The fire in Firiel's hearth crackled merrily, while beyond the walls a cold wind shrieked and howled, as if angry that it could not gain admittance into the warm haven of her house. There was a note on the wind, a foul, sour note, at which a twinge of unease, deep within the recesses of his mind pricked at Elros. But he and Firiel were safe in here; Lavaniel the goat was safely put away in the barn, and his attention was fixed upon the work in his hands. All thoughts but pleasant ones were pushed far away into the shadows of his mind.
A pot murmured upon the fire, exuding warm and promising smells; rabbit stew with slices of potato, carrot, and onion. And a tray sat upon the table, boasting a fine, white goat's milk cheese while beside it, waited a pot of berry jam. And the neighbors were coming, Firiel had promised, bringing bread that would still be warm from the oven. Baran, and Lómë his goodwife, and their children, to celebrate Yule with Firiel and her elven guest. Elros had already met them, and liked the jovial man and his sweet-faced wife, Firiel's nearest neighbors. Their eldest, Lune, was a lad of fourteen, and Elros' gift to him, a carven bow with a handful of arrows in a leather quiver, lay newly strung at one end of the table. Beside it lay his gifts for the other children, a wooden top and a carven horse, for the two younger sons, Arik and Gereth, and a little wooden doll with moveable limbs, for the littlest, Dove, a sweet girl of five years. The little doll was clothed in a dress of Firiel's make, its creator seated a space away from Elros in the rocking chair he had made for her, stitching at a small mound of white cloth in her lap. Her gifts for their visiting guests were finished, carefully made tunics and aprons, and arrayed upon the table with his. He wondered what the mound of cloth was that she worked on now, though it looked suspiciously like a baby's sleeping gown. And Baran's wife was not expecting. Elros smiled where he sat at the table's bench, a short, sharp knife in his hand as he carved at his own slowly forming creation. A little cradle.
Elros was focused upon the little headboard now; a curving, intricate design of vines and leaves that arced over the head-board and down each side of the little wooden box, curving down each of the four corners, and curling into in the delicately curved runners that would help the little cradle rock gently and safely like Firiel's chair did.
His work was still unfinished; the little bed was still rough and unpolished, and more carving was to be done. But Elros smiled as he studied the little box cradle he was carving from a single block of wood, and pictured Andreth's face, imagining the look of pleasure he would see in her eyes when he showed it to her in the spring. The cradle that would hold and protect their little ones that would come of their love, of the bonding of their bodies that would one day be the beautiful fulfillment of the bond they already felt between their souls. Even now, he felt the tug of her spirit upon his heart, no less potent despite the distance between them.
Elros had not realized he had sighed out loud, until Firiel chuckled beside the fireplace, and he looked up.
Firiel's eyes twinkled as their gazes met. She shook her head. "You poor boy," she teased. "It is but mid winter. You and Andreth have some months to go, yet."
Elros blushed, and dropped his eyes. "I know," he agreed. "I'm sorry madam. I will strive to be easier to live with."
Firiel's smile softened a little. "Elros?"
He looked up.
"You do truly love her, do you not?"
He nodded. "With all my heart."
Firiel heaved a breath, her eyes now earnest. "Why?"
The single worded question was, upon the surface, a fairly simple one. But as he studied her eyes, he knew that truly, it was not so.
"You ask this," he surmised, "because you want to be reassured that I love her for more than her beauty."
Firiel smiled a quavering, apologetic smile. "You indulge me much, dear Elros," she said. "In my heart I am certain that you do love her, truly. But as one who loves her as a mother, I still wish to hear your words."
Drawing in a breath, Elros set the cradled down, leaving his knife upon the table beside the unfinished cradle, and turned toward Firiel, leaning forward and resting his elbows upon his knees as he faced her.
"I will be truthful, madam, when I tell you that one of the first things I noticed about your fair charge, was indeed her beauty. Her eyes are fairer than gems, and her hair is like a cascade of gold and bronze when it catches in the light. And the beauty of her form is truly captivating."
Elros dropped his eyes again, feeling his face grow warm. "Andreth is marvelous to look upon. She has a grace about her, whether she is still, or whether she is moving. And I confess, all that is in me that makes me a man stirs when I look at her. I desire her, Firiel. I will not deny that."
Firiel waited, her eyes expectant.
He drew in another deep breath, and straightened. "But that is not the only reason why I love her, for her soul is good and kind, and makes her outward beauty shine all the more. Were she not thus, I could not love her, no matter how beautiful she was."
"And would you love her still, were she not whole, and untouched?"
Elros' brows furrowed slightly, and studied her eyes for a long moment, wondering what she was asking.
Slowly, he drew in a breath. "You wonder if my feelings would be different," he said slowly, reading the old woman's silent eyes, "if by some mischance Elrond and I had been later than we were, and Lhûg had succeeded in- in robbing her of her maidenhood before we arrived."
"Yes," Firiel said softly. "I wish very much to know that. And what if she had lost her hand, that day when the knife with the poison on it slipped, but there had not been medicine nearby to save her limb from being destroyed by the poison? Would you love her still?"
Slowly, Elros straightened, and gazed long into Firiel's eyes. "I have always known by looking into her eyes the answer to this question, but I will ask you nevertheless. Has Andreth ever given herself to any man of her own will?"
"No." Firiel's answer was soft, but emphatic.
Elros nodded his head. "And so it would be, even if Lang's cousin had accomplished his vile desire. The fault would be his, not hers, and my love would not be less for what he did."
A look of deep and warm gratitude softened Firiel's face as Elros continued, "And had she lost her hand, I promise you, such a thing would not mar her beautiful soul, good and honorable as it is. And my heart would still cleave to hers with no less the strength that it does now."
Firiel drew in a ragged breath at these words, and Elros smiled. He rose to his feet, and crossed the room to her, kneeling down in front of her, and gathering up her gnarled hands within his own.
"Madam, Firiel," he said. "I will be forever glad that these wretched things did not happen to Andreth, she whom we both love. I am glad that she is yet untouched. I am glad that her form is whole and unmarred. But I promise you, my love would not be less, otherwise. For her soul is noble, flawless and whole, and its purity is brighter than the sun." His smile faltered a little. "I can only hope that I am worthy of her, as bright and beautiful as she is."
At this, tears started in Firiel's eyes and she squeezed his hands. "Oh, my dear boy," she choked softly. "My dear, wonderful Elros. I promise you, you are."
Elros smiled, and rose to his feet, gently squeezing her hand before he released them, and turned back toward the table and his work.
A knock at the door however, quickly turned his feet in that direction.
"Ah, that will be Baran, and his good family," Firiel said as he moved across the floor, lifted the latch, and drew it open.
Elros' mouth dropped open in pleased surprise at the figures shivering upon the stoop, and smiling in greeting.
"Happy Yule," Círdan murmured, his eyes dancing, his arms loaded with a bundle of firewood, and a leather pack over one shoulder. The elf's silver beard and hair glistened with ice crystals, his hair cascading over a thick winter cloak. Behind the elf, Baran, Firiel's tall mortal neighbor with dark hair and beard stood beside his wife, Lómë, and their children gathered about them, baskets and bundles weighting their arms. Their eldest son, Lune, grinned, looking at his smaller brothers and sister as if with a shared secret, though he said nothing.
After a moment, the bearded elf chuckled. "May we come in?"
"Of course," Firiel laughed from behind them. "Come in, my lord! What a welcome surprise. Make yourself easy, and you as well, Baran, Lómë, and all!"
The group chuckled merrily as Elros stood aside, permitting them to enter, kicking snow off their feet as they came.
"My lord, I had not expected to see you until spring," Elros said, as the elf crossed to the hearth, and dropped his load of firewood into the nearly empty cradle. He moved toward the table, and set the leather pack beside Elros' cradle.
"Indeed," Círdan said again, and stepped forward to slap a hand upon Elros' shoulder in greeting. "So I saw, by your befuddled expression when you opened the door."
The silver-haired shipwright smiled, glancing toward the smaller mortal children who squeeled at the discovery of their presents and rushed for the table, dropping furs and wraps as they scrambled for the toys Elros had made. "But I wanted to wish a Happy Yule to you, and to good Firiel as well."
"But-" Elros' smile faltered. He did not wish to feel disappointment on such a blessed and happy day, but even so- "My lord, did Andreth not also come with-"
"Lord Elros!" the youth Lune said, his voice filled with wonder, and Elros turned as the youth held out the bow Elros had made, his eyes bright with gratitude. "Thank you, sir. It is very fine."
Arik and Gereth had dropped to the floor with their toys, playing beside the table.
Elros smiled and nodded. "You are most welcome, Master Lune."
"Perhaps you will take me to practice with it, later?" Lune asked.
"If you wish, and if your parents approve," Elros promised.
Lune glanced toward his mother who had moved to the side board with Firiel, the two women unloading dishes of warm, delicious smelling food from the basket Lómë had brought, then toward his father who was unrolling a fine, thick bearskin rug upon the floor before Firiel's new rocking chair.
"My lord," Elros asked again, turning toward Círdan. The bearded elf smiled. "Did Andreth send no message, or-"
"Master Elros?" a small hand tugged at the hem of his tunic, and he looked down into Dove's wide eyes as she hugged her begowned doll close to her.
"What is it, little one?" he asked, grinning as he squatting down level with the child.
Dove dropped her eyes shyly, and he grinned, reaching out a gentle hand to brush the child's cheek. "Ah, no need to be shy, little one."
The little girl lifted her eyes once more. "Are you going to marry our Andreth?"
"I certainly shall," he said.
Dove ducked her eyes again. "Andreth is lucky." A blush colored her baby soft cheeks and she hugged her new doll close, half hiding her face. "You're very handsome."
Chuckles echoed around the room, which Elros echoed. "Thank you," he said. "You are, yourself, very pretty."
"Is that other handsome man with the pointed ears your brother?" Dove asked again. "The one who joined us on our way? He gave me a ride upon his horse."
"Lord Círdan?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at Círdan who stood now at the hearth, looking on, with twinkling eyes. "No, but he is like a father-"
"No," Dove cut in. "I mean the one who looks like you. The one with dark hair, like you, who is in the barn with Andreth now, putting the horses-"
"Dove!" her mother cried, her voice betraying her good humored shock. But the secret was already out, and Elros thrust to his feet.
"Andreth is here?" he demanded, looking now toward Círdan, now toward Baran, now his wife. "Here? Now?" None spoke, though the pursed lips and laughing eyes of Lómë gave away their secret.
Without any further hesitation, Elros turned and darted out the door, Círdan's good-natured laugh following behind him as he sprinted around the corner of the house, and toward the animal shelter, where he could see the door standing open, and the tell tale signs of the hooves of three horses crossing the snow toward it.
Despite her furs and fine gown beneath, Andreth knelt down upon the floor of Firiel's barn, and threw her arms about Lavaniel's neck, burying her face into the goat's coarse, musty smelling coat.
"Oh, I've missed you, dear Lavaniel," she breathed, relishing the goat's good natured bleat of welcome, and the nudge against her neck. She looked up at Elrond who turned from the manger where he had dropped an armful of hay, patting Maidh's cream colored neck. The walls of the barn echoed with the contented munching of the three horses.
"She's missed you just as much, it seems," Elrond chuckled.
"Not as much as I have," a breathless voice, warm and welcome sounded in the doorway.
Andreth scrambled to her feet, turning toward the tall, solid shadow that now stood, blocking the brightness from the snow.
"Elros," she gasped, and rushed forward, finding herself, in a moment, engulfed in his strong arms. She buried her face against his neck, and drank in the warm, musky scent of him, trembling as she felt his arms slip beneath the heavy fur cloak she wore, and find her waist, easing her body against his own. "Rau amin," she breathed against his neck, her voice soft so that he alone could hear.
Elros hands, against her hips, tightened their grip slightly, letting her know he had heard, before he whispered in return, "Tindómiel, I have missed you." He pushed her back, smiling down into her eyes. "Seeing you again, is like a drink of water after days of thirst."
"It is the same for me," Andreth murmured in return.
With a smile, Elros bent his head, intending to kiss her, when a coppery equine nose thrust between them, sniffing in welcome as Nórui impatiently butted Elros' chest.
"Ah, Nórui!" Elros laughed, and Andreth and Elrond joined him as he embraced the horse's thick neck as Andreth had, her goat. "Do not worry boy! I have not forgotten you."
"What about me, little brother?" Elrond queried, and Elros turned toward his brother, a penitent grin upon his face.
"Nor you, Elrond," he said, striding foward. The two elven men threw their arms about each other, clapping each other upon the shoulder. "Never you."
The elven brothers parted, and Andreth smiled, ducking her eyes. The eyes of both men gleamed with wetness.
"I've missed you, Elros."
"And I, you, Elrond."
"We should go to the house," Andreth offered as the two men both turned to her. "If I know young Lune, he'll eat up the entire Yule feast if he's allowed."
The two men nodded, and with a final pat to Nórui's neck, Elros urged the stallion back to the feeding trough. Obediently, he went. Lavaniel, her hooves clattering, moved toward the trough as well, and Nórui and Celegben moved agreeably to let the goat stand between them.
Needing no more urging, Elros moved to Andreth's side, and slipped his hand into hers, guiding her out the door into the snow, and the gentle cold of the winter evening. Stars were beginning to twinkle overhead.
Further out into the trampled snow they went, and as Elrond turned to shut and bolt the door behind them, Elros turned toward Andreth with a mischevious gleam in his eye, and bent, as his arm, strong and firm, pulled her swiftly against his solid strength, and stole a fleeting, heated kiss, pressing his warm lips fervently against her own before withdrawing, and meeting her eyes with a rougish grin as his brother turned back and joined them.
Andreth smiled as Elrond rolled his eyes, letting the pair know he was fully aware of their mischief. But he only grinned and said nothing.
Clapping a hand upon Elros' shoulder, Elrond tramped upon Elros' left side as Andreth huddled against his right, the three of them breathing out clouds of steam as they marched through the snow toward Firiel's house where a song of merriment was already rising up, escaping the door and the windows, and reaching out to them with a welcoming hand, bidding them to join the warmth and the light.
Far in the darkness of the forest, a figured trudged along, wrapped in a ragged fur cloak, his eyes casting now and then toward the light he could see through the trees, though he dared not go nearer.
Yule. Lang swallowed bitterly. What was Yule, but a time to remember what he did not have? No friends, no kin. Only bitterness and anger. Nothing but hate to drive him, to give him purpose. And that elf, that cursed, wretched elf had everything.
With a bitter growl, Lang jerked away from the light, and the music he could hear now, wafting through the trees from the distance. One day, one day soon, that elf would lose everything dear to him. Lang would see to that. He slapped the body of the rat he had caught for his evening meal against his thigh, and turned away.
The fire in the hearth burned low. Beyond Firiel's shuttered window, the full moon had risen, casting a silver cloak across the snow. Within Firiel's house, the small chamber was comfortable and warm, and in a shadowed corner, Baran's three youngest children dozed upon Andreth's bed. Lune sat upon a wooden stool beside the new bearskin rug his father had brought for Firiel. Firiel sat in the wooden chair with the runners that allowed it to rock gently, while Baran's wife at at her feet, the two of them visiting softly in voices Andreth could not hear from where she sat upon the wooden bench at the table.
Her stomach was comfortably full, as was her heart, as she and gazed as Elros where he stood with the other men beside the hearth, sipping at mugs of warm mead.
"Oropher and Thranduil have gone then?" Elros asked.
"And their people," Elrond said. "They started eastward not long ago. I would have written, but as we were coming to see you, I thought it best to tell you in person."
"They mean to establish a silvan realm of their own," Círdan said. "I do not doubt but that they will do wonderfully well."
"Thranduil said to bid you farewell, Elros," Elrond said.
Elros nodded soberly, and drew a thoughtful sip. "I'll miss him," he said.
The other elven men nodded.
"Great things are yet to come of Oropher's son," Círdan said softly. "And of his seed, I'll wager."
She turned her head to the side, noting the small carved cradle in the shadows, and remembered that she had yet to give her beloved her own Yule gift.
"Elros," she called, and he turned his head, the soft murmur in the room stilling.
"Yes?" he asked.
"I have yet to give you my gift," she said, and rose, moving to the pack that Cirdan had set down for her.
"That you are here is enough," he assured her, though he drew nearer, curious, a smile coming to his face as she withdrew a wrapped package, folded in cloth, and tied with a string. And then she withdrew a harp.
"This is for you," she breathed, offering the package to him.
"Thank you," he said, accepting it into his hands. He sighed. "I am sorry that my gift for you is unfinished," he said. "I had not known-,"
"Do not worry," she said with a smile. "Your greatest gift to me is simply being here."
Elros dropped his eyes to the package, and loosed the string, letting the cloth fall away from the folds of a fine, warm cloak.
"You made this yourself?" Elros asked, running his hands over the fabric, his eyes shining.
"I did," Andreth said, her body warming with pleasure.
"Though I would prefer your presence, I will be happy wearing this, knowing this was made by your hands."
"My gifts to you are not done, though," Andreth continued, smiling as Elros' brows twitched in curiosity, his eyes falling to the harp she held in her hands.
"I promised I would play it for you, one day," she murmured.
Stillness filled the room. Lune shifted upon the stool where he sat, and rose to his feet to move to his father's side, and Baran clapped a hand upon the boy's shoulder, but no others moved as Andreth set her fingers to the strings and closed her eyes, beginning to play a song Maglor had taught her, a soft sweet, wordless song of light, and of hope, and of good and blessed things to come. Her fingers moved over the strings as the song came forth, and for a moment, she fancied that the song itself caused the movement of her fingers, rather than her fingers drawing forth the music that filled the reverent stillness of the room for many long, and peaceful moments before they came at last, to an end, the last note quavering away and fading into sweet memory as she opened her eyes and looked up into the adoring face of her betrothed.
"That was wonderful," Elros said in the stillness. "I have wished to hear you play, since first I knew you had learned."
"Thank you," she murmured.
Elros nodded his welcome, then with eyes that had grown as shy as a youth's, he stepped forward, offered his hand, and asked, "Will you go out with me, for a short time, into the night?"
"Yes," she returned, placing her hand in his.
For a moment, Lómë shifted where she sat, and shot a brief look at Círdan. But the silver haired elf merely smiled and shook his head as Andreth rose to her feet.
The moon was high overhead, their mingled breaths steaming in the air between them, as Andreth and Elros, their arms about each other, stood together at the edge of the forest. Up the slight slope of the hill, Firiel's house was bright beyond the shutters, singing reaching them across the clear and silent snow. They would return soon enough, and Elros would depart with Baran's family to spend the night at their holdings while Círdan and Elrond would sleep in the loft above the animals where Elros usually slept. For now, though, she had him all to herself.
Andreth strained closer to his side, grateful for his warmth and his strength that banished the cold that held the world all about them in frozen, silver sleep.
The trees at the edge of the forest, barren of leaves, gleamed white in the night, while deeper into the forest, they stood like dark, sober pillars upholding a roof of entwined carven stone. Like a dwarves' cavern, she had often imagined.
"The cradle you are making, is beautiful," she murmured at last.
She heard him draw in an appreciative breath, and sensed his smile. "I had meant it as a gift nearer to our wedding day. It is as yet unfinished. But I am glad you like it. I am sorry I did not have a Yule gift for you. I did not think I would see you again until the spring."
"You are gift enough, Elros," she assured him.
"Yours was wonderful," he murmured.
She smiled, and teasingly drew back from him a pace. Grinning he followed her, before he lifted his head, and looked around.
"This place seems somewhat familiar," he said in faint wonderment.
"Perhaps because we are near the waterfall and pool where I wash the clothes in the spring and summer." Andreth said, nodding into the darkness of the trees. "Through there, is the stream which leads to the falls, frozen now."
"The pool where I found you, inadvertently, when I returned to give you the basket you'd dropped," Elros said, his breath warm against her forehead.
"Yes," she said. Andreth did not look up at her betrothed, too shy, for the moment to do so. "The day after-" She faltered.
"The day after we first met," he offered.
"Yes," she breathed softly, her eyes dropping to her feet.
Silence, soft and companionable, filled the warm space between them until she spoke again.
"Thank you, Rau amin, for saving me that day. For saving my- virtue."
"You are more than welcome, my love," he returned, and she drew in a ragged breath, closing her eyes as she felt the press of his lips against her brow.
"I have very little, in the way of worldly goods to give you as a dowry," she said, still to the ground. "All that I have, has been gifted to me, from Firiel, or from Lord Círdan. But I still have my maidenhood. My one treasure that is wholy mine." Her voice grew as soft as the wind. "That will be my gift to you, on our wedding night."
To this, Elros sighed, and turned fully toward her, touching her chin, and lifting her face so that her eyes rose to his own. Grey as the sea, and filled with warmth, wisdom, and compassion.
And though Andreth did not have the strong memory of the elves, she knew, as she gazed up at him, his tipped ears framed by his dark hair falling about the heavy cloak he wore, the hood of it thrown back, and his eyes bright with the light of the moon, that this image of him would remain with her for all her days, until her dying breath.
"Tindómiel," he murmured, and bent his head, placing a soft, chaste kiss to her lips before drawing back. "It is a gift that I will accept with the reverence that such a treasure deserves." He smiled softly. "I too, hope you accept and treasure the gift of my virtue, as well. I have never given myself to any woman. And I desire none but you."
She smiled up at him, her heart warming at his words. She had always known that such was true, but it was wonderful to hear.
She took a slight step back, finding the trunk of a tree arresting her steps. But to this, she only smiled as Elros pressed near, his arms sliding beneath her cloak to her hips, as her own found his arms beneath the weight of his cloak, trailing up to his shoulders, her fingers tracing over the taut lines of his muscles as they went. Elros bent his head again, and this time, his kiss was stronger, and more heated, his body pressing against her own. She found herself drowning in him, returning his caresses with equal fervor.
"Tindómiel," he breathed as he drew back for a fleeting moment, his breath mingling with hers in the fraction of space between their lips, "you will make a wonderful queen," before claiming her lips once more. Beneath her cloak, his hands stroked up and down her sides, sending trails of warmth flowing through her body.
"And you will make a wonderful king," she returned, drawing her lips away from his to catch her breath, and gather her wits.
"Winter will not last forever," she whispered. Swallowing, she gently pressed her hands against his chest and pushed him away. She lifted her eyes, offering him a breathless smile.
He returned her smile, before his expression fell as the twang and zip of an arrow released from the string sang off into the forest, not far away.
Alarmed, the couple turned to see the boy Lune, trotting near, hefting the bow Elros had made for him, the new quiver strung over his shoulder.
"Forgive me, Lord Elros, Andreth," the boy called. "Lord Círdan sent me to fetch you back. I was coming, when I saw a shadow of some creature in the wood. A bear perhaps, though I cannot say, for the shadows were deep. It must not have been aware of you, for it was moving toward you, and you-, er, distracted as you were-"
The youth paused and blushed.
Andreth felt a heated blush coming to her own face. Distracted as she indeed had been by Elros' attentions, a hive of bees could be swarming around them, and she'd barely notice. Elros seemed to have the same thought, for he shot her an apologetic grin.
The boy cleared his throat, and continued. "I shot a warning arrow at it. I did not wish to hurt it, if I could help it. But the warning worked. It turned, and ran away into the deeper shadows."
"Good man, Master Lune," Elros said, one hand finding Andreth's as he stepped forward to clap a hand on the youth's shoulder. "For the warning shot, and for being a mindful chaperone. Come, let us return. I have kept you and your kin long enough."
Andreth smiled, squeezing Elros' hand as they returned to Firiel's house. He did not speak, but Elros smiled as they went, and gently returned her squeeze.