The Choice of Elros

By Lalaith

Romance / Fantasy

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Andreth struggled to hide her awe as she stepped into Círdan's house, though she could not keep herself from lifting her eyes and glancing upward, marveling at how distant the peaked ceiling was. Beneath her feet, stone tiles set in symmetrical patterns, filled the great hall, while long, luxurious tapestries hung down the walls, threads of every imaginable color telling stories without words, several of which she recognized, and others she did not. Wide doors led away into other parts of the great house that Andreth felt sure would take well over a week to explore, if she could. One door to her left, stood slightly ajar, and Andreth's heart thrilled as she caught a slender peek at tall shelves lined with thick tomes.

"This way, my lady," Aelin said, and Andreth turned back toward the elven woman who stood, patiently waiting upon the stairway Andreth had seen from the door when she had first come with Firiel. Aelin's slender hand, extending from the wide sleeve of her light blue gown, rested upon the elegantly carved banister of the stairway.

"Forgive me," Andreth said, picking up the hem of her skirt, and hurrying to catch up with her guide.

The carved wood of the banister was cool beneath her hand as she touched it, then withdrew her hand, turning her palm to study it. Andreth sighed, noting the dust that had settled over her skin as she and Firiel had journeyed here, and the black dirt crusted beneath her nails.

Above her, Aelin's feet made soft taps against the marble steps as she rose higher. Andreth released her breath, and climbed more quickly so that she would not fall behind, feeling painfully out of place, wondering if she would ever grow used to living in the elegance of Círdan's house.

Aelin, even as a servant, was dressed more finely than any mortal bride Andreth had ever seen, the fabric of her light blue dress soft and fluid, her sleeves long and open, while a net of elegant braids drew the hair back from her tipped ears, falling over the remainder of her unbound hair that trailed down her back to her waist.

If only she could be half as graceful and lovely, Andreth thought wistfully.

But no, she chided herself. It would not do, to allow herself to be jealous. Doubtless she would meet many other elven women, all far more beautiful than herself. It would not do to compair her mortal faults to their nearly flawless elven beauty. Rather, Andreth urged herself, it would be best to focus on the kindness they were showing to her; chiefly the generosity of Círdan to welcome her so warmly to Mithlond, and to have rooms set aside for her in his home. Rooms, he had said down in Mithlond beneath the tower Elros and Elrond were helping him build, not room, as she had remembered.

The stairs she and Aelin climbed at last ended on a wide balcony that encircled the open center, guarded by an elegantly carved balustrade overlooking the hall below. To her right, above the main door of Cirdan's house where Aelin had first greeted her, a large arching window overlooked the ground below, and beneath the window, a long cushioned bench, so that someone could sit and gaze out over the view.

"Oh," Andreth breathed softly, noting the gleaming glass of the window. She had seen some few panes of glass in windows before. There were glass windows here in Mithlond, she had seen. But nothing like this. For it filled nearly the entire wall.

Releasing another sigh, Andreth looked away and followed Aelin, who turned down a wide hallway. Candles within gleaming sconces lined the walls at regular intervals until Aelin stopped at last before a door, a white, gleaming door with curling designs of vines and leaves along the outer edges. It had an almost pearlescent sheen to it, and once again, a wave of awe washed Andreth's heart. This was to be hers? Her own? If her door was this beautiful, what was beyond it?

"These will be your rooms," Aelin offered, taking hold of the door's silver latch, and lifting it, pushing the door open as she continued to speak. "You will find a bath prepared already for you, and adequate garments laid out. If you need anything, there is a small bell on the desk in your bed chamber. Ring it, and I will hear. Supper will be in the dining room in one hour's time. Lord Círdan wishes to present you to some friends who knew Bëor and his kindred, and are anxious to meet you. I will show you the way, if you wish. Indeed, I will be happy to show you anywhere you wish to go until you are acquainted with the house, and comfortable in finding your own way."

Aelin pushed the door open as she spoke, and Andreth followed the gesture of her hand, entering the room. Her eyes widened in silent wonder, and her mouth fell open at the sight before her.

"When you are bathed and dressed," Aelin continued, as Andreth's wide eyes moved slowly from one end of the room to the other. "I will be pleased to help you with your hair if you wish."

The main chamber where she found herself, contained, in its center, a great white bed which looked as soft and luxurious as a cloud, and which looked as if it could comfortably sleep several people at once, with rising posts at all four corners, their points hung over with a canopy of gossamer. To her right, an open wardrobe of deep red wood, the doors intricately carved, showed her a number of lovely dresses, all of varied hues, and pairs of slippers lined neatly beneath them. Beside the wardrobe stood a screen behind which, she guessed, she would don her clothes. A leaf green gown of shimmering fabric, was draped luxuriously over the back of a chair beside this, while white underthings sat folded on the chair's seat, and upon the floor beneath it, sat a small pair of matching slippers.

Across the room from her, through a door still standing ajar, she could see a pool of water set into the floor, delicious wisps of steam rising from it.

To her left, muted light from a window that looked to be higher than her head, filtered through a wall of creamy curtains. Beside the vast window, in the corner, sat an intricately carved desk with a chair beside it, its legs and back carved in same manner. Drawers with golden handles lined the front of the desk. A small ivory bell, inlaid with accents of gold waited upon one corner, and an upright oval mirror stood at the back, against the wall.

A mirror! A perfect, flawless mirror, whose reflection was smooth, and clear. Would the wonders of Círdan's house never end? Andreth turned away from Aelin, and moved to the mirror, studying her amazed face within it, her plain blue dress, and her hair, her tresses of bronze and gold spilling down her back, some few golden strands spilling over her shoulders. Behind her, she caught Aelin's expression of gentle amusement at her awe.

"I am sorry," she gulped, meeting Aelin's eyes through the mirror. "You must think me very strange. I am a bit overwhelmed, but I am very pleased, and very grateful. You, Lord Círdan, your people- you are all so generous, my breath is taken away."

Aelin smiled. "I am pleased," she murmured. "And I assure you, Lord Círdan is only too glad to make you his ward, Lady Andreth, for your father was a good friend to him, and Lord Círdan has always had much respect for the children of the house of Bëor."

Aelin nodded to the soft curtains that veiled the tall window. "I do hope the view pleases you, my lady. Lord Círdan wished me to prepare this particular room, for its view looks north and west, toward the home you left, to come live here."

At Aelin's nod, Andreth moved to the curtains and brushed them aside. The curtains, hanging from small rings strung upon a gilded bar near the ceiling, pulled easily one way and the other. Tall bright panes of glass, framed in gleaming metal, higher than her head, and wider than she could reach to either side, let in streaming rays of warm red sunlight. She touched a hand to the cool, transparent surface, and leaned her face close to the glass, smiling in wonder as a faint mist formed upon the clear surface as she exhaled. Just beyond the high, bright windows, she saw a thick ledge of polished stone, a balustrade of carved wood at its edge.

Andreth wondered at a small round table of wrought metal, and two small chairs upon this ledge before Aelin urged, "Lift the latch, my lady. They open."

True enough, Andreth noted a latch between the frames of glass and lifted it. Almost without effort, the windows swung inward, helped by a gentle breeze. Hesitant, she looked over her shoulder to see Aelin's encouraging nod before she stepped out upon the stone balcony, and moved to the edge, letting her fingers rest on the carven railing. To her right, she could see Mithlond, and the bay, gleaming in the warm, red sunset, the unfinished lighthouse where she had met Círdan, and- Elros and Elrond again. Beneath her window, she could see the roof of the stables. Beyond the stables, forests and hills stretched away into the distance, falling down a mild slope toward the sea as far as her sight could see. She could not see into the remote distance, though she imagined an elf could.

There, somewhere, was Firiel, home by now, for Maidh, the white mare, had, with Círdan's instructions, agreed to carry her back, which had pleased Andreth, for she had worried about Firiel making the journey back alone, her steps slow, leaning heavily upon her cane the entire way. The lovely white horse could make her own way home the next morning without difficulty, so Círdan had explained.

At the thought of her wise, kind-hearted old friend, a swell of homesickness, and aching loneliness, acute and entirely unexpected, filled Andreth's stomach. And suddenly, she wanted to cry like a child. A wild desire welled in her to turn away from all of this, despite its richness, and Lord Círdan's gracious welcome, and run back home, back to what was familiar and dear to her, to the grass, and the wind, and the musky scent of Lavaniel's stable. Back to Firiel.

As if sensing her changed emotion, a hand touched her shoulder, and she looked to her side into Aelin's gentle eyes as the elven woman came to stand beside her at the railing.

"Mistress Firiel will be alright," Aelin assured her, as if reading her mind. "Maidh is careful and steady."

Andreth lifted a hand, and hastily brushed a tear from her lashes before it could fall. "I am sure you are right, but still, I miss her."

Aelin's mouth drew up in a warm smile. "I can see your friendship with her is strong."

"She has raised me since I was a baby. My mother died having me, you see. My father's dwelling was near hers, and I would go to her during the day, when his duties would not let him be with me. And then when he went away to war-" Andreth felt her throat tightening, "and never came back-,"

She could not finish, but Aelin nodded, silver tears forming in her eyes as well. "My husband fell in the Nírnaeth Arnoediad," she whispered. "I understand your pain."

A cool, gentle hand slipped into her own and squeezed as their eyes held. And as she studied the shared sorrow and the aching understanding in Aelin's eyes, she fancied that the gulf between her race and this woman's, was not so very vast, after all.

"Thank you," she murmured.

Aelin smiled, and lifted a hand, brushing wetness from her eyes. "I should go now, and leave you your privacy."

Aelin turned and stepped back into Andreth's bedchamber, and the maiden followed her.

Managing a smile, Aelin shut the glass windows to the balcony, and let the latch fall with a gentle click before drawing the curtains closed, muting the light in the room once again.

She drew in a light sigh as she nodded to the small bell upon the desk. "Please, ring the bell if you need anything at all."

With a final nod, Aelin turned away and left the room, the door shutting behind her with a soft click.

...oOo...

Andreth sighed as she opened her eyes, and studied the smooth white ceiling of her bathing chamber above the deep, warm bath where she lay in the warm water, her arms floating at her sides, her head resting upon a soft, folded towel upon the tiled edge of the bath. The fist of homesickness was still a heavy weight in her belly, but she could not deny how pleasant this felt as the warm water lapped against her body. Back home, she had always taken her baths in the cool waters of the silvan pond where she also did the washing, and had never bathed in warm water before. This was heavenly, she admitted.

She wanted to close her eyes again, and clear her mind, luxuriating in the warm bath for hours. But she remembered Aelin's words that supper would be in an hour, and that Círdan wished her to be there. And there would be others, friends who had known her forefathers. It would not do, to be late. Drawing in a breath, Andreth ducked her head beneath the warm surface, held a moment beneath the water, and rose again, spluttering. Arrayed upon the edge of the deep bath was a small cake of sweet-smelling soap in a dish beside a row of corked clay bottles of varied hues; soaps for her hair she guessed, and she picked up a violet one, uncorking the top.

Andreth inhaled the sweet scent of lavender greedily before tipping the bottle, and letting a pool of lovely, violet liquid, shimmering and viscous, spill into her palm. She smiled as she smeared the thick, sweet-smelling liquid into her hair, piling her hair atop her head in whorls and massaging the luxuriant bubbles through the full mass before she reached out a soapy hand, and picked up the soft cake of soap.

After several minutes of scrubbing her limbs and body, Andreth's skin fairly gleamed. No traces of the sweat or dust that had gathered on her on the road, or even of the grime beneath her fingernails, remained. Had she ever been so clean before in all her life as she was now?

Andreth ducked again beneath the water, letting the silent warmth close over her head before she rose again, water streaming from her hair and skin.

With a sigh of contentment, Andreth reached for the soft towel and rose, dripping, from the warm pool. She wrung her long hair in the towel until it was no longer dripping, then she wrapped it around her form, and padded out into the open room, the tiles cool against her bare feet.

She made her way across her bedchamber to the dress that lay waiting for her, and touched a hand to the fabric. As soft and cool as a cloud, she realized, the same with the white underthings as she set the soft towel aside, feeling like a princess as she began dressing herself. Everything was cool against her skin, comfortable, soft, and delicately feminine.

Andreth smiled, revelling in the feeling of being sweet and pretty as she stepped at last into the soft leaf green gown, and drew it up about her shoulders, slipping her arms into the full, open sleeves. The fabric settled at the edges of her slender shoulders, smoothing to the soft curves of her body as if it had been tailored for her. She slipped the soft cloth shoes onto her feet, cool and comfortable.

Gliding across the room to examine her reflection in the mirror, Andreth lifted a hand to her mouth at the sight of herself. Even with her hair still damp and hanging loosely about her shoulders, she did look, for all the world, like a princess. She felt as if she were looking through a window rather than into a mirror, and that she was gazing at another woman, an elf maiden, even, for the girl in the mirror was- radiantly beautiful.

Studying herself, Andreth's thoughts flitted to Lord Elros once again, and in the mirror, the image that gazed back at her, blushed in response to her warm thoughts. What would he think, she wondered, were he to see her now? Would he be pleased? He had seemed pleased to see her at the unfinished tower earlier in the day, she remembered, the color on her reflection's face deepening even further. Even when she had been covered in dust from the road, and damp with sweat from the journey and the day's heat.

Her heart flipped like a freshly-caught fish within her, and the same sensation of excitement and terror that siezed her heart whenever her thoughts focused upon the young elf lord.

With effort, Andreth pulled her thoughts from the dark-haired elf, and focused them again upon her reflection. Her long, damp hair still hung unbound about her shoulders, and soon, suppertime would arrive. She drew in a breath, and glanced at the small bell of ivory and gold.

Picking it up, she gave it a tentative shake, and a gentle, merry clatter filled the air. Could Aelin truly hear its tone? She doubted she would be able to hear it for herself, even from the other side of the room.

But amazingly, only a few moments later, a light tap sounded at her door.

"Come in," she called, and the latch lifted, Aelin stepping through, her eyes lighted at the sight of the mortal maiden.

"Ah, my lady, you look lovely," Aelin purred, coming near. "Do you wish me to arrange your hair?"

"Yes, if it pleases you," Andreth returned.

Aelin smiled gently, and nodded to the chair. "Please sit, Lady Andreth," she urged, and Andreth did as she was bidden, taking the chair before the mirror that Aelin had indicated.

Opening one of the drawers, Aelin drew out a soft hair brush, and began working it through the tresses of Andreth's hair. She closed her eyes, for the sensation was very pleasant, reminding her of Firiel's gentle hands when the old woman had brushed her hair as a child, before her hands had grown too weak for the task.

"I have not seen hair of such color as yours, before," Aelin said, smoothing a hand over the surface. "It is almost like fine threads of gold and bronze. Very lovely."

"Thank you," Andreth smiled, pleased at the elven woman's unfeigned admiration as Aelin continued her work. "I inherited it from my mother's side. My father said she had beautiful hair. I wish I could remember her."

Aelin smiled sadly at this, and though she did not speak, she paused briefly, to touch a gentle hand to Andreth's shoulder before continuing her work. Her expert hands combed the brush through Andreth's hair stroke after stroke, smoothing it until it glistened in soft waves against her back. Then, gently taking a long, soft lock of hair from each side, Aelin pulled them together behind Andreth's head, her gentle tugging giving Andreth no clue to what she was doing.

"There," she sighed at last. From the same drawer from which she had taken the brush, she drew out another mirror, this one small, and set in a guilded frame with a handle.

"Look," Aelin bid, holding the second mirror at such an angle that Andreth could see the back of her own head.

Two small braids behind her ears came together to form a single loose, though intricate braid of hair that rested on the glimmering sheet of her unbound hair against her back, while here and there within the weavings of the thick plait, and its smaller tributary braids, were woven small white flowers.

"Wonderful," Andreth breathed, and Aelin smiled, pleased.

Andreth rose to her feet then, and turned to face the elven woman. "Should I go now?"

"Soon," Aelin murmured. "One last thing, and you will be ready."

From a small leather pouch on the belt of her own dress, Aelin removed something that glimmered in her hand as she withdrew it.

"Here," Aelin said, reaching up, and fixing the glimmering object into Andreth's hair. A cool, gentle weight brushed Andreth's forehead. "Ah." Aelin stepped back and smiled, admiring her work. "You are truly of the house of Bëor, Lady Andreth."

She nodded to the mirror, and Andreth turned, her eyes widening at the delicate silver circlet adorning her brow, a single white pearl hanging from it, gracing the center of her smooth forehead.

Aelin, smiling at the expression of pleased wonder on Andreth's face, she turned away. "Come. Lord Círdan and his guests are waiting for you."

Swallowing stiffly, Andreth followed Aelin's lead as the elven woman guided her out the door and down the long, candle-lit hallway to the open walkway that surrounded the main hall of Círdan's vast house. Aelin descended the stairway, and Andreth followed, her heart in her throat as she anticipated her introduction to strangers whom she had never met, but who had known the house from which she had descended, and her forebearers. Would she meet with their expectations?

She and Aelin reached the main floor, and Aelin turned, gliding further into the house. Andreth followed, silent and afraid, though at the sight of a small knot of elven men clad in fine robes standing just outside a pair of closed double doors, she drew up short, and stopped.

Círdan's face she saw immediately. And though the backs of the two dark-haired elves were toward her, this time Andreth knew them as her friends, the sons of Eärendil, instinctively knowing that the man who stood closest to her, without even needing to see his face, was Lord Elros.

Círdan's eyes found hers, and an expression of pleased welcome came over his kindly face.

"Daughter of my friend, Beldir," he greeted. "You look as fair as an elven maid."

The young elven lords turned, and her eyes found Elros' in a moment. Her heart thumped fiercely within her at the visible intake of his breath, his broad chest swelling as his eyes, sea grey, and filled with warmth and wonder, took her in. His gentle mouth drew up in a faint smile, his lips slightly parted.

Andreth- his lips moved with her name, though no sound came forth.

She barely noted Elrond's sideward glance at his brother as her eyes and Elros' held for a long moment before she pulled her eyes away, and dropped her gaze.

"It is due to Aelin's skill," she said, lifting her eyes shyly to meet Círdan's kindly gaze. "Of myself, I am not so-,"

"I cannot make something beautiful that is not already," Aelin said, her voice generous where she stood off to the side, her hands clasped, and her eyes bright.

"Well said, Mistress Aelin," Círdan agreed, beckoning Andreth to him with a hand. "Come, Lady Andreth. It is time to go in to our guests, and present you."

Lifting her eyes to meet the gaze of the ancient shipwright, she did as she was bidden, and moved closer to him, closer also, she noted, her flesh tingling at his nearness, to Elros.

As she reached him, Círdan clasped one hand between both of his own, his gesture comforting and fatherly as it had been when they had met earlier in the day.

"But," continued Círdan in a tone of apology and good humor, "I fear it is not so very simple as what you may be accustomed to, when meeting new friends, and I beg you forgive us this bit of pomp, of which we elves are so fond."

Círdan drew in a breath, his eyes begging forgiveness even as he spoke. "I will go first, my lady, and speak some few words, of your house, and of the deeds of your kinfolk, and of your father's sacrifice. I will also speak of your kindness and generosity to my young friends Elrond and Elros, and how you and your guardian sheltered and fed them and their mounts during the high storm that recently passed. Lord Elrond as the eldest of his father's sons, will enter as I do, and take his place at the table."

Now, he nodded to Elros. "Elros, however, will be your escort, holding your hand thusly," Círdan's left hand lifted, and clasped the fingers of Andreth's right hand, gently gripping them between his thumb and the side of his forefinger, so that though they stood side by side, only their hands barely touched.

"And guide you in when I bid you to come," Círdan continued, letting her hand go, and nodding toward the doors that were yet closed. "You will stand a moment, do not fear, you will need not speak, then you will curtsy, and Elros will then see you to your seat, which will be to the immediate left of my seat at the head of the table. Only then will he release your hand, and take his place beside you."

A knife of worry stabbed itself through Andreth's heart at this, for she had not expected so much stately ceremony over a mere evening meal, and the emotion must have shown upon her face, for Círdan's expression softened.

"Do not fear, young one," he said in reassuring tones. "My guests will see, as do I, the inward beauty of your heart, which will be as clear to them as your outward beauty."

He paused, and his eyes softened, reminding her of the way her own father had often looked at her in the days before he had marched off to war.

"Indeed, young one, you are truly a jewel among the daughters of your race. For you shine as brightly as the star of the morning." The silver haired elf withdrew a pace and turned toward his younger companions. "Does she not?"

"She does," Elrond agreed readily with a nod, and a terse smile toward her.

But Elros did not answer, his eyes having fallen away. His gaze, fixed upon a space beyond Andreth's shoulder, looked troubled.

"Elros?" Círdan asked again, and at his query, Elros lifted his eyes, and drew in a breath that swelled deep in his chest.

His words as he spoke, were directed at Círdan, but his gaze found Andreth, his eyes delving into her own with piercing yet tender intensity.

"My Lord Círdan, the Lady Andreth is beautiful beyond words in any tongue," he murmured, his voice even and deep, warming her to the core of her being. "And brighter than any jewel on the earth or in the heavens."

"Indeed," Cirdan chuckled, turning to the young elf, and clapping his arm. "Your words are true, young Elros. So she is." But beside Círdan, Andreth noted, Elrond dropped his eyes at his brother's words, and did not smile.


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