The Choice of Elros

By Lalaith

Romance / Fantasy

Chapter 32

Chapter 32

Círdan paused and held back at the base of the steps into his house as a troop of elves, the mortals Hathel and Sigil among them, carried the bier upon which Elros' injured form lay through the door into the bright hall, welcome and cheerful.

Aelin climbed the steps behind them, followed by Andreth and Elrond, the mortal maiden's arm looped through the elf's. Andreth seemed weary, yet a smile played upon her lips as if some sweet secret dwelt in her heart. Círdan caught her eye as she passed him. He smiled warmly, glad to see her return his smile.

She and Elrond passed through the door into the bright hall, their steps fading.

With a sigh, the ancient shipwright turned and faced the solitary elf standing behind him.

Maglor dropped his eyes as their gazes met.

"You will not come in?"

Maglor drew in a deep breath and dropped his eyes. "I cannot."

Círdan heaved a breath, and stepped nearer to Fëanor's last living son.

Beyond Maglor's shoulder, down within the city, merry lights gleamed on both sides of the river and the wide bay. Upon the water floated many boats, strung with gleaming lanterns. The distant trill of music reached his ears, and the harmony of many voices singing and laughing. The news that Elros would recover had washed through the city like a cleansing wave, and restored the playful mood of the Harvest Festival, for which Círdan was glad. But here, Maglor's countenance was morose.

"Your heart is not evil, Maglor, son of Fëanor."

"I still have blood on my hands, Lord Círdan. You know this." Maglor put a hand to his chest. "No matter how sorry I am, I cannot bring back those I killed. I will ever be unworthy to enter the homes of elves whose hands are unstained with the blood of their kin."

Círdan drew in a breath and contemplated these words. "There are those, Maglor," he said, "whose hearts are truly evil, who would deny so to themselves and others, and would without shame enter my house, and the houses and cities of other honorable folk. The mortal Lang, who tried to murder Elros, is such a man. You are not as he."

"I have done things I cannot undo," Maglor insisted. "That I recognize and voice such redeems me but little, if at all."

He drew in a breath. "I could not rest well anyway. My heart is still ill at ease, for the renegade Lang who tried to kill Elros has not yet been taken. We do not know where he has fled, and I know these lands and woods well. I could try to find him, track him. I worry for anyone he may try to hurt."

Círdan nodded, recalling the events of the day after the truth of Elros' attacker had been made known. Lang's dwelling was empty when Círdan and the armed elves he had brought with him had entered it. And nowhere in the city was the man to be found. The lands near and about Mithlond had been scoured by the most skilled scouts, but the man had disappeared. Sigil had been the last to see him, and that had been in the morning. Where Lang was now, none could say, though he had likely departed in the crowds from the market where even elven scouts could not detect one set of footprints in the crowd for another.

"The mortals who dwell nearby have been warned, and know to be wary that he is about," Círdan said. "But any help in finding him is welcome. Remember though, it will do Elros' heart good to speak to you when he is awake, both he and Elrond."

"I will remember that." Maglor drew a step back, and a faint smile touched his lips. "Farewell, Shipwright. You and all your house."

"May you fare well also, Fëanorion." Círdan offered the dark-haired elf a nod which Maglor returned before he darted away, around the corner of the horse stables, and toward the line of trees that bordered the grassy plain, silver beneath the starlight.

With a sigh, Círdan turned and climbed the steps, the light and warmth enveloping him as he stepped inside.

...oOo...

Andreth studied Elros' palm as she sat beside his bed, cradling his lightly tanned arm with her own, while with her other hand, she ran her fingers lightly over the creases of his palm and fingers, and up his forearm to his elbow and back again. She had never studied his arm and hand this intently before, and she found herself thoroughly entranced. His arm was muscled and lean, his hand strong and calloused. She turned his hand over, and gently ran her finger over the line of a small scar that crossed his knuckles, wondering what fearsome battle during the War of Wrath told the story of this scar. This was his right arm, his hand that had gripped his sword during the War of Wrath, and when that- a shiver trembled through her at the memory- the man who had attacked her three months ago, and Elros had used his sword in her defense. Elros had not even known her before that day. He had not known if she was fair or plain, old or young, married or unwed when he had heard her scream and charged through the forest to save her. He had known only that she was in danger. Nothing more. And now, the man's cousin wanted vengeance for Elros' noble deed.

Vengeance? Andreth's mind recoiled at the thought. What wrong had Elros done to justify such hatred? What led someone to try to kill him, when Elros had only acted in the selfless defense of another?

Andreth sighed, and answered the question herself. The same mindless hatred that would lead a man to waylay a defenseless maiden. Such men had let Morgoth's lies enter their hearts, and had not rooted them out. Lang. The man who had tried to kill Elros yesterday. And- Lhûg. She shuddered to put a name to the face that swam again before her thoughts, remembering the crushing feel of his body, the stink and weight of him, the feel of his hands clawing her, the despair, and then, blessed, unlooked for relief when Elros had surged into the clearing, and torn the man off of her, flinging him across the clearing. She saw again the blade in the man's hand, the rage on his face, the flash of Elros' sword, the blood, and the man fallen. Dead.

Andreth shrank closer to Elros' side, comforted by his nearness, though he was asleep. Not all the evil was gone from the world. And now someone wanted to hurt her dear one.

She lifted his hand and kissed his knuckles. He was beyond danger now, and merely needed to rest. She knew it, but still she did not want to sleep. Not until he woke and his gaze met hers. She looked again toward his face, the coverlet drawn half way up his chest, a bandage wrapped over his shoulder and under his arm to protect the healing cut. His eyes gazed at the ceiling in restful sleep. She was glad of this, for his eyes had been closed much of the day before. Only in extreme exhaustion or injury did an elf close his eyes during sleep. And so she was glad as she studied his unfocused gaze, deep and sea grey, and as vast as eternity.

Elros seemed no different than before he had spoken the words that had shaken her to her very soul, I choose a mortal life. For such, she realized now, was the will of the Valar. His destiny was mortality. And he wished her to be a part of that destiny. Her heart glowed at this thought, even as a faint sense of grief lingered.

Elros still slept like an elf. He still looked like an elf. And the elven blood in his veins had stayed off the evil of the poison long enough for Aelin to bring the athelas. Andreth shivered slightly, knowing what would have happened if it had not.

Tentatively, Andreth reached out, and touched the edge of Elros jaw, feeling the warm, supple skin, the tautness of the sinews beneath, then let her finger trail up the outer edge of his ear, as she had done in their shared dream, until she reached the tip, feeling the warm firm skin, and the the flexible cartilage beneath his ear's tip.

In his sleep Elros shifted a little. Tindómiel, his lips moved. But he did not awaken.

Andreth withdrew her hand, and studied his face. Lowering her own eyes to the palm of her hand, she studied the red mark upon it, remembering how it had stung the day he had arrived home, and how his soft lips, like magic upon her skin, had banished the last of the sting. Perhaps it had been the power of his elven grace that had banished the pain, but what if it was something more?

With a soft sigh, Andreth reached over him, and gently loosened the knot of the bandage, then gingerly drew the cloth back to study the wound. The edges of the wound were red, but healing far more quickly than were he fully mortal.

Her heart thumping within her, Andreth stood and leaned over Elros, pressed a kiss to her thumb, then caressed the healing line of red with the tip of her thumb where the feeling of her lips still lingered.

In his sleep, Elros shifted, and a soft moan, not of pain but of pleasure escaped his lips. She turned her eyes to his face, her heart lightening to see the faint smile there. Perhaps her touch had worked upon his wound, as his had, upon hers. Content, she tied the knot of his bandage again in its place, and sank again to her seat, clasping his hand once more.

Several paces away, Elrond who lay on the divan, his arm beneath his head, stirred a little. She turned and looked over at him. His open eyes appeared to gaze out the wide glass door onto Elros' balcony, the stars in the west still visible, though she could see the sky beginning to lighten.

He stirred again. His unfocused eyes blinked and turned toward her, smiling as he sat up.

"Haven't you slept at all, little sister?"

Andreth smiled at his pet name for her, which he used liberally now.

"I had a few minutes last night, in the wagon."

"A few minutes?" Elrond chided as he rose to his feet. "Take some rest, Andreth. I'll look over him."

"I want to be here when he wakes," she insisted.

At that, a tap sounded at the door before it opened, and Círdan entered.

"Is all well?" the shipwright asked, smiling through his silver beard as his eyes twinkled, meeting her own.

"Elros is still sleeping," Elrond said, moving to Andreth's side and placing a hand upon her shoulder. "But Andreth has hardly done so."

"Nor eaten since yesterday morning, I'll wager," Círdan added.

"But I am well enough," Andreth said even as her hand moved to her stomach to quiet a grumble of hunger that bit at her.

"And she is being obstinant." Elrond gave a short chuckle.

The silver-haired elf moved to her, and bent, gathering both of her hands. "Come, child. Take some food, and rest-" he turned to the dark haired elf now, "Both you and Elrond."

Andreth lifted her eyes, studying first Círdan's, then Elrond's. Then she turned, and gazed over Elros once more. "Very well," she sighed at last, and rose to her feet. "Tell me when he wakes."

Círdan smiled. "I think he will be the one to tell you."

She felt Elrond's hand upon her elbow, helping her as she rose to her feet. "Come, little sister," he said, and she obeyed his gentle lead, and followed him out the door.

...oOo...

"Where is everyone?" Andreth wondered as she and Elrond, her arm looped through his, walked along the empty hall toward the kitchens. Andreth eyed a cushioned divan against the wall, wishing she could cast decorum to the wind, curl up upon it, and fall asleep there in the hall. She doubted she would even have the strength to climb the stairs again to her own chamber.

"At the Harvest Festival," Elrond said. "Remember this?" He reached up on her head, and handed her a circlet of flowers, now withered.

"Lord Eönwë's gift," she mused. "He thought I was the fairest maiden there."

"You were," Elrond heaved a prolonged sigh as he added, "And his judgement is faultless. In all of Mithlond, you are the loveliest, little sister. Truly, I could only imagine one face in all the world that could surpass you."

Andreth glanced askance at him. His voice had been wistful, and a faint smile as at a far memory, touched his lips. "The maiden in your dreams?" she asked. "The one whose face you drew?"

Elrond's face colored a little, and he nodded. "The same."

A soft sound of voices from the open door beside them found their ears, and Elrond turned his head gazing into the wide weaving room. Andreth recognized the voices as those of Galadriel and her lord, Celeborn.

"And who wove this tapestry?" Celeborn's resonant tones sounded easily through the doorway.

"Andreth did," Galadriel replied. "Her work is very fine, is it not? Look at the detail."

Andreth grinned, beaming with pleasure that the lady would praise her work so well.

"There is one I think you will like, especially, Celeborn," Galadriel continued.

"The lord and lady must not have gone down to the festivities yet." Elrond turned to Andreth with a grin. "Perhaps we can break our fast with them."

"Go ahead." Andreth nodded through the door into the light and airy weaving room. "I will sit here a moment."

Wearily, she moved to the inviting divan, and sank down onto it, leaning against the high arm as she set the dried circlet of flowers upon a small table beside her. She smiled after him as Elrond moved through the door and was gone, then with a sigh, lay her head down upon her arm, and curled her legs up beside her.

"Elrond!" the welcome voice of Lord Celeborn greeted him as Elrond entered the ladies' weaving room, and looked about him at the looms, drawing in the welcome scent of new cloth. Both Celeborn and his lady turned, smiling in greeting at his approach.

Elrond was grateful for their kindly smiles, for they lifted his heavy heart. His brother was now beyond the danger of the poison, but still the words he had spoken yesterday reverberated in Elrond's mind, and though he could push the thought aside for now, for his brother's sake, and for Andreth's, still the knowledge loomed, a dark cloud, just beyond his horizon that with mortality, would come eventual, inescapable-

Elrond did not wish to think the word- death, and instead, let his eyes rise to the tapestry they stood before. He stopped in wonder, all other thoughts put suddenly aside. Two elven men, himself and his brother Elros, stood near to one another beneath a sky, dark but for a bright star shining in the sky above them.

"Ah, Elrond," Galadriel greeted, pleasure glowing in her voice. "You have never seen Andreth's tapestries, have you?"

"Andreth-" Elrond queried, his gaze fixed upon the tapestry. "She was the one- Her hands fashioned this?"

Now he noted, with a grin, how the tapestry betrayed a slight favor for the image of his brother, which stood somewhat to the fore of the scene, and looked directly out of the tapestry.

"Her skill-" he murmured, "is astounding. She rivals women who have been weaving for centuries."

"If you are pleased by this, Elrond," Galadriel urged, "you should see this one. Though it is not yet finished, you may like it even more."

The golden-haired lady touched Elrond's elbow and urged him now toward a loom several steps away, turned partway from him.

As he moved around to the front of the loom, he met the blue eyes of the maiden upon the unfinished tapestry, her eyes gazing soulfully out of the cloth.

Elrond's heart fairly stopped at the sight of her.

"Andreth says that she fashioned this image after a drawing you created," offered Galadriel.

Elrond did not speak as his eyes moved over the features of the maiden. Vines and flowers were the backdrop to her lovely face and slender throat which were finished, as were her slender shoulders veiled in what looked to be a white gown, and much of her long, silver hair. This was the very maiden of his dreams! He swallowed and reached out, touching a hand to the face upon the cloth, almost surprised that he felt fabric beneath his fingers, not the warmth of soft, supple skin.

"It is her," he murmured. "The maiden in my dreams."

Elrond stood back, shaking his head in wonder. "Andreth," he breathed, his heart swelling with gratitude. He turned then, and strode out the door.

"Little sister-" he began, moving toward Andreth who lay half inclined where he had left her. But he stopped. For the mortal maiden, her head inclined upon her arm that rested upon the arm of the divan, lay with closed eyes in the manner of mortals, fast asleep.

...oOo...

Andreth awoke with a start, sat up upon the divan where she had fallen into sleep, and looked about her. From the light falling through the windows down the hall, she noted that evening was drawing close. Had she slept the day away? Without dreaming once?

Despite her disappointment, she felt rested now, but still her stomach burned furiously, reminding her that it had been nearly two days since she had eaten. A tray of fruit, and a clear glass of water, however, had been placed upon the table near her head. Hungrily, she snatched an apple and bit into it, wishing she could sate her hunger faster before she plucked up a bunch of red grapes and started biting the small round fruits right off the vine, barely chewing before she swallowed, heedless in her hunger, of the bits of twig she swallowed with each grape.

"Ah, I was wondering when you would waken," Círdan's voice called, and Andreth turned her head, seeing the silver-haired shipwright descending the staircase from the upper halls. Aelin walked a step behind him, clad in a bright gown, though she carried a towel in her hand, brushing her hands with it as she came.

Andreth swallowed, guessing that they had been alerted by the noise of her eating. She scrambled to her feet, blushing, and silently cursing her mortal clumsiness as the elves approached.

"How is Elros?" Andreth asked setting down her cluster of grapes beside her.

"Still sleeping, though I do not doubt he will wake soon," Círdan assured her. "He has been stirring more and more, and not long ago, he murmured your name."

Andreth's heart quavered at this. "Then I should go to him, now," she said, turning toward the stairs.

"But I've drawn a warm bath for you, and fresh clothing is waiting," Aelin urged, touching a hand to Andreth's arm and stopping her. "It would do you good to refresh yourself, and come with me down into Mithlond to see the sights. The dancing will begin soon. That will cheer you after all the difficulty yesterday."

"But when Elros awakens?" she worried.

"Elrond is with him now," Círdan assured. "And when Elros wakes, I am certain he will want to seek you out at the festival, and will be pleased when he finds you." The shipwright's eyes twinkled before he added, "In his sleep he also said something- about a promised dance, I believe."

"Yes- I did promise him a dance. And one to Master Hathel also," she recalled before a faint smile tugged at the corners of her lips and she said, "Though my heart looks forward more toward dancing with Elros."

Aelin's eyes danced with light. "It is true then- you love Elros?"

Andreth's flushed cheeks answered the question before her voice did. "Yes. And he loves me as well."

Aelin's mouth drew up in a slow, but glad smile. "Then all the more reason to make yourself lovely for him," Aelin insisted, taking Andreth by the hand. "Come. I have some tindómiel flowers I can weave into your hair. That will please him, I think."

...oOo...

Andreth sat at her dressing table studying her face in the polished mirror as Aelin busied herself with the maiden's hair, tucking in small white flowers that glowed now in the semidarkness of the room.

"When you first came to Mithlond, I thought that your heart would lead you to Master Hathel," Aelin admitted, her reflection meeting Andreth's eyes in the mirror. "I had never imagined that your heart and the heart of Lord Elros would twine together as they have."

Andreth swallowed. "Do you disapprove, Aelin?" she pleaded.

Aelin smiled at this, a reassuring smile, and shook her head. "No, dear one, I do not disapprove. It was only a surprise to me." She added, "A pleasant one."

The elven woman sighed and continued. "And as I think on it, I feel the rightness of your bond. And of Elros choice." Her smile twitched slightly. "I must confess, I was saddened by it. But I feel great things yet unseen will come of your union."

Her hand tugged gently, securing another flower into the tresses of Andreth's hair. "When Lord Elros is awake, Lord Círdan and Lord Elrond will bring him down into the city, and he will seek for you there." Her reflection smiled, meeting Andreth's eyes in the mirror. "I intend to make certain that his breath is entirely taken away."

Andreth blushed as her eyes moved over the soft whorls of her hair, the pearl necklace at her throat, and the gown of silken cream that graced her young body. She studied the long flow of her skirt and sleeves, the low scoop of her neck, the fabric of her gown that flattered her soft curves. She had worn this same cream white gown the night Elros had given her the epessë he had chosen, and they had walked together along the shore to his cave where he had tried to kiss her.

Like Aelin, she too hoped that her appearance would please Elros, but she did not wish his breath to be taken away, not fully. For she wished him to have enough breath to ask her at least one question.

She reached a hand forward, careful not to interrupt Aelin's work, and slid open one of the drawers, revealing within the bright silver ring Elros had given her the first time he had asked her to marry him. She studied it in the faint light of the candles, admiring its soft, pure gleam, then reverently slid it into a small pocket upon the belt of her gown, and let a satisfied smile touch her lips.

"I think you will be pleased," Aelin said. "Festival nights are as lively as days, though there is a bit more mystery at night, and the children are all put to bed. The torches all along the streets lend to the mood, as do the minstrels, whose music at one time is bright and lively, and makes the revelers join hands and dance all about in a merry line. And at others, the music grows soft and sweet. To this, couples dance alone, often in the shadows, that they might steal a quick kiss."

Aelin again met Andreth's eyes in the mirror and she smiled, though her lips trembled faintly.

"You will see your love again, one day," Andreth said, reaching up and giving the elven lady's hand a gentle squeeze.

Aelin returned the squeeze before rallying. "And you," she returned in a teasing voice, "shall see yours much sooner."

...oOo...

As a breath of air filled his lungs, the ceiling above his head filled his eyes, and at the edges of his vision, Elrond and Círdan stood over him, the shipwright grinning.

"Slept well, little brother?" queried Elrond.

Elros sat up, rotating his shoulder, wincing at the anticipated sting beneath the cloth of his bandage. But it did not come. He touched a hand to the bandage there, and lifted his brows when he felt no pain. He had expected at least a little; nothing to the shards of flame that had shot though his body the day before, but at least a faint sting. Yet there was nothing. And the heavy weakness was gone that had weighted him down the night before, keeping him from gathering Andreth into his arms as he had wanted. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, and rose experimentally to his feet.

"Where is Andreth?" he asked, glancing toward the window.

The sun had set, her flaming tresses reaching across the sky, igniting the whisps of cloud that floated there.

"She was by your side all day yesterday, and on until this morning," Elrond said. "She slept only a few minutes last night."

"Yes, I remember," Elros said with a nod. "But-"

"We had to drag her away from your side this morning to take rest and food," Círdan said with a chuckle. "And then, she was so weary, she fell asleep on one of the seats in the hallway downstairs before she could reach the kitchens."

Elros grinned. "But where is she now?"

"The festival," said Círdan. "And to that, we had to use much persuasion with her, for once she awakened, she wanted to return to your side. But Mistress Aelin and I assured her that when you awoke, you would go seek her out."

"Then I will do so." Elros turned, starting for the door.

"Ah, not garbed as you are," protested Círdan. "It would not do to go about in Mithlond in naught but your sleeping breeches."

Elros paused and looked down at himself, at his lean, corded torso, bare except for the bandage on his chest, and at his loose sleeping breeches hanging low about his hips.

"I must tell her something important."

"You may do so, once you've bathed and dressed," chuckled Círdan, pointing to the open door of the bathing room.

Elros heaved a breath, and obeyed, starting toward the open door, and the admittedly inviting cloud of warm steam rising from the bath within.

"What is so important, little brother, that you wish to go to her so quickly?" Elrond said, and a grin teased at the corners of his mouth. "Aside from what is obvious."

Elros paused in the doorway and turned. His eyes moved from Círdan to his brother. "Among many other things? I have seen and spoken with one of the Valar. Lord Irmo himself, Elrond."

Elrond and Círdan did not speak, though their brows raised, and Círdan smiled.

"And he had much to show me."

...oOo...

Laughter and song rang out about them as Andreth drank in the sights about her, the sounds, the voices, the sweet smell of night, and of torches burning.

Aelin had been right, Andreth admitted to herself as she and her elven friend scurried through the streets arm in arm beneath the dancing light of the torches set high upon brackets that lined the streets, bathing all below them in dancing lights and shadow. All about her, men and women, clad in their finest garb moved toward the market square of Mithlond, a wide flat plaza of paving stones, where much of the music and dancing could be found. She felt cheered by the mood, and the music that grew louder the nearer they drew along the street to the square, then found themselves, in a moment, in the wide openness of the market square where merry revelers now danced.

Upon one side of the square, half in shadow, a band of musicians played upon harps, flutes and tamborines, filling the air with bright music. Within the center of the square, dancers moved in time to the harmony of a merry song, the steps ones she had learned at Círdan's house.

"My ladies, I am pleased to see you. Your presence tells me that Lord Elros is well."

With her arm linked through Aelin's, Andreth turned to meet Hathel's eyes.

He smiled as their gazes met, his eyes traveling over her face with a gaze that revealed his lingering affection for her, yet also a willingness to bow his defeat graciously. For a long moment, his eyes lingered upon the white flowers woven into her hair, and his smile grew soft, and reminiscent.

"He is, thank you," Aelin offered when Andreth found herself unable to speak.

"I am pleased." Hathel glanced gratefully toward Aelin before turning his eyes back to Andreth.

"My lady Andreth," he offered, his voice grown tremulous. He reached out and took her hand, bowing over it with the grace of an elven lord.

"I know where your heart lies, fair daughter of Beldir. But would you honor me with a single dance?"

"I would be the one honored," Andreth said with a smile, loosing Aelin's arm as she let Hathel lead her out into the midst of the dancing couples.

The music of the minstrels filling the air changed then, the cheerful song of their instruments changing to a slower, more mellow tune.

He turned to her now, and his hand found her waist as her own hand rested upon his shoulder, his left hand clasping her right.

Hathel's eyes smiled upon her, a mixture of emotions rising and ebbing behind his eyes. His hand that cradled hers, and his shoulder beneath her palm were strong and sturdy, but also gentle. His strength was a testament to his dedication to his craft. So many of the stones here in Mithlond, even those beneath their feet, had been carved by him, his father, his grandfather. A city, Andreth mused as she studied the young mortal's eyes, that would last through all the ages of the world. Ages that he would not see. Nor would she. Nor would- Elros.

"I am happy for you." Hathel's words pulled her from her quieting thoughts as they moved together to the rhythm of the song.

Andreth smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Hathel,"

Hathel sighed. "He loves you. Deeply, Andreth."

"And I love him."

Hathel drew in a sigh and looked away for a moment, his jaw growing taut as if he battled with some internal agony. "You know, or perhaps have guessed that I have also come to love you, Andreth," he murmured, his eyes turning back to her own.

Andreth blinked at the wetness suddenly filling her eyes. "I am honored by your regard, Hathel," she choked. "You are a good man, and you deserve to be loved in return. But I am not the one who will do so."

"I understand," he said. "There is no bitterness in my heart. I know he will make you happy."

"You are good and honorable, Hathel," she assured him. "And someday, some blessed woman whose heart is free will see that, and she will love you, and you will love her, and what you will have together, will be greater than you can now imagine."

To this, Hathel dropped his eyes. He did not speak, but she could see in his face that he did not believe her.

"Hathel," she murmured.

The music stopped, and so did their dance, yet Andreth did not yet back away from him. She reached up and touched his face, feeling the warmth of the skin, the strength of his jaw. He let her turn his face to hers, and she swallowed, seeing the wetness in his eyes. "You will find love again," she said. "In one who returns your love as you deserve. There is truth in what I say. I wish you could feel it."

The young stonemason sighed at this, and strove to smile. He took her hand, drawing it gently from his face. And clasping her other hand, he brought them both together, holding them between his own. "I hope that you will always count me a friend, Andreth."

"Always, Hathel," she murmured. To this, Hathel smiled again, released her hands, stepped back, and turned away, fading into the crowd, and the mottled, dancing shadows the torchlight cast.

Andreth stood alone in the square for a long moment watching after him until at last she turned away and started toward the edges of the square, seeking Aelin.

Her friend she saw seated to the side between Elrond and Círdan, talking with them. And where Aelin had once stood-

Andreth stopped short, her breath coming more swiftly as her eyes found Elros, tall and beautiful beneath the torchlight, clad in fine breeches and tunic, his hair drawn back behind his ears in two small braids, the rest hanging in smooth ebony waves over his strong shoulders and down his back.

She drew in a quick breath as he smiled, his broad chest rising and falling with increased rapidity as their eyes met. He started toward her now, striding with the natural grace of a young lion, and warm desire flooded her core.

Andreth's hand moved to her belt, touching the small pocket where she felt the impress of the betrothal ring as he stopped a pace from her, the air between them thickening with unspoken emotion.

"Tindómiel," he murmured. He offered her a regal bow, his eyes dancing. "My heart sings to see you."

Andreth dipped into a graceful curtsy, her eyes downturned. Her breath was swift now, her breasts rising and falling beneath the creamy fabric of her gown.

"My heart sings also to see you, Rau amin." She rose again.

Elros paused and leaned nearer a fraction. "I am your lion?" he breathed, his smile twitching at the corners of his lips.

"It suits you, I think," she murmured demurely. "For you are looking well now, my lord." She felt her face warming. "Very well."

"Thanks to your care," he replied.

"Your wound does not hurt?"

"Not at all," he murmured, rolling his shoulder slightly. "And that, I suspect, is also thanks to your care."

Andreth ducked her head again. A gentle song, slow and soft, like a night wind, began to waft through the air, and couples again began gathering in the square, their forms blending into one beneath the dancing shadows of the torches.

"My lady?"

Andreth lifted her eyes to find Elros' gaze delving into her own, a hopeful smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

Offering her his hand in much the same way Hathel had, Elros queried, "May I have the honor of this dance?"

Andreth drew in a deep breath and slipped her hand into his. The only contact between them was the gentle grip of their hands. But in that one touch, the warmth of his fingers combined with the fire that simmered in his eyes, Andreth felt the quiet power of the passions that he felt for her, and which she felt for him tangling and weaving together, though bridled as yet, and her heart quickened.

"The honor is mine, my lord."


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