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The Last Temptation (Rewritten)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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5
Chapter Five

"away from you
i feel a great emptiness
a gnawing loneliness

with you
 i get that reassuring feeling
of wanting to escape"
-Roger McGough



Before yesterday, the last time he had been face to face with Elenwė he had walked away. Now Anįrion knew what it was like to be the one left behind, and he did not care to taste that particular dish again. Time to move along, he thought, before I make a fool of myself. The problem was that he had thought those thoughts before and still here he was, like a hovering fly that buzzes endlessly in a circle without making up its mind. That made him angry with himself, with the world, and with Elenwė most of all.

He was aware of his mother sweeping past him out the door to follow Isildur, was aware of her returning, but it was not until her hands cupped his face--like she used to do when he was a boy--that he snapped out of his lethargy and was able to focus on her. For a long time she said nothing, just stood there looking at him like she had never seen him before. It was a bewildering look, coming from his own mother, and just when it was beginning to turn annoying, she said, "Now you know what insolence looks like. And it's ugly. I raised you both better than that."

"I have apologized, but I will do it again just for you: I am sorry, Mother. Believe me, I feel my blunder. I know I should not have left last night like I did."

"There's apologizing. And there's apologizing. Which one did you do? Somehow, I am not sure you are as contrite as you would have me believe."

"Tell me how you want me to show you," he said, "and I will do it."

"I want to know what is happening, Anįrion."

"So do I. Tell Isildur he'd do well to stop playing games. Mayhap he will listen to you."

"Love," his mother said, that one word breaking through his defenses and making him lean into her touch, "your brother would never knowingly hurt you. You know that. I also know that you are not easily provoked, especially by Isildur's antics; you know him much too well for that. What did he do to rise your anger? Whatever he did--is it nothing that can't be overcome?"

"What is she hiding, Mother?" he asked in turn, surprised to find himself so tired, of a sudden, and afraid. "You know what it is, don't you? Has she confided in you? Are you a part of it?"

Elanya kissed his forehead. "Why would you assume people are hiding things? Is it because you are hiding things yourself?"

That broke any illusion of respite he could have felt. The way everybody around him reminded him of his own secrets was the biggest barrier he faced for finding out the truths he needed. He left his mother's embrace and paced to the window, where Elenwė and Isildur could not even be seen.

"The King's men are ruthless, Mother. They would not care that you are a woman, nor would they care that you are Elendil's wife, and a high lady in your own right. And you must know by now that Elenwė is as stubborn as they come. She has it in her head that she is the one most suited to take all gambles because she has no parents and no family of her own who need her. If there is any risk involved, she will take it upon herself, and they will hurt her. They are cruel and vicious. They would have a festival with Elenwė as their prize."

He saw his mother shudder at the crudity, and was sensible enough to stop talking and turn away.

"We are all at risk now, Anįrion, in one way or another."

"But you don't have to be. Let it go. Let me fix it. If you care for me, Mother, I beg you to stop. Whatever it is you are doing, whatever you are planning to do, I will take care of it for you--no matter what it takes--but, please--"

"Love--" she began, but was interrupted by his father, just arrived with Cōfniben, who happened to also be the physician Eralmir had summoned to see Elenwė the night before.

"She just left," his mother said by way of greeting but, at Cōfniben's puzzled look, added, "You are not here for Elenwė?"

"I saw Elenwė last night." Then, sketching a quick bow to Anįrion, Cōfniben said, "Your grandfather wanted me to look at you, boys. Where is Isildur?"

"He will be here shortly," his mother hastened to put in before he had had a chance to speak at all, "but what a great idea. This way, if you please. Anįrion has a slight limp--I would rest easier if you were to take a look at his leg."

Cōfniben's lips curled in a small, wry smile as he raised his eyebrows to look up at him. He knew what his mother was doing, no doubt, but still humored her; everyone always humored Elanya. He had him sit on that one carved chair Elenwė had just occupied, knelt beside him, and began his examination in the same way he had also examined her the previous night.

"Had I known you were also hurt, I would have looked at this when I was at Eralmir's," Cōfniben said.

"I have no new injuries. My old wound is acting up again, no need to make more of it than it is."

"Due to all the excitement, I'm sure. But, I will not let you say that a knee injury is a small matter. If you did anything to aggravate it, you probably should take things easy for the next few days." Here he stopped and glanced up at him in that odd way of his, eyebrows raised, gaze almost cross-eyed, while his mouth did that crooked smile that was not quite amused, but not quite annoyed either. "Are you still doing your exercises?"

"Faithfully. Every morning."

Here Cōfniben actually snorted. The cheek! "Faithfully, to you, means... say, every three months?"

"Not anymore. I am quite interested in keeping the use of my leg, thank you very much."

"Praise be--" He coughed to cover up the lapse. "You will need something cold on it. How can we manage that?"

This sent his father out again, intent on fetching him some ice from the ice house, while his mother went out to find a servant to prepare his room for him.

"I can't rest right now, Cōfniben," he said, when they were alone.

"I can tell you are wound tighter than a fiddle string, but you have to try. You'll be no good to anybody if you don't care for yourself properly."

"We are talking about the festival, here. I can't just miss."

"And the fact that your--" another cough, "that the lady seems to have been targeted has nothing to do with your reluctance?"

That last made Anįrion jump, a reflex act, but he still managed to kick his friend, the physician, on the shin. His mother was just walking back in and witnessed the whole scene, fretted about him hurting his leg anew, then about him hurting the physician who had come to help them. He fell back on his chair and let her fuss, focusing his efforts on the pain in his knee to try and cool off his flushed face. Cōfniben, on the other hand, began to laugh.

"Pardon me, my lady, I-- I don't think I have ever seen Anįrion-- But, no matter. For now, all we can do is try to alleviate the discomfort until the inflammation goes away. This is a chronic situation for him, I'm afraid, but it can be kept under control, if he is careful."

"Did you hear that, Love?" his mother asked, adding love to sweeten the sternness of her usually gentle voice. To Cōfniben, she said, "Easier said than done, but I will do my best to try and reason with him."

His father returned and, of course, had to hear all the particulars again. Still, no Isildur. His mother sent for refreshments and had the ice brought to him while they sat in her sitting-room--a small mercy--then plied Cōfniben with all sorts of questions about such mundane topics that Anįrion was forced to conclude she was stalling. Even still, no Isildur.

When they had exhausted the weather, the upcoming tides, the festival preparations, and festival memories of when they were children, Cōfniben rose to pack his instruments.

"Are you sure you have had enough to eat?" his mother asked, a hint of desperation in her tone. "You have yet to taste the sweet cakes with spice--"

"I am grateful, my lady," Cōfniben said, "but I must go now. Did you say you had wanted me to see Elenwė?"

"When I found you on the grounds this morning," Elendil said, "I was actually on my way to your house. Elenwė had come and we found out her hands had been injured."

"Yes, I looked at them last night. Her hands, and a thin scar behind her neck." Anįrion's reflex kicked in again at that, and he dropped the ice on his mother's southern rug. The block shattered into hundreds of pieces, and created a new commotion that he had no interest in suffering through.

As his parents tried to retrieve the ice fragments and wipe off the damage before the water soaked through the wool and then the rug had to be taken outside to dry, he pulled Cōfniben aside to say, "I had not noticed that."

Cōfniben was puzzled for a moment before he comprehended what Anįrion was really saying. "Nor had she," he said, "and I would not have seen it if I had not conducted a thorough examination, as is my custom. The wound itself is quite thin; it may sting until the skin heals properly, but she did not seem bothered by it last night, and... I left it at that."

"What does that mean?"

Cōfniben's amiable look turned serious of a sudden. "Another half inch down and she could have bled to death on the street." That stopped Anįrion's heart for a heartbeat or two. "I did not tell her that, and I hope you won't either."

"I never tell her anything," he managed to push past his dry throat. "That is--we don't really talk that much."

"You didn't before. But now?"

"Now?"

"After all that's happened?"

"After all that's happened, there is less of a chance for us to ever have to talk again, if it can be helped."

"And who decides that?"

Anįrion could not answer, but that gave his parents a chance to finish cleaning and insert themselves into their conversation. He had to hear all over again about how Elenwė came by the gash in her hand, with its exact measurements and the anticipated time of recovery, but he learned something new he did not like.

"I am not sure that she really understands the importance of rest in her situation," said Cōfniben as he finally closed his bag and slung it on to his shoulder, "but hands are some of the most delicate structures to heal and she could have consequences if she is not mindful of her care."

Anįrion followed him out and intercepted him just before he had set foot on the staircase. "What do you mean by that? You never said anything like that to me of my knee."

"That's because your knee is not a hand."

"I know that! What consequences?"

Cōfniben pulled his bag off his shoulder and set it beside him on the ground, then extended his palm in front of him and looked up to meet his eyes. "Hands perform very specialized work that requires great skill and very fine motor development. She still can move her fingers, which is a small cause for celebration, but we simply cannot predict what kind of sensation she will have after the wound has had the chance to heal itself. Flexing fingers is good enough for most everyday tasks, though she could experience some discomfort, on occasion, most of the time, we cannot know yet. But, will she be able to perform some of the more intricate movements? I know she likes to weave and knit, she likes to write. Those are very repetitive movements that could, potentially, be complicated to perform depending on how she heals. It's, simply, too soon to tell."

"Do you mean to say that this wound could give her trouble for the rest of her life?"

"All I am saying is that she needs to keep her rest so that the wound can heal properly, and then we'll see."

"What about her other hand--the bruise?"

"That was quite the bruise. How did she get it?"

He hesitated for a moment before saying, "I did it."

Instead of the disapproval he thought he would see in Cōfniben's face, he saw a very small, very relieved smile. "I am glad you thought you could trust me with that," he said.

"How did you know it was me?"

"By the way you hovered over us until I had eased your conscience and pronounced it not a serious problem."

"Were you being truthful? Or, did you say that for my sake?"

"When have you known me to be untruthful? She'll be all right, Anįrion. The bruise will heal. But you need to be careful because you're beginning to lose control of small things. I have never known you to lose control, and I am worried about you. You would never have been that careless if you had not been desperate. Something is bothering you, and you need to regain your balance, or things could go really wrong for you." He then scratched the back of his head, muttered an apology, and reached again for his bag. "I was hoping for a chance to tell you that, and now I have."

"What about her hand?"

"Her hand should heal and, with proper care, we'll make the best of it."

"Would you talk to her, Cōfniben? Would you explain what's at stake? She will listen to you."

"I have talked to her. She knows all she needs to know."

"You know she won't rest her hand."

"Just as you did not rest your leg."

"It's different. Nobody cares if a man like me gets a limp, but she's a lively, beaut-- she's a young woman, with her life ahead of her. She does not deserve to be a cripple."

"Would you call her a cripple?"

"Of course I would not, but that is beside the point. The people she would be dealing with would consider her a cripple; they would say she has begun her decay before her time, and then nobody would look at her again. Loneliness would wither her heart."

"Do you want others to look at her?"

"I just want her to be happy!" he snapped back, then said, "Please forgive me. You're right, I am not myself."

"You won't be until you have eased the cause of your urgency. Take it for what it is: advice from a friend. Or so I hope."

With that, Cōfniben left him, and Anįrion would have followed him if he had not had to climb down the stairs to do it. But, truth was, he was hurting. He was hurting everywhere, but he could not go back to his parents just then, he needed to be away. When he felt the hand on his shoulder and turned to see his grandfather, Haldor, he could not care that his smile was just a bit too bright, or that his voice was just a bit too chipper. He needed an excuse to be gone, and he was going to take this one.

"I have a task for you, Anar," his grandfather said, a little hesitant, a little too cheerful. He must have heard his talk with Cōfniben, and this was his way of trying to distract him. As humiliating as it was to be treated like a child, he seized upon the work like crab claws seize upon their prey, because if he did not do something, he would probably burst. Moments later he found himself in the library, attempting the repair of an old clock that had been damaged for years. This sort of repetitive motion normally soothed him and he liked the challenge puzzles presented; but, today it was difficult to focus, and he found himself losing patience rather than recovering it.

He could not be sure how much time passed before Isildur stumbled upon him in there. Without any embarrassment, his brother grabbed a chair and sat beside him.

"So, this is what you have been doing?" Isildur asked. "You could have looked at those books of Grandfather's for me, if you were looking for a mindless task."

Anįrion would be lying if he tried to pretend that he had not been essaying what he would say when this conversation finally happened, but he found his mind a blank now that he was faced with the task. His feelings were in big turmoil, and that worried him. He chanced a glance at Isildur, whose legs were crossed upon the table, as he regarded him with the most artificial smile Anįrion had ever seen.

"I cannot believe you, Isildur," he muttered, before he even knew he had said anything. "Where did you come from? Father and Mother could never be as cavalier, as manipulative as you are."

That made his brother laugh.

"We all manipulate, one way or another. Don't make the mistake of supposing that Father or Grandfather, or even Mother, got where they are by being on the passive end of things."

"You have made it an art form."

"I guess I have you to thank for that," Isildur said, the smile suddenly looking like a pathetic excuse for a grin. "Trying to keep up with you is quite a task."

"How am I supposed to answer to that?" he asked. "You tell me right now, before you disgrace yourself. What do you want me to answer? I am not a child to be manipulated by you and your fake benign expression."

"No, you're not a child. You have made a point of showing me enough times, though you still can act like one."

"It takes one to know one," Anįrion said. "If you have something to say, you better say it."

"I never thought you would leave."

Neither had he. He went back to his clock, but his hands were unsteady and he could not grab a good hold of the pincers.

"Where did you go?" Isildur prodded further. "You were gone all night."

"Does that matter to you, Isildur?"

"It is of the utmost importance."

That sent a stab of guilt that Anįrion found hard to ignore. Isildur could have injured himself if he had tried to go out looking for him, and he never would have forgiven himself for that.

"I should not have left," he said, setting the pincers carefully on the table.

"You're right; you shouldn't have."

"You gave me no choice."

"But I did!" Isildur cried as he pushed himself away from the table, the first time in years that Anįrion remembered him losing control. "I gave you a choice!"

"No," Anįrion said, rising also, walking to the other side of the room to put some distance between them. "You tried to trap me, but it's not going to work."

"Because you would rather lie to me--"

"No. Because you cannot accept that there are things I am not at liberty to tell you; you cannot trust me to know best about this one thing, so you would rather endanger everybody else to satisfy your whim, but I won't let you, Isildur. You may do whatever you wish to me--you may tease me, ridicule me, ignore me if you must but, by all that is precious, I will not let you hurt yourself, and I will not let you hurt Mother or... Elenwė. They do not deserve that kind of fate."

"Hurt myself? Hurt them?" Isildur actually smiled. "You forget that I am a trained warrior also."

"Training has nothing to do with it. This is a battlefield you have never played in."

Isildur walked to within an inch of him and looked him straight in the eye.

"How dare you keep this from me, Anįrion?"

"Because I love you."

"Don't give me that!" Isildur cried as he clenched his fists and turned away. "This is not about me, this is all about yourself, but no matter. I promised you I would find you out, and I will, no matter what I have to do, who I have to ask, where I have to beg--"

"Is that what you want with... Elenwė?" Anįrion asked, the thought springing into his mind, fully formed, that in his ignorance Isildur could resort to using Elenwė to further his own agenda. "Leave her out of it."

"I can't afford to do that. Not if it will lead me to you."

"It won't. Her and I parted ways a long time ago, irreversibly so. However you pursue her will only hurt both of you. And," he added, in a quivering, raspy whisper that he could not fully control, "it will hurt me. Leave her alone."

"You make your incontrovertible promises, and let me make mine," Isildur said. "It is within your power to change matters. The moment you tell me what has changed you like this, I will cease pursuit."

"I told you already why I can't do that. She has nothing to do with any quarrel between you and me, and you forget that Mother is also in the way."

"Then more of a reason for you to stop this stupid charade and tell the truth."

"I don't believe, for a moment, that you would hurt Mother like this. You may think it's funny to go around pretending to be indolent, but it annoys everybody and it does not fool any of us one bit."

"Indolent?" Isildur cried, that infuriating smile firmly in place. "So says the most fastidious and persnickety of pedantic men alive!"

"Pedantic? If I were pedantic, I would correct your redundancy and ill-usage, but I let that go because I care for you, because I admire you, and because I can't possibly fathom why you would choose to address people with that ridiculous condescension, but you are going too far, and I know you don't want to go there. You would never forgive yourself if Mother got hurt by your misdeed and, whatever your feelings for Elenwė are, I know you have too much decency in you to go as far as you need to go in the path of this phantom secret."

"And what path is that?"

"You know what I am saying, Isildur. Don't play the fool; there is not one foolish bone in your whole body."

"You are right, but this shows you why I do it," he said, a bit of a fierce gleam in his eyes that took Anįrion by surprise. "You have been hedging this sort of talk for years, but now that I discovered what riles you up you are going to have to face the music, sooner or later."

"What music?"

"The lame music you have been playing for yourself. This half-life you lead here--it can't be fulfilling for an intelligent man like you, and it sure does not look like happiness! You are alone all the time, don't feed yourself properly, have no close friends, your job is a fantasy... What are you doing to yourself? And why? What is going on with you, Anįrion?"

Anįrion felt himself begin to breathe harder, and he could not afford to lose control in a quarrel with Isildur. He clenched his fists, relaxed them a few times before he found his voice to say, "Grandfather really wants you to look at those books."

"I am not taking that, Anįrion!"

"He is losing money on silly mistakes."

"Don't give me that," Isildur said, advancing on him again until their eyes were level, and went so far as to push him. "You do this all the time and I let you because I respect you too much, but no more!"

Anįrion was so stunned that he could think of nothing to say, nothing to do, for a very long time. Isildur had never laid a hand on him in that way, but that opened his eyes to what they were doing to each other, and he knew they needed to stop. "You need to leave me alone right now, Isildur. Please, please..." he said, putting hands against his temples, "I need a moment to myself."

"So you can put the same old mask on and plan your next lie? No, I think not. We are talking right now, brother."

"And what do you want to talk about? What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to tell me the truth!"

"What truth? What truth do you want to hear?" Anįrion asked, almost screaming. "Truth is ugly, and sharp, and dangerous--is that where you want to go?"

"I want to go wherever you are, Anįrion."

"No! There's nothing, nowhere, and you need to back off now."

"One truth--that is all I ask," Isildur said, taking a step backwards, his voice more subdued but his jaw set, eyes narrowed on him. "You give me one truth right now, or I will never back off, Anįrion. On everything that is pure and sacred, I swear to you that I will never rest until I have found you out--"

"And then what? What do you do once you have?"

"Then I will carry the burden with you."

Isildur seemed as astounded at his own words as Anįrion himself felt to hear them. He said he wanted one truth, but what truth could Anįrion give him? The secret Isildur wanted was no longer his alone to carry even if he had been inclined to burden his brother with it, and going down the path of his parting with Elenwė was so painful that he had shut it away so he would never have to hurt again like he had then. The only truths left were the truths of his ugly, messed-up heart, what he had never wanted anyone to know, to see. What was more, how could he tell Isildur unless he showed him, and would his solution not make the problem worse?

"I will give you what you want," he finally said, "but not here. Let us get out."

"Where to?"

"The Central Square, near the King's House."

Isildur's head jerked back at that, and Anįrion noticed that he had to bite his lip to keep from gaping.

"Why would you take me there? What will we see?"

"Zigūr," Anįrion replied, watching with an odd, shameful relief as Isildur's eyebrows shot up and that slight, amused curl of the lip made its appearance. Isildur would leave him be, for the time being, though Anįrion knew enough to understand this was a calm before the storm. "He sits for audience daily at the Square near the King's house. It's awfully conceited--"

"Why are you taking me to this meeting of intellectuals?"

"I would not call him intellectual," Anįrion said, straightening the collar of his shirt. "At least not in the sense that he pursues knowledge for knowledge's sake alone. He strikes me as quite practical, actually."

"Have you attended many of these audiences?"

"One," he said, to the floor, "and there is your secret."

"I think that, if you are giving me a secret, I get to decide which one it is."

"You had not stipulated that, and I fear it might be too late to change the rules of the game."

"I won't let you trick me, I have thousands of questions for you, but this is a good beginning," Isildur said, rubbing his chin. "Why did you not go back?"

Anįrion tried to smile--a lopsided thing that must have resembled a grimace better. "I think you'll be able to figure that out once you have been there."

***

The Square of Sailors was the main plaza in Rómenna. The King's House and the Guild of Sailors franked it to the North and South, to the East the statue of an eagle that had miraculously survived the riots, and behind that courtyard the House of Commerce. Clearly, people had forgotten the ancient symbolism of the eagle, or else they would not have let it stand. Anįrion met an old sailor once who claimed the people had been scared to touch it and they had passed it by as if it had not been there, preserved by some elvish power. To the West stood the House of Magistrates where all legal matters in the city were decided. But, between the house and the plaza there was a big, empty space of blackened earth and soot. Anįrion knew from his grandfather, Haldor, that the empty space had once nurtured an elven tree of magnificent beauty, maybe even a Yavannamķrė, but the tree had been hacked by a mob and nothing grew there now. Anįrion had taken a sample of the earth left for study, but he could not determine whether it was true that nothing would grow, or if people were simply too afraid to try to grow anything there.

In the middle of the square was a great fountain with spouts that gushed forth water in rhythmic succession. It was beside this fountain to where Zigūr retreated every afternoon, since his arrival in Rómenna, with the pretense of observing life in the real Nśmenor. And, it was said that even the water would hush to hear him speak.

"He draws quite a following," Isildur whispered as he pressed forward through the throng, trying to get at least a glimpse of the King of Middle-earth. "You'd think that Pharazōn would be jealous."

"You would, wouldn't you?"

"What's the secret?"

"You'll see..."

They had not made it too far when they heard a voice that would have enthralled the most dispassionate of men: compelling, but not loud; not harsh, but not soft; silky and rich, insinuating itself into the innermost corners of one's mind; both pleasant and terrifying. Anįrion could not, for all that he had read and seen in his life, put a descriptive to that voice, other than to call it terrible--both dreadful and awe-striking. With alarm, he watched Isildur stare, mouth agape, at the stranger as he engaged in dialogue with representatives from the guilds of Healers and Physicians. The question of the day centered on what constituted health and the various causes for the decay of the body. When the Healers argued the mind's unfitness to support the body as a major cause for health's deterioration, the Physicians were for the opposite. As it was to be expected, the discussion quickly degenerated into a complaint against The One for the unfairness of the gift.

"What can be done to circumvent these natural causes?" someone asked. "Surely there must be something those wretched elves do to keep hale longer that we can mimic."

"It takes a strong mind," one of the Healers said.

"A strong mind avails nothing within a corruptible body."

"But their bodies look just like ours, don't they?" someone else asked, turning eyes to Zigūr. "And, joined through the bond with them, we can reproduce, as we all here are a testament to." There were some calls and ribald jokes after that, which the man put quickly to rest by climbing atop the fountain steps and whistling above the crowd. "As you know, two beings cannot reproduce if they are not, in essence, compatible. Equal. So, there must be a core similarity between our species that we have not discovered yet."

A hush fell among all present, which was no small feat given the size of the assembly and the time of day. Anįrion had long rolled his sleeves and undone the collar of his shirt, yet Zigūr stood under the blistering sun wearing cape and long sleeves without looking the least bit ruffled. His raven hair fell to below his shoulder blades, perfectly straight and combed, giving an illusion of softness and perfection that was hard to match. The fine embroidery of his tunic glistened under the summer sun like scales on a rainbow fish; his boots shone like the finest onyx stone; his patronizing smile encompassed the whole crowd without being aimed at anyone, though Anįrion somehow felt like Zigūr was smiling just for him. But his eyes... his eyes glimmered with a fire all their own, something compelling and magical that Anįrion had never seen, that he could not put a name to, that he was not entirely certain he could trust. Or, withstand.

"This pebble," Zigūr said, lifting a rock from the ground and fingering it as he spoke, "is different from the rocks that made this fountain. None would dare pronounce them equal."

"Are you saying that we are like the pebbles?"

That small, thin smile made its appearance again. "No. But a daffodil cannot make itself an oak."

"Is it hopeless then?"

The look he gave them, full of pity and benevolence, made even Isildur lean forward, awaiting an answer. Anįrion caught himself gripping his brother's forearm, for all that he had been prepared for such strong reactions and was trying with all his might for objectiveness.

"Elves are different from humans in many fundamental ways, but even Elves themselves are powerless to alter fate."

"But there must be a way?"

"They have healing herbs, like you do, but generally have no need of them save during war time."

"It is not fair!" some cried. "Curse the so-called powers!"

Zigūr lifted a conciliatory palm. "No one has said that Elves may not die; only, it takes them longer to reach that point."

"Equality is what we want!"

"Who made Elves better than us, descendants of mighty Elros and Eärendil himself?"

Anįrion did not like the slight curl of the lip he saw then; there was a smugness to it that bothered him very much, as if Zigūr knew things he was choosing to conceal. And what could he know? What was there to know? And, how had he learned it?

"Quite true," Zigūr said, "and a bitter reality. The real question, it seems, lies in the core of the differences."

"Ask cursed Eru!"

"Eru?" asked Zigūr, with a raised eyebrow.

"Isn't he guilty of it all?" someone from the back of the crowd cried, resulting in loud revilements and shouts. When a fist brushed his back and people began to jostle around him, Anįrion took hold of Isildur's shirt and began to drag him to the rear of the crowd.

"You do not accept a reduced lifespan to be a gift, then," Zigūr went on behind them, and Anįrion actually wondered wether he was asking him, personally. Around them, some people went so far as to spit at that.

"Do you accept that Eru created you--" Zigūr was asking, but the people's shouts drowned the rest of his speech.

"Have you had enough?" asked Anįrion as they reached the thinning edge of the crowd. His brother kept glancing back the way they had come.

"Not by far!" cried Isildur, but still followed him without complaint. They walked for a while in silence with only the crunch of their boots on gravel for company, and the pestering gull who joined them soon after, flying low around them and squawking. Isildur was somehow blessedly able to ignore it, but the deep noise reverberated through Anįrion's very being, bringing forth unwelcome and annoying vibrations from somewhere deep within him and, after a while, he could not remain unaffected.

"I will throw my boot at you if you do not find somewhere else to squawk!" he called to the gull, but that only made it squawk louder. Beside him, Isildur laughed, hard, and that alone was motivation to follow up on his threat. He crouched to unlace his boot as he had promised and had it raised above his head, when the gull flew right past them, landed straight on his path, and fixed black, beady eyes on his. By the Light, he could almost believe that gull could see right into his heart. His arm fell to his side as he stood, almost transfixed, staring at a seagull, of all things.

"Have you met before?" Isildur asked. Then, leaning forward, added, "I could swear that bird knows who you are! Watch it stare at you, Anįrion!"

"I know; it feels like it can see right through me."

"But not in Zigūr's odd way..."

"Did you feel that too?" Anįrion asked, surprised. Relieved. Curious. "I am not crazy, then..."

"Crazy?" Isildur asked. "Well... You are staring at a seagull."

"Look at it, though. Could it be wanting to say something?" It did sound deranged, once he had said it aloud, but there was something in the way that gull looked at him that, somehow, gave him just a bit of comfort. "I won't throw my boot at you," he said, as he sat by the side of the road to lace it back on, "but, please, no more squawking." The gull almost nodded, and went off to peck at the ground a few paces away. By then, Isildur had sat beside him, waiting for him with elbows on knees, holding his head firmly with two hands as he stared at the patch of ground between his shoes.

"What was the secret here, Anįrion?" he asked, without looking up. "Why did you never come back?"

"You have already figured it out yourself. For all that he does not even talk to you, Zigūr has a way of making you look inside, doesn't he?"

"And?"

And... "I didn't like what I saw."

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