From where she sat upon Lord Elrond's mount, side saddle behind the elven lord, Andreth saw the worry in Firiel's eyes as the trees of the forest fell away, and their small hut came into view, perched on a windswept knoll, the sky overhead rolling over with grey clouds.
The old woman had been kneeling in the garden weeding, when they had come from the trees, but now the old woman caught up her walking stick and rose, brushing her dirt-covered hands against her skirt. A brisk wind caught at the white hair of her old friend, causing silver tresses that had not been caught back in the graceful knot of her hair, to dance about her lined face. Behind Firiel, the door of the hut was open, and Andreth caught a peek of a cheery fire in the hearth, a promise of warmth, and comfort.
Beyond the hut and past the modest barn, the long grassy slope fell away to the distant shores. Even as the clouds rolled nearer, darkening the sky, the sea was still visible, white waves rolling against the sand, the vast blue of the water stretching away beyond the horizon.
This sight had always been a comforting one to her, the return home to Firiel whether in winter or summer, in gladness, or sorrow. Nothing was unendurable as long as she could return to this.
"Andreth!" Firiel called as the two horses trotted nearer. She hurried forward to meet them as well as she could on her aging legs, her gnarled stick tapping the ground as she came. "I was growing worried. There is a storm coming."
Her gaze moved from Elrond to Elros upon his own horse, and back to Andreth. "Who are these men? And why-"
"Firiel!" Andreth cried, clasping Lord Elrond's proffered hand as she clambered down from his horse, and hurried to the old woman, letting Firiel catch her in an embrace. "These men, these elven lords, they are good and kind. They saved me."
Behind her, the two elves dismounted, standing at the heads of their horses.
Firiel pursed her thin lips at Andreth's words. "Saved-?" she queried. Her eyes moved from Andreth to the two elven men, and back again to the girl.
"Yes," Andreth said, shivering at the memory, and Firiel reached out, grasping her hand to comfort her.
"Then they are welcome here as friends, and as guests," Firiel said, draping a comforting arm around Andreth's shoulders.
She turned now to Elrond and Elros. "Please, good elven lords. We have little to offer, but a fierce storm is coming." She lifted her eyes toward the sky, which was darkening with boiling clouds as moments passed. "You are welcome to stay until it passes. You are most welcome to harbor your horses in our stable. It is small, but there is only the milk goat, and the walls are sturdy enough to endure the winds. What little food we have, we will willingly share. Will you honor our humble home with your presence?"
"We would be the ones to be honored, madame," Elrond answered with a gracious nod of his head. "Thank you, for your generosity."
Though it was Elrond who spoke, Andreth's eyes sought Elros. His gaze, first upon Firiel, turned as his brother spoke, and found Andreth's gaze. A smile touched his lips as their eyes met. The growing wind caught at his dark hair and his braids, brushing them back over his firm shoulders.
"Please make use of what provender we have for your horses," Firiel offered. "I must see to my young friend."
The two elven lords bowed their thanks, and turned away, leading their horses toward the small animal shelter behind the house. But Elros' eyes did not leave Andreth until Firiel turned her gently away, and guided her toward the open door of the house.
"So you see," Andreth choked, her eyes down as she finished the story of her ordeal, Lord Elrond's cloak folded in her lap, and her leaf green gown, the front savagely torn, folded upon the wooden floor beside her. "The man would have ravished me, perhaps even killed me, had not Lords Elros and Elrond come in time to save me."
"Oh, my child," Firiel breathed. Her aging friend's troubled face studied hers against the backdrop of the white linen curtain Firiel had tacked from one wall to the other across the narrow space of their hut, a temporary separation between their sleeping area, and the warm, firelit area where they sat now. Firelight reflected off the tortured lines of her face as she dropped to the rough wooden stool opposite from Andreth where the maiden sat beside the hearth as the final words of her ordeal left her lips.
Firiel pushed a cup of steaming tea into the young woman's hands, despite Andreth's objections that she could eat nothing for now.
Tears shimmered in the old woman's eyes. "I should not have let you go out alone today. I should have gone with you."
Andreth studied the small wooden cup of tea, the liquid shuddering slightly as her hand trembled. She lifted the cup to her lips and took a grateful sip, though the spicy sweet taste of fresh mint was lost upon her tongue.
She touched a hand to the neckline of the white sleeping gown that Firiel had helped her into, running a hand along the lace of the collar as if testing it, to determine if it too, had been torn; but it was whole, and unmarred.
"No, Firiel." She shuddered at the memory of the fury in the eyes of the man who had attacked her. "Likely he would have killed you. He would not have been dissuaded. He attacked Lord Elros with a knife, and would have killed him, but for Lord Elros' sword which cut him down."
Firiel drew in a ragged breath.
Beyond the walls of their hut, the wind was increasing, whistling through the trees of the nearby forest.
"Thank the Valar for such men as Lord Elros, and his brother," Firiel murmured. "Indeed, they are as noble as the tales tell."
A knock upon the door lifted both their heads, and Firiel rose, hurrying to undo the latch. She drew the rough wooden door open, which let in wind, and a lash of sudden rain along with the two elven men, who stood near the door, hesitant, even after Firiel shut it behind them, their tunics, leggings, boots, and the long dark tresses and braids of their hair dripping rain water upon the floorboards where they stood.
Elros' eyes immediately sought her own where she sat at the hearth, and Andreth found herself flushing hotly, aware of her intimate attire.
She dropped her eyes to the cup in her hand, taking another nervous sip as Firiel hurried again to the hearth, and drew the dark pot from its hook where it had been simmering over the flames, and hastily ladled stew into two wooden bowls.
"Please sit, my lords," Firiel nodded to the rough hewn table beneath the shuttered window. "I trust your horses are comfortable? There was enough provender for them?"
"Yes, thank you," Elrond said, and he and his brother obligingly moved to the table, taking the rough wooden bench that sat beside it.
"It is most gracious of you to offer us shelter during this storm," Elros added, his voice, rich and deep, warming Andreth more fully than the fire beside her.
"It was most gracious of you to protect my dear Andreth," Firiel countered warmly, carrying the bowls of stew to the table, and setting them before the two elves.
"Forgive the simpleness of our food, and our lodgings," she added. "It is not as rich as the fare you would have had, had you achieved your destination."
"We were destined for Mithlond," volunteered Elrond as his brother lifted the wooden spoon from the bowl and tasted it. "We would not have made it before the storm hit, and without your hospitality, we and our mounts would have been forced to weather the storm in the forest, with nothing but the waybread in our packs."
An expression of unfeigned delight touched Elros' lips as he dipped his spoon for another generous mouthful.
"You do not give yourself enough credit, Madame," he insisted, lifting his eyes to Firiel. "This is delicious."
Elrond took a bite of the stew as well, then nodded his own agreement as he, too, continued to eat with relish.
Firiel smiled. "Do not thank me," she said, and gestured back toward Andreth, still seated quietly beside the fire. "For she is the one whom you should thank. She made up the stew this morning. It has been simmering all day."
Again the sea grey eyes of Lord Elros lifted and found hers, and across the space between them, Andreth felt the warmth of his gaze.
"Thank you, Lady Andreth," he said, and his voice warmed her heart.
Andreth's eyes fell to the rough hewn floorboards beneath her bare feet. Her heart stirred at the way Elros called her lady, as if she were a noble woman of high birth. "You are most welcome, my lord," she said softly.
"When you have eaten your fill, my lords," Firiel nodded to the curtained partition, there are beds prepared for you. I have heard that elves do not require as much rest as we mortals, but even so, your journey, as well as your exertions in defending Andreth, must have been taxing."
"But these beds would be yours," Elrond observed. "We would not think to turn good women out of their own chambers for our comfort."
"Indeed," continued Elros, turning his eyes upon Firiel, and offering her a reassuring smile. "We will be comfortable before the fire, if you will permit us to rest here." To this, Elrond nodded.
Firiel smiled at this, and dropped her eyes before turning her glance to meet Andreth's. "Indeed my lords," she said, her voice softening. "You are truly as noble as the tales say."
The firelight burned low, flickering down to mere coals as the storm beyond the walls of the small, though sturdy hut weakened and faded to a steady rain.
Elros lay with his hands behind his head, studying the play of light across the ceiling, and listening to the steady drum beat of rain upon the roof.
He was glad the stable was as sturdy and warm for their horses, and for the good natured milk goat they had met there. He grinned at the memory.
He glanced beside him at his brother. Elrond lay with his hands behind his head in the same attitude as Elros, his eyes fixed upon the ceiling, though Elros could see from the glazed, unfocused look within his brother's eyes, that he was in the realm of dreams. Dreaming, Elros mused, of the elusive elven maiden that often haunted his dreams.
Elrond had spoken of her before, a maiden with silver hair, and a crown of golden leaves upon it. Near enough to see her features distinctly, but too far to reach out, and touch. For always, a wide rift stood between them. Who she was, he could not say, for Elrond claimed never to have seen such a maiden before, though her features were distinct, and he claimed that he would know her in a moment, if ever he did meet her.
Elros had never had such dreams, he mused, not of fair, ghostly elf maidens at least, as he turned his eyes again upon the ceiling, his thoughts wandering now, to the mortal maiden, Andreth.
Heaving a sigh, Elros sat up, resting his forearms upon his knees as he studied the white linen partition, beyond which she, and her aging friend Firiel, slept.
He had not met the girl before this day, yet something in her seemed familiar, as if he had known her far longer.
She was noble of bearing, slender and lovely, with the gentle loveliness of an elleth, despite the intriguingly soft curves of her delicate ears. Truly, it was no surprise that she would be a descendent of the great house of Bëor.
Hoping that what he did was not beyond the boundaries of propriety, Elros clambered to his feet, and moved to the edge of the partition, pausing a moment before he reached a hand out, and drew it aside.
Without the light of the dying fire, the room beyond was cooler, and dark, though his elven eyes had little difficulty in making out the two sleeping forms in the two small beds, one against each wall.
Between the two beds sat a low table, a single book laying upon it, face down, as if one of the two women had been reading it, and had set it down thusly before falling asleep, and wished to keep her place.
Furthest from him, slept the kindly matron, Firiel, and closest to him, her golden brown hair splayed across the pillow as she slept, lay Andreth, her eyelids closed over her eyes in the manner of mortals when they slept. It was an aspect that was both intriguing, and lovely, he decided.
Her face was turned toward him, her hair spilling about her shapely face in waves, like threads of spun gold and copper. One hand lay upon the pillow beside her face, the delicate, tapering fingers slightly curled, while the other lay across the coverlet over her narrow stomach.
Beneath the thin coverlet, her young breasts rose and fell with each soft breath, and she shifted in her sleep, her forehead furrowing slightly as if in thought. A moment later, a soft gasp escaped her, and her face grew pained.
"No," she whispered in her sleep. "Please do not hurt me." And in an instant, he knew of what she dreamed.
Without further thought, Elros ducked into the cool darkness of the ladies' sleeping room, letting the cloth fall back behind him, enclosing him in silver darkness, and moved to Andreth's side, touching the hand that lay upon her pillow.
"Do not fear, fair one," he breathed as he lowered himself to one knee, his fingers stroking her open palm. "I am here. I will not let harm come to you."
Immediately, the pain upon her sleeping face dissolved into relieved peace. "Lord Elros," her soft lips breathed.
"Yes," he returned, unable to deny the sensation of warmth and tenderness that flowed through his body at the softened tones that spilled from her sleeping lips as she spoke his name. "I am here. Do not fear."
"I won't," the sleeping maiden vowed.
"Good," he praised, before withdrawing his hand, and stepping back a step.
The peaceful aspect upon her face did not change, and Elros retreated to the curtain.
He drew it aside, and passed through to the flickering chamber where Elrond rested, but he turned back for one last fleeting look into the darker chamber. To his chagrin, he noted Firiel's open eyes studying him.
"Madame Firiel," he gulped. "I did not mean to- my intentions were not-," he cleared his throat. "Forgive me."
Firiel smiled at this. "I saw how you comforted her. There is nothing to forgive, my lord," she murmured, then turned from him, and closed her eyes once more.
With a sigh, Elros let the curtain fall shut. He stood before it, hesitant, then turned, and moved near his brother, lowering himself to the stiff wooden boards of the floor once more, and weaving his fingers together behind his head.Clearing his mind and heart, Elros willed himself to sleep, fading slowly into the realm of his dreams.