Telden woke the next morning a fair deal later than his usual hour (which meant only that there were others up before him) feeling strangely weary of mind. For a moment he was confused; he didn’t usually feel this way in the morning-and then last night came rushing back.
He lay abed for a while, searching through the events, trying to find why he felt so…out of sorts.
Well, he’d said goodnight to Nildarien and gone out to the paddock. He’d been looking at that young stallion when the memory of Roalin’s death (accompanied by some unpleasant subsequent events) had snuck up on him. Then…oh yes, one of those hellish headaches had hit him. He’d had a good talk with Legolas and something had started tugging at his mind, so he’d gone back out. And…Shedheniel had shocked him with knowing about Roa, so he’d explained some to her. Then…
Nothing. There was nothing; just a desolate blackness.
His next memory was of Shedheniel looking terrified and behind her-no. He must have been seeing things-again.
Telden’s thoughts returned to Shedheniel and he groaned. He knew what his black out coupled with her frightened expression meant-he had to apologize for whatever he’d said…or done…or both.
He swung out of bed and reached for his tunic, which he’d thrown carelessly on the ground next to the cot. He pulled it roughly on over his shirt and began fastening his gauntlets, racking his mind for an apology.
Telden finished buckling his sword belt and reached up to brush his hair out of his eyes, just then realizing how disheveled it was. Not that he cared; his hair was always rather messy, but he must have slept fitfully for it to be in such a state.
It didn’t take him long to find Shedheniel’s tent. He pulled the flap aside and thanked the Valar she was alone; this was going to be hard enough without an audience.
He took a deep breath. “Shedheniel?”
She looked up from checking the fletching on her arrows. “Good morning, Telden,” she said, perhaps a trifle too casually. “Come in.”
Telden stepped inside and stood there, feeling very awkward. Shedheniel looked at him bemusedly.
“You could sit down,” she offered.
“Oh! No. No, thank you,” Telden said quickly. “Shedheniel, I-I came to apologize. I don’t remember what I said or did last night, but I think-no, I know I frightened you and I’m sorry.”
“No,” Telden said, feeling even more uncomfortable.
Shedheniel appeared both confused and intrigued. “Oh.”
“Are you upset?”
The brown-eyed Elf shook her head. “No, I fully accept your apology.”
“Oh. Well, thank you.” Mentally, Telden cursed himself. Was that even the right thing to say? “I’ll see you later today, I suppose.”
He turned to go, but Shedheniel wasn’t finished.
“Oh, and Telden?” she said and he looked over his shoulder. “Please fix your hair?”
He smiled and left in a much better mood.
He had a quick breakfast in the main pavilion, during which, to his delight, he was able to make the acquaintance of the Dwarf, Gimli, who was thrilled to have finally met a “sensible Elf”. His highly amusing conversation with the Dwarf served to lighten his mood even further.
Telden stopped by his own tent to pick up Morgil’s tack and headed for the paddock where, at last, he found who he’d been looking for. Nildarien was inside, tacking up her own horse; she didn’t seem to have noticed him.
Telden set the tack down as quietly as he could and slipped over he fence. Slowly, he came closer until he stood just behind her and still she gave no sign that she knew he was there. He reached out to grab her when suddenly she leaned back, hooking one arm around his neck.
“You can’t sneak up on me so easily, darling,” she crooned and pulled him into a kiss.
“And a good morning to you, too,” Telden murmured rather hoarsely once she released him.
Nildarien turned to face him and giggled. “Striving for a rugged look today, hmm?” she asked, toying with the hair that hung in his face.
Telden sighed. “I suppose. But I’m on orders from the imperious Cúmaenien to fix it.”
“Well, then,” Nildarien said with mock seriousness. “We must respect her wishes.” She grabbed his hand and tugged him over to the edge of the paddock, where she promptly scrambled up the fence to sit atop it.
“Nildarien, what are you doing?” Telden asked, confused, as she turned him around so he was facing away from her.
“I can’t fix your hair if I’m standing on the ground,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re rather tall, you know.” She undid the leather tie belatedly holding back half of his hair and began combing through the black tangles with her fingers.
Telden sighed and let himself relax, leaning back against the railing Nildarien was perched on. He heard her humming absently to herself as she worked and he closed his eyes. Her voice was calming and he found her touch both soothing and more than a little thrilling. He felt something strange yet familiar come over him; familiar because he’d felt it before, strange because he couldn’t remember when that had been.
Slowly, he realized what it was. He was actually feeling…peaceful, content. For the first time in…millennia he felt like himself.
“Is this why I love her?” he wondered. “Because she makes me feel like I used to?”
“There!” Nildarien exclaimed. “It’s the best I can do, but I’m afraid you still look fearfully rugged; I believe you may be incurable.”
Telden encircled her waist with one arm and leaned his head back to look at her.
“What?” she asked.
A lazy smile spread across Telden’s face. “I love you,” he said and swept her off the fence. He spun her around, then set her down and planted a firm kiss on her mouth.
“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that,” he said.
Nildarien laughed. “Well, you’re certainly gamesome this morning!”
“‘Tis a fair morning,” Telden replied. “And I’ve a pretty, witty lady to court.”
“And now flattery!” Nildarien exclaimed. “Whatever next?”
“Perhaps ridiculous gallantry,” Telden said with an elaborate bow.
“You knave! What am I to do with you?” Nildarien cried, shoving him away from her and turning her back to him.
“Love me?” Telden suggested innocently and Nildarien spun around, glaring with a travesty of anger.
“You,” she said, pointing at him, her narrowed eyes glittering with laughter. “Are terribly exasperating!”
Telden grinned in reply and Nildarien gave in.
“Fine!” she said, throwing her hands up in defeat. “You have the victory!”
“And do I get a reward for my triumph?” Telden asked slyly.
Nildarien sighed, feigning aggravation. “You’re ruthless, Tel’,” she said and kissed him. “But I love you anyway. Now go do whatever you meant to do when you came; we’ll be riding off soon.”
And with that she vaulted the fence and hurried off toward the main pavilion. Telden laughed, watching her go, then whistled for Morgil, the troubles of the morning forgotten.
* * *
Telden may have left her tent with his mind free of troubles, but Shedheniel had too many questions and not enough answers to satisfy her.
She was tapping an arrow against the palm of her hand, thinking, when Legolas arrived at her tent.
“Are you alright?” he asked and Shedheniel jumped, drawing the head of the arrow across her palm.
“Ow.” Shedheniel pressed her thumb over her new cut.
“What’s wrong, Lisse? I’ve never seen you cut yourself before.”
Shedheniel met Legolas’ eyes with an uncharacteristically serious look. She sighed.
“I was speaking with Telden last night and-” she stopped as she felt fear flood through Legolas. “What is it?” She gave him a penetrating glance. “You know what’s wrong with him, don’t you?”
Legolas dropped down on the cot beside her. “I wish I knew. I only know the little he has told me. Telden has…done things he is incapable of describing. He has worked with magics so powerful he could not have foreseen the mark they would leave on him. What did he say last night?”
Shedheniel looked down at her hands. “He said my hands were clean. That I could never understand…he also said I knew nothing of fault.” She bit her lip nervously, waiting for Legolas to give her an answer. He shook his head.
“I can’t tell you…” he looked away. “You’re going to have to ask Telden.” Legolas put an arm around Shedheniel and she laid her head on his shoulder. The Elf prince wrapped his other arm around her and pulled her close. “Things are so complicated, Lisse.”
“Yes,” Legolas smiled and stood. “My sweet one, my Lisse.” He bent down, grabbed Shedheniel’s hands and pulled her to him. They were leaning in for a kiss when the tent flap flew open and Gimli stormed in.
“Shedheniel! Will you help me get this-this rodent out of my pack?” He paused and examined the lovers with an inquisitive gaze.
“Do you-” he began, but Shedheniel cut him off.
“What rodent? Do you mean Bandir?” she laughed.
“Yes! He’s taken quite a fancy to the food in my pack!”
“Just give him a bit of lembas and he’ll be happy as a lark. Then go put him in the stables,” The dark-eyed Elf said, amused.
“Whatever it takes to get him away from my food stores,” Gimli declared and tromped out of the tent.
Legolas shook his head and closed the tent flap. He moved back to Shedheniel and slipped his arms around her waist. “Now where were we?”
Shedheniel stood on her toes and hooked her arms around his neck. “Right about here,” she murmured as Legolas dipped her into a firm yet passionate kiss.
They pulled apart, gasping, but they had hardly caught their breath before Legolas leaned in again. He was much gentler this time. He kissed her softly, pulled his lips away and returned, teasing her until the only thing Shedheniel could do was hang in his grip.
“I love you, Legolas,” she whispered and rested her forehead against his.
“I know. I love you, too,” Legolas answered, cupping her face in his hands.
“I wish-I wish the wars were over. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of feeling death all around me. I just want things to be like they were in Mirkwood; we were so carefree then…the times have changed so much since then.” Shedheniel shuddered and shut her eyes tightly.
“You’ve grown so much since then, my darling one. You’re not the Elfling I taught archery to. You’ve blossomed into this beautiful lady-warrior, fighting for a just cause.” Legolas stroked her hair gently. “I don’t think things will ever be that simple again, but I don’t care. I just want to be with you.”
Legolas kissed her again and Shedheniel could feel the fear in his heart; fear that he would lose her. She felt the same inside, but refused to think like that. Shedheniel squeezed her eyes shut and lost herself in his kiss.
It was a little while later that Nildarien walked in on the lovers; they didn’t notice her entrance.
“Are you two lovebirds going to carry on like that all day, or are you ready to go?” she demanded and Legolas and Shedheniel jumped apart, both blushing furiously.
“No, I-I’m all packed and ready to go,” Shedheniel gasped, grabbing her bag.
“As am I,” said Legolas. “Next time be polite and knock, please.”
Nildarien raised an eyebrow at him. “Knock? It’s a tent,” she laughed.
If Legolas had been red before, he was even more so now.
“Yes, of course. Sorry. Do you two even know where we’re off to? We’re heading for the-“
“-Paths of the Dead,” Shedheniel finished matter-of-factly.
“How did you know?” Her green-eyed twin seemed surprised.
“Don’t you remember those riddles Galadriel had Gandalf tell us? I had answered Aragorn’s long ago, and yours became apparent when Telden arrived with the Grey Company,” Shedheniel grinned. “And that, of course, means my riddle has also been fulfilled since it claimed I would be the first to answer them.” She bowed playfully and Legolas came over and kissed her cheek.
“I’m going to the stables. Don’t be too long.”
Shedheniel sighed as he walked off. She turned to glare at her sister, who was sniggering.
“What’s so funny?”
“You two seemed busy when I came in,” Nildarien teased. Shedheniel’s face burned, but she was willing to challenge her sister.
“I seem to remember you going to the stables about an hour ago…did it take you that long to saddle Alambil, or did you meet Telden there?”
Suddenly, Nildarien began to laugh and her sister joined her soon after.
“Did you know we haven’t teased each other like this since Mirkwood?” Nildarien asked once the moment of hilarity had passed.
“No. It’s been so long since then,” Shedheniel replied thoughtfully. Then she grinned. “I’m glad we came on this grand adventure.”
“So am I.”
They set off towards the stables with soaring spirits, feeling happier than they had for a long while.
* * *
Nildarien soon came to several conclusions, the first being that lighthearted joy is exceedingly short-lived when one is on a war campaign. She also realized it has a habit of deserting when faced with a dark, distinctly eerie door in the side of a mountain filled with ghosts. And when the tunnel beyond said door is black as the pits of Angband and one is being followed by said ghosts, a bit of cheer is quite difficult to come by for some reason.
Nildarien was by no means alone in her contempt of the tunnel; Telden had seemed slightly edgy before they’d entered and Shedheniel had appeared downright frightened, but she disliked simply being underground. Oddly enough, Gimli was the worst off, though Nildarien was certain that was due to the army of dead men following them.
The Company had been on the Paths of the Dead for several hours, leading their horses single file. The torches had gone out long ago and the darkness seemed to stretch on forever. It was silent except for the clip-clop of hooves and the quiet treading of many feet.
Nildarien felt the end of the tunnel before she saw it and sighed in relief. Not long after she saw light and moments later the Company was out of the mountain.
“I never want to do anything like that ever again!” Shedheniel stated emphatically.
“It was that bad?” Nildarien asked, swinging onto Alambil’s back. Shedheniel gave her a look she knew very well; one that said “One more word and you’ll regret it!” She’d gotten that look a great deal as a child.
“I agree with you, Shedheniel,” Telden said, joining them. “That is not something I wish to repeat.”
“I thought caves didn’t bother you,” Nildarien said.
Telden shivered. “They don’t. Let’s just say I’m not fond of…discarnate persons.”
There was something in his voice that piqued Nildarien’s curiosity, but that same something told her to let the matter lie, and she held her tongue.
* * *
Shedheniel, on the other hand, had no intention of letting the matter lie, though she did hold her tongue-for the time being. She’d both heard and felt Telden’s unease when he made that statement about spirits.
“Quite peculiar,” she mused as the now mounted Company began to move. “Why would ghosts make him uneasy?” It wouldn’t have seemed so out of place if she was at least slightly unnerved by them, but she wasn’t, and nor were Legolas and Nildarien. Truth be told, Shedheniel was rather curious about the phantoms; she’d never seen one before-
But what if Telden had?
Her thoughts jumped instantly to the woman she’d seen at the stable. Now that she thought about it, that she might have been a spirit seemed very possible. Her mind was make up; she was going to confront Telden with this.