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The Last Temptation
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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2
Chapter Two

"away from you
i feel a great emptiness
a gnawing loneliness

with you
†i get that reassuring feeling
of wanting to escape"
-Roger McGough


After visiting their Romenna grandparents that night, and being fed until Grandmother Eilinel was satisfied they could not possibly ingest another morsel, they made their way to Anarion's cottage near the Shipwrights' guild building. It was a bustling part of town, but it was efficient to be so close to 'work' and that had been all that mattered when he chose it. It had become an encumbrance now that his crusade necessitated a more inconspicuous location.

"I think being so close to both poverty and corruption has sapped you of your optimism," Isildur said as he cleared Anarion's one table of books, maps, parchment, and the odd cup that had been buried amid the lot. Meanwhile, Anarion had sat on a chair by the entrance and began undoing the laces to his boots. The conversation would happen, he was certain of that, and that sort of mindless rhythmic exercise helped him rally for it. Fooling Isildur would be difficult, and painful, but imperative. He had made that choice a long time ago and duty demanded that he stuck to it.

"It was a tough day today, brother," Isildur prodded, "but you did well."

Anarion muttered his thanks-you-did-too's and kept working his laces, but he knew better than to think that would be the end of it.

Isildur dropped the last load of books upon the bed. "Better than well! If you had not been there we would have been mugged, or lost and never found again..." he finished with a dramatic air that made Anarion laugh.

"You would have figured the layout eventually, I'm certain of that."

"Before being robbed, or after?"

Anarion tossed the left boot and set to work on the right.†

"I don't think the average man would have engaged all four of us."

"Which means that you must know they have worse than average people there."

"I thought that they might have tried to confuse us, make us lose the ladies. That would have undone our little group."

"How do you know? How did you figure all that? And that bit about the jewelry? Elenwe was smart enough to venture out with merely that bracelet, but Lassilenwe was bedecked like a diamond mine!" Isildur had taken the chess set out and had begun to set the pieces on the board, but now pinned him with that keen, probing look that set his hair on end. "What kind of deals have you been making with people there?"

Anarion's hands stopped working. "I told you," he said, as nonchalantly as he was able, "I found good prices on supplies I need for work."

"Is it worth risking your life for a few leaves of parchment?"

"I use a lot of parchment."

"Father would give you all the money you asked for if he knew what you have been up to."

"It's all well, trust me," †Anarion said, busying himself with his boot, hoping Isildur would not notice he could not look him in the face. When a few moments passed and Isildur was still silent, he looked up, only to meet with a glare.

"What?" he asked, dropping the shoe and rising from the chair. "If you have made up your mind not to trust me, then nothing I can say will satisfy you."

"It's not like you to be untruthful."

"I am not being untruthful!"

"Well, then..." Isildur said, waving a pawn at him, "tell me this: what would you have answered if Elenwe had not stood up for you before the boys?"†

"I would have answered as I answered you: I deal with market suppliers, and can hardly be blamed for it when prices are so much on the rise, now leave it alone, Isildur!"

"Why did Elenwe jump to your defense so readily?" Isildur asked, more to himself than to him. "It surprised even me, I must admit. How long has it been since she barely crosses word with you? Five years, at least."

"Ten," Anarion said, grudgingly, as he began to arrange his side of the board. †"Why am I always black?"

"Because you are too slow to settle and choose white first."

"You always take me by surprise."

"And you well know that surprise is the first rule of every good attack-- not my fault if you lower your guard. It's always easiest to find out what I want from you when we play-- chess puts you in a benevolent mood."

"I hope you have not been letting me win!" he cried, nonplussed.

"You know I don't have the patience for that. Planning a losing strategy to upend your winning strategy... The mere thought of it makes my head spin," he said with a minute shake of the head. "My pride is simply a campaign casualty."

"What was she doing in Andunie, Isildur?"

His brother looked up from his king and gave him a slow smile.

"You like to talk about her, don't you?"

"Do you even know, or did you just let me think you did to goad me?"

"Ha! I upset you. I wanted to see how long it would take you to ask the question." He moved to his queen next, looked up from his board to him. "No, I don't know if by that you mean my having heard it from Elenwe herself, but it's not difficult to read the clues."

"What clues?"

Isildur looked at him for a long time before giving his answer. When he spoke again, his tone was not playful but earnest, and that disturbed him deeply.

"Can we talk here?" he asked. "Do you think you could have unwanted ears about?"

It took him a heartbeat to catch on. He rose, checked the door, checked his windows. They were alone. He drew the chair next to his brother's. "What do you know?" he asked, leaning close.

"I am almost certain she has been helping 'traditionalists,' though the exact nature of the help is still a mystery. The story she gave was that she came to Andunie to purchase fabrics for new gowns. She stayed over a month."

"What do you think she was doing?"

"There's the rub. I asked Mother; she claimed she knew no more than I, but Elenwe dined at the house at least twice every week. Always when us men were gone. I thought that out of respect for you, Mother would show some restraint..."

"They always liked Elenwe quite well," said Anarion. "Do you think Mother could be involved in it, whatever it is?"

"It's a thought. She has the influence and, after what happened to Arlen and her family, more than enough motivation. Still, it is hard to think of Mother doing such dangerous work. Or Father allowing it."

Anarion rubbed his forehead, the back of his head. "This is just what I needed," he muttered.

"What do you mean?"

But Anarion chose to ignore that. "What, do you figure, is the big secret?"

"There are a couple of possibilities," Isildur said, taking over the arrangement of Anarion's black pieces. "There is an orphanage in Andunie. They take all children, but everyone knows that they hold a 'traditional' bias. No one will claim patronage. Yet, despite all odds, the orphanage still stands."

"Could she not just send the money to them, if that's what brought her there?"

"Who would you trust with that responsibility, from Elenwe's circle of friends? Who would have that bit of juicy information and not sell her out? Remember that Elenwe is one of the most eligible girls in the island, and that kind of secret would ruin her for good. Or bind her."

For a while, Anarion could not make himself speak as the implications of that sank. "The thought of Elenwe being so deep in on it," he finally said, "as to have no one to trust, makes my blood boil."†

Isildur raised a brow at him, but he chose to ignore it. "What is the other possibility?"

"I saw her once with Golasgan."

Anarion snorted. "Golasgan? Elenwe would never respect Golasgan."

"What makes you think that? Golasgan is a perfectly good catch for any eligible lady."

"Golasgan has been around too much."

"He has reformed. I think he is quite fond of Wen."

"Or rather her dowry," Anarion said. "Do be serious, Isildur."

"I thought Golasgan was a friend of yours."

"And he is. Just, not cut for Elenwe."

"Well, at least it is better than the other option."

"Which is...?"

"There is rumor regarding shelters for the refugees."

At that, Anarion jumped in his chair and his knees hit the table, upsetting the board. Pieces fell to the ground with a clatter, but he could not make himself move to retrieve them.

"I have never heard of underground shelters," he said at last, when he could.

"You say it as though it could not be true if you did not know about it," Isildur said, which was exactly what Anarion had meant, but he could not admit that to him.

"How did you hear of it?"

"These things are not hard to hear if you keep your ears open. "

"Yet I did not hear about it."

"Why do you keep saying that?" Isildur asked, frustration evident in the tightness around the lips. "Anyway, the fact remains that far less tradi-- let's just call them what they are!-- Far less Faithful reach Romenna than there are in Andunie; indeed, in the whole island. Where, do you suppose, they are going?"

"They are either murdered or, as you say, sheltered." The possibility was as exciting as the mere thought of the ramifications was frightening. "I hope you are wrong."

"You always admired Elenwe's mettle."

"Hiding refugees is foolhardy. Think of what would happen should she be discovered. No punishment would be good enough for the daughter of Erador. As a matter of fact, if any of them blunder, there will be a public outcry. It would be disastrous for the cause, for all of us."

"You mean to say you would not do it, if you had the chance?"

Isildur's question unsettled him and, throughout the night, he could not stop thinking about what it had meant, where it was taking him. When the first vigil came, as he announced another check-mate, he also said, "I would do anything Numenor requires of me, but there is no way under the stars of Varda that I would let Elenwe die a traitor's death."

"It is not up to you."

"It very well is."

"If you interfere," Isildur said, splaying his hand upon the board, "you'll be dubbed a traitor also."

"We are all traitors now, in one way or another."†

***

The morning found them both sprawled on the floor. Anarion awoke to a numb arm, which he quickly unbent from its awkward position while surveying the room. The board was still on the table but, at some point, they must have dropped pieces which they had knelt to retrieve. He had fallen asleep clutching his black queen in one hand, the other hand curled around the leg of his chair. Isildur lay flat on his back beside him, mouth half-open.

"Isildur," he called a few times; but, when he got no answer, resorted to kicking his brother's shin until he finally woke him. It had been ill-advised, he realized, when Isildur kicked back in turn and, within moments, had grabbed him by the shirt collar. Anarion saw in his eyes the exact moment when the reflex subsided. Isildur let go of him at once, and Anarion thought he read apology, and shame, in the averting of the eyes.

"It's wretchedly early, Anarion. What do you want?" he asked as he flexed his neck.

"We fell asleep."

"Quite obviously..."

"We did not finish our game..." Anarion said, trying to cover his embarrassment, but Isildur laughed.

"Chess is just a foil, brother," he said as he scratched his beard, stifled a yawn. †"I must have been much more tired than I realized; I assure you, passing out on the ground is not my style."

"It is mine," Anarion said, which earned him another one of those keen stares. Why did everything he say manage to make Isildur so suspicious? He rose with the pieces he had lost and stuffed the whole chess set back in the wooden box his grandfather had had made for him on his twelfth birthday, put it away in the usual place-- middle drawer of his one cupboard, where other few special things went, feeling Isildur's gaze following him all along. He knew his brother's persistence, knew he would not be satisfied unless he uncovered whatever it was that was different and did not fit with his image of "Anarion," and Anarion could not let him do that. Only one thing would appease him now-- distract him, at least.†

"There is a way to satisfy your curiosity regarding Sauron," he said, watching with an odd, shameful relief as Isildur's eyebrow shot up and that slight, amused curl of the lip made its appearance. "He sits for audience daily at the Square near the King's house. It's awfully conceited--"

"Apparently he is the intellectual type," Isildur added as he rose.

"I would not call him 'intellectual,'" Anarion said, sitting on the table. "At least not in the sense that he pursues knowledge for knowledge's sake alone. He strikes me as quite practical, actually."

"Have you attended many of these audiences?"

"One," he said, to the floor.

"Why did you not go back?"

Anarion only smiled, a lopsided thing that must have resembled a grimace better.


***

The Square of Sailors was the main plaza in Romenna. The King's house and the Guild of Sailors franked it to the North and South, to the East the statue of an eagle that had, miraculously, survived the riots. Clearly, people had forgotten the ancient symbolism of the eagle. To the West, there was nothing. Anarion knew from his grandfather, Haldor, that the empty space had once nurtured an elven tree of magnificent beauty, maybe even a Yavannamire, but the tree had been hacked by a mob and nothing grew there now. Anarion had taken a sample of the earth left for study, but he could not determine whether it was true that nothing would grow, or if people were simply too afraid to try.

In the middle of the square was a great fountain, with spouts that gushed forth water in rhythmic succession. It was beside this fountain to where Sauron retreated every afternoon, with the pretense of observing life in Numenor, and it was said that even the water would hush to hear him speak.

"He draws quite a following," Isildur said as he pressed forward through the throng, trying to get at least a glimpse of the 'King of Middle-earth.' "You'd think that Pharazon would be jealous."

"You would, wouldn't you?"

"What's the secret?"

"You'll see..."

They had not made it too far when they heard a voice that would captivate the most stoic of men: compelling, but not loud, not harsh, nor soft; silky and rich, insinuating itself into the innermost corners of the mind. Anarion could not, for all that he had read and seen, put a name to that voice, other than to call it dangerous. With alarm, he watched Isildur stare, mouth agape, at the stranger as he engaged in dialogue with representatives from the guilds of Healers and Physicians. The question of the day centered on what constituted health and the various causes for the decay of the body. When the Healers argued the mind's unfitness to support the body as a major cause for health's deterioration, the Physicians were for the opposite. As it was to be expected, the discussion quickly degenerated into a complaint against The One for the unfairness of 'the gift.'

"What can be done to circumvent these natural causes?" someone asked. "Surely there must be something those wretched elves do to keep hale longer that we can mimic."

"It takes a strong mind," one of the Healers said.

"A strong mind avails nothing within a corruptible body."

"But their bodies look just like ours, don't they?" someone else asked, turning eyes to Sauron.†

A hush fell among all present, which was no small feat given the size of the crowd and time of day. Anarion had long rolled his sleeves and undone the collar of his shirt, yet Sauron stood under the blistering sun wearing cape and long sleeves without sweating a drop. The patronizing smile he gave encompassed the whole crowd without being aimed at anyone, but it somehow managed to stir mistrust in Anarion.

"This pebble," he said, lifting a rock from the ground and fingering it as he spoke, "is different from the rocks that made this fountain. None would dare equal them."

"Are you saying that we are like the pebbles?"

That small, thin smile made its appearance again. "No. But a daffodil cannot make itself an oak."

"Is it hopeless then?"

The look he gave them, full of pity and benevolence, made even Isildur lean forward, awaiting an answer. Anarion caught himself gripping his brother's forearm, for all that he had been prepared for such strong reactions and was trying with all his might for objectiveness.

"Elves are different from humans in many fundamental ways, but even Elves themselves are powerless to alter fate."

"But there must be a way?"

"They have healing herbs, like you do, but generally have no need of them save during war time."

"It is not fair," some cried. "Curse the so-called powers!"

Sauron lifted a conciliatory palm. "No one has said that Elves may not die; only, it takes them longer to reach that point."

"Equality is what we want!"†

"Who made Elves better than us, descendants of mighty Elros and Earendil himself?"

Anarion did not like the slight curl of the lip he saw then; there was a smugness to it that bothered him very much, as if Sauron knew things he was choosing to conceal.

"Quite true," he said, "and a bitter reality. The real question, it seems, lies in the core of the differences."

"Ask cursed Eru!"

"Eru?" asked Sauron, with a raised eyebrow.

"Isn't he guilty of it all?" someone from the back of the crowd cried, resulting in loud reviling sand shouts. When a fist brushed his back, he began to, discreetly, drag Isilildur to the back of the crowd.†

"You do not accept a reduced lifespan to be a gift, then."

Some people actually spat at that.

"Do you accept that Eru created you--" he was asking, when the loud sound of a horn rent the air.

"Father!" Isildur whispered, suddenly, as though a fog had cleared. "He is here earlier than I expected."

"He could not have come early enough," Anarion said as he turned from the sound of that seductive, seditious voice that troubled his thoughts and toward the docks to wait on his family.

Amandil, Lord of Andunie, and by the grace of the Valar his grandfather, was in theory still considered to be foremost in the King's council, and a beloved of the King. In practice, things could not have been more different, but Amandil played his game well, and avoided all compromising situations as a rule. His policy had thus brought him to Romenna for Erulaitale-- Midsummer, as they called it now, after the fashion of the colonies-- though the pretend, profane festival was a mockery to The One and an insult of the worst kind to his holiness. Anarion knew well that his grandfather's loyalties would one day be put to the test, and he feared for what form the test would take, which was another reason why he did not burden him with his own problems.

For now, he was content to welcome them all safely to port, and hope for the best. But, in the back of his mind, questions burned that he could not quench.

Would The One have mercy on them, despite their own betrayals?

**

Dinner at Eralmir's house the next night promised to be as awkward as Isildur had predicted. His family unnerved him by stealing glances at him on the way, some troubled, some amused, but all unwelcome.

"I must tell you all," he finally said, halting in the corner before the turn to Elenwe's house, "that this ceaseless looking back and whispering does not make it easy for me, I will not even attempt to hide that. Is there anything any of you wish to ask? I suggest you do it now."

He looked around at the faces that had gathered around him. Some had, at least, the decency to look ashamed. It was, not surprisingly, Isildur who broke the silence.

"How do you purpose to get through the evening with everyone in constant lookout to see how you fare?"

That unleashed a chorus of protests, denials, and apologies.

"All we worry about is your happiness, darling," came from his grandmother, Issilome.

"It will be all right," from Haldor, his maternal grandfather. "We trust your judgment, Anarinya."

"We just wish for clarification," chimed in Isildur in a mutter.

"Leave him alone," said his father, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. "Anarion knows what he is doing. You all treat him like a boy still, but he is a man full-grown and capable of making a man's decisions."

"Do be polite, though, darling," said his mother.

"Oh, for crying in a bucket, all of you! Do you think that living in Romenna I do not have occasion to meet with Elenwe in public settings? Believe me, I have plenty of practice with that."

"Love," said his maternal grandmother, Eilinel, as she pressed a gentle hand to his forearm, "all we wish to know is: will you be all right? You two were so close, it is hard to get used to all the caution in the air when you are together now."

Baffled at the nature of the observation, he simply stood there, silent, for lack of a reply. He deserved it, inviting inquiry as he did; but, counting on the delicacy of his relatives, it had not entered his thoughts that he would actually be asked such direct questions. He waited for rescue and, when none came, scratched the back of his head, turned around.

"We'll be late if we tarry here. Lalriel will fret about it and the lady Lissilome will harp on it all evening."

It was a curt dismissal, if there ever was one, but answering was hard, long, and painful. He led the way to Elenwe's house feeling like a miserable fool and, knowing that he had done nothing to assuage his family's fears on his behalf, he expected the evening to be trying and uncomfortable.

When the door opened, Emeldil and Eranion were there to greet them in a pleasant breach of protocol. They were shown in to the main living room where the rest of the family had gathered to receive them. Greetings and hugs were exchanged among all; Isildur was generally praised, particularly by the lady Lissilome, Elenwe's venerable aunt and self-appointed family matriarch; and baby Erassor, Eralmir's son and now nearly four, attached himself to him like lichen sticks to rock. †At some point he produced a flotilla of wooden boats for Anarion to arrange and they withdrew to a corner of the room to fight their battles while conversation went on around them. It was not until they were summoned to dinner that he noticed Elenwe had sat close to them and had been watching their game with a small, wistful smile. It was she who came to the rescue when Erassor was sent to sleep yet he would still cling to Anarion's leg, hoping for more play time.

"You may visit with Anarion later," he heard her say while guiding him out, "but now he needs his meal. You would not want him so weak that he could not finish his boat!"

As fortune would have it, and birth order, he was seated beside Elenwe at table. The sleeve of her deep green gown brushed against his chest as she passed him to take her seat and, when he leaned in to push her chair, he caught that scent of gardenia and lemon grass that was solely hers. He sat down to eat feeling quite on edge and, suddenly, without much appetite.

But eat they must. They were served fish broth to begin and, though the usual salutation had to be dropped because of the persecutions in the city, they observed a moment of silence before Eralmir began the meal.

"I thank you all for coming," he said with a small smile that quickly turned melancholy. "When we are all together like this, I can almost feel Father and Grandfather near us."

That brought a small gasp from Elenwe, but he could not bring himself to look at her, nor say anything comforting, though he knew how hard it was for her even after all those years.

"Those were good times," Amandil said, with his crooked smile. "The best. We lived many dreams together, Erassuil and I, not the least watching our children grow and have children of their own. He would be so proud of all of you."

"Sadly, the dreams were cut short," said Emeldil, as he put his glass back on the table. From the corner of his eye, Anarion watched Elenwe grip her napkin. "Numenor used to be a place where death by old age was embraced, welcome. It is harder to accept it when lives are snatched away cruelly."

Isildur gripped his friend's shoulder briefly, and they all ate in silence for a while afterwards. Anarion remembered times in this house when one could not hear one's own thoughts for the noise. Laughter and music were everywhere then; where had they gone now?

Elenwe seemed to have lost her appetite, as well. The meal went on, but she ate little, and spoke even less. When the main course arrived, he watched her as she pushed the shrimp back and forth in circles with her fork. Anarion bit his lip; he was not good with sadness. Placing his utensils back on his plate with an unintended clatter, he turned to Lalriel and asked the first question that came to mind.

"Have you taken Erassor to the docks, yet? They are giving tours of the battleships for the festival."

Everyone turned to look at him but Elenwe, and he knew he must have blushed, but it was done. Lalriel, at least, seemed grateful for the opening and change of subject, though controversial.

"Not yet, Anarion," she replied with her pretty, self-conscious smile, and a quick glance at her husband. "Eralmir was not sure that we wanted Erassor to think battle was as glorious as the ships he likes so much. Have you had to give a tour yourself?"

Anarion shook his head. "Thankfully, no, though it has proved impossible to avoid the onlookers that drift to my little corner of the docks. Work has been quite slow because of that, and I think that may account for at least part of my ill-humor, for my deadline is looming close and I really wish to be done."

"How much longer, Anarion?" asked Amandil.

"I hope to make it no more than a couple of months. Three at the most, though I still have a long way to go, sir."

"And after you finish, what then?" asked Eralmir.

"Well, I have to stand for my review with the guild masters, and they will either love my design and endorse it, or tear it to shreds."†

"They won't, trust me," said Eranion with a chuckle. "I've seen Vinyelote-- it's amazing! Anarion has made a lighter, more powerful vessel, more sturdy. It's a beauty. The guild masters will go all for it. And, one day, even I will be able to have one."

"Do you think they will offer you work?" asked Eralmir.

"Well, I had hoped they would from the outset, but now... I designed an explorer's vessel but, to the higher-ups, exploration equals conquest."

"One would expect you to be morally opposed to that," said Lissilome.

"I am," said Anarion, in what he hoped was a tone of finality, while certain that it would be lost on Lissilome.

"Yet you would still persist in that line of work?"

"If we had halted progress because of the evil uses it can be put to, we would not enjoy many of the comforts we have today. I believe in discovery and advancement."

"I believe in tradition."

"Aunt," said Eralmir in a grave voice, "this is not the best time--"

"It will always be a good time to instruct the young," said Lissilome, lifting her chin. "And getting sweaty all day with the builders is hardly fit for someone of your station, Anarion. Surely a man with your family tree has better things to do than go begging for work."

"It is hardly begging, my lady. I have other alternatives, but none that can materialize until I stand for review."

"Or you could become a gentleman and do a gentleman's work," said Lissilome with a curl of the lip.

"It is not the work he likes, Aunt," Elenwe interrupted in a soft voice, "but the challenge."

Her remark brought silence as effectively as a command, but it was the uncomfortable hush of people who have a lot to say but prefer to stay silent. He risked a glance at her then; she was staring at her glass, but he could tell the blush even in the candlelight.

When Isildur cleared his throat to speak, all eyes but hers fixed on him at once.

"Being a gentleman in this time and age can become quite tiresome, I'll grant," he said, "though opportunities for unusual work are not lacking with the political situation being what it is. I read that some of the refugees were actually tricked into going to the Middle-earth where they were--" Anarion was grateful that his brother checked himself before relating the rest of the gruesome tale, though, judging by the gasps and the closed eyes, they all knew exactly what Isildur was going to say and where he had read it. Anarion forced himself to relax his grip on the fork. Any mention of The Star still managed to make him quite jumpy, even though it was a couple of years now since he had been dealing with it.

"If any of it is true," he made himself say, to help his brother as well as deflect unwanted attention from himself, "we will all have much accounting to do some day."

"Some of the farmers near Andunie have already begun to claim it is the departure from... Ahem... Tradition... that is causing the increasing weather changes," said Elendil in a tight tone. They all knew that he spoke of the turn from the Valar, but Anarion knew it irked his father to have to speak in riddles when plainness would have done.

"Here also," said Eranion, "and elsewhere. My farmers in the Emerie have had to alter planting and harvesting schedules twice in the year, and they have begun all sorts of little rituals to appease various imagined deities or forces of nature... I doubt it does much good. I wonder if it does not do harm..."

"It helps them cope, I suppose," said Anarion, "and if it helps them, it helps you. The Valar are, after all, the guardians of nature. The mind is a powerful thing."

"Which is why I wonder at everyone being so carried away with the Middle-earth buffoon when we all know of his evil," said Emeldil.

At the mention of Sauron another hush fell among them. Finally, his grandfather, Amandil, said, "I would not speak so lightly of him, Emeldil. Clearly, he is possessed of a power that draws people to him and should not be trifled with."

"Nobody trifles, believe me, sir," said Eralmir. "You will know when you see him, though it is quite amazing that he garners such sympathy when he has been such a thorn on Pharazon's foot. I suppose people are apt to forget when there is food and drink to be had, and the promise of a revelry. When the King arrived with him I thought the city would destroy itself, so hard did they feast, and when he promised them Erulaitale for their support, the cheer was so loud that I was certain you had heard it back in Andunie. Whatever the reason, the whole festival is merely a parade, and I wonder who it is for: the people, or Sauron."

"I wish he had at least paraded in Armenelos," said Lissilome. "Attending makes me nervous lest I be counted amongst the unbelievers by those whose judgment truly matters. Where have you ever heard of Erulaitale where there will be no climbing the Meneltarma? It is ludicrous!"

"It is," said Haldor, "but attend we must unless we wish to arise suspicion."

"It troubles me as much as it does you," said Eilinel. "Anarion said the King has had a staircase built in the hall of feasting... There is no telling what it is for. Do you think he would use that for a blessing-place?"

"What blasphemy!"

"It cannot be worse than what he has already done," Anarion said, trying to appease the exclamations. "We know what is in his heart; it makes little difference if he is open about it."

"He is doing it for Sauron's benefit," his mother said. "For all that he appears just as besotted as everyone else, he must feel threatened."

He did not doubt it. They had held out hope that, in his heart, the King still held some shred of fear for the Powers, but Anarion did think that Sauron was making him bold, for all the wrong reasons. He turned, searching for his father's face, his grandfather's, but they merely looked thoughtful. Anarion felt little fondness for their king, but he knew what the man Pharazon had meant to his sires and felt on their account. As for hope, he harbored none.

Busy as he was with these reflections, he did not notice the conversation getting ahead of him. When next he registered meaning, it was to hear Isildur say, "Anarion and I saw him yesterday."

The way Elenwe's eyes widened and trained themselves on him, alarmed, left little doubt as to the object of Isildur's remark. Surprise, and a certain fear, could almost be felt in the hush that followed, but excitement and curiosity won in the end, and a barrage of questions followed from all, but her. It bothered him, that silence. Was she angry, astonished, impressed? The rest of the meal passed quickly sorting through the myths for all who cared to know their view; fortunately for him, Isildur seemed to relish the attention and he was only applied to for a word here and there. He did not wish to blunder anymore with her so near.

Everyone finally dispersed into the usual groups: the older women to Lissilome's sitting room; the older men and Eralmir to the drawing room; Isildur and Emeldil drifted to the kitchens for the wine, and Eranion followed them. He saw Elenwe disappear to the gardens and, cursing himself, went after her.†

It had been years since he had been to this part of the house, but he remembered it so well that he could have found his way blindfolded. A jumble of perception-- of memories-- flooded him as he made his way through the lilies and nasturtiums, the forget-me-nots and evening primroses. He knew where she would be and made his way there, to a spot under the lemon tree where her grandfather used to sit and tell them all stories of his travels. When he called her name, she did not turn to him.

He bit his lip. "You could, at least, be polite," was what he said, out of the number of nicer things he could have chosen. He heard her growl under her breath, tuck her head between her knees. "Look," he began anew, making his way to sit beside her, "I know you are angry... You have no right--"

That made her look up, disbelief etched in the wide eyes, the tightness around the mouth, the tilt of the head. As she pulled her thighs closer to her chest, her skirts got pulled up revealing her ankles, and she caught him looking.†

"How dare you?" she cried, rising in a motion so fast that left him stunned for a moment.

"Oh, come, I've seen more than that--" he said, recalling clam hunting expeditions that had been cut short when her mother began to think it suspicious that he never minded going along when everybody else complained. The sassy, angry look she gave him told him that she also remembered; at least, her fists opened and her shoulders sagged some-- the worst of her anger was past; maybe they would be able to talk now.†

She sat back beside him, pulled one of the weeds that were growing at the base of the lemon and began to twist and untwist it, in silence. Anarion waited a long time for her to speak, but she would not even look up at him. Finally, he leaned against the tree, holding back a sigh, and began to twist his ring. It would do no good to show his frustration; besides, for some odd reason that he could not name, he did not want her to go away even if she would say nothing-- perhaps because she was saying nothing. Her presence had been a constant for so many years that it was not hard, even now, to pretend that the silence was companionable and that she would smile for him any time. When, at last, she looked up at him, he made no move to hide that he had been looking at her.

Elenwe raised a puzzled brow, to which he replied, "This is the longest we have been together in... years..."

Next came that downward tilt of the head, then that upward look that so entranced him. "You have become very secretive, Anarion."

"So have you," he said, belatedly realizing that he was biting his lip like a boy.

"Why did you go to see Sauron?"

"Why did you go to Andunie?"

The question had been unexpected and she jerked back.†

"It is rather amusing how you think to question me but resent my questioning you."

"Is this what we are doomed to do-- this war of pull and tug-- not giving an inch until the other gives first? It's an awful stalemate."

"How would you have it?" he asked, with a laugh. "Even as you tell me that, you are hiding things from me. Don't think for a moment that I believe you stayed away a month simply buying lace."

He knew he had overplayed his hand when she snapped the grass-blade in two.

"It is impossible to have a conversation with you, isn't it?" she asked, half-way to a rising position. "Judging before you have even asked the questions, conducting your own inquiries behind my back to trap me. You don't learn, do you? What do you expect me to say now?"

"The truth?"

"You try it," she dared from her full height down at him.†

Unwilling to let her get the upper hand, he also rose. "Who judges who? You have always liked to think that I am condescending because you are a woman. I know not who has put that into your head but I will tell you once and for all that I could not care less what you are."

"Is that why you are fighting so hard to look me in the eye now?"†

The familiar heat rose with a fury to his face. What a spectacle he must look! The only comfort was that she was not faring much better. Let her blush, the saucy girl!

"You have no need to call attention to your female attributes for me to notice them," he said, certain that his bold remark was downplayed by the blush and the lip-biting. "Whatever happened to the proper lady?"

"She's at the same place Anarion the gentleman vanished to," she said with that distressing quiver of the jaw that could only mean one thing. When she turned her back on him, he realized how far things had gone from where he had first wanted them when he followed her out.

"Where are you going?" he asked, falling into step after her. "Off to get ready for the ball-- give a tease to your many admirers?"

He had known Elenwe all her life, and he could not recall ever seeing a more withering look in that lovely face. She was almost seething with rage. Walking back the three steps that divided them, she looked up straight into his eyes for a long, painful moment, before saying, "Maybe I will."

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