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worth the candle

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Aegnor is waiting in the Halls for her, and he looks just as he did when she first loved him, when Dorthonion was still green and his profile was heartbreakingly pure against the blue sky.

She hadn’t expected that he would wait. Who could have guessed that their souls would pass through the same gate, even if they took different paths beyond it?

Well, Finrod, of course. But Andreth has never put her faith in his guesses.

Her memory was never as perfect as his. Yet she would have sworn to Finrod that she had forgotten nothing of his brother, not a detail. She would have been wrong. She has forgotten, and the return of what she has lost is a strange thing. Nothing of it is new, and all of it was beloved, and yet she had mislaid it and now she has it again, as though she took her eyes from him for only a moment.

He still has the springing fair hair, the fine-grained skin as pale as milk. The blue eyes, wide at the sight of her, are the same; so are the parted lips, as if breath and sound together have stilled on his tongue.

But Andreth is not young any longer. Or rather, she is not only young. She is old and young at once, wise and foolish together, her hands spotted like a winter apple one moment and smooth and fresh the next.

She has been many things since she knew him – wise woman, aunt, teacher, friend. She has seen many young girls go greensick over a beautiful face, over the brief promise of morning before it dims, and she knows that disease. Those are not her symptoms. If they had been, he would have faded into a soft-edged memory, one she might have taken out now and again in her old age to laugh over, remembering how it had been to love so madly and for so little reason.

He has always been a hook in her living flesh.

She grew used to Finrod, over the years, as much as one could grow used to a creature spun out of gold and moonbeams, to fair immortal flesh and eyes that held in them light beyond light. She never had time to grow used to him. What little time they might have had, Aegnor denied her.

He is still looking at her.

She is not used to him. She never was.

It was not his beauty that made her know him for her heart, alien as he was. It was the fierceness in his eyes and the piercing sadness that came into them as he looked on her for the first time. It was the burning purity of his spirit, the sharp edges that were her own again. She had not imagined then that his sorrow might become her own as well, passed between them like a cough.

She is not that green girl in the long grass any longer. He is not lying with his head in her lap, and her fingers are not tangled in his wild hair under the blue sky. There is no lake, no blurred mirror in which to meet his eyes for the first time, to look up from the poor copy into the full perfection of his face.

“Andreth,” says Aegnor. Peerless knight, melancholy would-be lover, bound in bonds of iron to a duty he thought would never end. His golden hair is a nimbus of light in the dark of this place between the worlds, a halo of fire around his head.

He died in flames. The fire took him, and Dorthonion, and her youth.

“You waited,” she says.

In the long years after he refused her, she learned to swallow grief, to sleep with it roiling in her belly. To draw blood with her tongue.

She could say, This is a first. She could say, This is not the order of things you expected, is it? Or, If I had been the first to die, I would not have waited for you.

It would be untrue.

“I did,” he says.

“I cannot linger here,” Andreth says. That is also a truth she knows. She can feel it, with the certainty that she doubted while she lived. This is only a doorway.

“Still we might snatch a little time,” says Aegnor.

“Those are my words!”

His mouth bends at last into a smile of surpassing sweetness. “But should they not have been mine?”

She's too old for this.

She is not old at all.

“Are you solid enough for me to hit you?”

Aegnor holds his hands out to her, and they are flesh, or they feel like it. They are touching again for the first time in forever; for the last time in forever.

Andreth turns her face up to him. He bends his to her.

He is kissing the girl he knew in Dorthonion with stars in her eyes and in her hair. She is kissing a sad-eyed warrior with a pure and flaming heart. He is kissing ancient Saelind with her gnarled fingers and her aching bones, and middle-aged Andreth with her, and all the Andreths in between. She is swallowing fire.

He does not release her as she changes in his arms, back and forward and forward and back. He holds her face tightly between his hands, and she digs her nails into the flawless skin under his hair at the back of his neck.

In the end it is Andreth who lifts her head, who must step away. There is a current drawing her on.

She bites his lip first, and Aegnor looks at her like she is made of light when he lets her go.

“Will you not stay with me?”

Would you ask a bird to take to the water, for love of a fish?

“I am going on,” Andreth says, and licks his blood from her teeth. “But if Finrod is right after all, we may meet again one day, when the world ends and the stars fall.”

“Finrod is never right,” Aegnor says, like the younger brother he is, and his smile is both sweet and sad.

You admit now that you should not have listened to him?

Andreth could say it. They could have had more time. They could have lived together in that indrawn breath before the Flame, that last moment of quiet and been happy. But what would be the point? She is going on. Where she is going, she does not know.

Still she asks, “Will you not come with me?”

Aegnor turns his hands over and holds them out to her, as though to reveal the invisible chains on his wrists.

He is tethered to the world in a way she is not, made to be reworked into its pattern. When Andreth was younger, she had thought his kind was made of stronger and more tensile stuff, and gritted her teeth at her threadbare impoverishment. Now she is going into the unknown, and she is glad of her airiness.

But she hopes nevertheless that Finrod is right, and that she will have to admit it to him, one day beyond the stars.