The Choice of Elros

By Lalaith

Romance / Fantasy

Chapter 40

Chapter 40

Andreth smiled, pleased at her nearly finished tapestry, studying the eyes of the fair haired elf maiden who smiled out of the cloth at her, the girl's eyes blue and bright, her face turned to look outward, her lips curling up in a smile of surprised pleasure as if, looking out of the tapestry, she saw something, or someone she had not expected, but was nevertheless glad to see. In one hand, the maiden held a silver petaled flower; the other lifted the hem of her white dress as if she were turning to take a step forward out of the tapestry.

Andreth smiled at the maiden upon the tapestry, feeling, somehow, a kinship with the girl, though she was nothing more, in truth, than a mingling of threads of varied hues. So alive she looked. She hoped she would be finished soon, for spring was near, and wished it to be finished in time for Elrond's begetting day.

About the room, other ladies wove and chatted, the mood bright and cheering. In one corner, Aelin sat, playing a harp, while another elven lady accompanied her upon a reed flute. A soft creaking accompanied the music, and Andreth turned to cast a smile toward Firiel who sat in the rocking chair Elros had crafted for her, rocking in time to the gentle music, and smiling upon Andreth with weary, but happy eyes.

"To think, that my little girl is twenty, today," Firiel said when their eyes met. "I should have brought you something for your birthday."

"You are the best birthday present I could ever have," Andreth returned, turning fully to face her friend.

Firiel's eyes were bright, and her smile, though she seemed wearier than Andreth remembered.

When Andreth was younger, she could not remember a time when Firiel was still. Always bustling here and there, always busy, and full of energy. Her mind ever sharp and quick.

Now, she seemed content merely to listen to the music and smile, her eyes straying to Galadriel who sat near her, examinging different lengths of very fine, transparent gossamer of varying hues, smiling now and then as the elven lady offered them to Firiel for her inspection.

Firiel seemed happy enough, but she was moving more slowly than before, and today, she had said she wished she could have brought Andreth a present. Did Firiel not remember that her house and all her belongings, save for a few small things had been burnt? That she had nothing to give her?

A pang of worry smote Andreth's heart, but she struggled to keep it from showing upon her face. However, the truth weighted her heart. Firiel was old. Older even, than Master Gondien, who had injured himself some months before, falling from the scaffolding near the rising lighthouse in Mithlond. He could walk now, but not as he once had, and she knew he would never fully heal. Being mortal, and aged, the cold troubled him terribly, and Círdan had excused him from work until spring. She still visited him every day, bringing him tea, or sweetmeats, and he always seemed glad to see her, but he seemed weary, like Firiel did now, and everyday he seemed to sink a little more. Círdan had promised Gondien employment once spring came. But the old man had confided to her that he did not think he would live to see the end of winter.

The thought sobered Andreth, reminding her that she needed to visit him this morning, and brew him some tea; that always seemed to cheer him.

A stirring in the doorway pulled her from her thoughts, and turned all the ladies' heads. The music faltered for a minute at the tall, solid form of a man, Elrond, who entered the ladies' weaving room with obvious hesitation, and a face written with apology. His eyes found Andreth's and his face brightened into a grin as he strode toward her across the room. His hands were behind his back.

"Elrond!" she greeted, hopping to her feet and hurrying to him.

"How is your tapestry coming, little sister?" he asked. The face of the tapestry was turned so that Elrond could not see it, but he moved as if to step around Andreth, and look.

"Don't go any closer," she chided. "That tapestry is for your begetting day."

"Ah, but I've seen it already," he teased, moving as if he wished to step around her and view the nearly finished maiden.

"But not now, that it's nearly done, Elrond," she scolded, pretending exasperation. "Come tell me what you've invaded our sanctuary for."

The music resumed, and the other ladies continued their work, the hum of the room returning as Elrond grinned. "I found a certain brother of mine asleep on my divan this morning. He had a most foolish grin upon his face even in sleep, and I could not for the life of me discern how he got in the house, for both doors had been latched ere we all went to bed."

Andreth felt a grin teasing at the corners of her mouth as she remembered Elros' visit to her bedchamber in the bitter cold night. "And what did he tell you upon his waking?" she asked.

Elrond's grin grew mischievous. "It wasn't what he said when he woke, as what he said while he still slept. Something about a maiden's balcony and a darkened bedchamber in the middle of the night. And of an unspeakably beautiful face glowing in the light of a small fire."

Andreth flushed furiously at this. "He wished to give me an early birthday present, and left very quickly. He did kiss me, but we did nothing untoward."

Elrond's grin eased at this, and he nodded. "I know," he said, penitent now. "I merely wished to give you this."

From behind his back, he brought forth a small box, carved of wood.

"Happy birthing day, little sister," Elrond said, smiling as Andreth's eyes widened in pleased delight as she took the gift into her hands.

The box was circular, and stood upon four delicately carved legs. Lifting off the intricately carved lid, Andreth gazed inside, admiring the bowl of the box, carved smooth, and polished until it gleamed.

"It's beautiful." she breathed. "Thank you."

"Hathel will be pleased to hear that." Elrond paused. "He made it."

Andreth lifted surprised eyes at this.

"He can do more than carve stone," Elrond said. "I asked him to carve this for you, and he readily agreed. He would take no payment."

Andreth sighed, remembering the words she had shared with Hathel the day before. He was a good man, and a true friend. "I should thank him," she said. "Where is he now?"

"Elros said that Hathel was to bring in firewood for your old friend, Gondien, today."

Andreth grinned at this. "I was just thinking of going to visit Gondien, and taking him some tea. I could see them both at once."

Elrond grinned. "I mean to go help Lord Círdan, down in Mithlond, in one of the great boathouses along the waterside, so I will walk you part of the way."

"My lady," Andreth called, turning to meet Galadriel's eyes. "Elrond and I are going down into the city."

Galadriel smiled and nodded, to which Andreth turned away, slipping her arm into Elrond's, and the pair turned and hurried out the door.

…oOo…

Hathel hoisted the bundle of wood that hung over both his shoulders, striving to ignore the uncomfortable wood scratching and digging into his back as he and his two companions trudged along the cold streets, careful to avoid patches of ice over the stone pavement at their feet. At least the work was warding off the cold. Beside him, Sigil, wide faced like a child, struggled to maintain his footing as he slipped along at Hathel's side.

Steps in front of him, however, Elros seemed hardly to notice the slippery ground beneath them, or the weight upon his back as he strode along, his elven grace unhindered by the bulky weight of the wood.

Beside him, Sigil's eyes widened as an icy patch caught one foot, but Hathel's hand shot out snatching his arm, and kept Sigil from falling. Nothing more than a faint whisper upon the frozen stone gave the near mishap away, but to this, Elros turned his head.

"Are you all right?" the elf asked, concern upon his face as he reached back, and took Sigil's opposite arm.

What a marvel was the hearing of the elves!

"This is heavy," Sigil admitted.

"We're nearly there," Elros promised, smiling, and clapping Sigil upon the back.

On they continued, the three of them now side by side. Hathel released a deep breath of steam into the cold air. The elf seemed hardly out of breath, and Elros' pack was heavier than his own! Truly it was no wonder that Andreth had chosen-

Hathel heaved another breath and crushed the thought away before it was fully formed. He had promised himself he would not entertain such thoughts any more. Elros was good and noble, and would make Andreth happy.

A moment later, the narrow street on which they walked widened, and old Gondien's house came into view.

For a moment, Hathel faltered. For the door stood open, and in the doorway stood a young woman, shaking out a small, woven rug. The one that sat before the old man's chair in his sitting room. Andreth often came and performed such services, but this maiden was not Andreth. Her garments were plain and rough. Though long dark hair hid most of her face, something intangible about her suggested a delicate, but resilient loveliness, and in her movements, he felt an enduring strength. Without seeing the men nearing her, the maiden turned and retreated inside.

"Father, I've set-," the young woman said before the door shut out the cold behind her, as well as the rest of her words.

Father? Hathel lifted his brows, and glanced beside him toward Elros. He had not known Gondien had a daughter.

Elros did not speak, but his own lifted brows betrayed his own curiosity.

"Come," the elf said, and the three continued forward. Elros foremost as he approached the door, and gave a soft rap upon the wood.

For a long moment, they heard nothing from within, longer even, than when Gondien were alone. But at last, the door creaked open, and a face appeared.

No, Hathel corrected himself, only half a face, the face of the maiden he had seen a moment before. Glistening dark hair spilled down her arm in a rich cascade, her hand gripped the wood of the door tightly, and her one visible eye regarded them with distrust, a delicately shaped eye, dark, as if he could see into her very soul, beneath the soft curve of her eye brow. Her lip was sweetly curved, and the shapely curve of her cheek was softly flushed. If only half of her face was this lovely, what did the rest of her face look like?

"Good day, mistress," Elros greeted her. "We are friends of, er, your father, Master Gondien. We have brought a load of firewood. We understood his supply was growing low."

"Oh," the young woman replied. She shook her head. "I am sorry, but he has little money to pay-,"

"We are friends of his, mistress," Hathel offered, stepping forward. "We do not require payment."

At this, the girl's eye turned at last from Elros, and studied Hathel. She fell silent as her one visible eye studied his face long and searchingly. Hathel swallowed hard. This was the first time he had been in Elros' presence when any woman had paid more attention to him than to the handsome elf. At long last, the look in her eye seemed to soften, and the ghost of a smile touched the visible corner of her mouth.

"Mithlond is a goodly place, I am beginning to think," she said. "I am not certain where there is a space for the wood-"

"We know where to put it," Sigil volunteered, clapping a hand upon Hathel's shoulder. "Master Hathel has brought Master Gondien firewood many times before."

"Has he?" the girl asked, her eye turning again upon Hathel. "Then come in, I beg you."

She stepped back, and opened the door wider, permitting them to enter.

The house was dark, and only a little less cold than it had been outside. Within the fire grate, coals simmered, and little more. A small pot of water simmered on the stone hearth before the faintly glowing coals.

"Good morning to you, Master Gondien," Elros greeted to a figure as yet shadowed to Hathel's sight in a corner where the girl retreated, taking a place beside the shadowy figure of Gondien.

"Good morning to you as well, my boys," came Gondien's cracking voice. "Young Andreth- she is well?"

"She is," Elros returned in a warm voice. "In truth, today is her birthing day. She is twenty."

"Ah." Gondien smiled. "I shall remember to give her my good wishes then when she comes."

"She will like that," Elros said with a grin before he passed through the sitting room and then the modest little kitchen with a cold pile of coals in the small grate, out the back door into the cold again, with Hathel on his heels. The stack of split wood beside the back door was indeed nearly gone.

"Here, Hathel," volunteered Elros. "Master Sigil and I will stack the wood. You take these, and waken the fire, so that Master Gondien and his daughter will be warmer."

"Very well, Lord Elros," Hathel agreed willingly, sluffing off his own pack, and taking the split wood that Elros placed in his arms, he turned back inside, and started back toward the fore of the house.

"I am sorry, my child," Gondien's voice was saying in his cracked voice, his tones subdued as if he did not wish to be overheard, and Hathel paused just before the doorway, fearing to interrupt words between father and daughter. "I did not know you were not receiving my letters."

"He had told me you did not care any more for me, and did not want to see me any more," the girl was saying softly. "A part of me knew it wasn't true, but still-,"

"I am glad you came to find me. I am sorry that he treated you so." The old man sounded as if he were near to crying. "Had I known-,"

"I am here, now." The girl sighed heavily. "I wish I had come sooner."

"Does it hurt, much?"

The girl hissed as if in pain, and Hathel flinched in sympathy where he stood in the cold, dark kitchen.

"Forgive me, Talia," Gondien said. "Perhaps you should speak to Lord Elrond. He is skilled in medicine. Or Andreth, the maiden I have spoken of before. She is skilled in the healing arts as well."

So that was her name. "Talia," Hathel murmured, unaware that he had spoken her name aloud until Gondien shifted in the other room and lifted his voice, "Master Hathel?"

"Ah, yes, Master Gondien," Hathel choked, coughing as he hurried into the room where the two shadows had become clearer.

Gondien sat up, smiling in greeting, but his daughter, Talia, sat back, her face half shielded by the cascade of her glistening hair.

"I will set the fire going for you," he said, and turned toward the simmering fire, he squatted down, and set first one piece of wood, and then the other.

"Master Hathel is a skilled stonemason as was his father before him," Gondien said. "He is a trusted aid to Lord Círdan."

"Indeed," Talia said, and Hathel half turned to offer the girl a smile and nod.

In the growing light from the fire, her face was becoming clearer, though half was still veiled by her hair. By the Valar, she was lovely. How much more lovely would she be, if she let him see the rest of her face?

"You have come to Mithlond to visit your father, Mistress?" he asked, by way of trying to make conversation.

"Yes," she returned.

"And where have you lived before now?"

"In the forest, some distance away," she said. "With my- husband."

"Oh." Hathel smiled and nodded, though a weight settled in his stomach at her last words.

"Do not speak that word, Talia," Gondien said, his voice heavy as his hand reached out, and took the girl's small hand. "You may have been his wife, but Derk was no-,"

"Master Gondien!"

Andreth's voice, bright with greeting, interrupted his words as the door burst open, letting in light as well as cold. Talia looked up suddenly, and for a moment, Hathel saw the whole of her face, but- Hathel's heart clenched in a fist of indignity. Half of her face was covered in bruises! New, bright purple bruises as well as aging yellowed bruises in various stages of healing. Someone had struck her, viciously, and many times! What sort of man-

"Oh," Andreth breathed, her voice fraught with sympathy. She had noticed the bruises as well.

"He was no husband to you, my daughter," Gondien finished, before turning to Andreth with a smile, and rising to his shaking legs.

"Andreth," he greeted, taking the maiden's hand. "This is my daughter, Talia. She has only this day come to see me."

"Good day to you, Mistress Talia," Andreth greeted, stepping forward to press the girl's hand.

"Talia, this is the maiden who knows some of medicine, and can treat your injuries."

"I would be happy to do so," Andreth said softly, "if you would permit me."

Talia smiled. "That would be most kind of you, my lady."

She shot a glance at her father, then at Hathel where he still knelt beside the hearth. Her eyes studied him for a long moment before her gaze dropped.

"The man to whom I was wed mistreated me terribly," she murmured. "I only recently escaped him and came here, hoping to find my father, and hoping he would still accept me despite-,"

"We all accept you, mistress," Hathel said, surprised at the strength in his words, and the boldness. He rose, dusting his hands upon his breeches. "And I promise you, as long as I live, no more harm will come to you. That is my solemn pledge to you."

Silence fell. The girl Talia looked up at him as one stunned, and while Gondien and Andreth remained silent, they smiled, and traded a quiet look.

At last Talia broke the silence, rising to her feet. "Th- thank you, sir," she said. A tentative, but sweet smile touched her lips.

Despite her bruises, she was indeed, truly beautiful.

Hathel found himself smiling in return.


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