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Akallabeth in August
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Isildur said no word, but went out by night and did a deed for which he was afterwards renowned.

A Game of Risk by Lyra

There was only one statue in the palace gardens that still had its head.

The clothing and armour suggested that it had been sculpted more recently than the others. Additionally the marble lacked the patina of a sculpture long exposed to wind and weather. And although it was superbly detailed, the craft that had gone into it could not mirror that of the earlier sculptors. The adornments on the armour, the curls of hair had been drilled into, not carved out of the stone: beautiful still, but superficial, quicker, easier in the making.

But it still had a head, a proud head with a high helmet, wind-swept hair streaming out at the back. A triumphant smile was on its stone lips, and the eyes were narrowed in what seemed a rather malicious kind of delight to Isildur, who sat crouched in the dusk behind one of the headless statues, worrying his lips to keep from shouting at himself, trying to control his trembling hands.

Until just a moment ago it had felt like a game, and then the seriousness of his endeavour had hit him with the force of a hammer.

But it was too late to turn back.

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There had been a dream, the kind that felt too urgent to be a mere fancy. There had been earnest words with his grandfather.

After that, there had been a simple lie. "Ride ahead," he had told his brother. "I'll follow you later. I'll just pay Lorindë a visit before going home."

And his brother, knowing him to be in love with Lorindë, had laughed and patted his shoulder, waving as he rode off.

And he had bypassed the house of Lorindë's family, and made for Armenelos.

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He had planned this like one of the spy-games he had played with his brother, long ago. He had left his good clothing with his horse, and walked the streets in breeches and a loose under-shirt, his face and tousled hair and bare feet smeared with dirt, begging for alms while he espied the roads. He had remembered to replace his fine dagger, a heirloom of his family and very obviously of Noldorin origin, with a more unobtrusive blade: Still too noble for a beggar, but he did not want to do entirely without a weapon. He had earned a coin as an errand-runner, and thus come inside the citadel before the gates were closed at dusk. He had hidden in the gardens, and congratulated himself on his cleverness.

And then he had waited, and watched the guards that marched past his hiding-place in regular intervals, and for the first time in three days of restless excitement, he had reflected on what he was doing.

Three days: That meant that his family would have wondered where he was, would have asked questions, would have learned from Lorindë that he had never even spoken to her on that day.

Three days: That meant that they would have searched the road and the woods, in case there had been an accident, and found no trace of him.

That in a time when people who disappeared without a trace tended never to reappear except in court, accused of treason and condemned to a horrid death.

And that was a fate, he suddenly realised, that might indeed await him if he was caught. For this was not a game. He was not spying on harmless peasants, turned to Orcs in his imagination. He was hiding in a garden that he and others of his conviction were forbidden to enter, disguised, with a concealed weapon. It would not take a lot of arguments to convince any court that he had plotted treason, and that he should be condemned to death by torture, if he were caught. That was certainly serious.

Worse, it was not entirely unlikely that they would accuse his grandfather, his parents, his brother of complicity with him. That was more serious yet. Being young and proud he refused to be afraid of pain that might befall himself; but dragging his entire family into ruin was a different matter. And that, too, might happen.

He began to tremble then. He no longer felt clever. Instead he felt stupid and reckless. He was suddenly aware of every rustling leaf around him, and every footstep, every snippet of conversation that the wind carried his way was now full of menace. He expected a heavy hand on his shoulder at any second, a sword at his throat with every shifting shadow. His heart seemed to beat so loud that it must surely alert the palace guard. He could hardly breathe for fear, and clung to the feet of the statue in helpless terror.

The statue's hands had also been struck off, as if to turn the depicted powerless by proxy, but a quiver and the remains of a bow suggested that the sculptor had meant to depict Oromë. Whatever part of Isildur's mind was not nigh paralysed with fear thought how appropriate it was that he, like a fox hiding in the underwood while the hunters roamed the forest and the hounds' panting grew louder around it, should hide behind the feet of Oromë. He began to pray then, fervently, as he hadn't prayed since he was a young child. Great Hunter, he thought, I beg you to grant me safety from any followers. Let me be overlooked, let me be spared. Give me the strength to gain what I seek, and help me to escape all who might pursue me. Please, Lord Hunter, let me succeed, and let me live, and let no harm come to me. Nor to my family. Especially not to my family.

Whether or not the prayer was heard, he began to calm slightly. He told himself that if he were caught, in his current state they would surely mistake him for the beggar he played. Perhaps they would condemn and punish him swiftly, and never look too closely at his face. If he was lucky.

He shuddered at the thought that he might have to consider that option lucky.

Of course he could stay in hiding. His chances of remaining undiscovered for the rest of the night weren't too bad, he assumed. Perhaps he might leave the citadel in the early morning, before the guard was fully awake and before the streets were full of people. He could just wait for the sunrise, and then return home, and apologise to his family for making them worry, and forget his absurd idea.

But across the lawn, still sufficiently visible despite the darkness, stood the statue of Melkor trampling miniature Elves and what Isildur assumed were supposed to be the Two Trees under his feet. It was an effective reminder why he had come here in the first place. And he knew that he could not stay in hiding, and could not go home as though he had never been here.

He was merely waiting for the darkness to grow complete, and for his eyes to adjust.

The bells rung the first hour after sunset, and still Isildur remained crouched in the shadows. He forced himself to keep his breathing even so he could count his heartbeats until the next troup of guards marched by, and then the next, and the next. They were indeed very regular, and there was hope in that: All he had to do was find the right moment and he might manage to slip between two patrols.

The bells rung the second hour.

He counted again, waiting for the next troup of guards. They were audible well in advance, wearing boots with nailed soles and shirts of chain-mail that jingled in the rhythm of their march. All the better: It would be unlikely that they could walk up and surprise him with all the noise they made. Feeling ashamed of his earlier panic, he told himself that things looked quite good.

When the guards had passed him by and their heavy footfalls had disappeared around the hedge, he left his cover.

The sculpture of Melkor sneered at him. He felt the childish impulse to spit (or worse) at its feet, and only held himself back because it would take precious time away from him. Besides, he should leave as little trace as possible.

But he shook his fist in challenge.

In the illustrations of the old books Isildur had studied in preparation, the entrance to the Court of Nimloth had been flanked by sculptures of dancing elf-maidens. Those had disappeared entirely, and at first he thought that he’d gotten lost in the dark gardens. But there still was a pathway through the high hedge, right where it should be. It was now unguarded, and yawned in the darkness like a toothless mouth in the beech-thicket. For a moment Isildur was again fixed to the spot by superstitious terror. Everything in him strained against entering that dark tunnel: Who knew whether he would ever pass out of it again.

The actual walk, when he had managed to overrule his fear, did nothing to calm him. Past the main garden the hedge was unkempt, its branches jutting out into the pathway like grasping arms. The ground was covered in dried-up leaves that rustled all too loudly under his feet, no matter how cautiously he stepped. Worse, the ground was muddy, sucking at his bare feet as if trying to detain him. His heartbeat had long since grown faster, and he lost count, no longer knowing how much time he had. He cursed, softly, convinced that his feet and his heart made noise enough to alert all the guards in the city. The way could not be longer than a few feet. It felt much longer.

Well, there was no help now. At least he recognised the tunnel with its branching walls. He had dreamt this. And in his dream, he had reached the other side of the tunnel unharmed.

After the dark passage he could see surprisingly well when he emerged into the small court-yard, although there were neither lanterns nor moonlight. Nimloth the Fair stood desolate, its branches all bare of leaves, its smooth, silvery bark peeling in places. Isildur had never taken much interest in gardening, but even so he could see that many branches were dead and brittle. Even those that still had sap in them hung bent downwards, sad and listless, as though the Tree itself was mourning. As in his dream, there was one small silver fruit hanging from one of the higher branches, just barely out of his reach.

The oppressive fear lifted from his heart then, making way for grim determination. He had been right to come here. He’d had to. The danger to himself and his family was nothing; this was more important than they all. Who knew for how long the King would remember his predecessor’s words now? Not for long, Isildur was certain.

He clasped a lower branch to pull himself up, and strained to reach the singular fruit. His fingertips brushed a hard, slightly rough texture like that of an unbletted medlar; then he held the fruit in his fingers, and plucked it.

And the branch to which he clung snapped.

He had not been high up, and he landed on his feet easily. But the crack reverberated in the night, unnaturally loud. Isildur groaned. He might as well have announced his presence by shouting. Already he could hear the faint jingling of chain-mail, and it jingled fast. They had definitely heard him, he thought, looking around frantically. He had to get out of this court, he thought. There were hiding places beyond the hedge, though he wasn’t certain how much good they were if the guards began a thorough search. But in here, he was in plain sight, with nowhere to take cover. And there was only one exit, the dark tunnel. If that was blocked, if but two soldiers entered it, he would be trapped. Dropping the fruit of Nimloth into his shirt-pocket, he began to run.

He made it outside as the first guards reached the garden, and he had no more time to plan. He turned frantically, running to what he assumed was the shortest way out of the garden. Only when he had rounded a now-silent fountain and saw a dark wall looming ahead of him did he remember that the entrance he had come by led right past the guard-house.

And then the patrol that had passed him when he had sat behind the sculpture, hours ago as it felt, came running from the other direction, cutting off the way to the broad stairs.

They were, he had to admit, quite fair. They commanded him to halt, which he refused to do, and demanded the password of him, which he did not know, before they drew their swords. There were six guards in each patrol so that he faced twelve men, more than he could hope to fight with nothing but his dagger.

“Come now,” one of them gasped, “you have no chance. We outnumber you twelve to one. Give up and you’ll get a fair trial.”

Isildur was daunted for a second, but the man’s laboured breath gave him pause.

The guards had run hard to come here, he thought.

The guards had run hard, in heavy chainmail coats. He could hear them huff and puff, fighting for breath. They could not even yell threats or insults, nor call for reinforcements.

“Not yet,” he said, and ran for the wall.

If it had been an ordinary wall – high, smooth, and built with the sole purpose of keeping things out, or in – he would have been unable to scale it quick enough. But like everything in the citadel it was highly decorated, with tiles and friezes and little arches, and his bare feet found plenty of support.

“He’s up on the wall,” he heard one of the guards shout. “Quick, before he makes it down!” The guards made for the stairs, but Isildur had no intention of leaving the wall just now, which would have brought him right into their hands. Instead he ran, bent over, eyes carefully fixed on the white crest of the wall, until he was far from the stairs and the guards, and then jumped down back into the sculpture garden. There were cries of confusion and calls for support outside, and he knew that he had little time. But they had not caught him yet, and he had fooled them easily. So far things had gone well, under the circumstances. There was still hope.

He ran on, finding his way with his feet rather than his eyes, noting the change from cropped grass to crumbling earth, to fallen leaves, to fir-needles, to pebbles, to marble, back to grass. Ever and anon he caught sight of a torch, and of further guards with drawn swords, but he was young and strong, and a fast and enduring runner, and even in such peril he took joy from the reliability of his body. Exhilaration rushed through his veins, and his muscles pumped, and his breath came quick but steady, and his heart beat firmly, and his legs moved effortlessly. Behind him the guards were cursing and wheezing, their heavy coats dragging them down, their boots sinking into the ground on which he ran light as a feather; and they ruined each other’s night-sight with their torches, and ran into their own comrades when Isildur took another surprising turn. It was almost comical, and laughter rose in his throat. He could not keep it back although it cost him precious breath. “Glory to the King,” he cried, and as an afterthought added, “and glory to Melkor!” The blasphemy stung in his mouth; even knowing that he had not meant them, the words made him feel sick to his spirit. But he thought that it might confuse his pursuers more, and would certainly keep them from suspecting who he was.

He came running down a long, grassy slope, noise and clamour behind him. He could see the moat coming closer, and beyond it the surrounding wall. Almost there, he told himself, past that wall there’s the city with its narrow streets and open courts and passages and archways to hide in. It was almost a game again.

There were soldiers waiting for him in the moat, but he had no intention of entering it. Instead, when he reached the edge, he jumped. His hands closed on the crest of the wall, and for a moment he hung suspended. A hand tried to clasp his ankle, but he pulled himself up onto the wall, out of reach. He stood, then stooped to survey his surroundings.

In that moment he felt a piercing agony in his right shoulder, and looking down at it he saw an arrowhead protrude from the reddening fabric of his shirt. He turned his head, to look at his back, and sure enough he could see the arrow’s steel shaft sticking out of his shoulder. The disbelief of shock took hold of his mind, banishing all other thoughts. His first instinct was to flee. He stood up, and an arrow that had been aimed at his head embedded itself in his hip. He screamed, and stumbled forwards.

Guards were running up in the street beyond the wall, and a quick glance back at the citadel told him that the archer was taking aim again. There was no choice. He drew his dagger with his left hand, ran a few steps along the wall, and then jumped.

He had misjudged the height. Pain shot up his feet and legs as he landed, driving him to his knees. His left hip exploded with pain, and the arrow was jolted free by the impact. The pelvic bone had stopped it on its way in, and the wound was not nearly as deep as it felt, Isildur told himself, trying to think rationally. He thought about getting rid of the shaft in his shoulder, but he would have had to let go of his dagger. No time for that, he decided. He had lost too much time already.

He had indeed. He could throw himself forward as the first guard lunged at him, and he managed to regain his footing, but then he was surrounded.

There are many of them, and only one of you, he reasoned with himself. And it's dark. They have to take care so they don’t injure their comrades, whereas it doesn’t matter where you strike, you’ll always hit an enemy. And no matter how many they were, there were only, oh, eight or nine who could actually reach him (until that accursed archer was up on the wall to finish his job, at least). Eight or nine did not sound impossible.

Except… except that more would follow them, and he was injured already, although he was so wild with panic that the pain had subsided to a mere abstraction, like the yells of the guards and the people who opened windows and shouted at them to shut up.

One guard made the mistake of turning to shout back, and without realising what he was doing, Isildur moved his dagger and cut the man’s throat.

The other guards shouted at him or cried in dismay, but he could no longer understand the words. His mind was entirely focussed on the tips of their swords. They moved, and he shifted and ducked, and blows that should have been deadly did no more than cut his shirt and skin. He jumped into the arms of a guard, too close for the other to use his sword; and when the soldier rammed his fist into Isildur’s ribs, Isildur drove his dagger into the wrist of the man’s sword-arm. The sword clattered on the ground. With his right hand he reached for the weapon, and new agony shot through his injured shoulder. It’s that or death, he told himself, and his fingers closed on the hilt while he brought himself behind the disarmed soldier. The dagger he laid at the man’s throat, pressing him close with his good arm, using him as a shield against attacks from the front; the sword he swung at the soldiers behind him. Slowly, slowly, he made his way backwards, hacking and slashing at anything that moved. He took many hits to his exposed left arm, to his sides and legs, and at one point one of the soldiers grabbed hold of the arrow and tore and twisted on it; the pain made lights dance before his darkening vision, and he screamed aloud. But he managed to turn free, and continued to shift so that the attackers’ swords cut but didn’t maim. Another soldier fell to his sword, and then he had reached the end of the circle. Taking a deep breath he shoved the struggling soldier in his arms towards the others, impeding their movement; then, dropping the sword, he fled, half running and half stumbling.

He had a small headstart, but he was weary now, not to mention the strength the battle had cost him. He was also bleeding, leaving easily readable traces on the marble-paved street. He turned left into the garden of a mansion, hoping that the flowers and bushes would better hide the signs of his passing. He climbed fences and walls, pushed through bushes and padded through decorative ponds. The yelling behind him grew fainter; when he stumbled out of a cruel bramble thicket onto a cobblestone street, he found the street empty and silent.

He followed it, as fast as he could, to the poor quarters of the city. Under normal circumstances the walls would be less guarded here, where there was little to steal and little to lose. The sewers here were above ground, passing through the city walls through earthenware tubes large enough for a man to creep through. If he was lucky, they had not yet reinforced the guard, and he might pass through the sewers unseen. That had been his plan before he had been discovered; and having no better idea now, he decided to follow it. Now that the excitement of the hunt had fallen off him, he began to feel his many injuries acutely. Exhaustion was also taking its toll; his feet dragged on the ground, and he stumbled often on the uneven ground, adding to his pain.

But he was lucky. He emerged from the sewers smelling to the heavens, with all his wounds burning like fire, but unchallenged.

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His horse almost bolted when he reached the copse where he had left it, but it recognised his voice if not his smell. Daylight was breaking; he could not hope to ride unseen by day. He sat down heavily, then remembered the arrow in his shoulder and tried to break the shaft off. It was made of steel and would not snap, so he cut his fingers as he fumbled to remove the tip. The shaft offered no resistance as he pulled it out, but there was bleeding, and he was too exhausted to tell whether it was severe or normal. Somehow he could not bring himself to care.

“Wake me when the sun sets,” he mumbled, though he had no idea whether Súrintál understood him. Then he fell unconscious.

He woke late in the afternoon. He had strength enough to drink some water from the brook trickling through the copse, but even while he tried to take some basic care of his injuries, he fell asleep again. Súrintál nudged him awake in the evening. He could hardly move for pain at first, and climbing onto Súrintál’s back was almost impossible. Once in the saddle, he wrapped his dark cloak about himself and slumped forward, unable to do more than trust that the horse would find the way home on his own. When day broke, he struggled awake and looked for cover off the road. He fell rather than dismounted, and slept through most of the day; and so, sleeping by day and riding by night and drifting in and out of unconsciousness in-between, he made his way back to Rómenna. The journey was for the most part directed by Súrintál. For Isildur it passed in a red haze. He neither counted the days, nor was he capable of recognising where he was: His surroundings looked distorted and shrouded in mist to him.

Then one day he was shaken awake by human hands. He struggled in panic, trying to break free, but his arms hurt, and he could not coordinate his movements properly. The other held his wrists firmly; but his voice, when he spoke, was soft and concerned. "Lord Isildur! Do you not recognise me?"

He squinted, trying to make out the face before him, but his sight was so blurry that he could hardly even make out the eyes. He shook his head, still wary.

"It's Yávion, my lord," he said. Isildur recognised the name.

"Yávion," he repeated. Good, he told himself. Yávion was one of his grandfather's tenants, and one of the Faithful. He was in good hands; he no longer had to look after himself. "Help," he said, and fell unconscious again.

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