Elros smiled as he carefully adjusted the cinch strap on the saddle of his horse. "There, now, Nórui," he murmured, patting the copper-colored horse's neck as the stallion's head bobbed, and his forefeet drummed the ground. "I know how much you dislike being idle. Doubtless you've chafed all morning, wanting to be on your way. I am sorry. But we have made new friends, have we not?"
In answer, Nórui whickered softly, and pressed his nose into Elros' shoulder. He grinned, and stroked the stallion's sleek, copper neck.
"But you are right," he said, and his smile faded. "It is best that we move on to Mithlond."
His thoughts returned to the face of the mortal maiden Andreth when he had sat at her side in the shade of her humble hut an hour before, and how his heart had seemed to stand still when he had noticed the soft green of her eyes.
Andreth, he murmured in his thoughts. The lady, for lady indeed she was, was well named, for she was as wise and thoughtful as her namesake. It was no surprise she had descended from the same noble house as the fair mortal maid who had captured the heart of his kinsman, the elven lord, Aegnor. Her questions earlier, when he and she had sat side by side, had stung him, but they had been well thought, Elros mused. He doubted he understood his kinsman's reasons for leaving any more than this young maiden did. Though he knew it was not because of arrogance, or lack of love for the Andreth of old. Especially if she was as fair as her young namesake.
Perhaps, Elros wondered, Aegnor simply had not known what to do, or where to turn. Before the ill-fated pair had fallen in love, no elf and mortal had learned to love one another.
Elros drew in a breath, and glanced over his shoulder, seeing in the distance, down the slope of the grassy hill that reached down toward the ocean, the form of the maiden Andreth. Her hair was unbound, and floated on the wind like a flag of russet and golden threads. One hand rested upon the back of her white she-goat as the animal grazed contentedly at her side, and the other hand held a slender tome, open in her palm, her face downturned toward its pages.
She was nineteen years old, Elros mused. Had she been born an elven maid, she would still be a child. But Andreth, Elros thought as he watched the flow of her movements slow and smooth, like the graceful flow of a stream dancing in the sunlight, was no child.
Why then, Elros wondered, has she not yet married? Perhaps it was because she lived removed from others, even other mortals, here with Firiel, upon this high green bluff overlooking the sea. But no, that explanation did not hold, for she and her guardian were not altogether hermits. She and Firiel were acquainted with other mortals who lived near. It assuredly was not due to lack of beauty, for even in the simple, homespun dress she wore, Andreth shone with a sweet, starlike radiance, rare, even among elven maidens. And the soft curves of her young body, Elros admitted, his blood pulsing more thickly at the thought, were perfect. Were she a rival for the beauty of Melian the fair Maia, Elros would not be surprised.
Where she stood, far down the grassy slope, Andreth paused, almost as if she felt eyes were upon her, and began to turn her head toward him.
Elros gulped fiercely, and turned back to Nórui. The maiden likely could not see him with her mortal eyes from that distance. Even so, Elros felt his face growing hot. "Yes, my friend," he muttered between his teeth, his smile gone. "We must be on our way, and quickly."
The thump of hooves found his ears as Elrond drew near, guiding his own mount, Celegben, fully saddled and bridled. At Elrond's side, came Firiel, one hand looped through Elrond's arm, the other clutched the knobby head of her walking stick, and over one shoulder, she carried a leather satchel, plump and weighted with unseen contents.
Meeting Elros' gaze, Firiel smiled.
"I am sad to see you go, good lords," Firiel said as she and her escort drew to a stop. "But I know the day is aging, and you must be on your way. I pray you, take this as thanks for your kindness to my dear Andreth, and to the both of us."
She drew her arm from Elrond's. With effort, she pulled the satchel over her head, and handed the long leather handle into his hands. "It is not much. Some goat's cheese from Lavaniel, and a few vegetables and fruits. You were kind to hunt us that rabbit, Lord Elrond. We rarely have such meat, and it will be a feast tonight for Andreth and me."
"This is most generous of you," Elrond returned. He shot a glance at his brother, and in his eyes Elros clearly read that he was reluctant to take the gift from the old woman. For though it was little, it was much to her. Even so, he would accept it, for to refuse would be unkind.
"Indeed," Elros agreed. "We are most grateful. We are in your debt."
"Oh," Firiel sighed, "I fear there is nothing I can do to repay my debt to you. You saved my dearest Andreth from being horribly misused. I wish I could give you mountains of gold and jewels, and even then, it would not be enough." Firiel's smile now faltered.
"Madam," Elros said, noting the regret upon the old mortal woman's face. "You have been most kind. Do not feel that you owe us more than you have given. Your hospitality has been more than generous."
"Ah, my lords, I am well aware of my humble holdings," Firiel murmured with a shake of her head. "You are noble men, and deserve more than I can give. Much like dear Andreth."
The old woman turned and squinted at the distant figure of Andreth. "What do you see, my lords, with your elven sight?"
At Firiel's bidding, Elros looked again toward Andreth. She stood beneath the sunlight, the wind in her hair, and the skirts of her brown homespun dress trailing behind her. An elf maid clad in the finest silks could not make a fairer picture.
"Mistress Andreth," Elrond said. "With your animal as it grazes, my lady."
"Her hair is unbound, and flowing in the wind like a golden flag," Elros finished, his voice grown soft. "And she is reading."
"She is reading," Firiel sighed. "As I thought she would be. I trust you know that she of noble ancestry."
"She told us that she is a descendant of the house of Bëor," offered Elros. "Her ancestor was Bregor, brother of the wise lady Andreth, for whom she is named. Her father, she said, fought and died in the War of Wrath."
"And yet here she lives, with an old woman who is nearing the end of her life, and soon to embrace the doom of men, living off what our small garden makes, and what our patient goat gives us," Firiel said. "She knows from whom she is descended, yet she does not complain; she works hard, and loves me as well as any daughter of my own blood could have."
"No doubt she has been a blessing to you," Elrond observed.
Firiel's eyes grew sad. "She has been. But whether I have been a blessing to her, I cannot say. She deserves better than I can give her."
"You have given her a home, and your own kindness," Elros objected. "No king among elves or men could do better."
Firiel lifted her eyes, smiling again, into the faces of the two elven men. A tear gleamed in one eye.
"My brother speaks the truth," Elrond agreed.
"Tell me, my lords," Firiel's voice was soft, "in Mithlond, there are many learned scholars? Many books?"
"Libraries of books," Elrond answered. "And Círdan, one of the wisest and eldest of all our people, is there. Why do you ask?"
Firiel shook her head. "It is no matter. I must not keep you waiting any longer, my lords." She looked up, and smiled, her eyes still gleaming with unshed wetness. "May the grace of the Valar go with you."
"And may it remain here, with you," the two brothers echoed.
Following his brother, Elros swung up on Nórui's strong back, feeling the horse's eagerness to continue their journey.
His mount needed little urging as they started in a gallop back toward the woods, and the paths that would guide them to their destination.
A companionable silence wrapped itself about the two brothers as they trotted leisurely along the forest pathway, neither feeling the need to break the peace with words. Cheerful birds chirped in the trees, spears of golden sunlight stabbing down through the green canopy above them.
Yet despite the peace he felt, Elros' heart lay heavy in his chest, a nameless, distant melancholy weighing upon it. There was no need for such feelings, he tried to assure himself. All was well in the world. He and his brother were returning home, and the kindly mortals behind them were safe and well.
"Ah, look," Elrond murmured, his voice, quiet though it was, breaking the stillness about them.
Elros looked to where his brother pointed to see the basket they had first seen the day before, which, along with Andreth's screams, had alerted them to her danger.
"In our haste and worry of yesterday, it was left behind," Elrond finished, a note of pity in his voice.
Elros drew his mount to a halt, swinging down, and trotting to the forlorn, forgotten basket, and its contents.
Three apples lay not far apart, and in the midst of them a small crock, sealed at the top, and a loaf of bread, dry now, he realized, as he picked it up, and a crumpled cloth. Gathering the things into the basket, Elros rose.
"These things belong to Lady Andreth," he said, looking up at his brother.
"Do you think they are still good?"
"The crock, probably butter or jam, is unbroken,and the apples are whole, and unbruised. They landed on soft turf. The bread is dry, but- Elrond, you saw what they have. This is a treasure to them."
Elrond looked up the trail, a worried look flashing across his face. "They should be returned to them," he agreed slowly. "But even though we are in no great hurry, still to delay further-"
"I won't cause a delay," Elros promised. "In fact, I will cut through the forest on foot a short way, then return to you in less than a half hour. Guide Nórui along by the reins, and I will catch up to you before you can guess."
Elrond grinned at his brother's enthusiasm. "Very well," he conceded, nodding. "But I will hold you to your promise. If you haven't returned in a half hour, I'll come back looking for you, fearing you've fallen under the spell of some beautiful Maia like Thingol did."
With a final grin, Elros turned, and with the basket in his hand, darted into the trees, his senses guiding him as he ran. It would be only a few minutes, he calculated, to return to Firiel's dwelling, leave the basket, and return to his brother and their horses.
Off the path, the light was dimmer, but still well enough to see by. The trees were kind, and their avian occupants were cheerful. Generous beams of light still speared down through the green branches, and Elros had no need to worry himself.
After a time, the land began to slope downward, and Elros knew he needed to angle to his left if he were to come out on the edge of open land that bordered the open grassy fields of Firiel's dwelling.
Much sooner than Elros expected, the trees began to thin, and he caught a glimpse between them of the grassy fields that surrounded Firiel's hut. Not far to his left, he could hear the hiss and rush of surf as it struck the land, and Elros realized he was nearer to the shore than he had calculated. Elros pulled to a stop. At his feet, wending through the trees, was a small stream merrily making its last journey to the sea, and to his right, he glimpsed through the trees, an open clearing where a small cateract tumbled down over a modest slope of rocks, spilling into a pool of water before trickling away in the stream before him.
The music of the laughing water was welcome to his ears, but above the merry voice of the stream, rose another voice, feminine in its tones, gentle and captivating, though it sang no words of any tongue he could understand, and Elros felt himself entranced, as Thingol must have been to the voice of Melian, he thought in a corner of his mind, as he turned to his right, and made his way toward the fair sound. Like the voice of stars, he thought to himself, if they could make their lovely, silver voices heard.
In a moment, Elros broke out of the trees into the clearing, and the wordless singing abruptly stopped.
At his feet, kneeling upon soft grass at the edge of the small pool, was Andreth, clad in a thin white shift, her bare arms slender and white, gleaming wet with water from her narrow shoulders to her small, shapely hands. They were frozen in the act of scrubbing a garment against the rocks beside her. About her draped over bushes and shrubs, were other articles of women's clothing, drying in the sunlight that warmed this small clearing, including the brown, homespun dress she had been wearing when he last saw her in the morning.
Her eyes were upon him, her mouth opened, though her voice had gone silent. Her hair, he noted, was still undone, spilling about her shoulders in a cascade of gold and bronze. The throat of her shift hung low, well below the delicate ridges of her collarbones. A slender ribbon tied in a bow, crisscrossed through eyelets down the front of her shift between the soft swells of her young, perfect breasts.
Unbidden, his blood began to pulse thickly through his veins at the sight of her as sensations he had never experienced before rushed in a sudden and powerful wave through his body, thickening his blood and stirring him in ways that were both marvelous and mystifying.
A flush darkened Andreth's face, her breath suddenly coming more swiftly, the gentle rise and fall beneath the thin white fabric growing more pronounced.
This did nothing to ease the maddening heat throbbing through Elros' blood, yet with a mighty effort, he tore his eyes away from her, knowing she had not meant for any man to see her thus attired.
"You sing like an elven maid," he muttered, unable, for the moment, to think of anything else to say.
"My lord, Elros," she breathed, and the girl lowered her eyes, "I thought you and your brother were well on your way."
"We found this," he muttered, looking down at last at the basket in his hands. "I thought I would return it, and cut through the forest on foot to save time."
"It is as the tales say," Andreth whispered, "that elves indeed move lightly on their feet. I did not hear you coming."
"Forgive me," Elros spouted. "I did not intend-, that is to say-," He drew in a ragged breath wishing he could cool the heated throbbing of his blood, and let logic and reason again rule his mind. "I am sorry. I saw the waterfall, and heard your voice, and followed it. I did not intend to cause you any embarassment."
"I know, my lord," she said, and though he did not dare to look at her again, he could hear kindness in her voice, and imagined the forgiveness in her bright, green eyes. "Thank you, Lord Elros, for your kindness in returning the basket. I had traded some turnips for Firiel's favorite jam, and the other things. I had feared them lost."
Heaving a deep breath, Elros nodded his acceptance of her thanks, and still with his eyes fixed upon the ground, he set the basket down, and turned away.
"Ná Elbereth veria le, hir nin," the mortal maiden said to his back, and Elros gulped at the soft tones of her voice, caressing him almost as if her hand, soft and gentle, brushed lightly over his back. He closed his eyes, quivering inwardly at the imagine sensation.
"May Elbereth protect you as well, my lady," he returned softly. And with his eyes focused ahead of him, Elros broke into a trot, back through the forest, and toward the path upon which his brother rode, waiting for him to catch up, as he had promised.