E√§rwen yawned to herself. Outside, the bells tolled the third hour of the night for all Armenelos to hear. A part of her longed for sleep, but as the queen's youngest maid it was her part to keep the night watch, should M√≠riel need anything.
For so E√§rwen named her queen, at least in her own mind. Oh, she knew M√≠riel had an Ad√Ľnaic name, as did E√§rwen herself, for use in the markets or where the King's Men might hear, but in her mind at least she would not give in to fear of those brutes. Her mother had taught her that: to dream whatever dreams she could, so long as when she woke, she remembered that Pharaz√īn and not M√≠riel ruled N√ļmenor.
She stood up from the stool where she waited on her queen and idly walked out to the balcony. Pulling herself to the balls of her feet, E√§rwen looked out the high window to the courtyard below. The night was cloudy, and the moon afforded her little light, but the palace guards who always kept watch over the Tree carried lamps, so E√§rwen could see well enough.
Taking in the rest of the courtyard, E√§rwen caught sight of a man crouched in the shadows of the opposite wall. She could make out little about him, for he gathered the hood of his cloak close around his face, but when he looked up at the balconies lining the second floor, the light from the guards' lamp caught a silver star he wore on his brow.
The man turned away quickly, and the guards seemed not to notice, but the sight was enough for E√§rwen. 'Twas the Elendilmir! She knew, all the folk of And√ļni√ę knew that that star marked the lord Elendil's line.
E√§rwen ran from the balcony into the queen's chambers. "Mila‚ÄĒ" she began to call out, but checked herself. Inzilb√™th lay sleeping in the servants' alcove, and who knew her loyalties? E√§rwen hurried toward the bed and laid a hand on M√≠riel's shoulder. "Milady," she whispered, "come quick, for you must see..."
M√≠riel's eyes darted open, as if from a nightmare, and for a moment E√§rwen thought she might cry out. M√≠riel looked around the room frantically and (so E√§rwen thought, for she too had been pulled out of dark dreams in those dark days) saw that there were no guards in the door, no threat to be defended against, for the moment at least. E√§rwen went to the clothespress for the queen's dressing-robe and quickly helped her into it, and the two went back to the balcony.
Soon after E√§rwen pointed out the man to M√≠riel, he dashed out of the shadow's safety toward the tree in the center of the courtyard. E√§rwen opened her lips to gasp, but M√≠riel's fingers clawing at her shoulder reminded her to be silent, so she closed her mouth again. Her breath caught in her throat as the man reached up toward the lowest branch; he still crouched close to the ground, but his arm could be clearly seen in the lamplight. He would be caught, E√§rwen was sure of it!
E√§rwen heard a soft snap from the courtyard, and the man's arm dropped to his side; she guessed he'd taken a flower, or perhaps a fruit. Suddenly a quick movement caught E√§rwen's eye, and her head snapped to the side. Something sailed through the air, followed by a plunk on the roof across the courtyard. One of the guards ran off with the lamp to investigate. As for the man by the tree, he ran swiftly but silently back toward the far wall, and the next time E√§rwen looked for him, he was gone.
But for the moment E√§rwen's eyes were elsewhere. She looked over at M√≠riel, who was rearranging the polished stones in the decorative bowl on the banister. E√§rwen noticed that the brown speckled one was missing. Had the queen thrown that? M√≠riel nodded silently toward the door, and E√§rwen understood: 'twas better not to be seen, when the guard returned, for he would find no one on the roof and would wonder why he'd been driven out of the courtyard.
Back inside, E√§rwen took the queen's robe and slippers without a word. She had questions, more than she could remember having since she'd taken up service with the queen, but was unsure how to voice them. She walked over to the clothespress and re-hung the robe on its hook, and when she turned again to face the queen she was surprised to see M√≠riel propped up on her pillows, as if waiting for her to break the quiet.
E√§rwen latched the clothespress and walked toward her stool, resigning herself to saying nothing. Just then, Inzilb√™th's gentle snore drifted out from the servant's alcove, and E√§rwen changed her mind. For Inzilb√™th slept soundly, and the guards did not seem keen to break down the door tonight. She'd risk a question.
"Milady," E√§rwen said in almost a whisper, "if it is not too bold, did you know the man? Is that why you saved him?"
M√≠riel smiled down at her, a little sleepily. "It is forward, yes, but the days demand boldness. He is my cousin. Isildur Elendilion."
A gasp escaped M√≠riel at that name. Isildur! She'd heard stories of him ever since she'd come to Armenelos. Isildur the Brave, who harried the king's men with rains of arrows, who seemed to be everywhere but could be found nowhere. The very same who was rumored to be loved by the queen, and not just as kin; for rumor had it that they had planned to marry, before Pharaz√īn supplanted him.
M√≠riel looked at E√§rwen disapprovingly. "My cousin must have cloth between his ears. Pharaz√īn set a high price on his head, which Isildur well knows. If he is found in Armenelos, Morgoth will drink his blood ere nightfall tomorrow, I promise you."
"But he is swift?" E√§rwen found herself asking.
"Aye, and there are some folk still faithful to the old ways, even here in Armenelos," M√≠riel answered. "They will see him safely on the road." Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
E√§rwen nodded pensively to herself. "I have heard tell... I know my father would not have offered me to your service, were you not to be trusted." M√≠riel gave the smallest nod, encouraging E√§rwen to go on. "So you must be one of them," E√§rwen said. She remembered of a sudden her brother teaching her to face the West at sunset, to say the ancient words if it was safe to do so, and E√§rwen found she could easily see M√≠riel doing that. "One of us," E√§rwen corrected herself. "But if that be true, milady, what keeps you in Armenelos? Surely you could beg need to see your kinsfolk, an elderly aunt with poor health, perhaps. Would even the king dare keep you from such duty?"
M√≠riel looked out a window, not down into the courtyard but to the sky above. E√§rwen fancied she was staring up at the stars, as the girl often did; wishing, perhaps, for the elven-folk, who were rumored to love those stars so much. At last M√≠riel shook her head. "No, he would not. But 'tis better to know an Orc and confound his purposes, than to leave him to his own devices." She reached over and chucked E√§rwen under the chin playfully. "And what would Isildur have done, had I fled to And√ļni√ę?"
E√§rwen had no answer, so she sat silent for a moment. At last she leaned closer. "I do not like your lord the king," she said in a whisper so soft she wondered that the queen could hear it. "Nor his adviser, come to that. And those who stand too close to the flame may yet be burned. I fear for you, milady."
M√≠riel nodded softly. "I know, child, but keep up your hope. Ar-Pharaz√īn may be strong, and his vicar perilous, but they will not yet strike down the daughter of Tar-Palant√≠r. When that day comes, I doubt even And√ļni√ę could be a haven for me."
E√§rwen opened her mouth, but again words failed her. Finally she said, "Well, they'll not strike tonight. Rest you well, milady, for your keen wit shelters us both. I'd not have it blunted from little sleep."