The sun hung low in the western sky, setting the clouds on fire where they hung high over the sea, and touching the fluttering waves of the ocean with flame as Andreth pushed the door of Firiel's hut open, and stepped inside, both hands filled with strawberries, and a faint smile on her face. She pushed the door shut behind her with her foot, and it shut with a solid thump, the latch falling into place with a soft clack.
"Firiel, I have put Lavaniel in her stall," she said, seeing her aging friend sitting at the wooden table, her chin in her hand. Her silver hair was knotted back into a single bun, though one missed strand trailed down the back of her neck. Upon the table before Firiel, sat the basket Elros had recovered and returned, the little pot of jam held in one wrinkled hand.
Firiel did not respond at first, gazing out the open window that faced away from the sunset, seeming to be lost in another world as the maiden stepped near, and let the strawberries tumble into an empty wooden bowl in front of the old woman.
"Firiel?" Andreth asked again. The old woman started and looked up, lifting her chin from the hand it had been resting upon.
"Ah, forgive me, Andreth." Firiel smiled gently, the sweet, comforting smile Andreth had known from her earliest memory, and as she sat down upon the rough wooden bench beside the old woman, Firiel reached out, and touched her head, gently stroking her hair. "I was thinking."
The touch was as familiar as the old woman's sweet smile, her hand always gentle, always ready to comfort or encourage. Andreth had only been a young girl when her father died, but she clearly remembered Firiel's touch the day that the soldiers had come to their clearing, two mortal soldiers in dented armor, their steps heavy and weary. She had seen their coming, and had known long before they reached Firiel's hut, the news that they would bring. She had been holding a book, the tale of Thingol and Melian, that her father had given her before departing to help aid the Eldar and his kin in the War of Wrath.
Andreth had remained sitting as the men delivered their sorrowful message, but Firiel had stood, silent at Andreth's side, her hand stroking the girl's hair as Andreth ducked her face into her hands and sobbed for her father, her book falling from her lap to the ground. Beldir her father had stood his ground to the last, and had slain many of the enemy before they had finally cut him down. He had died a hero's death, the weary, war-battered men had assured her. But that had given Andreth little to comfort her weeping heart.
Andreth had not wanted grand stories of her father's last valiant battle, she had wanted her father. It should have been him to walk into the clearing weary, and clad in dented armor, to sit beside his daughter before Firiel's fire, and spin them tales of the war, and of all that he did, instead of these strange men, telling her to rejoice that he had shown such valor. Firiel had stayed at her side, her hand ever upon the maiden's hair, long after the men had bowed and departed. Motherless and now fatherless, Andreth would have been utterly alone, but for Firiel. Her old friend was here, would always be here. Indeed, Andreth could not imagine a life without Firiel to guide her and teach her.
Andreth shook herself from the memory, and returned Firiel's smile. "Thinking of what?"
"Ai, child," she sighed. "Of what will become of you, when I am gone."
Andreth's mouth opened slightly at Firiel's words, and she furrowed her brow. "Oh, Firiel, do not even think that way. You yet have many good years left. You need not worry about such things. And even so, I am not a child. If you- were gone, I would fare well enough."
"Here? All alone?" Firiel asked, turning now fully to the maiden. "What would you do with yourself? You do not mean to live alone all your days, and die unloved and childless like your namesake?"
"Well," Andreth bit her lip, a little taken aback by Firiel's questions. She leaned forward, and touched her friend's hand. "I do not wish to, though it is very possible I might die unmarried. It would be no terrible shame, though, Firiel. So many men were slain in the great war that just passed, that-"
"But I do not want that to be your fate," Firiel murmured, her eyes softening. "You are too good, too kind, Andreth, to be denied a man's love, or the fulfillment of bearing children. I do not wish you to be denied children." Firiel heaved a sigh, "As I was," she finished sadly.
"Hamar loved you," Andreth offered softly.
"Yes, he did," Firiel said, her lips twitching in a faint smile at the name of her husband who had died, seven years past. "More than I ever thought anyone could love me, for all that I could not bear him children. We lived a good, long life together before the Doom of Men claimed him."
Andreth squeezed Firiel's hand, smiling when it answered the pressure of her fingers. "Our lordly guests who departed this morning would have called it the gift of men, and their own fate to live always bound to Arda, a doom."
"They would," Firiel agreed, and laughed softly. "And I am glad you spoke of them, for I was thinking on them just now."
Andreth ducked her eyes, wondering if Firiel could see the heightened color in her face, and guess that she too had been thinking of them; or, she admitted to herself, one of them, all day.
"I know you are not a child, Andreth," Firiel said. "But still, I worry about you, here, alone with me. How would you feel, young one, if I were to send you to Mithlond to dwell for a time?"
"Mithlond? But I have not been there since I was a child," she protested. "I know no one there."
"You know the Lords Elrond and Elros now," Firiel returned. "And your father Beldir knew Lord Círdan, the great Shipwright, himself."
"So my father said," Andreth conceded. "He even told me I met Lord Círdan when I was a child, and that he made much of me." She sighed. "But I do not remember the meeting."
"But doubtless he remembers you!" Firiel insisted. "And he would honor you, as he did your father. For elves often count the descendents of their mortal friends as they would the friends themselves. And more than Círdan would welcome you, for though Bëor has long passed from this world, the elves who knew him would consider you as they would him, and that is no small advantage Andreth, and no shameful thing. For his blood is in you, and they can see it. You would have access to all manner of books and learning." Firiel paused, and offered her a teasing smile. "And there are mortal men enough whom you could meet. They did not all fall in the war."
Andreth sighed. "But Firiel, where would I live?"
Firiel shrugged. "In the house of some generous elf. They would all welcome you, I don't doubt, being of the house of Bëor, as you are."
"Oh, no. No, no. Firiel, I would not want to take advantage of the good graces of any simply because of my lineage," Andreth protested quickly. "Rather, I would wish to earn my own-"
"Your own honor by your own actions, yes," Firiel agreed hastily, "and you would certainly do that, for you are as wise and good as you are beautiful, Andreth. Enough to rival even the fairest elf maiden."
Andreth ducked her head, studying the roughly hewn wood of the table. "I would not want to leave you alone," she murmured at last. "And I have books enough. And if I want for more, I can trade with our neighbors who have them. I do not need to stay away from you so long to gain learning."
"Oh, think nothing on it," Firiel chuckled. "The haven of Mithlond is close enough that even I, with my aging legs, could make such a journey in less than a day. And we have neighbors nearby, who will look in on me. If worry for me is all that is keeping you, do not let it hold you back."
Firiel tightened her grip upon Andreth's hand, and the maiden looked up into her old friend's gleaming eyes. "Shall we set out tomorrow, after the morning milking, to Mithlond? Perhaps the Lords Elrond and Elros would even be willing to take you as their ward while you dwell there, and be your guardians."
"My guardians?" Andreth wondered. "They look no older than me."
"They are young for elves," Firiel acknowledged with a bob of her head. "For I understand they have not yet reached a century in age. But even so, they are older than I. They are nearing their nintieth year."
Andreth grew still for a moment, her thoughts fixing upon Lord Elros, his eyes, grey as the sea, solemn, yet warm and kind, his features strong and chisled, his tall form and lean, powerful body.
Her pulse quickened as the image of him came again into her mind, and she knew she could never think of Elros as fatherly, no matter what his true age. When he had looked at her, earlier that day when she had been rather scantily clad, he, as the honorable man she knew him to be, had looked quickly away. But in that fleeting interval, he had looked at her with the eyes of a young man, his gaze bringing back the feeling of mingled excitement and uncertainty she had felt when she had sat beside him in the morning, and he had spoken of her eyes. They are green, he had said touching her face with gentle fingers when he had wiped away the tear from her cheek, like soft grass in a meadow after a summer rain. There had been, or at least she had imagined there had been, desire in his gaze; nothing like the greedy, calculating lust she had seen in the eyes of the man Elros had slain to save her, but a sweet, warm longing woven through with tenderness. Like the look a man would give to the woman he loved above all the world, and whose happiness he lived to fulfill.
No. After today, even if she had only imagined it all, she could never see Elros as a guardian or as a father figure to her. Elrond his elder brother, perhaps, but never Elros himself.
"I could not see Lord Elros as a guardian," she said, looking up into Firiel's eyes. "Lord Círdan perhaps, but-"
"Well then, it is settled," Firiel interrupted brightly, taking up a strawberry in her gnarled fingers, and lifting it to her lips, biting into the juicy red fruit. "We shall set out tomorrow to the haven of Mithlond beside the sea, and find Lord Círdan, the great shipwright," she said as she chewed. "No doubt he will welcome you, being the daughter of his friend, Beldir of the House of Bëor and will remember you, even if you do not remember him. Being one who values learning and knowledge, I do not doubt but that good Círdan will be pleased to let you dwell with him, so that you may gain even more learning than you now have."
Andreth opened her mouth in an attempt to offer another protest, but Firiel spoke before she did. "And doubtless you will see enough of lords Elrond and Elros as well, whom you already know, and who can speak for your character and introduce you to their circles of acquaintances, which just might include a few mortal men near your own age."
Andreth paused at this, a sweetness engulfing her heart that she wished to either push fiercely away, or embrace with equal fervor. Which should she choose? Were she to say no, Firiel would, in the end, let it go. But if Andreth accepted it, and went with Firiel to the havens tomorrow, what then would happen?Andreth's heart gave a painful thump, and she looked up. "Very well," she murmured solemnly. "We will go tomorrow, and seek out Círdan." She drew in a breath and added as she managed a faint smile, "Just after the morning milking."