The Choice of Elros

Chapter 39

Chapter 39

As Andreth opened her eyes to see a sky blazing with bright stars, she smiled, and scrambled to her feet, feeling the familiar rustle of rich cloth as she stood, the diadem upon her unbound hair, and the pearl necklace at her breast, though she knew she had gone to bed unadorned, and clad in but her night shift.

She glanced eagerly about herself, her eyes darting over the dreamscape she had not seen in months, not since Elros had left Mithlond to dwell with Firiel. She turned her eyes northward, then southward, seeking for some sign of him.

She could not see him. And the land seemed- strange- different. She recognized where she was, upon the east facing beach where she and Elros had met so many times. But the earth beneath her feet was rougher, no finely ground sand, but hard, dark rock. And there was no grass on the slope rising up from the shoreline.

With a furrowed brow, Andreth gathered the rich skirts of her gown in her fists, and climbed up the bank to the peak of the knoll, and looked again about the land. Her smile began to fade as she realized she was alone, and while she recognized the mountain far in the distance as the one she and Elros had seen before, all the land seemed strange and barren. The mountain was dark, but for streams of lava spilling from its mouth, or from fissures in its side, flowing away from it in glowing rivers. Far away to her right, one of these rivers met the sea, and she could hear the hiss of the water meeting the molten rock, and see the rising clouds of steam.

This all, was strange and alarming enough, but more than that, where was Elros?

"Fair daughter of men."

The voice that sounded beside her would have frightened her but for the gentleness of the tones. A woman's voice. And she turned, drawing in a sudden breath at the sight of the fair lady before her, knowing instinctively, that she was in the presence of one of the Valiër. The lady was beautiful, with flawless gleaming skin, and hair that seemed to catch in a gentle breeze that Andreth could not feel. Her slender form was clad in grey raiment that glowed like silver, a light seeming to shine from within her very skin as she smiled upon Andreth.

"My lady," Andreth gasped, dropping into, she feared, an awkward curtsey. Her mind dashed over Elros' tale of his meeting with the Lord Irmo, and she guessed at the lady's name. "Lady Estë?" she wondered, looking up.

"Indeed, my child," the lady said, reaching out a fair, slender hand. Her eyes were gentle and bright, and her smile as soft as a mother's love. "Thou art very perceptive. Come, child. Rise and walk with me, as the one whom thou lovest once walked with my husband. I have much to show thee."

Andreth swallowed as she studied the hand the lady held to her. The hand of a Valië, of one, whom her people thought of as a goddess.

Tentatively, she rose, and slipped her hand into the hand of Lady Estë. The Valië smiled, and gently squeezed. Her touch felt cool and smooth, but otherwise no different than the hand of any other lady she knew.

"Is all this happening, truly?" Andreth whispered as she studied Estë's gentle eyes.

"Indeed," the Valië returned softly. "And even more now, than when you dreamed with your dear one. For this land, Númenor, as it shall be called by one of its names, is no dream vision, but real."

"But how?" Andreth asked. "My body is sleeping in Círdan's house. Yet I do not feel as if I were a spirit." She drew in a breath. "I breath, I feel-," She touched a hand to her cheek. "I am as corporeal as when I am awake upon the shores of our Middle Earth. None of this feels as if it were a dream. How is it? And why am I here? Why also, is the land changed?"

Estë laughed, a pleasant, gentle sound like the ringing of soft bells. "Oh, my child," she breathed, "you are as inquisitive as I was told you would be. Your mind seeks and hungers for knowledge. That is a wonderful thing. You will make a marvelous queen of this land. Your questions please me, truly. But for the time that is, ask not how, for I could not tell you in ways or words that your mind can yet grasp how it is all done. Know only that it is. As for the why, it is because you are to be rulers of this land, thou and the younger of Eärendil's sons whom thou lovest. It is made for you, thou and all thy people, to be a blessed and happy land for the faithful of the Edain who have served us with courage and honor."

The lady gestured with her hand, and Andreth looked to where she pointed. For a moment, her grasp upon Estë's hand tightened. For though the sky had remained unchanged, they were not standing where they were moments before.

The two ladies stood, hand in hand, upon the steep slope of a great mountain, looking down over a wide, vast land that stretched into the distance, so that Andreth could not see the ocean. Beneath her feet, the rock felt warm, and trembled a little, and she became conscious of a steady growling rumble that filled the air, and a harsh, bitter scent. Somehow, her instincts told her it was the scent of molten stone, brought up from deep beneath the earth. She knew now, that she stood upon the side of the great mountain she had seen so often from a distance, now with streams of melted rock flowing down its slopes.

The land below her down the slope and far away, looked dark and barren beneath the moon. Of what she could see, nothing grew in all the vast landscape below her. And from where she stood, she could see three rivers of lava that flowed out and away from the feet of the mountain, toward the horizon in three directions, beyond which, she guessed the sea waited, cooling the rivers of molten rock with crashing water, and clouds of hissing steam as she had seen of the one river of molten rock moments before. As she stood, the mountain, beneath her feet, rumbled, and a sudden snarl as of a living beast seemed to fairly tear the mountain apart as it swelled beneath her feet and rose many lengths into the air.

"Do not be afraid," Estë commanded, though with her other hand, she grasped the frightened girl's wrist, and turned her, so that Andreth could see again, only the Valië's eyes. "Nothing can hurt thee. Thou art here in spirit, in the land where thou art to rule at thy lord's side, as his wife and equal. This-," she gestured about them, "is how your blessed land appears at this very moment as it rises out of the sea from whence it came, and to which it will one day-,"

For a fleeting moment, Estë looked troubled, but she did not finish her thought, and smiled again. "It is no longer a dream as it will appear, but how it truly is, now, at this moment as thy body lays sleeping on the shores of Middle Earth. In but a short time, it will be ready for you, and for the Edain who will be summoned, and who will join you, the faithful among mortals who have served and loved us, and the All Father. Many of your people will be the folk of Hador, also the folk of Haleth, and of the Drúedain. Also, there are those of thy own kin, the folk of Bëor. They will sail here with you, in ships fashioned by the faithful Círdan, to dwell between the lands of Middle Earth, and the Undying Lands to the west."

"All this, Lord Irmo showed to Elros?"

Estë nodded her head.

"He said very little of his meeting with Lord Irmo, only that it had happened."

"He was forbidden to speak much, even to thee, until I showed thee what my lord showed him." Estë smiled. "Now, when thou art awake, you may speak of what you have seen between yourselves, but only when you are alone."

Andreth nodded.

"I wish to show thee more. Look there."

Estë pointed westward, and Andreth followed her finger. Despite the trembling that she could still feel beneath her feet, and the acrid scent of brimstone in the air, Andreth caught her breath at the soft glow she could see upon the very edge of the horizon.

"That is Valinor?" she asked. "The Undying Lands?"

"It is Tol Eressëa." Estë gently squeezed her hand. "An island, not far from the mainland of Valinor itself."

"It looks beautiful," Andreth sighed. "Even from so far away."

"It is," Estë agreed. "But remember, child, the wisdom of the All Father decrees that no mortal shall set foot upon the shores of those lands. It is not out of spite, but out of love, that he had created such a ban. Remember that. And teach thus, I beg thee, to thy children."

Andreth dropped her eyes. "I will," she vowed.

A gentle finger touched her chin, and she looked up into the eyes of the Valië. Estë smiled, somewhat sadly, though with gentleness and hope in her eyes. "When the world is remade, when elves and mortals and all who are good and free dwell together in the bliss beyond bliss, there will be no such need for bans or borders. But there is need now."

"I understand," Andreth said.

Estë smiled again. "I know thou doest, and that, my child, is what will make thee such a wonderful queen. He who loves thee, said the same as well." Estë's smile turned playful as she added, "Though thou wilt be pleased by what my own lord told me he also said, concerning the light that he could see of Tol Eressëa."

"What was that?" Andreth asked.

"That for all its loveliness, he would trade it all, for a life with thee as your husband, with thee as his queen."

Andreth dropped her eyes, again, blushing now. "I do not know what I have done to earn the devotion of one so wonderful as Elros," she murmured. "I am so very blessed."

"He is blessed as well, Andreth daughter of Beldir," Estë murmured. "For thy soul is as pure as the snow that will grace this peak one day. Thy heart seeks naturally after knowledge and wisdom, and thou knowest true beauty when thou findest it. There are so many who love thee for that, and will honor thee as their queen, and heed thy words."

Estë gently squeezed Andreth's hand, and the maiden looked up into her eyes.

"Elros Eärendilion loves thee, dearly," Estë whispered. "And as the years pass, he will only grow to love thee more."

A hand touched her shoulder, and Andreth looked up into the eyes of the lovely Valië. "To him, mortality was no sacrifice. He will never regret his choice. For mortality is his destiny, and thou, my child, hast woven thy own destiny with his into what will become a beautiful tapestry."

Andreth felt wetness in her eyes and she blinked it away. As she did, the land around her changed again, and she found herself once more, upon a beach facing the sea. Though now, she could see from the stars above her head, that she faced westward.

The glimmer of Tol Eressëa that she had once seen from the slope of the great mountain, was no longer visible.

Far behind her, to the east, the mountain where she had stood a moment before, rose up into the sky, dark, but for rivers of molten rock which flowed down its sides, or from fissures in its surface, away toward the sea. From here, she could see two more glowing rivers of molten stone flowing down the northern slope of the great mountain. Then there were five rivers of lava flowing away to the sea from the mountain, etching, carving, forming the land into what it would become.

Where she stood, though, the land was calm, the earth cool and soft beneath her feet. And here, poking up their brave heads from the dark earth, small grasses and even flowers were beginning to grow.

"The Lady Yavannah has begun to plant, and will yet bless this land with many wonderful gifts, plants and animals, forests and grasslands," Estë said, releasing Andreth's hand, and stepping away a few paces. "And elves from the isle which you saw are helping her, also."

She turned back. "I understand that one of the sons of the maker of the Silmarilli gifted leaves and seeds of a wondrous healing plant to thee."

"Yes," Andreth remembered, "Maglor gave me leaves and seeds of athelas, to save Elros when he was hurt."

"Thou hast them still?"

Andreth nodded, thinking of the leather bag for which Maglor had never asked that she return. It sat, still, upon her dressing table, its precious contents still safely tucked away within.

"Bring them with thee when you sail away from Middle Earth," Estë commanded. "Plant them. They will thrive here, and bless the lives of thy people. In time, they will be carried back across the sea, and will do great good in Middle Earth as well."

"I will," Andreth vowed.

"Thy time here is nearly done, my child. But before thou wakest, I would bid thee to do one more task."

"I will do anything you wish, my lady," Andreth answered.

Again, Estë smiled. "Bid thy friend, Aelin, come with you, when you depart to sail to this land. She will not be disappointed."

"Yes, my lady." She bowed her head, and as she lifted her head again, Estë was gone.

Andreth blinked, and suddenly found herself in her own room, snuggled beneath the warm sheets of her bed, drawing in a breath of cold air, she sat up, shivering. Moonlight filtered through the curtains that cloaked her ice encrusted window. In the opposite corner of her room, within a modest fireplace, the coals of a once bright fire had crumpled into barely glowing embers. Splices of wood waited beside the fireplace in an iron crate.

But even as she contemplated rising, and stirring the coals to life, adding a piece of wood to bring warmth into her room, a shadow outside her window where one had not been a moment before, interrupted the moonlight, and a soft tap echoed through the glass.

Andreth scrambled out of bed, snatching up her dressing gown, and draping it about herself as she hurried to the window, curious, and drawing the curtain back.

Her brows lifted at the sight of Elros, hooded and shivering beneath the cloak she had woven for his begetting day, standing upon her ice frosted balcony.

At the sight of her face within, he smiled, a pleading look upon his face. At his feet, sat a large, shapeless leather pack. How did he get there? Surely the only way would have been for him to vault up onto the stables, and walk the icy ridgepole, then pull himself and that awkward pack with him, up over her railing.

Stifling a laugh, Andreth grasped the handle of the window, and wrenched on it, fighting against the ice that had crusted it. But with Elros' aide, the door eventually drew far enough open to admit him, his large, awkward pack, and a breath of bitterly cold air with him.

"Elros, what are you doing here?" she hissed in a laughing whisper that turned into a cloud in the cold air before Elros turned, and pushed the door closed, shutting out the biting air before turning to her and smiling as he brushed back his hood to study her in the dim light as the curtain fell back into its place, muting the moonlight once again. "The night must be as cold as the crossing of the Helcaraxë!"

Even as he smiled, he shivered, and his face was pale with cold. Her heart smote with pity, and she sought his hands wanting to warm them, but he drew his cloak more tightly about himself, and she drew her hands back for a moment.

"Yes, but if I am not mistaken," he breathed, his teeth still chattering, "when dawn comes, it will be the anniversary of your birth."

Andreth smiled and blushed at this. In yesterday's excitement, with Elros and Firiel coming to Mithlond, and the sadness of learning the fate of Firiel's house and buildings mingled with her relief that her dear ones were safe, Andreth had almost forgotten.

"I am sorry to have startled you," he murmured. "The front door is latched, and I did not wish to summon some poor servant from sleep. But I wanted to see you. I brought-"

"Elros, I saw Lady Estë."

Elros' mouth froze in the middle of a word. "Wh- who?"

Andreth reached out, touching the hem of the cloak she had woven for him, a gift for his begetting day. The heavy cloth was still ice cold and stiff to the touch. Even so, her own blood grew warm, and faint trails of longing trembled through her body at his nearness, his tall, strong form, here with her, in her bed chamber, in the middle of the night-

She looked away, conscious of how she was clad, a thin dressing gown shielding a thinner sleeping shift, and- nothing else.

"I saw her, in my dreams, not but a few moments ago," she said, her eyes still down as she drew the edges of her dressing gown more tightly across herself. "The wife of Lord Irmo, the Vala who showed you the land she called- Númenor."

Elros' hand parted the cloth of his cloak, and touched her shoulder. His hand was still cold, but strong and firm.

She looked up into eyes grown suddenly earnest. "Tell me everything," he pleaded.

Andreth opened her mouth to speak, but found her words frozen. Ai, he was beautiful, she thought to herself, and glanced away as a swell of desire stirred deep within her, an ache that was almost painful. She shuddered a little.

"You're cold?" he asked, and she turned back to him, meeting his eyes.

"Only a little," she murmured, glancing away again.

Elros turned away and looked across the dark room toward the glowing coals of her fire.

"Your fire is nearly gone," he observed. He turned back to her, and a soft smile came to his face. "Come."

His hand slid to her elbow, still cold, though gradually warming.

The tread of his boots brushed over the floor as he led her away from the ice-crusted window, nearer to the glow of the fire.

He squeezed her hand as her feet found the thick, sheep skin rug that lay before the fireplace. Andreth smiled as her toes curled appreciatively into the warm softness.

"Here," Elros whispered warmly into her ear, and she stepped away as he bid her. She watched as he moved, his face and arms faint in the light of the coals as he bent over the iron box where lengths of split wood waited. In his sturdy arms, he gathered up two wedges of wood, and moved to the fire alcove where the coals simmered.

Sparks flew up as he added one, then another of the two pieces of wood, then stood back, rubbing his hands appreciatively. After a moment, as the flames climbed, he stepped back and sighed, unlacing the fastenings of his cloak, and removed it, folding it, and dropping it to the floor beside the sheep skin.

The strong, beautiful angles of his face and hands, the firm lines of his tall, firm body, more visible now without his cloak, glowed in the light that slowly grew as the wood began to ignite, little tongues of flame beginning to lick upward.

"Stay here a moment," he said. "Let me give you this. It is the reason why I came."

He turned and made his way back to the window, lifted the heavy pack, and brought it to her, setting it upon the sheep skin rug, then stepped back.

Andreth knelt down before the large object veiled in the large leather pack, and loosened the knot, drawing it back, and casting it away to reveal-

Her lips parted and she smiled as the sheet of leather fell away from the small cradle Elros had shown her at Yule. The one he had been carving for their children. She had thought it lost in the fire. But for a scar of black upon one corner, it seemed otherwise unhurt.

She looked up into his eyes that gleamed now in the light of her fire as Elros knelt across the small cradle from her. "How was the cradle saved?"

"We found it, almost entirely unhurt in the midst of the remains of Firiel's house. "That, and a chair I made for Firiel, and a few stone bowls, were salvaged."

"But it is wooden. How did it survive?"

Elros shrugged. "I cannot say."

Andreth dropped her eyes at this. "The grace of the Valar, I suppose," she murmured.

"Firiel and I were making you a pair of mittens out of rabbit skins, but alas, they were lost in the fire."

Andreth sighed at this. "Do not worry," she said. Then smiled. "You can keep my hands warm."

Beneath the smooth skin, his jaw grew taut, and he looked down, his eyes studying her hands as they gripped the smooth edge of the cradle he had carved. "Tell me of your meeting with her," he said, reaching out and resting his hands upon hers, and gripping them gently. The chill was gone from his hands, now. "With the lady Estë."

Andreth sighed, and looked away toward the dancing flames. "She was beautiful," she began.

"Not so beautiful as you, I'll wager."

She looked up, to find his eyes gazing across the little wooden cradle at her. The firelight danced off his face, his hair, and his eyes, soft and grey as the sea. Andreth found herself trembling again, and she knew it was not from cold. She ducked her eyes, and glanced away, only to feel his fingers beneath her chin, lifting her face.

"I meant what I say," he whispered. "I saw the fair isle of Tol Eressëa upon the horizon, and fair as it was, I felt no longing to go there. All that I am, yearns toward you. For one lifetime with you, I would trade all the beauties of Valinor, and all its lands."

Gently, his thumb caressed her lower lip, and Andreth felt her heart begin to throb painfully within her.

"The firelight upon your face, in your eyes, on your hair, and upon your skin-" Elros swallowed fiercely. "Ai, my Tindómiel. It is truly intoxicating. How I wish I could stay here with you. How I wish I was at liberty to show you-"

"I am not-" her voice trembled, "I am not yet your wife-"

"No, you are not," he murmured. And with that, Elros sat back, seeming to come again to himself. "I should go." He paused a moment, and dropped his eyes. "But I do not wish to leave."

Andreth's smile trembled. "Is Hathel so unpleasant a bunk mate, or Master Sigil?"

"No," Elros said, and chuckled warmly. "Hathel is an affable host, and Sigil is a good soul-," his voice softened.

"Master Sigil fought in the War of Wrath," Andreth said. "Did you know?"

Elros nodded. "He took a blow to the head. That is why he is the way he is."

"Also, Hathel's father fought."

"Did he?"

"Hathel wished to fight with his father, but Helendir forbade him, and went to the war alone."

"Hathel told you this?"

"Lord Círdan did." Andreth sighed.

"I never knew that," Elros murmured. "And I was there, in the war. I knew there was much loss among the Edain. I wish I had known."

"Master Baran, our neighbor, fought, also."

"Indeed?" Elros breathed.

Andreth nodded. "He fought in the same company my father did."

A long moment of silence passed.

"You wish them to join us," Elros said.

"The faithful Edain who have served the Valar, who fought to defeat the Evil One; they are all worthy to dwell in this new land with us," she said, looking up into his eyes. "So said Lady Estë."

Elros smiled softly. "And Lord Irmo," he agreed.

He studied her eyes a moment longer. "I am glad that you have seen what I have seen."

"As am I," she said, lifting a hand, and smoothing a stray lock of hair back behind the pointed peak of his ear.

He closed his eyes, his breath visibly quickening at her touch.

"I shouldn't stay," he breathed. "I am in your bedchamber, there are no others near, and you, Tindómiel-,"

At last color darkened his cheeks and he looked away toward the window to her balcony, his voice deepening. "You are not dressed for visitors."

"Then, at least leave by the door," she teased, and Elros smiled in return.

He studied her face a moment longer, drinking in the sight of her as he did, clearly reluctant to leave.

At last, though, he rose to his feet, gathering up his cloak in a rustle of cloth.

"May your dreams be sweet, my beloved," he murmured, bending over, intending to kiss Andreth upon her brow. But she lifted her face as he bent near, and his lips, instead, met hers.

Andreth smiled as Elros' lips lingered, warm and soft, upon hers. With a soft moan, he dropped again to one knee, and his hand reached out, cupping her throat in warm, lean fingers.

Andreth was conscious of the little wooden cradle still between them, and she wished, impulsively, to push it out of their way, and let herself melt into his arms as the softness of the sheepskin enveloped them, forgetting everything. But she drew in a sharp gasp of air in the same moment he did as Elros broke their kiss and released her, drawing back to sit upon his heels.

"You are making it difficult for me to leave," he murmured softly.

"I am sorry," she said, bowing her head, and fixing her eyes upon the carvings on the wooden cradle.

"Do not be," he sighed. " But I will go now." He rose to his feet.

"Sleep well, Elros."

"And dream well," he said.

Andreth looked up at him again, and smiled.

Elros turned away then, and strode to her door, opened it and stepped out, shutting it behind him with a resounding click as the latch fell into place.

Suddenly weary again, Andreth sighed, and lay back, warm, despite a lack of a covering, upon the warm softness of the sheep skin, comforted by the fire that Elros had renewed for her. She caressed the smooth wood of the cradle, the intricate carvings his hand had fashioned, and let her hand fall to the warm softness of the sheep skin. And with a contented sigh, and with Elros' beautiful face in her thoughts, she let her eyes close.

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