Hathel's heart clenched in a fist of worry. He couldn't see Talia's face anymore. The crowd had swallowed her up. But he knew something was wrong. She had been smiling to see him, her eyes bright and glad. Which had pleased him to see. But then an instant later, a look of fright had claimed her face as a strange man Hathel had never seen before, moved to Talia's side. And then the crowd moved and she was gone.
He stood up from the low wall where he'd been seated, the small wooden bowl and carving knife still in his hands.
"What's wrong, Master Hathel?" asked Arthon, one of the boys to whom he had been teaching wood carving.
"I-," he stammered, "I don't know." He dropped the little wooden bowl and gripped the boy's shoulder. "But go, both of you, Arthon, and Teren, and fetch some city guards. Tell them that I think Lady Talia's husband is here."
At the boy's furrowed brow, Hathel added, "They will know the import of my words."
The boy nodded, and with his companion at his side, darted away down a small path that led away from the market.
Hathel turned, straining to catch a glimpse of Talia, and her obviously unwanted companion. But he could not see her. Uttering a growl of frustration, he leaped up on the wall where he had been sitting, and looked over the heads.
It was in that moment, that he saw her. The stranger, a dirty haired man with thick bowed shoulders gripped her arm with a fat hand as he pulled her along toward the edge of the market, and the street that led toward the north east gate of the city. She walked stiffly, and Hathel guessed from the way her unwanted companion leaned near, that he held something in his other hand he did not want others to see.
Hathel's blood boiled at this, and his hands clenched into fists even as fear for Talia shot through him like a crackle of lightening. Crushing his teeth together, he set off after his friend and her unwanted companion at a run.
Terror clawed at Talia's throat as Derk pulled her along the street. Ever conscious of the prick of the blade in her side, she dared not say anything, nor even glance about in the hope that she might catch someone's eye. For she knew Derk well enough to know that he wanted an excuse to stab her, and would use the slightest reason to do so.
She swallowed hard, wondering if she should speak, wondering if she should stay silent. What would keep her alive, the longest?
"Let me go, Derk," she choked at last, her voice stiff with fear. "You can't gain anything by taking me back with you."
Derk chuckled softly. She knew he was pleased to hear the terror in her voice. He had always garnered pleasure from seeing her frightened and cowering.
"You're my wife," he hissed through his teeth, the tone of self importance obvious. The sharp blade of the knife he held dug further into her ribs. "What did you think I'd do when I'd found you'd left? Nothing? I've been looking for you ever since. I should've known you'd come here."
"You didn't want me when you had me," she pleaded, her heart throbbing within her. "Not a day went by when you didn't tell me I was a terrible wife, that I made you miserable, that marriage to me was boring, and that you would have been happier with any other woman in the world."
"Well-," Derk paused, and Talia's heart jumped. He had hated the times when Talia's logic had left him without excuse, and not being able to counter her with words, his beatings had only grown worse at those times. Perhaps she shouldn't have spoken. "Well, you're my wife. Nobody else is," he grunted, and shoved the knife more firmly against her.
Talia winced fiercely. The north eastern gate was drawing near. She could see a pair of elven guards standing beneath it, spears in their hands. This was the same gate she had come through, the day she had arrived, seeking her father. Would she be able to catch their attention? Somehow alert them silently, that something was wrong? But those two elven men were not the same ones she had met that day, and the traffic was thick, many Edain were passing in and out. She and Derk would only be two amongst the crowd, and she knew that if she struggled even a fraction she would be dead. But she was certain that once she was beyond the gate, and in the forest, out of sight of any others, she would be dead as well. She was entrapped, and there was no-
From behind her, a figure stepped, silent as a breath of wind, forcing himself between her and her captor.
Her eyes shot up as Hathel, with one hand, shoved her behind him, and with the other, snatched Derk's wrist, and jerked it upward.
"What have we here, Mistress Talia?" Hathel said. She could not see his face, but his words were fierce.
"Remove your hands from me!" Derk's voice had changed, increasing in pitch, an indication that his confidence of moments earlier, had vanished into fear.
"I would be pleased to," Hathel barked back, and with this, brought his other hand forward, his open palm directly in the center of Derk's chest, and shoved the man roughly into the roadway.
"And I would be more than pleased to keep my hands off you, if you agree to do the same for this good woman," Hathel snarled, his fists going to his hips as Talia gaped from behind him at Derk sprawled in the dirt, his face a twisted mask of fear and fury.
"I wasn't hurting her," Derk said.
"You were holding a knife to her side," Hathel said.
"That's a lie!" Derk cried, scrambling to his feet, and stumbling back several steps. He glanced around at the crowd. Everyone upon the street had stopped, and was watching the confrontation with wide eyes. The two gate wardens, noting the skirmish, were trotting toward them, spears in hand.
Derk, clearly trying to garner the sympathy of the crowd, held out his hands, showing them to be empty and wailed, "I had no knife! You lie!"
"Then what- what is this from?" Talia stammered, turning to look at her side, and fingering a hole in the side of her dress. A spot of blood had dampened the cloth. She had suspected that his blade had cut through the fabric, but her brows lifted at the blood. In her pulsing fear, she had felt little pain, and had not even noticed that the blade had broken the skin.
"And this?" Hathel barked, pointing at a small knife, the blade roughly sharpened, its length only half the length of the leather wrapped haft. Easy to hide. Derk had likely made it himself just for this day. It lay in the roadway between Hathel and Derk. And the tip of the blade appeared to be spotted with something dark. Her own blood, Talia guessed.
Derk lunged for the blade, but Hathel stepped over it, as if defending a fallen child. Derk staggered back at this, then with his face twisted into an animalistic snarl, lunged at Hathel, a fist swinging toward the young stonemason's face. To this, Hathel lifted an arm, batting aside Derk's swinging fist as if it were a troublesome fly. Then twisting his torso, his own fist swung forward. His strength, built from years of cutting stone, was obvious as his fist cracked into Derk's jaw, sending the man flying backward. He struck the earthen roadway, and slid several paces before he stopped, then scrambled up, furious and panting, a look of murder in his eyes that melted as he became aware of two men standing over him, elven guards with their spear tips trained on the center of his chest.
"This man was troubling you, mistress?" one called out.
Talia gulped, and stepped from behind Hathel. His hand touched her arm as if his first instinct was to push her behind him again. But Talia lifted her eyes, and offered Hathel a trembling smile, nodding gently as she drew her arm from his grip.
"I was married to him once, but I left him. He was unkind to me."
"That's a lie!" Derk shouted, his face red with fury.
"Is it?" the other guard asked, nodding to the knife that Hathel now bent to retrieve from the dust. "Threatening a woman with a knife seems to me, to be most unkind."
"No better than cursed Eöl," the first guard muttered.
The other guardsman nodded.
"We'll not let her fate be as Lady Aredhel's," he said, then to Talia, "What would you have us do with him, mistress?"
"Escort him to the gate, then bid him leave Mithlond, and its surrounding lands. Do not hurt him."
"As you wish," the elven man said with a nod toward her.
"Come with us," his companion said, his voice measurably less kind than the other guard's voice had been to Talia.
Both elven guardsmen took Derk by an arm, and turned him toward the gate as the passersby, frozen in their tracks, and parted to one side and the other, looked on in silent awe.
"Are you hurt?" Hathel asked turning to her and touching her arm, "aside from this small wound, I mean?"
"I see how it is!" Derk wailed, followed by a vicious curse, and Talia looked up, startled.
Derk had, for the briefest moment, jerked away from his guards, and had turned toward her, another knife appearing from some fold in his clothing.
"You'll bed this worthless wretch while you're still my wife?"
The guards pounced, but not before the knife left his hand, spinning through the air toward her, the world seeming to slow as the blade spun near her. But before she could react, Hathel shoved her out of the way, throwing up his arm toward the knife.
The knife struck, Talia could hear the distinct tearing of cloth, and Hathel staggered back, his face wincing.
"Hathel!" she cried. Behind her, she could hear cursing and struggling, and knew that the elven guards were dealing with Derk. But she did not turn to look, her eyes fixed only upon Hathel.
He looked up at her, his eyes worried, and she studied his face, his chest, his body, for any sign of blood, or a wound. And then, a slow smile touched his lips as he drew from his torn sleeve, the knife that had snagged there.
"It didn't even cut my flesh," he said, dropping it to the dirt.
Such a wave of relief washed over her, that Talia did not think as she flung herself forward into his arms. "I'm so glad," she said, shivering in pleasure as she felt his strong, gentle arms going around her as well. She sighed, wondering at how pleasant it was to let him hold her. At last, reluctantly, she drew back, smiling up into his eyes.
"Thank you," she said.
Hathel smiled down into her face, his hands finding her shoulders. "Talia, my friend," he said, and his smile softened. "It was truly my honor."
He leaned forward.
Talia's heart caught on a beat before she felt the warm press of Hathel's lips against her forehead. He drew back and smiled again down into her eyes as he said, "You are most welcome."
"You are most fortunate that the good mistress bid us not to hurt you," one of the elf guards muttered as he and his companion stopped beneath the gate, and pointed his spear in the direction of the forest.
Derk, his heart boiling with rage, did not look up, nor speak.
"Now, go," the other elf ordered. "For we would not be displeased to find a reason to disobey the lady's admonition. You are fortunate Master Hathel was not wounded."
"Or you would be dead," the first elf finished. "Now get out. And never return."
Without another word, Derk started for the trees, looking neither right nor left, though he felt the eyes of the elven guards burning into his back.
The whore. The wretched, cursed woman. That she would dare to look up at that man, that thick arm swine with such bright eyes, with such a smile on her lips. She was his! She had no right to look at any other man, let alone smile at him! The whore. He would get her. One day. Somehow.
Derk, sickened at the feel of eyes upon him, turned off the road as the trees neared, and staggered into the shadows of the forest, stumbling along over roots, and bracken, the shadows quickly grown dark about him. He'd find a way. He'd get her. He'd show her. He'd remind her that she was still his. And then he'd kill her. But not before he'd shown her the severed head of that foolish lover of hers. He'd get them both.
"Yer first mistake, Derk, was in trying to get 'er back when she was surrounded by idiots eager to look like heroes."
Derk jerked his head up toward the source of the voice, fury and fear seizing him in the same instant. He slapped at himself, seeking for a weapon, any weapon as a shadowy figure, not far distance, pounced from the low branch where it had been sitting, watching him, he realized, to the ground.
"Yer second mistake, son of my cousin, was leaving yer wretched weapons behind. Fool boy."
Derk narrowed his eyes, peering at the figure as it- no, he strode nearer.
"Uncle?" he demanded, aghast with recognition. "Uncle Lang?"
"Ai, it's me, boy." Lang stepped forward, so that Derk could see him now in the dim light. "And I could see everything you did just there from my perch in this tree. Yer as great a fool as yer da."
By the powers, Lang looked like a fiend from the pit! Clad in a coat of skins that looked like they'd been torn from the bodies of rats or other small animals, and sewn together in a motley, half rotting mass.
"Where is my da? And where've you been? I haven't seen either of you in a year. Is my da with you?"
"No." Lang stepped back, and shoved Derk roughly in the shoulder. "Your da's dead. Some elf prince killt 'im."
Derk's mouth dropped. His da was dead? Lhûg, killed by some elf? How? Derk scowled, remembering his father's rough hands, and fierce beatings- nobody was stronger than Lhûg. How did somebody kill him?
He scowled as a new sense of fury began boiling in his stomach. Deep within a corner of his mind, a part of himself recognized that it was not so much a sense of grief, for Derk had never loved his father. But rather, it was simply a bitter glee at having a reason to hate someone, to wish for the misery and ruin of another. But Derk would never admit such thoughts in his conscious mind.
"Who killed him?" he snarled. "Tell me, and I'll kill him. And I'll kill his woman, too, if he's got one. And their brats."
Lang grinned, a bitter, unpleasant smile, and he reached out, snatching Derk's shoulder, gripping it until he winced in pain. Lang grinned at this.
"That's what I want ta hear," Lang said. "Come with me. Maybe you can help."
With his fist still gripping Derk's shoulder in a painful vice, Lang turned, and pulled the younger man along with him deeper into the forest.
The grass was warm and soft against her bare skin; Elros' cloak warm over the both of them, his solid, and comforting presence at her side. Andreth lay upon her stomach, her cheek resting upon her folded hands, her eyes closed against the sunlight that spilled down through a break in the canopy above her. Bright and pink against her eyelids. The gentle clatter of the cateract falling into the little pool they'd left not long before, sang a gentle song in her ears.
Beside her, Elros lay propped on one elbow, the fingers of his free arm traced sleepy lines over her back.
She smiled, remembering how timid she had been just days before, yet now she felt no fear, no uncertainty in laying here like this, with him. How pleasant it was, now, simply to lie together, and enjoy the presence of the other, the gentle touch of soul and of body in the afterglow of the passions they had shared but minutes before, here upon this same soft grass.
At her smile, his his hand slid to the small of her back and he bent his head, gently pressing his lips to the soft warmth of her shoulder.
"What do you smile at, my Tindómiel?" he asked, lifting his head.
At his gentle question, Andreth opened her eyes. She rolled onto her side, the more easily to face him, then languidly to her back, her heart gladdening as she found his eyes studying her own. His free hand had not broken contact with her flesh as she had moved, and now it rested upon the flat of her stomach, his strong, lean fingers warm against her bare skin.
"At how pleasant it is, simply to lie here, together."
"It is," he agreed, pressing a gentle kiss upon the curve of her ear. "And it was also rather- pleasant, a few minutes ago."
She sighed at this. "Indeed it was," she agreed.
Elros' smile eased, as did her own. "You were wonderful, Andreth," he murmured, his eyes taking in her face as if he wished to drink in all the details, and secure them forever in his memory.
"As were you," she breathed.
"Truly, I mean what I say," he said, shifting a little. His fingers tenderly stroked the flesh of her belly.
She propped her head up, observing her husband's expression more clearly, for she realized he was in earnest.
"Indeed," Elros continued. "Andreth, I knew before we wed, that bonding with you would be wonderful. But truly, before these last days, I did not know the meaning of true ecstasy." He released a soft breath that caressed her shoulder. "Ai, my beloved," he breathed his voice a gentle growl, "sharing myself with you, experiencing you, delighting you- is- breathtaking. And while the pleasure is truly exquisite, I speak of more than- just the enjoyment of our bodies."
Andreth's hand lifted, touching his face. For she knew exactly what he meant. His hand upon her stomach brushed back and forth a little, renewing a faint stir of desire within her.
"It is the sharing that is beautiful," she murmured, "the pleasure of our bodies, the mingling of our souls, the knowing that we share something pure, and sacred, that is ours, alone. This glorious gift we have been given, to strengthen our love-,"
Andreth's words stopped as something deep within her belly stirred. Not a movement, but a sense of some newness, a sweet change within her, and she closed her eyes, drawing in a sharp gasp at the raw ecstasy that burst within her, flame, a spark, tiny, but strong, and very real.
Her free hand flew to her stomach, and pressed against Elros' hand.
"Elros," she gasped. "Rau Amin-," her eyes flew open again, and found her husband's gaze. To her astonishment, tears were upon his cheeks, his eyes shining with a joy she had never seen in him before.
"My husband," she breathed, knowing instinctively what had just happened. "I have just-,"
"You have conceived, my love," he choked, barely able to speak the words before he bent over her, buried his head into her soft hair pillowed about her shoulder, and released a ragged, joyful gasp.
"A son," she added, feeling her own voice choking with blessed tears. "A little boy. A beautiful little boy."
Elros drew his head back enough to look into her eyes, tears dampening his cheeks. "A son?" he choked, and she nodded.
His hand rose and pressed against her face. "He will be but the first of many beautiful little ones," Elros managed to say between his ragged breaths.
"I love you, Elros," she breathed.
"And I love you, Andreth, my bride, my queen," his voice soften, deepened. "Ai, indeed, you are my very reason to live."
Another ragged breath jerked in his chest before Elros bent his head, and captured her parted lips with his own.