Of course it took a while to get Ened actually onto the horse. For about five minutes she gaped and sputtered, “An Elf? You’re an Elf? But that’s not -“
“I assure you it is possible,” said Valdor’s melodic voice. “It is, in fact, true.”
“But Elves -” Ened stammered, “they’re not – real.”
Valdor was now in her line of vision, so she could see that he was frowning. “I assure you we are real.”
Larin was just staring at Valdor as though his wildest dream had come true and he wasn’t sure if he was still awake. This policy didn’t seem too helpful to Ened, but she had to admit that he didn’t have the discomfort of an injury to distract him. Elves, she thought. Elves! How is that possible? They don’t exist anymore, for Elves’ – She realized suddenly how ridiculous it was to say “For Elves’ sake,” and rather dazedly told her thoughts to shut up.
Finally Valdor lifted her and put her on Larin’s horse. Being carried by an Elf was not, however, an experience that Ened got to relish, since the very fact of motion sent jolts of pain running down her neck and back faster than the arrow Valdor had shot into the Orc thing. In fact, she spent most of the carrying time hissing in pain and emitting the occasional yelp when her neck was jostled. She didn’t really bother to notice the details, such as Valdor’s smooth-as-silk gait and the way Larin’s frightened horse calmed and stood perfectly still for the Elf to lift Ened up onto.
Once that task was accomplished, Valdor took the reins. “Follow,” he said to Larin, who frowned at the order but didn’t contest it. To Ened, Valdor said, “Hold fast to the horse, lady, and do not let go.”
“Oh, no,” she muttered, loud enough for only Larin next to her to hear, “no, I’m just going to let go as soon as the animal starts moving and fall off and break my neck properly this time.” Larin snorted with suppressed laughter.
“I would advise against that course of action,” said Valdor, now definitely annoyed and, Ened decided, conclusively proven to lack any vestige of a sense of humor. “That would be most detrimental to your health.”
“I was being sarcas – wait a minute, how did you hear that? I was whispering!”
Valdor sniffed disdainfully. “Elven hearing is far superior to mortal ears.”
Oh, thought Ened, hoping Elves couldn’t read minds as well. Excuse me!
Valdor was extremely offended by Larin’s wondering if he was taking them to some Elvish settlement. “There are few enough Elves left in Arda,” he said haughtily, “and the few who remain here do not dwell in mortal lands.”
“Sorry I asked,” Larin grumbled, but he glanced up at Ened and she grinned at him.
“I am taking you,” Valdor said grudgingly, after a few moments of expectant silence, “to an abandoned wayhouse. As you may not recall, in the Sixth Age King Ardomir established small dwellings along every minor road in the land of Gondor for accidents and temporary shelters. They fell out of use in the 8th Age, when the Telcontars lost the throne, and when they regained it, they showed little interest in reviving the idea, if indeed they remembered it at all.”
Ened decided not to enlighten Valdor as to her lineage. The derogatory way in which he spoke of the modern branch of her family was not encouraging. Although, she added fairly, the modern branch of my family isn’t that encouraging either. Instead she opted to ask, “And you were around then?”
What she could see of Valdor’s back stiffened, and he tripped over a small stone and had to stagger a little to regain his balance. “No,” he said. “The life of the Elves is not as long as it was in older days. Now we only live to a few thousand years, which by the standards of the golden age of the Eldar makes us all children. I myself am only five hundred years old.” Only five hundred, he says, thought Ened in astonishment. Only five hundred! “The wayhouse is far older.”
“Then what’s the point of going there?” Larin asked. “If it’s not equipped and has the dust of two Ages on it, what possible good can it do us?” Ened did not blame him for the undisguised harsh edge in his voice – he had been kept walking at Valdor’s fast pace for four hours straight now, without even a pause to eat or drink. At least the rain had stopped, although in the almost pitch-dark it was just as hard to see the path.
“We do not require the equipment it might have,” said Valdor testily, “for I carry the necessary items with me. Never do I venture from my home without all that I may require on my journey.” Pompous little arse, thought Ened. “Therefore we will not lack for food, nor the lady for medical attention, so pray abate your fears, sir.”
“Consider them abated,” Larin grumbled in a tone that made Ened think they most definitely were not.
Unfortunately for Larin’s ego, Valdor was right on every count. The wayhouse was exactly where he said it would be, and although it was dirty, by no means did it have “the dust of two Ages on it.” In her fuzzy mind, Ened suspected that Valdor had used it often, although not very recently.
The Elf – it was still unreal even thinking it – brought Larin’s horse right into the wayhouse and lifted Ened down, placing her carefully on a somewhat clean mattress of straw. The sharp straws pricked and itched her arms, but her eyes were going dark, and she could barely see Valdor’s shadowy figure bending over her, could barely hear Larin’s anxious voice asking, “Is she going to be all right?” before Ened went spiraling down into blessed, pain-free unconsciousness.
When she woke up, she was embarrassed to remember that she’d fainted. What am I, some kind of court priss? she asked herself, and opened her eyes.
She was still lying on the straw mattress – the pricking of the straws told her that even before she opened her eyes – but now Ened realized that there was something else covering her, something warm and soft. She brushed it with a tentative fingertip. It was her cloak.
Can I move? Can I sit up? There was only one way to find out. Ened gritted her teeth and raised her head – and dropped it back down in agonizing relief. She could move again, she was all right! She reached out an arm, bracing herself for the sting of pain, and gasped out heavily when it didn’t come.
“Oh!” said Larin’s voice from across the one-room wayhouse. “Oh, you’re awake!”
“Barely,” Ened grunted, rubbing her eyes awake and slowly starting to sit up.
In an instant Larin was at her side and bracing her back with his hand. “You really are a princess, Ened,” he sighed. “Only a princess would try to sit up without help as soon as she wakes up from an injury that rendered her motionless. There!” He took his hand from her back and pulled his own cloak over his head, wadding it up to make a pillow between her back and the wall.
“Will you relax?” she said irritably. “I’m perfectly capable of sitting up.”
“As opposed to yesterday afternoon,” Larin reminded her just as irritably.
“Well, I – yesterday afternoon!” she cried. “How long was I asleep?”
Larin grinned then. “Counting from when we stumbled like drowned rats in here…I’d guess fifteen hours.” His grin widened at the shock on Ened’s face. “You were a log, princess, Valdor and I had a shouting match and all you did was snore.”
“I do not snore!” Ened said defensively.
“Oh, yes, you do,” Larin retorted. “Loudly.”
There seemed to be nothing she could say to refute this, so Ened opted for an offended silence that lasted for about three seconds. Then she grinned fiendishly. “Laaa-rinnn,” she said in a high singsong voice.
“What?” he asked warily.
“You’re teasing me,” said Ened smugly. “You’ve actually loosened up enough to tease me.” She was the one who grinned now, patting him condescendingly on the arm. “I think I can work with you after all.”
Larin rolled his eyes, and then out of nowhere he poked her in the stomach. Ened gasped and stared wide-eyed at him, and he poked her shoulder, grinning. Slowly Ened grinned as well, and she reached over and poked him back in the arm. He retaliated with a tickle attack to her neck, and she yelped and laughed and swatted at him with her blanketing cloak.
It was a very unfair match, as she was unwilling to strain her newly recovered body and he was under no such restrictions for his own movement. Eventually she ended up solely on the defensive, shielding her most ticklish spots – neck, knees, and stomach – from Larin, but the problem was that he had two hands, and whichever one she wasn’t pinning could get past her guard. Finally the game devolved into grins and gasps of laughter and Larin flopping across the foot of Ened’s mattress to catch his breath.
“It is not wise,” said Valdor’s haughty voice, “to tax the lady so.”
Ened jumped, and Larin practically fell off the mattress. “Good morning,” Ened managed through her surprise.
“Good,” said Valdor. “You are awake.”
Remembering her manners, Ened said quickly, “Yes, and thank you for fixing me.”
Valdor shrugged off her thanks like water rolling off a duck’s feathers. “There is no need to thank me.”
Oh. I kind of thought there was…but whatever you say. “All right,” she said, twisting a strand of hair around her finger uncomfortably.
“You should remain here for a week or more,” said Valdor, He dropped something to the floor – Ened’s heart stopped beating for an instant when she realized that it was the corpse of the thing that had attacked them, the Orc. “Then you will be ready for travel again.”
Larin got his tongue back faster than Ened. “What is – why’d you bring that in here?” he asked, doing admirably at hiding the disgust in his voice.
Valdor knelt by the corpse and cut a pouch from its loincloth. “I seek the reason why it has appeared again after so many Ages.”
“Who needs the reason?” Ened muttered. “Why spend any more time than you have to with that thing?”
Valdor gave her a withering look. “Because it is in the interest of safety, lady. I do not wish to die if there are more of these out there.”
“But you said this was the last -” Larin started.
“Indeed I did,” said Valdor deliberately. “However, I have been known to make mistakes. Not many, not often, but it has happened. I should like to not make one that my life may depend upon. Pray be silent.”
That was not hard to do, since Ened thought that if she opened her mouth while looking at that thing, she’d throw up. She pressed her lips tightly together while Valdor opened the greasy pouch and poured its contents on the floor – a crude flint and steel that Ened only recognized when Valdor experimented with them, a long hunting knife, and – Ened didn’t stifle her screech completely – the head of a young deer, crammed into the bottom of the pack and squashed, but not beyond being recognized. She clutched at her mouth to stop what she was certain this time was vomit, and felt out of nowhere a hand, descending down to firmly grip her shoulder. She twisted her head up and saw Larin, his eyes decidedly avoiding the sight of the head, and she managed a shaky, grateful smile.
Valdor tossed the pouch aside with disgust. “Vile creature,” he muttered, and for once Ened found herself in complete agreement with him. His perfect brow furrowed in confusion, and he got to his feet and started to pace. “Oh, for the wisdom of old!” he muttered. “Why has it reappeared again? Why?“
“I don’t know,” said Larin conversationally. “Maybe if you gave us some background, we might be able to help.”
Valdor snorted. “The Elves of the Tenth Age are not as fair as those of the First, nor as wise, yet we are wiser by far than Men. You do not know what you speak of.”
“Then maybe,” suggested Ened, wishing she’d paid more attention to the diplomats who came to Minas Tirith, “if you told us about it, we would know what we speak of. We might not be Elves, but we’re not stupid.”
“You are Men. It is the same thing.”
“I beg to differ, I am definitely not a man!” Ened said, stung by the failure of her efforts at diplomacy.
“I did not call you a man. I spoke of the race of Men,” said Valdor unhelpfully. “They are two different things.”
Ened shrugged. This was all too complicated for her. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. To my way of thinking, the Orc thing is what matters. And since it almost killed us, we’d like to know something about it.”
Valdor heaved a great and poetic sigh. “Perhaps you are right. Very well, then. You may wish to be seated – it is a lengthy tale.” Ened scooted over on the straw mattress, and Larin sat down on the space she had vacated.
“First,” he said, “you must know that Orcs and Elves have been enemies since the First Age. The first Orcs were Elves, betrayed and taken by the Shadow until they became foul creatures, unable to bear the touch of the sun and filled with a hatred of life. Many times the Elves rode out against them, yet it was not until the end of the Third Age that the Orcs truly fell, at the end of the War of the Ring.
“The Orcs then went into hiding, fleeing from their pursuers, both Elves and Men, deep into Mordor, the Land of Shadow.” Ened blinked at the dread in his voice when he spoke of Mordor – it barely existed anymore as a separate land. Ever since the Fifth Age, when Queen Calatain had annexed it, it had been part of Gondor, except for a small section at the southern edge that had been ceded to the Haradrim in the War of the White Tree. It seemed to be something quite different to the Elves.
“Finally,” Valdor finished, “the Orcs were driven underground, where they mingled with the goblins of the Hithaeglir – you might know them as the Misty Mountains – and became a race much diminished, much like the Elves. After a time, they arose in force and struck against the few remaining Elvish lands, but they were beaten back and greatly crippled. They have been straggling out to die ever since then, and the few of us that remain hunt those down when they are spotted. I believe now that we need no longer do that.”
Ened leaned forward, curious. “Could I ask something?”
“I suppose that you may,” said Valdor.
“Why do you keep talking about the Elves as ‘diminished’ or ‘lessened’? From what you’re saying, they seem fine to me.”
For once, Valdor did not roll his eyes or sigh in irritation. Instead he became thoughtful, and his eyes grew soft with longing. “At the start of the Fourth Age, most of the Elves left Arda. The few that remained have by necessity bred with Men, and the generations following have lost much of the gifts of the Elves of old. We can no longer see across great distances as clearly as if it was no more than a finger span away, although we can still see more clearly than any Man; our hearing, while far superior to any living creature’s, can no longer detect the whisper of a bird in a tree a mile away; we have lost the effortless gift of song. We can soothe animals somewhat, but we cannot coax them to do our bidding when they take fright; our footsteps sound in the woods now, as they did not of old. And we do not know where it is that our spirits go when our earthly bodies die, whether it is to the Halls of Mandos, where the glorious Eldar dwell, or to the mortal realms of death, whatever those may be. Yes, we are diminished, Lady, more sorely than you know, for those weary of Arda can no longer take ship from the Grey Havens and sail to Valinor, the blessed shores that all dream of.” He bowed his head, and Ened thought for an instant that she saw tears shimmer in his clear blue eyes.
Then she thought about what he’d said, and she grabbed for Larin’s arm. “Oh, Elves, Larin!” she gasped. “I forgot – I completely forgot – he said Valinor! I forgot that we have to go there!”
Valdor looked up. “What is this, Lady?”
Ened was white-faced with shock at having forgotten, so Larin answered for her. “She’s got something that she wants to take to Valinor,” he said.
“Important,” Ened added. “Something important. I have to – we have to get it there as fast as we can.”
Valdor stared at them for a moment, and then laughed. Ened and Larin were the ones staring now – the laughter was completely without mirth. When Valdor had himself under control, he shook his head. “Go back home, young mortals,” he said. “Your quest is fruitless. No one can cross to Valinor now.”
“But we have to!” Ened insisted. “It’s really important -“
“It cannot be done,” Valdor said flatly. “You think you will succeed where generations of Elves have failed? It cannot be done. I am sorry for you, but your quest is impossible. You cannot cross.”