The Choice of Elros

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

The large hall, aside from herself and Lord Elros, was empty, for Aelin had gone away somewhere to other duties, and Andreth stood alone with the elven lord before the door that led into the dining hall. The sunset was fading through the high glass windows, and the light of the candles that flickered in sconces throughout the hall, were gaining in strength.

Glancing at him out of the corner of her eye, she studied the way the light played off the strong angles of his face. His own hands were clasped behind his back.

Elros seemed reticent now, unwilling to meet her eyes, and Andreth wondered if it was because of his bold assessment of her beauty when his brother and Lord Círdan had been with them.

Andreth ducked her eyes, recalling his words, and the warmth that had stirred in her as he had spoken.

Círdan had not yet called for them to enter, and so she stood at Elros' side, waiting for Círdan's summons, her fingers laced together against her skirt. If Elros held her hand as Círdan had explained he would, it would be only the slightest touch. Even so, the thought caused her heart to beat faster.

"My lord," she began tentatively, and Elros lifted his eyes, meeting hers, his gaze shy and endearing. An urge to see him smile welled up in her, and she asked, "Does this elven pomp as Lord Círdan called it, happen often?"

Her question was rewarded with a faint half smile.

"Not as often as you might fear, my lady," he assured her. "Such will not happen every day. I think he means to honor your coming, and your house, by introducing you to these friends of his. They are rather- they have influence, lady Andreth. Two of them, I know of, knew your ancestor Bëor, and one, I know for certain, also knew your namesake, Andreth. Perhaps Lord Círdan hopes that meeting you will awaken memories of old friendship, and that they will help to further your learning."

Andreth inhaled. "It is baffling to me."

Elros turned his head, and looked at her, though he hastily looked away again, as if he dared not look at her fully for very long. "What is?"

"Why is he doing this for me?" she asked. "Lord Círdan barely knows me. I am not his daughter, nor even his distant kin. What is he gaining from doing so much for me?"

A smile touched Elros' face at this. "Círdan does not think as one who looks to gain something from every good that he does," Elros nodded around him. "Not long ago, Mithlond was not even here. This house was not here. Círdan helped build everything you see in Mithlond, and is still not finished. If I understand rightly, he had to be pressed to take this house as his own, for he does not think himself as above anyone. He only relented at last, when he promised himself that he would share all that he has with anyone deserving of his aid. My brother and I are beneficiaries of his kindness as you are, and not as much for our own accomplishments as our fortune in being the sons of Eärendil, for Círdan was a friend to our father, and has not forgotten that friendship. You are the daughter of his friend, Beldir, of whom he thought highly, and he wishes to honor that friendship in helping you."

"You are staying here, in Círdan's house also?" Andreth felt her heart grow still.

Elros nodded, and gestured upward with a lift of his chin, toward the floors above them. "In the wing opposite from your own."

In that moment, the doors before them creaked open, and Andreth felt her heart jump.

"Here," Elros urged, bringing his hand forward, and offering it to her. "Do not worry, my lady, I will stay at your side until the end, and after, if you wish me to do so."

Her eyes flashed of a sudden to Elros at his words, but whipped forward again, as she heard Círdan's voice clearly as it rang out, "Your highness, my lords, and my lady, I present to you, my new ward, the lady Andreth, daughter of Beldir, descendant of the House of Bëor the friend of Finrod, and chief of the first house of the Edain."

"What if I trip?" Andreth hissed, her hand lifting, reaching for his own.

"You won't," Elros voice resounded from beside her as his fingers, warm, certain, and assuring, found and gripped hers.

Through his hand, she felt, or thought she felt, a surge of energy as if something in him was passing into her, and then suddenly, her feet felt light, and her fear, though it did not immediately go away, receded enough that a measure of confidence filled her.

Drawing in a breath, her fingers pressed against Elros', she stepped through the doors into the brightly lit hall, summoning a whisper of cloth and movement as those seated a moment before, all rose, as one to their feet as at a queen's arrival.

Andreth felt herself shiver, and in response, Elros' hand gently tightened, offering her wordless comfort.

Nearest her, stood Círdan, half turned, his face warm and welcoming, and anxious as well, as if he shared her trepidation. His chair at the table's head, sat empty, and to his immediate right, stood Elrond, his eyes, unblinking, fixed upon his brother and Andreth.

Beside Elrond, stood a lovely elven woman with ivory skin, and soft waves of flowing golden hair. Her gown was creamy white, and hung from her form like a smooth cloud. Andreth felt herself swallowing stiffly. This lady's beauty easily outshone Aelin's, and Andreth was glad for the promise she had made to herself not to feel inadequate before such ladies. No doubt, this elven lady was as kind as she was lovely, and could even make a good friend, if Andreth permitted her. Beside the lady, a handsome, noble-looking elven man sat, silver hair smooth down his back, and clad in finely woven robes that were alike to the woman's gown in color. From the entwined fingers of the two, Andreth assessed that the two were married. Beside the lady's husband stood another man, tawny-haired, and Andreth realized from the curve of his ears, and the scruff of a youthful beard, he was a mortal, of some few years older than herself.

Across from these four, sat two empty chairs at Círdan's left hand, as he had said, and two elven men, both golden haired, standing beside two others. These fair-haired elves were clad in robes of green and brown, and were of slighter build than the lady's silver-haired husband, though still sturdy of limb. At the head of the table opposite Círdan, stood the only dark-haired elf in the room aside from Elros and Elrond. His robes were more somber than the others, a robe of dark gray overlaying a tunic of midnight blue. A circlet of silver, fashioned like twining vines, encircled his dark hair, resting upon his brow. His eyes were sober and steady, and Andreth suspected that this man was the highness whom Círdan had addressed before her entrance.

At the far end of the hall, a few servants stood, and Andreth smiled fleetingly, recognizing Aelin among them. Aelin and her companions were waiting perhaps, for the ceremony to end to begin serving the meal. A warm, welcome scent wafted from small doors behind them, a promise of roasted meats, of warm, crusty breads, and sweet fruit.

Andreth felt her stomach grumble within her,and she remembered that she had eaten nothing since breakfast. But she lifted her chin, gripping Elros' fingers more firmly, and waited as he drew to a stop beside Círdan as the eyes of the guests fixed upon Andreth.

"My lady Andreth," Círdan said, addressing her, though his voice lifted for the others to hear as he gestured to the dark haired elven king, "may I present to you, Gil-Galad, King of the Noldor." The elven king offered her a faint smile, and a polite, though terse, nod of his head. Andreth swallowed hard, and dropped into as graceful as curtsy as she could manage. At her side, Elros, also, bowed, his hand ever securely clasping hers.

"Lord Oropher of the fabled realm of Doriath, and his son Lord Thranduil," Círdan continued, and the golden-haired elves at Gil-Galad's right, nodded their heads to her. "Lady Galadriel daughter of Finarfin, and her lord, Celeborn," Círdan added as the lady and her lord inclined their heads gently toward her, and smiled their greetings.

Daughter of Finarfin, Andreth thought to herself. Sister, then, of Aegnor, who loved Andreth, her namesake. Had this lady, then, known Andreth herself?

"And Master Hathel the stonemason, son of Helendir, also a distant descendant of the house of Bëor," finished Círdan. The mortal man, as the others had, nodded his head toward her, his eyes upon her, and smiled.

Andreth pursed her lips, and nodded back, though she dropped her eyes, disconcerted at the mortal man's fixed gaze. Against her fingers, Elros' fingers tightened ever so slightly as Andreth dropped in a final curtsy to the guests, then, following Elros' gentle urging, moved to her seat.

His hand dropped hers, and for a fleeting moment Andreth felt lost, before she realized that Elros was merely pulling out her chair for her to sit upon.

She lifted her eyes meeting Elros' gaze for the first time since entering the room. His smile, warm with praise and assurance, warmed Andreth to her core, and she returned his smile as she took the seat he offered her at Círdan's immediate left.

As she sat, so did all the others save for Elros who stood behind her chair. This, apparently, was the signal for the servants to come forward with the dishes for the meal.

Still warm with the apparent success of her introduction, Andreth raised her eyes, smiling as Elros took his seat beside her. He returned her smile and nodded, his eyes gleaming with praise. She turned forward and glanced across the table to Elrond, hoping to share a friendly glance with him as well. But his eyes, when they met hers, did not smile, not at first, for they were distant, almost cold until, as she winced at his expression, it reluctantly softened into a terse smile, and he offered her a nod.

She felt a presence at her side, and a gentle hand touched her shoulder. Andreth looked up into Aelin's eyes, and saw the encouragement there as the elven lady lifted a pitcher, and filled the cup at Andreth's hand with a delightfully violet liquid, then withdrew.

Andreth turned back to look across the table, now seeing the lady Galadriel's eyes upon her, much more kind and welcoming than Elrond's had been a moment before.

Galadriel smiled as their eyes met, and spoke, her voice light, soft, yet also powerful as well. "You are a descendent of Bregor, the brother of your namesake?" The lady's lips moved in a smile that showed she was pleasantly surprised as she studied Andreth's face.

"Yes, my lady," Andreth returned meekly, to which Galadriel smiled.

She became only vaguely aware of servants beside her, filling her plate with good things to eat, so interested was she in the words of the lady Galadriel.

"It is no wonder, for yours is her face, almost to its last detail. Save for your hair." Galadriel looked across the table toward the two silvan elves as if for confirmation, and the younger elf, Thranduil, nodded.

"I met only her brother, for I did not meet Andreth herself," Thranduil said, leaning forward to address Andreth. "And only briefly, but I can see Bregor's likeness in you, my lady."

Andreth drew in a breath as Galadriel smiled as at a distant memory. "Her hair was dark, like the night sky," she said. "Yours, though, is like-,"

Galadriel pursed her lips, trying to find words to finish her thought, but Elros spoke for her.

"Like threads of gold, and copper, and bronze, melded together," he said. "And when the wind catches it, it is like a glistening flag."

Galadriel smiled and nodded to this, though across from her, Andreth noted that Elrond did not speak, nor even look up, his eyes narrowing at his plate. Almost roughly, he speared a small piece of sliced apple, and bit it, chewing with determination.

"Where, young one, did you dwell before today?" asked Celeborn, his voice deep and gentle.

"Away to the north and west," she answered, looking down at last to study the contents of her plate. A steaming slice of venison sat beside an array of sliced apples, and a thick slice of soft, buttered bread. She felt her mouth moisten. "Among some of the scattered settlements of mortals. On foot, it took the greater part of the day from my friend and I to travel here." She glanced at Círdan and smiled. "I am glad that Maidh took her back." Círdan returned the smile.

Lifting the fork beside her plate, she stabbed a slice of apple as she had seen Elrond do, and bit into it.

Spices and sweetness filled her mouth, and Andreth drew in a sigh at the sensation, wishing immediately to stab another slice and push it eagerly into her mouth, though she refrained, and held herself back.

"Your friend?" Oropher, Thranduil's father queried politely.

"Her name is Firiel," Andreth volunteered willingly, swallowing the bite of sweet fruit. She felt herself growing warmer and confident, despite Elrond's sad eyes, and lifted her knife, slicing a piece of venison. It cut easily. "She helped raise me from infancy after my mother died, and when my father fell in war, she became all that I had."

The slice of venison found its way into her mouth, and she chewed, relishing the sweetness of the meat, and the ease with which she chewed. Always before, when she had been fortunate enough to recieve a gift of venison from a neighbor, or trade for a bit of the meat in the market, it had always been tough, and difficult to chew. But this was marvelously tender.

"You are here to study?"

These words came from Gil-Galad, seated at the end of the table. "Yes, my lord-," Andreth caught herself, "Your highness."

Gil-Galad's easy smile conveyed his forgiveness of the slip.

"What do you wish to learn?" his voice was resonant, yet kind, and as Andreth met his eyes, he offered her a gentle smile. Perhaps King Gil-Galad was not so aloof as she had first thought.

"Everything I am permitted," she said.

"My first surmise, Lady Andreth," cut in Círdan, "was that your greatest interest is in the study of history, stories that have been. Though I think you would enjoy learning many things along with your reading of history books."

Andreth felt herself sitting up straighter as the silver-haired elf lifted his cup, and drew a thoughtful sip.

"You may, my lady, enjoy learning some of the arts of our people. Dancing, and music I think, and the weaving of tapestries. Aelin told me you were particularly entranced by the tapestries hanging in the main hall. Riding, I suppose you would enjoy very much, and the art of medicine and healing; I think it would even be of benefit to you, my lady, to learn some skill with weapons."

"Weapons?" Andreth started at this, and shot a glance at Galadriel for confirmation, wondering if the ancient shipwright were jesting.

Galadiel smiled amused at Andreth's surprise, and lifted a fork to her lips, taking a delicate bite of sliced apple. "Elven women know how to defend themselves at need," she said, meeting Andreth's eyes with a bright gaze. "It would do you good, I think."

"If she requires a tutor, I would be pleased to teach her the skills of riding, and of weaponry," Elros said at her shoulder.

Across from her, Elrond sat up quickly, opening his mouth as if to speak.

"Marvelous," Círdan praised. "So you shall be, Lord Elros. And Lord Elrond, you know much of herbs and of healing, and I think young Andreth would learn much from your tutelage in that skill."

Elrond sagged back in his seat. "Yes, my lord," he agreed.

"And you are how many years, young one?" Gil-Galad asked. To this, she lifted her eyes, glad to be drawn away from the worry that Elrond's morose expression caused her.

"Nineteen," she returned.

To this, Galadriel's smile quavered, her eyes softening. "And you have seen, in the brief life you have lived thus far, much of the loss and sorrow that we have seen."

"No doubt, you have borne it with the strength that is in the blood of the house from which we are both descended. The women of our house have always been as strong as they are beautiful."

These words came from the mortal man, Hathel, who had not spoken before now. His voice was deeper and rougher than those of the elven men, sounding to her ears, almost out of place. When she lifted her eyes to meet his, he grinned, and to her chagrin, winked.

"The mortal descendents of Bregor, I understand, are few." Beside her, Elros spoke now, his crisp words directed toward the mortal man. "It is great fortune, then, that Lord Círdan would know you, one who is so close a kinsman to Lady Andreth. Perhaps a near cousin."

The mortal Hathel's brows raised at the faint bite within Elros' words, but he grinned, as at a challenge, and returned in an easy voice, "Perhaps not so close kin as you and your brother, my lord, for you are Peredhil, as I understand, and have mortal ancestry through both your grandsires. Bregor, I understand, is your ancestor as well. Thus, I fear I may not be able to claim so a lose a kinship to this fair lady as you and Lord Elrond."

"I fear that my brother and I cannot claim the honor of being so close in kinship to her as you likely can, master stonemason," Elros said, and his words were soft and fierce. "Between he and I and the Lady Andreth, any blood kinship unfortunately, is vastly remote."

Hathel made a soft sound in his throat that sounded almost like a scoff before Círdan cleared his throat somewhat vehemently.

"My lord, Oropher," he called out, his words and smile addressing the elder elf beside Elros. "I understand that you mean not to stay in Mithlond long."

"Yes," Oropher answered, his words also somewhat stronger than needed to be as his eyes moved between the elven man beside Andreth, and the mortal man at Gil-Galad's left hand. "Now that the darkness has been defeated, we and our people have hopes of crossing the Ered Luin, and establishing a silvan kingdom beyond."

He glanced toward his son, to which Thranduil nodded his agreement.

"Ah," Círdan lamented, though with an indulgent smile. "I suppose the love of the sea is not in everyone's heart."

Good-natured smiles passed around among the elves at these words, and Andreth smiled as well, lifting her cup to her lips, and sipping at the sweet wine it contained. But as she looked beside her at Elros, her smile faded. For his lips were pursed, and his eyes were fixed upon the mortal Hathel, who returned his stare with equal determination, though with a faint smile on his lips as if he appeared to enjoy witnessing the elf lord's ire.

"Elros?" she asked, leaning toward him, and touching a hand to his wrist.

To this, Elros' silent fury seemed to melt away, and he turned to her, a smile softening his lips. "What is it, my lady?"

"I-, er, nothing," Andreth sighed, and dropped her eyes to her plate.

Elros' hand reached out, the tips of his fingers barely squeezing hers before he released it, and Andreth smile, though she did not look up, choosing instead, to focus on the food, remembering her hunger from the morning.

Had she looked up, she would have noted Elrond's eyes downturned as hers were, his gaze trouble. Past Galadriel and Celeborn, Hathel's eyes had also fallen to his plate, his gaze shadowed, and brooding.

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