"Yet such was the cunning of his mind and mouth, and the strength of his hidden will, that ere three years had passed he had become closest to the secret counsels of the King; for flattery sweet as honey was ever on his tongue, and knowledge he had of many things yet unrevealed to Men." (Akallabeth, The Silmarillion)
“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice: It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
-William Jennings Bryan
Even after five years since he had left Andunie to make Romenna his home, Anarion always felt a wave of homesickness every time his family's ships docked into port. Explaining the reasons was complicated. He had always been fond of Rómenna with its winding streets and strong scents, its people's leisurely ways, and the murmur of the sea lulling the heart wherever one went in town. But things had changed since he was a boy, for all that he stubbornly refused to acknowledge it aloud. The city itself was the same as ever, as much as a living entity can remain unchanged: The same fried crab stall that his grandfather had favored when he was a lad still stood in the same corner, though Yâzdor's great-grandson, and his daughters, manned it instead; boys old and young alike still fished from the docks, but there was a tax on non-commercial fishing now.
"A silver eagle t'spare, lord," a boy tugged at his sleeve, mud-stained face staring up at him. "A silver eagle, sir's all I's missin'."
For the tax.
"Are you hungry?" Anarion asked, stalling for time as the same old war fought itself within him: would it cripple this boy too badly if he simply bought him the food? For just one meal of his life, one worry-less meal... would that make him die a little inside?
And, as always, the decision was clear, though it filled him with that mixture of anger and sadness that was becoming much too familiar. Fishing inside his pocket, he found two gold crowns which he placed inside the boy's outstretched palm, with the warning, "This could buy you a fish pie today, or a whole week's worth of tax money for fishing your own. Use it wisely."
"Aye, aye, m'lord!" the boy cried as he ran away, beckoning his friends over to him to see his newly-acquired treasure. It made Anarion smile, though not out of mirth. Perhaps that was what had changed: now he knew that things-- that life-- were not really simple as he believed. Perhaps it was the death of decency, selflessness, and honor. Perhaps it was none of those things. Perhaps it was that which made men human that was changed-- weakened. Boys will be boys, no matter what, and he suspected that fish pie it would be despite the bleak reality of these lads' situation. There were too many orphans now, too many widows, and too many young people altogether dying untimely of diseases no one had heard of before. It thoroughly sickened him.
A familiar horn rent through the morbid fabric of his thoughts, and he turned to find his brother atop the prow of the Foam Princess, regarding him much too keenly-- keenly for Isildur, anyway.
"Brother!" he cried, with a wave of the hand, to forget about the shudder that look had brought him. "Welcome to port!"
"Ahoy!" Isildur cried, the old grin back. "I'm surprised you made it. And touched. You must love me a great deal to have braved this crowd just to see me."
"Nonsense. I thoroughly love wild, smelly, sweaty crowds!" Anarion shot back quickly, bringing a bark of laughter from his brother. "Actually, I was afraid you would get sidetracked and never make it home if I did not fetch you personally. Grandmother would throw a fit! And throw my things out of her house."
"I thought we were going to your house, instead," Isildur said as he climbed down onto land, sweeping him in a tight embrace. It felt good to have his brother's solid presence near him. And it also filled him with guilt.
"Have you any plans I should know about, that you wish to skip Grandfather's scrutiny?" Anarion asked, mockingly, through narrowed eyes, hoping to dispel the dark cloud that had fallen on him with levity.
Isildur shook his head, clasped Anarion's shoulder. "None at all. Well, except for one; after that, I'm at your service. But let's move away, I'm famished! A frog leg or two won't spoil my appetite for Grandmother's delights, since I know there will be no food at your place."
"My food is all in the garden," Anarion said as he steered Isildur away from the docks and through the throng, "Only I have not the time to gather nor cook it. I might just have to pay somebody to harvest it for me, I'm too busy to do it myself."
Isildur snorted. "Like that wasn't your plan from the start-- helping someone help themselves... You're a good man, Anar. This island could use more men like you."
But Anarion shook his head. "I don't understand what's happening to us, but it troubles me more than I can say. I used to believe people would repent sooner or later, but now I've seen so much... Short of Power-ful intervention, I know not how the world can be fixed. How can men let themselves fall so low? Collectively, how can we all fall like this?"
"Are you serious? Collectively is the fastest way to fall. Support makes it all the easier to be a little less forgiving here, a little less dutiful there, a little more selfish today, a lot more self-centered tomorrow." Isildur paused at the frog legs' booth, got them each a couple of legs and a mug of ale as he flirted with the serving girl, took a mouthful that effectively halved his piece. "Are you still thinking of that boy at the docks?"
"You saw that?" Anarion asked while wiping the fat off on his pants for lack of a napkin.
"I know you well," Isildur said, slowing down his munching, then taking a slow swallow. "Is that happening much here in Romenna?"
"Is it not in Andunie?"
Isildur shrugged his shoulders, looked around them, took another mouthful. "Atarinya Amandil has implemented many programs to stave off hardship, at least for a while: trade schools, orphanages, food banks, things like that. But, the truth is, there just aren't all that many people wanting to live in Andunie anymore, though they won't say it to your face."
"There isn't a richer region in Elenna, not even Armenelos itself."
"Oh, come now, Anarion, you well know why. Our moral compass points a different way, after all. It makes people uncomfortable."
He bit his lower lip, and looked away to hide it. For some unexplained reason, it always made him awkward to talk about the downfall, for all that he was so familiar with the issue. It embarrassed him.
"Has it been as much a nightmare for you all," Anarion asked, lowering his voice, "as it has been for us?"
Another meaningful snort from his brother, and they both fell silent. Some topics were best left to be discussed behind closed doors instead of at a market teeming with royalists.
They walked together some way, which was a feat by all accounts. The streets were crowded to the point that they could not take more than a couple of steps at a time without having to stop. Isildur seemed to think it amusing, but Anarion found it extremely trying.
"I've figured it out," Isildur said, after a while. "Why Romenna seems infinitely worse in the charitable department: Every soul in Númenor has got to be here today, and heat and crowds tend to make one ill-humored. Are all these people come to see the King-- or Sauron?"
"Hush!" Anarion snapped. "This is not what you're used to, brother--civility, politeness... They've largely deserted the streets. Should anyone so much as think your loyalties are not where they should be, they feel justified in gutting you right then."
Isildur frowned. "And you came to live here by choice?"
"There was no other choice for me."
"Wasn't there, I wonder? Anyway, have you seen him?"
"Well, this King from Middle-earth: Sauron."
"Is that why you are here two days early? To see that flatterer?"
Isildur stopped and pushed him aside, toward a small, rather secluded corner in the strip of businesses.
"You just told me to be careful of what I said."
"Right, though he is supposed to be the King's enemy."
"Is he really? I detect some underlying sarcasm."
"Because there's no way for me to give you any answers, I don't move in those kind of circles."
"You never wished to, why so regretful now?"
Why indeed? The full truth would not do, so he settled for, "Curiosity. How can you go from prisoner to guest in a matter of weeks? Call it what you may, but it does not add up. There's something about him..."
"What, what? Those are exactly the sort of scandalous details I was hoping you would provide me with."
"Why so interested?" Anarion asked; then, suddenly, he grabbed his brother by the shirt. "You are not thinking of joining those who admire him?"
"Never! I know better than to trust a vaunted enemy, Anarion. Which is why I am so curious to see this one. For all his bluster, Pharazôn seems rather foolish to me to let him in on his life in such a way."
"No news there, but I think the danger for us all is the worst it's ever been. There is something dark about that man that fills me with foreboding."
"So you have seen him," said Isildur, as he let himself be steered anew by him along the market's cobbled streets. "What is he like? Come now, Anarion: details!"
He bit the inside of his lip, an annoying habit, but he could not help it when feeling frustrated or pressured. "Tall, dark, charming, handsome... Elf-like. It would be too hard to describe him to you without making him sound fantastical, so you will have to wait and see for your--"
But, as he turned around sharply to swerve at the last minute and avoid overturning a glass-maker and his wares, he soundly collided against something that spoke to him.
"Describe who?" was the question he heard.
A familiar grin met him head on, but it was his brother who reacted first.
"Emeldil!" cried Isildur, in time that he clasped the other in a brotherly embrace. "It's been so long, my friend, how fare you and yours?"
"As well as one can, nowadays. Anarion told us you would come earlier. Why the rush? It can only be a matter of women."
"You are sadly wrong, Emeldil," Anarion turned to say, arms still clasped in a brotherly salute with Eranion, Emeldil's brother, and the youngest son of their father's late friend, Erador. "I'm afraid Isildur has other interests in mind."
"Don't we all, of late? Look at this throng here, and tell me that there isn't but one thing on their minds."
"Sad, but true," Eranion said, while greeting Isildur in turn. "I see the attraction, but I can't understand it. I'd stay as far away from him as I could. Snakes lure one in closer before they strike."
"Is it as bad as that?" Isildur asked.
"I've no intention of finding out, I've got too many other things to worry about as it is."
"That," Isildur said, "can only be a matter of women."
"How I wish! Although there is some of that-- one can never stop fully worrying over Wen for all that she is fully grown."
"Especially now that she is fully grown," cried Emeldil, frustration and fondness equally apparent in his tone. "She becomes more opinionated by the day, and it's hard to keep her out of trouble now that you have both her wit and dowry to throw into the mix."
"And beauty," said Isildur, who flicked a quick glance at him, as did Eranion, which deeply annoyed him. "I saw her in Andunie some weeks ago. She has become uncommonly beautiful and interesting, at a time when so many women are suddenly so coarse and ordinary."
"But the times are bad, and one cannot be too careful of who one gets close to," Eranion said. "I inherited a portion of Father's fields, and if I want to create some sort of comfort for myself, I have a lot to fight against. This blasted weather, for one, let alone unwanted suitors."
"Would that that were the worst of it," Emeldil sighed.
"What else?" asked Isildur, turning to start moving away, but Emeldil stayed him.
"We're waiting for Wen, she's at the seamstress' picking up an order. We were not about to let her out on her own on festival day, of all days, and she offered to retrieve her own things to save other people work on her behalf. Do you think, for a minute, that those errand boys don't appreciate the chance of a trip and a nice, fat reward?"
"Your sister always had her own ideas of how to relate to others," Isildur said, glancing Anarion's way again. "It would not surprise me if she were to reward them, nonetheless."
They all laughed at that, but Anarion could only manage a weak chuckle for his strain. He was eager to get away now, but how could he do it without having it known? He loved Erador's sons as brothers, but over the years it had become quite challenging to meet with them without running into their sister also. Elenwe was... Well, Anarion did not know what she was anymore; he was better off not thinking about it, so he never did. Or tried hard not to. If he had to be bluntly honest with himself, he would say that he managed it about... Say... 9 out of 10 times. It was that one time that always got--
"Wake up, Anarion!" Eranion cried, shaking him. "We want to know if you're all still coming for dinner."
"Yes, yes," he answered, rubbing his eyes, "I'll tell Father as soon as he arrives."
"You both join us tonight," said Emeldil. "Today! Let's stop for a swim on our way back, it will be just like old times."
Both Eranion and Isildur turned to him at once, to see what he would do, as if the power of choice rested solely on him. And he would have made use of it, too, to refuse. There was no safe way to spend a whole afternoon in Elenwe's company, and he felt not at all inclined to try; but, just then, the doors opened and out came Elenwe herself, looking regal and beautiful with her hair half-escaping from her bun and that becoming flush on her cheeks. She was dragging another young woman out of the building, and it seemed to be difficult work.
"Let us go. Now," she said, brushing past them, sparing one quick--and Anarion thought, half-surprised, half-alarmed--glance at himself.
They all filed out behind her without question, but the reason for their hasty departure bacame apparent almost at once, for people began to storm out of the building, calling threats at them.
"What did you do to them, Wen?" asked Emeldil as he hurried his step, urging them on.
"Just be quiet and do not look back," Elenwe said. "We'll be fine."
"I am a Númenórean!" the girl cried, stopping. "I have a right to defend myself when I am accused and discriminated against!"
Anarion could see Elenwe's arm tighten on her friend. "Yes, you do, but do think well where you make use of your rights. It is not worth to insist on them in front of an angry mob."
"They can hardly be called rights if I have them at some times and not at others!"
Elenwe looked back, eyes wide, almost pleading. The girl was strong; he could tell it was difficult to drag her along against her wishes, yet they had no other choice now. Their flight and the screaming that followed had garnered enough attention that they could now be seen to be running away while everyone else watched.
"Trash!" someone cried.
"Elven trash! Do not come back!"
"Not even with money!"
Yet somebody else was crying, "That was the lady Elenwe, you fools!"
"I would not be back, even if this were the last store in Elenna!" the lady cried to the mob behind them, trying to shrug off Elenwe's restraining hands.
"Please, Lassilenwe, this is not the time," Elenwe urged; but, instead of looking at the girl, her glance turned back and met, briefly, with his.
Years of awkwardness and indecision melted away under that pleading look and he stepped forward, taking the lady by her free arm, urging them both to keep on at a faster pace. She hesitated, looked up at him, then at Elenwe, but Elenwe kept moving without a word and the girl had no choice but to comply.
They walked a while in silence, for which Anarion was grateful. The seashore market was set up in a maze-like fashion and it required great concentration on his part to keep track of where they were. The market, like many other public places in Romenna, had outgrown its original design and began to expand in disorderly patches of buildings and stalls until the original plans were practically outdated. What was more, the closer you went to the center of the market, the deeper you went into the kind of place no respectable person wishes to find himself in. All sort of dealings went on in there, both good and bad as the world judged. Anarion had tried to stay away from the worst of it for Elenwe's sake; but, suddenly, the other half of the problem became apparent.
"Where are we?" asked Emeldil, moving closer to shield his sister from the crowds at the entrance to a drinking parlor. "Do you even know where we are, Anarion?"
He did not answer. What could he say? But it seemed to have been the wrong thing to do, for it put them all on edge and Emeldil, especially, became more agitated.
"Anarion, do you know where we are?" he asked. "We had best begin turning around, rather than go forward with two women in tow. What is this place, anyway?"
How could he explain? Or tell Emeldil that they were far from seeing the worst yet? He flicked a quick glance beside him and, to his surprise, found Elenwe regarding him with curiosity though, upon feeling his eyes on her, she shook herself like she had not known what she was doing, and had only belatedly realized it.
"Don't get all twitchy, Mel," she said as she looked away. "He knows what he's doing."
"How can he possibly? Look at this place, it's awful!"
"Supplies," Anarion managed to mouth, still taken aback by Elenwe's unexpected defense. "Supplies. I get some supplies from some people here."
"What kind of supplies?" asked Isildur, a mixture of anger and surprise.
"Inks, papers, twine... Things like that," he said, which was not untrue, only out of context.
"How, in the Circles, did you ever manage to find these people, Anar?" asked Eranion.
"Let him focus." Elenwe. "Since you are so keen on getting out of here, you should let him work on it."
"Aren't you keen on getting out of here, Wen? Look at this place!" said Emeldil.
"If you really want to put this place behind you," Elenwe said, looking at him instead of at her brother, "a little more tact is called for, please! Surely you can appreciate the need to avoid any... misunderstandings."
"By all means," Emeldil said. "Let us begin by clearing up the biggest misunderstanding of all: Why are we even here, Elenwe? Or is that dangerous to explain also?"
"Quiet, please!" Anarion finally snapped, rather than pleaded. "We're almost through; it will all be well," he said, but it was far from the truth. They had drawn enough attention already because of their speed and number and, if it was clear that their pursuers had begun to dwindle as they moved closer to the inner market, Anarion could tell that they were beginning to attract attention of a different variety and became keen to get them all out as soon as possible. "Can you walk faster, just a while longer?" he asked in a whisper, to which both women acknowledged an affirmative reply. His eyes lingered on Elenwe before he continued, "As discreetly as you can, pull your jewels and pass them to me; drop them if you cannot. Clutch your purses tightly and follow my lead as we edge out sideways."
Relieved that no one thought to argue with the course he proposed, he began to make his way westward and out. It was a slow process for the stalls clustered closely together now and there were so many of them, but they managed. When he finally spotted the blue awnings that indicated one of the outer circles, he heaved a deep sigh.
Elenwe looked at him at once, eyes wide and bright with unexpressed emotion, but otherwise said nothing. When the men caught on to what that meant, there were low expressions of gratitude and relief. They were right to be grateful; none of them could fathom what a feat it had been to get out of there unscathed, dressed as they were, naive as they must have looked, and he thought it best not to remark upon it. Best to get out and get home. Elenwe's gaze on him had unsettled him.
He could not tell how much they had walked before the women began to drag along, and he felt a tug at his sleeve.
“I can walk by myself now.”
He turned to meet the gaze of the lady they had rescued, and was surprised to find that she did not seem grateful nor relieved, but profoundly upset. The lines of her face were beautiful and delicate, but marred by the angry, haughty frown that creased her forehead and the purse of her lips. Her cheeks were rosy from the walk, and a fine coat of sweat dotted her countenance.
Before he complied with her request, he searched for Elenwe's approval, which made the lady laugh, and made him bite the inside of his lip for his foolishness.
“I am perfectly capable of choice, both of you. I am not your prisoner, lord Anarion, and I demand you release me at once."
“You know me?”
She laughed again, a nice tinkling of bells that would have been pleasant if it had not dripped with mockery.
“The lord Anarion, son of Elendil?” A quick glance at Isildur, “And his brother? You would be hard-pressed to find someone in the whole island who does not know either of you. I was unaware you had such prominent friends, Elenwe, or else I would have been more prone to take your hints before.”
“Anarion and his family have been good friends for many years, and our fathers before us, Lassilenwe,” Elenwe said, averting her eyes. “We will walk you home.”
“I should think I am perfectly capable of finding my own house.”
“Not for your sake, but for mine. It would not be right to leave you alone after what happened.”
“Nothing would have happened if you had not intervened,” the lady Lassilenwe said, advancing one step on Elenwe, which made both her brothers advance on her in turn.
“Hold one moment,” Emeldil said. “From what I saw, my sister saved you from a beating, or worse. Those pigs would not have cared that you are a woman when letting go of their passion."
Lassilenwe looked up at Emeldil, defiant, drawing hands immediately to hips. “Let them come! My father has friends that can defend me from King’s Swine if you won't!"
Once more, Elenwe stepped up and pressed a gentle hand on Lassilenwe’s shoulder.
“We are friends, and that is why we stepped up to help," she urged, gently. The glared she cast at her brothers made them retreat. “I apologize if I made matters worse, but I thought it best to run away this time than to risk making a scene that would help nobody. Picking one's battles is a philosophy I've learned to hold to."
That made Anarion snort, but his opinion was lost in Lassilenwe's outburst.
"And be branded a coward!" she cried, retreating a couple of steps. "My father did not raise me to run away at the merest difficulty," she said, accompanied by a meaningful glance at Elenwe. "I am a Númenórean and have some dignity!"
Anarion could have said a thing or two about that, but Elenwe's eyes were threatening anybody who dared interfere.
"It is precisely your Númenórean pride," Elenwe said without any trace of amusement, "that should prevent you from engaging in a market brawl."
At that, Lassilenwe seemed rebuffed. She huffed and looked about herself and, seeing herself outnumbered, stalked away, Elenwe following close behind, and the four of them had no choice but to keep at their heels if they did not wish to lose them.
When Lassilenwe realized that they were all coming behind, and that Elenwe did not need her lead to find her way, she asked, “Do you know where I live?”
Elenwe smiled and nodded.
Another artless smile. “I have been watching you since you came, though I found your house quite by accident. One of our maids has an aunt who lives close by."
Anarion noticed the color that sprang to the lady’s face. “Since we had to relocate,” she offered by way of explanation, “Father has not been able to purchase adequate dwellings.”
“Why, I thought your house perfectly adequate,” Elenwe said, matter-of-factly. “You have a lovely garden; do you tend it yourself?”
Anarion felt a surge of pride—undeserved, but pride, regardless—at the tactful way Elenwe had steered the talk away from painful subjects and into everyday matters that Lassilenwe could handle in her present state.
After a longer walk than he had anticipated through some of the most idiosyncratic streets in Romenna, they arrived at a small, two-story building, with a garden at the front, and a cobbled pathway leading, through the shrubs, to the door. Elenwe looked a question at Lassilenwe, and the lady nodded.
“Gentlemen, if you would wait here a moment,” Elenwe said, following Lassilenwe through the pathway to the door and disappearing behind it shortly thereafter.
They stood a while outside while she went in, which gave Anarion time to assess the house itself, and the possible reasons for Lassilenwe's seeming embarrassment. It was a perfectly lovely house, made of white stone, with a small porch to one side. It was missing the inner courtyard typical in most Numenorean houses of the time, he could see from where he was, but it was in no way lacking in any other particular.
“Wen is likely to be feeding her tea and pastries, to make sure that she can digest them,” said Emeldil, leaning against the fence.
“It was a very brave thing your sister did,” said Isildur, looking at each of them in turn, letting his gaze linger on Anarion a moment longer. “I wonder how she met this woman."
“It is easy for women of different areas to meet,” said Eranion. “They have sewing societies, and concerts, and archery competitions, and things of that like. Lassilenwe is the daughter of a very prominent man, Galador.”
“Galador?” chorused Anarion and Isildur, looking at each other. “Galador, the captain?”
“The same. Do you know him?”
“He had house in Andunie, but had not dwelt there in a long time,” Isildur said. “I cannot believe this is his daughter. She was a small thing when I saw her last,” and he made a gesture with his hand, signaling a height to the middle of his torso. "We have had to dance with her before; she was pretty even then, and opinionated."
"That she still is," said Emeldil. "Comes from having a father who indulges her. Some people have said the same of Wen, but I never saw anything of it." It was Emeldil's ill-timed pause that let them all hear Anarion's chuckle. Emeldil glared at him before resuming the train of his talk. “They had lived in the colonies in Middle-earth and returned to find their house appropriated; they had to move here with the rest of the Elendili.”
That made an impression. Anarion frantically searched his mind for that fact, ashamed that he had let it escape him, but he did remember.
“Nigh on six months ago, was it not?” he asked, eagerly.
“Sounds right,” said Eranion. “How do you know of it? I only heard through—” but then cut himself off, for which Anarion was grateful beyond words, having a rather good idea where it was that Eranion had heard that.
Isildur saved him from further awkwardness by saying, “It was quite a rumor in Andunie, but people are afraid to speak aloud nowadays. I can see why it would have been hushed here.”
"Or why the family would have been anxious to keep it quiet," said Eranion. "It has turned nasty, since the Elendili arrived--" but he was interrupted by the door opening as Elenwe came out.
In their haste to flee, Anarion had been unable to look at her more closely, and had thought he did not need to. He had always felt an odd, special awareness of her that told him many things he could not see with his eyes; but, as she joined them outside, and he was at liberty to study her, he was painfully struck at the difference a few months had made, making her even more womanly, while restoring even more of the old spark that had always drawn him to her.
He knew she would not speak to him, for which he was grateful; he would have been hard-pressed to form a coherent thought now that Lassilenwe's competing perfume was not masking Elenwe's fresher scent of gardenia and lemon. He contented himself to follow on Emeldil's lead, who walked ahead with Isildur, followed by Eranion and Elenwe, with him trailing not far behind. His only consolation was that, from this part of the city the walk to the beach would not be far.
A soft, cool breeze was blowing, which dried their sweat and brought them the murmur of the sea that they all loved so well. Even though he lived close to the harbor, he kept always so busy that he seldom visited the beach for pleasure. His work with his ships was oftentimes limited to the drawing table, and his other 'occupations' left him but little time for himself. He was grateful for this reprieve, though his mind was awhirl with many thoughts, the least of which was how he would get through so much as an hour without fighting with Elenwe close by.
Looking ahead, he saw her lace her arm around her brother's.
"You are tired," he heard himself say. "It was a long, fast walk."
She gave an unladylike snort. "I am ashamed to say that the list of appropriate activities for women that my Aunt and Eralmir approve does not include much exercise beyond a few arm movements. I am sorely out of shape."
"I would not have thought it by the way you kept up with us," he said, mentally cursing himself for a futile course of action. Elenwe turned then to look at him, opened her mouth to speak, only to be forestalled by Emeldil.
"She had to keep up, else it would have turned into a fight, though you put us hard to it, Anarion-- how did you find your way through that maze, anyway?"
They all looked to him for an explanation, and he would have been left to babble and fumble through a response if not for Elenwe's intervention.
"It did not take a very keen eye to know we had wandered into dangerous territory," she said, hiding her eyes from his, resuming the walk. "I'm glad I happened to be there at the right time, who knows what would have happened?"
"Nice work saving a lady in distress, sister, but your stunt made it harder to keep appearances for all of us."
"I had to do something, Mel," she said, rather too calmly, though Anarion noticed her hands balling into fists. "If they had killed her and I had done nothing, my conscience would have been tainted; I would have been just as guilty as them."
"In all fairness," chimed in Isildur, "the lady Lassilenwe made her peril even worse by her lack of prudence and restraint. Wen just mediated amidst the commotion."
"What really happened, Wen?" Eranion asked, finally giving voice to what all four of them must have been secretly yearning to know. "If I was going to be called upon to draw fists for Lassilenwe, I would at least like to know why."
"Hear, hear!" from Emeldil and Isildur. Elenwe then turned a question to him, expecting he joined the others, but he only shook his head, stretching his arms, palms up and out to her, signing peace.
She sighed. "Lassilenwe does not have many friends. I am not even very good friends with her, but she is determined to be accepted, without hiding she is an Elf-friend. I thought her unaware of the consequences that would bring her here, but she was always swift to put me in my place whenever I suggested caution. Until today, I did not know just how scared and confused she must have felt..."
"Scared?" Emeldil asked. "How so? I seemed more scared than she did."
"Well, think about it, Mel. When people are scared, sometimes they become aggressive. Everything she knows has been taken from her, and now she needs to adapt as a despised minority. She has a right to be angry, no matter that the fight she chose is one she is not likely to win."
"Nor is she likely to have many aiding her. She was haughty and ungrateful, despite all you risked in her behalf."
"Well," Elenwey said, dragging the word, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Those are the sort of things one does not so much to help others, but to help oneself."
Silence settled between them as they walked the remaining distance to one of the few beaches fit for bathing in the bay. A consequence of increasing sea-traffic was a proportional increase in quays and docks to house all the new ships; it gave Anarion good work, and much-needed experience, but he still grieved at the slow but steady disappearance of the beautiful beaches of his home. It troubled him well, more so because he could see no solution to it: Númenor was, after all, an island. Had they outgrown themselves out of the Valar's home for them? And, more importantly, was he aiding his people's downfall rather than helping stall it by his chosen line of work?
"Every thing that rises must, by law, fall down..."
Four pairs of eyes turned to fix on him, and it took him a while to understand why. He had not been aware that he had spoken his thought aloud.
"It is nothing," he said, looking away, as he began to roll his sleeves to enjoy the breeze more fully. "Just an observation. It is hard not to lament progress when you can so readily see what is sacrificed in turn. To have to walk so far to find a beach in an island--"
"So you see, Wen," Emeldil cut in, with a wink, "things here are as bad as anywhere else; no need for you to be sailing all the way to Andunie to find people to help or things to fix."
"What were you doing there, anyway, Wen?" asked Isildur. "I was gone most of the times you dined with Mother, and neither her nor Grandmother could tell much of your errand there."
Elenwe shrugged her shoulders. "That is because there was not much to tell."
"And with most of the Elendili here in Romenna," said Emeldil, "you would do best to stay around, lest all the eligible men be taken or, worse, turned to darkness."
"Cease this irreverent talk at once, Emeldil," she cried. "Men should not be swayed as easily as that."
Noting her failure to retort to the other half of her brother's assertion, Anarion could not help but ask, "Are you looking for a husband, then?"
"I am not looking, if by that you mean actively striving to find one." Then the pitch of her voice lowered just slightly, wistfully, he thought. "It is natural to want companionship, be one a woman or man."
"I have no words to dispute that," he said. "I have seen what marriage can do to a person. Provided that you find the right partner."
"Is it your advice, then, to look actively rather than wait?" she asked. There was no mirth in the question.
Neither was there mirth in his answer, "Waiting cannot hurt, if you do not mind waiting long, or if you are certain that your judgment will not be clouded by impatience."
"Are you looking, then?"
"I am a patient man."
"Or conceited," said Isildur, putting a hand on his brother's shoulder. They had arrived at the beach and, already, impatient Emeldil had taken off shirt and shoes and was making to shore, crying behind him for someone to watch his clothes while he took a swim. "You two address each other as if you were perfect strangers rather than friends from infancy, and it is trying in the extreme. I will take a swim to rid myself of all this animosity."
Eranion was left but,nfar from uncomfortable, he looked like he had enjoyed Isildur's reprimand.
When he looked a question at her, Elenwe rolled her eyes. "Yes, you might as well go, too. If I had known I would end up here, guardian of all your clothes, I might have instigated a brawl myself."
"Do not even joke about it," Eranion said, as he removed his shoes and left them at his sister's feet and, with a wink at Anarion, cried as he made to the water, "Thanks for staying with Wen! I owe you one!"
It would have been impossible to describe the awkwardness that followed. Elenwe moved swiftly to gather her brothers' discarded clothes before the wind carried them out of reach, and he did the same for Isildur's, placing them in a pile by her side.
"I would not mind it if you wanted to go with them," she said.
It was tempting. She was offering him the chance to escape instead of having to stay to face the many ghosts of words, both said and unsaid, that lay between them; but, as ever, reason lost the battle when she was part of the campaign. He shook his head. Thinking it safe to sit beside her with the clothes pile in between, he took the spot to her right and took his shoes off.
She did not look at him for a long while.
But he knew she wanted to. She arranged and rearranged the clothes by size, then by color, then folded them the way that seamstresses do, with the sleeves tucked in behind, tried to guess which socks matched which shoes. In the end, she took her slippers off, as well, and let her feet feel the soft sand, pulled her left foot closer to rub it, and finally looked an apologetic smile at him.
"When I said I was out of shape, it was not idle talk. My feet are throbbing, and my legs so sore that dancing at the festival is the furthest thing from my mind."
"We came a long way."
"We did." She glanced his way through her pause, looking like she wished to say more yet unable to bring herself to do it. Anarion fixed his gaze ahead to where Isildur was, willing the conversation to end. He heard Elenwe sigh. "How you found your path through that maze, I shall never know... But I thank you for your trouble."
"It was nothing."
"It was. Despite what I said to my brothers, I know that my being there at the same time she was would have meant nothing if you had not been there also, though I sensed you did not wish us to ask questions, nor your part in it acknowledged." She paused again, briefly, but when he said nothing, asked, "Was I wrong?"
"No." He began to play with his ring, twisting it around his finger to avoid having to look at her.
Elenwe waited for a long time before asking, "Why did you do it?"
"No matter the past, I would not have left you to fend for yourself in such a scrape; surely you know that."
"But why the reticence?"
Taking a deep breath, he made himself turn to look fully at her. He had forgotten how bright her eyes were, how they sparkled like waves under the summer sun. Hurting her was as painful as it had ever been. "I thank you for steering the talk away from my intervention before the others."
"Your silence only confirms my misgivings."
That made his heart skip a beat, but all he could safely say was, "I am sorry."
"Yet you helped me, even if that meant somehow exposing yourself."
Silence settled between them again. Anarion could tell that dusk was not far off and, when the tide came in, swimming would be treacherous in this part of the beach. He would finally be able to make his escape, and forget that any of this had happened.
Elenwe, however, seemed determined.
"Well. Merely thanks seem woefully inadequate."
"I do not need your thanks."
She gave a short laugh at that. "No more than I need Lassilenwe's, right? I understand that."
"Lassilenwe is no more than a fool if she does not realize how fortunate she was today, nor the kind of friend she has in you. Isildur was right: it was a very brave thing to do; it put you in all kind of risks. She would have shown her gratitude more openly, had she understood it."
"I doubt it. And I deserved it. Could you blame her for being so angry? Helping others covertly can hardly be called brave; it barely makes a difference, and she knows it as much as I do."
"It makes a big difference to the person you have helped, but who are these people you help? Covertly-- how do you manage that?"
She stared at him for a long moment, then blinked her eyes twice before finally showing a shy, slow smile. "You'll make me think you are interested to hear about it."
"If I weren't, I would not have asked."
"Surely you know how it works; your grandfather helps many people and he has been very careful in his dealings with the King and Council. No one could accuse him of being a traitor."
"It is but a matter of time, Elenwe," he said, surprised and oddly pleased at the small gasp she gave when he called her by name. "It all comes down to principle: it is right to do all you can to spare people suffering. Whether it will change the outcome in the long run is an entirely different matter."
"Do you mean to say that you advocate small rather than big change?"
"I think it is pointless to think of reform at this time: It's out of our hands. Getting ourselves killed trying to fix fundamental issues only prevents us from helping a greater number of needy people, while the basic problems still remain unresolved."
"But if we do not do something, who will?"
"It would be changing one evil for another."
"Have you not thought that maybe we were born, placed here for a reason?"
"Then how can you not see that our silence feeds the fires of discontent?"
"And our boldness would only feed the King's human bonfires," he cried, but regretted it when he saw her shudder at the raw image he had painted. He could not help reaching for her, though his hand stopped just as he was about to touch hers. "Forgive me--"
"You used to believe more, Anarion," she whispered, holding his gaze for a moment, then fixing her eyes in her own hands as they played with the gauzy material of her skirts.
Her calling him by name made him turn with a jerk to face her, but the frustration and disappointment he saw were such that no words would come to form a retort. He swallowed hard and turned back to watch the sun sinking in the horizon ahead of them, with its reds, oranges, and purples reaching like arms across the sea, to them.
"When we were there, at the market," she continued, without looking up, "when you came close and held her along... It was as if you could read my mind, as if you knew exactly what I had hoped you would do... Not even my brothers understood the kind of help I needed from them."
"Force of habit," he blurted before he could catch himself, but it made her fidgeting stop. Her hands stretched opened and her fingers splayed over the fabric-- her once-delicate fingers that were now hardened and dry.
"What happened to your hands?" he asked as he reached for her right hand and lifted it for a closer look. She wiggled free of his grasp and crossed arms over her chest.
"What does it matter?" she asked.
"What happened? Because, last I remember, not even oars could leave calluses like these on your beautiful hands."
"Well, forgive me for failing to live up to your expectations."
"That is not the point at all," Anarion said, leaning toward her. "You know I could not care what your hands look like! What I want to know is what hurt them."
"What makes you think they're hurt?" she asked, beginning to gesticulate with wider, more forceful movements. "I happen to value work and determination, and I'm proud to have my hands show it."
"What kind of work have you been doing?"
The brief hesitation gave her away as plainly as a confession.
"Is that what you get for your covert help?" he asked, reaching for her hand once more. His insistence angered her so much that she yanked her hand free and stood as she gathered the clothes beside her.
"Like you are one to talk!" she cried, looking down at him, clutching shirts and shoes to her as she fumbled for something to say. "I know you help, too, I've seen you around--"
"What?" he asked, standing in turn. "You could not possibly have."
"But I have," she said in a strangely low voice. The words rendered him mute. What had she seen, and how could he find out what it was without revealing himself further?
For long moments they strove against each other, willing the other to break the silence first. He was consumed by the anxiety of what it would mean to have himself discovered, and he found it almost impossible to look her in the face so as not to see what he thought was fear and disappointment.
When Anarion could bear it no longer, he said, "You were probably mistaken in what you saw."
She dropped the bundle of clothes. "I know I wasn't. And so do you."
He tried desperately to think of a time when he had seen her, had felt himself followed, had slipped in his guard, but could not. He was careful to the point of obsession, to protect himself as much as those around him; and, regardless of how things stood between them, Anarion knew that he could not let harm come to her.
"You were mistaken," he repeated more firmly, unsure of whether he hoped to convince her of it, or to have her understand he would not discuss it.
The tilt of her head, the way her eyes widened so slightly then narrowed in suspicion, were painful beyond the pain of guilt, and a foreign emotion that he knew not how to vanquish. Elenwe's lips pursed hard before she turned and begun to walk away, but she had not gone far when she stopped, looked at her brothers still playing on the beach, looked back at him. The same emptiness filled him that he felt the last time she walked away from him.
"It draws late," she called her brothers, then retraced her steps to his side to retrieve all the clothes she had dropped.
"What you did for me today..." she said, looking briefly up at him, but long enough for him to notice the moisture. He knelt by her side, tipped her chin up so she would look at him, but she closed her eyes, shook her head. "What you did for me today, I shall never forget it," and with that, she was gone, leaving his palm wet with tears.
Anarion stared her way for a long time after she was actually gone, wondering, not for the first time, why it was so hard to be at peace with her when her well-being was so vital to his. When he felt Isildur's hand on his shoulder, he was grateful for it.
"I see you haven't lost your touch, Anar," Isildur said. "Dinner with them now will be quite the awkward affair."
"Isildur," he began, struck by a sudden thought, "what was Elenwe doing in Andunie?"
When Isildur gave his shoulder a second squeeze, he knew he would not like the answer.