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The Last Temptation (Rewritten)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
Chapter Three

"Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!"
-Christopher Logue



Elenwë knew it was gross ungratefulness, but coming back home that night had been one of the greatest trials of her life. They made her sit and recount her journey in full and it was hard to decide, on the spot, what could be told and what could not. They made her eat, drink tea, wait for a physician to come and determine she had not suffered any lasting trauma or damage to her hand, rehearse her journey for the physician all over again... and all the while what she had really wanted to do was to be alone to figure out how not to cry, and to take a bath.

She was utterly exhausted--her heart even more so than her body, though that seemed impossible with all the gashes, the blisters, and the muscles that throbbed all over her. There was a time in her life when the danger might have been a thrill, but she was old and cosseted now, and the whole day had been an exercise almost perfectly designed to test wether she had the mettle to attempt what she was about to do with her future. She could still walk away--forget, let go of everything, and go back to the life she knew.

Sighing, she leaned against the closed door of her bedroom, her eyes stinging because of the tears threatening to escape, though she could not even tell why she wanted to cry. She had been through worse before, knew enough to know that wounds to the body healed faster than wounds to the heart, and therein lay the problem. She felt like she had been pushed through a wringer; like one of the king's jugglers struggling against a ball too many, with each ball one of the fears of her adulthood tossed at her to keep in motion at the same time. It had simply proved too much to handle: her fear of helplessness, of royalists, of inadequacy, of lack of foresight, of the people she loved being harmed, of not being able to make a difference, of simply not being enough. And there was Anárion, too, dogging her steps all the way to watch her make a fool of herself. To watch her fail.

Her eyes strayed to her wrist, where the bruise he had left stood out in stark contrast over her pale skin. She touched its surface, gingerly, and was surprised at the odd, random flutter she felt when recalling what it had been like to be held by Anárion. Wished she could forget. And now that she was finally alone, wished that there was at least one other person in the world in whom she could confide the entirety of her soul. She needed to scream. She needed to throw something. She needed to run--running had felt good, she had felt good that her body had not forgotten how to do it, that she had still been able to keep up with the boys. She needed to rid herself of that awful feeling of blood in her hands, so she decided to attempt the bath that her sister-in-law had had drawn for her. Before getting in the water, she inspected the dress that Indilindë had let her borrow, thoroughly, to make sure that she had not stained it. When she was satisfied, she placed it on top of her chest and finished unpinning her hair that had already become a tangled mess after a day's unexpected exercise.

It was then she missed the necklace. Since she was fifteen years old she had worn Anárion's sun chain around her neck--the first gift he himself had ever been able to purchase through his own genius. Never could she forget his pride in presenting it, nor her own pride in being the recipient of such a treasure, for one of his most cherished dreams had always been to make of himself somebody who could be known through his own merit and that necklace proved his achievement. She hoped it had not been lost at the market when she passed it on to him, and the thought of her precious pendant being trampled upon on the streets was threatening to undo her precarious composure.

So she sank under the water, surfaced again, and let herself soak. She soaked for so long that her skin began to itch, but no matter how hard she scrubbed, she still felt soiled. She had been bold enough to ask Indilindë for a change of clothes, not out of vanity, but because she could not stand herself. It was one thing to train, to practice, to pretend, and she had always been so good at it, had always had such steady, remarkable aim, for a woman, that she always assumed whenever it came time to it she would have no problem putting her skills to practice. She had never counted on her presence of mind deserting her, but today had shown her that it was one thing to rehearse, but quite another to slash someone's wrist, and she felt profound gratitude to whatever power was watching out for her that she remembered her lessons and cut at the right spot. She did not believe she had killed anybody today--that horror was not something she desired to contemplate--but she was frightened, nonetheless, at what she had seen of herself. The frailty of human life was staggeringly overwhelming when it was placed upon her hands, and she was terrified of the instinct that had made her pull the knife and harm somebody else. She would never forget what it felt like to stab somebody, to feel the knife struggle and then slide, to feel someone else's blood on her. At that recollection, she could not hold it together and began to weep like a baby-- all that she had been holding inside, all of today, all of the hundreds of todays since she had sworn to herself that she would never cry again.

She had lost.

And that fact made her hurt all the more.

Some time later, and she was not sure how long after it was, she heard a knock at her door.

"It's us, Wen," she heard Eranion's voice from the other side.

"I am not dressed," she called back, hoping they would take her excuse and leave her alone.

"Then you better dress yourself," Emeldil said. "We'll wait."

How can one prepare for the conversation that will shatter one's world? She had been telling herself that the new world she was hoping to build would be a better world, an existence of which she could be proud, a place where she could do something for those she loved without expecting anything in return. But, now that it was time to take the first real step, she was scared almost to the point of paralysis. Still, she managed to dry and dress herself, but her hands were shaking so much, and her bandage so much in the way, that she was not able to braid her hair and twisted it, instead, into a knot at the nape of her neck.

"I almost fell asleep right by your door," Emeldil said as she came into view.

"You should have," she whispered, but he shook his head, stood, and swept past her into her bedroom as if they were still children. Eranion had always been more careful, less self-centered, and he did stop at her door--a silent bid for permission. Elenwë shrugged her shoulders and watched him walk in, stride toward the window seat like he had always done. Taking one last moment to steady her nerves, she prepared to follow her brothers inside when Eralmir appeared. That startled her. Since her eldest brother's marriage things had been different between them and, in truth, she had not expected he would ever come back to see her here. Yet, here he was.

"Do you think it is appropriate that we be here, in her room?" Eralmir asked her brothers, not her. "We could always go to the library..."

"Just get yourself inside and sit down," said Emeldil, which Eralmir promptly did, taking his usual seat opposite Eranion.

Elenwë leaned against her wall for a moment, looking at her brothers. If she needed any encouragement to go on with the course she had purposed, she supposed that she could not find any better than the three men before her. Númenor was falling apart all around them and despite their losses they still had each other, but for how long? Their turn would come--she was convinced of that--and, when it came, would she fight and die with dignity, or would she shame herself at the last by shutting her conscience away? Would she sacrifice the life she knew for a chance to make a better world for her brothers? For other people she did not yet know? Straightening her chin and shoulders, she took one step inside and closed the door behind her.

"Are you up to this, Wen?" asked Eranion.

Emeldil did not wait for her to reply. "This has to be done, Rani," he said, "and, the sooner, the better. Don't you feel like... like we are being sucked into a whirlpool? The world keeps revolving around us, sucking us each one by one, and we are just drifting in the current, waiting to go under. Today was Wen's turn, and we need to know exactly what happened if we are to keep her afloat."

"I have told you already," she said, touched by the sentiment, but unable--and unwilling--to further explore it. She sat on her bed, propping her back against the headboard, her feet tucked under her, opposite Emeldil. They had now divided into their usual two camps: Eralmir and Eranion, Emeldil and Elenwë. This time, however, she had the distinct feeling that this was purely out of habit and the last time the lines between their thinking would be so clear. Eralmir and Eranion were always the steady influence that Emeldil and herself needed to temper their wild, outlandish schemes. What would the future bring for them? She rubbed her eyes, sighed, forced herself to focus on the present. "Today is a day I would just as soon forget."

"I told you it was too soon," muttered Eranion.

"All we need to know, Elenwë, is why you were there."

"I told you all already, several times: I saw Lassilenwë leave the seamstress' through the back door, and I could not help but follow her because I knew she'd be courting trouble, and I was right."

"What kind of trouble, exactly?" asked Emeldil, "Because, it seems to me like the one courting trouble was you."

"I have told you before, I have told you what she wants," she said, wishing the conversation over but hesitant to give them what they wanted to hear to end it. Still, "She wants to know who... hurt her. Her sister."

"What for?" asked Eralmir. "Is she going to avenge her brother-in-law? It would be a laughable notion if I did not know that she may yet be planning such a scheme. She is too volatile, Elenwë, and you need to stay away from her. We have talked about this so many times, and you know-- even before the law, as we explained to you--you know you have no part and no blame in what happened with her sister's family. Today, though... you almost got all three of you killed."

"I did not!" Here she had to stop, take a breath, blink away the tears that were threatening to come again, and curse herself for her foolishness. She used to have more nerve than this! "I am sorry, but this sort of thing would not be an issue if you all left me alone. Then nobody would ever be in danger, nobody would get hurt by my doing, and we would all be happy."

"Only you could call it happiness when you were risking your life for somebody who cannot stand your guts," Emeldil said with a loud snort, as he uncrossed his legs, stretched, then crossed them again.

"You know it's not going to happen," said Eranion, "so don't even go there. We are not just going to leave you alone to your own devices. You need as much protection as ever, if not more. Give us at least some credit for figuring that out."

"It has been over ten years since I became a woman with rights before the law," she said. "I think I am well past protecting."

"Like it or not, you were protected today," said Eralmir, which made both Emeldil and Eranion look at each other in what they must have considered to be subtlety. So, they had not told their eldest brother that she had fought and had hurt people and had, generally, given like she had been given herself? It was an interesting development, but she had no time to think on it, for Eralmir was speaking again. "You were protected, not only by your brothers, but by Elendil's sons also. What would we have told Elendil if either of them had come to harm?"

The answer to that was ready on her mind, but she waited a moment for politeness' sake before saying, "Elendil's sons are full-grown men and it is disrespect to imagine them needing protection from their own choices, and besides they're hiding something themsel--" but here she bit her tongue. She had spoken out of turn. All three brothers turned to look at her in silence, for a mere moment, before unleashing the torrent that they must have kept inside since earlier that day.

"I knew they were hiding something!"

"That Anárion, so sneaky, got out of revealing exactly what he's been up to!'"

"I don't think it's both of them. You could tell Isildur was fuming all throughout--as angry as I was, I had to pity Anárion. I'd hate to have to take that man home with me in the state he was in, can only imagine he gave it to him hard, you know how he gets if there's any hint of trouble for his little brother."

"That was when they were little, but Anárion is quite capable of speaking for himself and being listened to, as you saw today; he always has."

"An older brother never outgrows the propensity," put in Eralmir with a rueful smile.

"From what I saw today, I'd have to say Isildur could use some protecting himself. How could Anárion have known exactly where to go in that maze of a market? The way he took charge... if we got out of that mess unscathed it was because of him."

She had to agree with that, though she would not say it aloud in front of her brothers. Anárion's drive, his strength, his determination were things she had always admired, but today she had seen an altogether new side of him that was as intriguing as it was frightening.

"I knew Anárion liked to keep his own counsel, but venturing into the market?" Emeldil continued in an altogether too-animated tone that almost bordered on approbation. "Having friends there? I swear, when he gave us instructions--fourteen torches, ten houses, zig-zagging paths, what was all that about? Such precise minutiae! I could not believe what I was hearing, but I was so scared and so desperate to get Wen out of there that I did not stop to ask how he knew the slums to such detail! It is creepy, if you ask me," he finished, by then positively excited.

"You know Anárion has prodigious memory and a head for numbers," said Eranion. "I was not as surprised by the kind of instructions we received as I was by their existence in the first place. I knew Anárion was bold and adventurous in his own way, but I never thought he would get entangled with people from the market."

"It's like we don't know him anymore!"

That was it! she thought, as she recalled the strange glint in Anárion's brooding grey-blue gaze, the earnest way he had looked at her as if he'd both dreaded and--well, it was as if he almost longed to stay beside her as much as the thought of it disgusted him! She knew she was being ridiculous; Anárion had not once sought her out since that day nigh on ten years ago, why ever would he initiate any sort of contact now? But he had, hadn't he? She had the bruise to prove it. For as long as she lived she could never forget the sheer relief she had felt when he walked into that parlor that morning and demanded that she be released, nor the absolute assurance flooding through her that he would see it through until she was out of harm's way.

For years she had missed his presence, but she thought she had learned to live with the hole. The idea that she could still count on him was oddly... disquieting. Even more disquieting was her own response to his help. It had taken her this long to assert herself out of all the men in her life to be able to finally think of carving her own future. It's what she had always wanted, what she had envied from all the men she knew: the ability to master their own destiny. It was the only good thing that had come from her falling out with Anárion, because she had been forced to see herself raw, and to start thinking of who she was if she did not have his friendship to define her. It had been awful. Terrifying. Anárion's friendship and acceptance had been a source of contentment, of comfort, of pride for her. If a man like Anárion could look at her and see worth amidst all of her imperfections, if he could accept her for who she was without caring that she was only a woman and her greatest value lay in what kind of man she could snatch for her father's ally, if he could look to her for friendship, for intellectual comradeship, for companionship... That had meant more to her than any praise she could have received from any other quarter, and the reason was because he offered his regard because of her, nothing more. He did not need the rise in station a connection with her family could provide. He did not need friendship with her brothers; he had his own brother whom he adored. He did not need any of her land, or her friends, and light knew she had nothing to teach him or give him in return but her own self. And that had been enough. It had been plenty. Even thinking about it now she felt that special warmth in a corner of her heart that would never forget what it felt like to be well and truly cherished.

She had always known her father and brothers loved her, and as grateful as she felt for their love, she had always felt terrible guilt for not being satisfied with just that, but she wanted more. They were family, they had to love her, but they never trusted her with anything that mattered, so busy were they trying to protect her. And since she never did anything that mattered, that truly mattered, she was never able to glean admiration that fulfilled her. Being thought pretty, or accomplished, was such hollow praise, and had nothing to do with her own merit. She did not make herself pretty, her looks came from her parents, and the kind of money that they had spent on lessons for her would have made the lowliest cricket accomplished. She wanted more, and Anárion had understood that essential fact about her because he himself wanted more also. If she had just been able to see things with such clear eyes then!

After breaking free from that one tie, all the others had naturally followed: who she was to her father, to her brothers, to the men around her that had hoped to make alliance with her house, and even those who hadn't. She had to stand on her own and expose herself to the world, and that had given her a new bravery that she had only dreamed of before. It had allowed her to be with others the way she had always felt free to be with Anárion, and the release that brought was what got her through her other losses. If it had taken this long to reach a place where she could, at least, think of her past with a certain degree of objectivity, how could she give it up, no matter how wonderful it had felt to have someone with whom to share a burden?

She shook her head, determined to squash that trail of thought, when she realized that the conversation was fast getting ahead of her.

"I don't know if I want you around him, boys," said Eralmir, slowly, uncertain.

"Oh, come now, Mir!" Both boys cried, identical pouts on their faces that they had probably outgrown before she was even born.

"What Anárion really needs now is help," said Eranion.

"Well, I want none of you to be providing it!"

"Elendil's sons are our oldest friends," said Eranion. "Do you really think we would shirk from providing any help they needed?"

"Anárion is playing with fire, and those who play with fire inevitably get burned."

"Eralmir, how can you read 'The Star' and have failed to catch the vision of what is going on?" asked Emeldil. "The world we know is falling apart. If they had people at that market that were desperate to go after us--that would risk the consequences of going after a lady like Elenwë--it is only a matter of time before they find us in our usual places and they give us whatever they deem deserving."

Eralmir raised a hand to forestall him, which made Eranion snort and Emeldil chuckle.

"What does that mean?" Eralmir asked, "And don't involve 'The Star,' you know what the rules are."

"Phaugh! And it means that Elenwë here could probably lecture us about the kind of obscure news and unsavory tortures that you are trying to protect her delicate ears from," said Emeldil, very much in character. "Sorry, sister, but it's true. You're hiding something. And don't think your little lace enterprise is not suspect." He wagged his finger at her, but then a curious light entered his eyes and he asked, "Is your fight with Anárion a cover for your covert collaboration?"

The room was deadly silent for a heartbeat before Eranion and Eralmir exploded into laughter. She was so stunned that she could not think of an effective way to stop their mirth, so she did not try. Emeldil, however, did not laugh. He was very seriously looking at her with an expression she had never seen in his playful eyes. It was something like surprise, respect, caution, all at once but, more than anything, intrigue. He had never looked at her like that, and she had to acknowledge that she rather liked it.

"The way he came to her rescue after so many years of estrangement..." Emeldil broke off, and all noises stopped again. "Well, they have not exactly been best friends for a good while."

The reminder of the painful past snapped her off the lethargy she had fallen under, and she cleared her throat before saying, "We never were best friends if we could cross that line away from each other with such ease. Now, if you think that Anárion would involve me in a secretive enterprise before he would involve his own brother, you do not know him at all."

"But you did not say you would not have accepted."

"He would never ask," she replied, firmly, trying to put the uncomfortable topic to rest, but full of her own questions. Still, it was better if she did what she could to disabuse her brothers of any thoughts of covert operations. "If he had not tried to do whatever he could to help, I would have been quite disappointed in him and so would you."

"She's right," said Eranion, a curious expression on his eyes now, but he had a little bit more tact than their brother and refrained from pursuing a path that he knew was hurtful to her.

Emeldil had no such compunction. "You saw how he held on to her and would not let go. He has not touched Elenwë in five years--or is it six? It was that Eruhantalë before he joined the king's navy... No, wait, it must have been more than that, he has been back from campaign these past five years or so. He has not walked with her, sailed with her, danced with her... Nothing. No running, or studying, or building things, or going to the lectures together... For over six years! Will you really tell me that you can snap out of that kind of disaffection at a moment's notice?"

"If he thought her life was in danger..." said Eranion, "and remember that his own brother was there also, and so were we. Anárion has his pride and he has his quirks, but he is honorable to a fault, in every way a man ought to be. Light, he would help even the King's executioner if he thought it behooved his honor to do it."

"Whatever the case may be, Anárion is not the reason we are here," said Eralmir.

"Well, in a way it is, since he saved our hides at the market." Emeldil.

"Watch it, Mel. Whatever Elenwë may have learned of the world, she still won't hear bad language from us," said Eranion.

She sighed. They were insufferable and endearing at the same time, and she was about to deeply hurt them. Once she could not hide what she did any more, she would have to leave and lose them forever.

"I am tired, boys," she said, her own attempt at hedging. "Can we do this another time?"

Eralmir looked long at her before saying, "I am almost scared that another time you would find another way to put it off." His lips curled, the same way their father's lips would curl when he was trying to master strong emotion, and it brought a pang to her heart. "I want you away from Lassilenwë. I want you away from any covert operations. I want you away from the market. I want you away from all of it."

She could lie, to appease him, but he deserved more than that. Forcing herself to meet his eyes, she tried to give him what she could. "The time is coming when those who stand on the sidelines are going to become enablers. You know I have been there before, and I don't think I can go through that again."

"Would you rather be hurt?" Eralmir asked, desperation beginning to show in his raised tone, but she had had so many nights to ponder her answer to that question that it did not unnerve her like it would have before.

"What would you, brother?" she asked. "Would you rather destroy your body, or your soul? Would you have me destroy mine?"

"What do you mean?"

She swallowed, looked down at her bandaged palm, at her bruise, before looking back up at her brother. "If you believe what we have been taught--what the Elves have said, what Elros our first father believed so much in that he changed his fate and the fate of us all for--if you believe that death is Eru's gift and that our soul keeps on living free of the constraints of this mortal life--if you believe in any of it, you cannot knowingly do any lasting damage to your soul and put your freedom, your future, your very being in such jeopardy. You just can't."

Eralmir got up after that, began to pace. Emeldil let out a low whistle. Eranion scratched the back of his head.

"Lassilenwë does not appreciate your meddling," said Eralmir, rounding in on her, trying another tack.

"No."

"Then, why?" Eralmir asked, the expression on his face such a sweet mixture of befuddlement and annoyance that she had to smile. "Lassilenwë is a spoiled child, and I cannot believe that anybody would waste a breath trying to help her. I certainly wish you would not waste yours..."

"I can't just walk away from her, from what I know. From what I will become if I don't make a choice now." When three pairs of perplexed eyes focused on her, she grit her teeth, flapped her hands. "Don't you see it? How can I ever look at myself again if I walk away from her now? I promised myself--" here she stopped to swallow, her fists clenched so tightly that the gash on her palm split open and the wound began to bleed anew all over her bandage.

As one, all three of the boys sprang into action: Eranion rose to hold her by the shoulders and lead her to the water basin, with Emeldil pouring water onto her wound, and Eralmir waiting with soap, then a fresh towel. She bit her tears away so hard that she drew blood from her tongue. Oh, why was the choice so hard, if it was the right one? How she would miss them when the time came to go away! And the time would come. Today had shown her the helplessness of putting those she loved in danger, and it was a feeling that she did not care to experience ever again. Nor could she expect them to understand what force was driving her now, why even her love for them could not calm the need she felt.

After her wound had been re-dressed, Eranion fluffed the pillows behind her and had her lay down again, while Eralmir blew out her candle.

"She's had enough for today, boys," he said. "So have you, I suspect. Let us all go to sleep and talk this over tomorrow."

One by one they said their goodbyes and filed away, but Emeldil lingered at the door. Wanting him gone so she could vent her sorrow, she said, "Ask your question, Mel, and then we can both call it a day."

Her second brother hesitated for a mere second before saying, "I just want to know--what was she really looking for? Because it looked like she was wanting to hurt that old woman..."

It had, but she could not know for certain. It did not escape her that, should Lassilenwë hurt somebody while under her vigilance, it would fall on her head too. Sighing, she said, "She must think that someone from that house was involved in the attack on her sister's husband. I know she has been trying to trace the source. Or the motive, though I don't know how she expects to be able to do that."

"Why is she looking for a motive? If he is one of the Faithful, isn't that reason enough for him to be attacked?"

She had puzzled over the same thing for days, but Lassilenwë despised her--there was no way Elenwë could coerce her into revealing any of her intent. Which was precisely why she had to follow her closely whenever she had the chance, Elenwë's best attempt at figuring out what she was planning to do until she could think up a better way to find out what she needed in order to save her friend.

Emeldil clucked his tongue, in lieu of a sigh, she supposed, though it sounded far too interested for her comfort. "And she was seeking these answers from an old woman?"

"Old people see more than anyone else."

"Why, Wen? This is her half-sister who, from all we know, has been a thorn in her backside all her life."

"Why, indeed? Sometimes we all do crazy things."

"What questions is she asking? If she is right, by half, she is dealing with murderers and you can't just walk up to a murderer and ask him if, by chance, he was the one who happened to kill your family member."

She nodded, though she doubted that he could see under the dim light of the candle he carried.

"What are the questions, Elenwë?"

She closed her eyes. "What would your questions be, brother, were you in her place?"

He hesitated again, was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, his voice had lost some of its forcefulness. "The questions I would ask would not necessitate a trip anywhere." Then, "I am not sure that I believe she is merely asking questions and I want you away from her."

"That, I cannot promise to do."

A pause. Then, "I hope you'll think differently tomorrow morning."

He turned to leave, had his hand on the knob, but turned toward her once more. His face was cast in dark shadows under the single lamp he carried, but she saw enough to know that he had never leveled her with that sort of look, keen and demanding. The lump in her throat would not let her speak, so she raised an eyebrow in question.

Emeldil took his sweet time before finally asking, "What about Anárion?"

"What about him?" she asked back, more of a croak.

"Are you in cahoots with him?"

"You should know better than to even ask the question," she said, rising from the bed and moving to push the door closed but, when she did so, he was able to snatch hold of her forearm, which he turned around to take a better look at her bruised wrist, then up at her.

"This--" he said, giving her arm a gentle shake, "This is a man in despair."

Had Anárion been desperate to help her? To keep her safe? Ha! Rather, to keep his own secret safe!

"That is a careless man," she countered. "Anárion has never been desperate in his life."

"Don't wish that on him," he said. "It would be hard for Anárion to deal with that kind of emotion."

"Right. Good night, brother."

"So... Do you want him to be desperate?"

"Emeldil, I want him gone from our conversation!" she said, pushing on the door.

"So... You would help him if he asked?"

She grit her teeth. "Anárion would never ask! And, more than anything, he would never ask me."

"So... That means you want him to ask?"

She managed to push him out before she was obligated to find an answer to that.


***

Sleep had effectively fled her afterwards and she spent an awful night torn between pain in her hand, pain over what she had lost, pain at the memory of what she had done that day. Every moment of what they lived played itself in succession in her mind time and again, and no matter how many times she had to go through the same recollection, she was still at a loss as to what she could have done differently to help somebody, for once--could she have steered Lassilenwë out of danger? Could she have prevented her own wounded hand, or the flare up of pain in Anárion's injured knee? Had Anárion truly been worried for her safety, or was he protecting himself? And, from what? Why did she feel like it was important that she find out? And, what was she going to do about her brothers? How could she keep them out of trouble while staying true to herself? Why was she feeling such relief at her good fortune in averting the split she knew would happen between them--or a lie, or a confession--at the same time dreading anew the moment when any of those would come, the same way a skiff sailor wishes for waves and also fears them?

There was little purpose to remaining in bed, but she could not bring herself to face the day just yet. Erulaitalë was tomorrow. After tonight, the Númenor she knew would be divided into 'those who clung to the old traditions' and 'those who clung to the King.' Could one cling to both, keep her life, and not offend the Powers? Eralmir had gathered the whole household the moment the King's intent of forsaking the Prayers for Rómenna had been announced, and had warned everybody against outbursts of any kind.

"The King's beliefs," he had said, "have nothing to do with us, and as long as we don't cross him, we shall all be fine."

Elenwë herself was not so sure of that, but while she lived under Eralmir's roof she needed to comply with his wishes as best she could. She certainly did not know that the world would have much use for dead heroes, but was it right to lose one's honor to save a man's life? She knew of only one other person who would have found worth and even some humor in the debate, but he was now lost to her. Had she entertained any possible doubt (or any possible hope, as things go) his stilted behavior of that day had shown her that Anárion would never seek her friendship again. She had grieved that loss before, had believed herself done grieving. The incident at the market had shown her that she had merely fooled herself.

With these gloomy reflections she greeted the sun, and greeted the knock at her door. The sight of her nephew clambering onto her bed did put a smile on her face--it always did--and she let herself be cheered, hugged, and kissed. Lalriel, Eralmir's wife, followed behind, bringing with her a tray that she placed on the nightstand beside her bed.

"I hope you were able to sleep at least a little?" she asked, to which Elenwë only smiled. Lalriel gave her son a look and tilted her head in a question to Elenwë (Should she send Erassor away?) (No, let him be. This cheers me more than it does him). Lalriel took her seat by the bed then and watched as Erassor prattled on about the day ahead and the celebrations. Elenwë loved how Erassor could always lift her mood. With him, she did not have to worry about all the politics and diplomacy and dissembling that were fast crowding her world. Erassor needed nothing more from her but for her to be herself, and that was a priceless gift to give somebody. Today, however, he was veering into a topic that made her stiffen into a sudden panic.

"... and when Anárion comes tonight, I will show him all my boats and we will play together all night long! And..."

It was Elenwë's turn to look a question at Lalriel, who gave her a minute nod before covering her eyes with her hands.

"I know, I know, and I am so sorry..." she said. "Eralmir thought it his duty to thank Isildur and Anárion for their help yesterday, but he also thought that it might not be a bad thing to have some company tonight. The celebrations always begin at dusk, and he wishes for Amandil's counsel on what can still be observed and what we need to let go. They had agreed months before to each keep their families close at home, to avoid any trouble, but I think Eralmir... After what happened yesterday, I think he... He was up early sending a message to Haldor and is standing by the window, watching for Glandur's return with the reply."

"So early, Lalriel?" she asked. "Surely Eilinel and Haldor are still abed. Elendil and Elanya were not set to arrive until later today, from what Isildur said."

"That tells you how anxious he is," Lalriel said as she rubbed her son's leg, pausing to smile at her. "But, I know for a fact that they are not abed." Her smile widened as she produced an envelope and extended it to her.

"What is it?"

"Look! Elanya has sent you a message. I can only assume they have already arrived and are ready to go about their day if she had time to write and send this out. What does she say? Is she hoping to make a visit earlier than dinner?"

That was Lalriel's subtle way to ask what could Elanya possibly be writing to her. It puzzled them all how Anárion's mother could still reach out to her when Anárion and herself had such a difficult time even looking at each other, but Lalriel was very proper and she never asked any intrusive questions. Elenwë toyed with the envelope while she let Erassor regale her with a story of how the shipwrights all wanted the Prince Anárion to be their teacher, but she could only half-listen.

"Go on!" Lalriel said. "Open it!"

Elenwë smiled, a small smile that could not fool anybody. Whatever Elanya could be telling her so soon after her arrival could not be good news.

"You don't think she is going to tell you anything about Anárion, do you? She has too much sensibility for that."

No, it was not about Anárion. Elenwë wiped too-damp hands against her bedcovers and tore the seal open.

The 20th day of Cermië, 3265

Dearest Elenwë,

I hope this finds you well since we have last been in each other's company. I beg your forgiveness in disturbing you so soon after daybreak, but I have brought a few samples of that lace we discussed. Would you be so kind as to come and give me your opinion? At your earliest convenience, please. I am desirous to see you and cannot be assured that we will have the opportunity once the festival begins.

Yours always,
Elanya

Blessings, etc.


Elenwë stared at Elanya's usually graceful script that now looked hasty and jumbled, re-read the note a few times before lifting her eyes from the paper.

"Well?"

"She does not know."

"What doesn't she know?"

"She knows nothing about yesterday. She has not seen her sons yet."

"Does that bother you? Is that a bad thing?" Lalriel asked and, in an uncharacteristic outburst for her, added, "What did she want, then?"

What, indeed? Clearly it was a code for something else, though Elenwë could not really make it out. She pushed the bedcovers away, then hesitated before stepping off the bed, stopped to ruffle Erassor's hair.

"She wants me to come to see her."

Lalriel's eyes widened at that. "That's strange. She knows Anárion will probably come there too at some point during the morning and then he'd have to run into you, at his house... hmm... Do you want me to fetch her here, instead?"

"No!" She cried, belatedly realizing how her eagerness could be construed. She rubbed at her temples. "This must be about that project we have been engaged in--the workshop. I better come and see what she needs." She kissed Erassor's forehead and gave her sister's hand a quick squeeze before getting off the bed. What could possibly be the problem? She opened her armoire and ran her hand through the dresses there.

"Do you want me to send Vendethiel in to help you?" Lalriel asked. "It might be difficult to get dressed with a bandage on your hand?"

"Yes. No! I'll be all right if you will help me with my ties."

Lalriel gave her a puzzled look but soon sprung into motion. "Which dress do you want?"

"Oh, it does not matter."

"How can you say that?" her sister asked. "Two of the most eligible bachelors in the whole of Númenor will be seeing you in this getup. Surely--"

"Not you too!" Elenwë cried as she walked behind the screen and proceeded to get out of her nightgown. "Please, not you too. I have enough with my brothers teasing me about this all the time."

"You're right, and I am sorry. I just can't help myself, sometimes. You used to be so happy when Anárion--"

"Please. Here, could you help me lace up?"

Lalriel sighed and went behind the screen to help her with her chemise and other undergarments, with admonishments to her son to stay put on the other side.

"Is it too trying for you, Elenwë?" Lalriel asked as she worked on her ribbons. "We do this all the time, don't we? Visiting them, having them here for dinner so often... I am ashamed to think about it now; we should have been more mindful of your feelings. Why have you never said anything?"

At first, she did not know how to answer, so she kept working on adjusting the drawstrings at her chemise's neckline. Nobody had ever asked her how she felt, or what she thought, about her family's continued association with the one person with whom she could not get along.

"Would you say... the gray dress?" she asked, instead.

"It's too hot for gray."

"The light gray then." Their families got together often, and often Anárion was not there, and at those times it was as if nothing had ever happened. "The light gray with the gauzy underskirt?"

"Which is also gray?" Lalriel tsked. "Yesterday you were wearing your yellow dress and you looked so beautiful!"

"Only because Father liked that dress so much." She left the rest unsaid. Yesterday had been the anniversary of her father's birthday, and now she had probably ruined the dress with the blood stains.

"Love--you can do this. Your father would certainly be glad you are displaying your beauty to gladden those who look upon you. How about the light blue? Pink? Fern Green?"

"People are not gladdened by beauty," she said, "even if there were any to display. I look just like every other girl in Númenor--I have such ordinary features! But, what about the tan dress?"

"Oh, yes! That one accentuates your figure in a very fetching way."

"No. Fern green it is."

Lalriel laughed at that, which made the heat rise to Elenwë's cheeks.

"Hide it how you will: you are beautiful, and men can see through your facade of 'There's more to me than my looks.'"

"Well, there is! Or so I hope."

"Of course there is, but why must you have one and not the other?"

"Because men cannot get past one to discover the other. Now, help me put this on."

They worked in silence while Lalriel helped her into her gown. This one had a darker green underskirt that made her feel like she had gotten lost somewhere in the Emerië. It was lovely and, she had to admit to herself, sometimes she felt like she should not be wearing something so fine when so many people around her were in such deep trouble. Still, she let Lalriel help her and fuss to her heart's content.

"Perfect!" her sister declared when they were done, though her eyes lingered a very brief moment on her bruised and bandaged hands.

"Well, there's no hiding that now," Elenwë said, "and I am not going to change out of this, it was too much trouble to put it on in the first place. Maybe a shawl?"

"If it was too hot for the gray dress, it is definitely too hot for a shawl. You would look ridiculous." Lalriel then gave her a saucy smile. "Never you mind that. Let Anárion see what he did and find a way to make it up to you."

That stung her, though she could not say why. Her hands stilled over the embroidery in her bodice, and she took a deep breath. "Please, do not joke about it."

"What happened between you, Elenwë?" Lalriel slowly asked while she worked the ribbons at her back. "It is just so puzzling. One day you can read each other's very thoughts and the next--well, there's.... There's..."

"Nothing," Elenwë said, and left it at that.

"I know I have no right to ask you--"

"It's not that, Lalriel, it's just that-- well... having to talk and think about that part of my life brings it all back fresh, and I had hoped that at this point I would have reached some equanimity."

Lalriel was silent for a while, enough to make Elenwë feel grateful that it was all over. Not so. "I am not sure that you will ever reach the detachment you wish for," she said, though it was more of an uttered thought than anything else.

Elenwë imagined that a knife to the heart would feel much the same, then berated herself on the next breath for being so childish. The truth was that she could not contemplate what the rest of her life would be like if she never reached some sort of truce with her past, and the prospect was so painful that she willed herself to set it aside.

"Why is that?" she forced herself to ask, because she did not wish Lalriel to fret about having hurt her feelings. There was silence for a while, and Elenwë was beginning to think that Lalriel had not heard her. When her sister spoke again, it was still in that same dazed, soft murmur.

"And we don't make it better by throwing you into each other's company all the time..."
Lalriel then placed a hand on top of hers and squeezed it. In a louder, firmer voice, she said, "I am sorry for having caused you pain, sister, but I want you to know that I am here for you. I will talk to Lissilomë and change sitting arrangements, at least, so that you do not have to be beside him all evening long."

"No!" she cried, more forcefully than she had wished. After swallowing, she added, "This is the way we have done things since I was a little girl and, if we change it now, everybody will know it was my doing and I won't be able to bear the shame... Please, allow me to figure out my way through this. There was a time when I would have wished someone to come and save me from my suffering, but I have since understood that this is something I have to work out for myself."

"You are braver than I, Elenwë, and I greatly admire you for it."

Elenwë tried a small smile. "Will you be all right without my help while I go to see Elanya? I should be here helping you prepare for tonight instead."

"I should be convincing your brother to cancel the whole thing," Lalriel said with a lady-like snort. "Do you want me to?"

"Of course not," Elenwë replied, oddly grateful, as she gave her sister a kiss on the cheek. "If you would tell them that I went out for a spell, I will be back to help with whatever you need me to do."

"I won't make you do that."

"If you don't, they'll send me out front to wait for Amandil's party, and surely that will be much worse than preparing for their arrival. "

"I see. And this way you show off your domestic skills in the bargain."

"Oh, but you are so irreverent under that demure exterior," Elenwë said, and ducked at the cushion that Lalriel threw her way. Scooping Erassor up for a quick hug and kiss, she left for Elanya's house and for whatever awaited her there.

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