to have an Elf along when they got there.
Valdor was still looking at her patronizingly. Ened turned to Larin. “Is that all right with you?” she asked, and was surprised by his vehement nod. Considering his dislike of the Elf, she had expected him to put up more of a fight, somewhat along the lines of “Are you crazy? No chance!” But it was a pleasant surprise, since Ened had already decided that Valdor would be a useful addition to their party.
“All right,” she said to the Elf. “You’re in.”
Ened was quite right about Valdor’s usefulness. He was far superior to Ened or Larin in woodcraft. As soon as she consented to him coming along, he leaped to work preparing supplies. Ened and Larin were instructed to stay in the wayhouse while Valdor hunted and foraged, and for three days in a row he returned with far more food than either Larin or Ened would have been able to find. Then he would cut the meat into long, thin strips, salt it quickly and efficiently, and pack it up. The only thing he would allow Ened and Larin to do would be to fetch him the salt.
It was a sobering experience, and not one that Ened liked very much. She consoled herself by repeated reminders that, were it not for Valdor, she and Larin would be just as bad off as they were before. Larin, however, did not seem as readily convinced.
“Sometimes I wish he’d never come along,” Larin muttered. That was on the first day they left the wayhouse. Since they still had the one horse between all three, Valdor had decreed that Ened must ride, since her back was not yet in optimal condition, and that he and Larin would walk. So Larin had yet again been subjected to Valdor’s insanely fast pace, and now, by the fire that they’d built to cook their dinner over, he wasn’t feeling particularly charitable.
Ened fixed him with a ferocious glare. “Might I remind you that if he hadn’t, the Orc would have killed us? And if by some miracle we’d survived, I would still be lying on the ground, since he fixed my back?”
“Yes, but just because he stepped in and helped doesn’t give him the right to intrude!” Larin yanked off a boot much more savagely than usual and started rubbing life back into his foot.
Ened couldn’t keep from giggling. “This coming from the one who had to have his harp dangled out of a window before he would come along? You have to admit, it’s a bit ludicrous, Larin.”
“Since when did you become his best friend?” he snapped.
Taken aback by his anger, Ened responded in kind. “Oh, I don’t know,” she retorted, “maybe right after he saved my life and fixed my back and told me about Valinor and offered to help me get there! That’s kind of important to me, and I would feel grateful to him for any one of those things, let alone all of them!” She scooted away from Larin and poked up the fire. “You know what I think, Larin?” she went on, unable to stop herself. “I think you’re jealous.”
Larin sputtered indignantly. “What? What did you say?”
“You heard me,” said Ened recklessly. “I think you’re jealous of Valdor. I think you want to be able to do all the things he can, and I think it just galls you to death that you can’t.”
She knew she’d gone too far before she even opened her mouth. The evidence of that was right in front of her, as the firelight tried and failed to warm the sudden ice that had frosted Larin’s face. “All right,” he said coldly, and Ened jumped – he hadn’t spoken to her that hostilely since the early days of traveling together. “You go ahead and think that. I’ll go to sleep.”
It was the strangest thing. She had been going to say, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” but what came out was “Oh, please, Larin, don’t be stupid.” How did that happen? Ened wondered in annoyance. It was too late to take the words back. Larin stiffened, and she heard a sharp intake of breath, but then he turned his back on her and the fire and said nothing else.
“Do not concern yourself overmuch with his words,” said Valdor’s quiet voice behind her. Ened turned around and wanted to kick herself. The Elf had not been asleep, as she and Larin had both thought. Instead he was sitting up and looking penetratingly at her. “He will regret them in the morning.”
“I know,” Ened muttered. “I will, too.”
Valdor sighed. “Your lives are so short. There is so little time to do anything, and yet you all insist upon wounding each other as much as you can within the short time you have. I do not pretend to understand this.”
“Neither do I,” said Ened. He’s right, she thought bemusedly. He’s absolutely right. People just love hurting other people.
Valdor cocked his head sideways and said, “Then if you, who are a mortal, and I, who possess some small measure of Elven wisdom, cannot unravel this matter, who is to say that it is the right way to proceed?” He lay back down, his long silver-blond hair spilling on the ground like moonlight. “Sleep, Lady.”
Obedient for once, Ened crawled to her spread-out cloak and slept.
The next morning, Ened decided to wake up very slowly. The sun wasn’t directly on her face, so she kept her eyes closed and drifted in and out of consciousness. Then, in the middle of a very nice dream in which she successfully slipped out of the Institute and wrote Sir Willin is a balrog on every wall she could reach, she realized dimly that she was being watched.
Ened rolled over and slitted her eyes open. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but the one thing she hadn’t thought of was that, early in the morning after yesterday’s grueling march, it would be Larin, wrapped in a cloak against the morning chill, sitting across the fire pit and looking at her.
She sat up slowly, pulling her own cloak up around her shoulders, and hugged her knees to her chest. “Did you get any sleep last night?” she yawned, frowning at him – he had looked away as soon as she had moved.
“Mm-hmm,” he said, nodding. His eyes were still riveted to the ground.
Honestly, Larin, thought Ened, what’s so interesting about dirt and leaves? If you’re going to avoid looking at me, at least do it with some skill. “How much?” she pressed. “Are we talking about an hour, five hours, five minutes?”
Larin looked up at her, and she could see a kind of smile behind his eyes. “Ened,” he asked, “is this your way of apologizing?”
She was relieved that his tone was so light and teasing, but her pride was affronted by what he actually said. Ened opened her mouth to toss back a haughty reply and caught herself just in time. “You all insist upon wounding each other as much as you can,” said Valdor inside her head. “I suppose,” she said, “but only if what you said is your way.”
For a moment he didn’t say anything – and then he laughed, and Ened relaxed. “All right,” he agreed, and she grinned at him across the dead fire.
Ened rolled to her feet and stretched, her relief so great that she felt like she could just float away. “Breakfast?” she asked, picking up her cloak and shaking the dirt from it.
Larin shuddered. “Not if you’re cooking!”
She dropped the blanket to the ground, where it promptly started to pick up more dirt. “My cooking’s not that bad!”
“Oh, sure,” Larin scoffed. “I just love eating burnt chicken and half-cooked noodles for dinner!” But he grinned broadly as he said it.
Ened bent down, grabbed a handful of leaves, and lobbed them at Larin. He yelped as he caught them directly in his face, but instead of grabbing for a return missile, he launched himself over the fire pit and tackled her, snagging both her ankles and tugging. Ened toppled with a shriek to the ground and pounced, heading straight for the soles of his feet, which she remembered from their last tussle to be Larin’s vulnerable spots, while he tried to shield his feet and attack her knees at the same time. “No! Not there!” Larin gasped, as Ened finally grabbed one of his feet, yanked it onto her lap, and started to tickle mercilessly. “Anywhere but there, aaaah, that tickles!”
“I bet it does,” she grinned, and snatched his other foot out from under him.
“All right, all right!” he yelped. “I give up.”
Ened sighed melodramatically and released his feet, only to have him jump at her, pin her to the ground, and launch an equally merciless attack on her very ticklish neck. “Cheater!” she accused between screeches.
“Oh, yes,” Larin assured her, turning his move into a two-pronged assault to cover her stomach as well, and eliciting numerous shrieks.
“I take it that there remain no hard feelings?” said Valdor from behind them.
Ened’s eyes widened, and Larin all but jumped away from her. Valdor was lying on the ground, his head propped up on his elbow, watching them with detached amusement. Despite the presence of a large quantity of leaves, his hair was still as silky as it had been the night before. Ened reached up and pulled some of her own hair over her shoulder – it was tangled, leafy, and smudged with dirt, and Larin’s was no better. She glanced over at him – he was grinning shamefacedly, and she began to giggle. Larin tried valiantly to smother his own laughs, but pretty soon both of them were hooting at the sight of each other.
Valdor smiled indulgently and got gracefully to his feet. “Humans,” he sighed, giving his cloak a cursory shake. “I shall prepare our breakfast.”