The Choice of Elros

Chapter 24

Chapter 24

Mirion the jeweler sat at his workbench, inspecting the second of a pair of silver betrothal rings, seeing his reflection in its gleaming surface. He smiled, and his bent reflection smiled back, clearly pleased with his work.

Tomorrow would be the first day of the Harvest Festival, and, as often happened, a number of betrothals would be announced that week. If he wished to profit from the sudden rise of amorous couples wishing to plight their troth, he would be wise to have enough stock on hand to satisfy them.

His musings were interrupted by a quick rap at the door of his shop, and Mirion rose to his feet, hastily brushing his hands against his apron before he crossed to the door, and opened it.

To his delight, the youthful lord Elros who had given him the fair pearl just a week before stood in the reddening light of the evening beyond, with Círdan silver-haired elven lord at his shoulder. The dark haired youth looked hopeful and happy, if not a great deal wearier than he had when he and his fellows had left the city a week before.

Beyond the pair, a small group of mortals stood, looking dusty and bedraggled, one holding to the reins of three horses, the other two standing without mounts.

"Welcome back, my lords," Mirion greeted, stepping back and ushering the two elven men inside with a wave of his hand. "You have come, my lord Elros, to see the necklace I have fashioned for your lady?"

"I have," the youthful elf said, his eyes bright and somewhat breathless. "Is it ready?"

Mirion grinned. "As I promised it would be."

With a bow, he turned away, stepped to a side cupboard, and withdrew the carved box that contained the necklace he had crafted from the drawing the young elven lord had given him. Setting the box before the young dark haired elf, he opened it, watching the youth's eyes all the while.

The gleam in the young lord's sea-grey eyes, and the grin that drew his mouth up, told Mirion well enough, even before his words, that he had pleased the young lord.

"It's exactly-" the young lord swallowed, "as I envisioned it, Master Mirion," he continued, and began to dig into his pouch, the welcome clatter of coins reaching Mirion's ears.

"Ah, no," Círdan protested, holding out a hand to stay the youthful elf. "The Valar know well enough that you have done enough labor on the lighthouse, Elros. Let me."

"But my lord," Elros protested.

"Come," Círdan continued, his voice such that it brooked no argument from the young elf. "Let me pay for this, and you will have enough to purchase for yourself, and for her, a fine pair of betrothal rings, yes?"

Mirion stood straighter at this. Of course if the youth were having such a fine gift made for the lady, he might be ready to ask for her consent to be his bride as well. But to his surprise, Elros seemed to sag at this.

"My lord, would it be wise? What if she doesn't-"

"Come now," Círdan cut the young elf off. "See, there is a pair of rings there." He pointed to the ring Mirion had only now been inspecting, and its partner beside it.

Elros drew in a deep breath and released it, glancing from Círdan to Mirion as if seeking for advice.

Mirion was now quick to speak. "Do you care for the lady, my lord?" he asked.

The youth's eyes became fixed upon his face as Elros said, without a moment's pause, "I love her, Master Mirion. With all that I am."

Mirion smiled at this, and not only for the profit he hoped to gain from it. "Then perhaps, my lord, you would do well to tell her so. I would wager there is a good chance she feels for you as you do for her."

Elros dropped his eyes at this, studying the necklace of mithril and pearl nestled in the wooden box. He lifted his eyes. "Very well," he said, reaching again into his pouch. "How much for that pair of betrothal rings?"

...oOo...

The sun hung low in the sky spreading its golden tresses over the water as it sank lower toward the sea.

Despite all that had happened over the past few days, and the bandage that still enwrapped her right hand, the merry mood upon the veranda was infectious, and Andreth found herself smiling despite the emotions that weighted and troubled her heart.

Upon one side of the veranda, a few of the servants sat with instruments in their hands, making the bright and merry music to which Andreth and the others in the middle of the floor, danced. Aelin was among the musicians playing her flute, and while her music was as bright and sweet as ever, she would not lift her eyes, no matter how many times Andreth tried to catch her gaze.

Andreth's heart hurt for her friend. Did Aelin not know that Andreth was not angry? That she had forgiven her? Andreth could not fathom the pain that Aelin felt over her sister's death, or her fury with Maglor for the part he had played in it. But she did know that Aelin had not meant to hurt her. Perhaps she would not have been able to bring herself to hurt Maglor, despite her anger. Andreth had seen the hesitation in Aelin's face and movements. She could have slain Maglor the moment she'd pinned him to the tree. But she hadn't. Andreth knew all this. Did Aelin not know she knew?

As the circle in which she danced swung around and she drew near to passing Aelin again, Andreth looked toward her friend, hoping once again to catch her eyes, to give her a hopeful, encouraging smile.

Not watching her feet, her steps stumbled. But beside her, Thranduil, her partner in the dance, tightened his hold upon her hand, his strong, sure grip, keeping her from falling.

"Are you all right?" he queried, and she looked up at him to offer him an apologetic smile. No one else but he had seemed to notice her mistep.

"I am fine, my lord," she murmured back, glancing down at her still bandaged right hand. "Forgive me. I was distracted. I have been trying to catch Aelin's eye."

Thranduil said no more, though he smiled, a silent, encouraging smile, before she spun under his arm, and he caught her at the waist to end the dance.

"Well done," he praised, stepping back, and offering her a gracious bow as the circle broke into merry chatter. "Your grace has much improved."

"Thank you, my lord," she said, returning his bow with her own curtsey.

"Andreth."

She looked toward Elrond's voice where he stood in the doorway that led into the inner hall of Círdan's house, standing to the side as groups of other elves, chatting merrily, were passing back inside through the door in groups of two or three.

Elrond held something in his arms wrapped in a cloth, and Andreth brightened, guessing at what it was, from the shape beneath.

"Farewell to you, lady Andreth," Thranduil said with a final nod, and turned away, falling in with a group of other young elves as they returned inside.

Thranduil clapped Elrond on the arm as he passed him, and Elrond returned the gesture, though his eyes quickly returned to Andreth, where she stood upon the veranda.

As he came through, Elrond's eyes turned to the side, where the musicians had been seated, and Andreth turned to follow his gaze.

Aelin still sat where she had been playing during the dance, her flute still in her hands. But the others were gone.

"How does your hand feel?" Elrond asked as he approached her.

"Fine," she returned. "I think it is nearly fully healed, though it twinges now and then when I try to use it too much."

"May I see?" Elrond asked, and Andreth nodded, holding out her wrapped hand.

Elrond set the harp he carried, for she knew that was what it was, upon the ground, and took her wrapped hand in his, careful as he untied the knots, and carefully unwound the bandaging, gingerly drawing back the last of the cloth to reveal her palm, a red, raw mark still visible upon it. It had only been two days before that Aelin had accidentally cut her with her envenomed knife.

When he had last wrapped it earlier in the day, Elrond had smeared healing sap over the wound, and the sap seemed nearly to have been all absorbed, and the wound itself much better.

"It is healing fast," Andreth remarked. "You are a most skilled healer, Elrond."

Elrond smile at this.

"Here, little sister," he said softly, producing, from a pouch at his side, a fat piece of leaf thick with the ooze of the healing sap gleaming upon it. Gently, he cradled his hand, and squeezed the leave, smearing the sap over the cut, his hand so gentle, that she barely felt any discomfort as the sap touched her yet raw flesh.

Little sister, he had called her. Andreth's heart was both pleased and pained at the words as Elrond gently wrapped the bandage once more around her hand. Would that she could be.

Where she sat, Aelin must have been aware that they were the only three left now on the veranda, but the elven woman only sat where she was, her silent flute in her hands, not lifting her head.

As Elrond finished binding her healing wound, he turned toward Aelin, then glanced back at Andreth, his eyes silently bidding her to help him.

Understanding his request, Andreth nodded.

"Aelin," she called, anxious, and Aelin lifted her eyes, stiffening a little as she saw the mortal maiden approaching her with Elrond not far behind, the elven lord having paused to retrieve the wrapped harp from the ground.

"Yes?" Aelin asked, shifting slightly as Andreth sat down upon the empty seat beside her. Elrond paused at Andreth's shoulder, still standing.

"I wanted- we wanted to speak to you," Andreth began tentatively.

"About-?" Aelin queried softly.

"The harp is repaired," Elrond offered, drawing the cloth back, and revealing Maglor's harp, restrung.

Aelin nodded, her face emotionless. "Fëanorion will be pleased when you return it to him."

"Also, I wanted-" Andreth began, then faltered. Elrond's hand upon her shoulder encouraged her. "I wanted you to know-"

"That you've forgiven me?" Aelin asked, her query faintly sharp.

"Well-" Andreth said as Elrond's hand tightened upon her shoulder, "yes, and also that- in truth, I never condemned you. I cannot know the pain you suffered when your sister died. And the anger you would feel toward those who caused her death."

"I nearly killed you, Andreth," Aelin said softly.

"You didn't intend-"

"It was my enemy who saved you." Aelin dropped her eyes. "My heart is torn. For I despise him, yet I know he is not wholly evil." She shot a glance up at Elrond's face. "I knew it before, but I did not see such for myself until you were hurt."

"Mistress Aelin," Elrond ventured now, "while Andreth and I see in Maglor qualities that endear him to us, I do not, and I know Andreth does not excuse what he did in trying to regain the Silmarilli."

Andreth reached out, and touched Aelin's arm with her hand. "Yes," she said. "And while I am glad for what Maglor taught me, also I am glad for what you have taught me. From my first coming here, you have been my friend, Aelin. You have been like a mother and a sister both to me. Can we not be friends as we have been? Can we not simply leave Maglor's fate in the hands of the All Father, and have peace in our own hearts?"

Aelin looked at her now. "Can my heart ever let go of its bitterness, its distrust, its wish for vengeance?" she said softly, yet she took Andreth's proffered hand.

"Mistress Aelin," Elrond murmured, and Aelin looked up.

"I want to be certain that the harp is in tune, yet I am not musically learned. Andreth knows, but her hand is injured. Would you-?"

Elrond held the harp out to her, and Aelin studied it, the hesitation obvious on her face.

"It is his harp," she said quietly.

"It is a harp, neither good nor evil of itself," Elrond said. "Will you play it?"

Aelin looked up at him. "I have not touched a harp since you were a tiny child, Elrond," she said. "Since before- before Indilwen died."

"Will you play it now, sister?" came a warm, and unexpected voice from the doorway.

Andreth turned at the new voice, seeing Gil Galad the king standing in the doorway.

As their eyes rested upon him, the high king stepped further out onto the veranda. "Will you play it, Aelin?" he asked again. "In Indilwen's memory?"

Aelin swallowed fiercely at this, her eyes fixed upon the face of Gil Galad, he who would have been her kinsman, had her sister not been slain. "I will, if you wish me to, little brother," she said, and turned her eyes on the harp in Elrond's hands.

Reaching out a tentative hand, she touched the soundboard. She ran her finger gently down its lengthy before she took the weight of it out of Elrond's hands. And settling it, set her hands to the strings. Softly, gently, she began to play.

...oOo...

Elros, his body weary, but with his heart beating nearly into his throat, stopped in the same moment that Círdan and Hathel stopped as the three of them climbed the hill leading toward the high white house on the bluff.

Their horses, led by their bridles, had quickened their pace, and Elros had to touch a hand to Nórui's neck to make him pause.

The sound of a harp, soft and sweet, came from the house, accompanied by a woman's voice, singing a tune fair and wordless, yet filled with light, like the voice of a stream.

Ai, he knew that voice well, the sound of it recalling to his mind the day after he had first met Andreth, and had heard her singing, unintentionally stumbling upon her only half dressed beside the pool where she had been washing her clothes, and the lady Firiel's. What a fair and welcome memory that was.

His reverie was broken though, by Círdan's good natured chuckle as the silver haired elf continued up the hill, still leading Celegben by the reins.

"Come my young friends, you'll not see the fair bird who is making that enchanting song if you stand there like two twin pillars of stone until the world is remade!"

At that, Elros turned his head and met Hathel's eyes, realizing that Hathel too, for that lingering moment, had been entranced by the fair voice of Andreth just as Elros had been.

As the eyes of the two men met, Elros noted the mortal's eyes narrow slightly, and his jaw tighten. At this, the tentative camraderie that had begun between them as a result of Lang's cold, dangerous looks toward Elros seemed to vanish like smoke upon a wind.

"Yes my lord," Elros said, Hathel's words echoing his in unison as the two men turned forward, and continued up the hill, clambering in their haste to reach the level bluff on which the house sat, and find the source of the fair voice that floated in the air all about them like the sweet voice of a Valië from across the sea.

...oOo...

As Andreth sang her sweet, wordless accompaniment, she watched Aelin's face, her heart growing full as the pleasure grew and brightened in her friend's eyes. She would never have guessed that Aelin had not played the harp in nearly a century, for her fingers moved over the strings with a grace that could have equalled Maglor's.

This was a song she had never heard before, a sweet, sorrowful tune, yet with a faint sense of hope in it as well, for which Andreth was glad.

She was almost sad when the song ended, the last notes of the harp quavering, and fading away in the evening air as her own voice eased and stopped.

"Well done, both you you," Elrond said, impressed.

"Indeed," Gil Galad agreed from where he stood. "My lady Andreth, I did not know you could sing with such skill."

"Like one of the Valiër," insisted a warm, breathless voice from the doorway.

Andreth's eyes flew to the door, at the welcome voice, her heart leaping in wild joy within her.

For here was Elros! Clad in dusty, plain garb, his tunic dusty, and damp with sweat, his chest heavingas if he had been running, but all of that was forgiveable for he was back!

She leapt to her feet, near to screeching his name in an abandon of pure delight, and flinging herself into his arms, when from behind him, rushing through the door onto the veranda in a near dead sprint, came Hathel, stumbling to a stop at the sight of her and her companions.

"My lady, Andreth," Hathel gasped, straightening himself up before shooting a glance at Elros, trading a sharp look with the elven lord. Hathel turned to the others now. "Your highness, my lord Elrond, mistress," he said between deep gasps, bowing in turn to Gil Galad, Elrond, and Aelin.

Andreth felt herself coloring. Even without Elrond's confession that his brother was in love with her, only the most dimwitted of fools would not discern that Elros and Hathel both desired her graces, and considered the other a rival for them.

"Master Hathel," Andreth breathed, aware that her breathing had suddenly quickened. "Lord Elros." As much as she wished not to hurt Hathel's feelings, her eyes were drawn irresistably to Elros, drinking him in as greedily as she would a pitcher of water after days in a desert. "You have returned." With effort, she tore her eyes back to Hathel, and dropped in a graceful curtsey to the two men. It is good to see you- both."


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