The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.
By then the men had realized what he was doing and had lined up by twos to either fall upon them or cut them off the exit, he was not sure. 'Queen Elentári,' he whispered, 'Lord Námo, I need to get these people to safety.' He was not sure if these men had followed them from the brawl behind or if they wanted him for some other reason, so he could not be sure how to appease them, and any mistake could prove fatal. 'Lord of Light, at least save my friends... Don't let my mistakes hurt these people... Anárion stopped, pivoted, and began to run backwards the way they had come. "Now!" He shouted, and hoped everyone would fall into step.
As if he had unleashed a passel of caged roosters, everyone around them started to move. He felt arms snatching him in time he heard Lassilenwë scream and Elenwë call his name. He prayed Isildur would help her as he turned to engage whoever had grabbed him. As if he were outside himself, he saw his assailant preparing to hit his jaw, but he dodged this and received a hit on the shoulder instead. He launched against the man's ribs, then his groin, which made him crouched onto the floor, giving Anárion the chance to hit him in the head with his knees, again and again. Another man fell upon him and they engaged also, while all around them the market seemed to have awoken. From the corner of his eye he saw more men flocking in, and he realized that they would be surrounded in no time if they did not manage to run away. Arms grabbed him from behind, began to choke his neck, and just as suddenly were released following a loud yawp. When he turned, he saw Elenwë beside him, knife in hand, a spatter of blood on her yellow dress.
"Get out of here!" he screamed at her with all the fire and power he was able to muster.
"I'd be dead before I leave you here to yourself!"
He heard someone cry, "You may yet be!" before they threw themselves at her. She jumped away at the same time that Anárion jumped on to the man, but they both missed, though her attacker managed to get a hold of her skirt. In a mere moment his arms were wrapped around her waist. Anárion's limbs suddenly felt hot, a powerful rush of strength pulsing through him in time with his heartbeat. He heard himself growl, though he could not recognize his voice, and surged against the man. His fist throbbed as he hit the man's temple, causing him to fall onto the floor, releasing Elenwë. A part of him knew that he should have taken her and ran away but, by the light, he could not make himself stop hitting the wretch. The man got up and tried to grab a hold of him, but Anárion was faster and hit his face with a high kick again, and again, and again. By the time he felt arms pulling him away, his damaged tendon was throbbing and he knew it would not be long before his knee was on fire.
"The alleyway is blocked," Isildur cried, "there's more of them coming!"
Anárion stopped, clutched his head, worked hard to think. How far had they moved from Meadowlark since the fight began? A little longer and they would be-- dare he do it? He looked around them; there was a temporary reprieve, but he heard calls to their right and knew the men were almost upon them. He could only think of doing one thing--reveal the one thing that he had striven to conceal. Beside him, Elenwë was wiping soiled hands on the yellow silk of her dress. When she realized he was staring, she gave him a weak smile and said, "I could not get a good grip on the knife."
It was all the encouragement he needed.
"Straight ahead," he told Isildur, "and when you get to the stairs go down and left. I'll meet you at the bottom!"
He reached for Elenwë's hand; it felt cold and slippery. "Don't put that blade away," he said, "and if someone comes at you, aim straight at their eyes or hands."
"I'll go at their neck if I have to," she whispered, with a shudder that he felt through their linked hands, all the way to his chest.
"You aimed at their hands before and that was plenty good," he said. The thought of sweet Elenwë killing a man threatened to undo him, and he clutched harder and ran faster than he had ever ran before. She kept calling for Lassilenwë but he pulled her closer to himself to keep her from running away. From a corner of his eye, he saw Lassilenwë following Emeldil out of sight, down the way he had shown them. A relieved sigh escaped him, and he ran until he reached his destination: a cluster of buildings that towered upon each other at the end of Road 54.
"We have to climb," he said, "are you ready? You've done this before."
She squeezed his hand once and nodded her understanding. Did she remember? When their eyes met, hers were wide and stormy, the grays grayer and the blues bluer than even he could ever remember seeing. And then, something incredible happened: he felt himself smile at her--a smile that he hoped was encouragement, reassurance. She was so startled that she tripped, and he had to reach for her to steady her.
"Ready?" He asked and, when she nodded, he knelt and linked hands to give her a leg up atop one of the store's awnings.
"Where to?" she asked as she clambered up.
"Up all the way, then down!"
And up they went, up four levels of awnings and windows, if he had to be precise. He climbed up the first awning and cut its ropes off so they could not be followed, then went after Elenwë until he saw her begin to slow down. "All the way, then down!" he cried again.
"Down?" She asked, in time that he collided with her back at the top and almost pushed her forward. His arms wrapped around her at once to keep her from falling-- a reflex act, he told himself, grateful and terrified at the same time. "There's nothing down there!"
"You'll have to trust me," he said, tightening his hold on her waist and jumping with her into the darkness.
"There they are!" Anárion heard Emeldil cry, but he needed a moment to recover before he could attempt any reply or explanation. It had been the gamble of his life, but thank the Valar, it had paid off. The rush of energy that he had felt atop that roof and that had led him to jump to the bottom with Elenwë was beginning to ebb. His knee felt like it had been torn into quarters. His rib cage pounded. But, she was safe.
"We are not out of it yet," he whispered as he tried to help her up from the bed of feathers where they had landed. Her eyes still looked unfocused and she pressed her hands to her temples.
"How did you know this would be here?" she asked in a very low, slow voice that he doubted anybody else had heard.
"Are you hurt? Can you stand?" he asked in turn while plucking feathers off her hair, her face, her sleeves, but she held on to his hands to still him.
"What is happening? What is this place?" she asked, more forcefully this time. The sweet expression of her eyes hardened as she focused on his face, but he was good at fixing his attention where he wanted it and he pushed the regret out of the way, intent on helping her stand. He was not so good at following his own commands, he thought, because he could not make his hands leave her shoulders and he lingered a little longer than was needed to help her steady herself. Then he turned to talk to the men.
"I don't know if we can travel in such a big group much longer without being recognized," he said, trying to convey his urgency. There was only one place they could go where they could hope to escape their enemies, and he was breaking his oath to never to take anyone there. He looked around their little circle: Emeldil and Isildur wore identical frowns; Eranion looked up to him, expectant and uncertain at the same time; Lassilenwë looked ready to collapse on the spot, and Elenwë... The sight of Elenwë's blood-splattered bodice filled him with a fierce emotion that he was not used to feeling, and he hated himself for so easily giving in. He had seen, time and again, that emotions were the enemy of success, and yet he let himself get derailed from his goals at the first opportunity. "Follow me as silently as you are able. We may make it if we stay in the shadows."
"Make it--to where?" asked Emeldil.
"I'm scared to ask," Isildur muttered under his breath, but made to follow him. He had taken this path so many times that the darkness did not affect him, but he knew the others would likely trip over the cobblestones, so he tried to whisper more instructions than he normally would have. Once they had gathered around the spot he sought, the wall with vines and moss all over it, he rolled over a mat of vines and brambles to reveal a door. Pulling the key from under his shirt, he instructed, "You will go to the end of the first hallway and then zig-zag your way to the last room you come to. Wait for me there."
He sent his brother in first and, when the last of them had gone through, he covered the door once again and continued along the cobbled path until he reached the second entrance he had hoped to keep hidden. Slipping through the crack on the wall, the way he normally took on Wednesdays, he began to give some thought to how he would explain what they had just been through and, more importantly, how he would ensure his party's silence. They would need water too, maybe food, but could he return with supplies without making them suspicious? At least for the women's sake, he had to try. That meant a slight detour, but he saw no way out of it.
When he finally reunited with his friends, they accosted him right away.
"Where were you?"
"What is this place?"
"Took you long enough!"
Curiously enough, Isildur and Elenwë remained silent, staring at him like they were seeing him for the first time. His pulse quickened under their scrutiny, but he forced himself to go through the motions with a degree of normalcy.
"There is water here," he said, handing each of the women a skin. Lassilenwë drank, greedily, but Elenwë held the skin at arm's length, still regarding him with that odd mixture of anger and fear that had always unnerved him. He would have called it awe before, but he could not do so now, and had to suppress the pang that made him feel.
"Well, if you don't want it," Emeldil told her, grabbing the skin from her, "I'll be happy to take it off your hands."
Anárion watched them exchange water skins, while he in turn was watched. Elenwë did not take her eyes off him. Isildur, eventually, growled and snatched the water skin off Eranion, then tossed it at Elenwë after one long gulp.
"Might as well quench your thirst," he said. "We won't be getting a word out of him."
After Anárion watched her tentatively take the skin, take one slow, hesitant draft, he nodded and headed toward a dark, quiet corner where he could collapse himself. He was pleased that they all followed suit, in silence. Maybe they were too scared to ask the questions; maybe they were too tired. But, whatever the reason, he was utterly grateful for the reprieve.
For a while he was allowed to sit in silence. He unlaced his boot and pulled his pants up to reveal his swollen knee. He needed a cold compress, and some of his ginger tea, but since he had neither, he had to content himself simply by rubbing the pain away. After a few moments, Elenwë came to sit beside him. With a glare and a frown, she pushed his hands away and began to massage around his knee herself.
"What--what do you think you are doing?"
"Helping you," she said, in a dry tone and without looking at him. "I am quite good at this, you said once, remember?"
How could he ever forget? Torn between the respite her ministrations produced and his resolution to keep her at arm's length, which he had already broken several times today, he said, "Your aunt would throw a fit if she could see you."
Elenwë laughed at that, a mirthless, heartbreaking, defeated laugh. "Let her. There's always somewhere to find fault." But then she whimpered. Anárion caught her hand to examine it and it was then he saw the deep gash that crossed her right palm.
"How did you get this?" he asked.
"Someone wanted my knife and I had to fight them for it, Anárion." She said his name in a strange sort of caress that he hoped no one else could feel.
"There would have been no need for you to fight if you had stayed away from this place. And this bruise here at your other wrist...?"
He saw her draw herself up straight at that, almost physically put up a wall between them that he did not even know had been torn down. And then he understood.
'This was my doing.' All those times he took her hand, when he clutched at her so she would keep up, he was being more forceful than he had thought and had hurt her. He tried to get up, but his knee gave way and he fell down again. A curse escaped him, which they all heard, further adding to his humiliation.
"Calm down, Anárion," Eranion said, moving to kneel beside them. "We all know we owe our lives to your quick thinking."
"And his good knowledge of the market," Lassilenwë said from her corner at the far left of the room.
"I think we all deserve an explanation." Emeldil.
They all looked at Isildur, waiting for him to weigh in, but he simply looked on for a while, still frowning, arms crossed as he leaned onto the far wall. Elenwë tried to resume her rubbing of his knee, which took him aback. For years she would not say more than three words to him in a sentence, and suddenly she could overcome her reticence to care for his knee, no less? He shook his head, grabbed Elenwë's hands as gingerly as he was able and placed them on her lap, while he continued with the task himself.
"You always do this!" Elenwë cried, frustration and anger dripping from her voice. Only once before had he heard such a tone from her, and the recollection brought back all the anger, the hurt, the humiliation he had felt then. It was painful, but it was enough to make him remember his promise. He swallowed once, twice. He would not let her win one more fight, and for that he needed to remain calm.
"I always do this?" He threw her question back at her. "And you always find a way to burst into a rage at the worst possible moment."
"It is just like you to call them outbursts," she said, retreating behind a veneer of sarcasm, "forgetting that it was you who provoked them."
"I never provoke you," he said. "All I have done is try to help you when you insisted on acting like the spoiled child you are."
Her lips flattened into a thin smile. "You call me spoiled? That must be because you have already forgotten your rude requests, your barked commands, your flare-ups of temper--" She was trying to be delicate and not mention the bruise, but her silence spoke as loudly as her words.
"Ah!" He said, raising his palm so as to indicate he did not wish to hear more. "How could I forget that to Elenwë, daughter of Erador, the way one performs the deed is just as important--if not more so--than the deed itself? Next time I will remember to ask permission before I snatch you off the hands of whoever wishes to hurt you."
"I doubt there will be a next time."
"We can both agree on that, because I will make sure your brother does not let you get into this kind of trouble again." He paused, rubbed at the back of his neck. "Have you any idea how close you came to--" Here he stopped. He could not bring himself to tell her the horrors he had heard were inflicted on women taken from their families in the age they lived in, could not tell her what he had seen and shatter her innocence forever, no matter how angry with her he was. He did it to spare her, but it was the wrong thing to do. He knew it in her narrowed eyes, in her upraised chin, in the way her voice hitched then went up one step in pitch.
"And what are all of you going to do--tie me up to keep me at home?" She asked in a show of defiance that would almost have been laughable if it had not followed the little adventure they had had that day. She got up and paced to join Isildur at his wall, "It won't work! I have stayed apart before, and I swear by all that is most precious that I will never stay back again, no matter what any of you do to keep me away!"
"Because you would rather put your family in danger. It's much more fun, isn't it?" he asked.
"Because somebody has to do it!"
"Calm down, Wen," Eranion said, walking to stand beside her, trying to appease her, but she shrugged off his hands and scooted off farther away, like a frightened doe would when accosted. That gave Anárion pause--it looked like a dance that they had engaged in before, and he wondered when it had started, and why.
Emeldil let out a groan. "Let her be, Rani. Her money will run out at one point and then she'll have to stop."
Stop what? He felt like asking, but didn't. When he realized that Isildur's eyes were fixed, keen, sharp, unwaveringly on him, he understood that there was more to the tale than had surfaced yet, and his brother knew what it was.
"What I do with my money has nothing to do with either of you," Elenwë said, chin up, but Anárion could see her hands clasped together in front of her, gripping so tightly her whole body was straight as a rod. He knew what this was costing her, and had to wonder what had happened to her that would make her defy the brothers she loved so much, and who so loved her in return.
When Isildur spoke, they were all unprepared for it.
"Money has nothing to do with it," his brother said, "and it matters little to any of us here, except that when you put your brothers in danger you may have gone too far."
That startled her, and she scooted away from him too, further backing herself into the corner of their small room.
"Well," Eranion said, "in all fairness, she could not have foreseen that a fight would break out. She was just trying to help Lassilenwë. I know why she did that."
"What about the fight after that one?" Isildur asked, one brow raised, arms crossed over his chest.
"What do you mean?" asked Emeldil. "Those men had been following us from before... Hadn't they?"
"How can you know that?" asked Isildur, but his eyes had not left Anárion's for a moment. What was his brother trying to tell him?
The silence that followed his brother's charged question was worse than the quarreling had been. Lassilenwë sat on the ground, forgotten, though Anárion sometimes thought he saw a smile lingering across her lips. Elenwë had sat also, knees drawn up to her chest with her head resting on them, while her skirts spread about her like a marigold spreads her petals around. Eranion had began to chew on his fingernails, a telltale sign of extreme anxiety for him that he had not displayed in years. Emeldil would not stop pacing this way and that, putting them all on edge. And Isildur... Isildur would not stop looking at him. At first, Anárion had tried to give him stare for stare--only liars or cowards look away--but he could not bear the weight of his brother's scrutiny. Under the pretext of tending to his injured knee, he had left his brother to stare away on his own. His hands felt cold, as hot as he had felt before, and that unpleasant feeling that signaled anxiety for him had settled at the pit of his stomach. He needed his tea, he needed to work off his tension, he needed to get all these people away from here and how was he going to do that? What if Isildur had been right? He did not know which was worse--that those men had been after him and he had put Elenwë in danger, or that they had been after Elenwë to begin with...
They stayed like that for longer than Anárion had believed they could stay quiet, save Emeldil, but when he had had enough he finally kicked at the wall and rounded in on them all.
"What is this place?" he asked, punctuating his words with wild gestures--as wide as he could go, cramped as they were. "Why are we here? I thought we were going to the seamstress! The seamstress, for Valar's sake! We almost get ourselves killed, and probably killed other people out there, and for what? I want somebody to tell me exactly why I was risking my life out there, by the Valar!"
"Please, be quiet!" Elenwë rose, crossed the room in three strides to stand in front of her brother. "If any one of you swears by the Valar one more time, I-- I--"
"You what?" asked Emeldil. "You will tell on me? I don't care any more, Elenwë!"
"Well, I do!" she said. When she dabbed with the back of her palm at her nose, Anárion realized that she was trying hard not to cry. Her brothers must have understood too, for they both made to go to her at once, but she shook her head and walked away. "Just... please... stop swearing. One day you may swear in front of a royalist by mistake and would be beyond any help. I-- I could not bear--"
Of course she could not, and they had all been stupid to think she had to be strong for everyone. For the first time, Anárion saw the fragility that lurked beneath their facade of normalcy, and felt a little stab at his heart.
"What do we do now, Anárion?" Eranion asked, perhaps trying to diffuse the tension. His friend could not have known that in asking his question he had opened a window that he would have rather wished closed.
Anárion sighed. "This place is well-hidden. We should be safe here until we are ready to leave."
"And when is that?" Lassilenwë asked, the first thing she had said since they had gotten there in the first place. "We camp out here for days until we deplete your secret stash of food? We wait out the night, hoping we can go home with our reputations intact after having spent the night with four men in this cozy, little room?"
Emeldil turned and shook his fist at her, but addressed his sister, "I thought you had better taste in friends, Wen."
Lassilenwë laughed at that. "And here I was bewailing her poor taste in family."
"Oh, please!" Elenwë said. "I hope we can remain civil until we each go our separate ways."
"Does it mean you are going to leave me alone, daughter of Erador?" Lassilenwë asked. "Can we stop this little project of yours?"
"This is not a project, Lassilenwë, and no. I will not stand aside while I watch you put yourself in all sorts of danger without at least trying to watch your back."
"I do not need you to watch my back to assuage your guilt."
It looked as if a physical force had pushed Elenwë backwards, and she said nothing more after that. Neither did Lassilenwë. They still faced the dilemma of getting out of their hideout and back into their world.
"We have two choices, as I see it," he finally said. "We can wait until the morning, but we will surely be seen if anybody is out there watching for us. We can leave tonight, and risk the danger of the dark streets, but trusting in darkness' cover."
"What would you rather do?" asked Eranion.
Anárion thought about it for a moment. He knew he would choose the cover of night, but could it be attempted while they had the women with them?
"Is any of you physically unable to keep a fast pace right now?" he asked.
"You are probably the worse off, at the moment," said Isildur in a clipped voice, still frowning.
"I'll be all right. If you can follow my instructions, precisely, I think we ought to try leaving after twilight. We are outsiders, and the most logical conclusion would be for them to think we would be too scared to leave in the middle of the night."
"Do you really think all five of those men are out there waiting for us?" Asked Emeldil.
"There were seven," Anárion said, "more, if you count the shop tenders that threw the vases and the baskets, though three of them, at least, suffered incapacitating injuries. We cannot be too sure. I'd rather not risk waiting until tomorrow, but we have to be fast and quiet."
"What is this place, Anárion?" asked Isildur.
"Papers, inks, that sort of thing, like I told you," he replied, which was true.
"Who owns this place?"
"Someone I know."
"And he is--"
"Someone you don't know," he replied with finality. Which was true enough, in a fashion. "Now let me try to draw out the route for you, in case we get separated."
Their return to the civilized world was so uneventful that it put Anárion on high alert, and he could not bring himself to settle down his nerves, even after they had arrived at Lassilenwë's home. It was late and they all had declined to go inside, though Lassilenwë's pretty cousin, whose movements they all followed as she took the girls inside, had begged them to do so again and again.
They stood looking after them in silence for a long while. It was, of course, Emeldil who broke the quiet. "What just happened?" he asked. "Did we almost die today?"
They all had the bruises to prove it, but Anárion currently lacked the mental capacity to go to that place just yet. They could have died. His brother would have been lost. Elenwë. When she finally returned outside, Anárion had worked himself into such a state that he could not help but ask, "What took you so long?"
He felt, more than saw, everyone's glares on him. Even Eranion, who was usually apt to trust him implicitly, thought it had been in poor taste to berate his sister. Even Isildur, who would not have wasted the opportunity to flirt with as pretty a girl as Lassilenwë's cousin, could not find it in him to be his usual suave self, but Anárion had not been blessed with such restraint.
"You changed?" He asked Elenwë, and she looked down, fidgeted with her hands.
"I asked her to let me wash her dress," Lassilenwë's cousin was quick--too quick-- to say. "It was the least we could do to thank you for bringing Lassilenwë back home. Thank you for watching out for her. I know she can be hard to befriend but she is family and, in these hard times, you have to hold on to what you can. I promise I will watch her better."
"You have enough to deal with on your own, Indilindë," Elenwë said, laying a hand on the other lady's forearm, which Indilindë clasped in turn. Anárion could clearly see that there was more to the gesture than the shared worry of one day and wondered, for what must have been the tenth time that day, how he could have drifted so far apart from these people that he had missed the development of all of it.
They made their way to Emeldil and Eranion's in silence. He noticed that Emeldil began to drift closer to his sister and, at one point, he had his arm around her shoulders as they walked in silence, her leaning her head on him at times. The whole house was in an uproar by the time they finally appeared, making it easy for him and Isildur to lose themselves in the commotion and escape towards home.
"Do we go to Grandmother's or to your place?" Isildur asked.
"Well, she was waiting for us."
"That was hours ago," Isildur said. "They must have figured we went out and, after having a little fun, went to sleep. We'll just wake them up and make them worry if we show at their home late like this."
Anárion looked at him for a moment before saying, "That conversation is not going to happen, Isildur, no matter how you maneuver me into having it. Alone at my house, or alone at Grandmother's--it's not going to happen."
"You have dragged me half-way around the city into the slums and are not going to tell me why?"
"We were keeping Elenwë out of trouble."
"More like pushing her into trouble, I dare say. She is not a girl any more, and the sooner you lot realize that, the easier it will be to deal with things as they are."
"And how are they?" asked Anárion, stopping to look at his brother in the face. "How are things, Isildur?"
"Secrets," Isildur said, in a whisper that made all his hair stand on end. "Everybody has secrets."
Not Isildur too! It felt as though somebody had moved the earth from his feet and he was slipping, slipping far.
"Those secrets are not mine to reveal, Isildur," he said, almost a plea for his brother's understanding, though the bigger part of himself knew that this was the chance to break free from his him, only... only he was too much of a coward to take it. "As much as I long to tell them to you... I-- I can't."
Isildur turned around and began to walk, fast, leaving him to struggle to keep up. Despite his custom-made shoe, his knee hurt so much that he was limping by the time they reached their grandparents' home. The lights were out. It was as Isildur had said, and after a telling look, Isildur kept on walking. He was actually going to make him limp as best he could all the way to his own house. Well, if that was the way of things, he could give eye for eye!
Except-- except a thought struck him.
"Isildur," he called, struggling to keep up, reaching for his brother's shoulder to make him stop for a moment. "Isildur, what was Elenwë doing in Andúnië?"
When Isildur gave his shoulder a squeeze in turn, he knew he would not like the answer. "Those secrets, brother," Isildur said, "are not mine to reveal."
They made the rest of the way in silence. It was not very far from Elenwë's house to his, and though he knew he should have chosen to put more distance between them, the spot had been close to the Shipwright's Guild building and it had seemed convenient at the time he settled on the location, or so he had told himself. He made the journey daily, sometimes two times a day, but tonight he was both physically and emotionally exhausted and it was all he could do to focus on putting one foot ahead of the other.
They had been fortunate that Ithil had been shrouded in cloud all night, which had worked perfectly for their escape; but a steady breeze had began to blow westward from the sea, had moved the clouds, and had revealed a bright, full moon, and the entirety of the constellations of the summer sky. Had they waited a few hours, their flight would have been jeopardized and his friends would have been further endangered. The mere thought of it made his stomach twist into awful knots. Reaching his door had felt like what he imagined the Elves would feel upon finally reaching the coast of Tol Eresëa after long years of exile.
"I think being so close to both poverty and corruption has sapped you of your optimism," Isildur said as he went inside and began to work on clearing Anarion's one table of books, maps, parchment, and the odd cup that had been buried amid the lot. Meanwhile, Anárion had sat on his chair by the entrance, as he always did, to begin undoing the laces to his boots--it would be too much to ask that Isildur forget to question him on how he had such an intimate knowledge of the market, and that sort of mindless rhythmic exercise helped him rally for it. Fooling Isildur would be difficult, and painful, but imperative; he had made that choice a long time ago and could not afford to have second thoughts about it.
"It was a tough day today, brother," was what Isildur chose to begin his prodding, "but you did well."
Anárion muttered the perfunctory thank-you and kept working his laces, but he knew better than to think that would be the end of it.
Isildur dropped the last load of books upon the bed. "Better than well! If you had not been there we would have been mugged, or lost and never found again..." he finished with a dramatic air that made Anárion smile like he had done millions of times before this one, for his brother's sake.
"You would have figured the layout eventually, I'm certain of that."
"Before being robbed, or after?"
Anárion tossed the left boot and set to work on the right.
"I don't think the average man would have engaged all four of us."
"Which means that you must know they have worse than average people there."
"I thought that they might have tried to confuse us, make us lose the ladies. That would have undone our little group; those boys would never have forgiven me if I had lost them their sister."
"Do you reckon? Who would have been the most distraught had that happened--the boys, or you? How did you figure what to do? And that bit about the jewelry? Elenwë was smart enough to venture out with merely that necklace, but Lassilenwë was bedecked like a diamond mine!"
That made him feel inside his pocket. The jumble of chains and gemstones that the ladies had passed to him was still there. Sorting the lot out would be quite a task, but he began, grateful for something to do, something to use as an excuse. He felt Isildur's eyes on him all throughout, but kept to his task.
"You were right," he finally said, "a mine and a half!"
"Do you still have Wen's necklace?"
"It ought to be somewhere in here," he mumbled as he pulled and tugged at the ball of chains, though he had the sinking feeling that the necklace was gone. Isildur noticed his worry and knelt beside him, helping him sort out what pieces he had been able to untangle: a set of chandelier earrings with a leaf motive, three bracelets in the same pattern but different shades of gold, a necklace came next, and three rings tumbled out from that last tangle.
"It's not here," he cried, lifting eyes to Isildur.
His brother frowned. "Have you looked in all your pockets?"
His knee protested as he stood, but he did so the better to search. His pant pockets were empty, but there was this one pocket in his shirt and there it was: a dainty necklace of clustered golden stars, linked together by a clever chain. Isildur studied it as it dangled from Anárion's fingers. He reached for it, a small smile forming on his face as he worked on the necklace to produce a very slender golden chain that had been tangled on the thicker one: a mere strand of gold, with a sun pendant.
His heart did that odd thin again as he contemplated the little relic of the past he had not seen in over fifteen years.
"Did you give her this?" Isildur asked. "It looks an awful lot like your insignia."
"It isn't," he said, snatching the chain back. Thankfully, Isildur left it at that and moved to take the chess set out. He began to arrange the pieces on the board, whistling a little tune as he worked, while he left Anárion to sort out the more complicated jumble of his emotions as he recalled exactly how Elenwë had come by the pendant. His brother did not give him a lot of time to dwell on the past. "What kind of deals have you been making with people there?" he asked, as he pinned him with that keen, probing look that set his hair on end
Anárion's hands stilled, necklace held firmly within his fist. "I told you," he said, as nonchalantly as he was able, "I found good prices on supplies I need for work."
"Is it worth risking your life for a few leaves of parchment? For paper, Anárion?"
"I use a lot of paper."
"Father would give you all the money you asked for--he would probably build you your own paper operation-- if he knew what you have been up to to save a few coins."
"It's all well, trust me," Anárion said, hastily putting the necklace back in his pocket and laying Lassilenwë's pieces on the small table by the door. He returned to his half-laced boot, hoping Isildur would not notice he could not look him in the face. When a few moments passed and Isildur was still silent, he looked up, only to meet with a glare.
"What?" he asked, dropping the shoe and rising from the chair. "If you have made up your mind not to trust me, then nothing I can say will satisfy you."
"It's not like you to be untruthful."
"I am not being untruthful!"
"Well, then..." Isildur said, waving a pawn at him, "tell me this: what would you have answered if Elenwë had not stood up for you before the boys?"
"I would have answered as I answered you: I deal with market suppliers, and can hardly be blamed for it when prices are so much on the rise, now leave it alone, Isildur."
"Why did Elenwë jump to your defense so readily?" Isildur asked, more to himself than to him. "It surprised even me, I must admit. How long has it been since she barely crosses word with you? Five years, at least."
"Nine," Anárion said, grudgingly, as he began to arrange his side of the board. "Why am I always black?"
"Because you are too slow to settle and choose white first."
"You always take me by surprise."
"And you well know that surprise is the first rule of every good attack-- not my fault if you lower your defenses. It's always easiest to find out what I want from you when we play-- chess puts you in a benevolent mood."
"I hope you have not been letting me win," he said.
"You know I don't have the patience for that. Planning a losing strategy to upend your winning strategy... The mere thought of it makes my head spin," he said with a minute shake of the head. "My pride is simply a campaign casualty."
"What was she doing in Andúnië, Isildur?"
His brother looked up from his king and gave him a slow smile.
"You like to talk about her, don't you?"
"Do you even know, or did you just let me think you did, to goad me?"
"Ha! I upset you. I wanted to see how long it would take you to ask the question." He settled his queen next, looked up from his board to him. "No, I don't know if by that you mean my having heard it from Elenwë herself, but it's not difficult to read the clues."
Isildur looked at him for a long time before giving his answer. When he spoke again, his tone was not playful but earnest, and that disturbed him deeply.
"Can we talk here?" he asked. "Do you think you could have unwanted ears about?"
It took him a heartbeat to catch on. He rose, checked the door, checked his windows. They were alone. He drew the chair next to his brother's. "What do you know?" he asked, leaning close.
"I am almost certain she has been helping 'traditionalists,' though the exact nature of the help is still a mystery. The story she gave when she was there was that she had come to Andúnië to purchase fabrics for new gowns. She stayed over three weeks."
"What do you think she was doing?"
"There's the rub. I asked Mother; she claimed she knew no more than I did, but Elenwë dined at the house at least twice every week. Always when us men were gone. I thought that out of respect for you, Mother would show some restraint..."
"They always liked Elenwë quite well," said Anárion. "Do you think Mother could be involved in it, whatever it is?"
"It's a thought. She has the influence and, after what happened to Arlen and her family, more than enough motivation. Still, it is hard to think of Mother doing such dangerous work. Or Father allowing it."
Anárion rubbed his forehead, the back of his head. "This is just what I needed," he muttered.
"What do you mean?"
But Anárion chose to ignore that. "What, do you figure, is the big secret?"
"There are a couple of possibilities," Isildur said, taking over the arrangement of Anárion's black pieces. "There is an orphanage in Andúnië. They take all children, but everyone knows that they hold a 'traditional' bias. No one will claim patronage. Yet, despite all odds, the orphanage still stands."
"Could she not just send the money to them, if that's what brought her there?"
"Who would you trust with that responsibility, from Elenwë's circle of acquaintances? Who would have that bit of juicy information and not sell her out? Remember that Elenwë is one of the most eligible girls on the island and that kind of secret would ruin her for good. Or bind her to someone she did not wish to be bound to."
For a while, Anárion could not make himself speak as the implications of that sank. "The thought of Elenwë being so deep in on it," he finally said, "as to have no one to trust..." He grunted. "It makes my blood boil." Isildur raised a brow at him, but he chose to ignore that too. "What is the other possibility?"
"I saw her once with Golasgan."
Anárion snorted. "Golasgan? Elenwë would never look at Golasgan in that way."
"What makes you think that? Golasgan is a perfectly good catch for any eligible lady."
"Golasgan has been around too much."
"He has reformed. I think he is quite fond of Wen."
"Or rather her dowry," Anárion said. "Do be serious, Isildur."
"I thought Golasgan was a friend of yours."
"And he is. Just, not cut out for her."
"Well, at least it is better than the other option."
At that Isildur finally showed some signs of discomfort, which somehow frightened him more than any thought of being persecuted did.
"What is it, Isildur?" he asked again, but his brother just cleared his throat and looked away, busying himself with an imaginary smudge on his table. "Isildur," he tried again, moving to kneel by his brother, to make Isildur look at him. "If Mother, or Elenwë, are in trouble, you have to let me know what it is so I can help them."
"And how would you purpose to do that? Through your friends from the market? You know that kittens get caught in tangles when they play with their mistresses' wool."
Anárion could not contain himself at that, and hit the table with his fist, upsetting the board and sending a few of the pieces rolling down on to the floor with a clatter. Isildur did not even flinch; instead, a big grin had spread all over his face. It made him so angry, how Isildur could remain so composed while his own heart was threatening to hammer its way out of his chest! Isildur merely sat, legs sprawled in front of him, regarding him with that fierce, dangerous glint that only signaled trouble.
"I am relieved to see you still have some feeling in you. I had began to think that your secrets here in Rómenna had turned you into a block of ice. Now you know what it feels like, don't you, having truths kept away from you by the one person you should have been able to trust?"
That hurt worse than a warg bite, worse than a knife wound, worse than his useless tendon, worse than the lifetime of dreams he had seen crumble to the dust the day he had taken that stabbing for a man he did not even know. He felt walls closing in on him and found it hard to breathe, but he made himself use all of his will to focus on Isildur's eyes, those dark irises that held the entirety of their life together in their depths.
"If I hide things from you, Isildur, I trust you would know me well enough to understand I would have a good reason for doing so."
"Sure. Just like I have a good reason from keeping my secrets well hidden."
"Secrets are nothing to play with."
"We can both agree on that."
"Then what are you waiting for? If there is anything you know, you need to tell me."
"I have to see you try prying this out."
"We have never competed for anything."
"Nobody could have a better brother," Isildur said, and his voice held that hitch to it that made Anárion's heart squeeze.
"This is not about who gets the upper hand."
"Again, somethin we can both agree on."
"If you know anything, Isildur, you better tell it to me now."
"I don't think so, brother. I think I am going to keep it to myself for the time being."
"What for? I can help them, but you have to let me know how."
"How can you help them, Anárion? Are you ready to tell me the truth?"
All of his time away from home passed before him--everything he had done, what he had accomplished, what he had not told his family. Under Isildur's hard stare, he felt something inside of him snap. Through painful experience he had learned that it was best to say nothing when he was not sure he could be in control of himself, but he could not let Isildur keep this away from him at his mother and Elenwë's peril.
"Would you sacrifice your own mother's safety to wrest my secrets from me?" he asked, afraid to cross that line and unsure of what other choices he had left.
"Would you?" Isildur threw his question back at him, the twitch in his jaw the only indication that he was under heavy strain. "Would you hurt your mother? What about Elenwë?" he asked and, as if outside himself Anárion watched Isildur's hesitation before he decided to plunge the knife further in. "Would you hurt the only woman you have ever cared for, for your stubbornness?"
Something broke inside of him at that, and he had to remind himself that it was his brother he was facing to keep in what was really on his mind to do. He felt his fingernails digging into his palms as he stood, fists clenched, on the verge of becoming what he had always loathed to be.
"What do you want, Isildur?"
"I want you to stop lying to me and to tell me what is going on with you."
"You are bribing me, then? Your secrets about Mother for whatever it is you think I am hiding from you?"
Isildur looked away at that, for a mere heartbeat, before that part of him that was only will-power and strength took over. "Well, isn't the bramble calling the briar prickly?"
"I would never put you in a position to have to choose between two parts of your heart."
"No. You'd rather hide your heart altogether, but I cannot live like this anymore, Anárion. It is eating me up. Every time someone asks me about you, I have to lie to them because telling them the truth--that I have no idea where you are, or what you are doing there--is much too painful; going to sleep every night without knowing if tomorrow I will wake up to the news that you have been found dead on some beach. Or some alleyway, as things stand." His voice caught at that again. "I need the truth."
If anything, Isildur's eyes hardened, before he said, "You know what else. You know I will never stop."
He did know. And Isildur did not have a very good chance of surviving in the world Anárion lived in now. He would not see any harm come to his brother.
"I will tell you this, Isildur," he said, and watched his brother swallow hard and widen his eyes under his stare, "Mother and Elenwë are in danger if they are messing in the King's affairs. It is real, present danger that will destroy them and our families if knowledge of their activities reaches the wrong people. Now, let me ask you again: what do you know?"
Isildur hesitated. He blinked a couple of times before he was in command again and then, with a clear, measured voice, said, "There is only one way I will ever tell you, and you know what it is, Anárion."
Torn between agony, anger, and fear, he muttered, "Go to the pits," then grabbed his boots, and left.