The crowd screamed and cheered loudly as the two winners were brought before the king. He stood and the crowd fell silent.
“Strange though the ending of this tournament may be, it is an honest one. Both of you are honored.”
At this, the crowd cheered again, but Thranduil had not finished. He looked at Shedheniel.
“Shedheniel Illisel of Mithlond, never before have we seen such skill for archery in a lady. Therefore, you will be called hereafter, Cúmaenien.“
Shedheniel bowed her head respectfully. The tournament was dismissed and she ran off to find her sister. She met her half way. Nildarien grabbed Shedheniel’s hands.
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!” she squealed, jumping up and down, “I knew you’d win!”
Shedheniel laughed. Nildarien looked so ridiculous!
“Stop, stop…hopping!” she said amid her laughter. “You certainly are happy all of a sudden!”
“Of course I am! I’m happy for you! Come on. We only have two hours to get ready! There’s a grand feast tonight and I hear there’s going to be dancing!”
Nildarien dashed off toward the palace, pulling her breathless twin behind her.
* * *
Nildarien faced herself in the mirror, pinning up her hair so that it was down but away from her face.
“There!” she said, turning to face her sister, “I’m done!”
“It’s about time,” said Shedheniel. Nildarien had been unusually picky about her looks that evening.
“Why did you take so long?” she asked.
Nildarien’s face reddened.
“No reason,” she mumbled, going to the door. They headed down to the hall.
When they entered, it was arranged in the same manner it had been on the night they had arrived only there was a platform near the doors for the orchestra.
The sisters were to sit at the high table again, much to Nildarien’s disappointment. Shedheniel seated herself between Nildarien and Legolas for the greater good of everyone. This was effective in preventing another nasty match of wit, but the two looked daggers at each other throughout the meal.
When dinner was finished the orchestra began to play and the majority of the elves proceeded to the dance floor. The reason for the care with which Nildarien had prepared herself then became apparent.
She looked up and smiled at Telden.
“Would you honor me with a dance?” he asked.
“Certainly,” said Nildarien as she stood. Telden held out his hand to Nildarien, who took it, and escorted her to the floor. Shedheniel observed this with a smile of comprehension.
The first dance was lively and Nildarien liked it at once. She moved through the various steps and turns with lightfooted ease.
“You dance well,” Telden said as he twirled her.
“Thank you,” she said brightly, “I enjoy it. You are not bad yourself you know.”
The music stopped and the dancers applauded. The orchestra began a new song, which was slower.
“Will you suffer yourself to be my partner again Nildarien?” Telden asked.
“I will, but I assure you I do not suffer from it,” she said.
As they danced, Nildarien became aware that Telden was watching her intently. She met his gaze and he did not turn away.
* * *
Shedheniel was still sitting at the high table when the orchestra switched songs. Her eyes followed Nildarien and Telden across the dance floor. Nildarien seemed so happy…
“I have not known you as one to seek solitude. Why do you seek it now?”
“I do not seek solitude, Legolas. You know this.”
“Would you like to dance?”
This question caught Shedheniel off guard. She looked down.
“Of course you can. Dancing is simple. I’ll teach you.”
Before she could protest, Legolas had seized Shedheniel’s hand and was dragging her down to the dance floor.
“I don’t think this is a good idea!” Shedheniel yelped as she was being towed towards the floor.
“Nonsense,” said Legolas. “I refuse to believe that you are incapable of dancing.”
They reached the floor as the orchestra changed songs again.
“This is a slow song. It should be easy,” said Legolas.
He put his arm about Shedheniel’s waist and had her do the same. He held her other hand and quietly counted off the steps for her until she no longer needed it. His first attempt to twirl her failed miserably when Shedheniel tripped over his feet and knocked someone over.
After that, Legolas made sure to turn her only when they were well out of the way. His efforts were needless, for Shedheniel did not trip again and she got steadily better as the night wore on.
* * *
Nildarien was sorry when the feast was over. She could have gone on dancing for hours.
As he had the night before, Telden walked Nildarien to her room. When they reached it, Nildarien stopped and faced him.
“Thank you, Telden,” she said.
“It was a pleasure,” he replied.
Nildarien suddenly realized that they had been holding hands since they had left the hall. Telden must have noticed too, but he made no move to relinquish he hand and she did not pull away.
Nildarien looked into his eyes; they were a deep, dark grey that held secrets. Nildarien wished she could stand there with him for an eternity; enchanted as Thingol and Melian once were, but she knew she couldn’t. She blinked and dropped her gaze.
“Goodnight, Telden,” she said. “And thank you again.”
“Goodnight Nildarien,” he said softly. He paused for a moment, then lightly kissed her cheek. He turned and walked swiftly away. Nildarien stood shocked before entering her room. She closed the door slowly behind her and touched her cheek where Telden had kissed it.
“Oh, Elbereth!” she thought.
* * *
As would be expected, most of the elves rose later than usual the following morning, Shedheniel among them. Earlier, however, she was partially awakened. She could hear Nildarien moving about the room next door and humming what sounded like a waltz from the previous night. Shedheniel smiled and nodded off again.
Later in the day, Shedheniel sought out her sister. She found her in the garden sitting with her back to a tree. Shedheniel sat down next to her.
“Since yesterday you have not stopped smiling,” she said. “Why this sudden cheerfulness?”
Nildarien grasped her sister’s hands.
“You would not believe how happy I am,” she said. “First you did so well in the tournament, then the joy of dancing again after so long, and then…” she broke off in a fit of giggles.
“What!? What happened? I want to know!” Shedheniel squealed.
“Not much really,” said Nildarien. “but I found it important.”
“Yes, yes now tell me please!”
Nildarien leaned over so she could speak in her sister’s ear. Shedheniel’s eyes widened at her sister’s whispering.
“He did what!? Oh, Nildarien!”
Suddenly, Shedheniel smiled and crossed her arms.
“I told you so!” she said triumphantly.
“Huh? What did you tell me?” asked a puzzled Nildarien. This only made Shedheniel’s grin widen.
“Hmmm. Maybe I’ll tell you after he proposes,” she mumbled.
“Tell me what!?”
Shedheniel only grinned.
* * *
A great bell sounded, calling the elves to dinner. Nildarien and Shedheniel flew down the passage to the hall; they were running a bit late. Nildarien was lagging behind Shedheniel, due to the length of her dress.
“What do you think they’ll say when-“
Shedheniel skidded to a halt and spun around. Nildarien was sprawled on the floor looking shocked and bewildered.
“What? Did you trip over your own feet?” Shedheniel laughed.
“No! There was something there but…” Nildarien trailed off as Shedheniel put a finger to her lips. Sure enough, there was a faint pattering to be heard as some unseen creature scurried past Shedheniel, making her hair flutter.
“Do you think we should tell someone?” she asked.
“Who would believe us if we did?”
Shedheniel opened her mouth to speak, thought a moment, then snapped it shut. Nildarien would not approve of them telling Legolas.
“I do not know,” she said at last. The sound of laughter drifted down from the hall, reminding Shedheniel of the reason for their hurry.
* * *
Dinner that night was very enjoyable, although a group of servants and the Chief of the guard turned up missing.
Several times that night, Shedheniel saw Nildarien glance at Telden with a smile that he returned. Suddenly a thought occurred to her.
“Does he know, I wonder?” she said.
“Does who know what?” Nildarien asked, her mind elsewhere.
“Does Telden know how you feel?”
“I’m not sure,” said Nildarien turning her green eyes on the grey ones of the raven- haired elf.
Shedheniel could tell by the longing look that Telden gave her sister when she turned away that he didn’t.
* * *
As the people were leaving the hall, Shedheniel lingered behind.
“Aren’t you coming, Shedheniel?” Nildarien asked.
“No, something isn’t right here. There were people missing tonight and things seem unusually quiet. It’s been quite disturbing really.”
“I did not notice anything unusual.”
“You were too busy flirting with Telden!”
This comment tripped Nildarien’s short temper. However, she didn’t have time to respond, because at that moment, the Chief of the Guard rushed into the hall.
“They’re gone! They’re gone!” he shouted, but no one knew what he was talking about.
“That was one of our missing people,” thought Shedheniel. She bit her lip and tried to figure out what he meant. Perhaps it was nothing, for the Chief of the Guard was obviously drunk and he had his keys with him.
“Who’s gone? Really now! Who’s disappearance could agitate him like that?” Nildarien wanted to know. Shedheniel concentrated.
“I know!” she said at last. “Come with me!”
* * *
Footfalls echoed through the dungeon corridor as the sisters searched the cells.
“You’re right, Shedheniel. They are gone!” Nildarien exclaimed.
“Only a prisoner’s disappearance would worry him like that, but it seems that all thirteen of them are gone! And the guard had his keys too!”
“I know little of dwarves, but I do know that they do not vanish, nor do they slip through metal bars,” Nildarien added.
“Do you think the creature we saw – didn’t see – had something to do with this?”
“I do not know, Shedheniel. I do not know.”
* * *
Thranduil was furious with the Chief of the Guard and the group of servants who had turned up missing, and it did not improve his temper to find the reason for their absence.
A day or two later, word came from the raft-elves that a band of dwarves, one of which called himself `King under the Mountain’, and a `curious something of a creature’, had come to Laketown.
It was the mention of the curious something that most unnerved Shedheniel and Nildarien. They had been present at the questioning and had seen only dwarves.
“I’m sure the whatever-it-was you ran into is the raftmen’s creature,” said Shedheniel several weeks later.
“I want to know how those dwarves got away when the guard had his keys. He couldn’t have done it; he was certainly in no condition to. That only leaves the mysterious something,” said Nildarien.
“What kind of creature makes itself invisible?” asked Shedheniel.
“None that I know of,” Nildarien replied.
Shedheniel sighed, and glanced around.
“Nildarien, look!” she said suddenly, pointing through the trees. “There’s Telden.”
Nildarien looked where her sister had pointed and frowned in confusion. She had seen very little of Telden in the past few weeks, and when she did see him he seemed tired. Yet never so much as he did now: he looked as though he’d just run full speed from Bree to Gondor, and his face was streaked with dirt. He was carrying something wrapped in cloth, but Nildarien didn’t get a chance to see it clearly, because Telden quickly entered the palace. Nildarien glance at Shedheniel.
“I wonder what that was about,” she said.
* * *
Shedheniel strained her far-seeing eyes. She was on the riverbank gazing at the Lonely Mountain. According to the new information she’d received, the dwarves had already departed for the mountain with their mysterious creature. Shedheniel squinted into the distance. She could vaguely make out the moving shapes on the mountain slope. Just a little bit closer…
The water came as a cold shock to Shedheniel; she’d forgotten she was on the riverbank. She surfaced and treaded water for a moment before clambering out of the river, feeling like a drowned cat. She sat down, leaned against a tree, and dumped the water out of her boots. The last lights of the Sun glistened and faded, but the usual noised did not come. Everything had been so calm and quiet lately; like the calm before a storm.
Shedheniel sighed as she tossed away the flowers she’d gathered and wrapped her cloak around her. She turned back towards the mountain one last time and gasped. The mountain was shaking! Shedheniel stood rooted to the spot as a great red shape emerged. She was so surprised and frightened that she screamed aloud, turned and sprinted towards the palace. The dragon was awake!
* * *
Nildarien jumped when she heard the scream and she turned just as Shedheniel came flying up.
“Shedheniel! What’s happened?”
Shedheniel leaned on her knees and pointed to the mountain.
“The-the dragon!” she gasped.
Nildarien looked over the tops of the trees and barely saw the monstrous red-gold creature before a wave of dizziness hit her. The colors blurred before her eyes and she felt cold. There was a terrible sensation of falling and spinning, and she heard a loud roaring sound as of strong wind or water. Then, it seemed that something steadied her. The roaring sound slowly faded and when her vision returned she found she was looking into Telden’s eyes. Only, there was a trace of fear there that she had never seen before. Nildarien shivered; she still felt cold.
“Are you alright?” Telden asked, worry apparent in his voice.
Nildarien then realized that she was on the ground. Telden was holding her as though he had caught her, and Shedheniel was kneeling nearby, her hands over her mouth.
“I-I think so,” said Nildarien, shakily.
Telden furrowed his brow.
“I’m not sure you are,” he said.
Nildarien knew he was right; she felt very weak and shaken. Telden helped her to stand, then said, “Shedheniel, run to the hall and alert the king to the dragon.”
Shedheniel, still looking frightened, nodded and darted off.
“You on the other hand, need rest,” Telden said, slipping an arm around Nildarien’s waist to support her.
“How do you feel now?” he asked as they walked slowly towards the palace.
“Cold,” Nildarien said weakly. “But why are you so concerned?”
Telden had obviously not expected this and he turned crimson.
“Well, you’ve had a very trying time here,” he said. “and you don’t seem as happy as I would- as one would expect.”
Nildarien noted the slight tremor in his voice and she felt a good deal less cold.
* * *
Shedheniel ran full speed to the palace and smashed through the doors. Where was the king? The throne room probably. She sped off in that direction. Shedheniel threw open the throne room doors and dashed in, collapsing on the floor to catch her breath.
“Shedheniel! What’s wrong?” said Legolas as he helped her to her feet.
“Go…help…dragon… awake!” was all she could gasp.
“The dragon is awake?” Legolas asked and Shedheniel nodded.
“Go find your father, Legolas!” she said.
He turned and darted off through a side passage. Shedheniel then remembered that she was still wet and trudged up to her room to dry off. Her thoughts turned to her sister. What had happened? Nothing like that had ever happened to Nildarien before.
* * *
Nildarien was said to be in perfect health by any doctors that examined her. None could explain her sudden dizzy spell. Despite what the doctors said, Nildarien did not feel in good health. Since yesterday, a sense of dread had been shadowing her, and to make that better, Shedheniel had been disappearing mysteriously and coming back in very high spirits. She would say nothing about where she was going.
After a few days, Nildarien began to feel better, but the sense of dread did not go away. She was plaiting her long hair one evening, when there came a knock at her door.
“Come in!” she called loudly.
“Nildarien! My hands are full. Please open the door!”
Nildarien opened the door and Shedheniel scampered in with about five large packages in her arms. She dumped them on Nildarien’s bed, then, after checking the tags, tossed one to her.
“What is it?” Nildarien asked.
“Open it and find out,” replied Shedheniel as she began to gather the other parcels. Nildarien grinned and ripped open the paper. Inside was a lovely cloak. It shimmered and it was impossible to tell what exact color it was.
“Shedheniel! Where did you get this?” Nildarien gasped.
“I wove it. Gwivien taught me.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing lately? Who are the others for?”
Shedheniel shifted the packages in her arms.
“Ummm… this one’s for Gwivien… that one’s for Lindorel. Uh… this if for Legolas and…oh!” Shedheniel tossed her a second package, “That’s for Telden.”
“Why all the presents, Shedheniel?”
“Because I finished them today. I need to deliver these,” she said with a smile.
“I’ll be back later!” she sang as she left.
Nildarien looked at the cloak for a moment before hanging it up. She placed the package for Telden on the table beside her bed. She would give it to him if she ever saw him. It was three days since she had last spoken to him, and when she did catch a brief glimpse of him, he still seemed tired. Nildarien shook her head; she needed to think. She took her new cloak and tossed it around her. It was very warm for its lightness. She left her room and headed for the garden.
* * *