The Choice of Elros

By Lalaith

Romance / Fantasy

Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Throughout the rest of the city, bright music rang, and laughter and singing echoed through the streets. But where Elros stood not far from the banks of the River Lhûn near the great arena that would soon be filling with the citizens of Mithlond, the merry sounds were only distant. His heart was thudding too fiercely to feel light at the moment. Its fierce throbbing only increased when he looked down into the narrow wagon waiting outside the gate of the arena where eight practice swords lay in a row. Perhaps after his bout was concluded, then his heart would lighten and ease, and he could feel merry. He was guaranteed a dance with Andreth, whether he won or lost, and that would be something to anticipate.

He smiled as he thought of her, even as he reached into the narrow wagon, and picked up one of the blunted blades. These were the sparring blades that he and the other men, eight of them in all, would be using as they fought to first blood. The blade gleamed as he examined it, casting back his own reflection. But he was not seeing his own face in the blade, but rather Andreth's face in his mind. Her eyes that seemed so deep and soulful. So warm, and filled with- tenderness that he had thought had grown into more than friendship these last few months. Even now, though her words had said otherwise, he still remembered the look in her eyes last night when she had woken from sleep upon his divan, and had gazed up into his eyes through the muted light of the dying fire. What hadthat softness in her eyes been, if not love?

Elros sighed, and brought himself back to the present. He spun the sword in his hand, testing its weight, then narrowed his eyes as he faced his imaginary opponent, spinning the blade in his hand to slash a scratch across the chest of his nonexistent foe.

"Are you trying to intimidate me?" a voice said behind him. "Because it isn't working."

He turned to see Hathel striding up, clad in the same nondiscript tunic and breeches he wore himself. The young mortal picked up a blade, and spun it in his own hand, slashing upward across the skin of his own imagined adversary.

"My greater skill is in hunting, I admit that," Hathel said. "And in the use of the bow, but I am not incompetent with a sword. I think you will find me surprisingly formidable, my lord."

"Indeed?" Elros said.

Hathel nodded, grim-faced. "I've spoken to the keepers of the match, and they have agreed to let us go first, you and I. The bout will determine which of us dances first with Andreth, and whether you will find yourself honor bound to ask Andreth why she did not speak the truth to you at first."

"Assuming she didn't," Elros muttered.

Hathel grinned and turned away.

"Why are you doing this?" Elros asked to his back.

The mortal turned back. "Mental warfare," he smirked. "I'm trying to frighten you into thinking that perhaps your victory is not as assured as you think."

"No," Elros shook his head. "Not that. Why this wager? What have you to win? Why not just take the opportunity to pursue her, woo her yourself, since I failed?"

Hathel drew in a breath deep into his chest and blew it out again. "I thought of that," he admitted, turning fully back now, and coming back a few steps toward Elros. "Indeed, last night when we met in the dark streets, my first thought was to torment you, goad you into even greater pain with her rejection."

"But you didn't try to torment me in my weakness, despite your claim that you believed it would be better for her to wed a mortal. Instead you proposed this."

"Yes, I did," Hathel agreed.

"Why?" Elros pressed again.

"Because my lord, I made a choice," Hathel said simply, unblinking. "Do you remember when we were traveling to the quarry, and we spoke of her? You told me you loved her enough to give her up to me with your blessings if she loved me back?"

"I remember," Elros said.

"Well, I have chosen to be the same way," Hathel said. "I know she does not love me. And for all your wisdom and years Lord Elros, you must be as blind as a mole not to see in her eyes the love she bears you."

"Sirs!"

The two men looked up to see one of the game keepers, a dark-haired elf beckoning to them from a nearby doorway.

"Come a moment," the game keeper urged. "We wish to remind you of the rules of the game."

Hathel released a breath with a huff, and tossed the blade he held back into the wagon where it struck the other blades with a clatter, rattling until it lay still. The young mortal turned and walked toward the game keeper, not looking back.

Elros looked at the blade in his own hand, before he too lay the blade back in the wagon, careful to lay it, and the blade Hathel tossed, in the even row with the others. Then he too, turned and followed after Hathel.

The two men entered the room, and the game keeper shut the door behind them.

Not many moments later, a figure, hunched and scurrying, clad in a cloak despite the warmth of the late morning, scurried from behind a nearby building and glanced furtively here and there, looking desperately about before it scrambled toward the wagon Elros and Hathel had just left. One hand, mostly shrouded by the cloak it wore, clutched a small corked vial. And in the other hand, a dirty cloth.

The figure stumbled in its haste against the side of the wagon, causing the swords to rattle where they lay. Flashing eyes again glanced one way and then the other before the vial was lifted to a mouth that opened revealing yellowed, uneven teeth that bit and tore out the cork before the contents of the tipped vial spilt from the mouth in a viscous stream onto the cloth. The vial emptied, the hand tossed it away, picked up a sword, and began to brush the dampened cloth over the blade.

"No cursed elf's gonna kill Lhûg and escape what's comin' to 'im," a voice muttered softly as the unseen figure lay the blade down, careful not to let it rattle, picked up another blade, and continued his sinister task.

...oOo...

"Very well, you are all assembled," said the game keeper, clad in a tunic and breeches of green and brown as he strode before Elros and the seven other contestants where they sat upon a bench that lined the wall of the small, sweltering room. Two other game keepers stood in the room also, a silver haired elf, and another with dark hair, though they did not speak. "I trust you know the rules of the game?"

"No cuts above the collar-bone, beyond the shoulder, or below the navel," one of the other elves offered, a golden-haired elf whom Thranduil knew, but whose name Elros did not.

"Indeed not below the navel," snorted a mortal man with dark hair tied back behind his head. The only other mortal aside from Hathel in the contest. "We wouldn't want to accidentally- disappoint our ladies, would we?"

Beside him Hathel choked softly, stifling a laugh, though it was the only sound. Elros and the other elven men only glared in silence at the mortal who squirmed beneath their stares, and cleared his throat.

The game keeper uttered a sigh that echoed in the quiet room. "You will fight bare-chested so that there is no confusion where the boundaries of legal strikes will be, and for us to see without difficulty when a strike is made.

"You may keep your tunics on until it is time for your individual bouts, at which time you will be required to shed them. Are you all in understanding?"

About the room, heads bobbed.

"Good." The game keeper nodded. "I trust you are all men of honor, who will behave according to the dictates of common sense and fair play." He looked at the men in turn, Elros nodding solemnly as the man's eyes met his own. Beside him, Hathel also gave the man a somber nod.

"That is enough," the game keeper said. "Good fortune to all of you."

Beyond the door, the merry sounds of the festival were louder, as if drawn closer to the arena. Elros drew in a deep breath and with the other men, rose to his feet.

...oOo...

Bright and merry music filled the air, bringing a smile to Andreth's face as she, with her arm looped through Aelin's, followed her friend's lead through the streets of Mithlond. Some distance away, the rising grey lighthouse on the arm of rock that extended into the bay, usually swarming with men, and echoing with the creak of ropes and the scrape of stone, stood alone and untouched, at least for now, as the Harvest Festival swirled with life and color below it. It seemed that all work in the city had been put aside, except for the street merchants, but they seemed as merry as everyone else.

Aelin's face, happy again, filled Andreth with pleasure, and as Aelin turned back to her with a smile, Andreth returned it, and squeezed her hand.

While she was glad Aelin was willing to show her the sights of the Festival she found herself wondering, as she darted behind Aelin from one bit of wonder to another, how Elros' expression would have looked at this marvelous oddity, or that. What he would have said to her, or how he would have reacted to her own delighted suprise. But she had not seen him yet this morning, and she knew after all, that it was perhaps for the best.

Last night, when she had awoken on the cushioned divan in Elros' bed chamber to see him kneeling so near to her, when she had realized that she was awake, it had taken all her will not to confess her love for him. The ache to do so had become especially great when he had so tenderly reaffirmed his own affection for her. It would be best for Elros not to know how her blood stirred when she was near him. How her soul ached just to be close to him.

"...Perhaps what we want is not the will of the Valar..." Elrond had said. Perhaps he was right. But what did Andreth want? She wanted Elros to live, young, strong, fair, wise, for all the ages of the world, doing good for both elves and men as his brother would, and all his kindred, until the world was remade. She wanted him to see the Blessed Realm.

But she also wanted... him. She wanted to be his wife, to give herself to him, body and soul, to sleep in his arms beneath a canopy of stars. To- to feel his skin against her own. She blushed to think of it. But it was true. She wanted to be near him always.

But she could not have all that she wanted, for if he knew she loved him, he would, she did not doubt, choose a mortal life that he might be with her. But if he thought his affection was not returned, then, perhaps, he would choose immortality, with an aching heart, but one that would heal one day, and find an elf maiden to love, and with whom he could live through all the ages.

"Come, you'll like these," Aelin urged, bringing Andreth out of her morose reverie, and pulling her toward a shopkeeper who brightened at their approach, a young looking elven lad with dark hair, and a flour dusted apron. His wares, sweet rolls, were displayed on a table at his side, and Aelin hastily deposited two coins in his hand before she plucked up two of the fattest sweetrolls, and handed one to Andreth.

The sweet roll glimmered under a sheen of honey, covering the fingers of both women in stickiness, but Aelin only giggled, like a girl, and bit into her own sweetroll.

Andreth followed her example, biting into the moist warmth of the sweet bread.

"Oh, it's delicious!" Andreth exclaimed as she chewed, glad for Aelin's cheer that curbed her own sad thoughts, relishing the sweetness that filled her mouth, and the elven woman only smiled through her own mouthful of sweet bread, snatched her hand, and pulled her quickly along again.

"The best is yet to come," Aelin offered over her shoulder with a grin.

How could anything be better than what Aelin had already shown her? Andreth wondered as she continued to finish off her sweet roll, likcing her fingers as Aelin pulled her along. She thought back on all that Aelin had shown her earlier. The elven woman had guided Andreth through the wonders of the Harvest Festival since mid morning, taking her through the streets that had been transformed into a merry maze of colorful banners, and shops teeming with tempting wares.

Andreth had been amazed and delighted at all she had seen so far, but her favorite memory until now, was a jolly elven woman who had been sequestered in a small space between two shops. Ignoring that most of the lady's audience were children, Aelin and Andreth had squeezed down in the midst of a number of small elflings, and a few young mortals, to listen to the lady's animated voice, telling the story of a kidnapped princess, a fierce dragon, and a brave and mighty knight who had come to the maiden's rescue. From folds in her gown, the woman had drawn brightly colored puppets at each character's entrance onto the stage of her skirts, and had changed her voice as each character spoke. Andreth had been enthralled. At the ending of the story, when the dragon had been slain, and the maiden rescued, when the cloth lips of the brave knight touched the scarlet yarn lips of the maiden, the children had howled in merriment and approval, and had scrambled forward to be the first to drop their small coins in the lady's hands. Aelin and Andreth had done the same, rewarded with a smile and thanks as they had given her their coins.

"What could be better than all that?" she laughed as Aelin pulled her along the street. Her friend was drawing her in the direction of an open arena of sandy earth near to the banks of the river where Andreth had seen men training horses before. Now, as she looked about herself, she realized that most of the elves about her were also moving in the same direction, as if in anticipation of some grand event.

"You will see," Aelin promised. "You will like this."

The crowd about them chatted and laughed merrily, clearly looking forward to what was coming, and Andreth found herself growing giddy as well, though she was not certain what she was anticipating.

Indeed, as the arena opened up to them, bright banners fluttering in the wind all about the tiered benches where elves and mortals were finding places to sit, Andreth saw, at the far end, a pavillion over a daïs, and upon this, she saw Círdan, clad in robes of silver and blue, seated like a lord, upon a throne.

Below him, mounted upon a cloud white horse sat a figure clad all in armor, a helmet concealing his head. Any hair that escaped his helmet was likewise concealed by a thickly woven cloak of deep blue. In one gauntleted hand, he held the reigns of his mount, and in the other, he held an upright lance, at the end of which, was fixed a small garland of flowers.

As the armored man's face was turned toward Círdan, Andreth could not see his features. But she could see Círdan's, and as her eyes found his, so did Círdan also lift his gaze from the mounted figure he was speaking to, and found her eyes, despite all the crowd about her, and a gentle smile touched the lips of the bearded elf. He lifted a hand from the arm of his chair in greeting. Andreth smiled, and waved back as Aelin tugged her along the railing. With him upon the dais, Andreth saw the King Gil Galad, and beside the king, Oropher, Thranduil's father. To Círdan's left, sat an empty throne, and another beside it, beyond which sat lord Celeborn and the lady Galadriel, seated side by side. Two more guests of high renown were yet to arrive, she decided, but then turned her attention back upon the armored figure.

Who was he? Andreth wondered. Círdan seemed to know him, for the ancient shipwright smiled as he spoke to the man, leaning forward casually, and laughing as only an old friend would.

"Who is that?" she asked, tugging upon Aelin's arm, and her friend turned.

Andreth pointed to the mounted figure to whom Círdan was speaking.

"I don't know," Aelin said. "He is different every year. One of the mightiest warriors of Mithlond, is chosen. As the War of Wrath ended less than a year ago, he is doubtless a hero of the war who won great renown, and now has the honor of bestowing the garland."

"Lord Círdan knows him well," Andreth said.

"He is not either of the lords Elrond or Thranduil," Aelin said. "For I see them over there."

Aelin pointed across the arena, and Andreth noted now, Elrond and Thranduil, standing near the wall the bordered the arena, leaning upon their arms that rested upon the wall, and talking to each other.

Elros, then? Andreth wondered, and her heart jumped, but just as quickly it settled back, for the warrior was taller than Elros, and she understood somehow, that if he were Elros her heart would- feel it. Somehow

Whoever the mounted figure was, he was indeed a mighty warrior, and more than mortal. She could sense that easily enough.

"I do not see Elros," she said, squeezing Aelin's hand. "And he is not the rider."

"Then perhaps he is among the contestants," Aelin said.

"The contestants?" Andreth asked. "What is going to be contested?"

"That is unimportant now," Aelin chirped in anxious delight. "The garland is about to be given!"

The warrior's words with Círdan seemed to end, and the armored man turned his mount away from the dais where the shipwright and his companions sat, clapping a visor down over his face in the same motion, so even now, Andreth could not see the man's features.

"Andreth, go to the railing," Aelin urged, even as she sat down upon a stone seat behind her. "Hurry!"

"Why? What for?" she asked, hesitating even as other young women, all of them fair and lissom elven maidens, clad in cheerful colors of every hue, clambered to the wall that bordered the arena, their eyes following the mounted figure as he, with his garlanded lance held aloft, galloped wide about the circle of sand. She looked down at herself, at the leaf green dress Aelin had bidden her wear, telling her that it matched her eyes as she twined a green ribbon into a few strands of Andreth's long hair. With the scooped neck and flowing sleeves, it was a pretty gown, but surely the elven maids about her were far more lovely than she.

"Go, you will see!" Aelin teased, and waved her again toward the low wall.

The stone wall bordering the arena was flocked with young elven maidens, except in one place, a spot barely wide enough for Andreth to take, and she squeezed into it, her hands pressing into the stone, and a nervous pattering in her heart, though she did not know why.

Beside her, the maidens giggled and sighed, following the mounted figure with shining eyes. He was galloping now along the other side of the arena, that wall also flocked with young women. Elrond and Thranduil, pressed out of the way by the eager maidens, still stood, though further back. As he passed the two young elven men, the figure upon his mount hesitated briefly, and lifted a gauntleted hand in salute to Elrond, who returned the silent greeting in kind. Did Elrond know him?

The figure then cantered on, circling around, and coming now near to where Andreth stood. She lifted her eyes, wishing she could see through the man's visor, and meet his eyes. Who was he? His gaze moved over the line of young elven women, until they reached her, and paused a long moment, his horse slowing briefly. Andreth felt herself suddenly shiver, not unpleasantly, as she felt the man's eyes linger upon her. And though she could not see it, she sensed him smile behind his visor before he urged his horse on down to the end of the line before he swung his mount's head, and cantered to a stop in the center of the circle of sand.

"Greetings to you all!" he cried in a voice strong and deep, and clear as a herald's trumpet. His voice was friendly, but not one she knew. Across from her, Elrond's eyes brightened in recognition at the voice, and he tipped his head, whispering hastily to Thranduil.

The warrior, yet unknown to her, scanned the faces of the maidens among whom Andreth stood. "And especially to you, my fair sisters!"

Cheers of returned greetings echoed through the seated assembly, and about her, the maiden's laughed and returned greetings of their own, many of them waving, and bouncing upon their toes in delighted anticipation.

"This is truly a difficult choice!" he cried, "for you are all very fair, and I wish I had garlands enough for all of you!"

Laughter and cheers answered this. Andreth's brow furrowed, and she turned, glancing over her shoulder, asking Aelin silent questions.

Aelin grinned in delight, shifting her weight where she sat, and gestured merrily for Andreth to turn back around.

Obediently she did so. The mounted warrior had urged his horse forward again, and mount and warrior circled the arena again, slowly now. The laughter and cheers had grown silent, and a stillness of breathless waiting hung over the assembly. The warrior again trotted along the wall as maidens pressed up against the wall turned uplifted eyes to him, hopeful and pleading.

Then he circled around, coming near again to where she stood. The maidens about her buzzed and tittered, but Andreth stayed still, her heart hammering in her ears. The white horse slowed and stopped at last, before her, the warrior's shaded eyes still hidden from her view. He paused. A breath seemed to rise and fall in his chest. Then at last, the lance lowered, until its tip, and the flowered garland looped upon it, touched the top of the stone wall between her very hands with a soft tap.

To her left and right, disappointed sighs flowed over the line of elven maidens. "Take it," the one to her left urged. "He's chosen to give it to you."

"It means he thinks you're the prettiest one here," the girl to her right sighed.

Andreth still studied the garland before her, not daring to lift her eyes to her benefactor as she, hesitant, lifted her hands, and grasped the garland of flowers, just right to fit upon her head.

As she lifted it in her hands, the lance withdrew, and rose into the air again. About her, the other maidens turned away from the wall, returning with a whisper of skirts, to their seats

"Put it on," she heard Aelin whisper behind her, and Andreth did, settling the garland upon her head.

A clatter of armor brought her eyes up, and she watched her faceless champion dismount. A few young elves darted forward from beneath Círdan's dais, and to these youth the armored figure handed his lance. Then he turned, and strode toward her.

He was taller than Elros, and seemed to carry with him an aura of unfathomable wisdom as he walked toward her.

"Your name, please, young one," he asked, stopping near to her upon the other side of the wall. He held out a gauntleted hand to her.

"Andreth," she returned, slipping her hand into his. The metal was cool and smooth against her fingers. "Daughter of Beldir."

"Beldir of the house of Bëor," the helmeted head bowed at this over her hand. "I thought as much. I can see your father in your eyes."

"You knew him?"

"I did," the man returned. "He died bravely."

Andreth swallowed and dropped her eyes.

"His last thoughts were of you."

To this, Andreth's eyes lifted quickly again. "How would you know that?" she whispered.

But the armored warrior stepped back. "Come, young one," he urged, and before she realized what was happening, he had reached over the wall, and deftly swept her up into his arms. In a moment, she was on his horse, and he was mounting behind her.

"You are the fairest one here," the warrior explained as he settled in the saddle behind her, "and thus, you are to be seated high upon the dais so that everyone can appreciate your loveliness." She could hear a smile in his voice. "But first, a gallop around the arena. Make sure you wave to everyone."

Andreth giggled faintly as the horse started trotting. Obedient to the orders of her new, yet still faceless friend, she waved as he guided his horse along the wall. She caught sight briefly of Elrond, whose grinning face flashed past, and was gone.

"My lord," she murmured as they went, "you are saying that I, a mortal, am more fair than all the elven maidens beside me?"

"I am," he said.

"You did not chose me, simply because I am the ward of Lord Círdan?"

"No," he said simply. "And I do not lie. My lady, I know much, more than even the wisest elf, but in truth, I do not know all, for I am not my lord, Manwë Súlimo, nor Eru Ilúvatar who gave life to us all. And at the first, when I saw your face, I did not know you, nor even that you were not an elf. It was not until I dismounted and came to you, that I knew you to be one of the Second Born. Then I saw your father in your eyes, and knew truly who you are."

"Then why did you choose me?"

Aelin's beaming face flashed past as Andreth waved. The dais upon which Círdan and the others were seated, was drawing near.

"Because," the warrior patiently explained, "you are the most beautiful maiden here. In truth, there is only one maiden I know of, who outshines you, in my eyes. But she was not in this arena."

Briefly, the warrior lifted his eyes and looked skyward, directly into the bright sun, it seemed to Andreth, for a long moment before he lowered his face.

"Many here came close, truly," he continued, "but your eyes won the day for you. They are green, like new grass, and shine brighter than gems."

Andreth felt herself shudder slightly at this. For his words reminded her of Elros' words.

"You are in love, aren't you?"

These words were asked as the white horse cantered to a halt, and the warrior slid from its back. He held up his arms for Andreth, and she slid into them, lifted gently to the ground at the feet of the steps leading to the dais.

"Yes," she answered.

"And yet," he said, guiding her to the steps, "you seem sad."

The steps passed slowly beneath their feet as they rose.

The metal of her guide's gauntlet was cool beneath her fingers. She had yet to see his face, yet something compelled her to trust him with her next words.

"I would not have him die for me."

"Die for you?" he asked.

Her guide was silent for a heart beat.

"Ah," he breathed, his voice clear as a mountain stream. "You love Elros Peredhel."

Andreth did not speak. She could not speak. How could this stranger deduce all of these things so swiftly? Who was he? What was he?

"You fear he will choose a mortal life for your sake."

She and the warrior stopped at the crest of the steps, and her eyes fixed upon Círdan whose grin was almost boyish. It cheered her, and she smiled back.

At his gentle guidance, Andreth turned about, facing the center of the arena. All eyes, to her right and left, were upon her. Opposite from her, Andreth saw a wide gate through which men guided their horses into the arena when they wished to train them. High slats blocked most of her view, but through them, she could see the forms of men standing just beyond, as if waiting. Her lips parted slightly at their forms. They were only partial shadows to her, but one of them-

"My friends," her guide called out in a clear voice, "I present to you, Andreth, daughter of Beldir of the noble house of Bëor the maiden who will present the winner his prize!"

Applause echoed across the arena, and the shadows of men just beyond the gate shifted nervously.

Her guide turned slightly, and from Círdan, who rose from his seat, he took and lifted up a finely tooled quiver, fat with arrows, and a finely carved bow. He held them aloft for the view of the gathering, then turning to Andreth, the armored warrior handed her the bow and quiver of arrows, and murmured gently, "Hold these during the contest. When the winner is decided, he will come forward, and you will present these to him."

Andreth swallowed, and accepted the weapons.

"For now, sit in the place of honor between my seat, and the seat wherein the daughter of Finarfin sits." He stepped back, and gestured to the second of the empty seats behind him.

Beside the empty chair, Galadriel caught Andreth's eye and smiled, gesturing for the maiden to come and sit beside her.

Smiling into the kind eyes of her wise friend, Andreth offered a final curtsey to the gathering, then with the bow and quiver in her hands, she turned, and gratefully retreated to the seat beside the beaming golden haired lady.

"You were marvelous!" Galadriel breathed, reaching over and clasping Andreth's hand as it came to rest upon the arm of her seat. "And indeed our lord was wise in his choice of you. You are the most lovely maiden here!"

"But who is he?" Andreth wondered. "Elrond seemed to recognize his voice, but I did not. And I have yet to see his face."

Galadriel only smiled, and, glanced toward Círdan who had just risen, and moved to stand beside the mysterious armored warrior, a full head taller than the silver haired elf.

"My friends and kindred!" Círdan called out to the now murmuring crowd. "Doubtless you wish the contestants to enter, but also, I do not doubt you wish to know the identity of this mighty warrior!"

Murmurs of assent rippled over the gathering, and with a grin, Círdan nodded to the warrior beside him, who, bending his head, gripped the sides of his helmet, and drew it off.

Long golden hair spilled down upon his shoulders and back, liberated from the helmet. Andreth swallowed stiffly. It was more than simply golden, for this warrior's hair almost seemed to- glow.

A soft gasp seemed to fill the lungs of all present, almost at the same moment. And a glance at Elrond, where he stood some distance away beside Thranduil, Andreth could see his grin of pleased surprise.

The warrior turned now, and smiled toward Andreth, the same smile she had sensed behind his visor. At first glance, he appeared elven, for his features, and the tipped peaks of his ears seemed to indicate this. But indeed, he was more than elven. For a- light seemed to- live within him.

A quick breath filled her lungs, and her heart constricted as a sensation of humility mingled with excitement coursed through her limbs.

"Eönwë." The name reverently whispered through the crowd, repeated like an echo.

"Lord Eönwë," Andreth muttered, now grasping Galadriel's hand, and turning her eyes to meet those of her kind, wise friend. "The herald of Manwë himself. I heard of him. I never thought I-"

Galadriel smiled, though by her eyes, she was as astonished as everyone else. Of all the assemblage, only Círdan it seemed, was not surprised.

Andreth blinked several times, and pressed a hand to her cheek. What new surprises could this day bring?

"And now, my friends," Eönwë called, spreading his hand toward the gate opposite the arena from the dais. "The contestants may enter."

The gates opposite her creaked open, and as the contestants entered, eight men striding into the arena, six elven men, and two mortal men, all clad in unadorned tunics, breeches, and boots. Andreth's lips parted in silent, wondering surprise. Elros was one of them! Tall, magnificent, achingly beautiful, his dark hair unbound but for two braids drawing back the hair at his temples. And Hathel was one of the men as well, his yellow hair tied back behind his head with a string of leather, a few stray strands falling over his brow. As if they had rehersed this, the contestants strode across the sandy arena, and arrayed themselves before the dais in an evenly spaced line, their hands at their sides. Behind the, group, two youthful elves drew a clattering wagon laden with- were thoseswords?

"What- what are they going to do with those swords?" she hissed, reaching and snatching at Galadriel's hand.

"They will spar to first blood," Celeborn spoke up, leaning near his wife's arm. A grin lightened the elven lord's face as if he looked forward to the contest. "Two at a time, single elimination. Once a contestant has had a wound inflicted, he is eliminated, his opponent moves on and fights again, and so on, until one victor is left."

"First b-blood?" Andreth quailed. "But what if the first cut is a blade in the throat?"

"My lady," Eönwë's warm voice, like a gentle wind, sounded at her right hand, and she turned to the Maia.

"Do not fear for your dear one." His hand reached out and pressed hers. The gauntlet was gone, and his hand warmed her own as if with the sun's own light. "The swords are fashioned in such a way that they cannot but scratch, and not deeply. And the contestants are not allowed to make a cut above the collarbone."

Andreth sighed and nodded before she turned her eyes downward toward the eight men, finding Elros' face in a moment. But his eyes were not upon her; rather they were upon Eönwë. Elros' face had grown faintly pale as the eyes of the Maia met his own; yet the dark-haired elf squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, meeting the Maia's gaze boldly.

Andreth's heart tightened at the silent communication that passed between elf and Maia, as clearly as if the two shouted at each other. Eönwë had come to Mithlond to hear Elros' choice at last. And Elros, she could see in his eyes, was prepared to speak it.


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