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The Last Temptation (Rewritten)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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6
Chapter Six

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth..."
-Robert Frost



They paid their price for their little excursion to Zigūr's audience. They had tarried too long and, upon reaching home, their father was waiting for them by the outside gate. Elendil sent them inside without a word, which had always meant trouble and, as long into their majority as they were, they respected their father too much to choose not to bear his lecture. Elendil discoursed, at length, about the consequences of rashness in the perilous times they lived in—particularly an ill-advised trip to listen to whatever any old king of the Middle-earth had to say—particularly after their little escapade of the day before, and particularly after who-knew-what-else Anįrion had engaged in that whole night that he went missing. They had to hear about how soon it was to command any clear discernment on Pharazōn's reasons for inflicting such a questionable person upon the nśmenóreans, and all the dangers of being out alone in the streets for children of prominent people, as they were...

In short, one hour's lecture from Elendil did more to restore their brotherly relationship than any two or three attempts they had made on their own since Isildur had arrived in the city. By the time they were finally free to make ready for dinner, Anįrion's restraint had worn so thin, his composure had been so tested, that the mere thought of spending the evening at Eralmir's was threatening to make him ill.

His family must have sensed his discomfort on some primal level, for each one of them came at different times to see him, ostensibly to ascertain that he was, in fact, capable of the task ahead. He almost asked his mother to make his excuses. After all that had happened, dinner at Eralmir's promised to be an awkward affair of epic proportions. Nobody would miss him, and he would be infinitely grateful if he could put off another encounter with Elenwė just then. Light, Elenwė herself would probably be grateful for the reprieve! Three brushes with her in a single day were more than his fortitude could support; but, how long could he postpone the inevitable? If he did not see her today, he would be having to do so the next day, or the day after that. If he saw her again for the first time at the festival, and he made a fool of himself, tongues would never stop wagging, and he was not sure he could endure that. So, instead of asking his mother to go on without him, he forced himself to accept, politely, her help in selecting clothes appropriate to the occasion. Isildur also came to offer his help, then Elendil himself, with an abbreviated version of his earlier lecture, and what seemed to be an apology. Then Haldor. Then Amandil. Even that stupid seagull that had followed him back all the way from the plaza stared at him as if it, too, wished to scold him.

By the time they were all ready to set out, he could not think to be anything but relieved. Everyone's attentions had heightened his anxiety, and the gallons of chamomile he had taken to counteract its effects made it impossible to conceal his uneasiness from them. They further annoyed him by stealing glances at him on the way--some troubled, some even amused--but all unwelcome.

"I must tell you all," he finally said, as the last passenger had descended from the carriage in front of Eralmir's home, "that this ceaseless looking my way and whispering does not make it easy for me, I will not even attempt to hide that. Is there anything any of you wish to ask? Let us get to it now so we can move on with our evening."

He looked around at the faces that had gathered around him; some at least had the decency to look ashamed. It was, not surprisingly, Isildur who broke the silence.

"How do you purpose to get through the night with everyone in constant lookout to see how you fare?"

That unleashed a chorus of protests, denials, and apologies.

"All we worry about is your happiness, darling," came from his grandmother, Issilöme.

"It will be all right," from Haldor, his maternal grandfather. "We trust your judgment, Anarinya."

"We just wish for clarification," chimed in Isildur in a mutter.

"Leave him alone," said his father, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. "Anįrion knows what he is doing. You all treat him like a boy still, but he is a man full-grown and capable of making a man's decisions."

"So says the man who lectured him like a boy fresh from school, not three hours earlier!" said Amandil. "If you all trust him, then you trust him. No need for further reassurance. It's the greatest compliment you can pay him."

"Do be polite, though, darling," said his mother.

"I cannot believe this, all of you! Do you think that living in Rómenna I do not have occasion to meet with..." (There it was again, that annoying hesitation before he ever spoke her name! How was he going to convince them all that it was safe to leave him alone if he could not even speak her name with equanimity?) "...occasion to meet with Elenwė in public settings? Believe me, I have plenty of practice with that."

"Love," said Eilinel, his maternal grandmother, as she pressed a gentle hand to his forearm, "all we wish to know is: will you be all right?"

Anįrion heard all the other things she had not asked, but was grateful for her delicacy and the out it had provided him. Giving a nod that was rather terse, he scratched the back of his head and said, as he moved along toward the door, "I'm always all right, you need not be worried on my account. We'll be late if we tarry outside. Lalriel will fret about it and the lady Lissilomė will harp on it all evening."

It was a curt dismissal, if there ever was one, but it was the best he could do to acquit himself. He tried to make up for it by being even more solicitous of his grandmother and her comfort, offering his arm when they ascended the steps that led to the door, waiting on her when she had to stop to adjust her slipper.

When the door opened, Emeldil and Eranion were there to greet them in a pleasant breach of protocol. They were shown in to the main living room where the rest of the family had gathered to receive them, and what opened before them was a scene that had always meant home and happiness to Anįrion. Erador's family had been big and boisterous, and uncles, aunts, and cousins were in and out of the main house all the time. Greetings and hugs were exchanged among all; Isildur was generally praised, particularly by the lady Lissilomė, Elenwė's venerable aunt and self-appointed family matriarch. The men all stopped to greet him and comment on the progress he was making on his boat. The ladies greeted him with lovely smiles and rosy cheeks, and Elenwė was, thankfully, absent from the vicinity. The wonderful smells that came from the kitchen were so tempting and the general atmosphere so lively that Anįrion found himself actually anticipating a pleasant dinner.

To complete a picture of cheerfulness, baby Erassor, Eralmir's son who was now nearly five but still the youngest in the family, attached himself to him like lichen sticks to rock. Anįrion had anticipated this and had smuggled a bag of candied almonds, which he produced to the boy's great delight and Lissilomė's scolding. Isildur noticed this and was fast at her heel, distracting her and freeing Anįrion to enjoy the moment with his young friend, which was great kindness and a big relief to him. At some point, Erassor produced a flotilla of wooden boats for Anįrion to arrange, and they withdrew to a corner of the room to fight their battles while conversation went on around them. It was not until they were summoned to dinner that he noticed Elenwė had sat close enough to them that she could watch their game and hear their conversation. It was she who came to the rescue when Erassor was sent to sleep yet he would still cling to Anįrion's leg, hoping for more play time.

"You may visit with him another day soon," he heard her say as she knelt beside him and gently reached to pry the small hands off Anįrion's calf. The worried look she sent his way seemed to ask wether Erassor had bothered his knee but, gratefully, she did not verbalize the question. "Go to your own tasks while he takes care of his. You would not want him so weak that he could not finish his boat."

Erassor grudgingly shook his head, gave Anįrion one last hug, and thanked him for the almonds before she led him out to his nurse.

In his anxiety, he had failed to recollect that birth order always had him seated between Eranion and Elenwė, but the fact was forcibly brought to the forefront of his thoughts when she walked past him to her seat and the sleeve of her deep green gown brushed against his chest. The confusion that followed as that distinctive scent of gardenias and lemon wafted to him had him rooted to the spot without much awareness of his surroundings. When it was time to help the ladies be seated he simply stood awkwardly there, quite rude and useless, as Elenwė helped herself to her own chair.

Suddenly, what appetite he had summoned for the evening was gone. But eat they must. They were served fish broth and herbed dumplings to begin and, though the usual salutation had to be dropped because of the persecutions in the city, they observed a moment of silence before Eralmir began the meal.

"I thank you all for coming," he said with his own small, shy smile that quickly turned melancholy. "When we are all together like this, I can almost feel Father and Grandfather near us."

Elenwė's spoon rattled against her plate at that, which everybody dutifully ignored. For his part, he could not bring himself to look at her. In what was probably his worst breech of decency yet, he had never approached her regarding the tragedy that took her parents and grandparents. He couldn't. He didn't know how. It happened while he was away at sea and, after their falling out, he was not sure if any gesture on his part would or would not be welcome. Instead, he had sent her the seeds of a beautiful plant he had encountered on his journey, and he had been assured that it would be particularly adaptable to life in Nśmenor. It was a dark green tree of very thick, very smooth leaves that gave out big, sturdy, enduring white flowers. He had thought of her the moment he saw this tree, and in an uncharacteristically rash move on his part had bundled the seeds and sent them back home for her. He never found out if she had even received them.

"Those were good times," Amandil said, with his crooked smile, taking up Eralmir's thought. "The best. We lived many dreams together, Erassuil and I, but watching our children grow was always the best dream of all. He would be so proud of all of you."

"Sadly, the dreams were cut short," said Emeldil, as he downed all his wind in one quick gulp, then put it forcefully back on the table. From the corner of his eye, Anįrion watched Elenwė grip her napkin. "Nśmenor used to be a place where death by old age was embraced, welcome. It is harder to accept it when lives are snatched away cruelly."

Isildur gripped his friend's shoulder, briefly, and they all ate in silence for a while afterwards. Anįrion remembered times in this house when one could not hear one's own thoughts for the noise. Laughter and music were everywhere then—where had they all disappeared to?

Elenwė seemed to have lost her appetite, as well. The meal went on, but she ate little, and spoke even less. When the main course arrived, he watched for a while as she pushed the shrimp back and forth in circles with her fork. When he could not stand it any more, he placed his utensils back on the plate with an unintended clatter, turned to Lalriel, who sat at the end of the table to Elenwe's right, and asked the first question that came to mind.

"Have you taken Erassor to the docks, yet? They are giving tours of the battleships for the festival."

Everyone turned to look at him but Elenwė, and he knew he must have blushed, but it was done. Lalriel, at least, seemed grateful for the opening and change of subject, though controversial.

"Not yet, Anįrion," she replied with her pretty, self-conscious smile, and a quick glance at her husband. "Eralmir was not sure that we wanted Erassor to think battle was as glorious as the ships he likes so much. Have you had to give a tour yourself?"

Anįrion shook his head. "Thankfully, no, though it has proved impossible to avoid the onlookers that drift to my little corner of the docks. Work has been quite slow because of that, and I think that may account for at least part of my ill-humor, for my deadline is looming close and I really wish to be done."

"How much longer, Anįrion?" asked Amandil.

"I hope to make it no more than a couple of months. Three at the most, though I still have a long way to go, sir."

"And after you finish, what then?" asked Eralmir.

"Well, I have to stand for my review with the guild masters, and they will either love my design and endorse it, or tear it to shreds."

"They won't. Trust me," put in Eranion with a chuckle. "I've seen Vinyėlotė-- she's amazing! Anįrion has made a lighter, more powerful vessel, more sturdy. She's a beauty. The guild masters will go wild for it. And, one day, even I will be able to have one."

"Do you think they will offer you work?" asked Eralmir.

Anįrion thought about that as he gripped the stem of his wine glass. "At one point I had really wanted that, but I am not sure now."

"Why?" asked Eralmir.

He felt the flush creeping up his neck, had to loosen his shirt collar before saying, "Vinyėlotė is an exciting ship, and I am inordinately proud of her, but I wonder if I can watch others sail away to have adventures on my ships and leave me behind. I don't know if I can build ships for other people and be... content."

Emeldil chuckled at that, but otherwise the whole table fell silent.

"To the King, and to those friendly to him," said Lissilomė, "the only adventure that is worth any investment is conquest."

Anįrion opened his mouth to protest, but had to close it when he found nothing to say. Lissilomė was right, much as it galled him to admit it, and that opened a world of conflict for him that he had so far managed to push away.

"Do you deny that?" Lissilomė asked, further trying to probe him. "One would expect you to be morally opposed to that."

"I am," said Anįrion, in what he hoped was a tone of finality, while certain that it would be lost on Lissilomė.

"Yet you would still persist in that line of work?"

"If we had halted progress because of the evil uses it can be put to," he found himself saying, "we would not enjoy many of the comforts we have today. I believe in discovery and advancement."

"I believe in tradition."

"Aunt," said Eralmir in a grave voice, "this is not the best time--"

"It will always be a good time to instruct the young," said Lissilomė, lifting her chin. "And getting sweaty all day with the builders is hardly fit for someone of your station and your skills, Anįrion. Surely a man with your family tree has better things to do than go begging for work from those inferior to you."

"It is hardly begging, my lady," he said, and he bit his tongue before pointing out that many men would actually kill for the privilege of setting foot within the secretive Guild of Shipmasters. "There are other alternatives I am interested in, but none that can materialize until I stand for review."

"Or you could become a gentleman and do a gentleman's work," said Lissilomė with a curl of the lip.

"It is not the work he likes, Aunt," Elenwė interrupted in a soft voice, "but the challenge."

Her remark brought silence as effectively as a command, but it was the uncomfortable hush of people who have a lot to say but cannot bring themselves to say it. He risked a glance at Elenwė then; she was making a knot of her napkin, but he could tell the blush on her cheeks even in the candlelight.

When Isildur cleared his throat to speak, all eyes but hers--and his own--fixed on him at once.

"Being a gentleman in this time and age can become quite tiresome, I'll grant," he said, "though opportunities for unusual work are not lacking with the political situation being what it is. I read that some of the refugees were actually tricked into going to the Middle-earth where they were--" Anįrion was grateful that his brother checked himself before relating the rest of the gruesome tale though, judging by the gasps and the averted eyes, they all knew exactly what Isildur was going to say and where he had read about it. Anįrion forced himself to relax his grip on the fork. Any mention of The Star--even an implicit one-- still managed to agitate him, though it was a few years now since he had been dealing with that particular situation.

"If any of it is true," he made himself say, to help his brother as well as deflect unwanted attention from himself, "we will all have much accounting to do some day."

"Some of the farmers near Andśniė have already began to claim the failing of crops comes from the departure from... Ahem... Tradition... causing the increasing weather changes, making entire herds sicken and die," said Elendil in a tight tone. They all knew that he spoke of the turn from the Valar, but Anįrion knew it irked his father to have to speak in riddles when plainness would have done.

"Here also," said Eranion, "and elsewhere. My farmers in the Emeriė have had to alter planting and harvesting schedules twice in the year, and they have began all sorts of little rituals to appease various imagined deities or forces of nature, or whatever else they think is to blame... Of course it will not do much good. I wonder if it does not do harm instead..."

"It helps them cope, I suppose," said Anįrion, "and if it helps them, it helps you. The Valar are, after all, the guardians of nature, so it is not a big stretch to go from one to the other. The mind is a powerful thing."

"Which is why I wonder at everyone being so carried away with the Middle-earth buffoon when we all know of his evil," said Emeldil.

At the mention of Zigūr another hush fell among them. Finally, his grandfather, Amandil, said, "I would not speak so lightly of him, Emeldil, were I you. Clearly, he is possessed of a power that draws people to him and should not be trifled with."

"Nobody trifles, believe me, sir," said Eralmir. "You will know when you see him, though it is quite amazing that he garners such sympathy when he has been such a thorn on Pharazōn's heel. I suppose people are apt to forget when there is food and drink to be had, and the promise of a revelry. When the King arrived to port with him I thought the city would destroy itself, so hard did they feast, and when he promised them Erulaitalė for their support of his campaign of conquest, the cheer was so loud that I was certain you had heard it back in Andśniė. Whatever the reason, the whole festival is merely a parade, and I wonder who it is for: the people, or Zigūr."

"I wish he had at least paraded in Armenelos," said Lissilomė. "Attending makes me nervous lest I be counted amongst the unbelievers by those whose judgment truly matters, but not attending will certainly mean falling under suspicion. Or worse. Where have you ever heard of Erulaitalė where there will be no climbing the Meneltarma? It is preposterous!"

"It is," said Haldor, "but attend we must unless we wish to bring trouble over our households."

"It worries me as much as it does you, Lissilomė," said Eilinel. "Anįrion said the King has had a staircase built in the hall of feasting... There is no telling what it is for. Do you think he would use that for a blessing-place?"

"What blasphemy!"

"It cannot be worse than what he has already done," Anįrion said, trying to appease the exclamations. "We know what is in his heart; it makes little difference if he now goes about it openly."

"He is doing it for Zigūr's benefit," his mother said. "For all that he appears just as besotted as everyone else, he must feel the threat it presents to his position."

He did not doubt it. They had held out hope that, in his heart, the King still kept some shred of fear for the Powers, but Anįrion did think that Zigūr was making him bold for all the wrong reasons. He turned, searching for his father's face, his grandfather's, but they merely looked thoughtful. Anįrion felt little fondness for their king, but he knew what the man Pharazōn had meant to his sires and felt on their account. As for hope, he harbored none.

Busy as he was with these reflections, he did not notice the conversation getting ahead of him. When next he registered meaning, it was to hear Isildur say, "Anįrion and I saw him this afternoon."

For the first time that evening, Elenwė fixed her eyes fully on him, wide, alarmed, with a glint of fear, a glint of anger that was difficult to abide. How dared she think it was all right to judge him? The same fear, mingled with distinct surprise, pervaded the hush that immediately followed Isildur's slip of the tongue, intended or no, but excitement and curiosity won in the end. A barrage of questions followed from all but her, and that silence irked him in a way that he knew was unwarranted. The rest of the meal passed quickly sorting through the myths for all who cared to know their view. Fortunately for him, Isildur seemed to relish the attention and he was only applied to for a word here and there, which was just as well--he did not wish to blunder anymore with her so near.

After the meal was over, everyone finally dispersed into the usual groups: the married women to Lissilomė's sitting room; the older men and Eralmir to the drawing room; Isildur and Emeldil drifted to the kitchens for the wine, and Eranion beckoned to him as he followed Elenwė out to the gardens. He always did that, even though he knew Anįrion would not come after them. Eranion would later make his way to the library to find him, and the night could go on as usual. It was their tacit arrangement so Elenwė would not be altogether alone and, awkward as it was, it seemed to work. Except, this time, Anįrion found himself following him.

It had been years since he had been to this part of the house, but he remembered it so well that he could have found his way blindfolded. A jumble of perception-- of memories-- flooded him as he made his way through the lilies and nasturtiums, the forget-me-nots and evening primroses. Elenwė and her grandfather had never planted gardenias here, which he had always thought a little odd, but he had never asked why. He knew where the siblings would be and made his way there, to a spot under the lemon tree where their grandfather used to sit and tell them all stories of his travels. When they saw him appear on the path in front of them, both jumped to standing.

"What are you doing here?" Elenwė croaked, but Eranion elbowed her and cleared his throat.

"So glad you could come!" Then, more subdued, "If you still want the library we can..."

But Anįrion understood his friend's predicament and shook his head, found his usual spot on a clump of old, hard roots to Elenwė's left and, after a moment's hesitation, sat down.

It was plain sad how uncomfortable the next few minutes were. He remembered sitting under the shade of this tree when they would talk on top of each other, when there would be laughter, when Eranion would dance a little tipsy, and Elenwė would have them play 'tell-a-tale,' and he would spout mathematical axioms that nobody else cared to hear but which they listened to anyway. Anįrion had not thought of that in years, but now that he was faced with the reminder of his loss of comradeship, of this one place where he could be himself without anybody judging him, the pain was acute.

They remained silent for a while. A long while. He knew he should have gotten up and left, but suddenly he yearned so badly to belong somewhere that he did the only thing that felt natural. "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another."

The crickets could be heard immediately in the wake of his statement but, after a few heartbeats, both brother and sister began to laugh.

"If equals are added to equals, the wholes are equals," came Eranion's surprising declaration.

"I've got one," Elenwė said, "things which coincide with one another are equal to one another."

"And there's: if equals are subtracted from equals, the remainders are equal."

"And don't forget: the whole is greater than the part--" Elenwė's voice and mirth died out after that. He felt the void physically, like a part of his own heart had suddenly been ripped and left a hole. She looked down and began to fidget with the lace in her skirt.

"Sorry, brother," Eranion said, "we should be more cheerful, but we've had a little setback today."

"What happened?"

"One of our servants has gone missing."

"What do you mean missing?" he asked, looking for Elenwė's eyes to read what he could there, but finding them veiled. "How? When?"

"I found out after I came back from your grandparents' house," she finally said, still not looking at him. "I had promised Lalriel that I would help with preparations but, when I got to the kitchen to make sure things were underway, I found a big commotion. Mindöniel made bread at dinner time and was our baker's assistant after working with the herb and fruit gardens during the morning, and she had not been at her post in two days. Can you believe nobody had said anything for two whole days?"

"What did you do then?"

"She sent for Eralmir and began to get the bread ready."

"How?" he asked, angry, and not bothering to hide it. "How are you thinking of kneading bread with your hand in the condition it's in? Did you not hear a word of what Cōfniben said you should not do?"

She was taken aback at his brusque tone, and that small frown that wrinkled the bridge of her nose made its appearance right away.

"I still have two hands," she said, by way of reply, which really did not clarify her meaning.

"I don't know how you can knead with just one hand."

"If you ate the bread at dinner, you will see that it is not only possible, but yields high quality results."

"I did not eat the bread at dinner," he said, without thinking. Then, as he watched her eyes dim, added, "I was too distracted by the general inquisition to be able to eat more than a mouthful or two."

"Maybe you were not distracted but embarrassed," she blurted out, then covered her mouth with her hands--a belated attempt to stop herself.

He watched Eranion elbow her, but he was in no mood for false apologies and preempted her attempt by asking, "Have they found her?"

"No," Eranion said. "But the King's Chief of Patrols sent a deputy who is looking into the case."

"That's right--he looked into the case," Elenwė added, sarcasm and scorn dripping from every word, "but you know that nothing will be done. He seemed to imply that girls like Mindöniel would want to disappear on purpose to cover up other lapses in conduct. As if the only reason for a girl to disappear would be because she found herself with... because she found herself..." The blush crept swiftly up her cheeks then, and she needed no further clarification for what was on her mind. She was proud and likely mortified that, at her age, she could still fluster at the thought of what men and women do together, so she plunged bravely on trying to verbalize matters in a delicate manner, without much success. "If she had been... if someone had compromised her... her reputation--which that man seemed to think was the case--then she would have left... But what if matters stand as everyone thinks? These things don't always happen by mutual... by mutual agreement, and what then? Then you have a frightened woman, alone in the streets, in a delicate condition, and ready to fall prey to somebody else."

"In that awful scenario you have so... hum... skillfully depicted," muttered Eranion, "I am ready to side with the man and believe she left of her own accord."

She swatted his forearm then. "You are just as horrid as him, but worse, because you should know better."

"The man speaks from experience, Wen."

"Would you be so cavalier if it were me out there?"

"You would never have done something like that!"

"That is the whole point!" she said, leaving her seat and pacing away, only to turn around to face them from her distance three steps later. "What if she has been hurt, and is out there, frightened, and with nowhere to go?"

"Then the King's patrol will find her!" cried Eranion, punctuating his words by wide gestures that told Anįrion his good-natured friend was fast reaching the end of his patience. They clearly had had that particular conversation before, and it made Anįrion wonder what had been said to have brought about such a deadlock between them.

"You don't believe they will try to find her?" he ventured to ask, mostly to provide Eranion with a moment to collect himself.

Elenwė bit her lip, quickly, before saying, "I think Eralmir should have sent for his own enquiries."

"Who would he send, Wen?" Eranion asked, now himself rising. "I feel bad about it too, believe me, I do, but what can Eralmir do? Food was sent to her family. He sent for the King's Patrol, like one is supposed to do in situations like these. He has promised not to employ anyone else in her absence. What can he do beyond that? Even if he were going to do so, how could he begin looking during festival time? Everybody is out and about. The city is teeming with people. Maybe she went to a party, maybe she left the city afraid of the festival's implications--you've heard what they are saying: that the whole city will be cursed because of our rebellion. Maybe we should have left too."

"If I were the one lost, you would be out there looking for me," Elenwė said in a quick whisper, ''or so I hope."

"If that were you out there, I would never come home until I came back with you in tow, but you have to understand that Eralmir has his own family to worry about."

"But we don't, Rani--"

"Not that again!" Eranion said, echoing what he himself was thinking. "We are your family, and I am beginning to get annoyed that you can so easily deny the fact."

"I am not denying the fact! What I mean to say is that we have no dependents that would suffer should anything untoward--"

"Untoward?" Anįrion asked back, and got a glare in return when he failed to mask the mockery behind the question. "Untoward is the mildest of what could happen if you should be found on a trail you ought not to be in. You should listen to your brother and let those in charge take care of things."

"So we should just sit at home and congratulate each other on sending for the King's Patrol?"

"That's unfair, Wen, and you know it," Eranion said. "We've had this talk already: Suppose there really is something shady going on, how can Eralmir involve himself? He's trying to keep all of us safe."

"At some innocent woman's expense?"

"I know it feels awful, but what else can be done? You know what happens when you get involved with the wrong crowd."

The way she had no counter argument for that made warnings sound in Anįrion's head, and he asked, "What happens?" But all he got as a reply was a sidelong glance and a sigh. She slumped onto a bench opposite them and began to chew on her fingernails, which she only ever did under extreme agitation.

Eranion knelt beside her and tried to put his arms around her, but she shook him off.

"I just can't get rid the thought of that poor woman out there, alone and helpless... What if that were me?"

"It can still be you," said Eranion, "if you get involved with the wrong people..."

"Don't even joke about it," Anįrion surprised himself by saying, looked down at his palms to cover his embarrassment and began to twist his ring about his finger. It was his own signet which he had received upon his majority, a combination of his father's lineage and his own name for him to pass on to his son, if he ever had one. "Your brother is right, and you would do well to listen to him. The world is more dangerous than it seems, more dangerous than you are used to seeing."

"And how do you know that?" she asked, almost an accusation. She pushed herself up from the bench and resumed her pacing. Eranion sought his eyes, shook his head, then he too bit a fingernail. She turned to look straight at him; next came that downward tilt of the head, then that upward look that had always so entranced him. "You have become very secretive, Anįrion."

"So have you," he said, belatedly realizing that he was biting his lip like a boy.

"How can you talk about danger and risks, when you go to see Zigūr on your spare time?"

“Or you, on your secret errands to Andśniė whose purpose no one can wrest out of your tight lips?" It came out of nowhere, and surprised him. His anger surprised him. He could not back down now. "Why did you go there?" The question had been unexpected and she jerked back, but she deserved it for prying into his own affairs. "It is rather amusing how you think to question me but resent my questioning of you."

"You are not just questioning. You are trying to tell me how to live my life, and I will not allow that--not from you, nor from anybody else."

"It is impossible to tell you anything because you do not listen to any reason, but I feel it my duty to enlighten you when I know you don't have enough information to go by."

"If I don't, it is because all of you hope to coddle me as if I were some defenseless child, but I don't deserve that kind of treatment. You would never do that to each other--you respect each other too much. What does it take to earn that sort of favor?"

"We're just trying to keep you safe--" Eranion had began to say, but Anįrion's own tack was much brasher.

"Honesty," he said, firmly. "Lies are the death of respect."

"I do not lie to you, Anįrion," she said, but this time she almost choked on the name.

"I find that odd, considering that you have told everyone you went to Andśniė to buy lace. That is a lie, if I ever heard one."

He had expected her to lash out at him, and a part of him even wished for it because that would mean that his fears on her account were unfounded and she was still safe. He had expected her to slap him, which he would have welcomed too--he probably deserved it. He would even have expected her to walk away. What he did not expect was for her to sit down and say nothing.

"So it is true, then?"

"Why is my business in Andśniė important to you?" she finally asked after a long, uncomfortable silence. "Why do you keep asking about that over and over again? You have not cared about one single thing I have done in years--why now, why this? You answer that, and then we'll talk of my affairs." When he could say nothing, she rose from the bench and said, "Well. I suppose you were not that interested in finding out, after all."

"We cannot have a conversation when all you are going to do is accuse me and project all your insecurities onto me."

"How can you say that when you just called me a liar?"

"I said nothing but the truth, and that is what I have always told you. I have ever been forthright with you and treated you with the respect I would have wished to receive for myself."

"Until the day I said something that did not agree with your plans, and then it was time to walk away, yes?"

"That is unfair, and you know it," he said in a loud voice that he almost did not recognize. He was aware of Eranion's humming somewhere to his right, but even that did nothing to check his rising temper. They had never revisited that last day in all the intervening years, and he was not ready to go there now, but what could he do if she could stand there and so shamelessly accuse him of injustice? "I have been many bad things in my life, and I will be the first to acknowledge them, but I have never used you as a buttress to my plans. If I ever said, or did, or encouraged you in anything, I did so to my equal, and out of genuine interest and confidence. If I never took any additional pains in acknowledging that, I hope you know me well enough to believe that I did so because I did not think that precaution necessary. You won't really stand there and make all those years into a lie, will you?"

"You don't need me for that," she said, glaring daggers at him, though the fire in her voice had died.

"And what does that mean... Elenwė? You can't throw down that glove and fail to follow through with your threat."

"That's all you think of--threats, plots, and danger. Is that why you go to Zigūr's? Is that why you go--you, who love to preach to people about how the world is so full of peril and things are not as they seem?"

"That's right, and you can be sure that I hate doing it.”

"Then why do you do it? Why do you go?" she asked, taking one step closer to him, then another one, but he found that he did not want to look at her. He could not. And that was the last drop in an already full cup. He heard the growl before he saw the hem of her skirts on the floor beside his boot. Then she leaned forward to peer into his face, to make him look at her, when she said, "Oh, it is only wrong for me to put myself out there; you are strong enough to withstand any attack to your impenetrable facade!"

"Elenwė, that's enough!" cried Eranion. "You're my sister and there is no way that I could love you any more than I do, but I won't let you abuse my friend when he is a guest in our house."

"Just let her, Eranion," Anįrion said, tightening his fists beside him so hard his bones cracked, his anger powering his movements as he rose. She had no choice but to rise with him, or else she would have fallen on her bottom. As close as they were, he could see the red-rimmed, glittering eyes, the quivering jaw and the lips so pursed that they were white, the intent expression on that gentle face that transformed her into that new person that he did not know at all, and he hesitated. Why were they fighting? What was he doing? They never used to fight--what had changed? But then her eyes narrowed, and her chin lifted, and his heart ached so much that he had to do battle. "This is an old sore between her and I; she's had plenty of time to let it sting, I suppose. It must be…. infected now."

"Infected?" She asked, her voice steadily rising to that pitch that meant trouble, hands on hips in a very beguiling manner that took him by surprise, given the fact that they were arguing and he should not be thinking of those things. "Because I am calling your own bluff you say I'm letting the sore get infected? It is all well and good for you to put yourself out there, but when I suggest a plan, when I make a plan of my own, then everybody has to question me about it, to tell me I'm wrong, to point out how unsafe it is for a girl like me to make things change, to even dare say that girls go looking for their own trouble! It is humiliating! It is disrespectful! Time after time I have had to watch all of you find your place in the world and be praised for it while I get sent to embroidery class, or to the kitchen. Well! I did go there, dutifully, like all of you told me to do, and I found that there are things in that world of women that need fixing, and I am going to fix them or die trying. All of my life I have let everybody dictate where I go and what I do and have been unhappy as a result, but no more. Take it or leave it, this is who I am."

"Because we want you safe, Elenwė! And there will be no thought if dying, or so help me!" Eranion cried, now completely invested in the argument. "It's different for men! Women have no experience having to cope in a world of men!"

"All the more reason for me to get involved. Nobody would expect poor, innocent me to be any trouble..."

Eranion rose at that, waved a finger at her, "You stay away from trouble, Elenwė, or so help me I will see you guarded day and night. It's enough to have to worry about everything else going on to also have to worry about you prancing about the city and prying into business not your own."

"This woman is my business," she said, chin up, a strange gleam in her eyes that frightened him and, strangely, beguiled him all the more. "Never again will I stand aside while someone is hurt by my indifference."

"Indifference?" asked Eranion.

"Never again?" asked Anįrion, a weight like iron settling on his stomach. "When have you been in this position before?"

She looked away from them both, resumed her pacing, but he could not let that go. He walked to her and, upon her turning to pace back the way she had come, stopped her by grabbing her shoulders, turning her to face him.

"When have you been in that position before?" he asked again, trying to gentle his urgency, unsure if he was succeeding. His heart was racing, his legs felt weak, that tell-tale flutter at the pit of his stomach told him he was scared, but why should he be? It made no sense! "When have you seen someone get hurt? In Andśniė? Is that why you go there?"

"What do you care why I go to Andśniė?"

Why did he? And, what could he say? "You have involved my mother."

She laughed at that. "If that's the case, then take all your questions to her." Her eyes fixed on his, and the feeling was as dizzying as it was delicious, which made no sense either. "Tell me why you seek out Zigūr. Tell me what that place was where we hid at the market. Tell me why you stopped going to the meetings at the city square, and I will tell you about Andśniė."

"Are you bribing me, or threatening me?"

"Neither," she said, strangely breathless.

"Then... Then..." he began, but found it difficult to continue... "Then--"

"Then, you better relax," Eranion said, breaking them apart, looking at each of them sternly in turn, "both of you."

"You're right," Elenwė said, moistening her lips, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from her skirt, "We should be out there looking for Mindöniel instead."

"I think we established your personally looking for her was out of the question," Anįrion said. "Won't you sit down and wait until your brother's men--"

"Ar-Pharazōn's men only care about themselves, they don't care about that poor woman!"

"Enough!" Eranion screamed, visibly shaken and with such authority that Anįrion saw Elenwė's jaw go slack. "Only children and lovers quarrel in this stupid manner--which are you?"

Again he looked at each of them in turn. "Well?"

Anįrion shook his head, slightly, and looked away so he would not have to see Elenwė's reply. When the silence stretched for a few more moments, Eranion grunted and said, "I thought so. And what if you yourself get lost, Elenwė?" Eranion asked. "Then we'd have double the trouble trying to find you."

"You have to give them time to do their job," Anįrion ventured to add, trying to put his thoughts out there for all the good they would do, trying to find a way to convince her to stay out of trouble. "Your interfering can only muddle whatever tracks she may have left." That seemed to call her attention, so he let that sink in for a moment before continuing with, "Whatever these men's allegiance, now that the case has been brought forth before the law they will collect their biggest dues upon a resolution. You should trust to that."

"How can you tell me to trust and expect that to appease me? I have trusted before..."

Yes, she had. She had trusted him, once. She had trusted her brothers to let her fly, had trusted her father, her grandfather who never came back, trusted those who had the power to bring justice for her dead father, and no one had done anything. Eranion tried to offer comfort, but she shook him off again.

"If we let this go, that woman's fate will be on our hands. Please," she said, leaning forward, that tilt of the head, that gentle, eager expression of the eyes that he had nearly forgotten, "we have to do something."

"Eralmir won't like it, Sister."

"He doesn't have to know."

"I won't hide something of this import from him," Eranion said, brow furrowed. "Should anything happen to you, it will be on my hands if I knew and said nothing."

She looked at her brother, looked back at him, and for a moment reminded him of a cornered doe, unsure and frightened, but determined to make the best of it. Maybe it was that which undid him, for the one thing he had most admired about Elenwė, the thing that won over his reticence about befriending a girl during their childhood together, was her mettle--her absolute certainty that she had something important to show the world, and her determination to make them see it--and he could not abide that pitiful look in a warrior like her. Or maybe it was that decided sparkle in those stormy eyes despite her fear and helplessness, or even the way she had poured out her innermost struggle to him after all those years of silence. Maybe it was the way her lips had parted as his eyes fastened on hers, as if she had read there all the years of pain and loneliness he had upon his back, and had felt for him. Maybe it was the way his heart had almost galloped out of his chest when she had been in his arms. Or maybe the decision had already been made for him the day their paths crossed again at the market--but, against his better judgment, he knew that he could not run away from this.

"Leave it to me," he finally said. "I will find her and bring her back to you if she is still to be found. In return for a favor from you."

"You would do that? You would go out to look for her?"

"I give you my word, if that still means anything to you, that you shall know what became of her. But I will need your word also."

"Anything!" she cried, and her eagerness made his heart ache, but he needed to go through with his request if he was going to keep his promise to her.

"Stay out of it," he said.

"What?"

"Stay out of it. I can't risk what needs to be risked to find Mindöniel if I know you could be hurt in the bargain."

She was hurt already. He could see it in her eyes, in the rigid stance she had immediately assumed, in the way her arms crossed about her, protecting herself. She would never open her heart to him willingly again, he knew that, but at least she would be safe.

"So, what is it to be?" he prodded, needing to get this whole ordeal behind him already.

"I would never let myself be tricked by you into such a promise. How could you do this to me, Anįrion? You are just like everybody else. This is why things ended as they did."

Eranion let out a low whistle at that, but the widened eyes and eager expression told Anįrion that he was actually quite interested to hear more of the mystery that had ended Anįrion and Elenwė's friendship. Well, he would not go there, and certainly not after she had shown herself all too eager to drag the past back to the present again. There was only hurt to be gained by going that route, and he was done hurting.

"Whatever happened to the proper lady?" he asked, unwilling, or unable, to keep the disdain from his tone.

"She's at the same place Anįrion, the gentleman, vanished to," she said with that distressing quiver of the jaw that could only mean one thing. When she turned her back on him, he knew with finality that things between them could never be the same they had been when they were young. She wanted something from him that he could not give her--he could not very well understand what it was, or why he seemed so incapable of providing it. He thought he had learned to forget, that he could never be hurt by her. Just that morning he had vowed to himself he would not stand like a fool to watch her leave over and over again. So, he followed her.

"Where are you going?" he asked, falling into step after her. "Off to get ready for the ball-- give a tease to your many admirers?"

He had known Elenwė all of her life and he could not recall ever seeing a more withering look on that lovely face. She was almost seething with rage. Walking back the steps that divided them, she looked up straight into his eyes for a long, painful moment, before saying, "Maybe I will."

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
-Robert Frost


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