“Providence must hate me,” Telden decided, staring at the phantom army surrounding the camp. Of all times to encounter them it had to be now; now when the barriers he held against his memories were so frighteningly weak. It wasn’t that he feared these spirits; it was their implications that bothered him.
“Why do they trouble you?”
Telden felt an unexpected prick of irritation, and though he bit down on an insult he couldn’t keep the annoyance from his voice. “Why aren’t you sleeping, Shedheniel?”
“Why aren’t you?”
Her flippance did not help cool his temper. She sat down beside him.
“I’m not backing down, Telden,” she said before he could respond. “I want some answers.”
Her bluntness shocked Telden so much that his annoyance retreated.
“What do you want answers to?” he asked, finally looking at Shedheniel. Her gaze was unexpectedly cold.
“Why do ghosts make you so edgy?”
Telden’s guard went up instantly; he didn’t want to answer. He stayed silent.
Shedheniel’s eyes narrowed. “Let me try a different approach,” she said, sounding remarkably like Nildarien. “Was that woman at the stable a spirit?”
Telden felt as though she had just slapped him-hard-and the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. “You saw her, too?”
Shedheniel was clearly bewildered. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I have?”
Telden’s mind was numb. “Then it wasn’t-she was-Aina Valar, I knew she was…couldn’t believe it-didn’t want to-“
“Who was she?” Shedheniel’s soft voice was enough to snap his rattled thoughts back into order.
“No,” he said. “I’ve told you enough.”
“You haven’t told me anything!”
“Why are you so keen to know?” Telden snapped. He didn’t want Shedheniel knowing these things!
“Answer me, Telden,” she repeated, ignoring his protests. “Was she a spirit?”
“She would do wonderfully questioning prisoners,” Telden thought, his mind scrambling for a way out of the corner she had him in. “She won’t give up until I tell her.”
“Yes,” he sighed at last. “She was a spirit.”
Shedheniel’s gaze never left his face. “Then you’ve seen her before?”
“Yes!” Telden was beginning to feel slightly panicked.
“How many times?”
“I don’t know! I don’t keep a running tally!” He fought the compulsion to run.
“Who was she?”
Telden paused before he answered, but his thoughts were still jumbled. He just wanted her to go away; if he told her maybe she’d go away.
“Roa. It’s Roa,” he said at last, and to his dismay Shedheniel didn’t leave.
“Has she ever spoken to you?”
“Yes! But I thought-” Telden froze. There was no way she would get that out of him.
“What did you think?” Her voice was suddenly kind, and for a brief moment he considered telling her-he caught himself just in time.
“No! Enough!” he said, standing. “You have enough!”
“There’s no need for you to be cross with me, Telden,” Shedheniel said quietly, also standing. “I’m only trying to help you-“
“Help me?” Telden exclaimed. “How are you helping me? By making me relive my life? If you consider that help then never help me again!”
If he even saw the hurt that flashed in Shedheniel’s eyes it meant nothing to him.
“What is it about your past that you don’t want anyone to know?” Shedheniel pressed.
That was a very, very bad question to ask, and the moment it was out of her mouth she knew it.
Telden came toward her and only kept himself from striking her by grabbing her shoulders.
“Listen to me very closely,” he said, a deadly anger seething behind his quiet words. “I don’t want anyone knowing anything about my past. What I want even less than that is to discuss it with anyone! It hurts, do you understand me? It hurts to remember, and you’re not only making me remember, you’re making me think about it! And I don’t want to, do you hear me? I just want to forget!” He released her, shoving her to the ground.
“Telden, what’s wrong with you? You aren’t yourself!” Shedheniel cried.
“Go to sleep, Shedheniel,” Telden laughed. His voice was cold; not at all like it should be.
“I’m not giving up on you, Telden,” Shedheniel said quietly, standing. “I may not know what you’ve done in the past, but I do know that if you don’t talk about it it will tear you up inside.”
“It’s a bit too late for that.”
“That just proves my point. I’ll always listen to you, Telden. If you ever need to talk-and I think you do-you’ll be welcome.”
With those words she turned and left him standing alone with his angry thoughts.
“Why would I tell her what I’ve done?” he thought bitterly. “I would sooner pay homage to Morgoth!”
When Telden at last sought his bedroll he was still raging, but as he lay there in silence he began to regret his words to Shedheniel, for he thought that in the quiet he heard the sound of stifled sobs.
* * *
“What terrible things could he possibly have done?” Shedheniel thought sadly. She wiped her streaming eyes with her tunic. “Certainly everyone has something from her past that haunts them.” Shedheniel did. She bit her lip and pushed that memory back. She’d had to abandon that thought long ago, for Nildarien’s sake. Her sister had needed her then. And now that she and Legolas were…
“No,” she told herself. “You can wait. It can wait.”
Shedheniel curled into her bedroll to try and sleep, but sleep would not come. A gently breeze blew the scent of the calm sea through the camp, taunting her. A few gulls sang in the distance.
Things were so complicated now. Shedheniel tossed away any thoughts of sleep and went to check on the horses. Hárelir was grazing contentedly when she found him. He whinnied softly and trotted over to greet her. Bandir was on his back, possibly relieving her of more food. He chittered and leapt onto her shoulder. Shedheniel sighed and stroked the stallion’s nose. Her strange little squirrel leapt back onto Hárelir, and Shedheniel shook her head. Was this normal squirrel behavior? She headed back to her bedroll.
Legolas was awake now, and he looked up as Shedheniel approached.
“Where were you? I was beginning to worry.”
“I was checking the horses. When did you wake?”
“About a half hour ago.” Legolas examined her face. “You were crying. What happened?” The prince asked, standing.
Shedheniel bit her lip. “I’m afraid for Telden. He’s been seeing spirits, and I saw one, too. Why does his past haunt him so much?”
“I don’t know.” Legolas took her hands. He looked uneasily at the spirits surrounding their campsite. “You say Telden’s been seeing spirits?”
“Not just any spirits. He’s been seeing Roalin.”
“I don’t understand,” Legolas sighed.
“Neither do I.”
* * *
Telden was restless. He’d been chasing sleep for nearly an hour with very little success. He knew exactly what was causing his insomnia: his ever present companion, guilt. He was ashamed of the way he’d treated Shedheniel. He hated feeling that, and it made him angry. And when he got angry-no. Telden shook his head sharply and sat up, resigning himself to another sleepless night. He looked down at Nildarien, her own rest peaceful and untroubled; he envied her.
Another thought dug at his conscience. He’d told Shedheniel quite a bit about himself without even meaning to, but whenever Nildarien asked similar questions, albeit less bluntly, he avoided them and gave her vague, round-a-bout answers. The truth of it was, he was afraid of how she would react were he to tell her everything. He was fairly sure he knew; she’d be horrified. He wouldn’t blame her if she told him he ought to be dead-well, that would just confirm his own-
“She’d do no such thing. She loves you.”
Telden sighed. “Why didn’t you tell me others could see you, Roa?”
“No one can see me unless I want them to, and that includes you,” the spirit said. “As for the lady at the stable, I most assuredly wanted her to see me.”
Telden made no comment, but stared at the spirit opposite him. It always amazed him how alive she looked. In fact, the only things that distinguished her from a living mortal were that her feet left no impressions on the grass and that her voice had a slight echo to it-and of course that she could vanish at will.
Roalin knelt down on the other side of Nildarien, studying the sleeping Elf’s face.
“I like her,” she said. “She’s been good for you.” She looked at Telden pointedly. “It would be well for you to be open with her.”
Telden avoided her eyes. “I can’t.”
“Why not? Do you not trust her?”
Telden looked at Nildarien and reached to touch her face. “I trust her,” he murmured. For a moment, his hand trembled above her, and then he drew it back. “But I’m afraid.”
“You can touch her, Telden,” Roalin said softly. “You can be close to her.”
“No. If I get too close I’ll kill her, like everyone else I loved. Like you; I killed you.”
“You did not.”
Roalin took his hand and held his gaze with her intense, icy-blue stare. “You do not kill everyone you love,” she said. “You know this. Let her know who you are; all of who you are. She wants to know.” She lay his hand on Nildarien’s cheek and vanished in a breath of wind.
Telden sat motionless, emotions warring with each other as he turned Roalin’s words over in his head. His eyes never left Nildarien. She made him feel like everything and nothing all at once. His joy at finding her, at holding her after so long had been almost unbearable, but now…
Now that joy had deepened to a slow, steady ache with an occasional sharper stab as old wounds opened and bled. And it showed. His usual easy-going nature was flawed by a wicked temper he wished he didn’t have; that he normally kept under tight control-all because of Nildarien. Roalin had said she was good for him, but was she healing him or slowly killing him? It certainly felt like the latter. He sighed and traced the line of her face, letting his fingers stray to her neck.
He should have known. With the way he’d been feeling lately he should have expected it. He felt her blood pulsing beneath his fingers and he swallowed hard as a familiar haze slid over his sight. He laughed suddenly, a low, dark sound that would have made anyone who heard it very much afraid.
Abruptly, he realized what was happening and jerked his hand back as if burned. He squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head hard to clear his sight. He hid his face in his hands, shaking.
He felt ill. Physically ill. He couldn’t believe what he’d almost done. What, for a moment, he had wanted to do. He lay down, still shaking.
“That’s not me,” he told himself. “I don’t want that.”
Telden moaned, the things he’d tried hardest to forget playing out in his mind’s eye. It was going from bad to worse. He was fighting it and losing…and there were people…
He forced the thought to end and stood up and left the camp. He would be safer at the edge, with the horses. Morgil knew what was going on, and would make sure he…that nothing happened. Right now, his control could slip at any moment.
He couldn’t let that happen.
* * *
Nildarien had never been all that fond of early morning; she’d always preferred the night, but this morning was different. It had an ominous silence about it that devoured even the sounds of the Company preparing to leave. It gave her a curious feeling; as if she were standing on a precipice.
She paused in fastening Alambil’s bridle as it came to her. “It begins today,” she murmured to herself.
“What did you say?” Shedheniel asked.
“I said it begins today. The war.”
Shedheniel looked at her. “I know.”
For a moment the sisters stared at each other, neither wanting to say what both were thinking.
“It’s so quiet,” Shedheniel said, breaking the stillness.
“You get used to that,” Telden said suddenly; Nildarien hadn’t known he was listening. “It’s always quiet before the storm.”
“Are you worried?” Nildarien asked.
“Couldn’t tell, looking at you,” Shedheniel said, an unfamiliar tone in her voice. Telden glanced at her, but said nothing and she left with a sigh. Nildarien frowned after her.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Telden leaned his head against Morgil’s neck and sighed. “No,” he said, straightening. “It’s something. I’d rather not discuss it now.”
Nildarien touched his hand lightly. “Will you, someday?”
“Yes,” Telden said. “Someday.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and she looked up at him. Fear was plain on his face.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you frightened before,” she murmured.
“I don’t like showing fear,” Telden said. “Especially to you. I want to be strong for you.”
“You can’t be strong all of the time,” Nildarien said, and she knew how true that was. In Mirkwood, she had wanted them all to know she could take care of herself. She’d wanted them to see her as her father’s daughter; the daughter of a captain. Putting on that show had taken a toll on her.
As though her words had tipped some scale in his mind, Telden sighed. “I’m tired, Nildarien,” he admitted. “I’m tired of the evil. I’m tired of him. And…”
Nildarien finished for him. “You’re tired of feeling pain whenever he decides you should.”
Telden looked stricken. “How did you-“
“Galadriel told me.”
“I’d forgotten I asked her to.” He glanced to the East. “I want the Ring gone as much as anyone, perhaps more than most,” he said. “But I’m afraid. When it’s unmade and Sauron falls…what’s that going to do to me?”
Nildarien noticed with a bittersweet smile that he’d said “when” and not “if”. “I wish I could give you a comforting answer, but I can’t.” She paused. “This is war, and nothing is certain.”
Telden suddenly pulled her closer. “I wish you were away from this,” he whispered.
“And if I were, I’d wish I was in the thick of it.”
“I know that, but I love you.” He held her tighter and she lay her head on his shoulder. “And if I lose you, I’ll be out of reasons.”
Nildarien couldn’t say why, but his last few words made her blood run chill. She’d hardly heard him say it, but she suspected he hadn’t even meant to speak. Part of her wanted to ask what he’d meant, but the rest of her dreaded the answer and she said nothing of it.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said, looking up at him. “I’m ready-after all, I had an excellent teacher.”
Telden smiled only a little, and Nildarien could tell he thought she was just whistling in the dark. Looking closer, she saw there was something very sad about that slight, half-smile. His eyes were worse, full of regret and sorrow. Nildarien dropped her gaze; she didn’t understand his sudden melancholy, but that expression had been vaguely familiar.
Telden brushed stray wisps of hair away from her eyes, kissed her once, and walked away without a word. Nildarien stared after him, confused and slightly hurt. He’d been acting so strange since Dunharrow, and she was beginning to wonder if maybe… she was the cause.
And as she pondered this, she remembered when before she’d seen that look of regretful sorrow on Telden’s face. It was the way he had looked at her when she’d left him, at the edge of Mirkwood, seventy-seven years ago.