The Choice of Elros

Chapter 26

Chapter 26

"There, now, boy," Hathel murmured to his horse whose head bent over his manger of oats, munching contentedly. "There now, Aras," he continued, more for himself, than for the horse. In one hand he held the brush as he drew it over the rough brown coat, followed by the open palm of his hand, feeling the thick, wiry hairs as he smoothed his fingers over them. It was magic almost, how brushing his mount's coat could sooth his aching heart. The pain was not gone of course, for the truth remained that Andreth did not care for him. Not as he wished her to, at least. Perhaps he had been foolish, asking for her companionship during the Festival. He had seen her eyes straying constantly from him to the elf, and only returning to him with obvious effort. He had known what her answer would be before he had even asked. And though she had clearly rejected him, she had done so kindly, gifting him the offer of a dance every night, which was probably more than he deserved, for having put her in the awkward position he had.

"Good boy," he murmured.

The horse lifted his head from his manger and turn, nudging Hathel in the shoulder. He laughed, but it was short and without energy.

"There, I'll leave you to your dinner now, and your rest," he said. "You've earned it, and more."

Giving the horse a final pat on the neck, Hathel hung the brush on a hook upon the wall beside, then stepped out of the stable into the soft, blue twilight. The small yard that lay between him and the back door of his humble little house was fading into the purple of twilight as he moved across and pushed the door open into the deeper darkness of his lonely, empty house.

Pushing the door shut, he turned, and fumbled for the table where he would find the candle. Were he an elf, Hathel thought wearily, he could see without any difficulty.

Finally he found it, and as he struck the lighting instruments, and brought a single, yellow flame forth, Hathel dropped wearily to the wooden chair beside the table.

A loaf of bread and a small platter of apples were all that sat upon the table, and the loaf, having been left here a week before, was dry. Perhaps he should have taken Elrond's offer for supper after all.

Hathel sighed, and picked up an apple, bit into it, thinking of the warm, sumptuous repast he would have had at Círdan's house, and began to chew as he glanced about him at his humble kitchen. His house was small, but larger perhaps than he, an unmarried man, needed. He had hoped, when he had first met her, that one day Andreth, elven fair, mortal though she was, would grace these rooms as his wife. But he knew now that such a thing would never be.

He could not blame her for clearly favoring Elros. For what had he, compared to the elven man?

Elves were perfect. Or so they appeared to his lowly mortal eyes. How often had he passed a fair elven woman in the street, and been distracted by her loveliness before coming to himself again? More times than he wished to admit.

Elros, Hathel knew, swallowing the bitterness of the truth of it, was superior to him in everything. Stronger, wiser, more manly- all that Andreth could want. He would probably even be a better lover.

At that thought, Hathel drew back his arm and flung his half eaten apple, which smashed against the wall and exploded before he shoved himself away from the table and rose to his feet.

He snatched up his candle, and paced into the next room. A small sitting room, bathed in darkness but for the candle's glow. Even in the dim light, it was obvious that this was the dwelling of an unmarried man, the furnishings sparse and plain.

He regretted his outburst, now. His mother, had she not died in his tenth year, would have been disappointed at his terrible behavior.

If he loved Andreth, his mother would have said, he would let her go without bitterness. Without foolish, childish words and uncouth accusations flung about like splattered apples.

Hathel dropped into a wooden chair, hard and comfortless, and set the candle on a table at his elbow. If he loved Andreth truly, his mother would have said, he would wish first for her happiness before his own. Elros, thought that way, Hathel admitted, recalling their conversation about her on the road to the quarry.

If Andreth had chosen Hathel over Elros, Elros would have accepted it, and let her go for the sake of her happiness, no matter the pain of his own broken heart.

Hathel regretted now his words to Elrond as the elf walked with him down the hill, the jealous rantings he had spat in his bitterness and sorrow. His words were unjust and unfair, and if he could unsay them, he would. Elros was an honorable man. He was not such a man as Hathel had accused, and Andreth was not such a woman.

Hathel's throat tightened at the thought. He could not have fallen in love with her if she was.

At this thought, Hathel dropped his face into his hands, and began to cry.

...oOo...

Andreth did not wish to think as Elros' lips moved softly over her own, tentatively, shyly. His hands, still supporting her arms, tightened as he eased her a fraction closer to himself. Her hands, of their own accord, had found his chest, feeling beneath her palms the fierce and wild throbbing of his heart. Through the cloth of his tunic she could feel the tension of his muscles. He was holding himself back, she realized. His arms wanted to crush her to him. He wanted to kiss her much more deeply, much more fiercely than he did now. But he was restraining himself for her sake.

This thought tore her heart all the more. Even as the sweet agony coursed through her, she could not help but love him even more for his tenderness and restraint, reveling in the sweetness of his lips, and the warmth of his body so close to her own, knowing that it could not last.

"Andreth," Elros murmured at last, his voice grown deep and warm, drawing back a fraction, his mouth still tantalizingly close to her own. "I have never kissed a woman before today. I hope that I pleased you."

The touch of his lips against her mouth had been brief and sweet, and now his eyes searched hers with the same sweetness with which his lips had searched hers. The light of the sunset through the sheet of water beside them flickered off the walls and over his face as if it wished to share in the fleeting sweetness of this moment.

One of his hands rose, his fingers gently caressing her throat, before rising to cradle her jaw. "My fair Tindómiel," he whispered. "You are beautiful. More than the tongues of men or of elves can say."

He drew back from her a pace, his hands falling to clasp her own as he lowered himself to one knee before her.

Andreth felt frozen where she stood, unmoving but for the rise and fall of her breathing.

Elros lifted his eyes to hers. "But it is not only your beauty that draws me to you, Andreth. My soul yearns for your soul as it has never yearned for anything." He drew a breath into his chest, and finished in a fierce whisper, warm with restrained desire. "And I desire nothing else more than to bind myself to you as your husband, and to take you as my wife."

From a pouch at his side, Elros withdrew two small silver objects, rings, she realized. Andreth's lips parted as a thrill of longing and of fear washed over her body. Betrothal rings.

"I have lived for nearly a century, but suddenly a year seems an impossibly long time. Even so, fair Tindómiel, will you accept this ring, and with it, my oath as your promised husband, that we will be wed, one year from today?"

Into the palm of her scarred hand, Elros placed a small silver ring. It would fit her finger perfectly, were she to put it on, she noted. Andreth's heart shuddered, and forced her hazy thoughts into order. "But I am mortal-"

"I care not for that," he insisted, a soft fierceness entering his voice. "I am Peredhel. Even if I were not, I would still love you, and desire you as my wife, come what may. As it is, I am blessed with a most wondrous gift, Andreth, and I choose-"

"You have not asked me my will!" Andreth cried, tearing her hands from his, suddenly remembering the doom that hung so dangerously over him. She crushed her hands into fists. He had almost spoken the words that would have doomed him!

She turned away, pressing her hands to her heart. "May I be cursed to the abyss for my selfishness! For doing what I have done to you!" she cried, her heart shattering into spinters as she spoke the lie that would save his life. "I care for you, Elros, but I do not love you!"

She staggered away from him, away from the silence behind her that stabbed into her back like a knife. She pressed a hand to the wall of the cave, struggling to remain on her feet, though she could not, and crumpled to her knees, unable to restrain the wild sobs that came forth. "I am sorry!" she managed between wrenching sobs, the words filled with more meaning than she dared let him know. "So very sorry!"

She dared not look at him for the shame and the agony that weighted her down, like a crushing boulder. Would that she could be crushed, Andreth thought as her sobs continued, unabated, for what she was doing to him. Would that she could be stamped out, body and soul, for his sake, so that his heart could be free to love an elven maid.

Foolish Valar, for giving them both such beautiful dreams, for goading him into loving her! Did they not know that Elros was willing to die for that love? Did they not know that he would do the world so much more good, were he to stay upon it, and live forever, always strong, always youthful, always beautiful?

"Elros," she choked, her voice ragged with sorrow, and secret longing. Weakened, she sagged against the rough wall of stone. "I am so- so very sorry!"

A gentle hand touched her back.

Andreth's mind flew back in time to the day they first met, when she had been crumpled on the ground, bent over, overwhelmed by the understanding that she had nearly been ravished, her maidenhood saved at the last moment by the elven lord Elros, and his bright blade. He had touched her back so gently then, just as he did now, thinking of nothing else but of helping her.

"Do not be."

Elros' voice, weak and broken now, but still strong, sounded softly at her shoulder.

Andreth lifted her tear blurred eyes.

Elros had drawn near. He was kneeling upon the ground at her side, his eyes filled with misery and confusion, but also compassion. As their eyes met, he withdrew his hand, and let it fall to his knee.

"Do not be sorry. For I misunderstood," he breathed. "I thought I felt something between us. I thought you loved me in return. I am the one who should be sorry, Andreth. I should have realized last week, when I tried to kiss you, and you did not let me."

He dropped his gaze, and a tear fell from one eye, splashing upon the back of one of his hands which were braced against his knees. "I had hoped so desperately that there was some other reason you withdrew from me. I was wrong."

"Elros," she breathed. "I wish us to be friends. I do not want that to stop."

"We are," he answered quickly, he reached out, tentatively, and touched her shoulder. His touch was both sweet and agonizing, but still Andreth allowed the contact. "And our friendship will never end; that I promise you."

She turned to him now, fully, her heart bursting with love and with misery, as she studied his grieving, penitent face.

"Will you be- alright?" she pleaded, lifting a hand, and gripping the wrist of his hand that held her shoulder.

"I will be well enough," he murmured, struggling to smile bravely. "So long as I know that you think kindly of me, and count me a friend. So long as we gaze upon the same stars."

Andreth dropped her eyes. Her ragged breaths had not yet eased, and upon her bosom the necklace of mithril and pearl rose and fell.

"I should return this to you," she began, reaching her hands up to undo the clasp. But before she could reach behind her neck, Elros' hand gently took her wrist, drawing it back.

"No," he pleaded. "It was a gift. I beg you, keep it."

Her hands fell to her lap at this, and Elros took them up, pressing them between his own warm hands. "I would never wish to give it to any other."

Her eyes studied his a long moment.

Elros drew in a ragged sigh, and lifted a hand, touching her cheek with the softest brush of his fingers. "Your eyes are green, like new grass," he breathed.

"Oh, Elros," she cried, and at last Andreth did what she had longed to do since he had returned, and flung herself into his arms, burying her face against his warm neck. She knew that now he would interpret the gesture as only the embrace of a friend, and that was how it should be, to save him.

He could not know that with every throb of her heart pounding against his own, that her love for him was renewed, that it broke with his sorrow, and ached that she could not tell him the truth.

His arms went around her waist in turn, pulling her more firmly against him, and she felt his face bury in her hair. His scent was musky sweet, and painfully alluring, reminding her of an autumn forest at night. She could feel him crying softly against her.


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