The wind whispered in the late summer grasses, and the flickering presence of the sun was warm against her face. For a moment she was surrounded by the humid scent of the hills, calm and lulling in a way she wished her home would be when she returned. Andreth breathed deeply, eyes closed, and tried to draw the peacefulness of her surroundings into herself.
She knew it was a useless venture; whatever sense of peace she managed to grasp would be tattered as soon as she set foot in the village. Everything had been in an uproar since the arrival of their guests some three weeks before and there was no indication that things would settle down any time soon.
For her part, she could not really blame anybody. It had been over a decade since Lord Finrod had last been to Ladros, and his infrequent visits were a significant event unto themselves. But when word came that he would be accompanied by two of his brothers, the ones who governed those lands in his stead, the effort and interest around the event had increased exponentially.
She would not deny that her interest had been piqued as well. Between the flurry of cleaning and preparation, she had tried to wheedle out what she could from those who remembered the last visit. While her youth had been full of stories of their allies, she had not met any of the Eldar before; she had still been living with Belemir and Adanel during the last visit. Now that the fanciful thought of meeting them was a reality, she could feel the wide gulf of her ignorance. She had wished to fill it with as much information as she could before they arrived.
After these few weeks they had been there, Andreth realized that no amount of effort would have been sufficient to prepare. Tales and histories were poor substitutes for the living, breathing beings who had ridden up to the village, bright and radiant.
They were like suns. Nothing of her people’s situation was changed, and yet it seemed like their mere presence had banished the darkness that lingered at the edges of life there. It was like they had refilled a well of hope she had not realized had run dry.
Hope had not been the only thing sparked by their presence. She had already spent at least half a dozen afternoons relaying information about their guests to friends who did not have a seat at the evening meals, and she had probably spent just as many nights surrounded by the wistful sighs and lamentations of the women in the manor.
For her part, Andreth had done what she could to quash any budding feelings she noted in her companions. “Why waste your emotions on something so ridiculous?” she had asked her sister after listening to her frustrations over their guests.
“Well it’s not as though I’m trying,” Beril complained. “And you cannot act as though I’m somehow special in this regard. You’re the only one who seems to be managing such indifference about the whole thing.”
Andreth laughed. “Believe me, I am not indifferent to their presence here.”
“How can you always be so level-headed, then?” she asked, voice half disbelief and half wonder. “Do you have some magical ability to turn your heart to impenetrable stone in order to avoid their charms?”
“Yes. It’s called being reasonable.”
Beril gave an irritated huff as she flopped back onto Andreth’s bed. “Do they truly stir nothing in you?”
“Awe,” she said without looking up from her loom. “And respect. They are noble allies, and we are fortunate to be under their protection.”
Beril had groaned at the lack of romance in this answer, but it was the truth. Andreth would not deny that the Noldorin princes were beautiful – denying such a fact would be as pointless as dwelling on it – but that recognition did not require an emotional response. And it hardly deserved one, regardless; what could appearance truly say about one’s character?
While she could guess at the quality of character their guests possessed, she would not have an opportunity to personally confirm it. They may be present at the evening meals, and she had certainly seen them around the manor at times, but there had been no chances to speak with them outside of pleasantries.
And in that she felt safe from succumbing to the absurdity demonstrated by so many she knew; fair as the Eldar were, it was their wisdom, the intelligence that shone in their eyes, that she had found most alluring. With the present arrangement, it seemed unlikely that such would be a problem.
Without feeling the same fluster, though, she had been left to observe it from the outside. Even though everybody had behaved respectfully, it had been exhausting to listen to the whispers and giggles over so many weeks, and there had been more than one occasion when her patience had been worn quite thin. Walks into the hills were the only thing that seemed to allow her a chance to regain the quiet that had been lost from her home.
“I believe it will rain soon, my lady.”
Her eyes snapped open at the voice. A flare of panic lit through her at the realization that somebody had come so close without her hearing them, but the same realization instantly settled her fears. There were few who could move so quietly, and looking up at the bright face of Aegnor confirmed her suspicions.
Andreth sat up while trying to clutch together any remaining scraps of dignity. Found lying outside by one of her own people, hair knotted from the wind and clothes probably covered in grass, would have been bad enough. For it to be one of their guests was mortifying. She probably looked like some wild creature next to him.
But he was no longer looking at her, his eyes instead fixed upon the sky. She risked a glance up at the bank of clouds that had slid before the sun while she daydreamed, gray and thick with the promise of rain.
“I think it may be prudent to return to your father’s manor,” he said, finally looking down at her.
She forced herself to ignore the light of his eyes; she was embarrassed enough without her distracting fascinations making her seem even more ridiculous. “Yes, that seems like it would be the wise thing to do,” she replied, focusing on brushing grass from her dress so she did not have to meet his gaze.
“May I accompany you on the walk back?”
Andreth glanced up, caught off guard by his offer. “That is not necessary, my lord,” she said. “I shall only slow you down, and I would not want you to be stuck in the rain because of me. It’s more than enough that you made me aware of the turn in the weather.”
His lips twitched with a hint of a smile. “I have withstood worse than a little rain. And besides,” he continued, the smile spreading, “I would appreciate the chance to speak of something other than logistics and strategy. I am sure tonight’s conversation, as with many others, will revolve around such topics.”
Andreth found herself smiling wryly in return. “At least you can take part in such discussions,” she said as she fell into step beside him. “I assure you it is much more frustrating to hear of such things without the ability to contribute.”
“What need have you to be involved in conversations of war, Lady Andreth?”
“When my father is the leader of our people, and such conversations ultimately concern our lives?” she returned, raising a brow. “A great deal, I should think.”
There was grim turn to his smile now. “That is a fair assessment. This war touches everyone.”
They walked quickly in a silence that was suddenly broken by a clap of thunder. The rain seemed to follow instantly, large drops filling the air and obscuring the view of the village still some quarter mile away. Andreth considered the look her sister would give her when she returned to the manor, soaked to the bone an hour before they were to appear for dinner.
“Come,” Aegnor said at her side, holding the edge of his cloak toward her.
Andreth felt a flare of self-consciousness at the idea of being so close to him but quickly pushed it away. She would not allow herself to fall into that trap; acknowledging such thoughts would only encourage others she did not want. She took a determined step under the cover of his cloak, raising her hands to hold it above her head as he was.
“We might be able to wait out the storm there,” he said, inclining his head toward a thicket at the bottom of the hill.
She nodded and hurried with him to the dark line of trees. It did not pass her notice that he held back for her, his strides measured to accommodate hers. She had half a mind to hike up her dress so her legs would stop tangling in the soaked fabric, but she forced herself to accept her slower pace. Proving her ability to run would not be worth confirming the lack of propriety her earlier behavior had probably suggested.
They finally reached the boughs of the trees, sheltered from the rain, and she stepped out from under his cloak. “Thank you,” she said as she brushed wet hair from her face.
“Think nothing of it,” he replied, draping the cloak over a dry branch.
Andreth’s gaze lingered over his movements, wondering how he could still seem so bright even within the shadows of the trees, before she redirected her thoughts. She straightened her back and took a breath. “Since we may be here for a little while, I believe you wished to speak of something other than strategy?”
He leaned back against a tree, folding his arms. “What topic of discussion would you then suggest?” he asked.
She considered. “Your people have a special fondness for the stars, do they not?”
Aegnor smiled again. “Yes, we do.”
“Have you seen the Aeluin in the evening, then?”
“No, I cannot say I have. Should I?”
“I believe you may enjoy it,” she replied, trying to avoid being too direct in her suggestion. She could only guess what things he had seen in his life; perhaps the lake would hardly hold a candle to the splendors he had witnessed. “When it is clear and still out, the water is smooth as a mirror. Walking the shore on nights like that feels like walking the edge of the sky.”
“The edge of the sky?” he echoed thoughtfully.
Andreth shrugged, wondering if such an observation seemed childish to him. “That is how it looks to me, when the stars are bright.”
“It is a beautiful image to envision. I should like to see it one day.” There was a touch of humor in his gaze when he turned it back to her. “Perhaps you will be able to inform me when such a sight can be witnessed, since I have a feeling that your presence here today is far from an isolated incident.”
She blushed despite herself. “No, it’s hardly the first time I have wandered in the hills. It has been difficult to acclimate to the busyness of my father’s home, but it seems as though some time outside helps. Though I am not sure you have much room to talk,” she risked. “You were out as well.”
“So I was,” he conceded with a smile. “I cannot fault you for seeking the quiet of solitude when I have often done the same. Sometimes it seems you can only hear your own thoughts away from the voices of others.”
“Yes,” she murmured, surprised by his understanding. Beril had only looked at her quizzically when she had tried to explain the draw of the hills to her. “It is exactly like that.”
He pushed away from the tree. “The rain has let up,” he said as he gathered his cloak. “Shall we try to make it the rest of the way? We may get there with enough time to avoid spending dinner in wet clothes.”
Andreth agreed after a scan of the sky showed that the dark bank had already passed. As she stepped out of the forest, she felt a sudden weight against her shoulders as Aegnor draped his cloak over her.
He spoke before she even managed to formulate a protest. “Since we are going the same way, you might as well use it. The wind will not bother me.”
While part of her wanted to insist that the gesture was unnecessary, she could not deny the chill the wind was pressing into her damp clothes. “You are very generous, my lord,” she said as she tugged the cloak more fully around herself.
“Is this behavior surprising to you?”
She looked up sharply, concerned she had offended him, but his eyes were warm. She tried to frown as the momentary panic receded. “I did not know what to expect,” she said, crossing her arms within the folds of the cloak as she looked away. “I’ll admit that your people are rather a mystery to me.”
Aegnor laughed, and she felt the sound deep in her chest. “And you assume I could not say the same of yours?”
“I believe you have had significantly more time to remedy that situation if you so wished.”
“But surprisingly few opportunities. Perhaps we will have to educate one another.”
While she could not imagine when he would find the time for something so superfluous, she could not restrain a smile at the sincerity in his voice. “Perhaps we will.”
The rain ceased completely by the time they reached the village, the clouds already tattering to reveal blue sky at the horizon. She pulled the cloak from her shoulders and carefully held it out to him as they reached the manor. “Thank you for your kindness today,” she said. “You must tell me if there is ever any way I may be of service to you in return.”
He nodded but did not reply as he reached for the cloak, and it was not until she had dipped her head and turned toward her rooms that he spoke. “If company would not disturb your trips into the hills, I would be glad for the opportunity to see this land and its features as you do.”
Andreth pointedly ignored the fitful flutter of her heart. “No, it would not disturb me,” she said quietly. “I would welcome your company.”
He smiled again. “Then I shall await your invitation.”
“You can too dance with somebody who is only a friend!”
Bregor’s smirk was full of sibling torment. “Maybe some can, but you’re too obvious for that. We should probably stop putting logs on the fire; surely the heat of that blush could keep the room warm enough.”
“Is that really necessary?” Andreth asked, hoping her voice was appropriately void of the amusement she actually felt. While Beril’s attempts to deny any infatuation with her repeat dance partner that evening were fruitless, watching the alarming shade of scarlet march across her face stirred Andreth’s pity. She helped tuck a curl back into order and then gestured to the assembly. “Go enjoy yourself, Beril, and ignore your jealous brother who doesn’t have anybody who wishes to dance with him.”
Beril gave her an appreciative smile before disappearing back into the crowd. Bregor huffed, but the smile still lingered at the corners of his mouth. “You know, she had to handle my teasing all on her own during those years you were away. She can hold her own.”
“Some things are too close,” Andreth reasoned. “She might not even want to acknowledge her feelings to herself yet.”
Bregor snorted as he slipped back into the festivities. “Then who better to help her along than her caring brother?”
“If she had one of those, it’d be a different story.”
Bregor’s laugh filtered back to her over the din of music and conversation, and Andreth smiled in echo to the sound. She watched him dissolve into the crowd, another blur of color wavering through the firelight.
It had been a pleasant evening. The harvests that year had been larger than any they could remember, and the yearly celebration had grown to match. Normally the manor’s main hall was more than sufficient to host all who were able to attend, but the summer had lingered late that year and swelled the number of people who came. She had never seen such a large crowd before, and the energy was contagious.
Slipping out from the hall, Andreth made her way to the courtyard. The air was refreshing after the closed warmth inside, and she lingered in the shadows of the pillars and watched the merriment of the people who had gathered there. Many had been obliged to stay outside due to the number already within, but there seemed to be no complaints. People were eating and dancing and laughing in the strangely warm autumn night as well as they had in the hall, voices full of the happiness that had caught them all.
The music shifted, touched with notes that held a clearness she had never heard. Stepping away from the shadows, she could see Finrod seated with the musicians, joining the music of the others with a harp set upon his lap. For all that he stood out from those around him, he appeared completely at ease with his company, replying to some comment with an obvious laugh.
She smiled, thankful she had been able to more closely know that side of him. Aegnor had been entirely to thank for that opportunity. So many of their walks had ended with lingering conversations near the quarters he shared with his brothers – eventually she had simply been invited in. It had not taken long after that for her to feel a similar ease in their company as she felt with him.
She thought back on that rainy afternoon that had started everything. It had seemed unreal when she drifted to her room after speaking with him, some dream that could have stolen into her thoughts as she lay in the warm grass. But her hair had still been damp from the rain, and her shoulders remembered the weight of his cloak upon them, and there was something of familiarity in his smile when she saw him later that evening at dinner.
It had taken Andreth a handful of days to convince herself that she should follow through with his request, and then a handful more before she got the nerve to try. When she managed to cross paths with him and spoke her invitation, she had expected him to decline; surely there were more pressing things he had to see to than wandering woods and hills with her.
But he had accepted. She led him to a spring that fell over a craggy outcrop, the sound almost musical as the water spilled upon the rocks below. They had sat in the shade of the hill and talked as the sun rode across the sky, the day passing without her notice. It had been surprising, how quickly she felt at ease speaking with him, how comfortable she was in his presence.
When they returned to the manor that evening, Aegnor asked her if there were any other places she thought would be worth seeing. Although surprised, she told him she could think of a few, and he had smiled and said he hoped she would have time to share them as well.
Andreth always expected whatever novelty he found in her company to wear off, but it apparently never had. Even when she ran out of places to show him, the walks had continued, interspersed with discussions in the main hall or rides into the hills.
While his manner had always appeared relaxed around her, there was a new openness in their conversations that offered her a glimpse of who he was past the simple veneer of an acquaintance. It seemed that after all the time she had spent sharing with him what she could about her world, he had begun to open up about things within his.
Even as she began to grasp the weight of his lineage and the events that led to his people’s presence there, he was ever unassuming and attentive. She could feel like a child next to him – and rightly so, she thought – but he never gave even the slightest impression that he viewed her as such. He always seemed to seek for understanding of her thoughts as sincerely as she sought for it with his.
Regardless of how it was spent, Andreth treasured the time she had with him. She enjoyed learning his opinions and interests and passions, different but not completely foreign from her own. It was during those conversations that she could sense the spark within him, the flame that burned beneath the surface.
And perhaps it was that which had been her undoing.
The irony that all her companions – and even Beril, whose head was perpetually in the clouds – finally stopped gossiping and fussing over the presence of their guests just as she became increasingly flustered by one of them did not escape her.
Andreth could not explain it, even to herself, but she had felt it, the slow shift over the passing weeks. There was a warning in the way her heart beat when she was around him, and it would have been easier to brush off if not for the subtle changes in his behavior. She had noticed the new softness in his eyes whenever he looked at her, how he slipped away from gatherings and meetings to spend increasing amounts of time with her. Each thing was so little, so gradual, but together…
She would not allow herself to guess what it meant. He might inspire feelings in her, but surely, surely, she was the only one affected. There was so little she had to offer, and it almost felt arrogant to wonder if she had stirred something within him, too.
Perhaps she should try to restrain herself. Maybe it would be best if she limited their outings, whether through the frequency or the length or both. It would probably be best for the both of them if they slowed their pace along this path they were treading.
But even as Andreth thought it, she was searching for him in the crowd, and the moment she spotted the flicker of his golden hair the decision was already made. For all that she wished to be prudent and wise, it was impossible to deny herself the luxury of his company when he so willingly gave it.
He was sitting on the steps with Angrod, illuminated by the glow of the fire. She was content to simply watch, wondering if it was acceptable for her to approach them or if that would seem too forward, when Aegnor caught her glance.
For a second his expression was indecipherable, and the thought of breathing was impossible until the moment his smile lit his features. With a relief she did not understand, she finally felt free to move forward.
“Have you come to ask me to dance?” he said when she was close enough.
She froze. “What?”
Angrod laughed. “You are terrorizing the girl, Aikanáro.”
“I do not believe that to be true,” Aegnor said, still watching her. “But what does she have to say on the matter?”
“No, I do not feel terrorized by a query over a dance,” she agreed with a smile. “Though you have admittedly puzzled me.”
“Well, it seems our esteemed brother has found a place within the festivities,” Aegnor explained, nodding to where Finrod still played. “I am merely wondering when we will be included in some manner. A pleasant gathering though this is, it has been rather dull to sit on the fringes without an opportunity to participate.”
“I have been perfectly happy on the fringes,” Angrod put in as he stood, clearly amused with his brother’s feigned grievance. “And if you are not content with it, then perhaps this is an appropriate time for me to take my leave.”
Andreth frowned. “I apologize if I have interrupted you. Please do not leave on my account.”
“You have interrupted nothing of importance,” Angrod assured her. “I had been wondering when I would be able to slip away, and you have provided me with a suitable excuse to do so. You two are not the only ones who have need of clearing their head sometimes.”
They wished him goodnight and then strode into the dark, leaving them in a comfortable silence. For a moment she watched the assembly before glancing at Aegnor. The firelight wavered over his face, catching upon his high cheekbones and illuminating his hair until it nearly looked like flame itself. Her chest felt full as she watched the subtle shifts in his expression, the flickers of warmth and contentment and wistfulness. She had not realized how dear his features had become to her.
“You need not stay there,” he said finally, looking up at her. “Please, sit with me.”
“I am sorry you have apparently not been satisfied with your experience this evening,” she said as she sat upon the steps, hoping that levity would divert the direction of her thoughts.
“I would be willing to accept this apology if you could find a willing partner to dance with me.”
His tone was jesting, but there was something else there that she did not dare pursue. “I am not sure that would be possible, my lord,” she replied. “It is not typical for the woman to approach the men for dances, and even should one feel bold enough to break such traditions, you are too intimidating.”
He laughed at this, and the sound filled her with warmth. “Has that been the problem?”
“I believe so,” she confirmed.
“And what of the Lady Andreth?” he asked, smiling softly at her. “Do I intimidate her as well?”
Andreth took a deep breath, trying to find any remnants of the calmness she had felt earlier that evening. “Of course you do,” she said as casually as she could before looking away. “You have experienced things I can scarcely imagine, and seen things I never shall, and know more than I could ever hope to learn. Of course I am in awe of you. How could I not be?”
The words were more sincere than she intended, and she was grateful that she could not see his face. The silence settled over them again, now full of a tension that had not been present before.
“But, as I said, it is not typical for the women to request a dance of the men,” she finally ventured when he did not speak. “That does not mean you could not ask someone, if you wished. I am sure many girls here would be quite thrilled by such a request.”
Aegnor’s voice was quiet when he spoke again. “Despite all I said on the matter, I suppose there was only one I truly wished to dance with.”
She could feel the thrumming of her pulse as she avoided his eyes. “Then what is stopping you from asking her?”
“I am wondering whether she would accept, if she finds me so intimidating.”
Cautiously, she glanced at him. The earlier lightness of his expression was now gone, his gaze full of things she could not decipher. Her voice was apparently lost somewhere beneath the tug of her heart; all she could do was nod.
It was a long moment until his fingers touched hers, and she nearly started at the contact. He paused, grasp still tentative, before more fully taking her hand in his. She watched him, trying not to focus on the point of contact between them as she waited for him to rise to join those who were dancing. But he was looking at their hands, his expression pensive and unreadable.
“Lord Aegnor?” she asked quietly.
“If you believe me to be intimidating,” he began, his gaze still lowered so that it was impossible to guess at his emotions, “I wonder if you are at all aware of how intimidating you yourself are.”
She would have laughed at the preposterousness of such an idea if his voice were not so serious. “Not very, I imagine,” she said with a grin.
“You are.” He finally looked up, and his eyes were so piercing that her breath caught. “You are so bright against the darkness here, Andreth, and you do not even realize it.”
As she met the deep gray of his eyes, she sensed the understanding creep across her thoughts. In some corner of her mind she remembered what she had said to Bregor, that sometimes people did not wish to acknowledge what they felt even to themselves. She had fought against it for weeks now, but she could no longer pretend she did not understand the warmth of her regard for him.
“You are very kind to say that,” she managed, though her voice was barely more than a whisper. “But I think you may be mistaken. Of the two of us, you are the bright one. Or at least you have been to me.”
His thumb swept back and forth over her hand as he smiled. Some of the heaviness of the moment dissolved, lingering at the edges through the continued warmth of his touch. “It seems we still have not reached an accord regarding certain topics, my lady.”
Andreth ignored the forced lightness of his tone; she knew her voice would be full of it as well. “Perhaps further dialogue would help,” she tried. “We have come an awfully long way from where we were a few weeks ago, after all. Maybe more time is all we need.”
“Yes,” he agreed, his gaze wavering over her features. “More time.”
Before she could process the motion, he lifted her hand to his lips, kissing her fingers and then quickly rising. “I must take my leave for tonight,” he said hurriedly, already moving down the steps. “Goodnight.”
Her goodnight weakly followed his retreating form, though she was half-surprised she got it out at all. Her heart was hammering and her face was burning and the hand he had kissed lingered in the air for a long moment before she thought to pull it back to her lap.
She had not been prepared for what she realized, for the true depth of what she felt for him. Her emotions were alight, unsettled and dazzling as she looked down at the hand he had kissed. Turning it, there was nothing visibly different, regardless of how different she felt. Brief as the contact had been, the feeling of his lips against her skin lingered.
Yet for the warmth it all inspired, there was still a touch of shadow. It had flickered in that moment at the end, in the emotions that crossed his features, in the undercurrent of his few words. She wished for more time, and so did he, but what such a wish implied was so different for each of them.
As she sat alone on the steps, she wondered if the time she had to offer could ever be enough.
Regardless of how Andreth tried to burrow into her bed, it seemed that sleep would elude her again. It was not surprising. With a sigh, she turned onto her back and stared into the shadows of her room, wishing she did not understand her restlessness.
They were leaving.
It had been mentioned the day after the celebration, a casual comment by her father about being grieved that their guests could not be persuaded to remain through the winter. She had paused with her glass halfway to her mouth as the conversation continued around her, Finrod smiling and thanking him for his hospitality but holding firm.
“We must go before the snows set in if we wish to visit our other allies,” he had said, and if she had not come to have some familiarity with him she would have thought it was as simple as that.
But there was a touch of something else there that had put a weight upon her heart, a suspicion that she could not shake regardless of her attempts at optimism. It was not until Aegnor failed to speak with her that evening, breaking the routine that had held for weeks, that she felt her fears coalesce.
She closed her eyes, laughing even as she willed away the prickle of tears. Had she not warned her sister against investing her emotions in such pointless things? Had she not done everything she could to remind those around her that such daydreams would only end unhappily?
And she had not listened to a single piece of the advice she had been so eager to give to others. She had known, all along, that nothing would come of this, that the slow tug of her emotions was leading her down a path that could only bring her pain. She had known that, and still she had become ensnared. Even the warning pang she had felt at his departure the night of the celebration had not been enough to check the flair of hope his touch and words had inspired.
Andreth sat up, trying to distract herself from the ache in her heart by adjusting her bedding, when there was a knock. Beril came to her room sometimes in the night if something distressed her, but her knocks were usually urgent and impossible to ignore. This one was soft, barely audible over the rustle of her blankets, and she sat motionlessly as she considered the brief sound.
Sliding out of bed, she walked on tiptoes across the cold stone until she stood by the door. Close now, she strained for any other sound, but there was none – no whisper for attention, no second knock, no shuffling of feet. She paused, hand lingering against the latch, and then pulled it open before she could over-think the oddness of the situation.
Nobody was there. She blinked at the darkness, wondering if she was really so sleep deprived that she was imaging things, and then stepped into the corridor and glancing down the hall.
And then she saw him. His hair instantly gave him away, somehow drawing what little light slipped through the corridor. He stood motionlessly a dozen feet away, his back toward her.
“My lord?” she asked in surprise.
Slowly Aegnor turned, lips parted as though he meant to speak, before freezing. For a long, wordless moment he stood like that, and she would have become self-conscious under the weight of his silent consideration if her attention had not been caught by the heightened color in his cheeks.
Abruptly glancing away, he seemed to come back to himself. “This was thoughtless of me – I had not considered the time,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “I am sorry for disturbing you.”
He moved as though to leave, and Andreth did not think before darting across the distance and laying her hand against his arm. “Please, don’t go,” she said when he paused. “I have missed our conversations these past few days, and I would hate to lose the opportunity simply because it is late.”
Especially when such opportunities are now so limited.
His eyes rose to hers. He looked nearly as weary as she felt, but the warmth of his gaze was still there, constant and calming. It eased something in her heart so that a line of tension between them disappeared.
Belatedly she lifted her hand from where it still rested on his arm. Taking a step back, she tried to smile. “I do not mind the time, and I am curious as to why you decided to come now. Has something happened?”
“No,” he said, a smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. “There was something I wished to check with you, though I am not sure your attire would be entirely appropriate for the setting.”
Suddenly his earlier unease seemed more understandable as she remembered she had run into the hall in her nightgown. Andreth did her best to fight off her rising embarrassment even as she felt the blush fan across her cheeks. “Well. It would not be difficult to change,” she murmured, twining her fingers together.
“If that would not be an inconvenience for you, then I would very much like to have your company.”
She glanced at him, feeling the tug of her desires even when she knew it would only make his departure that much worse. “It would not be an inconvenience.”
“Then I shall wait for you.”
She slipped back into her room and pulled on one of her dresses, hurrying as quickly as she could before returning to his side. “I hope it is not too cold out,” she said while adjusted her cloak.
“The night is very mild for this time of year,” he assured her as they walked through the silent halls. “Clear and still.”
The words stirred her memories, and she looked at him abruptly. “Are we going to the Aeluin?”
Aegnor nodded. “I recalled what you had said as I was out this evening. The conditions seem similar to what you described.”
“And so you risked disrupting my slumber because of some pleasant weather?” she teased, brow quirking.
Even with no bite to the comment, there was an edge of bashfulness in how he looked away. “That was not very considerate of me. I’ve wished to see this with you ever since you told me of it, and it may have made me overeager.”
“I do not mind, truly. I am just glad that a chance arose before…” Andreth swallowed, gripping the folds of her cloak. “Before you leave.”
There was a long pause now as they left the halls. “Yes.”
She turned to the stables, ready for the activity of saddling her horse to divert the twist of her thoughts, but his hand stopped her. “Share my horse with me. He needs no saddle, and he can bear us there more quickly than yours.”
“Carrying a maiden off into the hills in the middle of the night hardly sounds proper,” she replied, attempting to hide the flurry of her heart behind droll words.
He smiled, and his eyes shone. “Well, at least she is not just in her nightclothes. That would certainly breach propriety.”
Blushing again, she almost stomped back to the stables just for spite, but his hand caught hers as he laughed. “Please, Andreth,” he implored as he reined in his laughter. “I wish for as much time as I can have with you.”
She watched him briefly, hoping she looked as though she were considering this request. She knew he would instantly see through the pretense; denying him was impossible when he asked like that, especially when it would require deny herself as well. “Alright,” she whispered, wishing she sounded more exasperated and less flustered.
Andreth followed him to the edge of the village where his horse stood, still and watchful at their approach. Aegnor offered his hand to help her up even though they both knew she did not need it, and she tried to ignore the way his touch lingered before he mounted as well.
Even at a walk, it was true that his horse was faster than hers. She was thankful for that; being so close to him was as overwhelming as she suspected it would be. His warmth seeped through the layers of clothing separating them so that she was keenly aware of the places where they were touching.
The observation was difficult to think around. Attempting to fill her head with something other than his closeness, she babbled in a manner she was sure to regret, but he did not seem to mind. He spoke of any topic she brought up, answered any question she could not restrain herself from voicing. He indulged her whims with an easiness that was difficult to imagine could be earnest, but whenever she snuck a glance at him there was only fondness in his gaze.
She tried to force her attention to their surroundings. The dome of the sky was full of glittering stars, crisp in the cool evening air, and the drying grasses were silent around them. He had been right – it was a perfect night.
When they wound through the last line of hills and the Aeluin came into view, she could not hold back her quiet gasp. She had been there more times than she could count and had seen calm evenings like that on numerous occasions, but with the moon absent from the sky, there was no additional light to dilute the stars. They reflected off the still lake, filling everything she could see with drops of light.
Aegnor was silent as he dismounted and helped her down. He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm as he moved forward, pulling her attention back to him just as she managed to immerse herself in the scenery around them.
It was worth it. As they approached the shore she watched the wonder settling upon his features. It was both satisfying and a relief, seeing that the place could inspire similar reactions in him as it often had in her.
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said as they stood with their feet just shy of the water. “It makes me think of the stories I heard from my grandfather of our awakening. I wonder if it did not look something like this.”
Unconsciously, Andreth curled her fingers into the fabric of his sleeve as she watched the awe flicker across his face, feeling the heavy weight of her heart within her chest. How would she bear the burden of missing him when he was gone when she could hardly bear it with him still before her?
No no no, she chastised herself. She would not allow this night to be spoiled with those thoughts. She pressed them away and spoke the next words that crossed her mind. Anything to provide a distraction. “So I did not lead you astray in my suggestion?”
“No, you were right. It is more beautiful than I imagined, and certainly more lovely than I expected from your vague recommendation.” He came back to her then, turning his bright gaze away from the radiance around them to look at her. There was still something far away in his eyes as they drifted over her features. “Your hair is full of stars,” he said quietly, brushing a loose tress back behind her shoulder. “Like a crown.”
Even the cool evening air did nothing to help the warmth in her cheeks. “Well, I must be doing whatever station warrants such a crown a great injustice by looking so shabby,” she said with an awkward grin, avoiding his eyes as she touched her haphazard braid.
“Not at all,” Aegnor assured her, affectionate exasperation coloring his tone. He moved toward the grasses, a fleeting touch against the small of her back wordlessly urging her to follow. “But if you are concerned about such a little thing, it is a simple fix.”
He sat behind her after gesturing for her to do so and drew the braid over her shoulder. As he loosened it with gentle fingers, Andreth could sense that this was too close, too personal. Many of their meetings had danced upon the line of propriety, but this was past even the pretense of decorum they had previously tried to uphold. For something so mundane it was laden with intimacy, his fingers laced in her hair and his body so near.
Regardless of that, she knew she would not stop him. If she truly had any intention to do so, she would have as soon as she had understood the intent of his gestures.
“I’m afraid I am not well-versed in the current ways the ladies wear their hair,” he admitted with mock seriousness after a few minutes had passed. “I am limited to drawing from my memories of such things.”
“That does little to inspire confidence, my lord.”
He laughed. “Perhaps it will be dated, but you need not worry about my abilities. I have had more than a few chances to practice, long ago though they were. And I have asked you before to address me by name.”
She ignored his reminder; she needed the distance offered by the formality. “More than a few?”
“My sister, who I told you about,” he explained. “She could be quite persuasive when the mood stuck her, which was fairly frequently. Though, if I am honest, it did not require much effort on her part.”
Andreth closed her eyes as his fingers grazed her scalp. “A doting brother,” she said, smiling.
“Well, it is pleasant to dote upon those one cares for,” he replied. “There. I think that is as well as I can do.”
They went back to the shore, and Andreth cautiously peeked at her reflection in the still water. “Oh,” she blurted, eyes widening. She turned her head side to side to look at the intricate braiding; it was more complicated than anything Beril or she had ever attempted. Her lips twitched with a smirk as she considered the contrast with her hastily donned dress and cloak. “I suppose I’m not quite as shabby now.”
He turned away from their reflections, and she looked up at him. “You were never so, Andreth.”
She had something to say to that, a quick, self-preserving deflection of his regard, but she became distracted by his hair as it now fell loose around his shoulder. “Your braid came undone.”
Aegnor smiled. “Very perceptive of you.”
She stepped forward and reached for him, slipping her fingers into the golden strands. It was so wayward without the restraint of the braid, nearly wild against the refinement his appearance otherwise conveyed. “It really does look like flame.”
“Appropriate with my name, then, don’t you think?”
Andreth nodded absently. “You did not remove the tie from your hair to use on mine, did you?”
“As I said,” he murmured, his smile turning bittersweet, “I find it pleasant to dote upon those I care for.”
Her heart thudded painfully in her chest, heavy with half-realized wishes. For all her increasingly frail attempts at pragmatism and her own knowledge of the impossibility of what she felt for him, hope continued to linger at the edges of every heartbeat.
It was there now as she looked at him, the air thick with everything that had passed between them in all but words. Attempting to ignore the emotions in his voice and what they meant was pointless when she could not escape their echo in his eyes.
Were her hopes really so impossible when he looked at her like that? Could he not be swayed? Could she not try?
It was hardly a conscious decision when she stepped closer; the draw had always been there, and this was merely giving in to the impulse that had thrummed in her veins for weeks. He reflected her movements with his own, his fingers skimming the curve of her hip as hers settled against his chest, his head bending as hers lifted.
They met in the middle.
The kiss was soft and tentative, almost hesitant even as he pulled her closer. It was like so many of his gestures toward her, quiet eagerness touched with caution as though she were some fragile, precious thing.
Compared to his people, she supposed she was fragile. Next to granite of his life, she was little more than a flower in a brief spring, but she was not without her own strength. Her inner flame may not be as eternal as his, but it could burn as brightly. She wanted him to understand.
So she did not hold back. She let her hand slip up his neck and into the curtain of his hair, drawing him to her so she could meet his lips more fully. Aegnor sighed into the kiss, his hold tightening, anchoring her against him, and she felt the edge of desperation in the gesture regardless of the tenderness.
Even with her heart thundering and her thoughts spinning, it felt right. It felt right the way she fit in his embrace and how his lips drifted across her cheek and jaw. It felt right that she was just tall enough to tuck her head beneath his chin so that, in the quiet, she could hear that his heart was pounding, too.
She wanted to stay like that forever, surrounded by his warmth and the stars.
For a long moment they remained there at the edge of the Aeluin until he shifted, his hand cradling the back of her head. “Andreth,” he breathed into her hair, and his tone was reverent and broken. “Andreth.”
It was no more than her name, but it conveyed everything. She knew what was to come. She knew.
She pressed her face against the hollow of his throat and closed her eyes to prevent the tears from escaping. Speaking would be a mistake – it would not be fair, it would not be fair – but her lips parted and the words balanced upon her tongue fell into the silence. “I love you.”
Her voice was so small, but she could feel the catch in his breath that made it clear he had heard. They were the last words she had to try to convince him to stay, but somehow she knew it would do no more than hurt him. He had already decided; it was foolish to think that anything she could say or do would change that.
“I cannot make you any promises. It is not our way in times like these,” he said, pulling back so that she was forced to look into his eyes. There was sincerity and regret there, but it was the obvious pain that finally made her tears fall. “I cannot even promise you today.”
“You can promise now,” she replied thickly. “For however long it lasts.”
He searched her eyes, his own shadowed. Perhaps it was not fair to ask that of him, to strive for every precious moment she could grasp, but she could not retract her words. She did not even want to.
“Yes, I can promise now.”
Her people were used to living for now; in the shadow of the darkness to the north, they had no guarantee of anything more. Andreth told herself she would not dwell on the time she wished she had when she still had the time in the present. She would make as much use of it as she could, a lifetime in the moments she was given.
So she nodded and managed to smile. It was weak, and it was small, but it was a smile. Aegnor raised his hands and gently held her face, his thumbs brushing away the last of her lingering tears before returning her smile and pulling her close.
He could not stay with her, but these moments, these memories, would. So as she again tipped her face toward the radiance of his, she held on to each instant, every detail, and tucked them away in her heart.