Andreth released a breath of mist in the air as she sighted down the arrow shaft, the string of her bow drawn taut to her cheek as she aimed at the center of the target Hathel had set some paces away over the snow.
The air was cold and still. Beyond the target, away over the trees, a haze of smoke hung in the still air, high in the cold, windless sky. It had been there since they had come here in the morning, and had not moved. The remnants of a woodsman's bonfire, perhaps.
"Calm your breathing, Andreth," Hathel's gentle voice said behind her.
Andreth closed her eyes, feeling the cold air upon her face, faint wind in her hair.
Drawing in a breath, she opened her eyes, listened to her heartbeat, then released the string.
The arrow sang through the cold air, and struck with a thunk, quivering, just outside the faded red circle.
Andreth winced, and a sympathetic hiss escaped Hathel's lips.
"I missed," she lamented.
"It's still a good shot," Hathel encouraged. "Your first day with a bow in your hand, you did not hit the target at first. Do you remember?"
Andreth turned to him warmed, despite the cold, by his smile.
Hathel wore a thick cloak against the cold, and his shoulder length hair fell about his face like a mane, accentuating his strong features. He was a good, honorable man, and Andreth was gladdened by the peace in his eyes.
"I do. You were very patient with me. But these last few months since winter began, I have not practiced as I should."
"That is-" Hathel cleared his throat. "My fault. I didn't come as I did during the summer."
Andreth offered Hathel a sympathetic smile and shook her head. "It is hardly your fault, Hathel. And-" She dropped her eyes, feeling her face coloring. "I can understand why you've stayed away."
To this, Hathel dropped his eyes as well, remaining quiet for a moment before he looked up again. "Andreth, may I share with you something I have learned the past few months since winter began?"
There was quiet earnestness in his tone, and she swallowed, meeting his eyes.
"Of course," she said.
"I have discovered, my lady," Hathel said, "that when love is true, it does not end. It cannot. It matters not whether one is an elf, or a mortal. For the nature of love, true, real love, itself is the same, for all free folk."
Andreth looked swiftly away. This was not what she had expected him to say. Was he saying that he would always love her, though his feelings would be forever unrequited?
"It does not end, my lady," Hathel added quickly, "but it can evolve into a different kind of caring, more suitable for the nature of the relationship."
Andreth's eyes shot up at this.
"My mother died when I was but a boy," he continued. "My memories of her are vague and uncertain. My father died not long ago in the war. I cannot remember even him perfectly. Some memories are like water through my hands. But there is one thing I remember that both my parents taught me, that has always remained with me."
"What is that?"
"That the All Father is a benevolent being," Hathel returned with a breath that hung in the air in a soft cloud before it faded. "That He loves all His children, all free folk created by Him, or by the Valar." Hathel chuckled softly, "which means He loves even Dwarves."
"And the All Father would not fashion his children to be forever bereft if their love is not returned the first time they give their hearts away."
"Lady Galadriel once said something like that to me, as well," Andreth said. "Even elves can overcome the scars of unrequited love, and learn to love again. If they choose."
Hathel smiled, and his eyes were warm, and deep with gentle affection. "The Lady Galadriel is a wise, and goodly lady. Much like you."
He reached out, and gently touched Andreth's shoulder before letting his hand fall to his side. "I loved you, truly, once. And in truth, I still do." A half smile touched his lips as he looked away, thinking over some secret thought. "Though not- exactly as I once did."
He swallowed and looked at the ground. "I-," he drew in a breath, "I am still- I am not blind to- your beauty. I could not, at this time, go seek a wife in good conscience, and with a heart that is entirely free, but-." He sighed. "I honor, and have honored your choice, Andreth. And I am and have been happy for you. I feel the rightness of your choice, and everyday, I feel more and more at peace. I think, truly, that one day, we can be friends, good friends, as we have been meant to be, with no-," he swallowed, "no lingering pain on my part."
Andreth looked up into his face, blinking briefly to free her eyes of wetness, and smiled. "I am glad I know you, Hathel, son of Helendir. You are a good man."
Hathel looked up, a half grin upon his face. "I try to be," he said. "And I thank you for believing in me."
Andreth released a sigh at this, and turned from him, her eyes fixing again upon the target. She studied it a moment, then drew a second arrow from where it stood, stabbed into the snow, and nocked it to the string. She drew the string to her cheek, hearing the familiar creak of the bending bow in her ears as she sighted down the arrow shaft, drew in a breath, and released the string.
Away the arrow whistled over the snow, to strike, quivering, just off of the center of the red circle.
Andreth grinned, turning to see Hathel's smile of approval. But then her mouth parted slightly, and a question touched her thoughts as beyond his shoulder, she saw someone striding toward them across the snow from the direction of Círdan's house.
"Linnod-" she began, then corrected herself. "Maglor!" She lifted a hand waving to him. "Lord Maglor!"
Maglor lifted a hand in return as she turned and hurried toward him across the flat white sheet of snow, Hathel at her shoulder. But his somber expression did not change into a smile as she drew near.
Andreth's own smile faded as a sense of tense trepidation filled her. "Maglor," she demanded as they came within an arm's width of each other, and stopped. "Is Elros-,"
"Elros is fine," Maglor said quickly. "In fact, none whom you care for have been hurt."
Andreth's heart sank back into its place with relief.
"Maglor, the minstrel?" Hathel asked, a guarded tone in his voice.
"The same," Maglor said, his eyes grown guarded.
"I understand that you-" Hathel said softly, "saved her life."
To this, Maglor heaved a sigh. "Elrond saved her. He knew how to use the herb I gave him."
"Nevertheless, I am glad you had it," Hathel said. "She is a good friend to me."
"It is comforting to know Andreth has good friends." Maglor managed a terse smile before he turned back to Andreth, his eyes still tense. "But I have come with unfortunate news." He pointed northward, toward the distant haze of smoke that hung in the sky far to the north. Andreth had barely noted it before away over the trees, far to the north. "It concerns that."
Again Andreth's heart tensed. "What is it?" she breathed.
Maglor's expression melted into one of compassion. "You have visitors awaiting you at Círdan's house. I will tell you on the way."
Wordless, she nodded, traded a glance with Hathel, then followed Maglor as he turned and started back toward the high house where it rose upon the bluff overlooking the sea.
"As I said," Maglor continued as they walked, "Elros is fine. As is Firiel, and even your little beast, the little goat-,"
"Lavaniel," Andreth offered.
"Yes." Maglor managed a smile. "Plucky little thing."
"Then," she hesitated, and traded another look with Hathel. "What is amiss?"
Maglor sighed. "To begin, Lang still lives."
Andreth's heart clenched.
"I saw him in the forest near Firiel's land, and I spoke to him, warning him to leave Elros and all those he cared for, in peace. But I could see in his eyes a void similar to what I have seen only in the eyes of orcs. I fear he has given his soul over to darkness, and I do not think he ever means to relent."
A hand touched her shoulder at this. "Is Andreth in danger?" Hathel asked.
Maglor looked at the mortal. "Not so long as I live," he said, turning to look again at Andreth.
"I went to Firiel's house, and spoke to her, and to Elros of my fears," Maglor continued. "They both felt it wise to speak to her friends as well, Baran and his family, for Lang, I fear, would not hesitate to hurt anyone who has befriended Elros. And so we went to speak to them." He grinned. "We journeyed to see them, and Firiel rode upon Elros' mount, Nórui. The little goat could not be dissuaded from joining us, for she and the horse have become fast friends these last months since Yule. And for that, I am now glad." He looked northward again, and sighed. "For as we spoke in Baran's dwelling, we saw beyond the window, a bright light of fire filling the sky."
Maglor sighed raggedly. "Firiel's house and all her out buildings have been burnt to the ground," Maglor said, emotion choking his voice. "I have no doubt that Lang caused it."
They were just entering the yard before the main door. The stable's stood to their left. Andreth stopped. She had grown almost from babyhood in Firiel's house! Though it was not itself alive, Andreth felt almost as if she had just lost a dear, cherished friend. "Firiel's house? Burnt? Gone?"
Hathel's arm tightened upon hers, and she turned to look up into his compassionate eyes.
Andreth sighed, and turned to meet Maglor's eyes as well.
But the dark haired elf had gone. Vanished suddenly, as if upon the wind.
A wickering voice beside her, turned her head, and Andreth found a smile coming again to her face as she met Nórui's large brown eyes.
"Nórui!" she greeted, cheered a little.
At the sound of her voice, the stallion tossed his head in greeting, and a scrabbling scratching sound bumped at the door of his stall, followed by a merry bleat.
Peering over the side of Nórui's door, Andreth brightened further to see Lavaniel there, standing upon her hind legs, her forefeet scrabbling at the door, her eyes eager.
"Lavaniel!" Andreth cried, reaching both arms over the door to rub the goat's head. The goat pressed her head into Andreth's hands, clearly glad to see her.
At the sound of the voice she loved so well, cracking with age, though warm with affection, Andreth turned.
Firiel stood upon the steps of Círdan's house, and in the moment it took Andreth's heart to fill with gladness at the sight of her, her heart also twinged with worry at the lines of sorrow and weariness that had deepened upon her friend's face since she had seen her last. Andreth was glad to see Círdan at Firiel's side, and a warm shawl around her stooped shoulders.
Behind the aged mortal, stood Baran, and Elrond as well. And at his brother's side, stood Elros, his warm eyes fixed upon her.
Despite the weight in her heart, her heart sang at the sight of him. And Andreth smiled.