Ened’s procession into Edoras was hardly the stuff of legends. “Shall I not sing about this when I make a song out of this whole adventure?” Larin muttered in her ear as the company entered the city.
“That would be good,” said Ened, rejecting a snide comment since Larin was, after all, still alive.
In fact, she thought, there would be little that the most inventive of bards could do to make this situation flatter her in the slightest. She was being marched up the hill of the city in the center of a company of Rohirrim, who were all looking far more heroic than she – to Ened’s mind, this “escort” made her look like a condemned criminal too dangerous to give a mere couple of guards to. She was still wearing the filthy, torn, bedraggled, mud-splattered, blood-streaked, horsehair-covered raw silk gown that she had worn since her escape from Minas Tirith, having been unable to change due to mad dashes on horseback, the desire to conserve her travel-suitable gowns, and the presence of males. At least I’ll be able to get some decent clothes, she thought, attempting to look on the bright side. She did not look like princess material at the moment – the dress, her wind-tangled hair, and her ferocious scowl all added to the criminal look. Larin was riding behind her with his arms around her waist, having been judged too much of a burden for the skilled horsemen to carry. And on top of it all, she was sitting on a fine Rohirric horse like a sack of potatoes. Nope, she thought resignedly, not a bard in the world could make me look noble and composed. I bet not even an Elf could do it.
Edoras, however, had improved since the last time Ened had been in Rohan. Once a small town of thatched huts, despite being the capital of a nation roughly the size of Gondor, and on her previous visit utterly consumed by hideous construction, Edoras had emerged from scaffolding and actually looked quite nice. Some king in the Fifth Age – genealogy and history were never Ened’s strong points – had converted Edoras’ wood and thatch to stone and slate, but during Ened’s visit a few years ago, the entire city had been consumed with a passion for wooden carvings to decorate their houses with. The combination of pseudo-Fourth Age wooden adornments and Tenth Age stone architecture was positively ghastly, quite aside from the fact that it had engulfed the city in vision-obscuring scaffolding. The hideous carvings had come down at last, however, and Edoras looked a bustling modern city.
Except for the hall at the crest of the hill.
Ened did not, however, take Rohan and Edoras to task for that. She saw no evil in letting the ancient palace of Rohan remain as it had been since its building – Minas Tirith’s architecture was even more ancient than Edoras’. In fact, it was quite nice to see at least one building untouched by the horrendous wooden carvings, especially since Edoras had been built of far less sturdy materials than Minas Tirith and had still managed to endure until the Tenth Age. Her enjoyment of the building, however, was necessarily marginalized by the fact that she was being marched to it in disgrace.
Her captors, of course, were enjoying themselves famously. Quite a few of the younger men in the regiment were preening under the admiring glances of the girls of Edoras, and Garroth was riding at the front of the column with his head held so high that Ened could picture it sliding right off his neck without even the help of a sword. She gritted her teeth and clenched the reins of her poor horse.
“Relax,” Larin murmured in her ear. “They’re hardly marching you to your execution.”
“They might as well be,” she grumbled back. “I’m going to be sent home in disgrace, and that ring won’t ever make it to Valinor.”
If Ened hadn’t been so preoccupied, she might have noticed that Larin’s entire body gave a little involuntary jerk when she mentioned their destination. Her entire mind was focused on the trials that lay ahead, however, and so it passed her by completely.
Utterly misreading her slouch in the saddle and her clenched fists and jaw, her nearest guard nudged his horse close by her. “Cheer up, princess!” he said merrily. “You’re going to meet the king of Rohan!”
Ened fixed him with a truly icy glare. “I’ve already met him,” she said coldly, “and I’d rather not repeat the pleasure right now.”
Effectively shut up, the rider quickly slid away from her.
“Well done,” Larin whispered. “Keep this up, and you’ll alienate every single person in Rohan.”
She elbowed him in the ribs rather than acknowledge the rebuke. “I’m not feeling too hospitable right now!” she muttered, but she bit her lips and resolved to be at least a little more courteous in the future.
Ened supposed she could have borne it all a bit more gracefully if the people roaming around the city weren’t staring at her as though she was a trained monkey from Harad. As it was, though, they were goggling at her, expecting her to start doing tricks or screeching uncouthly. If they don’t watch out, I will start screaming, she thought grimly. In terrible Dwarvish.
With a great show of ceremony, Ened was helped off her horse at the hall at the crest of the hill. She slid quickly to the ground, glad to get off the fine horse and stop making a fool of herself, but she watched with concern as Ulf came to lift Larin off the horse. He had insisted on riding behind her, and Ened thought she could guess why, now that she saw him dismount – his face was pinched and pale, and his eyes hollow, and he let out an involuntary grunt when he reached the ground. Quickly she came over to his side and took his hand. Larin looked at her in surprise. “Ened, let it be,” he muttered. “I’m -“
“Don’t you dare say you’re fine, or I’ll knock you over the head,” she whispered back. “Just shut up and be sensible for once.”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” he retorted, but he closed his fingers around her hand.
Their entrance into the so-called Golden Hall was, to Ened’s way of thinking, much too pompous. Did they really have to plop her and Larin right in the middle of the guards, with four men on either side, and two more at front and back? It didn’t seem that necessary to her – Larin was in no condition to make a break for freedom, and she was sure she’d made it clear that she did not intend to leave without him. So it was with a scowl and a set jaw that she encountered King Freawine again when the guards parted and revealed him to her eyes.
Ened’s memory had not deceived her. She remembered Freawine as being a few years younger than Jeniniel, powerfully built, and much less handsome than his official portrait would have it. Regarding the king’s faintly lined, plain face, large nose, heavy eyebrows, and broad shoulders, Ened was at least glad to see that her memory hadn’t deteriorated along with her dignity.
Freawine was far more surprised than she. His only recollection of Ened Telcontar was of a scowling fourteen-year-old with inordinately chubby cheeks and a propensity for sarcasm and malicious tricks, and despite the desired trade routes, he had not been altogether looking forward to hosting her again. It surprised him, therefore, to see before him a sixteen-year-old girl whose chubbiness had disappeared, whose bearing was more imposing, and who was toting a white-faced young man. At least the scowl hasn’t changed, he thought. If anything, it’s gotten worse. He inclined his head to her, one royal to another. “I offer you greetings, Princess,” he said formally.
“Greetings accepted,” Ened snapped. “Since I’m hardly an emissary of Gondor, however, I have none to offer you. But I’m sure that comes as no surprise.”
Freawine allowed himself the shadow of a smirk, and noted that Ened’s scowl deepened ferociously as she caught sight of it. “You are correct. However, you must admit that your situation is quite curious.”
“You can stop right there,” Ened interrupted, “because I’m not going to tell you anything. So you might as well stop dancing around me and get my companion some medical attention, because he needs it pretty badly.”
Freawine choked. In his entire career, he could not remember ever having encountered such bluntness. Not even from his Marshals, who prided themselves on short speech, had he been so spoken to. It took him a few minutes to recover before he could say, “Well, then, we appear to be at an impasse. You want a doctor for your friend, and I want my questions answered. Shall we strike a bargain?”
Ened’s face darkened until it resembled a thundercloud. “No,” she said flatly. “We won’t, because you are a king, and therefore you’re supposed to be courteous and hospitable.” Larin sucked in his breath at the insult – Ened plunged on carelessly and furiously. “If my friend dies here, it’s going to be on your head, and I’m sure you don’t want that. Whereas your major concern with me ought to be to send me straight back home like a good little girl, and if I go home with stories about coercion and torture, that won’t be too good for foreign relations. So get my friend a doctor, or I swear you’ll be sorry.”
Chalk-white with shock and anger, Freawine turned to one of his attendants. “Get the boy a doctor,” he snapped, and the servant scurried off. Fixing Ened with a furious glare, Freawine added, “And you, princess, can follow Arodel to a chamber.” A maidservant, whom Ened guessed was Arodel, poked her head timidly around the door of the hall. Ened would have much preferred to wait and be certain that Larin would be well cared for, but Freawine’s glare reminded her that she was, in fact, a captive. Reluctantly she relinquished Larin’s hand and followed the head-bobbing Arodel out of the king’s hall.
“The king’s pretty angry with me, isn’t he?” asked Ened, once she guessed them to be out of earshot of the hall.
Arodel, positively trembling with nervousness, just nodded and bustled on ahead.
Ened was about to throw up her hands in despair – if a female wouldn’t even gossip, Ened generally gave up on trying to get her to talk. But something in the woman’s nod, in her shuffling walk, made her think. All right, so she won’t gossip. So she won’t fall for what all the Institute girls fell for. That doesn’t mean it’s time to give up. That means it’s time to try a new tactic. “Does he get mad often?” Ened asked, trying to keep her tone as offhand as her first question had been.
Arodel hesitated, her bobbing steps jerking to a moment’s halt before she carried on – and then shook her head.
Ened could have whooped with joy. It was working! She was getting answers! Pretty vague answers, to be sure, but answers! “And what does it mean when he does get angry?” she asked. “Not a pretty picture?” She tossed in a joking laugh and added, “Is he going to disembowel me?”
Arodel shook her head again.
“Not disembowelment? Well, that’s good news. Maybe the rack? Will he rack me?”
The shake of the head was decidedly emphatic. Oh, no, I must have offended her. Maybe she thinks I think that the Rohirrim are barbaric. Ened reached out and seized Arodel, slapping a look of horror on her face that was not entirely faked. “Will he make me ride a horse?” she quavered.
The servant let out a hearty, disdainful snort, shook free of Ened, and went on down the hallway.
Thank Elves! Ened rejoiced silently. Maybe now that she thinks I’m an imbecile, she’ll let anything slip. “So it won’t be too bad?” she asked, making sure to sound relieved.
There was a pause, and another halt in Arodel’s gait. Then the woman shook her head.
Ened’s thoughts were suddenly exploding with the foulest guard-learned expletives she could remember. I should have guessed! she berated herself. He’s hardly going to be all sweetness and sunlight with me! I yelled at him. I gave him orders in front of his men! That’s hardly the kind of thing people forget – and especially not a king, and especially not a man!
Arodel screeched to a halt and pushed open one of the doors along the hall. Ened noticed with some annoyance that it was at the very end. She could hardly stir a muscle without all the other occupants of the hall hearing her, especially not with the ancient creaky floorboards. “Thank you,” she muttered, forgetting for a moment to act brainless, and pushed past Arodel and into the room. Grumbling to herself, Arodel closed the door behind Ened.
Still, Ened told herself once the door was shut, I found some things out. I did get that done.
Maybe, she reflected, that was something to do with politics.