The sun had set some minutes before, the flaming tresses of her hair that spread across the sky slowly fading as Elros and Andreth, arm in arm, slowly ascended the steps to the veranda.
Andreth's heart had become a great weight within her, and only the warmth of Elros beside her, the strength of his arm in which her hand rested, kept her feet moving.
Oh, how selfish she was, Andreth thought to herself, knowing she depended on Elros for her strength, when surely his suffering must be much greater than her own. He was certain she did not love him, though she knew she did, and she knew his true feelings for her.
Yes, she had lied to save his life, to help him remember that immortality was his destiny, not a mortal life that would end, inevitably with death, simply because of his love for a mortal woman.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the clap of a book shutting, and she slowly lifted her head.
"Elrond," Elros said, noting his brother, seated upon a bench near the wall of the house, but who at their appearance, rose and came striding toward them, a smile of greeting and of worry playing across his lips.
Elrond reached out a hand, and clapped a hand upon Elros' shoulder, studying his eyes, seeking for- she knew not what.
"Elros? You are- well?" Elrond asked, his eyes now trailing to Andreth, then just as quickly moving back to his brother again.
"I am," Elros answered, though his voice broke as he spoke. He managed a weak smile. "So long as this fair friend thinks kindly of me, I will be."
Elrond eased back, satisfied by one thing, but now distressed by another, perhaps his brother's bleak tone.
Beside her, Elros turned slightly, and Andreth lifted her eyes, meeting the gaze of the one to whom she had lost her heart, irrevocably, yet to whom she dared not confess that glorious, tragic truth.
"I leave you now in my brother's care, my fair Tindómiel," he said, withdrawing his arm, and dropping down a step. "I will stay out under the stars, for I have much to think on-"
"Elros," she murmured, reaching out a hand. "Let me stay with-"
"No," Elros said, his tone firm but gentle. He drew back a step. "I wish to be alone under the stars for a time." He held out a hand to stay her, for Andreth had moved to step after him.
"Promise me a dance during the Harvest Festival?"
"Of course, Elros," she promised. "One every night." She tried to smile, fighting to keep the tears from her eyes.
She felt a warm hand at her elbow, and looked up to see Elrond. The soft scuff of boots turned her back, and Andreth watched in silence as Elros dropped down the last steps to the ground, and turned away, striding alone, around the side of Círdan's house.
"What happened?" Elrond asked beneath his breath as his brother disappeared.
For a long moment Andreth stood still and silent, gazing at the corner of the house where Elros had disappeared, envisioning his tall form, strong and sturdy, yet with bent head, striding away from her, his long dark hair catching faintly in the evening wind.
She wanted to cry out, to fly after him, to fall to her knees, and beg him to forgive her for her untruth, and to explain why she had done as she had. But she did not.
"He told me he loved me," Andreth whispered. "He kissed me, and this time- I allowed it."
Elrond said nothing, though his hand tightened faintly at her elbow.
"But then when he gave me this, and asked me to marry him, I realized-"
Andreth stopped. Her hand lifted, and she opened her palm. The red mark still marred it, though the pain was gone. And within the center of her scarred palm, lay the silver betrothal ring Elros had given her. In her distress, she had kept it.
Andreth choked on a sob, and Elrond moved fully to face her, taking both of her arms as if he feared she would fall.
"A betrothal ring," Elrond murmured.
She closed her fingers around the silver ring, and looked up at Elrond, his face and eyes so like his brother's, though so different.
"I lied to him," she answered, blinking to clear her swimming vision. "I told him I did not love him."
"Oh." Elrond released her arms and turned away, a hand going to his head, though whether the gesture was one of sorrow or of relief, she could not say.
"And how are you, Andreth?" he asked in a broken voice.
"My heart is shattered," she choked. "I wish-"
Elrond turned back to her, his eyes fraught with compassion.
"I wish I had never come here," she finished. "I have caused him so much-"
"No," Elrond said, coming back to her, and gripping her shoulders in his hands. "You came here for a reason-,"
Elrond looked away, his chin trembling.
"What if the Valar wish you to be together?" Elrond said, looking back at her, his voice choked. "What if it is their will that he choose a mortal life, and that he share that life with you?"
Andreth touched her free hand to the pearl necklace at her throat. Her reminder that her shared dreams with Elros had been real. "Then the Valar are fools," she muttered. "If he can live forever, he should. I will not take that gift from him!"
Elrond was silent a long moment, and Andreth looked up at last to search his face.
His eyes were soft, neither excusing her, nor condemning her for her words.
The light had faded much since she had first ascended to the veranda, and as a chilled breeze brushed her shoulders, Andreth shivered.
"You are cold, little sister," he murmured, and came to her, putting his arm about her shoulders. "Let me take you inside."
Andreth said nothing, but as Elrond tightened his arm, she let him lead her toward the door, and through into the slowly dimming hall of Círdan's house.
The swift pounding of running feet darting up the steep hill past his door woke Hathel with a jerk where he sat slumped in his wooden chair.
He shook his head, and looked at the candle at his elbow, burt halfway down, a small lake of wax pooled in the base of the silver candleholder. It must then be the middle of the night.
Why would anyone be darting through the streets at such a pace at this hour, unless going to fetch a midwife or healer-
"Hrm, none of my concern," he mutter, and roused himself, pushing his stiffened frame to his feet, and picked up the candle. But then the steps came again, still running, but now coming down the hill, and just as swiftly, increasing in sound as they neared, then swiftly decreasing before they reached the bottom of the hill. But then, to Hathel's consternation, the footsteps turned about not far from his door, and surge back up the hill again. Now as he thought on it, listening to the nearing and fading of sprinting feet, the sound had been repeating itself for some time in his unconscious mind. Someone, perhaps for hours, had been running up and down the hill outside his door before the sound had finally woken him.
"What sort of fool-"
Hathel pushed his door open, and looked out into the street. It was empty. But not for long, for as he stood there in his open doorway waiting, sure enough, down the hill before his door, an elf came running, swift as the wind, flying so quickly past Hathel's door, that the passage of air blew out his candle.
"My lord!" Hathel called, and the shadowed form, indistinct to him in the dim, moonless night, staggered to a stop that even in the dim light of the stars, Hathel could see was a rather graceless halt for an elf. The elven man, turned toward him, gasping, and dropped his hands to his knees, bracing himself in obvious exhaustion.
"Hathel?" the elf gasped in a breathless, exhausted voice. "What-" the rest of his query was interrupted with a prolonged spell of coughing, and Hathel narrowed his eyes, scowling. The figure was either Elrond, or Elros, and he would hazard a guess that it was the younger of the two. Had he known the fool running about the streets of Mithlond was Elros, he would have gladly let the idiot run himself into exhaustion instead of stopping him.
"What are you doing?" Hathel demanded.
The elf straightened and drew near. Hathel drew back, scowling at his shadow, and knowing that Elros, if that was indeed who he was, could see more of him than he could of the elf.
"Running," the elf said, still gasping, his hands against his hips, his legs trembling beneath him like jelly.
"I can see that," Hathel hissed. "Why in the name of sanity would you be doing such a thing in the middle of the night, Elros?"
Elros shrugged, not seeming to notice or care that Hathel had addressed him so informally as he stopped near the young mortal, and studied him through the darkness. Hathel tried to return the stare, though he could not make out Elros' face. "I suppose," he said between breaths, "that it is a foolish attempt to try to rid myself of the pain."
The emptiness of Elros' tone beneath the labor of his breath caused Hathel to feel a pang of pity in spite of himself.
"What pain, my lord?" Hathel asked, remembering Elros' rank once again.
Elros paused a long moment, his breath slowing gradually. "She told me no," he said.
"You asked her to-" Hathel prompted, knowing he need not ask the name of the lady of whom Elros spoke.
Elros said nothing, but Hathel could see by his silhouette, that his gaze dropped to the stone at his feet.
"Would you like to come in a moment, and rest my lord?" Hathel asked as he stepped back, and gestured into the dark interior of his house.
Wearily, Elros nodded. "I cannot see a reason to refuse," he said, and obeyed Hathel's gesture to enter.
To Hathel's eyes the room was nearly pitch black as the door fell shut behind his back, though Elros did not seem to need to grope at all. Hathel returned to his seat, and fumbled for the lighting instruments, finally striking a light that caught on the wick of his half burnt candle.
"Please, my lord, sit," he said, nodding to a wider seat opposite from him, which Elros dropped into gratefully, his features now visible in the light of his single candle which Hathel set now beside him again.
In the light, Elros' face looked drawn in exhaustion and in grief. The front of his tunic was damp with sweat, and his chest still rose and fell, not fully recovered from his strenuous exertion. What had happened to the elf?
"What did you ask Andreth, my lord?" Hathel asked.
"To marry me." Elros muttered. Hathel's mouth fell open. "I even offered her a betrothal ring-"
Elros touched a pouch at his hip, and looked down, a thought throwing him off briefly before he looked up again.
"She refused you?" Hathel choked.
""She told me she didn't love me," the elf muttered, despondent.
"And you believed her?"
Elros heaved a breath and dropped his eyes. "Why would she be untruthful about such a thing? She saw how bitterly her words hurt."
"I don't know," Hathel said, heaving a frustrated breath. "But she would know, my lord. Whatever her reason, I am certain she saw it as for your good."
Elros heaved a deep breath. "No," he muttered. "The only hope she gave me, was much like the offer she gave you. A dance each night of the Festival. We are on equal footing, you and I."
Hathel drew in another breath. "If we are indeed on equal footing as you say, my lord," he said, sitting up straight, "then I propose a wager."
Elros' eyes jerked up at this. "Wager?" he echoed uncertainly.
"Yes, a wager. During the festival, there are many and varied sorts of contests during the day, games, mock combat, and such things. Let us make a wager that we will compete one with another in one of these contests, and if you win, my lord, you may be the first to ask Andreth to dance with you every day of the festival when the night comes, and the dancing begins. And if I win-"
"Then you will be the first to dance with her," Elros ventured.
"Not only that, my lord," Hathel cut in, holding out a hand to stay him. "I am not ignorant to the truth that you are superior to me in strength and skill, and I would beg an additional reward for me, if by some chance, I do win."
Elros narrowed his eyes. "That would be-"
"That if I win, you must also agree to ask her why she refused you."
Elros scowled. "I know why she refused-"
Hathel snorted at this. "I do not think you do, my lord."
Elros' jaw tightened, and his eyes fairly blazed. "You are not even half my age, Hathel." He insisted, thrusting to his feet. "I have seen more, know more, and have done more than you have, twice over! And I can best you at any contest put before us."
"Then what is holding you back?" Hathel said with a smirk, rising and holding out his hand in offering.
"Nothing," Elros insisted, and strode forward, clasping Hathel's proffered hand. His grip was firm and heated, and Hathel had to struggle not to wince. "We have a wager," the elf said between his teeth.
"Here," Elrond said, coming to Andreth's side where she sat upon a divan against the wall of Elros' room, looking westward over the sea, and the sky, hung with diamond stars that lowered to the horizon. Out of one corner of the window, she could see the black rolls of land and hills, and knew her old home and Firiel were somewhere there, far away.
Elrond handed her a small chalice of sweet wine, and Andreth took it with grateful, uplifted eyes as he dropped in the seat beside her and gazed out the open doors, looking westward as she did.
To her left, a warm fire blazed in the fireplace, warming her back, competing with the cold wind of the autumn night that flowed through the open doors. Andreth sighed at this, and snuggled deeper into the shawl Elrond had given her.
"I have often wondered," Andreth murmured, "what I would see if I boarded a ship, and sailed beyond that point."
She pointed to the line where the deep blue of the sea met the sable blanket of the star washed sky.
"I often feel a similar yearning in my own heart," Elrond said with a sigh, taking a sip from his own cup. "Though I think my time is far in the distant future. I have too much to do here on these shores."
"But you will go to the Blessed Realm one day. I will not," Andreth said. "I am mortal."
Elrond nodded to this, silent, and took another sip.
"Why would my heart want to sail away from these shores, then?"
"There is no sin in wanting to see beyond the horizon," Elrond said.
"But there would be, in my wishing to go to the land to which my race is forbidden. What but water lies between these shores and the Blessed Realm?"
Elrond shook his head. "I do not know. Nothing, that I have heard of."
Andreth sighed, and nodded, taking a sip from her own cup. She did not wish to drink very much. She wanted to be able to think, despite the ache that throbbed in her heart.
"Elrond," she said softly.
"Yes?" he asked, turning his head to look at her.
"I want Elros to see the Blessed Realm one day." Andreth said with a sigh.
"So do I," Elrond said with infinite gentleness. "But perhaps what we want, is not the will of the All Father, or of the Valar. And those who fight against their wills face much difficulty. You know the story of Fëanor."
Andreth winced at this, recalling her exclamation that the Valar must be fools, if their will was that Elros choose mortality.
"I hope he comes back soon," she said with a sigh, curling her legs up, upon the divan, and resting her head upon the cushioned arm. Carefully, she set her half fill cup upon the small table at her head.
"He will," Elrond said. "So long as he knows he will see you, he will come back."
Andreth smiled softly at this, and curled her arm beneath her head, her gaze fixed upon the stars she could see beyond Elros' balcony, determined to remain awake until he returned, though she could already feel her eyelids growing heavy.
After a moment, Elrond, smiling, rose, and silently stepped away. Andreth did not hear him go.
Elros' legs felt like numb blocks of wood beneath him as he trudged down the corridor that would lead him to his room. In his fist, he held a single tindómiel, the last of the blossoms before the vines went to sleep for the winter. Wearily, he pushed his door open, and stumbled inside, hoping that exhausted as he was, he would sleep without dreaming. Seeing his dream maiden now, would only be painful for him, now that Andreth had told him she didn't love him, even with the faint glimmer of hope that Hathel, his should-be rival had given him- Did she care for him more than she wished him to believe? Had Andreth- lied? Why would she? To protect him somehow?
Why had he agreed to the wager? Hathel's words had infuriated him, and intrigued him at the same time, and had goaded him into agreeing to the bet. Why had Hathel done it? He could just as easily have poured salt into Elros' wounds, and asserted himself as Andreth's newest suitor where Elros had failed. But he had not. Why hadn't he? What was in the wager that would benefit Hathel? Did he have some secret motive, or was he simply acting out of a sense of honor? Perhaps Hathel was not so great a knave as Elros had once thought.
Elros halted as the door fell shut behind him, and his thoughts came back to the present, and the intangible change in the air of his room. There had been a fire going, burnt down now to cinders, but that was not it. The balcony was open, and that, perhaps-
He strode through the darkness of his chamber, and caught the doors, closing them, shutting out the wind, and the chill of the approaching winter.
Still, there was something more-
Elros turned, something drawing him to do so, and his heart fairly stopped within his chest. For there she was. Curled in a shawl, Andreth lay upon his divan, like a sleeping goddess, her feet bare, her legs curled upon the divan, and her arm cushioning her head against the arm of the seat. Her honey brown hair tumbled unbound about her shoulders, the folds of her cream white gown glinting in the dying light of his fire. The cloth at one shoulder had crumpled and fallen slightly, baring her delicate shoulder. Her lids lay closed over her eyes, enhancing the beauty of her sleeping face. About her neck, she still wore the gleaming necklace of mithril and pearl he had given her.
The soft rise and fall of the necklace against her fair skin as she breathed warmed his blood, and Elros, like Thingol, froze as one entranced.
"Oh, fair Tindómiel," he breathed into the silence of his room, "why are you here?"
Slowly, he approached her where she slept, then lowered himself to one knee at her side. Gently he reached out, and slid the small tindómiel behind her ear before he withdrew his hand, gently trailing his finger over the delicate, shapely curve of her ear. She stirred, but did not waken. Ai, how he longed to bend his head, and kiss the intriguing curve of her ear, the closed lids of her eyes, or- peradventure, to brush his lips gently against the naked curve of her shoulder, tasting the smooth sweetness of her skin- His blood pulsed thickly at this thought.
"Andreth," he murmured, touching his hand to her soft cheek.
She smiled and stirred, turning into the warmth of his hand, and gradually opened her eyes.
As her eyes met his, a weary smile brightened her face.
"Oh, my lord," she breathed, and lifted a hand, cupping his cheek. Elros closed his eyes, losing himself in the feel and warmth of the unexpected, but welcome touch. "I did not think I would see you tonight. I had been sleeping without dreams-"
Her hand froze and withdrew, and Elros' eyes flew open.
Andreth's own eyes had widened, and she sat up quickly, looking around. "I am awake?" she demanded.
Elros sat back on his heels and studied her sitting up now upon his divan, clearly distressed, but just as beautiful as before; her disheveled hair falling loosely about her shoulders, the gown at her shoulder still fallen alluringly askew. If he could only but touch the silken softness of her shoulder-
"Oh, Elros, I fell asleep." Andreth's voice was soft as a gentle breeze, and he lifted his eyes to her face, drinking in the shine in her soft green eyes. "I was waiting for you, but-"
She drew in a ragged breath. "I should go to my own chambers," she murmured.
At her words, Elros rose, and offered her his hand.
A faint flush touched her cheeks, yet she accepted his hand with a faint smile.
"Thank you, my lord," she murmured, rising to her feet, and drawing closer to him with a small step.
"Thank you, my lady," he returned. "For waiting for me. It reminds me that you do care-"
Elros swallowed, watching her cheeks color as she turned her eyes down. "I do," she confessed, "care- for you. More than I can say."
More than she could say? His heart jumped at the possible meaning behind the words. His eyes fell to her yet bare shoulder. Long he contemplated it, studying the fair, pale skin, the gentle curve of flesh, the delicate bones beneath. The soft pulse of her blood moved beneath her throat, quicker, Elros thought, than was its wont. More than she could say- What would she do, Elros wondered fleetingly, if he bent his head, and kissed the soft curve of her shoulder? Would she melt into his arms, gasping in ecstacy, and confessing her long hidden love for him- or would she push him away, offended at his actions?
Elros swallowed. Gently, he reached out, caught the embroidered edge of her gown's collar, and without touching her skin, drew the fabric back up into its place, veiling her fair shoulder.
"You honor me, lady, by wearing my gift to you," he said, daring to touch the pearl where it rested against her skin.
Her breathing quickened, and Elros' heart jumped, wondering, hoping. He withdrew his hand, and let it fall to his side.
"You honored me, lord, by gifting it to me-" Andreth's hand lifted and self consciously touched the cloth he had adjusted. "It is beautiful."
"It is not as beautiful as you are, Andreth," he whispered, seeking for some hint or sign that his feelings were echoed in her.
The mortal maiden dropped her eyes, her face flushing.
"Dear Elros, I-" she said, faltering, "must go."
Without looking at him again, she turned, and moved to his door, opened it, and flitted out into the hall, shutting the door behind her back.
For a long moment, Elros contemplated the closed door.
On the morrow, he and Hathel would engaged in some- contest of strength or skill- he knew not yet what it would be. If he was the victor, he would win the first dance with Andreth. If he lost, Hathel would win the first dance, and, as he had agreed by clasping Hathel's hand, he would ask of Andreth the truth of her feelings for him. All this, with the assumption that her current claim that she did not love him, was not true.
Elros drew in a breath and dropped his eyes.
Perhaps, he thought to himself as he turned and strode toward his wardrobe across the room, peeling his sweat dampened tunic off, and welcoming the feel of the warm air against his bare chest, perhaps he should let Hathel win.