The Choice of Elros

Chapter 3

Morning sunlight spilled over Andreth's face. She felt it beneath her eyelids, and slowly rose to the waking world. For a moment, she let herself lay against her pillow, indulging in the luxurious half-wakefulness of her fading dreams. Despite all that she had endured the day before, she seemed strangely at peace, and unafraid. With a sigh, she clasped her hands, running the thumb of her right hand against the palm of her left, feeling a lingering, comforting warmth there that she did not wish to lose. But then as if from far away, across the chasm that separated her fading dreams from the waking world, she heard a bleat through the window, and sat up in alarm.

"Oh, I have slept late again," she moaned, clambering out of bed. "Lavaniel's udder will be bloated, and she will be cross with me again!"

The curtain Firiel had hung the night before to give a measure of privacy between the ladies and their elven guests, had been taken down. Without her help, Andreth realized in consternation, and the single room of their small hut was open to her view. It mattered little, for the two elven men, she noted with a fleeting sensation of regret, were gone, and so Andreth set about hastily dressing, selecting from the basket under her bed, clean underwrappings, and a sturdy dress of earthen colors, for she would not be going out today, and would busy herself all day with chores. Firiel, she could see, had left her a bowl of porridge, and must have eaten and fed their guests while Andreth slept. Even the dishes had been washed without her, for three wooden bowls and spoons lay upon a cloth at the other end of the table to dry, still wet from washing.

She caught up the bowl and ate the sweet, gritty porridge standing, turning briefly to the book she had lain down yesterday before setting out on her errand that had ended up being so fateful. Of Thingol and Melian, the binding read.

She shook her head, for she had no time right now, and shoveled the last bite into her mouth before hurrying to the wash basin, still half filled with warm water, and scrubbed her bowl and spoon clean before setting it with the others.

From which bowl, she wondered fleetingly, had Lord Elros eaten?

She shook her head to herself, for indeed the question was unimportant. She moved to the door, and lifted the latch, drawing it open as the sun washed over her. The world fairly gleamed as it always did, here on this knoll after a storm. Firiel's familiar figure was bent over in the garden, and Andreth moved toward her, now hastily binding her long hair into a single braid over one shoulder. There was no sign of either of the elven lords, and Andreth's heart felt a pang of loss at their departure. "Good morning, child!" Firiel called merrily without looking over her shoulder as she knelt amongst the young turnip plants.

"I am sorry I slept late," Andreth said, binding the end of her braid as Firiel turned to look up at her with a smile. "I wish I could have said goodbye to our guests."

Firiel's brows raised. "Goodbye, child? Bless me, they haven't gone yet!"

Andreth's brow furrowed. "But-,"

"Lord Elrond kindly offered to go hunting for us, promising to bring back something nice and fat for our evening meal, and Lord Elros-,"

Firiel let the sentence hang in the air as she nodded, humor in her eyes, to the small barn beyond their house. Andreth opened her mouth, silent, before she turned and trotted toward their small animal shelter, little more than a shed. The door stood half ajar, and Andreth stopped at the opening, feeling a sudden sense of shyness wash over her. From within, she could hear the soft whicker of horses, and the peaceful, rhythmic sound of equine jaws crunching on a mangerful of oats.

Lord Elros must surely be in with them, Andreth decided, for this was where Firiel had nodded. Perhaps he was brushing their coats, or speaking to them in that sweet, mystical tongue of elves, which she understood, a little, but rarely spoke herself.

Brushing at the front of her dress, Andreth drew in a breath, and stepped through the door, looking first to the horses.

But Elros wasn't there.

Another bleat cast her eyes toward Lavaniel's stall, and her mouth fairly dropped open before she hastily shut it again.

Seated beside the goat upon the small three legged stool she used, sat the lordly elf, Elros, his finely embroidered sleeves rolled to his elbows, busily milking the patient goat, the bucket beneath her nearly empty udder, half full of milk.

"My lord?" she breathed, uncertain what to make of what she saw. Lord Elros stopped, a stream of milk cutting off suddenly as he turned and met her eyes, a smile finding his lips.

"Good morning to you, my lady," he greeted, and rose from the stool to his feet. He placed a hand upon his chest, and offered her gracious a nod of his head.

"And to you, my lord." She bit her lip. Such an odd thing it was, to find an elven man seated upon such a crude stool in a humble animal shelter, milking a goat, only to rise and bow at her coming as if to a queen. It was all so much, and so strange. "I," she stammered, uncertain what else she could say, "I usually milk Lavaniel."

At this, a penitent look came over Elros' face. "Did you wish to do it yourself? Forgive me if you did. Madame Firiel said it was your first task of the day, and I wished to do something to repay my debt for your hospitality. I have never milked such a creature, any creature before, and it is quite a novel duty to perform."

Andreth drew in a breath, her mouth trembling as she struggled to absorb his words. "You-," she stammered, "you enjoyed milking our goat?"

Elros pursed his lips, seeming to be uncertain of her expression, before Andreth put a hand over her mouth, and fought back a laugh. The two horses looked up from their places to cast curious glances at her before returning to their own food.

"Oh, my lord," she choked, "It is not so novel a thing to me, as it was to you," she said, struggling to calm herself.

His expression eased, and he released a tentative chuckle. "I supposed it was a strange thing to see me here, milking your goat."

"Indeed," she said, nodding merrily, and their eyes held for a moment before both of them broke into a shared laugh.

"Forgive me for being so inhospitable," she offered, still laughing. "I am not ungrateful, truly."

"Not at all," he returned, his eyes dancing with merriment. "I am glad to have done something to cause you to laugh, my lady."

Andreth's laughter eased at this, though her smile remained. "Why do you call me a lady, my lord? I am not nobly born."

Elros dropped his eyes, the gesture endearing to her. "It suits you," he said. "For you are a lady in my eyes."

He looked up again. "Do you wish me not to-"

"No, no, if it pleases you, you may-" Andreth paused, blushing at how quickly she had interrupted him, not wishing to admit that she grew warm when he called her lady, and longed to hear the word from his lips as often as he wished to speak it. "I-" She sighed. "I must take the milk to the house now," she said, nodding to the bucket. "If you are finished-,"

"Oh, yes," Elros said, and reached down, catching up the rope handle, and lifting it. "Where do you wish me to put it?"

"Just inside the door, for now," she said. "I will show you." She drew back out the door, to which Elros nodded, and followed her.

"Your mission to Mithlond is not urgent?" she asked as the two of them walked together toward the house.

"Not so much that we could not aid two gentle women, who have shown us much kindness."

"But it was you who showed me the first kindness. You owe us nothing, Lord Elros."

"Then if you must," he said with a sidelong smile that caused Andreth to smile again, "attribute it to our manly pride that we cannot leave without giving you some service in return."

Firiel, she could see, was still working in the garden, amongst the turnips, but her back was to them, and the old woman did not seem to notice the elf lord and the maiden walking together. Andreth and her companion rounded the corner of the house, and Firiel disappeared from their view. Andreth pushed the door in, and stepped inside, nodding for Elros to follow.

"Set it here," she said, gesturing to the table as she took a small cloth from the the cupboard, and shook it loose, covering the bucket as Elros set it down.

"Thank you," she said, unable to meet the elf lord's eyes where he stood here, so close to her.

"You are most welcome," he returned, his voice such that Andreth felt herself swallowing stiffly.

"Come," she offered, and turned away, leaving the house, and stepping into the sunshine. "Sit here, a moment." She dropped to the ground before the small hut, and leaned her back against the stiff wooden boards. "It is most pleasant to sit sometimes, especially on such a morning as this. And simply let everything fill my senses."

Elros obeyed wordlessly, dropping to the ground beside her, both the forest they had come from the day before, and the long, grassy slope down to the waters that made up the Gulf of Lhûn visible from where they sat. He drew in a deep, appreciative breath of the sweet, salty air.

"I suppose my brother has not returned from hunting?"

"Not yet," she said. "But I am certain he will not be long."

"He may take his time," Elros said, and drew in another deep breath. "I could stay here for an age, and never tire of this view. You are most fortunate."

He turned to look at her as he spoke, and again Andreth met his eyes, soft and grey as the sea before she pulled her gaze away, and pointed. "Were you to climb that knoll," she pointed toward the southeast, "you can see Mithlond in the distance. Your destination."

Elros drank in another breath, holding it in as if savoring it, before breathing out again.

"I was born near the sea," Elros said softly, almost to himself. "My brother, also. We have many memories, pleasant and unpleasant."

"Yes," she agreed softly. "So I have read."

Elros looked at her, his eyes brightening. "You enjoy reading?"

"I do, and learning much."

He smiled, his smile one of genuine pleasure. "Then that must have been your book I saw when-," Elros paused, and Andreth thought his face blushed a little. "You are much like your namesake, Lady Andreth."

"So Firiel says," she said with a smile. "And so my father said, before he died."

Elros' smile sobered at this, and his lowered his eyes reverently. "You must miss him," he said softly. "Your mother as well."

"I do," she admitted.

"I understand your feelings," Elros said softly. "I lost my parents as a child as well. Not to death, of course, though you know the story." He gave her a faint smile.

"I do." Andreth nodded. "Though I have no memories of my mother as I do my father, I still miss them both terribly. My father said my mother would sing to me, as I grew in her, and that I seemed to respond to her voice. He said that she chose my name."

"Oh?" he asked leaning forward slightly, and Andreth sensed that he desired to hear more, though he did not wish to push her.

"Andreth is the name my mother gave me as she died," Andreth said, "and my father, for his love of her, honored her choice. He taught me to read, and somewhat of the customs of your people. He also taught me of Andreth herself, of her love of learning, and her goodness, and-" Andreth gulped. "Her endurance."

"Much good has been spoken of her among the elves as well," Elros offered. "Finrod, Aegnor's brother, thought much of her."

"It is a pity she had no children of her own to whom she could pass on her wisdom."

She sensed Elros stiffen slightly beside her, and realized that her voice had carried a faint hint of bitterness in it.

"She did much good, though, among the children of her people, her brother's children, and others," he said, the faintest tone of defensiveness touching his tones.

"Yes," Andreth agreed, her voice barely above a whisper. "She did. And she died, having seen and endured much. Though for all her learning, she never truly understood why-,"

Andreth cut her words off, and bit her lip.

"I know what you would say," Elros offered, his voice grown soft, his initial defensiveness gone, "would you have finished your words. You would say she never truly understood why Aegnor left, why he could not, or would not wed her."

"I have read of all that," Andreth said, almost sharply. "I know the words good Lord Finrod spoke to her. But I, too, perhaps, do not fully understand, any more than she."

A long, deep breath drew into Elros' lungs, and she turned to look at him, though his eyes were not on her.

"And I do not think I could give you a better explanation than her friend Finrod did. But I know Aegnor would have wed her, regardless of the shortness of her life, if he were free, if they lived in peace. Perhaps if his thoughts, his ways of thinking could have bridged the gulf between them, he would have married her, even in war, and spent what little time he had with her."

"Little time?"

Elros kept his eyes upon the ground. "Aegnor felt his coming death, and-,"

"The Battle of Sudden Flame did not come until Andreth was an old woman," Andreth said, cutting Elros off. A part of her felt ashamed of what she was doing, though she pushed on. "Decades, nearly a century after they met. Would not a few short years together have been better than nothing?"

"Elves do not think as mortals," he said, his voice soft and even. "Because we do not die, unless by mischance, all the ages of the world are ours, and we do not often act quickly. It is not customary for elves to marry or beget children in times of war. And Aegnor felt the weight of his duty."

"But why could he not think of what she needed? Why could he not become her husband, and fill her life and her heart? Why could he not give her children?"

Elros' eyes did not look up, his brow furrowed with pain, and Andreth wondered for a moment if he was feeling the guilt of Aegnor's actions. Actions that were not even his own. Her heart twinged that she could be so cruel to this kindly elven lord who had saved her virtue only yesterday, and who had made her laugh but moments ago. But she desperately needed to hear his answer.

"Lord Elros," she said, reaching out and touching his bare forearm with her fingers. His flesh was warm, and firm, and as he turned to her, the sinews beneath the skin of his arm rippled gently against her touch. His soft grey eyes found her own, gleaming with a guilt that was not his.

Now, she was the one turning her own eyes away. Andreth strove to infuse her words with gentleness, so that he would not feel as if she were blaming him. "Was it that he feared watching her change? To wither from beauty to age and death, in, what would have seemed to him only moments? Did he wish to spare himself that pain?"

Elros drew in a breath. "What Aegnor did, whatever his reasons, was not done for his own comfort. He did not leave, wishing to cause her a lifetime of loneliness and sorrow. That was never his intent. He loved her."

"Yet he left her," Andreth said.

"Yes," Elros agreed, his voice downcast. "Perhaps he had thought that if he left, she would learn to love a mortal man, and bear his children, growing old with him, not having to endure the shame of whithering, while her husband remained youthful."

"But because she loved Aegnor as he loved her, with that enduring love of which so many elves, and some few mortals are able, their souls were bound, if not their bodies, and she lived and died childless, and bereft of him. She wanted no other. He should have known that."

A deep breath swelled in Elros' chest, and he nodded. "Yes. You are right, my lady. And after all his noble reasons, after all I could say in explanation of his actions, that raw truth stares us both in the face, and cannot be undone."

Elros looked down at his hands, and Andreth did also, seeing his fingers knotted together. For a long moment, he remained silent. Would he say no more? Was he angry with her?

Andreth bit her lip. She was a child, a foolish child, one who could only imagine, vaguely, the wisdom and the understanding of these high, lofty beings who were the elves, ageless as the stars. Why did she think herself worthy to ask questions of him? She looked away and sat in her own silence, expecting Elros to rise, and depart without another word any moment.

"I wish I could give you answers that were more clear to you," Elros said at last, and his voice was soft, absent of even the faintest trace of anger or impatience. "But I do not have all the answers, my lady."

At this, Elros lifted his eyes, and looked at her, the soft sea grey of his gaze meeting hers. His gaze was at once, both intense and achingly tender. "But this truth I do know: Eru Ilúvatar is not cruel. Wherever Andreth is beyond the stars, she loves Aegnor still. And where Aegnor dwells in the Halls of Mandos, he loves her still. Because of this, I do not think that the story of Aegnor and Andreth has ended. Why would the All Father make us so alike to one another, able to love and to care for one another, were there nothing to be shared between our kin beyond the end, when Arda is remade, and Elves and Men and all that are good, dwell together in the bliss beyond bliss? That we cannot yet see beyond the end, does not mean there is nothing there. That we elves can love mortals, that they can love us, that such friendships as we share with them can form between us, there is a reason! Aegnor and Andreth shall be reunited again beyond the ending of Arda. Kindred separated by the gift of Men and the doom of Elves will not be parted forever. I am certain of it."

Andreth felt tears coming to her eyes. He had been so kind to her, and patient with her in return for her impatience and unkindness. "Lord Elros," she said, choking on rising tears. A tear fell from her lashes, and made its way down her cheek. "I have been ungracious. I am sorry."

"For what?" he asked gently. "You have done no wrong. I see you have studied much, and wondered much, and these questions have been in your heart for many years."

He shifted nearer to her, and then his hand rose, and touched her cheek, his thumb brushing the tear away. "Do not be sorry, Lady Andreth," he assured her. He drew his hand back, but he did not look away from her eyes, studying them with concerned tenderness.

"Your eyes," he said at last. "They are green, like- like soft grass in a meadow after a summer rain. I had not noticed before now."

Andreth felt her face growing hot, and she dropped her eyes.

Something nameless and sweet seemed to wrap itself around the elf lord and mortal maiden where they sat side by side against the wall of her hut; something she could not name, that felt both welcoming and frightening, and she wished both to embrace it, and push it violently away at once.

"Elros! Good women!"

The voice, strong and sure, echoed toward them from the forest, and Andreth's eyes jerked up. The tentative threads of emotion between her and Elros faded, vanishing like the last slender threads of a spider's web upon an autumn breeze.

Elrond, Elros' brother was striding across the space between them, smiling. Wind caught at his long hair and braids, and in one hand, he held up a freshly killed rabbit.

"Elrond!" Elros greeted, and leapt to his feet to go to his brother.

Whether he looked back or not as he went, Andreth could not say, for she kept her gaze upon her hands folded in her lap, and did not lift her eyes.

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