The Choice of Elros

By Lalaith

Romance / Fantasy

Chapter 51

Chapter 51

Andreth drew in a deep, appreciate breath as she moved beneath the trees, her eyes uplifted, drinking in the beauty of the forest, cool shadows accompanied by golden spears of light piercing the green canopy above. The bright calls of birds echoed through the forest.

All seemed at peace, and in harmony.

Andreth reached out, touching a hand to the rough bark of a nearby tree. Within the tree, she sensed its quiet, sleepy soul, and she paused, leaning nearer to the tall, solid trunk of living wood.

Was this how elves sensed the world? Had all her senses grown more elf-like since her first wondrous night as Elros' lover?

Andreth closed her eyes, and pressed her brow to the tree, gently reaching out with her mind, trying to touch its soul. Greetings, friend, her thoughts murmured.

Andreth smiled as she felt a faint, sleepy touch in return. Something deep within its core stirred. But the peace she'd hoped to feel, was absent. Something was wrong. Andreth's eyes flew open. It was trying to speak to her, warn her-

Before she was even conscious of why she did it, Andreth ducked a fractioned moment before a sharp whistle cut through the air, something slamming into the bark if the tree above her head, quivering harshly. She spun, and her heart stopped within her at the figure that stepped from behind a nearby tree, holding a strung bow in one hand.

As her eyes met his, Andreth's heart nearly failed her. For she knew his eyes, his bitter, calculating eyes. He features were different, but his eyes were Lhûg's eyes. How was this? Had he come back from the dead? A living nightmare; a walking corpse? Terror washed over her at this thought, and crippling weakness seized her limbs. Almost, she let the terror turn her muscles to water. Almost she dropped her bow.

But no. She would not let herself. She would not show him fear. She was not the frightened helpless maiden she had once been. She was stronger, wiser. And now she had a child to defend.

At this thought, a sense of protective fury seized her heart. As the man snarled, and lunged for her, she whipped an arrow from her quiver, nocked it, and drew it to her cheek

Her fingers released the string, and the arrow sped toward him. A sickeningly soft thump met her ears as the arrow punched through the man's arm, spinning him around and onto the ground. A shriek of pain and fury exploded from his lips.

Her arrow had pierce through a pinch of skin upon his arm, the bloody arrowhead visible, protruding from the back of his arm as he scrambled to rise.

She nocked a second arrow with lightning speed, and trained it upon him, her gaze fixed on the cruel, hateful eyes she knew so well. He froze, his lips drawn from his teeth in a growl.

"You're Lang," Andreth snarled through her teeth. "You're Lhûg's cousin, aren't you?"

In her own ears, her voice sounded taut with rage, and despite her fear, Andreth felt a tingle of pleasure, for no hint of fear filled her words. "Your desire for vengeance on my husband is unjust. Lhûg attacked me, and Elros slew him to defend my honor. He did no wrong."

She took a step forward, the arrow still drawn to her cheek. "Leave, or die."

This man froze, pain and fear, washing over the lines of his face as he glared up at her, snarling like an animal. But then his eyes narrowed.

"The words of women are nothing, elf-witch," he growled, and his eyes flashed passed her for the briefest moment, sparking with triumph.

Alarmed, Andreth began to turn, but not before something heavy thudded against the side of her head.

Andreth's senses fled her, draining like water from her body as she crumpled to the floor of the forest. Her arrow and bow clattered useless beside her.

Two shadows moved to stand over her, her blurred vision fading into blackness. Two?

"Get away from her!" a voice echoed as from far away, and the two shadows spun to face a new presence. Shouting voices echoed about her, mingled with the crack and clash of what sounded vaguely like fighting.

But she could not say, for the last of her thoughts faded, and everything was lost into blackness.

...oOo...

Even before he was fully conscious, something troubled Elros in his dreams.

Andreth was hurt, in danger, afraid. She and the baby- his baby-

Elros jerked his head off his pillow, fully awake in a moment.

"Andreth," he groaned, and rolled to his side, reaching out for his wife, needing her; needing to touch her, to gather her in his arms, to feel her, to share himself with her, and reassure himself that it was naught but a dream. But Elros stopped as his hand touched not the supple silk of her warm, bare skin, but crumpled, empty sheets. He blinked, clearing his vision. Upon her pillow, lay a folded note. Innocent enough, but at the sight of it, his heart grew inexplicably cold.

"Elros!" a voice in that moment shouted up from below. "Elros, Andreth, we must speak to you! It's most urgent!"

"Elrond?" he called. Elros scrambled out of bed, snatching up a crumpled pair of loose breeches with one hand, and scrambling into them as he read Andreth's missive with the other.

Footsteps, two sets, pounded on the encircling steps. Both men, from the sound of their boots. Elrond, and one other. What had brought them?

My dearest one, read the note, I have gone a short way into the woods with your bow and three arrows, for my fingers itch to try some target practice. I also took a flute with me, for I wish to make some music as well. I will see to the horses' breakfast, and let them wander where they will. I will return soon. I hope you are dreaming of me.

your tindómiel,

Andreth

Elros, her postscript read in a somewhat hurried script, Indeed I cannot let them out. Maidh is sleeping late, and Nórui does not wish to leave her alone. I think they are rather fond of one another.

Nothing upon the note seemed alarming, but Elros could not shake the feeling that something terrible was amiss, his fears compounded by frantic pounding at the outer door.

"Elros, Andreth! May we come in?"

Elros drew the knot of his breeches closed, and tying it as he shouted, "Enter, Elrond."

Two booted sets of feet strode through the antechamber, the second door opened and Elrond appeared with Hathel beside him.

"What's wrong?" Elros asked, snatching up a stray tunic from the floor, and pulling it over his bare chest.

"Where is Andreth?" Hathel spoke first.

"I cannot say," he said. "She took my bow and a few arrows, and left before I woke."

Elros glanced at the note, and deciding that it contained nothing intimate, handed it to his brother.

Elrond snatched it with alarming impatience, and scanned the contents, his face growing ever more worried as he handed it to Hathel. The young mortal's face took on a look of deepening worry much like Elrond's.

"We would do well to find her," Elrond said. "Get your boots on."

Rising alarm gripped his heart, and Elros did as his brother bade him without question.

"Your friend Maglor the bard, bid us come warn you," Hathel said as Elros scrambled into his boots.

"Of what?" Elros demanded as he turned and strode out the door, his brother and Hathel on his heels.

"He spotted Lang not far away from here," Elrond said, his voice short as he rushed to keep pace with his brother.

Elros froze on the stairs, and turned alarmed eyes to his brother.

"And he wasn't alone," Hathel added, one step behind Elrond.

"Who was with him?" Elros demanded, hardly waiting for an answer as he spun forward and doubled his pace down the circling steps.

"Talia's old husband, his name is Derk," Hathel said. "Derk came to the city yesterday, and tried to take Talia away at knife point. Thank the Valar, a pair of city guards stepped in. She bid them not to harm him, and so they sent him on his way at the gate. But now, so it seems, Derk and Lang have joined one another, and are in the forest, and they're near you enough, that it worried Maglor. He came to Círdan's house, and bid us come warn you, then he left to follow them."

Every word they spoke only made his heart throb all the more with rising alarm. He reached the ground. Two horses were there and waiting, saddled, still breathing heavily from a hard ride.

"Maglor chose this glade, because the lay of the land, and the trees make it difficult to find, especially with mortal eyes," Elrond said. "But two pairs of eyes, especially determined, might-"

"Nórui!" Elros cried, not wishing to hear the rest of his brother's words.

The stallion came trotting out of the stable, his head high, sensing the alarm in his master's voice. Maidh appeared behind the stallion, curiosity and worry in her large, expressive eyes.

Without bothering to fetch his gear, Elros gripped Norui's mane, and swung saddleless, to his back. He could ride bareback at need, and wished not to take the time to saddle the stallion.

"It seems they're kin, Lang, and Derk, at least Talia thinks so, for she says that Lhûg was the name of Derk's father." Hathel's voice broke with worry as he and Elrond swung to the backs of their mounts.

"Maidh, which way did Andreth go?" Elros demanded of the creamy white mare.

The mare snorted, and jerked her head toward the north end of the clearing.

Without looking back at his brother or Hathel, Elros urged Nórui into a gallop toward the thick trees.

"Elros!" Elrond shouted. "Don't forget this!"

Elros barely slowed, letting the winded mounts of Elrond and Hathel reach him only long enough to turn as Elrond tossed a sword belt to him. Deftly he caught the sheathed weapon, then turned forward again.

Elros' heart sank to think he might have a need for such a weapon, but he only tucked the belted blade close to his chest, and urged Nórui faster. Into the forest shadows they plunged. Branches snatched and scratched at his face, but Elros barely heeded them. Behind him, he could hear the muffled pounding of his brother's mount, and Hathel's struggling to keep up. But they were falling swiftly behind.

"Let my fears be for nothing!" Elros prayed silently through gritted teeth. But in his heart, a quiet, heavy premonition weighted upon his soul.

…oOo…

Maglor's blood burned with a fury he had not felt since the kinslayings as he spun the staff in his hands, and brought it down, cracking solidly across Lang's wrist, sending the man reeling back, howling in fury, though he did not drop the heavy tree branch he held.

Maglor scowled, and spun, punching the end of his staff into the stomach of the younger man who lunged at him from the side, using Derk's momentum against himself. The young man's breath exhaled from him in a rush as he staggered back, bent double, clutching at his belly, his knees sagging. Andreth's arrow still protruded from the man's arm, and blood darkened the cloth of his sleeve around the wooden shaft, though the wound seemed barely to hamper him. A quiver lay across his back, nearly empty of arrows, but his bow had long ago been cracked by Maglor's staff. Wheezing, Derk stumbled to one knee. He had no breath. He would be of no consequence, for a few moments at least.

Fëanor's last living son snarled, and turned away from the tottering, wounded youth and back to the older man who leapt at him, his club swinging, but who jerked backward as Maglor's staff slashed at his midsection, barely missing him. The man stumbled back several paces, gasping, giving them both a few moments to breath. The hand Maglor had just struck, Lang held curled against his chest, and Maglor wondered if he had broken it, fiercely hoping he had. His one good eye glared murder at Maglor. His other eye, a dark red welt across his brow and over the bridge of his nose, was swiftly swelling shut. Maglor had left that mark at the beginning of their fight, and it pleased him to see the purpling bruise.

This was a sensation Maglor did not relish, for it brought back unwanted memories, and bitter regrets. Even so, Maglor knew he needed every spark of fire that burned in his blood, to keep this pair of jackals at bay.

As his eyes turned one way and the other, his breath burning in his lungs, Maglor wondered if perhaps, these creatures were not sons of Eru, but rather twisted and soulless mockeries of men of the Second Born, as orcs were twisted mockeries of his own race. Their eyes were hard, filled with bottomless darkness. There was no humanity left in their hearts. He could see that, clearly enough.

"Andreth?" he called over his shoulder, hoping she would respond. But no sound came from where she lay.

Maglor turned fleetingly hoping to see that she still breathed-

Derk, still upon one knee, shifted, only a little, and Maglor jerked back, but not quickly enough as a sharp pain punched into the elf's side. Maglor staggered backward several steps, his eyes dropping down to see a knife hilt protruding from beneath his ribs. Blood was already pooling around the hilt, soaking his tunic.

Derk, staggered to his feet, sneering wickedly.

"Well done, boy," Lang snarled, and both men chuckled darkly.

Maglor blinked fiercely, pressing a hand to the wound, vainly trying to hold back the blood he could feel spilling down his side, hot, and wet. His vision wobbled, and a loud ringing filled his ears.

Sneering cruelly, Lang strode near. With his free hand, Maglor clenched his staff with determination. Whether she was still alive or not, he would fight for Elros' fair wife until the breath was torn from him.

"Die, elf," Lang spat, and lifted his club. Crushing his teeth together, Maglor lifted his staff, knowing it would not be enough. The club swung, stars exploded in his vision, and Maglor felt himself falling into nothing.

…oOo…

"Andreth!" Elros called, his frantic voice echoing away through the trees, praying, with sinking hope, that all was well, and that his fears were unfounded, and that he would come upon her any moment, her eyes startled to see him so distraught.

But when he saw the figure, prone upon the bed of forest leaves beneath a spear of sunlight, his heart sank into black hopelessness.

It was not her, but his fear was nearly as great as his heart stopped in recognition.

"Otorno!" he wailed, and flung himself from Nórui's back, scrambling and slipping over leaves in his haste to reach Maglor's side.

The dark haired elf lay facedown, a quarterstaff still clutched in his hand. He did not move. His dark hair hid his face, matted with blood. And from beneath his ribs, a knife hilt protruded. Nearby, an arrow, bearing unrecognizable fletchings, protruded from the side of a tree.

Was Maglor breathing? Was he still alive?

"Otorno?" Elros begged, dropping his sheathed sword, and touching a shoulder.

Maglor moaned faintly, but he did not move, nor speak. Gingerly, Elros brushed aside his blood dampened hair. His face was still, his eyes closed. Blood trickled down his cheek, over his nose in crimson rivulets, dripping into the leaves beneath him.

Elros could see from the faint movement of his breath that he still lived.

"Otorno?" Elros pleaded. "Where is Andreth? What's happened to her?"

But Maglor could not answer.

The thumping of hooves did not lift Elros' head as he bent over Maglor.

"Otorno!" Elrond cried, leaping from Celegben's back, and scrambling to the fallen elf's side. Hathel followed behind, though he stopped short of the huddled group of elves, drawing in a fierce hiss of sympathy.

Gingerly, Elrond rolled his foster father to his back, a ragged sound, like a choke sob, escaping him at the blood on Maglor's face, the knife hilt protruding from beneath his ribs.

"If he is to have any chance to live, I must get him back," Elrond growled softly. "I have to take him to Círdan's house, and treat him there."

"Andreth-," Elros' voice was a choked whisper as he lifted his head, and looked about at the trees, his heart growing hollow. This was the work of Lang and Derk. And why would Maglor confront them unless they were a threat to her?

If he had confronted them to defend her, where was she, now?

"My lords-," Hathel's voice was suddenly soft and fierce.

The rustle of leaves followed Hathel as he trotted a short distance away, then bent, and picked up something from the ground. Elros' heart tightened.

Andreth's little flute. The one she had said she would take with her. She had been here!

"Andreth!" Elros snarled, staggering to his feet. "Dear Valar, where-,"

"My lords-," Hathel's voice was broken, "They went this way."

He pointed at the ground a short distance away from where he stood, his hand rising to indicate the direction the tracks went.

The muscle beneath Hathel's jaw twitched, and his eyes were tortured as he dropped to one knee and touched the ground. "Two sets of feet, one is- carrying something over one shoulder." His voice became a snarling sob. "They're carrying her like a felled deer, the maggots!"

Elros looked across Maglor into his brother's eyes, his soul tortured. "I have to follow them. I must go after them."

"And I'll go with you," said Hathel.

"I have to take Maglor back," Elrond choked. "I have to try- try to save him."

With a heave, Elrond lifted their once foster father, and Elros turned to help him, the unconscious elf's body heavy and limp. Together, they lifted and settled him upon Celegben's back. Elrond mounted behind him, circling an arm about Maglor's chest, holding his limp body on the horse's back. His free hand grasped the reins. Maglor's head lolled back against Elrond's shoulder.

"Take the horses," Elros gasped. "Hathel and I will need stealth from here."

Elrond nodded, his eyes heavy with worry. "Nórui, Antien," he ordered of the two riderless horses, his voice cracking as he spoke, "come."

Elrond wheeled Celegben's head about, his eyes turning down to his brother. Elros could see that Elrond's soul was torn within him. "The Valar go with you, little brother," he choked. "Find her."

And then he heeled his mount's side, and was gone. Hathel's horse followed him, but Nórui hesitated, turned to look at Elros, his eyes seeming to understand all that happened.

"Go, Nórui," Elros ordered, and the stallion turned, and galloped after Elrond.

Elros bent, numb, his soul an empty void as he picked up his sheathed sword, and the staff Maglor had left behind.

"Here," he said, tossing the staff to Hathel. The mortal caught it easily.

Elros nodded. "Lead the way, Hathel," he said.

Hathel nodded, and turned away, his eyes fixed upon the ground as he darted away, Elros on his heels.

…oOo…

The world appeared as little more than a blur at first as Andreth came to her senses, a mass of green wavering before her eyes. The smell of earth and growing things found her nostrils, and as she stirred, she realized that stiff rope bound her wrists together. She lay upon soft ground, thick trees rising all about her. The events that had passed before she had had been struck from behind rushed back into her mind, and she pushed herself up, ignoring the throbbing that fell like a hammer against her temple, nothing else on her mind but escape as she lunged toward the thick trees.

She had run no more than three paces before a tug on her bound hands whipped her around. Her feet flew out from under her, and she crashed to the ground.

"Ha, you're awake," a voice growled.

Lifting her head, her eyes darted about the clearing.

A fire flickered in the center of the clearing, clawing hungry fingers upward. Beside the writhing flames sat a man. He had been gnawing at the roasted carcass of a recent kill, but he turned toward her now, his eyes hard with cruel glee.

"Who are you?" she demanded, struggling to keep her voice from quavering

"I am Lang." The man lifted a hunk of roasted meat, and tore a bite out of it, studying her with only one good eye. A purple bruise had swollen his other eye shut. "Stupid woman." The tortured firelight flickered off of the cruel lines of his features. "The one you thought was me, that's Derk." He scoffed.

The sleeve of his right arm had been torn away, and she could see an ugly gash swelling upon his forearm. How had he been injured? She had not done it. She hadn't even seen him before he struck her from behind- a heavy wooden club lay on the ground at his feet. Upon one side of the heavy wooden head, was a dried, discolored spot- She touched a hand to her own head, feeling a hard, painful lump. He had struck her hard, but he had not broken the skin. That wasn't her blood.

Andreth's breath paused. Someone had come to fight for her in the last moments before she had succumbed to blackness. Who had it been? Elros? Her heart grew heavy at the thought, threatening to sink into despair. Elros would not let them take her away, were he still alive. And what was that- clinging to an uneven protrusion on the wood, in the center of the bloody spot- a tangled clump of long, dark hair.

As if he sensed her growing despair, her captor grinned.

She jerked her eyes away from his sneering face, and lowered her gaze to her hands, studying the long plaited tether that snaked across the ground from her bound wrists to the rock he sat upon. The rope disappeared beneath the heavy stone, pinned beneath its weight.

"Where are we?" she demanded.

"In the forest," Lang scoffed.

Andreth's throat tightened at the tones of his voice.

"Elros will find me," she grated, bracing for his next words.

"I expect him to," Lang snorted. "I imagine he wants you back." His eyes slid over her form, a sneer curling his lips as his eyes sparked with cruel fire. "I would."

Andreth shuddered and recoiled, refusing to meet his eyes.

He reached her, and Andreth flinched and fell back a step, but she could go no further, straining against the tether binding her wrists.

His hand touched her hair, and Andreth clenched her teeth, shutting her eyes as Lang brushed her hair, almost gently, aside. "D'you know how long it's been since I-"

His hand fell, and he dropped back a step.

"You're no elf," he muttered.

Andreth did not speak. She twisted her bound wrists, straining to break away.

"How'd you get one to marry you?"

He stepped closer to her, and again his hand touched her face. "You beguile him with yer charms?" She jerked away, but he caught her chin in his grip. "S'not a surprise he'd take you. Yer more beautiful than any elf women I ever seen." She wanted to wretch on his feet. He was old enough to be her father!

"Lang!"

Andreth jerked at the sound of a man crashing through the brush. A figure tumbled from the thickness of the trees and into the clearing.

Her wild hope that Elros had come to rescue her, crumbled at the sight of the first man she had seen, the one Lang had called Derk, as he darted out of the trees. He stumbled to a stop, his chest heaving. Over his shoulder, he carried Andreth's own bow and quiver, a cluster of fletchings jostling one another.

"What is it?" Lang snapped, lurching to his feet.

"He's coming," Derk gloated, his eyes wild as he pointed behind him. "Just as you said he would." He gulped on a breath. "There's another with 'im. A mortal. The elf has a sword, the mortal, the same staff the first elf had, the one you killed."

Lang laughed, and Andreth's skin grew cold at the bitter cruelty in his tone.

"Who?" she demanded, hearing her voice shiver. "Who did you kill?" Her mind flashed back to Lang's club, the blood, and the tangled, dark hair. "Who?"

Neither Lang nor Derk answered, though they traded a sneering glance. Lang tossed the bone he had been gnawing into the fire, and shot a grin at Andreth. His lips pulled back from his teeth in an expression that reminded her of a hungry wolf. Keeping his one good eye upon her, he moved to Derk's side, and pulled an arrow from the quiver. Then returning to the stone that held Andreth's tether down, he bent, and using the razor edge of the arrow head, severed the end.

He straightened, grinning as he twisted the shortened rope in his fist.

"Let's go meet our friends," Lang ordered.

With a snort, Derk turned and disappeared back into the forest the way he had come. But before Lang followed them, he paused, and turned toward Andreth, his eyes cold and hard.

Twisting her tether around his hand, closing the distance between them, he jerked her toward him.

Andreth winced, and struggled to back away, though the rope would not let her.

"It is no wonder that Elros wants you," he growled, his thick breath washing her face. "If we did not have this present trouble to contend with-"

One hand reached toward her, but Andreth twisted away, and spat on his outstretching hand.

She snarled, "When Elros reaches us-"

Lang's hand seized her chin in a painful grip, forcing her to look at him, and his one remaining eye filled with fury. "When he reaches us, I will kill him, and cut his heart out as you watch."

Letting his snarl fade, he released her face, and turned away. "Come," he barked. "It is time to go meet your fearless champion." Yanking her behind him, he turned in the direction Derk had gone, and strode after him, the shadows of the trees closing over their heads.

…oOo…

"Hathel," Elros gasped, his breath like fire coming in his throat as he darted behind the young mortal along the wild animal trail that wended eastward, through the thick forest. "How near?"

They had been running for some time at almost a near sprint without rest save for the moments when Hathel would pause and drop to a knee, studying the ground, or a bent branch across the trail as they followed the faint markings their quarry left behind. The air beneath the canopy felt close and heavy, and sweat weighted and dampened his hair. Elros' feet slapped the earth in rhythm with his labored breathing as he followed the young mortal's lead along the trail, and his muscles burned from the strenuous punishment of their swift run. But Elros cared nothing for the weariness of his body, his every thought fixed upon Andreth, and saving her from the wretches that had her.

Had they harmed Andreth? his thoughts demanded as fear ricocheted around in his mind like an angry wasp that could not find release. The dread of what she might be suffering at their hands, burned in the pit of his belly, fueling his anger, and giving him strength that he would not have had otherwise.

In front of him, a generous beam of sunlight washed across the trail, spilling through a wide break in the canopy above them. Before they reached the splash of sunlight, the young mortal's feet skidded to a stop, and Elros slid to a halt behind him, his eyes fixed upon the gasping mortal whose eyes scanned the ground.

"Are we nearing them?" Elros gasped, again, his chest rising and falling as waves of helplessness threatening to engulf him. No longer running hard to ease the fear that raged within him, Elros' blood seemed to boil in his veins, as if his soul would fly apart at any moment.

Hathel straightened and met his eyes, reaching out and clapping a hand upon his shoulder. "We're close. They passed through here not long ago. Look."

Hathel snatched up a slender branch that had fallen on the trail, torn from a tree beside the path. He studied the torn and twisted wood before he tossed the branch away, his eyes scanning the earth as if some message had been written there. Then he gazed at the trees about them, straining to see into the distant depths of their murky shadows, his jaw working beneath his skin. "They are not moving quickly."

The mortal turned, and his smoldering eyes met Elros' gaze. Elros could see his own agony reflected in the man's eyes.

"You know they took her only to lure you out here," Hathel muttered.

"That is my hope. I would rather they hurt me, than her." Elros looked at Hathel, studying the pain and fear upon the mortal's face. Hathel had loved her too, once. He'd willingly given up his hopes for her, but Elros could see Hathel's regard for her had not faded.

"She's with child, Hathel," he muttered.

Hathel swallowed thickly at this, his eyes growing wet and desperate at once. "She-"

"She conceived four days ago."

Hathel looked away at this, his chin trembling fiercely at the words.

"We'll find them, my lord," he said at last, visibly gathering himself. "It won't-,"

Elros lifted hand cutting off the mortal's words as a faint sound found his ears. He looked up, turning his eyes to the profuse growth around them. For a moment, he could see nothing. Then, a movement deep within the trees to his left caught his eye. A figure, indistinct in the green shadows, moved nearer, its movements imbalanced and irregular like the jerking gait of some corpse that had dragged itself from the grave.

Elros drew his sword from its sheath, the whisper of metal upon metal echoing away through the trees. Hathel's fists tightened around the staff in his hands.

"Who are you?" Elros demanded. "Speak!"

"Ho, my lord!" the figure scoffed. "Do you wish to cause harm to your own lady?"

A jolt of fear speared through Elros at this, and he lowered his blade as the figure stepped from the shadows into the light.

Elros' blood grew hot.

"Greetings my lord," Lang scoffed, one muscled arm circled about Andreth's slender waist as she stumbled in front of him, struggled against his hold on her. Her eyes, wide and filled with fear, pled with Elros over Lang's thick hand clamped on her mouth. Her hands were bound in front of her with a strap of dirty leather and it took all the restraint within Elros to keep from flinging himself across the space between them, and tearing Andreth out of Lang's grasp. But as Elros' glance dropped to sharp arrow tucked like a knife into the belt at his waist, he knew he could do nothing. The arrow would be in his hand, and Andreth dead in the moments it would take Elros to reach them. And so he stood his ground, helpless, his fist clenching his sword so tightly that his fingers grew numb.

"We know there's another," he snarled. "Where is he?"

To this, Lang only chuckled.

Hathel snarled. "We've come for the lady, Andreth. Let her go."

"I think not," Lang chuckled. "I enjoy her company." Lang pressed his face against Andreth's hair and pulled her more firmly against his chest. She shuddered, and tried to pull away. "So soft to hold," he murmured.

"Take your filthy hands off her!" Elros shrieked, raw fury clawing his throat.

To this, a cold grin parted Lang's lips. His eyes darted to something beyond Elros' shoulder. Seeing what Lang could see, Andreth's eyes grew wide with horror, and with a wild wrench of her head, tore her mouth away from his hand. "Elros, look ou-" she shrieked before Lang's hand clamped over her mouth again.

Elros spun then, saw the figure pounce from the shadows, the twang of a bowstring, the hiss of an approaching arrow. He ducked, rolling to the side as the arrow buzzed past his head, and struck the ground, sending up a spray of earth.

But Elros' relief turned to dust as Derk fit another arrow to the string, of his own bow, Elros realized, and drew it back. An arrow, one of his own, pierced through the upper flesh of Derk's arm. Andreth had done it, he realized, pride flaring fiercely within him. Elros scrambled to rise to his feet, but he saw the arrow flying toward his face, knowing it would make its target.

From nowhere, seemingly, an indistinct blur obscured the arrow. A hard thump, a deep burst of air, and Hathel staggered back into Elros.

Elros caught Hathel's weight as the mortal sank to his knees, his heart growing still at the arrow protruding from Hathel's chest, just below his collarbone.

"Hathel!" Andreth wailed, wrenching her mouth from Lang's hold as Hathel tried to regain his feet, but faltered. Elros caught his arm, finding the young mortal's pain filled eyes.

"I should've known," Derk barked, his eyes now fixed upon Hathel. "I know you! Talia's made herself your whore, hasn't she?"

"Talia," Hathel snarled through his pain, "is not a whore."

In answer, Derk laughed. Two arrows remained in his quiver.

"Think you are so mighty now, elf?" Lang growled.

Lava coursed through Elros' blood. He spun to face Lang. The mortal jerked the arrow from his belt. Andreth sucked in a hiss of pain as the arrowhead pressed against the tender flesh of her throat.

"Elros!" Andreth choked, her voice thick with tears.

"Andreth, are you hurt?" Elros demanded. "What have they done to you?"

"I'm-,"

"Silence!" Lang pressed the arrowhead more firmly against her skin, and Andreth winced as a bead of blood appeared beneath the point of the arrowhead, crimson against her smooth throat.

Elros' chest tightening in impotent fury as Lang's eyes gleamed in malicious triumph. He clutched Hathel's shoulder, striving to keep the wounded mortal from crumpling to the ground. Derk still had two arrows left. And the next arrow might find Hathel's heart. Or Andreth's.

"We all know that it is me you wish to kill," Elros growled stepping from Hathel's side as an icy chill knifed across his skin, "let Andreth go." He swallowed. "Let her return safely with my comrade to Mithlond. I will stay, and you can do what you will with me."


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