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Akallabeth in August
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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.

The Last Temptation by Fireworks

“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
-Mother Teresa

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Disturbing thoughts still bothered him when he left the shop, and he found that he felt quite reluctant to go home and face his family's questioning regarding his whereabouts and his strange behavior of the past few days. To answer to them, he would have to lie, and he hated doing that. Well-aware that his humble push to strengthen the Faithful could cost him more than he was ready to lose if he also estranged himself from his family, he decided to make his way to the shipyards.

Shipyards, used loosely, for these were merely a place where the shipbuilding masters allowed the students to test their skill and work on their projects--rather, scramble to finish with the crude tools they could find. A real shipyard was a meticulously organized operation, where even the meanest of materials was carefully inspected--shipbuilding masters allowed no mistakes, and were little tolerant of interruptions once their work had begun.

The student yards, on the other hand, were a disarray of wood and iron and cloth and all kinds of garbage that accumulated, and where people swarmed in and out in search for something useful, sometimes even work. But today, it was nearly deserted. Except for the figure in the dark green dress that stood precisely in front of Vinyelotë. His heart began racing when the familiar thrill of awareness swept over him.

"Elenwë," he called as he stopped a few feet away--a mere whisper, but the wind must have carried it to her, for she turned abruptly, eyes wide, and took a step back.

"I never thought you would come here today," she said, defensively, avoiding his face.

"I am not sure why you would think it," he said, taking one step forward. "This is my ship."

"I know."

"How could you possibly know?"

She looked back at Vinyelotë; when she faced him once more, she surveyed him with a raised brow and folded arms. "It is the only organized corner in this... wreck."

Later, when her cheeks were pink-stained and she could not stop wringing her hands together, he wished that he could have controlled his outburst a little better, but it was difficult, when Elenwë stated her critique to his face and in such a blunt, straightforward way, to control his laughter.

"Forgive me," she said, in a too-certain tone that was easily belied by her nervous fidgeting. "The feat is that anybody manages to get anything built here. There are remains of old food lying about, did you know? And dogs."

"How long have you been here?" he asked, looking around him to see if anybody had left any old food about his corner.

"Long enough," she said, turning from him to look at his ship. Watching her there, tall and straight amid the rubble of the shipyard, it was hard to tell what emotions assailed him then--surprise, certainly; but, there were other things: embarrassment, curiosity, relief, anger, fear... Of late, every time she brushed against his life, he was hurt in some way, if only by watching her leave it yet one more time. Isildur had once accused him of leaving Andúnië to be closer to her. Now, standing beside her, trying unsuccessfully to still the emotions she always provoked, he wondered what could have possessed him-- He relished his control and self-possession, and she made it hard for him to hold on to either.

He was just about to ask her why she had come--this was the first time since his move to Rómenna that she had sought him out--when she turned to him and said, "I want to understand."

That took him by surprise. "Understand what?" The ship, the construction, my choice to become something when, materially, I need it not?

"You." She looked back at the ship. "Your motivations, your fears, what drives you now. When Sauron asked me, I was angry that he presumed to pry; but I think, now, that I was angry because I did not know the answers." A quick, fleeting, sorrowful glance that barely touched him, outwardly, but managed to wreak havoc inside. "I thought I would find my answers here."

"And?" he made himself ask.

She shook her head. "Although now I know why you spend so much time at work," she said, trying to quell a small smile. "It must take you at least half the day to find a hammer."

He managed to control himself better this time, so as not to embarrass her. Offering her his arm, he watched as she changed the object she held from her right to her left to take it and, when it caught the sunlight and glimmered, he stretched his hand and took it from her.

"One of your hair pins?"

"I dropped it, by mistake."

"But you are not wearing blue today." Realization hit him and, predictably, his restraint gave way. "You came here last night--here, of all places!"

"If it were unsafe, they would not let any of you work here."

"It was dark, and you alone!"

"Hardly," she sighed, as she began to make her way toward the steps, assuming, surely, that he would follow. "This place is rather crowded at night."

"You could have been robbed."

"I made friendship with a nice young couple, from Andúnië. He is here to apprentice with the builders and was here, showing her his work."

"You cannot believe everything people tell you--they could have been deceiving you."

"Anárion," she said, with a hint of a glare, "some things you just know with your heart."

The mood grew thoughtful then, and he took this chance to try, if she would let him, to help her up a difficult patch of terrain, all the while biting back his dread at her having been alone there the previous night. She sensed it, however, for she said, "I would never risk myself in a foolish way, Anárion, but I had nowhere else to go. All the streets were full of people in festival attire, and a group of Elendili were dancing just beyond there," she pointed to a spot where the remains of a bonfire had been left, perhaps waiting for tonight.

"You could have gone home." I waited for you there.

"Where everyone would have been waiting for me to demand explanations for our argument."

"Did they not demand them today?"

"Today, I was ready to give them." A pause, a sly, sidelong glance. "Did you go home?"

He was forced to shake his head in denial and see, with vexation, a slight curling of her lips where she tried to suppress a smile.

"What are we doing?" she finally asked, flinging her arms beside her in frustration, a gesture he had not seen from her in a very long time, and which put him in mind of the old days. That tiny frown between her eyes had surfaced, and her head was tilted in that perfect angle that seemed at once shy and defiant. "I hate fighting, but it seems like the only thing we can do. Why?"

Because it is easy. Because we are used to it. "Because it keeps us from thinking about other things," he said, suddenly dropping her arm as he helped her up in his surprise to hear his thought spoken aloud.

She was taken aback, too, and turned searching for the support of his arm at the same time he withdrew it. He tried to rectify his mistake, too late; she had turned from him and was trying to clamber up by herself while holding onto her shawl and fighting the winds as she went--fighting him away from her.

"I am sorry," he said, hastening beside her. "I know not why I said that."

"No need to be sorry. I know well what you meant, what your other things are," and she said it with such a clipped, hurt tone, that he had but to think that, in truth, she did not.

The steps up this way had become quite steep and narrow and, with her skirts getting in the way, she found herself having to use her arms, as well, to be able to remain standing. As always, when Elenwë was concerned, a certain tenderness bubbled over him, even at their most stubborn moments. He caught her by the waist and elbows as she stumbled and pressed her back against him in a completely unexpected gesture for both of them.

"I am glad you did not drop me just now, like you did earlier," she said, "startled."

"Do not speak of what you know not. I know I am many things, stubborn and persistent among them, but if I ever urge you to do something, to avoid certain places or people, it is because I know that they can harm you."

"How do you know?" she asked, trying to turn, but finding it impossible without losing her balance by his hold on her and the narrowness of the steps.

"Is that all that bothers you? How I know, and why you do not?"

"Yes! No! Oh, do put me up at once! I tire of the many ways you make me stumble over what I feel and what I try to say."

"If it makes you happy."

The gasp of surprise that followed the now-forgotten words made it useless for her to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes, so she did not try. Dutifully he helped her up the steps, and not without emotion for, in truth, Anárion could not say what brought to mind the familiar refrain he ever regaled her with in the days of their youth together, and it made him wistful, and bitter, and resentful of whatever it was that had driven them apart.

There was no gratitude for his help with the steps beyond a backward self-conscious glance and a blush. They were up on the main road, surveying the shipyards from the top, and it seemed like, once again, they had exhausted their stores of things to say to each other, when he heard her whisper, "Oh, it is no use," and then, looking slightly up at him, said, "What I really should have said is that I am jealous of this mistress that keeps you away from us all. Jealous, I say..." and there she stammered, covered her mouth with her fingers, "I think it must be the right word."

Because he had to strain to hear the last, he could not give credit to what he heard. "Mistress?"

"It may not be a woman," she said, and it sounded to him doubtful, seeking reassurance, "but something does drive you away, does not let you speak, makes you fearful and mistrustful... Oh, Anárion, will you not tell me what it is? I thought you sought to curb my freedom, and I could not understand why when you had always encouraged it. I grew resentful because you would not treat me with the truth, and I began to see the hints and the admonitions as the problem, when they were only symptoms of it. What is wrong? Please, tell me; let me help." She took his hands earnestly and, conscious of the sudden passion that flared in her eyes and in her voice, looked away as if to try to steady herself to finish as she had began. "If you will not let me help when the real crisis comes to the fore, how can I ever call myself your friend?"

If a man had ever felt himself powerless and ready to succumb to a force greater than his own will, it was he, standing before Elenwë as she pled with him to do the one thing he knew he wanted, the one thing he could not do, for it meant revealing all the truth about this Mistress that she named, and that he could not do. To do so, would mean to thrust her into all sorts of risks that he would rather die before placing her in them; even if, to refuse, meant the possibility of losing her presence in his life forever. Feeling undone at the prospect of the bleak future before him, he did what he could: taking her hands back in his, he looked straight into her eyes, pouring all his earnestness into his glance.

"It is Númenor I serve," he said, revealing infinitely more than he had ever hoped to do, even knowing that it was too little, "or at least I hope one day it will be proved so. Númenor, and my conscience."

As he had expected, that did nothing to assuage her fears but, rather, increased them. She moved closer to him, to study him better.

"That is all I can give you, Elenwë , no matter what I want."

"And what do you want? I do not think you would tell me, even if you could." She sighed and looked away to where the sun was lowering in the horizon. "I wish we could go back to the simpler days before being grown and having things to prove--before that beard and before prim dresses and gowns, before all this turmoil--"

But he could not let her go on, for she teetered on the brink of something that bordered on finality, and for that he was not prepared.

"So do I," he said, hoping that it sounded earnest but knowing that it had come out a whisper. "I do wish it with all my heart, but let us stop now, for to go on requires time and energy which we do not now have. Elenwë, do not dismiss me yet," and he took her hands in his, and kissed them on impulse. Her breath hitched and there was something hopeful in her glance that filled him. Maybe things would go well, after all.

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For all that he had hurried, he was late. Late enough, he saw, for his family to have been presented, as the herald was already reading the introductions from the bottom of the parchment. He had insisted on seeing Elenwë to her house, despite her negative on account that he would not have time to make it back to ready himself. Of course, she had been right, but how could he let her go alone when they had made more progress in that half hour than they had in years of fighting and snapping at each other? He had missed her, and wanted to hold on to the warmth he felt for as long as he could.

Anárion cursed under his breath, searching the room to find his family, to gauge their mood at his tardiness--there would be much questioning and reprimanding when they finally got their hands on him--but could not find them among the sea of color; what he did find was Sauron, regarding him curiously from his place beside the King. The familiarity of the glance made him stiffen, for, even though he knew that he should be disturbed at his daring, he felt charmed instead.

Sauron sat at the high table, oddly, ominously, to the King's right. When their gazes met, he inclined his head and sent him a smile--a warm, friendly, complicitous thing that seemed misplaced, given that they had never conversed together, and had never shared a single secret, but there it was. Anárion found himself smiling back, bowing his head before he had had a chance to think through his response, unsure of why that smile had felt like a boon and not an insult, and deciding to lay the blame on the almost contradictory emotions of excitement and anxiety, added to the strain of not having slept.

Lack of sleep would not be a problem for him tonight, he thought. Quite unconsciously done, he knew, but the earnest way Elenwë had spoken and looked at him had filled his whole being with hope of something, he knew not what, but it was deliciously thrilling, and he had felt so worn and wary of late.

He decided to leave the matter of Sauron be for a while, determined that tonight, for a change, he would do something to please himself first. Striding down the stairs into the hall was not difficult despite the throng--he had not felt so confident and exhilarated in years! And then, the heightened awareness he felt when Elenwë was near made him turn to his right, where she stood near one of the columns to the side, a little aloof a cluster of girls who were laughing and looking around them, waiting. At that precise instant, she turned to him, their eyes met, and something did travel between them, for he saw his own emotions mirrored on her face. She had done her head in that lose, glossy style that she had favored all those years ago, with no other adornment than daisies and lissuin to set off the loveliness of her raven hair. He liked it. He found that he liked it extremely, and moved to tell her so at once, but it was she who spoke first.

"The beard," she whispered, half-giggling, half-gaping.

"Do you like it?" he asked, touching his beardless chin as if realizing, for the first time, what he had done.

"I liked the beard too--I only meant... This is nice, Anárion."

"You look nice."

She looked at herself, gave a tiny, becoming shrug. "Crimson. You have always liked crimson."

"I like it on you," he said, feeling bold, for once, but suddenly discomfited as the trumpets blared and people made way and some man--Menelvagil son of Mardil, as it turned out to be, the King's esteemed secretary, son of the King's chief of staff--walked to Elenwë and stretched his hand to her.

She was frozen to the spot, both numb and deaf to what went on, and only able to look from the outstretched hand before her, to Anárion at her left. He was as perplexed as she, and paid dearly for it; for, just as he moved to seize her away, Menelvagil reached for her hand and whisked her to the high table.

It seemed Fate had dealt him a cruel hand today.

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Isildur found him, for, as he realized later, after Elenwë had left he had been so stunned that he had not moved. His eyes followed her up the dais where she exchanged curtsies and pleasantries with the high folk before being seated two seats away from Sauron. Anárion had the sinking feeling that Sauron had the wit to look at him instead, and tell the reason for his numbness, even if he himself could not, and cursed himself for his weakness. If he wanted to preserve the chance to protect Elenwë that his instincts told him he might need, he needed to rally and move away, but he could not do it, until he felt Isildur's hand on his shoulder.

"There is no way that would ever progress to anything," Isildur said, nodding to the dais. "Elenwë could never care for that idiot."

"In this world, what women care for rarely matters."

"Eralmir would not be such a fool."

Anárion had to laugh at that. "There are ways to persuade people to do even the most unthinkable things."

The comfort of Isildur's hand on his shoulder withdrew, and his brother stood regarding him with a keen, disapproving glance that he found hard to withstand.

"You have become very cynical and mistrustful since you came here. I am all the more sorry, for I miss my cheerful brother."

"When you have seen as much as I have, it is hard not to let it weigh you down."

"Then do not see it."

"I will forget that I ever heard you say that, Isildur."

They could have stood there, glaring at each other until the party was over, but Eranion and Arandar joined them. Arandar clasped hands with Isildur, but his eye went to Anárion, instead, as did Eranion's. Why that should irritate him like it did, he could not say; but, he did know that it felt stifling to have so many people worrying and pitying him and not knowing why.

"I am sure Eralmir had never considered that option," Eranion said, with a sidelong glance at him, followed by a longer one at his sister. "It must have been the flowers; she looks so fresh and different today, was almost happy when we set out. My Aunt had a fit, but she would not change nor undo her hair."

"Elenwë is too old to be ordered about," said Isildur. "But she does look beautiful. Some girls here could use some of that fresh glow."

"I should hope so," Eranion said, with a frown. "That way, the men would get distracted with them and they would leave my sister alone. I am not too fond of Menelvagil, though Eralmir seems to be; he is always too much bent on what is right and proper, and never has any fun."

"He is a grown man, Eranion. And so are you," said Isildur.

"Sometimes it does one good to forget that. Did you know that he forfeited the races last spring because he could not afford to waste any time with training? Business was going too well, he said; but I think that he could not put a team together. He makes himself the boss too often."

They went on talking in this manner for a while, but Anárion only half-heard any of it. When he could not withstand the tension of words unsaid, or said too carefully, or the disgust at his knowledge that it had all been his fault, he turned and spilled his mind to them. "You can say it, for I know you are thinking it, and by the light of Anor, I do not know what it has to do with me. She is so beautiful and full of spark that it was only a matter of time before someone else noticed it. I knew that. What irks me most is that you three think that should be something mentioned with care when in my presence. Well, it is out now. Menelvagil is a family friend, and he would not have asked if he were not interested. There. We can all discuss it now." But, when no one made any reply, he asked, impatient, "Well?"

"Well?" asked Isildur, losing his restraint in turn, and aware of it. "We would believe you if we could, but all this irritation makes that rather difficult. And this is not your only problem of the evening--Father is furious you were late and exposed the family to some impertinent remarks. I hope you have an explanation for it, for he did not believe mine."

"Yours? What explanation did you give him?" But Isildur was drifting away in time with the music and, seizing the first arm that became appealing, inserted himself and his partner quite beautifully into the circle of dancers. When he turned to Eranion, he found him also gone.

"Well," he said to Arandar, "so much for the support of friends."

"You said you needed no support."

Anárion glared at that, but said nothing, aware of the sacrifice Arandar was making to show such tact and restraint on his behalf for, until now, he had said nothing, and Anárion knew that Arandar always had plenty to say. Feeling guilty for childishly creating such a need for care, Anárion said to him, "You can speak what is in your mind, and scold if you wish, but I could not possibly have prevented this."

"No; or, at least, not by any measures taken today."

"I am sure I do not know what you mean."

"You do not, or would not, but no matter. The question is, what will you do now?"

Anárion surveyed the room, eyes falling back on Elenwë at the high table, laughing at something Menelvagil had said. His rational mind knew that he had urged her to blend in and not call attention to herself; yet, he also knew that Menelvagil's family was noble and that Menelvagil had always looked at Elenwë with a special tenderness that was reserved for her alone, and women liked to have that kind of power over men.

He took a deep breath and said, rolling up his sleeves because of the sudden heat, "I came here with a mind to enjoy myself, and I think that I will do just that."

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Amusement seemed to be proportional not to the physical energy employed in its attainment, but to the mental engagement in the task. After dancing for a full two hours, he found that he was not more relaxed but extremely tense and wound up, instead. He also discovered a very interesting fact: he did his work better when he was not trying to spy on Elenwë. Dances were occasions where many people mixed, and much could be discovered when one applied oneself to being agreeable and watching other people as they went about their business, whatever that may be, and there were a surprising number of possible objectives that drove people to attend such events.

His own objectives, besides pleasing his grandfather, were still unclear to him; for, while he found himself glancing at Elenwë every once in a while, he also found himself increasingly absorbed by the stray bits of gossip he heard here and there, and which had led him to overhear the highly interesting conversation of two older sea-captains who had served many years in the Middle-earth campaigns.

That it was Arandar to whom he came with these new pieces of information, and not Isildur, saddened him. His brother sensed that he was different, resented it, and would begin to withdraw from his confidence, while Anárion was powerless to stop it--yet another comfort he would lose--but practicality won over sentimentality and, discreetly, he tapped Arandar's shoulder and withdrew with him to one of the more secluded terraces.

"What do you recall of the circumstances leading to the War of the Elves and Sauron?" Anárion asked in a low voice.

"Not much, except that most folks here seem to have forgotten it," Arandar said with a shrug. But, after a moment's thought, added, "I was always puzzled by the little information that was passed on to us, even after the great part we, Númenóreans, seem to have played."

"The Kings began to prepare in secret to aid the Elves in Eriador. At least, that is what I remember from stories I heard when I was young."

"Why do you want to know?"

Anárion's hand went to his beard, to scratch it; when he remembered that it was not there, he folded his arms over his chest. "As with everything else surrounding Sauron, it becomes quite easy to forget exactly what is involved and how ancient a time we are talking about here. Do you suppose he is an Elf?"

A quick flash of the dark eyes was all the evidence of Arandar's surprise. "That would explain the smug, lofty expression with which he surveys everything, like he knows more than we do. Not to say Elves are proud, but they are wise, and their eyes tell it, even if they themselves do not. Perhaps he is a corrupt Elf?"

"Perhaps." Anárion waxed silent as a couple strolled beside them, waiting until they had walked a safe distance away before asking, "Have you ever heard of Eregion?"

Again, Arandar had to think his answer. "An Elven kingdom?"

Anárion nodded. "Wiped out earlier on the age, according to the reckoning of the Elves. I overheard two old sailors saying to each other that this was turning into a modern Eregion and who knew but that Sauron might prove a new Annatar. Have you ever heard that name before?"

"It is easy to translate the meaning, but I have never heard it attached to a person. Have you any ideas?"

Anárion shook his head.

"Do you think it will prove important? Old men's speculations may not amount to anything in the end."

"The comparison intrigues me, and the fact that it is so obscure to us. It may not do harm if we pursue the meaning, merely to see where it leads. Who knows but that we might uncover anything important?"

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After his curiosity had been piqued, it was difficult to go back inside and pretend that he cared about the dance, but he owed it to his family, and to himself and his cover. Deciding that dancing was beyond his current capabilities, he committed himself to conversation here and there, and, every once in a while, he would feel Sauron's gaze on him, as curious as his own. It was impossible to explain the unusual--and unwarranted--gratification that he felt to find himself the object of that gaze, nor the steadily growing feeling that there was something wrong and perverse about that, and he had to find out what it was.

And there was also the matter of this other feeling that oppressed him from within. From the floor gossip, he found that Elenwë had danced with Sauron, and not only with him: her rear has barely touched a chair this evening was the crude way in which the lady Eliriel chose to put it to him. Why that should upset him like it did was more than a simple puzzle, for only that afternoon he had begun to feel like the rift between them might yet heal if he knew how to begin the process.

His eyes found her amid the dancers; it was easy, she had always had a glow about her that drew one to her, regardless of where she was. With clusters of flowers in her hair, she could have been dancing at her wedding. One day she would wed, no matter what he said or did, and what would become of him? With another man in her life, he would have to lose her inevitably. Did he know how to live without her?

The possessive nature of his thoughts surprised him, for all that he was fully conscious of them. They sounded woefully akin to jealousy, and that was an emotion that he had never allowed himself to feel about her. Looking away to dispel the awful cloud, hid eyes met Sauron's, looking a question at him. Anárion frowned back at the perceived intrusion, and saw Sauron laugh! He rose from the King's side and made to walk to--

"Not if I get there first," Anárion said in a low voice, making his way to where Elenwë danced in a circle of couples. Inserting himself into Menelvagil's place, he was in time to turn her at the next spin in the pattern. Her gasp of surprise at finding him, instead, was followed by a small smile. At least she did not ask for Menelvagil, neither did Anárion see what became of him until later, when he saw him conversing with Arandar. Sauron had not intended to move to Elenwë as he had believed but moved, instead, to converse with some captains standing close by. Had he imagined it all? Had Sauron manipulated him into revealing himself to him, or had he wished for this dance?

Looking back to Elenwë, flushed and slightly disheveled, a sudden burst of anger flared through him. "Enjoying yourself?" he asked, and it must have come out quite nasty, for the smile in her eyes died.

"I do not see why it should upset you so; friends are made happy at their friends' happiness. I came tonight with a mind to enjoy."

"I can see you succeeded. You have been going from arm to arm tonight."

She stopped dancing then, utterly horrified. He knew what he had done, but something inside him held him tightly back from saying what he really wished to say. She took up the dance in the next turn, and he followed, but she was tense and aloof from him, and silent.

"Have you enjoyed your taste of royalty well enough?"

"If it were up to me, I would be dancing in the woods with no more company than the stars, and you know that well, Anárion, but I will forgive you because I know you could not possibly mean those horrible thoughts. I have enjoyed it, because I found out some interesting things for you."

"For me?"

"Since you are not in a position to make this sort of observations, you cannot object to my doing so."

"I asked you to leave it alone," he said.

"I did all you asked, but I could not help noticing a few things."

"Not here, Elenwë. This is not the place to speak of it."

"Good," she said and, lifting her chin, focused once more on getting through the dance. It was harder than he had thought when she was so rigid and he so angry, but they managed somehow. No sooner had the last chord died in the applause, that he seized her hand and led her out onto the terrace where lovers strolled quietly, or held each other, or men drank and laughed at each other's expense. An awkward place for them to be, but at least they would not be noticed out here. He led her to a corner where there was a small bench, partly concealed by bushes of roses, and he sat her there, kneeling beside her.

"This ends tonight," he said, trying not to clench his teeth. "Again, I will ask you to, please, avoid being in places where you feel tempted to do more than you should."

"You have no right to ask me that; but, even so, I did what you told me and held my tongue, even though I was tempted to say much. It was like fighting against a hidden will that required me to hang prudence by the toes--"

Something about that struck him. "Isildur said something like that--an overwhelming urge to be truthful. What do you suppose it is?"

"I do not know, he is so engaging, you find yourself saying more than you ever thought was proper."

"Did he trick you into it?"

"I hope not, I tried very hard to seem unimportant, but I could not tell you whether it worked or not. So many topics were discussed that I cannot recall them all, but I remember feeling listened to, interesting, when he spoke to me. Is that now awful?"


"That is entirely too much power for one person to have. What could he care what I have to say? A woman, not even fifteen years into her majority... What did he hope to find out from me?"

"So you did not like him."

"He frightens me very much."

"Why would he frighten you and not others?" Anárion asked, more to himself than to her, and likewise she answered.

"I was not thinking of him when he spoke to me." Her hands went to her cheeks, as if they were suddenly hot. "I was trying hard to remember what you had said so you would not be angry."

"Elenwë, I am not angry at you, but at the needless risk. I can find these things out by myself without endangering you."

"I doubt that you know this: he wears a ring."

"Many mean wear rings. Why is that so remarkable?"

"This is a plain, thin, golden band, so plain that I had not noticed it until today, and I have sat in company with him once before. Do you suppose he is married? If there were a Queen of Middle-earth, we ought to have heard, yes?" Anárion leaned on the bench beside her, thinking, but she used his silence to go on with her thoughts. "I have observed that people usually surround themselves with things that define or move them. You, for instance, wear your family signet as your only piece of jewelry. That tells me that you are very proud of your heritage, and self-assured, and do not need unnecessary bedecking to take charge of your life. Or, that you despise artifice, which is also true. Or, that you care not to bring any unnecessary attention upon yourself, which is also true--you have always been a rather self-effacing man. Isildur wears no ring. Why? Is he trying to define himself outside his family's influence of him? Does he find jewelry cumbersome? Why does Eralmir wear a bracelet? Why does Menelvagil wear golden cuffs? Do you not think it odd, Anárion, that this one man would chose to wear the plainest ring when he owns a mithril necklace?"

Anárion ran hands through his hair, tried to scratch his beard.

"Do you always analyze people so thoroughly?"

"This is not about me. Tell me what you think."

"It suddenly strikes me that he feels confident enough of his power that he does not need to display it like the rest of us, and that he knows power does not solely rest on money, but on controlling people."

"But how best to control people than with money?"

"You said it yourself just a few moments ago: you felt interesting when you spoke with him. Surely that would make more of an impression on you than a gift of a pair of earrings?" He shook his head. "Loyalty is power, and it is not bought with money."

"What is it bought with?"

"Only he knows how he buys it," Anárion said, suddenly fearful that he was stumbling upon something grander than even he had the wits or skill to handle. "If it is with people's minds with which he plans to play, he is more dangerous than I thought, and you should leave him alone."

"But if we try harder, get closer--"

"There will be no more getting closer for you."

"But there will be, for you? I do not think so; you will need my help if you want to find out more."

"You help me more by acting in such a way so I do not have to worry about you."

"Anárion, listen to yourself! As your friend, it is my duty to help you in all I can--"

"Elenwë, please," he said, taking her hands, looking up into her eyes, "I want no harm to come to you," conscious that he needed to say more and uncertain as to how much, "I could not go on if I knew you were hurt--"

"And do you think I could? Even if you choose to keep from me the reasons why you feel like you need to find out--the reasons why you cannot just let it go--as your friend, it is my right, my duty to do all I can--"

"I am tired of hearing that," he said, letting go of her hands and rising, turning away to look back into the hall, Aradan's words haunting him. Friends protect friends in a relationship of equals.

It takes an obstinate woman to pursue a friendship that does not work anymore; a willful, stupid girl to think that she can be an equal with you--

"You are not my equal--you have no obligation--"

The entire world seemed to grow silent after that. It had been the wrong thing to say, only half-thoughts of yet another half-thought that was barely taking shape inside his head. Elenwë was not his equal, but his superior--the only treasure of his heart. He did hoard her! He was selfish! He had no right! And, as the sadness of it washed over him like rain, he knew, he felt in every fiber of his being that he could never be friends with her again.

Through that odd awareness of each other that they had always shared, she must have sensed some of this, for she rose and stood in front of him, close, but not looking at him.

"You cannot mean that," she said in a low, fearful voice, more to herself than to him. "I am almost forty, and there has not been one day in all those years when I have not either seen you or thought of you--even after all that fighting and being apart, I never once doubted your friendship. Was it all a lie then?"

"I have never lied to you, Elenwë; even now I wish I could tell you that nothing is wrong, that things will be fine..."

"But you cannot, and even though I do not understand it, I accept it, for I believe in you. Let me help; surely there must be something I can do with the limited knowledge I have. In the name of all we have shared, Anárion, will you not let me help you shoulder this burden?"

She had now turned to him with her heart in her eyes, and he had never found it harder to stand firm. A word from him would keep her close a little while longer... while the dangers he braved daily would encircle round her also. What if Sauron, or Pharazôn himself wanted to hurt her, to get to him, should he find out about The Star and the Faithful and everything else he did to keep the movement alive? Would the knowledge he gave Elenwë so selfishly be her death?

The thought of it was so horrible to him that it made him shiver, but it finally resolved him. If the only way to protect Elenwë was to push her away, that was what he had to do, even if he died doing it.

Shaking his head, he took one step back--the hardest step he had ever taken.

"Do you mean..." A sort of serenity came over her. She glanced quickly at him, must have seen something that convinced her for she nodded, tried to smile, "yes, I suppose you do mean that."

"Trust me still it is for the best, if you can," he said, though he knew not why.

"I will always trust you, Anárion, even if you never let me back into your life." With that, she turned around and made her way back into the hall and the light, leaving him in darkness, taking with her all the warmth and casting a chill, a numbness on him that could not be undone.

She was gone. Gone from her life. Forever.

When Menelvagil put his arms around her as she walked in, he thought he wept, but could not be sure--something blurred his vision and he could not tell.

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