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The Last Temptation (Rewritten)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Chapter One

"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." (Akâllabeth, The Silmarillion)


“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice: It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
-William Jennings Bryan



His earliest memory was of walking on wet sand, and slipping. He remembered the muddy earth yielding under his bare feet, the prickly shells he stepped on as he went along the shore, the salty smell of the sea, his mother's singing. He had been chasing gulls, Isildur told him, because they had been a royal nuisance all through their picnic and kept wanting to eat his shrimp. Their mother had a different recollection. Her tale was of how Arien had bent over the earth one last time for a glimpse of the little boy who shared her name, while he whispered messages to the gulls to carry upwards to her. The way his father told it, that afternoon had been the beginning of his fascination with knowledge--watching the gulls swoop down into the water for fish, his eyes would follow the flight up and down. For his part, Anárion liked his grandfather's tale the best. Amandil remembered having told him the story of the unquiet of Ülmo that settles on the Elves when they hear the cry of his messengers, the gulls.

"I swear," Amandil would tell him, "you tried everything you knew to do to spook the gulls away so you could hear their squawking." Anárion clearly remembered his grandfather's keen eyes on his, could almost feel the weight of that measuring stare when his grandfather asked him, "I wonder... Why?"

But Anárion could remember no more.

His pragmatic side felt almost horrified that an Elf could be so grief-stricken by such an ordinary thing. The gull's call was hardly melodious, and seagulls themselves were no more than sanitation engineers with wings, at best; at worst, scavengers. Watching them now, as they pecked and ate at the litter around the port, he could have wondered how many Elves had actually seen gulls in action before the yearning overtook them; except that, this time, he was particularly struck by the high-pitched, mournful quality of the sound. The more he listened to it, the more it seemed to him like an echo--maybe a whisper from the past, maybe a warning of things to come--and it troubled him.

One more thing he found strange was that the gulls here in Rómenna could not be found elsewhere on the island. That small, fascinating fact had tantalized his imagination as a boy. Now, it bothered him enough that on days when things got difficult he could not work at the shipyards for the incessant squawking, and had to leave. Instead of taking control of their own lives, those gulls were content to live on litter day after day, calling their ill omens on half the city's population, who all made their lives out of the port.

Anárion grunted, and raked hands through his hair. He had heard the Foam Princess' horn nigh on three quarters of an hour ago, and still Isildur had been unable to dock for the high traffic. Even his contacts at the port had only been able to do so much to help him and thus the Princess stood, still fifth in line, waiting for clearance. Crowds had always made him uneasy, but there was something macabre about such a sizable audience turning up to receive-- nay, to welcome-- someone whose mere name had conjured visions of terror just a few years earlier. Add to that the King's decision to celebrate the High Feasts away from Armenelos, and you got even the stoutest númenórean firmly on his guard. When he had heard of the King's intent, he had not been entirely surprised. Pharazôn loved nothing better than power, and the last few years had taught him that an important part of keeping power was keeping everyone on their toes. At first, Anárion had seen the move as yet another opportunity to display his might, but as the days went by and he had more time to think on it a darker possibility had occurred. By the time he heard that his family was coming from Andúnië to attend the festival, he could not withstand the tension anymore and had taken his boat out of exile to attempt to relieve the anxiety, and had paid dearly for it. He loved them all more than anything in this world, but he knew that being around them would be a bit of a trial, and he was not ready to deal with Isildur yet. He had lied to them all, but hardest of all was to look his brother in the face and lie to him, knowing that Isildur knew him for a what he was.

He had not allowed himself to think too much of how things would play out with his brother around, but now that he was faced with the inevitable, he felt as if he were an old rag being wrung out. Why he was such an open book where Isildur was concerned, he could not begin to fathom, but for his brother's own safety he needed to keep his secrets where they belonged. He had made that choice a long time ago and he held to it, hard as it was. Not one of them knew what he did, or why he never came home. Sometimes, he wondered himself about his true reasons, but the course had been set and it was too late to turn back.

He waited a full hour, and seeing as though only two ships from the line had managed to make it to port, he resolved to walk the length of the dock and back to release some of his fretfulness, lest Isildur mark it and press him for explanations. He had not made it to the next pier when he was hailed by a boy of about twelve or thirteen who tugged at his sleeve with the force of a boy much older.

"A silver eagle t'spare, lord," came the boy's sing-song voice from beside him, and he was not ungrateful for the interruption. "A silver eagle, sir's all I's missin'."

At first, Anárion could not quite follow, but when the boy dangled his tack and pole in front of him, he understood that the boy was looking for money to pay the fishing tax.

"Are you hungry?" Anárion asked, the first thing that came to mind, but soon regretted it when the boy looked away with a swat at his face to try and wipe some of the dirt there. "What were you fishing?" he tried, instead, hoping that would ease the sting of wounded pride.

"What'er we can find. Them big ships is scarin' the fish."

He nodded at that and attempted a small smile, though judging from the boy's nonplussed expression he had not been very successful at dispelling the gloom.

"Aye," he agreed, looking behind and ahead, trying to spot the end of the lines, without success. "It will be hard to find anything here, no matter what you use for bait. Have you tried going to the Lord Arnubęn's docks? Or the student shipyards?"

The boy laughed at that, loud enough that he attracted the attention of a few passerby.

"If I's missin' money for the public tax, what'ya think I h've to pay for private docks?"

Anárion nodded again. "What do you have there?" he asked, a nod to the jar the boy held in his other hand, though fully aware it had to be his bait. At that, the boy grinned and pulled out a particularly plump worm.

"We cau't this at t'square, afore the guards got ev'rybody out. See how juicy?" he asked, then proceeding to squeeze his victim just slightly to demonstrate. "I'd 'oped this would fetch me a snapper." He then proceeded to place the specimen on the back of Anárion's hand as he retrieved another 'juicy' fellow. The boy went on at length for some ten minutes, making Anárion handle each of the worms in his collection, who sounded more and more like they were pets instead of subordinates, explaining how the four or five fish with which he was familiar took bait. Anárion could only half-listen to all of this, hoping he was nodding and smiling and interjecting at the appropriate times, for what was really on his mind was whether it would cripple this child too badly if he simply bought him the food. For just one meal of his life, one worry-less meal... would that make him die a little inside? When the last worm had been returned to the can, the dark eyes looked into his again, waiting.

Anárion tried to smile, though this conversation had left him sadder than he had been in a long time, and let himself ruffle the boy's hair-- thirteen was too old for hugs.

"What is your name?" he asked, kneeling so he could look fully into the boy's face.

"I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours, sir!"

"Fair enough," he said, wondering if the boy was mistrustful or simply trying to act older. "I am Anárion." He extended his hand and waited for the boy to shake it. At first, the response was tentative, but a little grin broke out on the boy's face after a while.

"I am Arannér. Ple'sed to meet ya'!"

"The pleasure is all mine," Anárion said. Emptying his pocket, he took out four gold crowns which he placed inside the boy's outstretched palm, with the warning, "This could buy you food for a week, maybe two, if you bought from stalls and stayed close to the port where there are many clustered together. If you exchanged them for silver sailors, you could use two sailors a day and be well fed. But, if you are smart, you would use them to pay your tax. With four crowns, you could pay fishing tax every day for a month, maybe some three weeks in the private docks. Now, think about it: one week of food, or a whole month's worth of tax money for fishing your own. Use it wisely."

The boy was so stunned that he could not decide whether to talk or to cry, but in the end he squeezed the coins within his palm and with a heartfelt, "Aye, aye! May th'sea be kind to y'a, m'good lord!" began to run away. Before he knew exactly what was happening, Anárion had called him back.

"I am sometimes in need of an errand boy, if you are ever in need of work," he said. "In the student shipyards. If you look for the most unfinished ship of all, you'll find me."

The boy stood gaping at him for a moment, before he nodded and ran off, quickly getting lost in the crowd. For his part, Anárion stood staring at the now-empty spot the boy had occupied for a long time, wondering where this boy would be in a week, a month, a year. What would become of all of those orphans, widows, and all those grieving people who kept losing their loved-ones to diseases no one had even heard of before? It was at times like these that all his sacrifices seemed petty and utterly inconsequential, and he asked himself whether he was not just another hypocrite.

The sounds of Foam Princess' horn broke through his thoughts, and when he looked for her, he realized that she was next in line. He was able to distinguish Isildur now, standing regally out from among the rest of his men as he moved about with utter confidence to perform the docking maneuver. It never failed to impress him just how perfect Isildur was, how lucky he had always felt to have such a brother. He was not particularly clear how he would get through the next few days with him at his heel without utterly compromising the secrets he had kept for the past four years, but was he happy to see his brother! From the beginning, he had known that if he wished to keep his family safe, they could never find out exactly what he did, and it was a price he had been willing to pay. That was then. The truth was that he had not really been able to help as many people as needed helping, and he had begun to doubt his methods. He was so tired and discouraged that the happiest moment of his day came with the oblivion of sleep.

"Ahoy!" he heard the familiar voice that never failed to summon a smile to his lips. "Ahoy, brother! Care to pay a visit to the old lady?"

The familiar wave of homesickness enveloped him in its unpleasant clutches, and he shook his head.

"It's all right, Anárion," Isildur said. "No one need know--"

"It does not make much sense for me to jump on board and disrupt your crew," he said, more forcefully than he had intended, and added, "I'll come back again when we are not so pressed for time."

Gratefully, Isildur said nothing more, but Anárion could tell he had not liked what he had heard. He withdrew from starboard and from him until the docking was accomplished, and stayed behind afterwards for what seemed like an unnecessary long time to complete tasks that could have been given to his first mate. Anárion ran his hands through his hair, splayed his fingers once, twice, then forced himself not to pace until his brother was done and in front of him on the pier.

The stare he gave him then was hard, annoyed, and Anárion bit his tongue to keep from saying what was really on his mind. He loved Isildur with all his heart, despite his brother's propensity to dismiss any thoughts and opinions that did not agree with his. This time, however, as he looked into Isildur's eyes, he saw concern there, and wondered if the irritation he saw there stemmed from frustration instead of disapproval.

"It's been a long time, brother," Isildur finally said.

"You were here for the races back in April."

"I meant since your... Accident. Surely you are ready to join a crew and sail again."

"They have been very busy at the docks, as you can see," he said, turning around to begin the walk back to the house, but Isildur grabbed him by the shoulder and held him fast.

"Everybody knows you are the smartest, bravest man around," he whispered in his ear. "Let go of any embarrassment and just live your life."

"I am," he said, feeling his lips stretch into a smile that Isildur immediately recognized as false. His brother squeezed tighter.

"Not when you stay away from boats you are not building and act like an imbecile."

Anárion's chin lifted at that, but he bit his lip again. He had contemplated the wisdom of fighting with Isildur to keep him away, but whenever he was actually faced with the task he could not make himself go through with it. Experience had taught him to keep his anger and tongue in check when his emotions were running high, and instead of confronting his brother he looked away. As Isildur would not budge, Anárion finally said, still not looking at him. "I took the old skiff out into the bay the other day."

Isildur squeezed even tighter at that but, in the next moment, he had enveloped him in a hug so warm, so full of the old days, that it hurt.

"It's a start," Isildur whispered in a bit of a strangled voice that made Anárion forget all restraint and clutch back at him for dear life.

"I have missed you, brother," Isildur said, unusually quiet. His embrace seemed more raw and urgent than usual, and it took Anárion by surprise. For a fleeting moment of abandon, Anárion held on tightly, almost desperately. He was sure Isildur must have noticed, and fought hard to regain his control.

The moments that followed were a little awkward for him, but Isildur ruffled his hair like he always did and said, with the first smile he had shown him since arriving, "I'm touched you made it. You must love me a great deal to have braved this crowd just to see me."

"Nonsense," Anárion said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I thoroughly love wild, smelly, sweaty crowds. Don't you remember?"

"No, I actually remember you as a scholarly recluse, a hermit, a socially-impaired--"

"Enough, I get the gist. I actually came to ensure that you do not get sidetracked on your way to Grandmother's; there's much to claim one's interest around these days and you, gregarious man that you are, are sure to run into someone or other who would command your attention away from home and hearth."

"Is that what she said?" Isildur's dismay was so plainly written on every line of his face that Anárion had to laugh.

"Nay," Anárion said, then added, "Some things don't have to be said to be known."

Isildur jabbed him on the rib and proceeded to pull him along the dock, toward the throng of people. "Things have certainly improved since the last time I was here," he said with a grimace.

"More excitement, you mean?"

"Tell me about it! The air itself is positively tingling with anticipation," Isildur said, as he rubbed his hands in a conspiratorial gesture. "Where to, first?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, didn't you just say there was so much to see?"

"I said there was a lot to see, not that we would be seeing it. Grandmother would not take it too kindly if I keep you away from all the delights she's cooked up for you."

"Delights!" Isildur cried, rubbing hands in such a comical way that they both had to laugh. "What are we waiting for? Though we may have to stop briefly at Yazdôr's, I've been craving his frog legs for months."

"What about Zîmrazîr?"

There was something about the way Isildur's face tightened that twisted a knot in Anárion's stomach.

"Zîmrazîr is gone."

"Gone?" Anárion asked, halting mid-step right at the foot of the staircase that led to the street above them. "What do you mean gone? Zîmrazîr's family has had a food stall at the market in Andúnië for as long as they have lived on the island."

"There can only be one meaning to gone, Anárion," Isildur mumbled, pulling him along once again.

"I hope you don't mean that. How long ago?"

"Some two months, at most?"

"How is it I heard none of it?" Anárion muttered to himself, but his brother heard him and regarded him with a very curious expression.

"This is not the kind of thing one puts down on a letter, brother."

He was, of course, right and though that had not been, precisely, what had been on Anárion's mind, he let that go. Reaching for his brother's forearm so that they would not be separated by the crowd, he steered him to make a sharp turn away from Mariner's Row, to which Isildur offered slight resistance.

"I thought we were going to your house first," Isildur said, eyebrows raised, but nonetheless following.

"My food is all in the garden," Anárion confessed. "With all the work I've had at the docks, I've not had time to gather nor cook--"

"Gather or cook? Whatever happened to Meldiron and his fa-- Surely not them, too?"

Anárion shook his head, "Not here, Isildur. Let's just go back to Grandmother's."

But Isildur held fast, "Are they... By the cliffs of the Forostar, Anárion! I know what they meant to you--"

"Isildur," he said, gripping his brother's wrist, eyes bent on him in an expression that he hoped conveyed hope but warning also. "I am all right. Not here, please." Then he let go and Isildur did not press him further. He said, "Let us go and get those frog legs you wanted."

They walked for a while in silence until they arrived at Yâzdor's booth. Anárion got them each a couple of legs and wine, and stood to the side as he watched Isildur manage to flirt with Yâzdor's granddaughter while taking a mouthful that effectively halved his piece.

"Are you still thinking of that boy at the docks?"

"You saw that?" Anárion asked, almost choking on his wine. Isildur slapped him on the back a few times, more forcefully than was necessary, but by the time his brother was done Anárion could not hide his lack of appetite.

"I know you well," Isildur said, taking his frog legs from him. "Is this happening much here in Rómenna?"

"Is it not in Andúnië?"

Isildur shrugged his shoulders, looked around them, took another mouthful. "Atarinya Amandil has implemented many programs to stave off hardship, at least for a while: trade schools, orphanages, food banks, things like that. But the truth is there just aren't all that many people wanting to live in Andúnië anymore, though they won't say it to your face."

"There isn't a richer region in Elenna, not even Armenelos itself."

"Oh, come now, Anárion, you well know why. Our moral compass points a different way. It makes people uncomfortable."

He bit the inside of his cheek and looked away to hide it. He hated to talk about their downfall, though he doubted there were many people on the island as well-versed about what was happening all around them.

"Has it been as much a nightmare for you all," Anárion asked, lowering his voice, "as it has been for us here?"

Another meaningful snort from his brother, and they both fell silent. Some topics were best left to be discussed behind closed doors instead of at a market teeming with royalists.

They walked together some way, which was a feat by all accounts. The streets were crowded to the point that they could not take more than a couple of steps at a time without having to stop. Isildur seemed to think it amusing, but Anárion found it dangerous by all accounts.

"I've figured it out," Isildur said, after a while. "Why Rómenna seems infinitely worse in the charitable department: Every soul in Númenor has got to be here today, and heat and crowds tend to make one ill-humored. Are all these people come to see the King-- or This man... Zigűr?"

"Hush!" Anárion snapped. "You have to watch your mouth, Isildur, this is not what you're used to, and neither your good humor, nor your parentage would do much to endear you to the people here. Civility, politeness, compassion... They've largely deserted the streets. Should anyone so much as think your loyalties are not where they should be, they feel justified in gutting you right then."

Isildur frowned. "And you came to live here by choice?"

"There was no other choice for me."

"Wasn't there, I wonder? Anyway, have you seen him?"

"Seen who?"

"Well, this King from Middle-earth."

"Is that why you are here two days early? To catch a glimpse of him?"

"Isn't everyone?"

"I have no way to give you any answers, I don't move in those circles." Isildur's raised eyebrow told him that his brother had seen right through his lie. "Well, sometimes I do, but not in Armenelos, and Zigűr has never been in this part of the island before."

"Or so you think..."

"He has not."

That curious look was back on Isildur's face, and he realized he had blundered. Hoping to divert his brother's attention, he said, "The King will quite make up for all the time lost in bringing him. I hear this promises to be quite the eventful visit."

"Indeed? How so? Those are exactly the sort of scandalous details I was hoping you would provide me with."

"Why so interested?" Anárion asked, stopping mid-stride. "You are not thinking of joining those who admire him, are you?"

"I know better than to trust a known enemy, Anárion. Or unknown, as the case may be. Which is why I am so curious to see this one. For all his bluster, Pharazôn seems rather... It seems curious that he would let this stranger in in such a way."

"No news there, but I think the danger for us all is the worst it's ever been. There is something dark about that man that fills me with foreboding."

"So you have seen him," said Isildur, as he let himself be steered anew along the market's cobbled streets. "What is he like? Come now, Anárion: details!"

He bit the inside of his cheek, an annoying habit, but he could not help it when feeling frustrated or pressured. "Tall, dark, charming, handsome... Elf-like. It would be too hard to describe him to you without making him sound fantastical, so you will have to wait and see for your--"

But, as he turned around sharply to swerve at the last minute and avoid overturning a glass-maker and his wares, he soundly collided against something that spoke to him.

"Describe who?" was the question he heard.

A familiar grin met him head on, but it was his brother who reacted first.

"Emeldil!" cried Isildur, in time that he clasped the other in a brotherly embrace. "It's been so long, my friend, how fare you and yours?"

"As well as one can, nowadays. Anárion told us you would come earlier. Why the rush? It can only be a matter of women."

"You are sadly wrong, Emeldil," Anárion turned to say, arms still clasped in a brotherly salute with Eranion, Emeldil's younger brother, and the youngest son of their father's late friend, Erador. "I'm afraid Isildur has other interests in mind."

"Don't we all? Look at this throng here, and tell me that there isn't but one thing on their minds."

"Sad, but true," Eranion said, while greeting Isildur in turn. "I see the attraction, but I can't understand it. I'd stay as far away from him as I could. Snakes lure one in closer before they strike."

"Is it as bad as that?" Isildur asked.

"I've no intention of finding out, I've got too many other things to worry about as it is."

"That," Isildur said, saucy smile in place, "can only be a matter of women."

"How I wish!" cried Emeldil, heaving a loud, dramatic sigh. "Although there is some of that in there-- one can never fully stop worrying over Wen for all that she is fully grown, and all."

"Especially now that she is fully grown," said Eranion, frustration and fondness equally apparent on his tone. "She becomes more opinionated by the day, and it's hard to keep her out of trouble now that you have both her wit and dowry to throw into the mix."

"And beauty," said Isildur, who flicked a quick glance his way, as did Eranion. That annoyed him more than he could explain. "I saw her in Andúnië some weeks ago. She has become uncommonly beautiful and interesting, at a time when both women and men are slipping into coarseness and despair. Her particular brand of vivaciousness and gentleness should be quite appealing."

"But we live in perilous times, and one cannot be too careful who one lets into one's life," Eranion said.

"What do you mean by that?" Isildur asked.

Eranion looked around them, tried a smile that he did not quite manage, and that gesture alone put Anárion on high alert. "I am merely saying that everything--everyone is not as they seem, and I have much to contend with without having to worry about Elenwë's suitors, or her charitable endeavors, or the societies she wants to run--"

"Why should that cause you worry?" Isildur asked, turning to look at Anárion briefly before going on. "Elenwë has a good head on her shoulders; she is not likely to make a mismatch, or to put herself in any real danger."

"You be the judge," Eranion said, with a minute shrug of his shoulders. "Here we are, a day before the most-anticipated event of our generation, waiting for her in the middle of the most unsafe place in the city, all because she had to pick up her order from the seamstress herself. No servant we suggested could be risked to try the job. Not even my offer to come in her place could sway her. She just had to do it."

"Or so she told you..." Anárion found himself saying, equal parts annoyed and intrigued, but Eranion and Emeldil both glared at him and made him regret the comment. "Well, you know she is more stubborn than all three of you put together--"

"Which is why we are here, as you can well see," said Emeldil, swatting at an imaginary fly. "We were not about to let her go out into the streets on her own, today of all days."

Isildur tsked at them and shook his head. "I think all three of you are missing a very important point. Blinded by your feelings, as you are, you make her sound immature and inconsiderate, but the truth is that Elenwë would not deliberately endanger herself, or any of you, on a mere whim."

"Don't defend her, Isildur," said Emeldil, eyes narrowed. "I can think of many things I would rather be doing right now that would make me a little happier than being trapped here waiting for her."

"I dare say this is better than any of your other choices," Isildur joked, and it was tempting to join in his laughter, but a disturbance to his left caught Anárion's attention. There was loud arguing that he could not understand at first, but after a few moments it became clear that a woman was screaming. She was inside one of the buildings, so the sounds were muffled, but a crowd had gathered outside the store and they had began to argue also. Another voice broke through the ruckus and what Anárion heard made his heart stop.

"What on earth--" Emeldil tried to say, but Anárion hushed him, left their group to get to the building, heart pounding all along as he contemplated the implications of what he had just heard.

"I beg your pardon," came that voice again, "but we will just be on our way." Light, but he would recognize that voice anywhere, far off as it was coming to him! Torn between dread at what he would find when he crossed the threshold, and what would happen if he failed to do so, he stopped for a quick breath before pushing his way through the crowd. People shoved and pulled him, some clutched at his shirt, some called him names, but he made it through the door in time to see Elenwë struggling to shake off the man who held her by the wrists.

"Let go of the lady," he said, as evenly as he could while Elenwë's eyes were fixed on his, wide and unblinking, and a kind of fear he had never known before threatened to overtake him.The whole company fell silent, all other sounds hushed. He could feel all eyes on him, but his were fixed on Elenwë ahead of him, silently bidding her to be strong.

When nothing happened, he took another step inside and said, more forcefully, "I am not looking for trouble with anyone here, but there will be if you do not let go of her right now."

"Who are you?" One of the men asked.

"What does it matter? All you need to know is that you do not want to fight me, and you do not want to make me fight you." Another step in. "Release her, or I swear to you by the Great City that you will have great cause to regret your poor choice."

There must have been something compelling in his demeanor because the man went ashen white and let go, retreating a few paces, palms raised. Elenwë took a couple of tentative steps in his direction, but another scream rent the air and she quickly turned away. Anárion could not, immediately, find the cause of the disturbance. A cacophony followed where threats were called, more screams followed, and the sound of broken glass began to fill the air. Two men lunged toward him; one of them got a broken jaw, but the other one managed to hold on to Anárion's right arm. He had not wanted to do it but, in a deft motion born of years of practice, he pulled the blade he kept strapped to his belt and with his left hand sliced on the palm side of the man's wrist.

"What's going on?" he heard Eranion call, beside him, but he did not have time to explain. It was hard to find Elenwë in the melee; somehow the thought had entered his mind that that man had been about to take her away, and the idea was doing strange things to his composure. "What's going on?" Eranion called again.

He had to dodge a vase that had been hurled at him before he could say, "Find your sister and let's get out of here."

Another scream, and his heart stopped again. Where was she?

"Lassilenwë," he heard her cry, somewhere to his left, "you have to give it up and let go!"

"I came here for an answer, and I am getting one!"

"Lassilenwë, I am begging you to--" but something had silenced Elenwë and he still had not reached her. He reached the other girl, however, this Lassilenwë, and grabbed her from where she clutched at an elderly woman who sat on a cot in the back of the room. She struggled against his hold, screamed, hit his chest with her fists, and he did his best to drag her away while still scanning the room for Elenwë. From a corner of his vision, he saw Emeldil approach.

"Take this girl outside," he said, handing Lassilenwë to him, "and get as far away from here as you can."

"I'm here for Wen!" Emeldil cried, and would not hold on to Lassilenwë, who had not ceased her struggle to break free.

"Take her!" Anárion cried once more. "Elenwë is not leaving without this girl. I will get your sister, now go!"

He did not stop to see if he had been obeyed, but quickly realized that somebody had shoved Elenwë against a cupboard and was frantically shaking her. An odd fury came over him, and he grabbed hold of the man by his shirt, shoved him against the wall and went forcefully at his neck, his other hand pressing against his eyeballs. As his opponent crumpled to the floor, Anárion took hold of Elenwë's forearm and began walking away, outside. More people flocked in, clusters of fights broke out everywhere around them, and it seemed that they had been forgotten for a moment in the confusion.

"Lassilenwë!" she cried, trying to break free, but he clutched tighter, glared at her.

"Emeldil has her, and you and I are getting out of here, now!"

He had to fight his way to the door and out of the room with Elenwë in tow, but she was fierce when roused and somehow managed not only to keep the pace, but to fight off whoever approached them from her side. She kicked and elbowed, and he thought she may have even bitten somebody. When they finally emerged into the street, there was a big commotion outside the market. He knew it was only a matter of time before the King's guards arrived, and he planned to be far away when that happened. He looked around, trying to determine which way to go, when he heard the most blessed sound.

"Here!" he heard Isildur call. His brother had climbed onto a roof a couple of doors further up the street, and he tugged at Elenwë to follow him there.

"Where is she?" she asked, stalling, struggling. "I cannot leave without her--they'll kill her if I do!"

"They'l kill us if we go back there," he said. "Emeldil had her, she'll be fine."

"Do you not think she can give Mel the slip and run away?"

"And what if she did?" He barked back at her. "She's a grown woman and deserves the prerogative of having her own choice."

"I will not stand by while they butcher her--"

"Oh, for the light of Eléntari's stars, just move forward," he said, and had to watch her blanch at that. She gripped his arms, clutched hard.

"Never say that again," she said, and was right, but he had been unable to control himself. Her stubbornness and the exasperating nature of her personality were just two of the reasons why he should not try to get close to her, but there were more reasons. Knowing all that, he could not understand why she roused such powerful instincts in him.

He took a deep breath to try to find good words to reason with her, but by then Isildur stood beside them and urged them to move forward, away. Very few times had he been more grateful for any intervention. Elenwë, of course, let go of him to attempt her plea on Isildur.

"She is stubborn, and... and she is single-minded, and she thinks these people can help her, and she won't leave until she gets what she wants out of them, and they have no compassion--they will kill her for trying to pry, and I can't allow that, Isildur! Please! Please," she said, now clutching at Isilsur's hands, "you have to help me find her."

"Listen to me," Anárion said, leaning so he could talk into her ear, "I will pick you up myself and carry you off if you do not start moving away from here right now."

The fight was beginning to spill out and they would be in the middle of it soon; he had to get her out, and he would do whatever it took to do it. Isildur's eyes widened on him, and Elenwë was so astounded at his manner that was rendered momentarily speechless, but she still did not walk on. Anárion growled and was moving to lift her, when he felt Isildur's restraining hand on his shoulder.

"I will go get the girl. You get Elenwë to safety," he said. Elenwë took a step back to put distance between them, and Anárion growled again.

"I will go back and get the girl! I cannot stand being one more moment next to her," he said, pointing, "she won't listen to anything I say!" and he turned around to return the way he had come. He had not gone far when someone grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him backwards.

"Where are you going, you idiot?"

Anárion had raised his fist to attack, but years of training had made his reflexes sharp and he was able to correct himself before throwing a square hit at Eranion's nose.

"The girl," Anárion said. "I'm going to get the girl."

"Emeldil has the girl, but not for much longer if we don't hurry back. She is doing all she can to get back to that fracas."

"Not if I can stop her," Anárion said. "Get your sister to move faster and we'll be out of here in no time."

"How?" Eranion asked, more to himself than to Anárion. "This place is a veritable maze and not one of us has ever gone deeper into it than this."

By then they had reached Isildur and Elenwë again, and could now see Emeldil and Lassilenwë a couple of buildings ahead. Anárion could tell the moment Elenwë saw them too because she sped in their direction. Why was she so intent in helping that girl? It bothered him that he had no answer, though he could not say why. It bothered him even more than the girls' lack of cooperation and general ungratefulness. Once Elenwë had reached her, she immediately set out to help her reach a level of calm, to no avail. Emeldil still held her fast, but she was thrashing about, kicking and flailing her arms, and when Elenwë tried to talk to her, Lassilenwë spit at her.

"That is uncalled for!" Emeldil cried, holding faster than he had before, which only agitated her further.

"Enough, Emeldil," Elenwë said. Her brother let go at once, startled, Anárion suspected, by Elenwë's use of his full name. Lassilenwë seemed startled herself, and it was that moment of confusion that Elenwë used to lay one hand on her forearm, her other arm circling around her shoulders. "We have to get away. You saw how violent they became. You will gain nothing by staying behind, but could lose much. If you really are doing this for your sister, you need to stay strong to fight for her."

Lassilenwë spit at her again, but Anárion could tell that her jerkiness and breathing were slowing down somewhat. Without thinking, he reached and wiped the spittle from Elenwë's face. That brought everyone's eyes to rest on him, and he rubbed at the back of his neck before saying, "We cannot go back the way we came. The only way out for us is forward."

"But--" Eranion struggled to find the words. "But--well, you know what goes on ahead."

That he did, but how to explain that to them? The market, like many other public places in Rómenna, had outgrown its original grid-like design. Instead, it had expanded in disorderly patches of buildings and stalls until the original plans were practically outdated and the whole thing was more of a maze than anything else. Outsiders only knew that sinister deeds were everyday occurrences the deeper one went into the maze, and though he did not doubt that shady dealings went on behind many closed doors, his experience was that most market denizens were happy to circulate the rumors just so they would be left in peace. The deeper in one went, the owners also used their stores as living quarters, and he had found that matters got complicated when so many people were together in such close proximity every hour of the day. Relaying all this meant exposing inside knowledge he was not supposed to have, so he struggled with his choice for the space of two or so heartbeats until he realized the odd way Elenwë was looking at him. He was entirely unprepared for the tenderness that welled inside of him at that look, and he had to look away, flex his fingers.

"Let us go before anyone comes after us," he said, and with a quick look and nod at Eranion, he began to walk forward.

Behind him, he heard Elenwë say, "It is in your best interest to follow him out of here, Lassilenwë. Don't be a fool and rally up to fight again." One of her brothers must have jabbed her because she gave a little shriek, then said, "Of course I did not mean it literally. These fellows cannot be defeated by physical force without doing any harm to ourselves. We'll have to figure out some other way."

"And what do you mean by 'defeat' and 'figure out some other way'?" Anárion turned to ask, but realized the need to soften his tone when he saw that they were all following him. He let them be for a while as he picked his way through the streets he knew as well as the streets of his childhood home, trying to shield them from the worst of it and to keep them away from what they should not be seeing. After a while, he could not hold it in any longer, and asked, "You are not planning on going back there, are you?"

"What I do is none of your business, Anárion son of Elendil," Lassilenwë said.

He thought he could have died on the spot from the venom dripping from her voice, but did not pursue the thought when he heard Emeldil and Elenwë voice a complaint.

"Watch your tone," Emeldil said, "we just saved your life."

"Making some allies would not hurt," said Elenwë; then, after a brief pause, hesitant, "You know Anárion?"

He hated himself when his heart skipped a beat at the sound of his name on her lips. She had not called him by name in eight years.

Lassilenwë gave a snort of laughter. "Everyone on the island knows the sons of Elendil. What I did not know was that they kept such juicy secrets."

He started at that, turned around and asked, "What do you mean?"

Her slow smile put him in mind of one of those hyenas he had seen in the Middle-earth. "I would not have pictured Elendil's proper, worthy, respectable sons being such deft street fighters, nor being able to pick their way so well and so deep into the market, too, of all places in Rómenna!"

"Well, did you think we earned our fame just by standing, idly, at home?" Joked Isildur, but Anárion could hear the sting in his voice. If he did not think of anything to divert her, quickly, they would all be in trouble, but a fortunate thought came to him then.

"Have you been able to keep oriented as we've been traveling, lady Lassilenwë, daughter of Galador?"

She gasped at that, and he thought he did a creditable job of suppressing his smile.

"You know who I am?" She asked, the first display of something other than anger and contempt he had seen from her. How to pursue that? He gave her a sidelong look and went with his gut.

"Your father is well-known among the navy," he said. "His actions at the mouths of the Kulub-haza saved many lives." A pause, for effect, which he had to ruin with, "Though, I prefer your grandfather's innovations in strake design. He has truly blazed a trail in ship-building."

"You are a pacifist, then," Lassilenwë said, the contempt back in her voice. He filed that for later contemplation, and shrugged his shoulder.

"I simply love ships."

"Anárion is a student in the shipwrights guild," Eranion supplied. Anárion was touched by the pride in his friend's voice, but even after four years the mention of his status as a shipwright's apprentice still managed to produce a pang of longing. He suppressed it, like he always did.

"What would your father say if he knew you to be here?" he asked.

The snort she let out was both telling and heartbreaking. "What he does not know won't hurt him," she said, in a low, smooth purr that made his neck feel hot.

"How do you figure he won't find out?" asked Isildur. "Men like your father have eyes everywhere. With any luck, he is on his way here right now."

Anárion turned in time to see a small shudder that Lassilenwë mastered quickly before saying, "Men like my father have more important things to do than chase after wayward offspring. And besides," she said, the purr back in her tone, "I doubt he'd be as skilled as you in navigating these... streets."

"Enough," Elenwë said, and he had to turn back to look at her. That small furrow that settled right between her eyebrows and wrinkled her nose was in place, but she would not look back at him. His heart did that odd thing again, and he turned from her to stare ahead at the road. They had been going steadily inwards for some fifteen minutes, and he had began to see signs of the change in the market--there was less noise, more darkness, more buildings, all clustered together upon each other giving the impression of towers, or maybe jagged teeth. The first time he had ventured here he remembered being surprised at the many colors he could see, all the different smells he had never smelled before--so many signs of foreign travel in this unexpected place. He hoped nobody would recognize him by daylight and without his disguise, hoped he did not suddenly start limping.

"Where are we?" asked Emeldil, unexpectedly, moving closer to shield his sister from the crowds at the entrance to a drinking parlor. "Do you even know where we are, Anárion?"

He did not answer. What could he say? But it seemed to have been the wrong thing to do, for it put them all on edge and Emeldil, especially, became quite agitated.

"Anárion, do you know where we are?" he asked again. "We had best begin turning around, rather than go forward with two women in tow. What is this place, anyway?"

How could he explain? Or tell Emeldil that they were far from seeing the worst yet? He flicked a quick glance beside him and, to his surprise, found Elenwë regarding him with curiosity; upon feeling his eyes on her, she shook herself like she had not known what she was doing, and had only belatedly realized she was staring.

"Don't get all twitchy, Mel," she said as she looked away. "He knows what he's doing."

"How can he possibly? Look at this place, it's awful!"

"Supplies," Anárion managed to mouth, still taken aback by Elenwë's unexpected defense. "Supplies. I get some supplies from some people here."

"What kind of supplies?" asked Isildur, a mixture of anger and surprise.

"Inks, papers, twine... Things like that," he said, which was not untrue, only out of context. "For my maps, my research."

"How, in the Circles, did you ever manage to find these people, Anar?" asked Eranion.

Again, silence.

"Let him focus." Elenwë. "Since you are so keen on getting out of here, you should be quiet and let him work on it." 

"Like you are one to talk!" Emeldil cried. "You have not stopped staring at him, and we all know what your pretty, sea-like eyes do to unfortunate fellows who don't know how to guard themselves..."

Elenwë stepped on his toe and he let out a strangled scream. "Lucky for us, he is not an unfortunate fellow and can guard himself quite well. If you really want to put this place behind you, a little more tact is called for, please! Surely you can appreciate the need to avoid any... misunderstandings."

"By all means," Emeldil said. "Let us begin by clearing up the biggest misunderstanding of all: Why are we even here, Elenwë? Or is that another one of your tactless questions?"

"Quiet, please!" Anárion finally snapped, rather than pleaded. "It will all be well," he said, but it was far from the truth. They had drawn enough attention already amongst the market denizens because of their speed and number. He could deal with that. A well-placed word here, a coin there, and these people would leave them to their business, but he could also tell that they were beginning to attract attention of a different, more sinister variety, because of their fine clothes and their women, and he became keen to get them all out as soon as possible. "Can you walk faster, just a while longer?" he asked in a whisper, to which both women nodded an affirmative reply. His eyes lingered on Elenwë before he continued, "As discreetly as you can, pull your jewels and pass them to me; drop them if you cannot. Clutch your purses tightly and follow my lead as we edge out sideways."

Relieved that no one thought to argue with the course he proposed, he began to make his way westward, hoping to exit that way rather than go through to the end of the market. If he had kept an accurate count of their steps and landmarks so far, right about now they should be getting level with Meadowlark Lane outside the market. From there, they could get on the main thoroughfare to Erador's family home. There were two alleyways that ran parallel after passing The Three Mussels, and he was going to split their group into two and have them join him in the far back, when he noticed a man watching him that he was sure he had seen some three blocks behind. That gave him pause. Looking around him, he realized there were three more men watching their group on either side of the street, forming an interesting configuration from whence they could fall on them at will. He kept his pace, and noticed that the men moved in turn. He cursed under his breath, began to move to his left to talk to his brother. "We are just about to be surprised," he said, "by four fellows who are watching us alongside the road. Get Elenwë, and Lassilenwë if you can, and run away. Go westward as much as you can, that should get you out of the market. Count fourteen torches on your way out and, by then, it will be safe to ask for help. Don't try to get back in here, I'll find my way out."

"Are you crazy?" His brother asked lagging behind, but Anárion clutched at his forearm to urge him to keep the pace. "I am not just going to leave you here."

"You have to keep the women from being taken. I have heard... what I have heard they do to women is nothing I would wish on anyone I... know."

"Elenwë's brothers are here, let them take care of her. My duty is with you."

"I am begging you, Isildur," he said, and with one last look, he moved as quietly as he could to reach Elenwë.

He found her hand and took it, still walking forward, and leaned in to whisper in her ear. "Run after Isildur and don't stop until you reach the exit. Fourteen torches westward and you'll be at Meadowlark. The road twists. Just follow the light. Fourteen torches westward."

"What are you saying?"

He gave her hand a parting squeeze and whispered, "Fourteen. Be fast!"

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