A hush fell over the arena as Eönwë rose to his feet, and strode to the edge of the daïs.
"My brothers," he called, speaking down to the men below him, though is voice echoed easily over the entire arena, "I wish good fortune to all of you, and trust that your conduct will reflect favorably upon your characters, and upon your Houses and kindred."
A soft murmur rolled over the assembly as Eönwë paused, and nodded to the game keeper who stood at the base of the steps to the daïs.
The elven man nodded back, and dropped his eyes to a sheet of parchment in his hand.
The Maia returned to his seat, and lowered himself beside Andreth.
Andreth sat upon her own gilded chair feeling nervous despite the Maia's reassurance, and she sat stiffly at the edge of the seat, her eyes ranging over the line of men below her, lingering upon Hathel, and then coming to rest upon Elros.
Elros eyes were still upon Eönwë, but as her eyes came to him and stopped, his own gaze shifted and met hers.
Seeing perhaps the worry in her face, he smiled, a tender, reassuring smile, and inclined his head faintly. Do not worry, Tindómiel,his lips murmured silently.
For his sake, Andreth strove to return his smile.
The game keeper spoke now, his voice ringing over the assembly, though not as powerful as Eönwë's voice had been. "Our first combatants will be Hathel son of Helendir, and Elros, son of Eärendil."
Andreth's heart leapt into her throat at this pronouncement.
"Select a blade, my young brothers and come to the center of the arena."
The group of men turned now, to face the center of the arena, and Elros and Hathel started forward toward the small wagon that held the blades the young elves had brought.
Uncertain what possessed her, Andreth jumped to her feet, and scampered down the daïs steps. "Hathel, Hathel!" she gasped.
Both the mortal man and Elros stopped at her frightened tone, and both turned back, though only Hathel stepped toward her, his eyes uplifted, watching her come to him.
His eyes, she noted, her heart growing heavy, were as soft as Elros' had been when she had met the elven man's gaze. Hathel too, had feelings for her, though his caring she could not return. Not as he wished.
"My lady?" he queried, coming to the bottom of the steps.
Behind him, a murmur of subdued laughter rippled through the onlookers.
"Oh, Hathel," she murmured as he drew near, His eyes uplifted to hers. "Don't hurt Elros."
At this, Hathel's smile quivered faintly, a fleeting look of disappointment in his eyes before a gentle smile banished it. "That is what you wished to tell me?" he asked.
She reached out, and rested a hand upon his shoulder. Beneath the rough cloth, she could feel the thick sinew, warm and firm from so many tireless years of cutting and laying stone. More tittering rippled over the assembly, and Andreth quickly withdrew her hand, realizing the gesture had been misinterpreted.
She began, "I know you and he are not the best of friends-"
"I give you my word, my lady, I would never hurt anything precious to you," Hathel said, his eyes fixing upon her own with gentle intensity. "It is true we are not the best of friends, Lord Elros and I, but we have- come to an understanding. He loves you, and I know that you love him."
Andreth dropped her eyes. A moment later a finger, roughened with callouses, though its touch was gentle, came under her chin, and lifted her face again. Andreth barely heard the subdued merriment of the assembly as this.
"It is in your eyes, fair Andreth," Hathel said. He choked faintly. "I will not lie and say that it is pleasing to me. But I want you to be happy. And I know that Elros can make you so. Do not fear for his safety."
Hathel stepped back, "You should tell him how you feel, Andreth. Do not think you're sparing him anything by keeping the truth from him."
Andreth's mouth fell open, but she could not speak. Hathel caught one of her hands in his own, and lifted it to his lips, pressing a soft kiss against her knuckles, all the while keeping his eyes fixed upon her face.
At last, he turned away, and jogged toward Elros where the elf waited. Elros' eyes found and held Andreth's gaze as Hathel came, then as the mortal reached his side, both Elros and Hathel turned and walked now toward the cart of weapons side by side. An arm's length was still between them, but the pair seemed amiable enough.
Her heart still trembling, Andreth turned and began back up the steps.
"She's most likely the mortal's sweetheart," a man's voice muttered nearby from the seats that began near the daïs steps.
Andreth paused and tipped her head, seeing out of the corner of her eye a pair of mortals, a smoothly shaven man with fine robes, a trading merchant most likely, and a woman clad as finely as the man seated upon the stone benches the began not far from the daïs steps. Perhaps his wife.
"I don't know," the woman replied, uncertain. The pair gazed out into the arena, and did not seem aware that Andreth could hear them. "She acted toward him as if he was more her brother than a sweetheart. And did you not notice, but the maiden and the dark-haired elf were gazing at each other for some time."
The man snorted. "Ah, my dear, you know little of elves. Do you not know why in the few instances when mortals and elves have wed since the beginnings of our dealing with one another, that only elven women and mortal men have wed?"
The woman heaved a sigh and shook her head.
"It is because elven men are so unmanly, and-"
A low, but insistent hum of appreciative feminine voices rippled through the arena, and silenced the man. A rustle of cloth accompanied a line of women, both elven and mortal, who rose from their seats, and crowded up against the stone wall of the arena as they had before Eönwë had awarded the garland to Andreth.
Turning fully back now to see what had drawn the attention of so many women, Andreth had to catch a gasp in her own throat.
Elros and Hathel stood at the wagon where the swords lay. Elros was peeling his shirt off. The cloth was up over his shoulders and head, his flat, corded stomach already visible. Andreth's heart flipped within her at the sight. Her blood warmed of its own accord, and her knees threatened to buckle beneath her.
As his head and arms came free of the cloth, and he drew his arms free of the sleeves, draping it over the side of the cart, another sigh of admiration and appreciation rippled over the women lining the low fence that bordered the arena.
Andreth herself stood as one stunned. She had seen Elros thusly before, naked from the waist up, but as she watched him now in the center of the arena, rolling his firm shoulders, and stretching his muscled arms, the sinews taut and corded beneath his lightly tanned skinned, his dark hair and braids spilling to the fore and back of his peaked ears, over his shoulders and down his back, she could not help but stand still, entranced, unable to do anything else but watch the fluid grace of his movements.
Elros picked up a sword and twirled it experimentally, testing its weight in his sturdy fist, oblivious to the attention he was garnering from nearly every woman in the assembly at each simple motion he made.
The sinews shifted beneath his smooth, flawless flesh as he stepped back from the cart, the weapon in his hand. His arms were firmly muscled, his shoulders and upper chest taut and firm, tapering to his lean, corded belly where his breeches hung loosely just below his navel, against firm narrow hips.
With the sword in his hand, and his long hair catching in a faint breeze that washed through the arena, Elros glided slowly through the motions of several fighting steps, the sword seeming to be now but a natural extension of his arm. His back, as he turned from her, was as smooth and flawless as his chest; the valley of his spine curving down his back between his smoothly shifting shoulder blades.
Elros seemed like grace itself. Like a visible- song.
Ai, he was beautiful.
Andreth's blood quickened within her as she remembered that of all the women in the assembly, above all the fair elven maidens who gazed at him now with stars in their eyes, he loved only her. His heart, she recalled, elated and grieved at the thought, was hers alone.
The voice from behind her was an urgent hiss, though not without a thread of humor, and Andreth started, realizing that Lord Eönwë had been trying to catch her attention for some time.
Coming back to herself, Andreth looked about her, blushing as she realized that almost every face not fixed upon the elven man in the arena, was looking at her. And grinning.
Abashed, she turned, and caught up her skirts to ascend the steps once again. Though she did cast one more glance at the mortal merchant and his wife, and smiled to herself as she noticed the man's flabbergasted face, and his wife's own expression of teasing triumph.
"That fair creature- unmanly?" the lady teased. "Oh, my dear. I think not."
"Every woman present is looking at you, my lord," Hathel muttered, peeling his own shirt over his head and draping the rough cloth over the edge of the wagon before picking up a sword himself.
His brows came together as he studied the blade, striving not to let his ego crumble when no feminine voices cooed in admiration at his bare torso.
Elros' eyes remained fixed upon the ground as he spun the sword he held in his grip, the blade making a circular whir like a hummingbird's wings before his firm grip halted its spin. "Is the lady Andreth?"
"Are you daft? Of couse." Hathel answered, shooting a fleeing glance toward the fair maiden seated again beside the Maia, her eyes fixed upon them both with intensity and obvious worry. "In fact, she didn't return to her seat for several minutes for staring at you."
Elros' face colored faintly at this. "What did she say to you when she came down the steps?"
"That she loved you."
Elros' eyes jerked up.
"Not with those words," Hathel admitted and the elf's eyes lowered again. Hathel continued, "Her very words, my lord, were 'Don't hurt Elros.' I told her not to worry, and that I knew she loved you."
Hathel looked steadily at Elros' downturned face. "She did not counter me."
To this, a hesitant grin began to come to Elros' lips.
"Sirs," one of the game keepers called where he stood in the center of the arena.
Elros drew in and released a breath. "Let's go," he said, and Hathel turned, following him to the center of the arena where the game keeper stood, taking the place in the sand across from Elros that the game keeper indicated.
"You both remember the rules," the game keeper said. "No cuts above the collarbone, beyond the shoulder, or below the navel. Any illegal cuts you make will disqualify the offender, and his opponent will be declared the winner of the match. Do you understand?"
Hathel nodded, as did Elros. He could feel his heart beginning to thunder in him, and his brow was growing damp. He swallowed hard, struggling to push down the doubts that were beginning to creep into his heart. Hathel had proposed this bet when he'd thought that Elros might wish to claim the chance to ask Andreth how she truly felt; and- before Elros was holding a blade in his hand.
Hathel was no warrior. Yet this elf had fought in the War of Wrath, and cut down more enemies than Hathel could imagine. Even if Elros only gave half his effort, Hathel would be hard pressed to have even the smallest chance of winning.
"Shake hands, my brothers."
Hathel responded to the order without thinking, traded his blade to his left hand, and stepped forward, as did Elros, the two men clasping hands between them.
"Good fortune to you, my lord," Hathel muttered, meeting Elros' piercing gaze.
"And to you," Elros hissed between his teeth.
Hathel gulped, and withdrew his hand, stepping back to his place, his heart hammering within his chest. He moved his sword back to his right hand, feeling his palm growing moist as it gripped the hilt. Clumsily, he traded the weapon to his left hand once more, and rubbed his right palm against his breeches, before he took the hilt again in his right hand. Then he noticed how his opponent held his own blade.
Elros too, was right-handed as he was, but the hand that held the hilt of his sword was his- his left. He'd shifted it to clasp Hathel's hand, but had not traded it back.
Hathel waited a moment, expecting the elf to trade his blade back to his more skilful hand, and when he did not, Hathel lifted his eyes, questioning the elf silently.
Elros only offered him a furtive, half grin and a faint shrug.
The soft scuff of feet on sand told him that the game keeper had backed up several paces.
He swallowed stiffly again before something beyond Elros' shoulder caught his eye. Behind the colorful flock of maidens crowding the stone wall of the arena craining and jostling to catch a glimpse of Elros- Hathel saw a figure- now hidden, now visible behind the shifting flock of young women. Why did that figure stand out from all the other faces in the crowd? Perhaps it was the hard bitterness, a- greed in his eyes. Was that- Lang? But Lang had said he was leaving Mithlond forever after he'd gotten his pay, and Hathel hadn't given the embittered man another thought. What was he doing back?
"Begin!" the game keeper cried, his voice echoing through the arena, and Hathel's mind was jerked fiercely back to his task at hand.
Andreth did not realize how tightly she was gripping the arms of her chair until the ache in her hands crept up into her elbows. Even then, with the clashing of weapons below her, it took an effort to release the arms of her chair, and draw her hands back into her lap.
Her fingertips throbbed, but she did not look at them, her focus fixed upon the fight below her. They'd vowed not to kill each other, Hathel, at least, had promised he would not hurt Elros, but still- it looked so real. It was chilling to see two men whom she knew so well slashing so viciously at each other. That they seemed to be trading banter back and forth as they slashed and dodged each other's blades did not help her racing heart.
Something was wrong. She could sense it. Despite Eönwë's assurances, she could not rid herself of the feeling that something with evil intent wanted to hurt Elros.
Even Eönwë's gentle voice beside her drew her eyes to the bright face of the Maia for a fleeting moment before her eyes jerked back to the men below her, their weapons clashing furiously as they pressed each other back and forth across the sandy arena below her.
Elros' chest gleamed with sweat now, as did Hathel's, for they had been clashing now for some minutes, yet neither one had struck a cut on the other.
"Can you not sense it, my lord?" she said, unable to look at the Maia.
"Sense what, my lady?"
"Someone- something wants to hurt- Elros. At first I tried to dismiss it as only an unwarranted, silly fear, but now-"
"You feel such a threat, my lady?"
"Do you not feel it? You are a child of the Valar!"
"I am not the All Father," he returned patiently. "I know only what He feels needful to give me."
At last her eyes jerked to the Maia's as a feeling of alarm clawed its way into her throat. "You must make them stop! Please!"
Eönwë studied her eyes for a long moment, seeing something there that at last stirred him to unease as well. "Very well," he answered, and rose to his feet.
"How is your strength holding out?" Elros asked, grinning as he dodged a slash Hathel had aimed at him. It was for the best, he realized, for the blade would have struck his arm, which would have madeHathel the loser of the match. Which Elros realized now with certainty, he did not want. Losing a first dance with Andreth was a welcome trade for an excuse to speak to her one more time, to insist that she give him the truth of her feelings.
It had been awkward, the first few furious blows he and Hathel had exchanged, to fight with his left hand. But now, it had grown into a challenge he was realizing he enjoyed. The match, he acknowledged, would have been over far too quickly, and in his own favor, had he let his right hand hold the blade. As it was, he and the mortal were nearly evenly matched.
"As well as yours, my lord," Hathel gasped back, twisting deftly out-of-the-way of a slash Elros had aimed at his ribs. "I could last all day."
Hathel gasped as he spoke, though he did so with a grin.
The mortal lifted a hand, brushing it hastily across his brow. The mortal fairly gleamed with sweat, and Elros felt the dampness on his own body as well. This had gone on further than he had thought it would, for such mock battles usually lasted only a minute or so, often less, before at least one cut was delivered. Hathel was proving to be more skillful than he had expected.
"Is Andreth still watching us?"
"Good try my lord, but I'm not looking away." Hathel gasped out a laugh.
"After all, my lord, where else would she be looking, but at you?"
Elros grinned. Hathel was not so great a wretch as he had once thought. The man was indeed honorable, even in the face of his own defeat.
With this thought, Elros at last, let the mortal pary aside his blade, his torso unguarded for the fleeting moment that Hathel needed.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Eönwë thrust to his feet in the very instant that the tip of Hathel's blade slashed across the surface of his skin.
Elros flinched at the burning sting, stopped and stepped back, lowering his blade, and looked down at the wound as he gulped in draughts of air.
A clean, shallow slice across the flesh a few finger spans below one collarbone. A little blood flowed from the wound, but not enough to cause worry. Hathel had done well.
Applause filled the arena, and the voice of one of the game keepers cried out, announcing Hathel as the winner as the mortal stepped back as well, a defeated, though good-humored grin upon his face.
Elros began to return the grin as well, before the throb in the wound ignited into a spark of pain that made him stagger and flinch as he dropped his blade to the ground.
"My lord?" Hathel asked, his own grin falling. He stepped forward, a hand outstretched. "Are you hurt? Did I cut too deeply? I am sorry!"
"I am all right." Elros waved him away as he turned and staggered back toward the cart of weapons, and his discarded shirt.
"Let me help-" Hathel insisted, coming behind him. "Someone should look at that-"
"No," Elros insisted. "There are two things I must do, now. Neither can wait."
He snatched his shirt and clumsily pulled it over his head as he turned and started toward the steps to the dais.
Eönwë stood at the crest of the steps, Andreth beside him now, her face taut with concern. Perhaps, he thought, the burning in his chest was only the sharp pain that often accompanied new hurts and would fade in the next few moments. But Elros was dismayed as the burning in his new wound only increased as he started up the steps.
Elros clutched at the wound, set his jaw and continued to climb.
What was wrong? Such a shallow, harmless flesh wound should not burn so badly! He had gained worse wounds than this during the war, and only the most grievious hurt more than this harmless wound.
The patter of feet sounded in his ears, and he looked up, managing a grin through the rising pain as Andreth scampered down the stairs toward him, and grasped his free hand in her own. Her lovely face, though as ever flawless and smooth, like a rose petal, he thought to himself, was written with anxiety.
"Elros," she said, her small hands tightening about his own. "Are you hurt much? Badly?"
He shook his head, smiling through the pain. "Nothing more than a surface wound," he tried to assure her, but the fear did not ease from his face. He knew she could see the truth written across his face. And as his knees crumpled, forcing him to sit clumsily upon the rising steps, Andreth lowered herself with him, sitting before him, still holding his hand.
"I'm just tired from the fight," he tried to lie. But she shook her head.
"No," she pleaded. "Tell me the truth. Are you in much pain?" She reached for the ties of his shirt, as if she wished to loosen the ties, and examine the wound for herself.
"No," he returned, pulling back, and studying her eyes with tender ferocity. "You tell me the truth."
Andreth flinched at these words. "What do you mean?" she asked, clearly hurt by the suddenly insistent tone of his words.
His heart smote him that he was causing her this distress, but he pressed on. "Look into my eyes," he demanded through the searing pain in his chest. "Look me in the eyes and tell me truly whether you love me or not."
Andreth drew in a hiss of pain at Elros' demand and looked away. She could not look into his eyes, and lie to him in the same moment! She could not! But Eönwë was behind her, and Elros was halfway to him. His choice. He would speak it today. Now. She could not afford to falter, or he would make a choice that would eventually lead to his death.
A finger that trembled faintly, reminding her of the pain upon Elros' face, touched under her chin. The finger was faintly sticky, and as she looked down, she saw a line of faint red seeping through his shirt. The wound was bleeding. Only a little. It could be no deeper than the cut across her palm not many days before. Then why did his eye glint with such pain?
"Look at me," he demanded again through set teeth. She could not tell if he was angry, or only clenching his teeth to battle the pain in his wound.
Reluctantly, she lifted her gaze and found his eyes. Soft and sea grey and so deep she could lose herself in them forever, but also tight with discomfort.
"Tell me truly," he insisted, his eyes boring into her own, "whether you love me or not."
Oh my dearest love, her thoughts wept as she studied the pleading and the pain in his eyes. I want you to see so much in this world! To see ages come and go, to see your father and mother again, and the Blessed Realm! Oh Elros, do not ask me to tell you the truth!
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Elrond striding near with Thranduil at his shoulder. Elrond's eyes were fierce with a worry she felt in her own heart. Elrond's gaze met hers.
"Andreth Tindómiel," Elros grated, his eyes pleading with her as if he were begging for his very life, his voice drawing her eyes back to his. "Tell me."
Setting her own teeth, unable to fight the tears that fell from her eyes as her heart broke, Andreth locked her eyes with him, and murmured, "You are very dear to me Elros, as a friend. But I do not love you."
At this, Elros drew his hand from her own, and fell back heavily. He studied her motionless face for a long moment, his face paling, and tensing in deepening agony, though whether it was from her words, or from the pain of his wound, she could not say.
"Then I will say no more to you on this line," he said, his voice grown shallow. "I am sorry Andreth, my friend, for distressing you with such a question when you have already answered it sufficiently."
With effort, he rose to his feet.
She rose beside him. "May I help-"
"No," he insisted. "There is something I must do now, that cannot wait." His face twisted with pain, and he clutched at his wound again. But new strength seemed to come to his legs now as he climbed the last of the stairs to the Maia who stood at the crest of the steps.
Andreth turned at Elrond's breathless voice as he reached her side.
"He's hurt, Elrond." Andreth caught Elrond's wrist. "Something's wrong with the wound. I do not think it is deep, but there is something else. But he won't let me look."
"What did he say to you as I was coming?"
Andreth shivered at his question, and at the fresh pain that welled in her heart. "He told me he had to know the truth, and demanded I tell him truly whether I loved him or not."
Andreth swallowed. "Elrond, I told him I did not love him."
"Oh Andreth," Elrond breathed. His eyes filled with pity and with guilt. "You should have told him the truth! Let him choose his own path from there. Ai, I should never have filled you with such doubts! This is my fault."
"You have done no wrong, Elrond! He means to tell Lord Eönwë his choice, this instant! He cannot have my foolish feelings clouding his mind and thoughts!" Andreth gripped Elrond's warm hand, the one steady thing in this tumulutuous sea of pain and worry and sorrow. "He must make the right choice!"
"Elros, son of Eärendil, you're hurt."
Her eyes whipped to the top of the steps at Eönwë's compassionate voice as Elros dropped, panting, to his knees before the tall Maia. The golden-haired Maia reached out and touched the elf's shoulder. "This can wait. Let your brother, let Andreth see to your wound."
"No," Elros insisted in a voice thick with pain. "This must be done before any more time passes."
"You will see one day," whispered Andreth as she gripped Elrond's arm, and both fixed their eyes upon Elros' kneeling figure. "One day, all will be well. And you will never lose him."
"But your heart is broken, Andreth," Elrond breathed, one hand finding her shoulder.
"That doesn't matter," Andreth choked, grateful for his strength. Ai, that he could have been her brother. "So long as he is saved."
Elrond did not speak, though his grip upon Andreth's hand tightened as they stood, watching, waiting. Behind them, all was silence.
"My lord Eönwë," Elros voice was broken, but still powerful and warm as it rolled over the arena.
"I choose a mortal life."