The Choice of Elros

Chapter 53

...oOo...

Andreth's head throbbed, and she fought to remain conscious as Lang lurched on, plunging further into the murky gloom. Little light penetrated the shadows here, for Lang followed no defined path, and the growth overhead and about them grew thick and tangled. Branches scratched her arms and her face, tearing at her unbound hair. Lang's feet pounded as he ran, his shoulder digging into her stomach with each leap.

The world became a blur of confusion as she hung from Lang's shoulder like a felled deer, and Andreth could not begin to guess where she was. Neither could she even discern how far they had gone as her captor continued to run deeper and deeper into the forest.

She was beginning to feel her hold on reality slipping when Lang staggered to a stop, puffing and cursing. After glancing behind him, he flung her, like a sack of grain, down upon the ground. Spongy ground cushioned her rough fall, and Andreth landed winded, but unscathed. Shaking her head, she pushed herself up as well as she could with her bound hands. They were back at the camp where she had first regained consciousness. The fire that had blazed earlier had burned now down to coals.

"Cursed woman," Lang gasped, his chest heaving. "You are too much trouble to keep-"

Andreth looked up and met Lang's cold eyes, struggling to keep the movement of her hands hidden. His fist tightened around the narrow handle of his heavy wooden club, the wood creaking in the tightness of his grip.

"Your elf lover will find you soon," Lang spat, still struggling to regain his breath, "but not soon enough to save you."

With a cruel sneer, Lang bent down toward her, and snatched her hair in one hand as he lifted the club high into the air.

But before he could swing the blade down into her body, Andreth twisted away, pulling him off balance, and though a handful of her hair came off in his hand, ripping painfully from her scalp, Andreth held onto her wits, as she rolled to her back, lifted her feet, and kicked hard, into Lang's left shin, her nearest target.

Lang shrieked, and staggered back falling to the ground, fury and surprise written on his face.

Her booted feet, Andreth noted in a fleeting moment of pride, had torn skin, and drawn blood. Snatching her chance, Andreth scrambled to her feet, and plunged away into the tangled trees, running blindly, praying that she ran in the direction from which she had come.

"Elros!" she screamed, hoping her voice carried through the trees.

Behind her, an inhuman howl of rage rolled after her, and the crashing sound of Lang's pursuit followed. If he reached her, Andreth knew, Lang would no longer hesitate, would not take time to brag or boast, but would kill her in an instant. Forcing her mind to stay calm, Andreth prayed as she ran, vaulting over dead, moss-covered logs, and pushing aside the tangle of vines and leaves. Her feet flew, and branches slapped her face, snatching at her hair. Her lungs burned, but still she ran on, the crashing and cursing behind her drawing steadily nearer.

"Elros!" she screamed again before a shadow materialized before her in the gloom.

She staggered back, her terror momentarily keeping her from recognizing him before he spoke.

"Andreth!"

"Elros!" her voice was a sob as his free hand seized her bound wrists and his sword found the rope binding them, sawing with feverish haste at the rough binding.

"Thank the Valar I found you!" he choked "I feared he'd kill you before-"

"Elros, he's coming!"

A furious roar reverberated through the trees as Lang's unmistakable silhouette leapt over a moss-covered log, and into her vision.

Elros' face jerked up. He shoved her behind him with unintentional roughness, sending her to her knees as he turned toward Lang and raised his sword, the metal clanging as he dashed aside Lang's club.

"Run, Andreth!" Elros shouted, his voice carrying over Lang's shrieks and curses. "Get away from here!"

Andreth struggled to rise, for it was difficult, her hands still bound. The binding around her hands felt loosened, but she wasn't entirely free, not yet. With effort, she staggered to her feet. But despite her husband's plea, she did not run away.

How could she, when Elros, her beloved, was in such peril for her sake?

Elros, the arrow still embedded in his thigh, staggered, in obvious agony, as he dashed aside blow after blow from Lang's heavy club.

Clearly noting the elf's pain, Lang sneered, and managed to swing a blow, which Elros could not entirely dodge, down upon the protruding arrow, snapping it with a crack.

A snarl of pain escaped Elros, and he staggered, fresh scarlet wetness flowing down his leggings from the point where the arrowhead lay embedded.

"No!" she wailed, fearing Elros would topple to the ground. But he did not.

Lang's back was turned to her, and she could see Elros' face. Agony mingled with determination as once again, he dashed the mortal's club aside.

"Please Andreth!" he cried. "Run! For our child's sake!"

"Elros!" she sobbed, hopeless. For she knew he was right. For their baby, their son, whose tiny fëa she could feel, even now within her, she had to flee. But how could she? All that was in her, bid her stay, and somehow, some way, save her husband! Valar forgive her, but she could not leave!

A new thrashing of undergrowth found her ears, and she spun, her heart frozen with fear, forgetting, for a fleeting moment, that she had seen Derk slain, before Hathel plunged into view, bow in hand, his eyes sweeping the scene.

"Hathel," she choked, snatching onto his arm. Without speaking, Hathel snatched her bound hands, and started tearing at the bindings round her wrists.

"Help him!" she pleaded. "You have to help him!"

Lang did not see the newcomer, his back still toward Andreth as he forced Elros further and further back across the small clearing.

"I can't, Andreth," Hathel growled, his teeth clenching in pain as he finally ripped the last of the rope away from her hands, and flung it away, thrust the bow into her hands in the same moment, his other hand clutching at the arrow buried in his shoulder. "My arm is too badly injured. The sinews are torn. I can barely move my hand. I could not draw the string fully."

Andreth's heart turned to ashes within her. But then Hathel drew a ragged breath and spoke again. "But you can," he gasped.

Andreth met his eyes, and in that moment, all his lessons washed back over her in a sudden wave.

"You know all I have taught you, and you must use it now," he said.

Hathel winced, and grasped at the arrow embedded in his shoulder, clenching his teeth. "Help me pull it out."

…oOo…

Lang's energy seemed limitless as he lashed out at Elros, who, taxed by the raging pain in his thigh, and the blood that he could feel seeping steadily from it, was falling back. Was Andreth gone? Had she heeded him? He dared not even risk a glance now, and could only pray that she was running, as swiftly as she could away, far away. Perhaps she would find Hathel, and he would take her back to Elrond, and Círdan, and the others. So long as she was safe, so long as Lang could not find her-

Lang seemed to sense Elros' waning strength and a wicked glint shone in his wild eyes as he fought harder, relentlessly forcing the Peredhel further and further back.

Finally, a stone connected with the back of Elros' heel, and he went down. Scrambling desperately, he tried to rise again. But Lang, seeing his chance, kicked Elros' wrist, sending his sword tumbling from his hand, and stood over him, his foot on his chest, his club rising into the air. Lang sneered.

A strange whistling sound rent the air, and stopped with a hollow sound thump. Elros stared as an arrowhead sprouted from the center of his enemy's chest. Lang stared down at it in confusion and horror, his body stiffening. His club dropped harmlessly from his hand.

Elros scrambled safely away, and clambered to his feet, gulping in huge draughts of air.

...oOo...

Lang crumpled to the ground. His focused his eyes on the elven man who had risen, and stood on shaking legs, a sorrowful expression upon his angular elven features. His vision blurred as his thoughts faded. He felt himself falling as a wild roaring filled his ears. Tears filled his eyes, and then his vision dimmed, and silence engulfed him.

...oOo...

Elros picked up his sword, and gazed at his reflection in the metallic surface, wishing not to look at the body of the slain mortal that lay but a pace away from him. He could see that the still figure's eyes remained open.

Elros lifted his eyes. Across the clearing, Andreth stood, a bow in her hand. At her side, Hathel knelt upon the ground, clutching at a wound on his shoulder, blood seeping between his fingers, his teeth clenched in pain even as he struggled to grin.

Andreth dropped the bow and smiled weakly as Elros took a staggering step toward her. She stumbled to him, and as he fell to his knees, overcome with emotion and weariness, she fell to her knees as well, throwing her arms about his neck. Peace filled his heart as he wrapped his arms about her, and pulled her close, pressing his face into her sweet smelling hair. And then, inexplicably, a laugh, that was half a sob escaped him, and he drew back, moving to press a kiss to her brow. But Andreth lifted her head, bringing her own face toward his. Elros found her lips in need of warmth, and eagerly pressed his mouth against hers.

…oOo…

Hathel struggled to smile as he watched the reunion of Elros and Andreth. Odd, he thought, that he felt no envy, when he had once hoped that Andreth would learn to love him.

He blinked his eyes, pressing his hand against the blood running from the arrow wound of his shoulder, wincing at the memory of Andreth helping him pull it out. He swallowed, feeling a swell of pride that he had taught Andreth the skill she had used to save her husband.

Hathel blinked his eyes, and struggled to rise to his feet, though he crumpled back, to his knees, his vision wobbling and fading as he did. He shook his head, and looked at his blood wet hand. How much blood had he lost?

His head felt heavy.

"My lady," he called, "my lord- forgive me, but I feel-"

"Hathel," Elros called out as he and Andreth turned to him.

Andreth rose, assisting her husband who, Hathel noted guiltily, had to stagger as he rise, leaning heavily upon his wife.

"Hathel, may the Valar bless you," Elros called, limping, with Andreth's help, toward the wounded mortal. "You are a true friend to us."

"You are wounded, my lord," Hathel muttered, struggling to rise, though his vision wavered as he did, and Andreth had to leave Elros' side to grasp his arm wishing to help him rise, though Hathel shook his head, and waved her assistance off. He knew if he tried to rise, his blood would rush from his head, and he would faint. A most unmanly misfortune if he did. His thoughts flashed again to Talia and a weak smile touched his lips. What would she think of him, if she heard he had fainted?

Elros smiled, though Hathel could see concern in his eyes. "As are you, I see, Master Hathel."

"He had me pull the arrow out of his shoulder," Andreth said. "So that I could-," she shuddered as she glanced toward Lang's still figure, "save you," she finished, before hiding her face against her husband's shoulder.

Elros' hand went to her hair, and Hathel's heart softened at the obvious tenderness in the eyes of the Peredhel.

His vision wavered, and a distant hum filled his ears.

Behind him, he thought he heard the clopping of horses' hooves, and of voices, taut with concern, calling their names. Lord Círdan? Lord Celeborn?

Hathel tried to call out, to return their worried cries, but the last of his strength left him, and he fell into a wave of numb silence, grateful at least, that friendly hands seemed to catch his shoulders as he crumpled, and ease him gently into soft leaves beneath his head.


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