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The Last Temptation
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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4
Chapter Four

“Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."
-John Kenneth Galbraith



As he waited for Isildur to come back inside with the chamomile, he sat by the table, leaning so that his forehead touched the cool wooden surface. He was grateful for the support-- everything else was spinning. It was still difficult to picture Elenwë engaged in a dialogue of wits with Sauron, not because she was not up to the challenge, but because everybody else seemed to be swept away by him instead. What could have possessed her to be so bold in front of the King, he knew not, and he had to wonder whether that was not also owing to Sauron's influence. He felt keenly his mistake in leaving the hall; his emotions had so completely overruled him that he had failed to see what needed to be done. He-- he, of all people-- knew better, generally did better. What happened?

Some time later, the water they had set to the fire began to bubble, then hiss. Anárion spent a few moments focusing on the sound, trying to recollect his favorite vistas of the beach, the bay... But that invariably made him return to Elenwë, thereby defeating the purpose. With a loud groan, he rose just as Isildur walked through the door.

"I was lucky to find a chamomile bush," he said as he pushed the door open with one hand while balancing his bounty on the other. "Some of those plants are dying."

"I know."

There was a sidelong glance there-- Isildur's way of making sure he was not being mocked-- before he made his way to the table.

"But I found other things: cucumbers, carrots, chard... Beets--"

"I don't like beets," Anárion said, scooping some water out of the cauldron onto the tea kettle.

"Then why in the world did you plant them?"

Anárion shrugged his shoulders, but could not keep the small smile the recollection brought entirely at bay.

"I saw that," Isildur said. "Out with it."

"A friend of mine helped me plant the garden. Beets were his little girl's favorite."

Isildur set the last of the tomatoes heavily on the table, sighed, and hesitated only briefly before asking, "A Faithful friend?" 

Anárion nodded and returned the cauldron back to the fire.

"I am afraid to ask why they have not come to harvest the plants," Isildur said in a very low voice. He spread a rag on the other side of the table and brought a pot of water to scrub the vegetables. He looked up at him, fleetingly, before setting to work.

"He said that his sister had found better accommodations for them somewhere in the Hyarrostar, and I helped them find passage on a ship. I saw them last over a month ago... We can only pray that they found what they were looking for." 

He washed the flowers in silence, crushed some of the petals as Mother Eilinel had taught him to do to release the flavor. Crushing herbs was more rhythmic and soothing than many things he had tried to relieve tension except, perhaps, kneading dough (the things one had to do when alone!) and he even found the noise appealing. That soft grating could almost be called music.

"Anárion..." Isildur broke the silence, looking up from the pot with a cucumber firmly in one hand and a rag in the other. "Do you ever wonder if we are not worse cowards than the King's Men? Hiding who we are, our true sympathies. So many have suffered for boldly declaring what they are; I suppose sometimes I feel like such a liar, like my life comes with a heavy price."

Anárion stopped his crunching, but did not look up immediately.

"We are all liars," he finally said. "Yes, I have struggled against the thought and the guilt. Sometimes the taint feels so overwhelming that I wish I could sail away and forget the burden."

"Leave the island? There's a thought."

"We have a duty here; it would not be right to leave and shirk our duty."

"But surely there is more to life than duty? Do you not wish for a wife, a home, a life like Father's?"

Anárion set the grinding stone down, looked at his palms as they lay flat upon the table. "That kind of life is not for me, Isildur," he said, and he need not have worried that his brother would press him for more. When he next looked up, Isildur was in a world of his own, but troubled. Anárion could see the tightness in the jaw, the eyes that had narrowed, the way he clutched the rag so tightly between his hardened fingers.

"I liked it," Isildur finally confessed to the cucumber. "I liked being chosen."

Silence stretched between them, punctuated by the bubbling water, as each processed what that truly meant. Anárion should have told him that all would be well, that it was like all men to have such desires, but he could not lie to him about this too. He felt afraid and strangely fascinated, both, and all he could think to ask was, "Why?"

"Why, indeed?" Isildur's eyes became lost somewhere Anárion could not follow. When the fancy was past, he gave him a slow, self-conscious smile, and sank the cucumber back into the rinsing water. "Anyway, do not worry about Elenwë speaking out of turn. If they were all as entranced as I was, it is certain no one noticed."

"Sauron noticed," he said, taking up the grinding stone and pouncing on the poor flowers, wondering how that was supposed to help him feel better about the evening and Elenwë's part in it. Still, he crushed harder. The scent was slightly sweet and earthy, but the flowers were ruined. This batch of tea would definitely be cloudy.

"Even if he did, what can you do about it, Anar? Elenwë is her own girl; she'll make her own decisions."

Anárion groaned. "I have heard all that before but it brings me no comfort."

"Yet accept it you must, if you wish to go on with your life."

"I have no life!" he cried, pounding hard on the table with the stone, surprising even himself. 

"Will you do something about it?" Isildur risked to ask, but Anárion simply rose from the table.

"I need no tea, Isildur."

"No. What you need is a good girl--"

He lifted his hand, half turned to say, "Thank you for the vegetables," and sprawled himself upon the floor. The last he remembered before falling asleep was the sound of Isildur's knife against the cutting board, chopping carrots.

***

Anárion awoke to the smell of simmering stew, and a bright sun outside. Isildur had opened some of the windows, and the heavy air that hung about the night before was gone. The pain in his head had cleared, but he was sore in other places thanks to his poor choice of bedding.

"Hello," Isildur called, warily. "Slept well?"

"At least I slept," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I hardly sleep well anymore; but the throbbing is gone. That has to be an improvement."

He expected Isildur to laugh at that, but the bit of a chuckle he got was weak and half-hearted. Sitting beside him, he offered a mug of steaming tea.

"I'm sorry you fell asleep without it," Isildur said. "I should not have told you about last night when you were unwell, and without any tea or food. How is the heartburn today?"

Anárion only grunted, but reached for the tea. He could think of a number of things that should not have happened, but he was grateful for Isildur's solicitousness on his behalf; it was as close to contrition as he would get. Isildur could not grasp the gravity of the situation and that troubled him very much, though he was not sure why.

They sat silent for a while. Of all the dilemmas of the day, it was difficult choosing which one to tackle first, and he felt so tired. He had to find a way to explain his absence to his parents, because he knew that they would ask, and how could he, when he did not fully understand it himself? He was angry at Isildur, but was he, really, deserving of it? He was angry at Elenwë, angry at the world... The prospect of another night of such high anxieties stirred an awkward feeling of butterflies in his stomach. He had to be more guarded if he hoped to undo his blunder, but how would he manage that? He needed to engage Elenwë in some kind of meaningful dialogue to find out what, exactly, she had said-- that would be a feat by all accounts.

"Do you think that Sauron could have been flattering her to get her to speak?" he asked Isildur, who stopped stirring the pot to look at him, eyebrows raised. "He pestered you with questions of our family-- could he have sensed any reluctance to speak on your part? Elenwë, on the other hand, always felt that no one cared about what she had to say because she was a woman, and the youngest in her house. I wonder if she let loose because Sauron showed inclination to hear her opinion... Did you notice anything unusual while you spoke?"

Their eyes met for a moment before Isildur turned back to the pot, shaking his head. "I'll be drowned if I remember aught, Anárion. I drank some, to be sure, but not enough to render me so utterly useless. I cannot understand it... The more I think about it, the less I recollect."

Anárion merely chewed on his lip. It would not be too far-fetched, he thought, for Sauron to be able to sense something of other people's moods-- Elves did it all the time, from what he had been told-- and every instinct of survival would make him probe and use what he found to his advantage, but how could he ever confirm that that was, indeed, the case? He would never have occasion to speak personally with Sauron. Not without peril to himself, in any case. 

The other important question to consider was, of course, what were Sauron's ends?

***

"Rumor that Pharazôn is giving a bride to the King of Middle-earth must have spread," Isildur whispered to their little group as they entered the King's courtyard and found themselves jostled around by the multitude. "I have never seen so many women together!"

"This is no laughing matter, Isildur," said Elendil, suddenly halting. "We do not yet know what the King's purpose with this is, and we would do well to be wary of him-- of everyone-- whilst here. As we enter, we go into shark-filled waters."

"He was at the brink of death, then became prisoner, vassal; now he is King again. There is no telling what he will contrive to accomplish next," Amandil said, unable to completely take the sting from his ill-disguised joke.

Anárion thought it was a particularly incisive comment, and stood staring at his grandfather as he walked away, into the hall, trying to understand exactly what was meant-- wasn't Pharazôn the sole author of the decisions? How had Sauron exercised his influence? He did not notice that Elendil was still standing beside him and, when he made to follow the rest, his father pulled him by the arm.

"I particularly meant you," Elendil said, but though the words seemed harsh, Anárion read concern in the silent pleading, in the way his father's eyes held his, the strong, urgent grip on his arm. "I need not tell you how many here would see weakness in our house-- you know this, probably better than anyone. Your absence last night was remarked upon, and was surely discussed throughout the city today. For your own sake, I wish you would exercise your utmost efforts to put any rumors to rest. You are a fair-minded, hard-working, thinking man. I know you understand how critical avoiding misunderstandings is for all of us, and I know you realize how important, especially, for Elenwë, it has become."

"Do you truly think that my leaving could breed so much trouble?" he asked, revealing more from his own doubts than he had intended.

"At this point we know so little," Elendil said, with a minute shrug of the shoulders. "What you do not want is people gossiping about how the lady Elenwë has brought dissension between the lords of Andúnie. Elenwë would be mortified to hear such comments, but they could also ruin other prospects for her, other plans."

"Like what?"

Elendil's eyes narrowed on him. "You think I meant other men, but I was actually thinking of how miserable her life would be, victimized by other jealous women. Make no mistake! I see much more than you or Isildur give me credit for; I know how many families would wish to make alliance with us, and not necessarily for wealth or social standing. They may only be waiting to see where our allegiances will shift in the future, and we cannot afford to err in the image we project to others, not when so many lives are at stake."

Anárion nodded and turned to leave, but Elendil held him, firm.

"Son," he said, looking him in the eye, "would you not make yourself happy?"

Something passed between them that Anárion could not explain later. It had been a very long time since his father had probed him thus-- he avoided his father, for the most part, afraid to expose himself to him. Now that they were so close, it was as if their minds had understood each other and Elendil had seen him in all his self-doubt, all his fears and questions, all his repressed longing. Anárion saw his father frown, felt the grip on his arm tighten, and knew that was, precisely, what should not have happened. Yet, he felt so marvelously light, knowing himself thus understood!

"I hope the obstacles are lifted soon," Elendil said, releasing him, "whatever they are. I would wish the best in the world for you, would do anything to make it happen."

"I know, Father, and I cannot properly convey how grateful I am to hear it."

Elendil embraced him, briefly, before following the rest of the throng inside, and Anárion wondered if that small indulgence would not also come with a high price. 

If anything, the evening displays were even more lavish than the previous night. The incredible amount of light and glittering jewels was enough to make one's jaw drop, but what was truly overwhelming was the number of people who had crammed themselves inside the hall.

The festivities began on an interesting note: Emeldil was chosen to receive the honor of dining at the high table with the King. For his lady, he had chosen Ríanwën, daughter of Talmacil, a lady both proud and lofty who could not stop looking around herself to discover who was looking at her, and who, as fate would have it, did not even glance at Emeldil after he assisted her onto her chair: she was too busy fawning upon Sauron.

Every once in a while Emeldil would catch his eye and wink at him, clearly entertained; and, though Anárion could not approve of the use of a lady in such a way and with such an object in mind, she was using Emeldil in turn. How was he faring during conversation? Why was it that he seemed so distracted? Had Sauron dismissed him as unimportant, or was all part of his overall scheme?

Was he deranged to even entertain such ludicrous thoughts?

But, even all that had to be pushed aside for the moment. His main object tonight was to find Elenwë. The conversation would be difficult, at best, but it was crucial that he speak to her despite the attending embarrassment. Regardless of all the strong hints others were giving him to curb his eagerness, to step back, he could not step aside and watch her dive head-first into those dangerous waters without trying to hold her still. All day he had pondered what the proper approach would be, and had settled for sincerity. There was no reason to disguise what he had to say. All he had in mind was her safety, and he had hoped that plea would appeal to her. That, and an analogy or two about swimming through the chop. As long as he kept his calm, everything should go well-- they were two clever adults, they would speak as such.

When he finally caught sight of her dancing with the son of Hirgon, however, his resolve crumbled to naught. As if from a distance, he watched himself approach them, tap on Halador's shoulder, whisk her away despite his protests-- not quite the correct way to put rumors to rest.

"That was not polite," she said with a clipped tone, all while testing her hold on his shoulder.

"Your taste in men is rather questionable." He knew his own tone was curt, and tried to force through his version of a harmless smile to disguise it. "First Golasgan, and now Halador? At least this one would be easier to manipulate; he has plenty of practice."

He began to fear he had overstepped when she could not, immediately, find anything to reply. She kept up with him, however, as they inserted themselves into the pattern of dancing couples, but the form of the piece kept them apart for a full turn around the room. When she stepped back into his arms, she asked, "Do you enjoy baiting me, Anárion? What is it to you whom I befriend?"

"Naught at all. I was merely noticing how you fluctuate through extremes-- from unbending Golasgan to puppy-Halador."

It was his turn to make it through the circle, and it could not have come soon enough; he needed to find a way to compose himself, to stop himself from making things worse. When he returned to clasp hands with her again, however, she was glaring daggers at him, and it was all it took to shake his resolve.

"What?" he asked, fighting for nonchalance. "You'd have to fetch a nurse to tuck him into bed, so coddled is he. He'd have to be-- he does everything his father sends him to do; at least he deserves some kind of prize for his trouble, does he not?"

"How mean-spirited of you!" she hissed, before they had to separate for the ladies' chain. 

Keeping rhythm became difficult then. Not only did he have to fight his own inclinations, he also had to contend with her poor choices, and her bad opinion, no less! 

"I do not feel badly enough to apologize, if that is what you want from me." They clapped twice before clasping hands to go forward, and, casting a sidelong glance, he thought he saw a small twitch at the corner of her lips. It was fleeting; he could not be certain what it had been. They halted, turned around and back. 

"There is that, with you," she said, when the turn brought her once more against his chest. He had to spin her around on the next move and their eyes met.

"What?" he asked, breathless.

"The absolute certainty that you will be truthful."

With that, she disarmed him. He missed a step and failed to catch her on the next twirl. Trying to make up for his lack of coordination with an increase in speed, rather than the omission of steps, he turned her twice more, sending her on a fit of giggles-- contagious, delicious giggles that settled somewhere under his ribcage and made him doubt all he had decided to do.

"I am sorry," he said, as he took her hand again. "Misjudged... You used to enjoy being spun fast like this."

"Still do. You used to enjoy it yourself."

He nodded.

"But there is no time for such diversions now?"

The music stopped and applause broke around them.

"Things are different now," he managed to say, regretful at the sober turn their attempt at conversation had taken so quickly; but, this time, she smiled-- a small, bittersweet smile that touched his heart with pain and longing.

"You asked me to dance because you have something to say to me, do you not?" she asked, taking a small step back as if to assess him. "Practicality wins over every time now."

He hated that she was right, and reluctantly nodded his assent.

"Well, let us get on with it," she replied, with an air of resignation and habit that he found galling. "Say what you came to say, so that you can put this unpleasant task behind you."

"You willfully misunderstand much of what I say," he told her, stung, and not caring whether it showed or not. "Or disregard it, which makes it hard for me to know how to approach you."

"How about the truth?"

"When I am truthful you choose to ignore my warnings. When I am practical, the sacrifice of feeling bothers you. When I lay my feelings out for you, they are not the right ones--"

"What about me, Anárion?" she asked. "Have you not trampled upon my feelings? Have you not made unfair demands upon me? Have you--"

But the music began again and they were forced to fall into step with the rest of the dancers. This time it was a reel, and he kept having to let her go without being able to put in more than two or three words together. His frustration mounted until he finally held her fast rather than give her up in the next exchange of partners.

"I thought that our friendship meant something to you," he said, determined to get his message through. "I thought that you would listen to my request, in name of our friendship."

"I will not accept you dragging our friendship into this," she said, surprisingly, not struggling against his hold. 

"Why did you let your guard slip with him? What did he say to you, to make you so tongue-lose?"

"Tongue-lose?"

"Do you deny it?"

"What I deny is my good judgment in accepting you as a dance partner," she said, trying to move from him. Realizing they were awfully misaligned, he steered her back to the line, where the couples were getting ready to form the arch. He could not speak with her from such distance without being overheard, so he was forced to clap the rhythm until he could clasp hands with her as they went under.

"What did you ask him?" he pressed. "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing that would have been improper for two new acquaintances to ask of each other."

"Yet you were speaking to a tyrant. Or did you manage to forget that?"

They were at the end of the arch, and apart, but he noticed that she was not clapping now. When all the couples had finished going through, he held her and led her back to position without any resistance; turned once, counter-turned.

"Why did you do it?" he asked.

Her hand tightened on his shoulder though she looked away. "He provoked me... I was too weak to let it wash over me."

"Provoked you? How?"

A blush crept up her face and her lips pursed in that endearing pout. When she would not answer, he squeezed the hand he held in his.

"How did he provoke you? Was he rude-- disrespectful?"

"No, he was very fair-spoken and pleasant. Too pleasant. Too interested. He asked so many questions, as if I were one of those people who only want to hear themselves speak."

"He misjudged you, at least," Anárion said, holding onto her as the last chords died in the applause. "I wish you had not done it."

"It is done. No one likes a plain-spoken woman. After last night, he will not want to talk to me again."

"I doubt that," he said. Their third piece together was just beginning, this time a slow, stately dance, where form was critical. He debated whether to pass, and took too long deciding; the next moment, the music had started and they were forced to go along. 

Men turned by the right, three steps to the opposite; then it was Elenwë's turn, three steps back.

"Given the influential status of your family in the island, and the fact that he now personally knows two of you, I think he will want to find out whether you will be an asset or hindrance."
Men go left behind women.

"To what?"

"To whatever plan he has."
Women right in front of men.

"You need to stop thinking that everybody has a plan; there is the cause of your heartburn."

"Oh, he has one; he would be a fool not to and, believe me, he is not a fool," he said, but then, "How do you know that I have heartburn?"
Two-hand turn your partner half around.

"Eranion."

Anárion could not keep from growling. "I'll have to have a word with him."

"So will I, with your brother. It was he who told you about Golasgan, was he not?"

That made him miss a step and collide against the couple to their right.

"Do you care much for Golasgan?" he asked, while trying to find their way back into the pattern, and nodding a pretend apology to the other couple.

"Would it make a difference to you if I said I did?"

"You would reveal your life's story to Sauron yet cannot answer a simple question for me."

"Anárion," she said, stopping altogether despite his trying to lead her along, "I grow tired of this, and angrier by the word. What do you want from me? Nothing I do can ever please you and, frankly, I know not how else to try."

"For years, Elenwë, for years I have not pressed you for a single thing, and when I finally did, it meant nothing to you. Why could you not hold your tongue, Elenwë? Why?"
Men turn by the right, one, two steps back.

"That was not what you asked. You asked," she said, turning to follow his movement, "you asked me to be careful, and I was. I noticed his interest in your family and it bothered me."
Women turn by the right, one--

"That was the kind of thing you ought to have been guarding yourself against!" Men go right-- no left!-- behind women. "I asked you! I asked you nicely to refrain from calling attention to yourself."

"I tried! I tried, but I could not help it. He kept asking questions about you, about your work, about your training, your women, your ships-- It was not his business to ask, to presume to know so much..."
Women go--

"So you decided to tell him all about yourself, instead?" he asked, holding her, perhaps, a little tighter than he should have. "Where did your judgment go?"

"Well, forgive me for not reading your mind the right way, for trying to keep you from his interest. I will not be making that mistake again!" she said, trying to break from his hold, but he was so stunned that he could not make himself let go. In a last attempt to free herself, she stepped on his foot with the heel of her shoe. He released her, bit back a gasp of pain, but she heard it, nonetheless, and her anger blurred quickly into worry and concern.

For a few minutes they stood, wills clashing against each other as she offered her apology, while he refused to take it, making himself oblivious to the hurt. He could have still held her within the circle of his arms, for all that she had moved. Some of the couples in the pattern had begun to cry words at them, asking them to leave if they were not going to follow form. As if waking from a dream, she shook her head, looked around herself, rubbed at her frown. 

"I am a fool for doing this to myself!" Turning around, she walked toward the door and left him in the middle of the floor. 

"Wait!" he cried, behind her, as he made his way amid dancing couples, parents, chaperones, servants, trays of food and drink. When he finally reached her, they were at the entrance to the hall.

"Where are you going?" he cried. "All alone? There is danger in the streets--"

"Anárion, please, spare me the account, I've had enough!"

"None of it is idle talk, Elenwë!" he called, trying to outrun her. "When I tell you all those things, I do it because I care for you, because I want you safe!"

"And what am I supposed to do? Let you do all the saving without even the chance to ask you what it is you are saving me from, or what the danger will be to yourself? Do you suppose I do not worry about you too?"

"If you knew what I do, it would only make you want to do foolish things, get into trouble. I do not ask you to help me. I never want you in danger."

"What you ask of me? Never mind what I want!" Something seemed different with her, akin to the olden days when they ran together in the meadows of her house in the Emerië, wild, beautiful. "If that is the price of your friendship, I cannot pay it."

She stood looking back at him, panting. 

"What do you want of me, Elenwë?" he asked, making himself meet her eyes. "To not worry on your behalf? I cannot! Right now I have hardly slept, trying to figure out how to undo this mess, and you tell me to let you help? Help, then. What did you tell Sauron?"

She did not answer for a moment. "I... I told him that it was not polite to speak of those who were not present."

"What did he do?"

She lowered her eyes, but said nothing.

"He probably thought you were jealous and wished for more attention."

"I was..."

"Why?"

"Why does it matter, Anárion? Please, let me go..."

"I am not holding you..."

"You might as well," she whispered, lifting her hand to push hair from his eyes, and he found himself leaning into her touch.

"Elenwë," he called, daring to come close to her and take her by the shoulders, softened by the touch of silk he found there. That was what was different! Her hair was no longer prim like her aunt wanted to make it these days, but it was coming lose and dangled in tendrils round her face; it took all his restraint not to reach for one to tangle around his finger. "What did you say to him? You have to tell me; I have to know."

"Tell me why."

"You cannot marry him."

"Why would I want to marry him?"

"You know that what you want makes no difference here. Men are used to making these decisions for their own profit."

"Are you worried that he'd pick me?"

"He'd be a fool not to pick you."

"That does not explain his interest in you. Did you talk to him when you went to see him the other day?"

"No. Maybe he recognized me. Maybe that accounts for all those keen glances," he said, only half-aware that he was speaking of something that had been very important to him only a few hours ago, lost in her scent as he was, in her closeness. He was just realizing there was a different note in the scent of her hair and was trying to identify it.

"He has been looking at you?"

Anárion nodded.

"And you were worried about me?" she asked, stepping away from him, bringing him to the present.

"His interest in me is unaccountable, which makes me wonder if he is not playing with my mind, trying to intimidate me."

"Why would he do that?"

"Because he can? Because he wants you? Because the King asked him to do it?9 I can think of a number of reasons why he would wish to protect himself; but, if his interest would put any of you in danger, I have to find out the reason."

"And put yourself in danger, instead." She shook her head. "I do not wish for that kind of protection."

"It is not up to you."

"Just as it is not up to you how I choose to go about trying to help you."

"I am warning you," he said, bridging the distance between them once more, taking her face between his hands. For one confused moment, he forgot what he needed to say as he battled against the sensation that her soft skin created under his hardened fingers but, fighting for clarity, he leaned downward so that their faces were level. "It is easy to forget the tales of his ruthlessness when one gazes into that pleasing face, but make no mistake: he is a murderer, and I want you out of his sight."

The way she trembled at that made him want to hold on to her, but he did not trust himself to be able to let go if he were to embrace her now. She looked away, closed her eyes to him. When he felt the wetness under his thumbs, he did not immediately realize that she was crying.

"If he, or anybody else, ever does anything to hurt you--"

That made her turn to look at him full in the face, eyes bright but determined, her face a hair-breadth away from his own. "Do you think I would tell you, knowing what you are likely to do--likely to risk-- while keeping it hidden from me?"

That was a bold stroke that made him physically flinch, and she took that chance to run away. Once more, he followed her, and was able to reach her at the corridor that led to the gardens.

"If he ever does anything to hurt you, I will make sure he never has a chance to do so again," he said, managing to hold on to the ribbon in her sleeve in his attempt to keep her there as she left him. 

"Then you will never find it out from me, for I would rather die than see you in pain for my folly." She ducked away and ran down the stairs, her hair finally aflutter behind her in a cloud of midnight. Anárion ran after her, but people coming in made his progress slow, and he finally had to cry to call her attention.

"It is not about me!" he called out to her, trying to make himself heard above the crowd. "It does not matter what happens to me!"

"Not to you, stubborn, selfish man that you are," she cried back, without stopping. "We shall never agree on this, so we better leave it at that."

"I am the farthest from selfish you will ever find! Why can we not agree?"

"Because your condescension frustrates me and my stubbornness irritates you. I will not change, so I cannot expect change of you."

"Elenwë--"

"Goodbye, Anárion," she said, and disappeared behind the outer wall as a carriage drove right in front of him, separating him from her. When he reached the gates, she was gone.

He walked to her house, but not once did he see her on the way, and he dared not seek a visit so late, nor try to climb up to her room like they all had done so many times when they were children. Back at the palace, when he first lost sight of her, he had bent low to retrieve a hair pin-- one of the few she must have lost in the wake of their argument. It occurred to him now that perhaps, should he retrieve the lost pins, it would give him an excuse to see her again, to make things right. With that thought in mind, he retraced his way to the palace, all the while aware that it was impossible that he would find them again, lost in the crowd, taken by stragglers who recognized the value of the pearls, yet something compelled him to try. He managed to find seven.

Hair pins in hand, he returned to her house and there waited outside her window many hours, hoping for he knew not what. When it became clear that she had not gone back there, and that he was a fool to wait, he decided to leave.

He did not go to his own home, either.

***

Dawn came and went and found him, hands still soaked into the paste, crushing the random scraps that would become his paper. If the wrinkled skin of his fingertips was any indication, this would be the finest-ground pulp that he had ever produced, though he could ill afford the time it took to make it. All over the island, people would be eagerly awaiting his assessment of the King's new undertaking, little knowing that, at the moment, he was the most prejudiced source of information they could find. The smile that sprung to his lips at that made him feel ashamed, but he was so tired of checking himself that he spared not a second thought for the notion.

This, he thought, looking around the cramped room, had changed his life. Being an observant child, he had always sensed that the way he lived his life was the exception rather than the norm, despite his father's pains to blur the line as much as he was able. It was not until he joined the corps that he encountered so many dissatisfied, hateful, suffering people. Young and sheltered, he had been unprepared to deal with such animosity directed at him, only for being Elendil's son. He had earned their respect, but the experience had profoundly marked him. Aware that he could not go back to merely being a son-- though he had an admirable father whom he would be proud to serve-- he had to find a way to rely on himself, and his apprenticeship with the engineers had provided that, with an outlet to the ideas that had always crammed his mind.

Living alone in Rómenna had opened a new world to him. Corruption, poverty, baseness, stood in stark contrast to the ideals of honor and nobility that he had been taught since birth. People cursed the Valar, spat out Eru's name, and died on the streets from neglect without a soul to mourn them. Pride blinded the rest of the living into a pursuit of indulgence that cared not who got caught in the way of self-satisfaction. Blaming the gift and claiming unfairness, the worst atrocities went unpunished, and Anárion's conscience demanded that he find a way to fight the tide lest they all be swept with it.

That was how The Star was born-- a clandestine rendering of what the King and his policies were really doing to Númenor, gathered through carefully guarded sources and as carefully distributed, monthly, among all the Elf-friends he was sure were still loyal to the Valar. Alas, it was so very hard to be sure of anything now. Bay waters, even he was a pretender, kinsman to the King by day, feeding fires to the division by night, and trying to give people hope when he felt even more hopeless for the future than he had four years ago, when he begun. 

They were behind schedule. The paper should have been ready days ago, but once Isildur arrived he had been unable to come to the shop. The thought of Isildur, and his disappointment if he were to discover the magnitude of his treachery, made him still his hands. At least he had been honest when he said sometimes the burden proved overwhelming. Especially when he was with his family did he feel rotten and worthless, but the risk was too great for them should they be found out, and Anárion had known it from the beginning. That he resented the burden now was further proof of a basic character flaw.

He set to work again, crushing at will, only barely aware that if the paste became too powdery it would be harder for it to clump and he would lose the whole batch. It angered him that, even now, he suffered bouts of doubt and despondency over his choice.

Who was the traitor-- was it him, who had broken his oath of service to the King for keeping his oath to Númenor? Or was it Pharazôn, who had ceased to see the people he was supposed to serve for seeing the kingdom, instead? He threatened his people by creating division among them through policies that bred inequality and strife; diverted the channels of wealth to support war in the colonies to establish even more tyranny there; enslaved even his own fellow citizens;   changed laws arbitrarily and without support; swayed the loyalties of the Númenóreans to the unknown, and had now brought a tyrant into their midst--

Elenwë's expression as she spoke of Sauron came to his mind, how the corners of her lips had curled in distaste, how she had let him hold her through the recollection. He had not been as close to her since that day when they had been caught racing each other off the quay and had forgotten to return the rafts to the Swift Swan. Her father had been livid, had not believed it of conscientious Anárion. Even now he cursed his thoughtlessness that could have killed men had they met with an accident at sea and found the rafts missing. But, deep within his heart he also held the memory of Elenwë's glittering eyes, the tinkling of her laughter; and, later, the feel of her closeness as she recoiled from her father's wrath, how his arm had rested protectively around her shoulder when he took the blame, before she stood between them and swayed her father into thinking it had been her fault, instead. Even then she was thwarting his efforts to shield her. He let out a grunt as he came across a large clump that resisted his efforts and set his will to crushing harder. Why could she not be quiet and let him care for her?

The old door creaked, startling him into action. He seized a club that he kept nearby when he was here, should anyone burst on him unawares, but his hands were wet and slippery and the club fell on his foot.

"Fire and ashes!" he cried, in time that he leaped to the door to bar the intruder's entrance. "State your purpose!"

"Light of El--'Tis only I, Anárion!"

"Arandar! For a moment I thought I had been follo--" Setting the club on the table, he sat to take off his boot and assess the damage. "I did not expect you to come here today.

"I did not think you would come, either, with Isildur home and all," Arandar said, but there was something to the half-averted eyes that told Anárion that was not strictly true.

Anárion scratched the back of his neck, merely looked at his foot since it hurt too much to rub. The three first toes were purple and swollen. He sighed, threw his head back.

"Is it broken?" Arandar asked, kneeling beside him to take a closer look.

"This really is just what I needed."

Anárion thought he heard Arandar mutter something that sounded too much like, "That might stop you dancing..." But, to him, he asked, "Should I take you home? I will bring a healer there."

"There is nothing a healer could do for a broken toe, assuming that is what it is," Anárion said. "But I am definitely not going home right now."

"Because there is so much work right now?" Arandar asked. This time, Anárion saw a definite curl of the lip but, contrary to what he might have thought, the smile was full of pity. He felt his eyes narrow and, not bothering to replace the shoe, returned to the water table.

For a while, they worked in silence. Arandar quietly set about retrieving the first batch of pages they had set out to dry the last time they had been there, then to ready the red ink and quills to add the titles. Anárion had turned over a second batch that he set, once more, to dry on the floor, and those he left undisturbed. When he had begun work on The Star, Anárion had not foreseen that he would ever have someone to help him, thinking that it would upset the balance of secrecy that he needed to maintain to keep it afloat. But, Arandar's accidental discovery of his rebellious side had been a gift from the Powers if there ever was one. More than anything, Arandar had become a friend at a time when Anárion had most needed one, isolated from everyone else as he had become. 

"I would forgive you anything," Anárion said, at length, turning to look at him while drying his hands on his apron, "but your constant glancing up at me is putting me quite on edge."

"Is it? It was unintended," he said, yet Anárion continued to feel Arandar's eyes on his back while he worked. Once, he caught him stealing a look at the small heap of pearled pins by  his work table, and everything suddenly made sense.

"You came here to talk to me."

Arandar, at least, looked a little uncomfortable.

"Believe me, having that talk is the last thing I wish to do."

"Understandable," Arandar said. He rose, took one of the hair pins, lifted it up to better see it in the light. A slow smile appeared on his face as the light bounced off the pearls and sapphires. "I take it you tried to return these?"

Anárion looked away. 

"And she would not see you?"

"She was not home," he said, quietly.

"Did you look for her?"

"Where could I have looked? Elenwë and I drifted apart a long time ago... I am not well-acquainted with all of her friends anymore. Even if I had tried, and found her, who would have let me in to see her so late? At least my head had cleared enough then to know that persisting was going to do more harm than good."

Anárion leaned against the table, trying to take some pressure off his foot. Noticing, Arandar passed him a chair, getting one for himself also. Before sitting, however, he prepared a bucket with water and salt and had Anárion soak his foot in it.

"That should take care of the swelling," he said. "Now, on to the more obvious cause for discomfort... Why was she angry?"

"You know, we never even got to it. We went through the gamut of her fondness for Halador and Golasgan, her unnecessary and dangerous conversation with Sauron. She actually told him to stop asking questions about others. Isildur vaguely remembered her asking him questions about himself, if his shaky memory of the events is to be relied upon... Isn't it odd, that neither can remember, or won't say, what, exactly, happened? She blatantly refused my warnings. Apparently she is under the impression that I should be more candid with her. Since there will be no way to correct that, I suppose this is it..."

"This is... it?

"Elenwë will not let go, now that she has it into her head that I need her help."

"Maybe you do." He actually gaped at that, making Arandar add, "There are many ways to give and receive help."

"I cannot see how I will receive help from her without revealing ourselves. The decision has been made, Arandar... no one else can know about The Star."

"It becomes more and more difficult to maintain the resolution, does it not?"

"Are you tempted to?"

"I have no one who wants to know-- no siblings, no nosy friends..."

"What, when you fall in love?"

He laughed at that. "I will have to make sure the girl I choose will not think it amiss that I spend so much evening time away."

"Good luck with that."

Arandar's laughter only became louder, and Anárion could only frown at such lightness of mood. 

"I must be sterner than I thought," he said. "I fail to see the humor."

"You used to be quite cheerful. I always admired that; it was not Isildur's zest-- it was the quiet relish that comes from contentment. It is that shift that so worries those of us who care about you. I, on the other hand, have managed to remain my old self-- as much as I can be despite the turmoil."

"How you can do that is beyond me."

Arandar simply looked back at him, eyes narrowing slightly the longer he took to speak. Suddenly, he leaned forward, resting forearms on thighs, and looked straight at him. "You carry frustrations I have not. I am still happy to do this for Númenor's sake alone, for duty, for the thrill. Why do you do it, Anárion?"

Anárion looked at his purplish foot through the blurry water, tried to flex his toes, promptly having to bite back a gasp of pain. How could he answer such a question? He had seen so much, done so much... For what?

"The more I write these awful accounts," he said, haltingly, trying hard to voice the thought, "the more fearful I become for the future. I cannot trust that things will straighten themselves of their own accord. I certainly cannot trust to the King's compassion, not even for a kinsman."

"Do you really think that the King would let himself be flattered by Sauron in such a way? Pharazôn is a proud man; he likes to keep his own counsel... I cannot see it how you do."

"But you have seen the power of Sauron's compelling presence. Even I have felt it... Isildur, Elenwë, they all seem somehow affected by his fair speech. I wonder if there isn't something elvish to it."

"That would be the ultimate irony, to be sure... The númenóreans trapped by the very elvish powers they are trying to vanquish."

"It is not a joke, Arandar," Anárion said. "After all, what do we know of him? Where does he come from? Where is his family? Does he ever talk about himself?"

Arandar thought about it for a moment, returned the pin to him. "Perhaps Elenwë was plagued by those same questions when she confronted him."

"An unmarried woman does not confront men in such a way. Powerful men do not like to be gainsaid."

"I never knew you to harbor such prejudices."

"You did not understand me," Anárion said, speaking slowly, holding his gaze. "Powerful men do not like to be gainsaid."

Anárion could tell the exact moment when it made sense by the sudden widening of eyes, the strangled gasp.

"You mean to say that he would find a way to force himself upon her, to humiliate her?"

Anárion winced at the crudity. "Don't most men hold power in such a way? I can name scores of them right now. We simply do not know enough about him to dismiss the possibility."

"Yet, do you think the King would pass on a chance at a more profitable alliance? He will receive a tax on the transfer of property, as well as the payment for his forfeiting his rights to the land as kinsman. Not to mention the issue of their neighboring property and how having a new master would shift the balance of his trade... They have adjacent lots, do they not?"

"In the Emerië. And, I do see your point. But money is not the only currency with which men trade."

He watched Arandar swallow hard and lower his eyes to his palms that were flattened on his lap. As always, he had began to twist his ring, and stopped at once upon realizing it. For one who was, supposedly, reluctant to talk, he had said quite a lot. He had discovered that he was afraid. Afraid, and how could he hope to alleviate the fear? Having Arandar hear his side eased some of the pressure he had been feeling-- a small part. How was he going to save Elenwë, if she would not let herself be saved?

When Arandar finally looked up, Anárion was not expecting it. Arandar ran a hand through his hair, scratched his chin, and moved to sit at the edge of his seat.

"Is it only Sauron's threat that troubles you?" 

What could he answer? The memory came to mind of a time a few months ago, when one of the guild masters was accused of selling rotten fish and blamed Eralmir for the loss of his business. Anárion remembered the sleepless nights, the headaches, the anxiety the whole episode brought. "I know it sounds obsessive--" he began, but Arandar shook his head.

"We are living through awfully dangerous times-- we should know about it, doing what we do. Nothing shocks me anymore... We have seen so much, you and I! I do not think your concern is wholly unjustified; what is questionable is your right to feel so concerned."

"Why is it no one feels our friendship merits a level of involvement?"

"But friendship requires reciprocity, and you do not allow her that," Arandar said. "One could even argue the existence of such a friendship, after so many years of estrangement. I know how much you care, so I will not go into that. The problem is that you would clutch her like you are clutching that hair pin, tightly inside your fist, to shelter her, to protect her. She wants to do the same for you, and you do not allow it. Hence her resentment."

"So I need to step back and watch her blunder along, when any misstep could cause her her life, and do nothing to help her?"

"What can you do, Anárion? If what you offer is your friendship, then your options are either to back away, or to let her in on the secret."

"You know I cannot do that."

"Then you need to move the relationship forward, or sever it."

Anárion felt as if someone had plunged him into the freezing waters off the Forostar. A lifetime where no other thought of Elenwë crossed his mind was unthinkable. Impossible. "With all the options equally bleak," he began, with a shaken voice that was not his own, "what could I possibly decide?"

"It is not a decision that you can make alone. It is not your responsibility-- that is the whole point. Parents protect children. Brothers protect sisters. Husbands protect wives. Is that what you offer?"

Anárion hit the table with his fist, so hard that he released the tension on reflex and let the hair pin drop into the pulp. The following moments were a blur. He rose from his seat so fast that the bucket toppled over, spilling water all over the papers they had set out to dry. His foot was injured again, first when it got caught in the bucket, then as it hit one of the table legs, all while he searched, frantically, for the hair pin through the pulp.

Arandar tried to help, at first. But, when it became clear that Anárion would not listen, he simply faded into the background. Anárion figured he was probably trying to salvage some of the paper, knew he should stop the ridiculous search for the pins, but could not do it for his life. After working at it for longer than he cared to admit, he sank down onto his knees, hands full of pulp soiling his pants.

"These were a gift from her grandfather... when she reached her majority..."

Arandar knelt beside him, placed a heavy hand upon his shoulder.

"You are so troubled that your judgment, even, has been impaired," Arandar said. "Think, for a moment: the hair pin will show up quickly enough once we pour the pulp through the strainer."

Anárion could only return the gaze for a while. He knew what Arandar had really said: he endangered them both, and the support web they had built, if he could not keep his emotions in check. All the sacrifice, the work, the good that awareness through the paper had brought about, would have all been for naught. 

"If I only knew how..." he said, at length.

"You do know how. Begin with honesty; stop the selfishness."

"Selfishness?" he repeated, blinking his eyes. "Isildur accused me of dishonesty, and selfishness, too, which utterly dumbfounded me. If I were really selfish, I would not be here crushing pulp while my brother, and every other bachelor in Númenor, is still sleeping off an entertaining night; I would not be struggling against a tight, clustered, over-proud guild of ship-builders, to let them see why they should make room for me among their ranks; would not care to carve me a future-- my Father should take care of that, should he not? Would certainly not care about the futures of others. Let every man fend for himself!"

"You are selfish every time you hoard your heart. Elenwë is trying to reach out to you, so are we all. Why are you really doing all of this? Until you have a good answer for that, the turmoil won't stop."

Arandar went back to his cleaning, leaving Anárion heavier of heart than he had ever felt in his life. Eventually he picked himself up from the ground, tried to help salvage some of the wet paper, but most of it began to crumble and had to be sent back to the scrap pool to be turned into paste again. A month's worth of work, ruined.

There was nothing more to do but let the pulp soak; nothing to look forward to but a busy week ahead as they rushed to complete the month's tally, an impossible task that would, inevitably, put work on Vinyelotë on hold again.

Silent, they cleaned what they could and left to ready themselves for the evening feast.

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