“Any progress on the horse riding front?”
“None,” Ened mumbled, dropping her head into her hands and leaning her arms on Larin’s cot. “It doesn’t help that I’m exhausted from coming to see you every night, either.”
“Well, you don’t have to come -” Larin started to say.
“What are you talking about?” Ened asked. “Seeing you is the only thing that’s keeping me sane here! If I couldn’t sneak in here and have some sensible conversation, I honestly think I would have broken Aldwine’s arm by now.”
Larin grinned and swatted her on the arm.
“So I’ll have to ride second on either your horse or Valdor’s,” Ened went on. “And speaking of that, what about you? How soon do they think you’ll be better?”
“Soon enough,” Larin said evasively.
Ened raised her eyebrows. “Is a straight answer too much to ask for?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I may have to ride not completely healed.”
Ened leaped to her feet, almost knocking over her chair. “What?”
“Sit down!” Larin sat up, grabbed her arm, and yanked her back down. “It’s not crucial, it’s almost better anyway, but you wanted to know. I’m not going to die because there’s still a hole in my back, especially if it’s tiny.”
“Well, is it tiny?” Ened demanded. “Because I’m not going to go if it’s going to put you in danger.”
Larin rolled his eyes and hissed in annoyance. “Do you want to see it?” Flopping over onto his back, he tugged his shirt up far enough so that the puncture hole that the arrow had made was visible. “See? It’s not bad.”
“How would you know? You can’t see it.”
“I can feel it,” Larin retorted. “And it feels tiny.”
“Tiny is relative,” Ened muttered.
Larin rolled back over and pulled down his shirt. “Stop it, Ened. When Valdor gets here, we’re escaping. There’s never going to be a better chance, and you’ll never ever get Haleth and family back here a second time. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that this whole ring thing was a little important.”
Ened groaned, rubbing between her eyes to soothe a sudden and massive headache. “Yes,” she admitted. “It is. But I don’t want to put anyone in danger.”
“Danger?” Larin scoffed. “Name me one single instance on this whole quest when we haven’t been in danger.”
“Larin, I’m trying to protect you!” Ened cried in frustration. Shoving back her chair, she got up and half-paced, half-stomped to the other side of the room. Behind her, she heard Larin shifting on his cot, and felt him staring at her back. Ened crossed her arms and stared at her feet. Now that the words were out, they sounded incredibly stupid. “Is that allowed?” she demanded, humiliated to hear her voice crack on the last word.
Larin coughed. “Yes,” he said awkwardly.
“All right,” she answered curtly. She turned around, and both of them quickly lowered their eyes so as not to look at each other. “I’m going to go,” Ened added, and started for the door.
“Ened?” called Larin. She turned to look at him, and he asked, “When they get here, will we leave?”
“If you’re better,” she said, and left the room.
A very disgruntled Haleth arrived, family in tow, two days later. Halla’s eyes were wide with awe at her first look at Meduseld, and she grabbed Valdor’s arm very tightly and whispered, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Valdor made a noncommittal sound rather than give in to his built-up frustration with her and announce that his people had built far grander palaces when her people were getting by on berries and rabbits. Marwyn threw him a sympathetic glance, but Valdor noticed the almost-controlled awe in her own face, and bit back a smile as he returned her look. He did have to admit that the girl had prospects – what with her father’s training and her own wits, she would surely shape up into a fine spy.
He had to get himself under control a second time when Haleth gave their names to the guards outside the door of the Golden Hall. By now, the King’s Guards were privileged nothings, mere ceremonial decorations, but their presence near the king was of long traditional standing. And an Elf was hardly the person to criticize the keeping of a tradition. Haleth, however, seemed in no mood to tolerate the condescension of the guards at the door. “Haleth of Wunbrand and his family,” he said snappily.
The guard, a young noble of about seventeen years, puffed out his chest haughtily and tossed back his green cloak. “Wait here,” he declaimed, “while I give your names -“
He had unwisely opened the doors. Haleth took advantage of this to push past the guard and into the throne room. His family and Valdor quickly followed him, leaving the unfortunate guard to sputter indignantly and chase them in.
The king of Rohan was sitting on a throne at the far end of the hall, flanked by two young men who appeared to be his sons. Valdor’s stomach took a dive as he realized that Ened was not present. <I>What is she planning?</I> he thought, surprised at his all-too-human trepidation. <i>Why isn’t she here?</I>
The king jerked upright as he recognized his visitors. “Haleth!” he cried. “Why aren’t you in Wunbrand?”
Valdor understood instantly. <I>He had not known what Ened wrote. Certainly he knew she wrote, but not the contents of her letter.</I> It chagrined him somewhat to realize that Haleth had probably come to the same conclusion long ago.
“The Princess Ened offered to introduce us to her relations when they came to collect her,” said Haleth. “We could hardly turn down such a generous offer.”
“Indeed,” said Freawine, with a sardonic twist to his mouth. “We are discovering here that it is best to do as the Princess Ened wishes.”
Valdor had not expected to have common cause with the king of Rohan, but he knew the feeling that put that expression on Freawine’s face.
“You made excellent time,” Freawine went on. “The emissaries that will retrieve the princess are not due to arrive for a few more days. I presume that the princess will want to see you.”
“Probably,” Haleth agreed, and Freawine sent an attendant to find Ened.
The princess was easily locatable – the attendant returned with Ened in tow. Valdor was no stranger to beauty, having grown up among the remnants of the Elves in Middle-earth, but even he had to admit that, cleaned up and not scowling, Ened Telcontar did make something of an impression. Her smile even looked genuine. Valdor wondered whether she really was happy to see them, or whether she had learned some much-needed lessons in deception while in Edoras.
“My lord Haleth!” she said, beaming. “I cannot tell you how happy I am that you accepted my invitation. My father and the Gondorian delegation should be arriving any day now.”
Haleth forced a very good smile onto his face and bowed over Ened’s extended hand. “I am honored, Your Highness,” he said.
Ened’s acting abilities wavered dangerously when she saw Halla. The Rohirric girl didn’t even try to pretend – she clung to Valdor’s arm like a lifeline and scowled warningly at Ened. The princess’ greeting to Fola and Marwyn, however, were indisputably genuine, and when she got to Valdor, he could read relief in her eyes. She gripped his hand a little tighter than necessary, and when she released it, he felt a tiny scrap of paper pressed against his palm. He curled his long fingers around it and slid his hand into his tunic, surprised yet again to feel his heart pounding with suspense.
“Your Majesty,” said Ened, turning to Freawine, “if my guests could be housed…?”
Freawine raised his eyebrows. “Why, Princess,” he said, sounding shocked, “have you provided nothing for ‘your’ guests?”
He smirked as Ened paled – whether with embarrassment or with fury, Valdor couldn’t tell. “No,” she snapped at last. “I haven’t. I was under the impression that the gracious king of Rohan would provide suitable accommodations for his advisor and his advisor’s family.”
“Princess,” said Freawine, hostility sparking beneath his too-polite tone, “I am arranging accommodations for an entire Gondorian embassy, which is rather preoccupying. As these are your guests, I would have expected that, as one royal to another, you would make arrangements for them.”
“Fine,” Ened spat, and turned on her heel to march out of the room, leaving Valdor, Haleth, and the others to abandon dignity and scramble after her.
“Think,” Valdor hissed in Ened’s ear – he had pushed Haleth a number of times to be closest to Ened as she stalked through the palace. “Can you think of no advantage to arranging our rooms?”
“No, I – <I>oh,”</I> Ened breathed through her teeth, confident that no matter how faint her whisper, Valdor would hear it. “As a matter of fact, I – I <I>can.”</I>He saw some of the tension in her shoulders relax, and permitted himself the shadow of a smile.
Once she’d seen the light, Ened rose to the occasion magnificently, stashing Haleth, Fola and Halla in rooms at the far end of Meduseld. Marwyn she put at the midway point between Ened’s own room and Haleth and Fola’s room, and Valdor she put as close to her own room as possible. “Don’t mess this up,” she muttered, opening the door to Valdor’s room. “I have no idea how long this will hold up.”
Valdor gave a small nod, which Ened had to be satisfied with, and shut the door. Only then did he take a look at the piece of paper she’d slipped him.
Palace hall, midnight was all it said.
For the second time that day, Valdor smiled.