Behind the merry group climbing the high hill toward Círdan's house, the haven of Mithlond gleamed with lamps, and echoed with singing and laughter.
Andreth, breathless and weary, but nevertheless blissfully happy, walked alongside Maidh, who bore Firiel upon her back. Upon her other side, his fingers woven through her own, strode Elros. His head was partly turned toward Thranduil who walked along his other side, and Andreth took this fleeting chance to turn and study him, her betrothed.
Her betrothed. The joyful weight of the thought settled upon her, like a warm mantle, especially as she studied him. He was beautiful beneath the light of the waning moon on this, the last day of the Harvest Festival. His elven features smooth and flawless beneath the soft blue moonlight.
Then, through a window of Círdan's house, a single light flared. Aelin, and some of the other servants must have reached home already, and were beginning to light the candles and lamps.
Another light sprang up in another window, the welcome yellow light gleaming now off of Elros' face and form, and Andreth smiled.
His dark hair cascaded over his shoulders and down his back like a dark waterfall, parted by his tipped ears. The strong, masculine angles of his face smiled easily at what the golden haired elf had said, and then he turned to her, though at the sight of her face already studying his, Elros's laughter sobered to a smile.
"Tindómiel," he murmured, easing closer to her side, and withdrawing his hand from her own, so that he might slip it about her waist. "My fair one. I will miss you."
"And I you, Rau amin," she returned. "I wish we did not need to be parted."
Their steps slowed, and their companions pulled ahead, leaving them behind in the shadows. Though neither Elros nor Andreth cared.
"I wish that also. But it is for the best," he said, leaning close and pressing a warm kiss against her brow. "And I think it will be good for me, going to dwell with Firiel for a time, and living the way you lived from your childhood. I think it will teach me much."
Andreth sighed. "You've already learned so much in your life, Elros. You've already been deprived of so much. Kin and comfort and safety. You fought in a bitter, bloody war, and know so much more of so many things than I. I do not see how living in my childhood home will teach you any more than you knew before."
Again he gently kissed her brow. "I trust Círdan's wisdom. I think he is right that it is wisdom that we be parted for a short time. You will stay here and continue your studies, and I will go and dwell with Firiel. Indeed, Andreth, I look forward to dwelling with her, and serving her during the winter months that are coming. She is a goodly lady, and I am honored for this chance to serve her. She will not need to rise in the cold hours of the morning to milk Lavaniel, or to walk so far through the snow to trade and barter, for I will do these things for her. And she will have fresh meat in the winter, for I will hunt for her."
Andreth smiled, though worriedly. "Are you certain you do not have any adverse thoughts about sleeping in the hayloft in Lavaniel's shelter?"
Elros smiled, and chuckled ruefully. "Now, I say that I will be fine. That it will be a grand adventure. Truthfully, I cannot say what I will think in a month's time. Though I do know I will find a way to be content. And you will always be in my thoughts."
"But what about Lang?" she worried. "What if he comes back? What if he finds you?"
Elros sighed. "I think Lang is long departed. I suspect he left Mithlond after coating the swords with venom, and will never come back. For all I know, wherever he is, he does not even know his plan failed. For all I know, he thinks that either I or Hathel is dead, and does not care which of us was slain."
"If he is yet alive, he will learn the truth someday," Andreth said. "For you and Elrond are both well-known."
"Ah, but by then, you and I and all those who will come with us, will have sailed for the blessed land the Valar are making for us." Elros smiled. "Not long after our wedding, we will be beyond his reach."
"I wish everyone was beyond his reach," she lamented softly. "And the reach of others like him."
"As do I," Elros agreed with a sigh. "But we do not have power over all the world. Only our own choices."
He smiled warmly, and tightened his hold upon her. "Do not fear, my sweet Tindómiel. Spring will be here before long, and then I will return to you."
"And not long after that, we will be married," she sighed. "I wish the spring were here, now."
Elros pressed more closely to her side, and breathed into her hair, "So do I."
Longing began to simmer within her blood as a coal simmers before the flame flares to life. Demurely, she drew away from his side, though she did let his hand, seeking hers, find it, and weave his fingers through her own.
The rest of the group was well ahead of them now, and in the light of Círdan's house, now glowing like a beacon with lamps and candles in every window, she could see the group filing in, in groups of two or three. Thranduil was helping Firiel from Maidh's saddle, then another elf led the white coated mare away.
But- where was Elrond?
Andreth stopped in her tracks at the sight of Elros' brother walking away from the group, around the side of the house, alone. In the silver light of the moon, his head was bent down as if his thoughts were weighted.
Andreth sighed, for it did not take much thinking to realize what weighted the thoughts of Elrond.
"Look," she murmured, and Elros turned his eyes toward his brother.
Elros made a sound of concerned understanding in his throat. "Yes," he muttered. "Elrond has gone off alone every night since our betrothal was announced. I asked him if I could accompany him, and he said he wished to be alone."
Andreth swallowed stiffly at this revelation. Since Elros' recovery, she had been so elated that he had not died, that his choice for a mortal life had not fully settled upon her heart as it had those first few moments after he had spoken it in the arena.
In the days since, Elrond had not seemed sorrowful; rather he had seemed relieved at his brother's recovery, and had been quick to smile and to laugh, and to join in with the festivities. Only just hours before, she had danced with him, and he had smiled as he spoke of how he looked forward to the next few months, helping her continue her studies, and promising her how she would be pleased by the beauty of Mithlond in the winter. He had not seemed sad. But now as she watched her friend round the corner of the large house toward the path that led down to the shore, she realized how much his brother's choice weighted upon him.
"We should go to him, now," she said. "Speak to him."
Elros looked at her, studied her face a long moment. "He wished to be alone," he protested weakly.
Andreth heaved a soft sigh. "But I must go to him," she said. "I must speak to him. What he feels, what I feel-"
She bit her lip and dropped her eyes. "Not long ago, my dear one, you made a choice. You, who, Elrond and I both hoped, would choose to live forever. Now, you will-" She choked softly. "You will die, someday, my love. He and I once both hoped you wouldn't."
Elros shifted as if he were about to speak, and she stayed him gently with her next words. "I know now, your choice was the right one, and I accept it. As I know Elrond does. But for Elrond," she turned and looked toward the spot where Elrond had disappeared, "while I will ever be at your side, and we will be together always, and any parting between us will be but brief, it is not so with your brother. Elrond knows now, even while you are still near him, that he will lose you one day. And that you will be parted until the world is remade."
Elros did not speak, though his fingers tightened in her own.
"I must go to him," Andreth said. "I must speak to him. At least I must try."
Elros drew in a deep breath and nodded, remaining where he stood as Andreth drew away from him, his fingers sliding from her own as she turned away and started after Elrond.
Elros watched Andreth move away, studied the glint of the moonlight in her hair, the graceful sway of her walk that stirred his blood as he watched her gliding away through the night, glowing beneath the moon like one of the fair tindómiel for which he had named her, like a white sea-bird, those graceful creatures that looked at first to be so frail and delicate, yet were strong and resilient as iron. She was like them, so strong, so wise and brave, and beautiful.
And though Elrond had claimed he wished to be alone on these nightly walks of his, perhaps Elros should join his betrothed as she went to speak to his brother.
Drawing a breath deep into his chest, Elros started after her.
Elrond was glad to be alone, here upon the shore of the sea as he rounded the curve of the bluff and started toward the cave he could see through the moonwashed trees, the whisper of the waterfall reaching his ears. The cave he and Elros had known so well from the time they had been small boys. He need not continue any pretense, now that he was alone.
No, it wasn't pretense, he chided himself, and shook his head. He was happy. For Elros, for Andreth. And his heart accepted, with peace, the choice that Elros had made. It was the right one. A part of him had known it for a long time. Even before Elros had ever set his eyes upon the fair, mortal maiden Andreth. And his brother was still here. He had not withered into a decrepit mortal of ninty years the moment he had spoken his choice. He looked no different than before. The presence of his fëa that Elrond had always sensed, was just as strong as it had always been.
But even so- even so.
The shadows closed over his head, and Elrond sighed. Even so, he knew now, what would happen. Perhaps Elros' life would be extended to a few hundred years, because of the blood of the elder race that flowed in his veins, but inevitably, though the signs were not showing themselves now, Elros would-
A ragged breath escaped him. Elros would die. One day. His fëa would depart the circles of the world, and he would be gone until the world was remade. How would his brother, left alone, endure? Elrond wondered. He had never been without Elros. He could not conceive of a life without him.
"Dear Valar, give me strength," he breathed. "I know his choice was as it should be, and that it was your will. But it is not easy for me to take into my heart. Please give me the wisdom and the understanding that I need."
Behind him, something stirred on the path, and Elrond turned, alarmed at first, though at the sight of Andreth his heart eased, and he managed a smile.
"I am sorry," Andreth murmured, turning her face downward. "I did not mean to interrupt your communion with the Valar."
Elrond smiled gently. "It is alright, little sister."
Andreth lifted her face and smiled tentatively. She was beautiful. Elros truly was blessed. And she would make his life so happy, however many years he had left upon this world.
Almost as if she sensed his thoughts, Andreth stepped forward then, and embraced Elrond, her slender arms circling his shoulders, her fair head coming to rest against his shoulder.
"We both love him," she murmured against his shoulder. "Each in our own ways."
"Yes," he agreed, letting his arms encircle her. "And I know his choice was right. I do not mean to be ungrateful."
"But it is not easy, even so."
Elrond smiled a shaky smile, his heart overflowing with gratitude that she understood, and did not judge him harshly. "I always wished I had a sister," he murmured against her hair. "I am grateful the Valar have blessed me with one so fair and wise as you at last. I wish-"
Elrond did not continue his thought. But Andreth spoke, knowing, somehow, the thoughts of his heart. "You wish you did not need to lose me as well."
Elrond closed his eyes and nodded against her hair, feeling the tears spilling out beneath his eyelids. "And my heart hurts," he choked. "My life has been filled with so much loss, and my heart tells me that there will be dear ones not yet born, whom I will love and lose as I will one day lose Elros and you. I do not know how I will bear it all. Perhaps I should have chosen mortality as well. Suddenly facing all the ages of this world without the hope of release seems suddenly so overwhelming a thought."
"Elrond." Though she was smaller than he, looking up at him through the filtered moonlight cast by the wilting leaves of the trees, Andreth suddenly seemed strong, like one of the Queens of the Valar, strong and wise, and beautiful, like his mother had been, and able to save him from all his hurts.
"Yes?" he asked, his voice choking.
"You chose as the Valar wished you. And you will be blessed for it," she whispered. "Mortal or immortal, our bonds of kinship will ever be there. Always; come what may. And when the world is remade, we will be together again, in the bliss beyond bliss. You, Elros and I, your parents, your own bride, your children, our children. All of us. I promise, my brother."
"She is right."
Elrond looked up, seeing now, Elros on the path behind his betrothed. He drew back from Andreth, sniffing as he did, and brushing his hands beneath his eyes.
Elros smiled softly, casting an adoring glance at Andreth before turning his eyes back to Elrond. "Wherever I go, I will be not far from you, Elrond. The Valar are not cruel. They knew, long before we did, the choices we would both make, and they will not part us forever."
"Even so, little brother," Elrond said. "It is not easy."
"I know," Elros said. "It is not easy for me, either."
Elrond choked, "A part of me already misses you."
"And I, you," Elros managed in a broken voice.
And with that, he strode forward, and like his betrothed, threw his arms around his brother. With that, Elrond buried his head against his brother's shoulder, and began to cry.
In the light of the small fire, Elros' eyes looked pensive, and a little sad, and Andreth looked away, dropping her gaze to the fire.
Here in the cave, the waterfall eternally clattering beside her and casting up a chilling mist, the fire was a welcome companion, banishing the chill of the falls' mist and of the deepening autumn night.
Elrond had been with them at first, the three of them talking, and telling stories as the night deepened, and the shadows cast by the full moon had shifted as the moon wended his path across the sky.
Elrond seemed to be at peace now; she hoped he was. And even now, in the silence of her own thoughts, she prayed for him. That he would find the strength and courage to face the future, the joys and the sorrows that his long, unending life would bring him.
At last, though, Elrond had left, silently, leaving the two of them alone in the cave.
She lifted her eyes to the rough ceiling of the cave where the smoke from the fire collected before it spilled out into the air at the mouth of the cave on one side of the falling sheet of water that caught the flicker of the fire and cast it back about the room, flickering random flashes of light and shadow about the chamber of the cave.
A gnarled branch popped and crumpled into the fire, the flame faltered, and Andreth shivered a little.
Wordlessly, Elros reached forward and poked the fire, stirring the flame, before he added another stick.
As he sat back, he shifted his weight so that his shoulder brushed her own.
Even through their clothing, she felt the contact, and her flesh tingled at the touch. She dared not look at him. For they had never been this alone before, excepting in their shared dreams.
"Perhaps we should go back," she murmured at last. "You and Firiel must leave at first light, after all."
"Yes," Elros agreed, shifting his weight, though he made no move to rise, and instead, moved his arm to circle her shoulders, and draw her closer to his side. "We should return soon. It would not do, for me to be falling asleep in the saddle on the way to her home."
He sighed, and drew her more closely to him. "But forgive my weakness that I am not eager to do so," he murmured. "I know I will not see you for some months after I leave you, and I wish this time with you to last."
"As do I," she confessed at last, though her words were spoken with a little shudder.
"Are you afraid?" he asked, his breath brushing against her temple. "Or cold?"
"A little of both," she confessed.
"You needn't be afraid," he said. "I would never dishonor you by wedding you without speaking my vows to you before our kin and friends. My regard for you is far too strong to do such a thing to you."
He shifted closer. "As for the cold," he murmured, "my arms will gladly banish that."
Andreth snuggled closer to him, grateful for his warm, along with that which the fire cast. To this, Elros wrapped both his arms more firmly around her, lacing his fingers across her stomach as his jaw pressed against her hair, and the two gazed silently into the fire.
"I do not fear you, Rau amin," she breathed, lifting a hand to touch his jaw as the pair gazed into the fire. "But I wish to keep the simmering coals of our desires banked until our true wedding night."
"As do I," he breathed, though his voice betrayed a hint of reluctance. "And so it shall be. Come."
Again he shifted his weight, and Andreth turned to look as he released her from his arms, rose to his feet, then offered her a hand where she still sat upon the stony floor.
Andreth lifted her hand, slipping it into his, and let him help her rise to her feet.
Yet the betrothed couple did not immediately turn and depart the cave, and Andreth gazed up into the eyes of her dear one, studying the way the firelight danced off of his chiseled features.
He studied her with the same adoration which her own heart felt, and after a moment, his hand lifted, and brushed her cheek. "How was I so blessed," he breathed, "to be entrusted with the heart of the most beautiful of all the daughters of Eru Ilúvatar?"
Andreth blushed at this, and ducked her eyes, but Elros' thumb and fingers touched her chin, insistent, but gentle, as he lifted her face again to look into her eyes.
She lifted her eyes, finding his, his gaze soft and warm in the firelight across the space between them.
"It has occurred to me, my lady," his voice grew warm and thick, "that since my return from the stone quarry, our lips have met- four times. But I have not yet kissed you- properly."
Andreth felt herself softening, and she blinked as she studied the firelight reflected in his sea grey eyes.
Her hand lifted and touched his shoulder, trailing along it to his throat, and touching against the wild throbbing visible beneath the warm flesh. For a moment, she studied the rhythmic pulse.
"Perhaps you should remedy that?" she suggested softly.
"By your leave," he breathed, and dipped his head toward her own. Catching her breath, Andreth let her eyes fall closed, lifting her face to his.
His lips, like the brush of a butterfly's wing, touched hers, his kiss like that of a shy, uncertain youth. The chaste, tender contact sent a wave of tingling warmth through her, before he paused and withdrew, searching her eyes with his own, begging her to let him kiss her again.
"Rau amin," she breathed, her own voice grown thicker before Elros dipped his head and claimed her lips once more, his caresses more urgent now, his mouth tasting, exploring her own with tender, restrained passion. Andreth began answering his silent implorations with a warmth all her own, letting her arms slide up his chest and around his broad shoulders, straining to be as near to him as she could. Elros responded in kind and his powerful arms encircled her, pulling her soft body more firmly against his own as their kiss continued, gradually deepening.
Her senses became entangled with his, and Andreth found herself answering the fierce and eager caresses of his warm mouth with her own rising passions. Her fingers gently trailed up his neck her fingers tangling themselves in his hair, an act with seemed to encourage him more.
With a faint moan, she let him tease her lips apart and deepen the kiss, and Elros pulled her body all the more fiercely against his own, hungrily exploring her mouth with a mingling of passion and tenderness that sent a wave of warm weakness pulsing through her blood. Beneath her breasts crushed against the hardness of his chest, Andreth could feel the mingling of their wild throbbing hearts, and her blood grew hotter.
She could sense the bond forged already between their souls, something beautiful, adamant, and unbreakable. And now, with his body pressed against hers, she felt a strange stirring pressing hard against her lower belly that she did not understand, yet which excited her nevertheless, and stirred her own growing need.
Suddenly Elros broke away, almost wildly, his hands finding her shoulders, and he stepped back as if bracing himself from her.
Andreth lifted her eyes to his, to see flames burning brightly in their usually placid, grey depths.
"Tindómiel," he growled softly, breathlessly, his voice rough, almost feral; a tone which sent a delicious mingling of fear and excitement racing through her blood. "Forgive me for drawing back so suddenly, but I must." He swallowed hard and smiled ruefully as he stepped back from her. "It is not yet time for your lion to be unleashed."
At these words, Andreth felt herself grow suddenly hot, and a wave of shyness washed over her, dropping her eyes to the stony floor.
"I am determined to wait for you," he vowed, "until the appointed day of our wedding. But on that night," he drew in a deep breath as he murmured, "by your leave, I will make love to you from the setting of the sun unto its rising."
She drew in a deep breath at this, but did not speak.
"Forgive me for my bold words, Tindómiel," Elros breathed.
"Of course, Rau amin," she breathed, her words gentle, though her eyes remained on the stony floor. "My feelings are as yours. I see Lord Círdan's wisdom now in having us be parted for a season."
"As do I," he murmured, penitent.
She lifted her eyes, seeking his. She smiled, and Elros returned it, hopeful, boyish, the smile of a youth eager to please.
"Come," she said at last, reaching for his hand which he gave her. "Let's go back to Lord Círdan's house, and our own rooms, you to yours, and I to mine. I will fare you well again, in the morning in the midst of our friends. And every day, I will look forward to the spring, and the coming of the first flowers when you will come back to me."
With that Andreth turned, her hand in his, and the pair walked out of the cave, past the flowing sheet of water, and into the cold air of the night.