Andreth woke slowly, opening her eyes, and contemplating the soft fluttering movement of the gossamer canopy above her. The Valar, it seemed, had felt it wise to end her shared dreams with Elros long ago; but even so, the night visions of her sleeping hours were still pleasant. There were few sad thoughts, if any to trouble her, during the day or night, and Andreth's heart was light.
A smile touched her lips as a soft tap as of a small stone, struck the window of her balcony, fell to the stone, clattered and then lay still. She sat up, and turned her head, looking in the direction of the noise as another tap struck the glass.
Laughing to herself, Andreth rose, caught up her dressing robe, and cast it about herself as she moved to the large glass doors, and brushed aside the curtain. Beyond, the world was bathed in soft, light blue, streaks of pink shooting up into the sky beyond the distant horizon. As she watched, a tiny stone came hurtling up over the balcony railing to tap lightly against the glass in front of her.
She grasped the latch of the glass door, and drew it open, stepping out onto the balcony, the stone cool against her bare feet. "Elros!" she called softly. "I am here!"
She moved to the railing, the metal chilled beneath her hands in the predawn, and smiled down upon the face of her betrothed, where he balanced upon the ridge pole of the stables. In his left hand, he clutched a handful of small pebbles, and his right held another, ready to toss it up. But as she appeared his hand dropped, the small rocks tumbling from his hand and striking the roof of the stable like so many drops of rain.
"Andreth!" he called up to her, his voice glad, but soft.
"Mercy, my lord," she laughed. "What are you doing?"
"I wanted to wish you a fair morning," he said.
She dropped to her knees, gazing down at him through the bars of her railing. "Fair morning, my lord," she said, reaching a hand through.
Elros smile softened. He stepped near, and reached up, though his fingertips barely brushed her own.
"And happy begetting day," she added. "I've given Elrond his gift already. I have not yet given you, yours."
"What do you have for me?" he asked.
"Come up," she urged, "I will show-" her words cut short as he did immediately as she bid him, leaping lightly up, and catching two of the bars. With the grace of a cat, he hoisted himself up, scrambling until he straddled the railing, then hopped over.
In a moment, Andreth was in his arms, warmed by his solid strength. Her head tucked beneath his chin, she could hear the quickened thumping of his heart.
"Rau Amin," she breathed, losing herself in the feel of his strong, yet tender embrace. "I am not your gift. It will be a few weeks yet-"
"I know, but you are cold, my Tindómiel," Elros murmured sighed as his warm hands hand ran over the curves of her shoulders. To this, Andreth purred softly, arching her back to press more firmly into him as his hands ran gently down to the small of her back before trailing slowly up again.
"Summer is nearly upon us," he breathed into her ear, "but still the mornings can be chill. You should not be out, clad as you are."
"Very well," she conceded. "But come inside with me. Surely you are a little cold yourself. I want to show you your gift."
He made a soft sound in his throat, a faint hint of an eager growl that spoke his willingness to obey, and he moved as if he would, but then Elros stopped himself, and drew back, stiffening a little.
"I can't," he said, and his hands grasped her shoulders as he pushed himself back. The reluctance was obvious in his voice, and on his face. "That is- I shouldn't."
"Oh," she breathed softly and dropped her eyes. Andreth stepped back, letting his hands fall from her shoulders as she waited for him to speak.
He stepped even further away from her, and she lifted her eyes, looking at him again as one hand came up, and touched the railing, his fingers running over it as if testing the texture of the metal.
A warm blush touched his face. "These past months since returning from Firiel's, I've found tasks to busy myself during all my waking hours when I am not helping Lord Círdan," he said.
He looked down again, running a thumb over a miniscule imperfection in the metal, his gaze now fixed upon that.
"So I have heard," she breathed, a gentle smile touching her lips. "Chopping and carrying wood for those who cannot do it themselves, like widows, or poor dear Gondien-," Andreth sighed a ragged breath, "and now his daughter Talia, though Hathel helps her much, now that her father is gone-,"
"Even so," Elros paused and looked up, his grey eyes deepening with adoration. The sinews of his jaw tightened, and his breath quickened. "You are ever in my thoughts, in my dreams. Every day, I love you more, and every day," he sighed, and his eyes softened, "I- want you more. So much, that being with you now is an agony so sweet, that I cannot give it words."
As he studied the railing in silence now, Andreth drew in a breath. "I understand," she said.
She took a faint, tentative step toward him, and reached out, resting her own hand upon the smooth, cool railing near his.
"I feel as you do."
Elros looked at her, his eyes filled with longing. Upon the railing his hand slid shyly toward her own. "Our wedding draws nearer every day, but you are not yet mine, and-,"
In that moment, the tall window behind her drew open so unexpectedly, that Andreth jumped and started, before Firiel's small, sparse form stepped out on the balcony, shuffling between the betrothed couple with such deliberation, that both Elros and Andreth could not help but chuckle as they traded a merry glance.
"Oh, but this morning is a bit cold for spring, do you not think?" she gasped, pulling a woven shawl more tightly about her shoulders as she looked out toward the approaching dawn.
"Yes, a bit, madam," Elros agreed with her.
"Well, then both of you, come in," the aged mortal said. "Come, my friend, Elros. You would not be unwilling to guide an old woman down the stairs to breakfast, would you?"
"Of course not," Elros said, pushing away from the railing, and gallantly offering the old woman his arm as he traded a silent smile with Andreth.
Firiel gladly took it. And with her arm looped through Elros' turned him away from the mortal maiden, and through the balcony door.
Andreth followed after, several paces, feeling somewhat sheepish as Firiel drew her betrothed through the warm shadows of her bed chamber, directly toward the door that stood open.
"I- I will be a few minutes," Andreth called as the elf man and mortal woman moved through the door and out into the hall.
"Very well," Firiel called merrily before she pulled the door firmly closed behind her.
Andreth studied the closed door with a merry grin, before she turned away, and with a light heart, hurried across the floor to the door of her bathing chamber.
The sun beaming down upon her where she sat upon the veranda with Elros and their small group, felt warm and comforting, and Andreth's heart beat contentedly within her. Nothing was wrong on this fair day, her dear one's begetting day, when he reached his nintieth year. Andreth smiled at the thought. Her beloved, though he did not look it, was older than Firiel; than her grandparents would have been, had they lived.
She turned, offering a merry glance to Elros as she contemplated the thought, but then paused, her smile fading a little as she studied him.
His eyes were upon a little bird, a sparrow, that had alighted upon the railing of the veranda, and was hopping now over the entwining vines of tindómiel. How fine he looked, she thought, the dark blue jerkin she had woven and fashioned for him, overlaying his tunic of a lighter hue. Her gift fit him perfectly, and his face had shown great pleasure when she had presented it to him. She had been pleased as well, for all morning, it had given her the excuse to touch him, testing the cloth to see that it fit him as it should. She loved the feel of the fabric beneath her hands, and Andreth reached over now, her fingers pretending to touch at a stray thread upon his chest, though she only wished to touch him. She could feel the beat of his heart beneath her hand.
As she teased the nonexistent thread, Elros hand lifted, and covered her own. Andreth lifted her eyes, and smiled, seeing a playful, teasing look in his eyes.
"Ah, look at that," Firiel sighed in appreciation, and Andreth turned, seeing the same small sparrow drawing near to her, now not an arm's length away from where she sat. "The dear little thing does not fear us."
Entwined with hers, Elros' fingers tightened a little at the sight, and Andreth smiled to see the fearless little sparrow, so near to Firiel, turning its head and observing the aged mortal with its dark little eye.
"Here, madam," Aelin said quickly, where she sat at Galadriel's side not far from Firiel. From a small cloth bag at her side, the elven lady produced a handful of seeds. "Take them."
Aelin rose, and moved toward Firiel, taking up the old woman's wrinkled hand, and pouring a small amount in the mortal lady's cupped palm.
"Hold it out," Aelin said. "And stay still for a moment. See what the little creature does."
Seeing the delight upon Firiel's face, Andreth traded a merry look with Elros as Firiel returned to her seat and remained still as Firiel did as Aelin bid her, lifting her cupped hand, and resting it upon the railing.
The bird did not seem to notice the proffered food at first, but then, tipping its head to the side, it eyed the seeds in Firiel's unmoving palm.
All four women watched it, breathless. It hopped away, then hopped near, paused a moment, then flew forward, and alighted upon Firiel's thumb.
A collective sigh escaped all the women, and Elros released a faint laugh of wonder as the little sparrow dipped its head, and began to eat.
"Ah, my sweet little friend," Firiel laughed lightly as the little bird tipped its head up and observed her, before dipping its head, and taking a few more seeds. The little creature then gave a hopping flutter so that it turned about, before taking to its wings and flying away.
"What shall I do with the rest that it did not eat?" Firiel asked.
"Sprinkle them upon the railing," Galadriel said. "They will be found sooner or later by hungry little birds that will be pleased to find them."
At Galadriel's words, Firiel did as she said, then dusted her hands with a sigh.
"Andreth," she said, turning. "Come with me down to the water, will you not? I have not yet walked by the seaside here, and I would like to do so, very much."
"Are you certain?" Andreth asked, sitting up, and shooting a quick, questioning glance toward Galadriel. "The steps are long, and may-,"
"Nonsense, child," Firiel chuckled, rising, with Andreth's help, to her feet. "Remember who changed your napkins when you were an infant, and taught you of the ways of men and women when you first came of age?"
"Firiel!" Andreth protested, feeling her face growing warm as Galadriel and Aelin laughed lightly. She drew her hand from Elros', blushing, unwilling to look at her betrothed.
"I can do more than you may think!" continued Firiel merrily as she picked up her cane, and started toward the steps that descended to the pebbly path that led to the long stone steps that would take her down to the water. "And now, I wish to go down and see the water. Will you not join me?"
Andreth pursed her lips, and glanced up into Firiel's eyes apologetically. "Of course," she said.
"You'll let me come with you?" Elros offered, rising, and offering Firiel his hand.
She took it gratefully and and rose, but then lifted her face to the young elf, her eyes filled with apology.
"Let this little journey be between me and Andreth alone, my dear boy."
Elros sighed, but nodded, unoffended. He looked at Andreth, and smiled.
"I will wait for you," he said.
Andreth returned the smile and stepped toward Firiel, letting her aged friend take her by the hand. A simple act; one she had done so often since before she could remember.
Together, the two women, the aged matron, and the young maiden descended the steps from the veranda as the elves stood behind them, watching silently. Together, matron and maid moved slowly along the path to the stone steps that led down to the water.
"Ah," Firiel sighed, "that is delicious," as a gentle gust of sea wind brushed their faces.
Even so, her steps were measured and careful as the two descended the long flight of stone steps toward the water, growing ever closer to the water's edge.
Andreth held her friend's hand tightly, studying the differences between them, her own hand smooth and flawless, Miriel's wrinkled, criss-crossed with distended veins, and mottled with aged spots. But it had been so gentle of a hand, soothing childhood fears, and wiping away her tears. Firiel it had been, who had comforted her after her father's death, and had eased her through the pain and grief of his loss. It had been Firiel who had brought Andreth to Mithlond, though she would be alone, so that Andreth might learn and grow, and as it had come to pass, had grown to love, and to be loved by Elros.
"I understand one can often find lovely things along the edge of the water," Firiel said as they descended.
"Yes," Andreth said before she dropped to the grass at her side. "Shells, and curious stones. This was found by Lord Círdan, it simply washed up by the waves." She touched a hand to the pearl necklace at her throat.
"Yes." The light in Firiel's eyes warmed her. "Elros told me the story of its finding by Lord Cirdan. It was meant for you. Just as goodly Lord Elros was meant for you. And you for him. The Valar knew it, ere you did. And though I did not know you were meant to wed an elven prince, I always knew you were destined for great things."
"You have always believed in me," Andreth said as the women's soft leather shoes pressed into the sand that lined the water's edge.
"Of course." Firiel said, turning to her, and gently squeezing her hand as Andreth bent, and drew off one shoe, and then the other, setting them together upon the bottommost step. The sand felt luxurious beneath her bare feet as the two women began walking along the sand.
The water hissed as it washed up the sand, tickling coolly over her feet and ankles. "Ah, it's chilly!" Looking down at her feet, she noticed a small shell through the clear water as it withdrew, and reached down, drawing it up, gleaming and dripping.
"Look at this!" she gasped. "Here." She put the small shell, in Firiel's hand, a small shell twirling gracefully into a narrow point, rough and striated upon the outer side, and smooth and pearlescent within.
"It is lovely," Firiel praised, holding it in the palm of her free hand, and caressing it with her thumb. "You know, Andreth, Eru Ilúvatar is a loving being, that he would have such marvelous things grace this beautiful world."
"He is," Andreth agreed.
"And surely, as merciful and just as He is to all his children, that which awaits those of us who are of the Second Born must be as wonderful as this world."
"Or better, perhaps," Andreth said, uncertain why her heart would begin to quicken so with an indefinable worry. "Where we will await the world's ending, when, I am sure, we will be rejoined with our sundered kin."
"I am certain you are right," Firiel sighed. "For Eru Ilúvatar is kind. He has given us so much. And surely will give us much more. More than we can even now comprehend."
"There is so much I would not have, but for you, Firiel," Andreth said, her hold upon the old woman's hand tightening. "Have I ever said thank you?"
"Oh, my dear," Firiel sighed, circling her arm about the maiden and squeezing her closer as she smiled. "Every day of your life, you have said thank you, whether you spoke the words or not. With the life you have lived, you have thanked me. With your goodness, and your deeds which have honored me more than words ever could."
Andreth's vision blurred at this, and Firiel stopped, grasped the maidens arms and turned Andreth to face her. She reached up a hand, and her fingers, soft and gentle, brushed away the tears that were spilling down Andreth's cheeks.
"And I promise you, I have not made you what you are. Perhaps I may have guided you a little, but only a very little. Greatness was in you, Andreth, from the beginning of your life. I could not have made gold out of iron. I have been honored to have known you."
"Everyone who has known you, has been honored, Firiel," Andreth said, the words choking out of her throat. To this, the old woman only smiled.
"Here," Firiel sighed, and released Andreth's hand, turned, and moved away from the water toward the slope of grassy earth where a large jutting rock made a natural backrest for her. With a sigh, she sat down upon the grassy slope, and leaned back against the rough face of the stone, set her cane beside her, and turned her eyes westward. "I am so pleased to know you will be going with your dear one to that land, far and away, beyond the horizon. It sounds so beautiful."
"And of course, you are going with us," Andreth said, moving to stand at her side before dropping to the grass beside her.
Firiel only looked up at her, and smiled. "I think I will sit here, for a short time. You go on, and walk along the shore. I will watch you from here." Firiel nudged her gently.
"I will always be watching you." Firiel said.
Reluctant to leave her side, Andreth rose, but slowly, and walked to the edge of the water, lifting her skirts to wade out a short distance. She glanced back toward Firiel, who smiled, and lifted a hand in encouragement.
"Go ahead," Firiel said. "Forget that you are grown, that you are soon to be a queen. Let yourself be a child again, this once. Play as you did, when you were little, and we would go to the water's edge. I will be happy just to watch you play in the waves."
With a grin toward her aged friend, Andreth turned, gathered up her skirt in her fists, the hem around her knees, and dashed away with a girlish whoop, sprinting through the water, parallel to the shore, the ankle-deep water splashing up all around her.
Firiel smiled as she watched the maiden dashing away, then, feeling suddenly weary, she leaned her head back against the stone behind her, though her eyes remained fixed upon the young woman laughing as she splashed in the waves, knee-deep now. She smiled and shook her head. The maiden was thoroughly soaked.
Suddenly, she became aware of another presence. Right before her, and startled, the old woman looked up into a pair of familiar, dearly loved eyes.
"Ha- Hamar?" she gasped, wondering if this were some delicious illusion. This could not be her husband. This youth was barely more than a boy, Hamar as he had been at twenty-two, the age he had been when they had first met. Ai, but he was as handsome as she remembered!
"Greetings, lovely one," he said, squatting down before her. "I have missed you."
But- how was this? Firiel wondered.
"You know me?" she whispered.
"Of course, fair Firiel," he said with a chuckle. "I've known you since you were but a girl of seventeen." His smile eased, and his voice grew warm. "And loved you since then, as well."
Firiel ducked her eyes, ashamed as she studied the backs of her aged, wrinkled hands. "I am not as I was. I am no longer seventeen-,"
"Firiel," he murmured, and reached out, touching a hand to her cheek. "You have always been beautiful to me. Indeed, my love only grew as our years together passed. As the love of our dear Andreth and her honorable lord shall do."
Hamar turned and looked over his shoulder at Andreth, who still frolicked like a little girl in the water that frothed about her shins some distance away.
A pang of worry touched Firiel's heart even as she smiled. "Will she be-,"
"She will grieve, to be sure. But she has Elros the son of Eärendil. And he will watch over her."
Hamar smiled, and held out a hand, rising to his feet. "Come. I have much to show you. Andreth was right, concerning what you said some minutes ago. What is awaiting you, is indeed beautiful beyond imagining."
Firiel drew in a breath, tasting the sweet sea air in her lungs as she studied the open palm of her husband's strong, unmarred hand.
"I had hoped to see her wedding."
"You will, dearest Firiel," he soothed. "We both will."
She drew in a lingering breath, tasting the sweetness in her lungs. Was this, which was the destiny of every mortal indeed a doom, or was it a gift?
She lifted her eyes and looked into Hamar's face, seeing the love there in the gentle eyes, the strong, honed angles of his jaw, the tenderness of his smile.
It was a gift, she decided at last, and lifted a hand, slipping it into his.
Firiel wondered at her hand, as he raised her to her feet, for it was no longer marred with age, but fair and clear as it had been when she was young. Hamar reached out, and touched her hair, bringing a lock of it into her vision. Dark, raven black, and glistening, as it had once been.
She turned then, seeing behind her, an aged woman leaning back against a stone as if asleep. Upon her wrinkled, but gentle face, was a smile. A sweet smile of fulfillment and peace. And Firiel was glad.
"Come," he murmured, and Firiel turned away, tightened her grip within her husband's hand, and followed him.
Andreth smiled as she emerged from the water at last, thoroughly soaked, and weary from her childish adventure, but happy. As she approached Firiel, still seated against the rock, a soft breeze brushing her white hair, Andreth's smile began to fade. Something, she realized, was not as it had been.
She dropped the heavy, sopping hem of her skirt, and brushed back a lock of her sodden hair.
"Firiel?" she called.
Firiel's eyes were closed, and she did not respond. Nor even move slightly, as she might, in sleep.
Andreth stepped nearer, her heart growing heavy as she thought over the last words Firiel had said to her. "Firiel?" she called again, her voice breaking, even as the truth of what had happened settled over her.
She dropped to her knees beside the still form, taking in the softness of her face, the peace in the smile upon her lips.
She reached out, and took Firiel's unresponsive hand in her own. It still held the small shell Andreth had just given her. "Hamar came for you, didn't he?"
The still form did not respond, but despite that, Andreth knew in her heart, that he had.
It was not until some hours later, when the sun was sinking down toward the horizon, that Elros found Andreth, still sitting beside the body of Firiel, holding her hand.