The Choice of Elros

Chapter 31

Chapter 31

Aelin reined her white mount to a stop beneath the still forest trees, both horse and rider gulping in great draughts of air as she stood in the stirrups, straining to see through the gloamy shadows of the forest. Beneath her, the horse snorted, and pawed the earth as if sensing the desperation of her mission, and the absolute need for haste.

This was where Andreth had met Maglor just a few days ago, and Aelin, she winced at the memory, had nearly killed the young mortal when the envenomed knife she'd meant for the son of Fëanor had accidentally cut Andreth's palm. If Maglor had not had the athelas, Andreth likely would have died, or at the least, lost her hand.

Aelin swallowed hard, wondering what life would have been like for herself, to have such bitter guilt on her head for such a deed. Maglor knew the weight of blood on his head very well. Of course, he had saved Aelin the weight of such guilt just as much as he had saved Andreth's life, with his foresight to gather and keep the athelas leaves. Which now must save Elros as well.

Urging her horse forward, she rounded the trunk of the fat tree.

Sure enough, the mossy curtain hung over the hidden entrance. She could see no light, nor sense any movement within.

"Maglor Fëanorion!" she shouted, raising in the stirrups again. "I must speak to you! It is most urgent!"

Her voice echoed away through the trees. If the son of Fëanor was anywhere nearby, he would hear her. If not her voice, at least this.

Unstringing the pack she carried over her shoulder, and opening it, she withdrew the harp, plucking a few fleeting melodies that fluttered away into the forest like merry butterflies.

Surely such a melodious sound would bring the minstrel nearer.

Was that a whisper of a step behind her?

"Fëanorion, where are you?!" she cried again, turning the horse's head about.

Nothing.

"I have not come to do harm to you!" she cried, though she could see nothing but the trunks of trees marching away like pillars into the gloom. "I have come in behalf of another, Lord Elros, and his need is urgent. He is badly hurt. He-"

"What is wrong with him?"

Aelin whipped her head about, and in spite of her urgent fear for the young elf, her jaw tensed as Maglor, his eyes dark with distrust, stepped from behind a nearby tree. Crosswise, from his shoulder to his hip, he carried a fat pouch. Filled, she hoped, with the dried leaves of the plant Elros needed so desperately.

"Elros is dying," Aelin grated, feeling a swell of anger rising in her despite her will to suppress it for Elros' sake. "He was sparring during a contest, and his opponent wounded him. The blade was envenomed."

"Like Andreth's wound?"

Aelin pursed her lips at the memory, and the guarded look in Maglor's eye. "Yes. But worse. The blade did not cut an extremity. It hit his chest. Elrond and Andreth have done what they could to remove the venom, but the remaining poison is working through him now like an orc blade."

Maglor's expression betrayed a rising fear for Elros, yet at the same time uncertainty, and distrust gleamed in his eyes. "After what you tried to do, Mistress Aelin, why should I trust you? Why should I not believe that you have returned to finish what you could not do before? And why do you have my harp, restrung? Are you using it as bait?"

Aelin drew in a fierce breath. "I can prove nothing to you," she snapped. "Nor do I ask you to trust me when you have no reason to do so. But Elros is dying, and I have no time. Here is your harp." Leaning down, she placed the stringed instrument upon the ground, then urged the horse to back away.

"It is repaired; Elrond had it restrung. I do not ask you to come with me, or put yourself at my mercy where I could hurt you if I wished. I only ask for enough athelas to save Elros."

Maglor licked his lips. "Here. Use what you need," he said, and unstrung the pouch from over his shoulder and head. He tossed the fat pouch, and she caught it deftly, looped it over her head and shoulder as he had done, then spun her mount away, urging the horse into a gallop toward the light she could see at the edge of the trees.

"Mistress Aelin!" he shouted after her, and she reined in her horse, and turned back, seeing Maglor now running up behind her, his eyes fraught with concern.

"You really mean to leave now? You have no more schemes to try and gain my trust?"

"I don't need your trust, Fëanorion," Aelin snapped, looking down into the eyes of Fëanor's son. "I only need speed."

"You are telling the truth?" he said, his eyes growing wide with anxiety. "Eärendil's youngest son is dying?"

"Yes," she said, to which the dark haired son of Fëanor grasped the saddle, and leaped up behind her.

"Then I'm coming also."

Aelin shrank from the nearness of her enemy, but said nothing as she urged the horse forward. The horse responded eagerly, and leapt forward like an arrow through the trees toward the light, and toward Mithlond where Elros waited, still within hope, she silently prayed.

...oOo...

The high ceilinged room was musty and dark save for a shuttered window too high for him to reach, even if he were free to make the attempt.

Hathel shifted his weight on the chair where he sat, bound, waiting.

What was wrong with Elros? Poisoned? How? Oh, dear Valar, had he died? Hathel had not poisoned the blade, no matter what the others thought, but knowing that he had held the sword that had delivered the venom into the elf's blood was a sickening, crippling thought.

Hathel bent his head, his body feeling suddenly heavy.

What was happening?

He strained to hear voices beyond the thick door where his elven captors had exited after bringing him here. But he could not hear anything. Nor did any sound come through the high window. It was as if the entire cosmos had shrunken to this small room, and he was the only inhabitant.

His head jerked up as the bolt beyond the door was drawn back, the door flung open, and light entered the room, along with three figures he could not make out at first from the light streaming behind them. He could see clearly enough, that two of them held spears.

"Please!" Hathel gasped, straining to meet the eyes of the figure in the center. "Elros is still alive? How is he? How is Andreth? She is with him still?"

"He was alive when I left him in Andreth's care. And that is a good thing for you, friend," this word was spat with anger, "because if he dies-"

The bitterness in the voice of one who just hours before had thought of him as a friend, pushed a tightness into Hathel's throat that spilled now out of his eyes in streams of wetness.

"Elrond!" Hathel pleaded. "You are my friend! And I yours. You should know more than anyone that I wouldn't hurt your brother!"

"One of the game keepers witnessed you standing by the cart of weapons before the match, arguing with Elros."

"We weren't arguing," Hathel pleaded. "I was trying to assure him that Andreth did love him, despite what she said."

"Do you truly wish me to believe that?" snapped Elrond, striding forward, his features coming into focus. "Just last night, leaving Lord Círdan's house, your bitterness against my brother was like a storm cloud! You attacked his honor, as well as Andreth's. How could you expect me to believe that you would change so much in so short a time?"

Hathel flinched at the anger on Elrond's face. "I was jealous, and still smarting from Andreth's obvious favor for Elros," he admitted, swallowing hard. "But I didn't mean what I said! I was sorry for it very quickly, though you did not see it." Wetness he could not brush away, streamed shamelessly down his cheeks.

Elrond's chin quivered, and he turned away, putting his face into a hand.

Hathel let his head sag, weary from striving to explain himself to an unmoved, and unsympathetic listener.

A movement at the door did not bring his head up as another figure entered the room, a light haired elf, and Hathel listened half heartedly as the newcoming spoke in a low, excited voice, the words of which Hathel could not hear.

"Are you certain, Thranduil?" Elrond demanded, and Hathel lifted his head.

"I am," came the answer.

The eyes of the son of Oropher, were on him, and studied him with uncertain pity. Beside Thranduil, Elrond put a hand to his mouth, in a thoughtful, troubled gesture.

"What is it?" Hathel pleaded.

Elrond shook his head and turned away. But Thranduil studied Hathel a moment before he sighed, and spoke. "Lord Círdan ended the competition when Elros was wounded, and it proves to have been a wise choice. For he had the blades examined, and it appears that all of them were poisoned, each with a thick layer of venom. Even the one Elros held. Had he cut you first, being mortal you would have gone into agonized convusions in moments, and would have died very quickly. No one could have done anything for you."

Hathel swallowed, feeling himself grow cold. He knew Elros had let him win. Had he not-

"An empty vial was found near where the blades had been resting before the match. Near it lay a cloth, saturated with venom. We traced the vial to the apothecary from which it was taken, and also, we found a man who is willing to speak in Hathel's favor."

"What does that mean?" Hathel asked uncertainly.

"It means that Lord Círdan, my father, and the others, do not think you are guilty."

Hathel studied the eyes of the light haired elf. "I am not," he said, keeping his voice steady in spite of the emotion thickening his throat.

"No one can buy bottles of raw venom," Elrond muttered, turning at last, his heavy eyes fixing now upon Hathel.

"No," Thranduil agreed. "The healer who owns the shop claims that it was stolen when a mortal man entered, seeking herbs for a headache."

"Who was the mortal?" Elrond asked.

Thranduil pursed his lips, then drew a short knife from his belt, and walked to the chair where Hathel sat. A quick jerk of his knife, and the bindings loosened, his arms finally free.

Hathel remained sitting though, rubbing his wrists.

"Here," Thranduil said, offering him a hand, and a sympathetic look.

Hathel took the elf's proffered forearm, and rose to his feet.

Then he nodded to the door, where Hathel looked, noting the shadow half hidden, lingering upon the threshhold like a shy child.

"Sigil," Hathel called, managing a smile in spite of himself. And at his name, the sandy haired man grinned and stepped into the room. Hathel had always been glad to see the man, built like an ox, though with the innocence and curiosity of a child. But as he realized the reason Sigil might be here, Hathels' smile fell. "Not Sigil. He couldn't have-"

"No, it wasn't Sigil," Thranduil said quickly. "Though he has something important to tell you."

"Master Hathel," Sigil said, coming forward hesitantly, "I saw the bottle in his hand yesterday. He said the elf man in the shop gave it to him. That's what he said. I didn't know he stole it."

"He?" Hathel asked, reaching out and clapping a hand onto Sigil's shoulder. "Who is he?"

Sigil paused, his brow furrowing as if he thought the answer should be obvious to Hathel. "Well," he paused, "he is- Lang, sir."

...oOo...

The clatter of her mount's hooves scraped to a stop beside the door of the small building where Eönwë had carried Elros, and not looking or caring whether the son of Fëanor followed her, Aelin leaped to the ground, and scrambled to the door, flinging it open, and rushing inside.

The room was dim, but she could see Andreth kneeling beside Elros where he lay, unconscious now, upon the cot. His eyes were closed, which, for one of elven blood, meant great weariness or injury. Though Aelin noted, with tentative relief, that his chest still rose and fell, though unevenly. The maiden's arm was across the elf's bare chest, her head against his shoulder. But as Aelin rushed in, Andreth leapt up.

"Aelin?" she pleaded, her eyes gleaming with wild hope.

"I brought it," she choked, holding out the pouch.

"Bless you," Andreth cried, and snatched it from her hands. She lifted the flap, snatched out a fistful of the leaves, and dropped them in a mortar upon the table set amongst the herbs and bottles. Crushing the leaves with a pestle as she spat into the mortar, she returned to Elros' side.

"Here, my love," she breathed, scooping out the now damp mixture, and spreading it over the cut. Gently she pressed it down into the wound, eliciting a faint moan from Elros.

Aelin's lips parted in slight surprise at the maiden's endearing words to Elros. Love? Indeed?

"Aelin has returned, and-" Andreth turned, her eyes lighting with pleasure at the sight of Maglor stepping through the door, the expression of glad welcome on her face grinding upon Aelin's heart.

"Linnod," Andreth breathed, her voice warming with gladness.

Her eyes moved now to Aelin, filling with shining gratitude, speaking more clearly than words could, how grateful she was that Aelin had sought out her enemy, so that Elros could be saved. Aelin managed a slight smile at this, the heaviness of her heart easing at the light in the eyes of the mortal maiden.

Andreth turned again now to Elros, smoothing a hand over his brow and jaw. "And Maglor is with her," she whispered.

Again Elros stirred and moaned. His eyelids fluttered. "Otorno," he muttered.

At that, Maglor drew in a short breath, and hurried past Aelin into the room, dropping to one knee at Elros' side opposite from Andreth.

"I am here, Lapse titta," he said, placing a strong hand upon the young elf's damp brow. Aelin swallowed fiercely at the tenderness in Maglor's voice and actions. And in his face. Such caring could not be feigned.

Elros did not respond, though his steady breath continued, and it was stronger and more even than before.

...oOo...

Distant calls of night animals... Voices hushed and murmuring... The slow sway of motion... A soft hand brushed against his face, sweeping him to full consciousness. Elros opened his eyes to bright stars above him as cold, sweet air filled his lungs.

The high sides of a wagon box rose about him, framing a sky scattered with stars. He lay cradled in something that swayed in gentle, rhythmic motion. The soft clop of horses' hooves sounded about him, and the shadow of mounted figures drew near above him.

A cloak lay tucked about him, his head lay cradled in a woman's lap, a hand against his face.

He stirred, wishing to sit up, but a spear of fire lanced through his chest, and a hiss of pain broke past his lips.

Above him, he heard a soft gasp and the woman stirred and moved. The soft hand drew back from his cheek, and a soft, though rough pillow, a folded blanket, slid beneath his head. Elros winced silently. He had preferred her lap. A face moved into his view, silhouetted against the pricks of starlight. The cloak about him drew back, and cold night air brushed his chest. He could not discern her features, but a feather soft lock of unbound hair tumbled down out of the darkness and trailed across his bare chest; his nostrils drank in the sweet scent that exuded from her skin, and he knew her.

Andreth,his lips moved. Tindómiel, though her name would not come forth.

"Elrond," Andreth's voice gasped, her shadow looking up and away, "he's awake." A cloth lifted away from the throbbing ache upon his chest. "And his wound is better. It is nearly fully healed. Truly the athelas is a wonder."

Elros opened his mouth, and tried again, "Tindómiel," he ground out.

"Lie still, my dear one. Do not move." Her face bent near his own. The cloth returned to the wound, and the cloak again was tucked about him. Another lock of her hair tumbled down and brushed across his throat, sending trails of warmth shivering through him as the coolness of her hand again smoothed against his forehead.

"Where am I? What happened?" he hissed as her hand lifted, pulling her unbound hair behind her head.

"You were hurt," she murmured. The movement of her hands in the darkness showed that she was pulling her loose tresses back. Elros wished she would leave it unbound; he had enjoyed the feel of her hair against his skin. "Your match this morning with Hathel." She sighed. "It did not go as planned."

"What happened?" Elros choked out, lifting his head, before he let it fall back. Ai, he wished he could remember. It was all a blur.

"You were poisoned, Elros," Andreth explained. "You are still very weak. Though you are now strong enough to move. We're returning you to Lord Círdan's house, for it is safest there." Her voice broke as she added, "You nearly died. Aelin brought the athelas in time."

A hand beneath his head tipped his face up as something blessedly cool pressed against his parched lips.

"Drink this," she murmured and he obeyed. Sweet, cold water trickled into his mouth.

As the water spigot moved back from his lips, another thought rose in his foggy mind.

He struggled to rise, but a piercing pain, and Andreth's hand against his chest, forced him back. He hissed in pain then managed with effort, "Elrond?"

"I'm here, little brother," Elrond's voice, laced with a mingling of weariness and relief, came from one of the shadowed figures mounted upon horses that rode to either side of the wagon where he lay. And his brother's face, the outline of which he could see, though he could not see his features, leaned down. Why did he need guards?

"Hathel didn't poison me," he said.

"I know," Elrond said, a note of chagrin in his voice. "Now."

"All is forgiven, Elrond," another voice said from nearby. Hathel's voice. "Do not worry."

The stars above him were blocked again by Andreth's shadow, and the sweetness of her filled his nostrils. Elros swallowed, struggling to remember. "Maglor was there," he continued.

He tried to move, though his limbs felt as if they were weighted with great stones. Ai, how he wished he could lift a hand to touch her.

"Yes," she said. "He is here, now."

Elros' heart jumped. "Otorno?" he called.

"I am here, Lapse titta," a voice warm and deep sounded from the other side of the wagon, and Elros' eyes dampened. Oh, how well he had known that voice, once. The same voice that had murmured stories of long ago before the dying firelight as he'd rested against the strong shoulder, listening to the reverberations in the speaker's chest as he slowly fell into his dreams. The same voice that had soothed his nightmares and fears, and eased his childish hurts.

This wasn't all a dream, was it?

Elros turned his head toward the fragrant shadow of Andreth's face, praying that the sweet memory rising now to his conscious mind was not a construct of his own fantasies.

"And you are here, Tindómiel," he murmured.

"I am," her voice, soft and soothing whispered over him. "Here, drink more."

The cool spigot of the water skin once more touched his lips, and he swallowed, relishing the cool liquid that slipped down his throat.

"Tindómiel," he breathed as he drew the skin away. "I love you. My heart is in your keeping, and I do not want it back. Something has bound me to you."

"I think, perhaps, that it is my love for you, my dear one," she murmured. "I have been coming to love you, for some time."

"You told me you did- earlier," he gasped, trying to lift his hand. "And- and you kissed me."

"Yes, I did."

"Tindómiel-" Pain lanced through his chest as he lifted his arm, but Elros did not care, wanting only to reach her in the darkness, to touch her, and feel the warmth of her beneath his fingers. "I knew- somehow- I felt our bond. Even before you told me the truth of your feelings."

His hand in the darkness found hers, and held fast.

"Yes, my dear one," she murmured softly. "So did I." He felt her lips, soft and moist, againts his knuckles, and tried, despite the burning pain, to sit up. With all that he was, he longed to take her into his arms, to feel her, all of her, as he felt her in his soul.

You must do something for me, Elros." Again her hand touched his chest, easing him back down.

"I will do anything for you, Tindómiel," he breathed.

"Then rest for me," her voice whispered in the darkness. Her soft hand caressed his cheek in the darkness. Then her fragrant shadow moved, and bent over him. Her hair fell loose again, tumbling about his face, enclosing him in a cool, sweet cloud. The softness of her young breasts pressed against his chest through the layers of cloth between them. He drew in a breath before her lips, soft and warm, brushed his, tasted, then withdrew, hovering above his own, only a breath away.

"Tindómiel," he moaned softly.

"Rest," she urged again, then caressed his lips with her own once more, a feather soft brush before she drew back, then lay down at his side, curling her head against his shoulder.

Elros surrendered to her words, and let himself sink again into sleep.

Above him, the stars faded and blurred, then, seemlessly, came again into sharp focus.

The careful movement of the wagon beneath him was gone, as was the clop of horses and the clatter of harness. But Andreth's fair, warm form was huddled beside him, as before.

His strength was his own again, here in this dreamland, and Elros sat up, gently withdrawing himself from the welcome arms of the maiden who shared this dream.

She stirred as well. "Elros?" she pleaded sleepily, her skirts whispering as her sweetly closed eyes fluttered open and took in the sky above her before sliding to him.

Elros folded his legs beneath him, plucked a thick grass blade and smiled at her, drinking her in with his eyes where she lay beside him, her hair pillowed about her head and shimmering in the faint silver glow of the night.

She was clad as a queen, the necklace of pearl and mithril about her fair neck, and a matching diadem of pearl and silver gracing her otherwise unbound hair. Her gown was of rich silk, pale blue, clinging to the edges of her slender shoulders, the neckline laced with threads of silver. His blood warmed at the sight of her.

"You are sleepy even when you are asleep?" he teased as she sat up.

She blushed at his words, and ducked her eyes. "Today has been a most exhausting day, fearing for you, and watching over you. I did not mean to fall asleep."

"Tindómiel?" he queried, and she looked up again.

"You are here also, aren't you? You are no dream maiden created only from my thoughts? We are here together?"

She dropped her eyes again, biting her lip. It was an endearing gesture, he thought. One that made her look vulnerable; in need of his comfort.

"Tindómiel?" he pleaded. How he longed to give her comfort.

She drew in a sigh. "We are," she admitted at last.

Elros felt his face growing warm. "And all those things I said before, to- you, when I thought you were but an image of my own dreams, you heard them?"

Andreth bit her lip again, her own cheeks darkening, and nodded.

"How long have you known?"

"Since yesterday, when you gave me the necklace," she said. "You told me in a dream that you would bring me such a necklace, and yesterday, when you gave me the necklace which was an exact copy of this," she touched a hand to the pearl resting upon the pale, flawless flesh beneath the hollow of her throat, "I knew we had been sharing our dreams."

Elros smiled again, then turned and looked out to sea. "This day has been fraught with surprises. When the morning began, my heart was heavy, and now-"

"Are you angry with me?"

Her voice was soft, and uncertain, and Elros turned quickly back, his eyes widening. "Why would I be?"

"I lied, Elros. To you. I hurt you. Needlessly!"

She drew her legs up, circling her arms about her knees, and looked down, not meeting his eyes.

"To try and save me, as you saw it," he murmured, reaching out, and offering her his hand. "The intent was noble, and selfless."

She let him take her hand, soft and warm within his own, though she did not yet look up.

"From the first days of our knowing one another," she murmured, her eyes still upon the ground, "I have been troubled by conflicting desires, wanting to be near you, yet feeling that I shouldn't be. Longing to embrace you, yet fearing to do so. And as we have grown closer, these emotions have only grown stronger. I feared to be near you, yet I could not bear to be parted from you. I felt I had to choose either my loss, or yours. At first I only feared that you would be alone forever after I died, were we to fall in love. But then, when I knew you had the power to choose mortality, my fear grew, for I did not wish for you to die for my sake."

He drew nearer to her, and bending his head, pressed his lips against her open palm. "How difficult that must have been."

He looked down at her palm as he drew back, noting that even in their shared dream, the line of red was still there.

"I hid that too," she said in a soft voice. "I would not let you see it in a dream when we were together, here, the night after Aelin cut me, for I was beginning to suspect that you were sharing my dreams, and I feared if you saw it again in the waking world, you would realize I was sharing your dreams. That too, might have swayed your choice." Her voice softened. "Or so I thought."

He looked up, though her eyes did not yet lift to meet his.

"And I did not tell you," she choked, her voice broken, "that on the blade that day, Aelin had put venom, similar to what nearly killed you. I was in greater danger than I told you."

Elros started at this, alarm rising in his heart. "You could have died?"

"Perhaps only lost my hand. So said Elrond."

Elros gaped.

"But he and Maglor saved me with the same athelas that I used today, to save you. That was how we knew Maglor had it."

Elros released a breath, and let his fears ease. "Doubtless you did not wish me to worry over much, since the danger was beyond you anyway, or to be overly angry at Aelin."

Andreth shook her head. "But you wouldn't have been. I should have trusted you. With everything. For you are noble and true, and trustworthy. You are all things that are good-"

And you, my lady, are unutterably magnificent."

Andreth fell silent.

"Andreth, look at me," he pleaded. "Please, Tindómiel." And slowly, shyly like a child, she lifted her eyes. Her gaze found his, her eyes soft and deep, green as young grass after a spring rain. Elros smiled gently. Slowly, she offered him a tremulous smile, her eyes gleaming with unshed wetness.

How timid, how vulnerable she looked, Elros thought, as his blood throbbed thickly in his veins, a mingling of ecstasy and agony at once. Every measure of strength he possessed could barely keep him from gathering her into his arms, and crushing her lips with his own. For he knew that would not be where he would wish to stop.

"You were willing to give me up, for my sake, though you did not wish to do so," he murmured, contenting himself with leaning near her, and drinking in the fragrant scent of her. "You were willing to sacrifice what you desired, so that you would not rob me of what you thought was my destiny."

He reached out, cupping her face with a hand. Soft as silk beneath his fingers. "But mortality is my destiny. It is the will of the Valar, and I accept it gladly."

Andreth's eyes grew wet at this.

"You still do not look mortal," she choked, reaching a hand out, and touching his jaw, letting it slide up his ear to caress the peaked tip.

Elros closed his eyes, relishing the touch of her hand, the feel of her gentle fingertips. The beating of his heart quickened, and his blood grew hot again despite his effort to quell it.

"I know in my heart," he murmured, his voice thickening, "that you have a glorious destiny of your own, Andreth Tindómiel. There is greatness in your that I marvel at to see, and I want so much," he swallowed, "for our destinies to be entwined."

Andreth withdrew her hand. Elros' eyes opened. Her face visibly colored, and she dropped her eyes again.

"Will you marry me?" he asked, easing nearer to her, and catching up her fallen hand, the words barely more than a breath of air from his lips.

She visibly shivered at the words, though she smiled as she did. "Do you dare yet to kiss me here?" she asked.

Elros felt his own cheeks heating now. "I dare not, especially now," he murmured. "For we are always alone here, and were I to begin kissing you, I fear I would not wish to stop until-" He drew and released a deep breath, and spoke again, his voice grown thick. "I must confess, Andreth, that I ache to be one with you."

Andreth's cheeks burned in a way that Elros found wildly alluring, her eyes still upon the ground.

"But that desire," he breathed, "is tempered also by my honor for you, and I would not show you such dishonor as to wed you upon a hillock in a dream, or even in the same manner in the waking world. No matter how tempted I am. I love you too much to do so."

A small smile played across her lips at these words. Softly she murmured, "Then ask that question again in the waking world, where you do not fear to kiss me. For I do not think I could answer it, with-" she lifted her face, "with only words, my love."

Hope sprang wildly in his heart at this. "Tindómiel," he choked, but he got no further, for she smiled shyly, leaned forward before he could react, kissed him swiftly upon the cheek, and in a moment, vanished before his eyes.

Alone now, Elros scrambled to his feet. She had woken. She had done this before. But now, he did not feel so bereft, knowing that in truth, she was still with him, watching over him as he slept. He grinned, and touched a hand to his lips, wondering if he could feel it if she kissed him while he slept.

Turning himself about as he studied the open empty stretch of seashore, a sudden boyish sense of unfettered delight filled him, and he turned, surging up the side of the grassy slope, cresting its top with a leap and a wild whoop of joy that echoed away over the grassy land to the distant peak of the rising mountain in the far hazy shadows of night. On he ran, leaping and spinning like a young goat, heedless and careless in his ecstasy, until a stray rock struck his foot, sending him tumbling again, laughing into the grass.

"She loves me!" he shouted to the sky, "She loves me!" Laughter mingled with the words of unrestrained delight as he gasped in air, his eyes uplifted to the stars.

"Thank you," he cried to the sky, "Dear Ilúvatar, and all the Valar. Thank you!"

"Well," a deep voice laced with humor sounded near him, familiar and yet unfamiliar, unexpected, but unsurprising. "Thou art most welcome, son of the First and Secondborn. Most welcome. But come now, sit up young one, and let me show thee this fair vision I have made for you, the image of the land where thou wilt be king."


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