Lassiel, Thranduil, and Haleth had all rested, but they also all woke at roughly the same time. Without a need to speak on it, they had simply gotten to their feet. They took what weapons they had left but nothing else; there was no need for supplies now, speed was all that mattered. Thranduil had put a hand on Laerth’s shoulder for a moment and the man had looked up at him with the saddest smile, and yet also one that seemed to be apologizing for something. Thranduil had let himself smile back, then he had taken his hand away and he looked at the others.
When they left, it was hours before dawn. They couldn’t run on their way down the mountainside, for the footing was too treacherous, but before long they were off its steep, rocky slope. The three of them began running together, with he and Lassiel matching their pace to Haleth’s. This return was something they would do together.
The sky grew ever lighter around them, but they could not stop to appreciate it. They simply ran until they came to a place where they needed to cross the stream. The water glimmered silver in the diffuse, foggy light of morning — but then, in an instant, it wasn’t the stream anymore.
It was the beach.
Thranduil stopped short, just shy of the waves, and stared. At first he was unable to believe his eyes, but the scent of the sea was so real, as was the calling of the gulls turning in the fog, the sound of the waves rolling up the pebble beach.
He turned to look behind himself, and there it was. The village. It was vastly changed - there was a ring of threatening looking wooden spikes around it, as well as what appeared to be a trench, and all of the thatched rooftops had been torn down. There were only a few thin wisps of smoke rising from breakfast fires, and it was quiet. There couldn’t be many people left in the village.
Thranduil walked towards it, expecting at any moment for the hallucination to end, but it did not. This was real. Somehow, the water of the stream before them had become the water of the sea, and they were home.
A fellow villager cried out in gladness to see them and invited them to come share in breakfast. Thranduil heard that word was being sent to Thorin, and he looked over at Lassiel in bewilderment as he felt a cup of clean, fresh water pressed into his hand.
How? he wanted to ask her, but his eyes asked for him.
The trek down the mountain was a quiet one; Haleth did not know either Lassiel or Thranduil, and this was not the time to try to do so. They had to be careful, especially her, in the dark. She couldn’t afford a misstep that would leave her with at least even more bruises and scrapes and at worst broken limbs. Besides, the two seemed preoccupied themselves, and Haleth knew well the value of silence. There might be time to speak once they back in the village. Then she could thank them for their help.
There would be no time for conversation while they ran, and Haleth knew they would be running as much as possible once they were on more even ground. She was a good running, fast and strong, but she knew she’d be slowing them down. She almost wanted to tell them to go ahead, to help how they could, and that she would be along when she could manage. In fact, she was going to suggest just that as they had to stop to the cross the stream, when she found herself stepping into saltwater and not fresh.
She turned, and there was the village. It was changed, even from when she had been there last; they had done a thorough job setting up protections, for all the good they would limey do. But then even a short delay was better than no delay, and the enemy would have to spend some time getting past the spikes and the trench. She hoped. Haleth glanced at the elves; they were confused as well, she could see, and she and Lassiel started towards the village with Thranduil. She wasn’t certain it was real until one of the guards approached them, and like the others, she found herself staring in confusing as she was given some water.
As she hear someone mention Thorin, she snapped out of her daze. Thorin. Seeing him immediately was all she could think of, even as one of the villagers that had handed out water was asking her if she was injured. Haleth had forgotten what a sight she must have made, part of her shirt and pants soaked with the wraith-slash-man’s blood, and she shook her head, assuring them that she was fine, it wasn’t hers, and if it would make them feel better they could look over the scrapes and bruises she did have later. But at the moment, she really did need to talk to Thorin.
For her part, Lassiel was quiet; it seemed an age since she had left the village, and as she looked around, seeing it with a whole heart and fresh eyes, she was stunned. They were indeed ready for a battle, and seemed determined to do their best. The lack of people milling about told her that many had decided to seek safer grounds, and that was a relief. There was some chance, then, that not everyone would fall during what was coming. She knew of the evil headed their way, and while she would face it willingly, she could not blame those who couldn’t do the same.
All she could do in answer to Thranduil’s look was to shake her head and shrug, and that was when she spotted the new faces. She assumed they were the vikings that Haleth had spoken of, and she regarded them as curiously as they were regarding her and Thranduil.
It was with some relief that she saw Thorin approaching, and, looking at Haleth, she wasn’t the only one glad to see him. She’d never seen such an expression on the other woman’s face; Haleth was openly glad to see the dwarf, and she wondered what was between them.
Thranduil returned shortly before midnight. He had tied the dwarf onto his back, the spider silk proving incredibly useful, and Tauriel was semi-conscious. She stumbled along, hardly aware of what was happening, and Thranduil held her closely with an arm around her.
When he came into the clearing and the light of the campfire, he was not surprised to see the shining spider eyes reflecting from all around them. He was not surprised to see that the spiders had more sense than to attack, despite their clear hunger; they’d gotten more than enough last night. He was, however, surprised to see that Celebrian had decided to not only change her hair, but her species as well.
"Haleth, isn’t it?" he asked her, untying Kili and laying the unconscious dwarf down.
Tauriel stared at the fire, looking lost and almost childish, until Thranduil touched her shoulder and whispered at her to sit. She did, putting her hand on Kili’s shoulder and patting him absently, still staring at the fire.
Laerth stared at the two of them, then sighed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
"What did you expect?" Thranduil snapped, although quietly. "Considering what you — No. I’m sorry. I’m sorry." I shouldn’t be so cold. I’m just tired and worried, but that’s not reason enough to lose the ability to feel warmth, compassion. He looked at Lassiel. “Are you alright? What has happened?”
Haleth was been dozing until she heard someone approaching, one hand on Haladin, ready to fight, until she recognized Thranduil and the two in his charge. She nodded at him in confirmation, though most of her attention was taken up by Tauriel and Kili. She’d been filled in on everything, and from what she’d heard about the spiders, she was surprised to find the two actually alive despite being told that they were. That Tauriel was at least awake was damn near a miracle, and Haleth sighed and frowned. It would take time to get the two of them back to the village, time that they did not have.
It might have been kinder if the spiders had killed them, she thought darkly. At least that way if they manage to come to they won’t be likely killed by what’s coming. Her eyes went back to the fire as Thranduil and Lassiel talked, her gaze occasionally darting to Laerth. She’d been keeping an eye on him all afternoon and night; she wasn’t certain why, exactly. Perhaps because while she hadn’t known him, she knew she would never get to see him again, and any chance of getting to know him was now impossible.
"I’m fine," Lassiel had replied, and it was close enough to the truth. She would be tired for a few days to come, she knew, but she also knew she probably could make it back to the village and help fight if needed. She wouldn’t be at her very best, but she could still shoot, and that could mean something in the fight coming. "The village is going to be attacked in three days. You and Haleth need to leave at daybreak, and I am going to accompany you." Her tone left no room for argument. "Laerth can take care of Tauriel and Kili. We are badly needed elsewhere."
Laerth listened to the women talking, feeling clear and strangely hollow. It wasn’t a bad feeling anymore, as most of his pain had passed, but it was a sad feeling. There were many more things that he would have liked to see, and more things that he would have liked to do, but he had learned his lesson too well and too late. When Tauriel had injured him, he had not cared, as he’d had no care for his own life. Now? His attempted lightheartedness was the only way he could admit to himself that he didn’t want what was happening.
When Haleth put the blanket around his shoulders, he startled, looking up at her with surprised gratitude. Laerth nodded to her. The moment reminded him of a quail chick that Thranduil had brought in, once. The elf had been out wandering, drunk and probably crooning sad songs at the moon, and said that he’d watched a nest of the little things hatch. One of them came out wrong, splay-legged and weak, and the mother nudged it out of the nest, because it was dying. Eventually, the quail and her chicks left the dying one behind, not wanting to be near it when the time came. Thranduil had scooped it up, perhaps believing that there was something to be done. He brought it home and gave it to Laerth, although neither of them knew why. The action seemed to frustrate Thranduil, who had taken an empty barrel and gone out to their still, but Laerth was still sober enough that morning to care. He held the little thing, feeling that there was just something wrong with it, broken inside, and the chick had shivered until Laerth cupped his hands around it. Even then, it didn’t seem warm enough, so he built up the fire and held his hands painfully close. It was enough, just enough, to relax the little bird. He had been able to tell the exact moment when the chick felt good; it had relaxed, comforted by the heat and the light that surrounded it, and it had settled down. It was a peaceful death, a tiny little death, but not a forgotten one.
Laerth pulled the blanket close and thought that light and heat really were a comfort, being perhaps the essence of light.
"He’ll be back by daybreak or he won’t be—-" looking down at the blade, his words died in his throat. "I know this sword? Not… this one, but… its craft.." Closing his hand around the hilt, he picked it up, scowling. "It was made in Carn Dum… better far than where it could have come from, my home in Minas Mor… What the hell is Carn Dum?”
And why did Haleth’s opponent have a weapon from home, if home is indeed where this is from, when none of us had anything but our damned good looks?
Or am I simply rambling with the madness of fever? Laerth scowled again and put the sword down, although he kept it near. The shape of the hilt and the spacing of the finger ridges was familiar and comfortable, and he knew he would be able to wield it if another fight came.
"Thank you, Haleth."
Haleth’s gaze went sharp as Laerth talked about the familiarity of the sword; Carn Dum and Minas “Mor” meant nothing to her, but they obviously did to him. She knew everyone that had followed Feanor had left in hopes of finding their memories of something else, some other life, and Haleth hadn’t put much stock in it personally. Her life on the island had been a steady one, and if she wasn’t happy, she had at least been able to find moments of joy and contentment with her friends. It was enough, and it was an easy life — easier than the one she had faint memories of, anyway.
Now she wondered if, perhaps, all the others had the right idea. Full memories would be helpful at the moment, she knew, and she looked over at Lassiel and remember that Celebrian had told her that the other woman remembered everything. If she could provide any helpful information to take back to the village, she’d need to ask.
But not at the moment. She was exhausted from the fight; the wraith had been inhuman until the end, and keeping herself in one piece had taken a toll on top of her quick pace of travel. She needed rest, she knew, and the small clearing would be a good place to get it.
She smiled faintly at Laerth’s thanks, nodded, and reached out and squeezed his hand before settling near him and digging through her pack. She had a few cuts and scrapes to tend do, and doing it now would prevent them from slowing her down in the morning. A quiet settled over the camp as she took her time to bandage what needed to be bandaged and then cleaning Haladin properly. Occasionally someone would ask a question, and she eventually fell into a talk with Lassiel about what the elf did remember.
It was enough that Haleth was even more determined to make her way back to the village as soon as she could. She hoped she would arrive in time.
Laerth was sitting right next to the fire, taking in as much of its heat as he could. Between it and the sun, there still wasn’t enough, and he knew what that deepening cold meant. Even while his body burned with fever from the infection, he knew what it meant. He looked up at Haleth’s approach and he smiled, relieved to see her looking well. When she spoke, the strength of her voice was good to hear.
He looked back at the fire. Despite it being midday, he continued adding pieces of wood to it slowly, almost idly.
"If the village is to be attacked," he said, his voice strangely friendly and pleasant, "I would suggest you wait here. Not to wait out the attack, of course, but for Thranduil to return. Then, depending on the state of the victims? Perhaps you and he return to the village together, each to ensure the other does not fall along the way. Lassiel may or may not be ready to run?" He looked over at Lassiel questioningly. "But if you are when he returns, I will survive long enough to get Kili and Tauriel to safety, if they cannot get themselves to it. Whether in the village or not. It seems the village is in the most need? One dying human and two likely incapacitated lovebirds should no longer be considered as the height of concern."
He sounded so lighthearted when he said it, and he smiled in a way that suggested he truly meant it. Either Laerth cared so little for his own life or he cared so much for theirs — perhaps both.
Haleth studied Laerth; he looked bad, and she could well believe that he was fatally wounded. She knew him by reputation only, and while it wasn’t the best reputation, she still felt saddened over the loss of life, for that he seemed to have cheerfully accepted his death.
"We have six days. I can wait until tomorrow morning for Thranduil at the latest. After that? Thranduil could still make it, but I could not. I am not as fast as an elf." The attackers would find them wherever the were, and if they got that far there would be little hope. "We would do better to find the others and warn them, if it comes to it." Her face was carefully blank, to keep her worry and sadness for the others off of it. She did not think it was fooling Lassiel by the soft look the elf was giving her. The sympathy was both appreciated and painful; thoughts of her friends came to mind, and it was hard.
Dwelling on it wouldn’t help, however, and Haleth straightened. She still had the wraith’s sword in her hand, and she spotted some blankets folded nearby. Grabbing one, she rose and circled the fire, kneeling down next to Laerth. She wrapped the blanket around his shoulders — she hadn’t missed how he kept adding wood to the fire, and the blanket would help some with keeping him warm — and laid the sword next to him so he could reach it. He’d have something, at least, if they needed to fight.
"If we leave tomorrow I might be able to run," Lassiel said. "I am not certain. I am, however, strong enough to defend us if you leave, Haleth. I wish you would stay and rest, however." She was frowning at the levity in Laerth’s tone; it bothered her, but what could she could do? It was not her place to tell Laerth how he should live out the last of his life.
"I’ll stay the night," Haleth said. "But if Thranduil is not back by daybreak, I’m going on by myself."
At the look in Haleth’s eyes, Celebrian smiled. She put her hands on Haleth’s face, holding her gaze, and said quietly: “I will tell Thorin and, if it happens that you cannot see him before this attack comes, I will tell him that you care.” She leaned up and kissed Haleth on the cheek, then let her go and stepped back, nodding.
Clearly, a great deal had happened at the village during their absence.
"I can go now. I will reach them within three days. I need nothing of yours, I will follow the stream back.” She sounded certain of herself, and she looked up to meet the other woman’s eyes again. “Will you tell Lassiel what has happened, why I have left? She — oh, she has all of her memories! She may know more of the darkness heading for us if you but describe it to her, tell her everything you know.”
Haleth smiled as best she could at Celebrian. “The village was invaded; don’t be alarmed to see strangers around,” she said, trying to think of anything else important. “I’d go straight to Thorin’s. Things are… not easy between everyone, though it is hopefully getting better.” She raked a bloody hand through her hair, a frown on her face. She didn’t doubt Celebrian would manage exactly what she said she would — elves were strange creatures at times, but Haleth wasn’t going to question it at the moment.
"Thank you. Bilbo and Thorin… Let them know that I’m fine. They’ll worry." Especially Bilbo, kind-hearted Bilbo. It hurt to think she’d never see anyone from the village again, but she had to accept it as a possibility. "I’ll let Lassiel know what happened. If she —" Haleth paused, wondering at the fact that Lassiel apparently had all of her memories back. What of the others? How were they faring? "I’ll ask her. I hope I can get back to the village with any helpful information before it’s too late." Haleth hefted her pack, then retrieved the wraith’s sword. She could wrap it later. "I saw where you came from; I will be able to find the others." Haleth turned to go, but hesitated at the last moment. "Be careful," she said softly. She did not know Celebrian, but she hoped that she would be able to move quickly and without running into trouble. With that, she turned and heading towards the party Celebrian had left behind.
It was a bit of a walk, but it was not hard to find Lassiel and Laerth. The two of them were around a fire; Lassiel looked tired but was on guard, a bow in her hand and arrows on her back. This was not the same quiet woman Haleth had seen around the village; this was an alert she-elf, and Haleth was careful to make certain she was heard approaching.
"It is Haleth," she called, and Lassiel immediately turned to where she was, bow ready. She relaxed when she recognized Haleth, and the question in her eyes was clear. "Celebrian ran to warn the village. There’s an attack coming, sooner than we expected." She made her way to the fire and sat, feeling drained. As much as she wanted to go to the village herself, Celebrian would have them warned long before she could have. It was a relief, in a way.
"I will need to head back soon myself, unless I am needed here." She glanced between Lassiel and Laerth; if they needed someone well to help protect them, she would stay. It was the right thing to do.
"Haleth!" Celebrian cried out, relieved. She waited for Haleth to move the sword away, then ran up and embraced the taller woman quickly, before stepping back to look her over. Celebrian did not know her well, but that hardly mattered. When the stakes were as grim as this, she would be as glad to see anyone from the village.
The small elf woman barely seemed winded, and her cheeks were only touched with the lightest pink. Her hair was wild, but other than that, one would never know that she had just run nearly seven miles.
"Several miles up the slope, Lassiel and Laerth wait. Both are injured - Laerth fatally, Lassiel mildly. Thranduil has gone off to rescue Tauriel and Kili, who were abducted by spiders. Spiders, there are many of them, and you are now in their hunting grounds. They seem to prefer to move at night. Some are as large as our homes and their venom is dangerous.
"All of the others are alive and have continued on to the cave, but Glorfindel is blind." She frowned, her little eyebrows drawing close together, and looked steadily up into Haleth’s eyes.
"I am faster than you, Haleth, and need less rest. There is something very urgent — that the village must know? Give me the message. If you return to them, I can be in the village days before you."
Although she wanted to know what had happened with that black creature and why there was a pool of blood with no body near it, Celebrian realized that she did not need to know. The information would do little for her, but perhaps she could do much for Haleth’s cause, simply by running as quickly and lightly as she could.
It was not as terrible as it had looked. Even here, the spiders seemed largely uninterested in him. Whenever they paid him heed, Thranduil went very still, waiting calmly for their approach. Anger still burned within the elf, rage over what had happened to Lassiel, and it turned him into a perfect statue, radiating malice. The spiders could understand such things, being creatures of darkness themselves. They were fat, living off of each others’ offspring, and they were content enough that they did not need to bother with something so clearly spoiling for a fight.
Although there were many webs that looked sturdy enough to walk and climb on, Thranduil learned that many were poorly attached to the rocks and, with the wrong pressure, simply gave way. After plummeting several hundred feet, his fall only stopped by sharp spire of rock he crashed against and quickly grabbed, he decided that the more dangerous method of descent was also the safest: climbing down the damp, rotting rocks of the cliff.
He had clung to the stone spear for a moment, catching his breath and waiting for his dizziness to pass. Looking up, he could see the daylight far, far above.
The name was the only word he needed and the memory of her eyes the only light, he told himself.
When he started climbing, hand over hand, he did not stop until he found them.
It was as Laerth said: both were unconscious, but their hands and wrists were tied with rope. They were on a small ledge, perfectly placed so they would not likely roll off.
They both look so young.. Both had multiple bite marks on their shoulders and necks, but it looked like they came from much, much smaller spiders than Shelob.
Thranduil understood what he had not wanted to ask, what he had known would make him angry to ask. Why didn’t you bring them back with you when you saw them, Laerth? Could you not have gotten close enough? He hadn’t allowed the question past his lips, and now was glad of it. Laerth was dying now; he would have been nearly as ill during his time with Shelob, and controlling that thing had likely been all he could do. The information had helped. It was enough.
Besides. There were the ropes. They led off, away from the victims and into a tunnel that burrowed pitch-black into the cliffs. Could Laerth, weakened as he was, have battled whoever tied those knots and then continued to control Shelob, bearing the victims out? Even that drunken fool is not quite so stupid as to try.
Looking at the tunnel, Thranduil felt that where he stood now, next to Kili and Tauriel in the twilight gloom, was bright in comparison.
Something tapped behind him and he spun, knives quickly coming to hand. An enterprising spider, skinny and likely starving, had thought to creep up. It hesitated, debating, and its legs quivered with its tension. Thranduil’s cheek twitched slightly as he fought back a snarl; he did not have time for this.
The spider decided - and lunged.
Haleth had lowered the sword, letting it drop to the ground — and good thing, too, because she found herself with her arms full of Celebrian. She returned the embrace awkwardly; she did not know the elf, but that hardly seemed to matter, and if she were honestly it was good to see that at least one of the people who had left the village was still alive. She stepped away as Celebrian mentioned that two others were injured (and one fatally) and one off chasing down spiders and looking for their kidnapped friends — and that was just with those that weren’t still with Glorfindel!
She hook her head, clearing it of thoughts about the others. She had no time to worry about them; she could do that later, if she was still alive. With only six days until the dark forces would be there, she had to move — quickly.
"No. I need to —" Haleth started, then glanced down at her. She had a few scrapes, some cuts, some bruises. She’d be feeling them all soon, and they would slow her down eventually. She regarded Celebrian seriously, considering her offer. It was better than Haleth could do at the moment, and the best chance the village had. "I don’t have time to tell you everything. There are things — dark things, a dark army — heading towards the island. The village." She glanced back the way she had come, her friends on her mind. "Six days, Celebrian. They’ll be here in six days, maybe seven. It’s taken me five to get this far; if you can return quicker…"
If Celebrian got a head start, the village would be warned, and Haleth could follow behind once she’d gotten a few hours of rest. Spiders or no, and whatever else was lurking in the woods, she wasn’t going to be kept away from the village. She was needed.
"What do you need? Can you go now?" Haleth looked at her pack; there was food and water in it that Celebrian could take. "I’ll be right behind you, but I lack your speed. Tell Thorin to be prepared. Tell him — tell him I’ll see him as soon as I can." Her composure broke for just a moment, and fear for her friends settled in her eyes.
As he walked away, everything in Thranduil protested that he should not do this. He wanted to turn back, to stay close to Lassiel until the end of their days, whenever that might be. She could bear the memories for both of him; he would never tire of hearing her voice as she shared them. He wanted desperately to turn back, to at least kiss her before making his way to a place that might very well mean his death — but that kiss would be a cruelty to both of them, he told himself.
It would be the only kindness you will know, a voice within argued, but he steeled himself against it and went on.
It was not difficult to find the crevasse; all the elf needed to do was go where the spiders and their webs became thickest. In the bright daylight, they seemed more sluggish and less inclined to be bold. Several, sunning themselves out in the open, did little more than chatter softly at him as he passed by. Thranduil looked at them with disgust but kept moving. If they would not cause trouble, he also would not. Thinking of what the larger, more intelligent seeming one had done to Lassiel put a fire in his blood, but he could quell the anger, suppressing it.
When he came to the edge, he stood on an open, rocky slope. The wind whistled shrilly past him, and Thranduil reached up and twisted his hair into a neat knot, tying it there. He thought for a moment that he remembered once having such confidence in himself, in his skills, that he needed to do no such thing as bind his hair — but that was another Thranduil, another life.
He could hear the spiders moving, below, although he could see little in the darkness. Strands of silk fluttered like the tattered flags of a battlefield’s dead.
Eyes and expression hard, Thranduil let himself think of Lassiel only one last time as he turned and began to climb.
It was just past midday when the great beast flew past them. It was swift as a hawk, but much, much larger. As its shadow passed over them, Laerth felt such fear as he had never known hammering at his body, running ice-cold through his veins. He pushed himself upright, turning to watch as the black creature flapped towards a clearing and landed there.
"What the hell… You two see it, don’t you? It’s down where we split up?" Not so very far away, really, some few miles below them.
Celebrian was already on her feet, staring down at it. "Haleth," she whispered forcefully. “Haleth is down there with it.”
"What.. we…" Laerth managed to make it to his feet, although it was not without a cry of pain. He grasped at his thigh. "We have to help her!"
"She wields the strength of her past, and her people; she…"
"Well, you can sit here if you want, but there was a rider on that thing! I’m going to help her.”
Celebrian was torn. She, too, wanted to go to Haleth, but what help could they truly be until after Haleth had won this terrifying battle? And if she lost? It will come to us next.. The beast flew up into the air again and began circling over the clearing, swooping low over the treetops. It was terrifying to watch from this distance — near enough to see shapes, but too far to help.
Celebrian looked to Lassiel.
"It would be wiser to remain," she said quietly, but there was questioning in that statement: but would it be right? Do we wait for Thranduil, or attempt to go to Haleth?
As for Laerth, he had used a piece of fabric from the discarded leg of his trousers and had picked up a still-hot ember. He pressed it against his wound, breathing raggedly at the pain, then cast it back into the fire when enough searing felt to have been done. It was not much improvement, but it was some.
Celebrian looked at the foolish man sadly. There was no point in stopping Laerth from doing what he did; he was already lost, and how he met that end was only for him to decide.
"How can you be so distant?" Laerth demanded of Celebrian, angry and shocked. He was covered in sweat and shaking with exhaustion, but he tied a tight binding around his leg and shook his head, then turned to go back the way they had come.
Lassiel had been dozing off, still exhausted from the spider’s poison, and finding that it was better to let sleep take her over than to remain awake and worry about Thranduil. When the beast flew overhead, however, she bolted awake, a shock of cold fear going through her. Just what was that thing? She rose to her knees and then, a little shakily, to her feet, her eyes going wide as Haleth’s name was mentioned. She did not know the woman personally, only by reputation, and the thought of her — of anyone — being faced by the flying creature and the rider it had been carrying made her go cold.
She agreed with Laerth that they had to do something, though she was at a loss as to what. Two of them were injured, and Celebrian was not a fighter. Not against that… thing.
But it was the only choice. She couldn’t make the run down to the clearing in her state no matter how much she wanted to; she didn’t have the energy. And as determined as Laerth was to go help, she doubted he would make it far on his leg.
"You go. You’re the only one who can," she told Celebrian, moving closer to the fire and making sure Tauriel’s bow and quiver were close by. "I can shoot well enough to defend myself if I have to, and I will wait for Thranduil." She smiled at the other woman, tired but encouraging. "Laerth, come back. Please. Wait with me. By the time Celebrian gets there, whatever will happen will have happened. There is nothing any of us can do; Haleth is strong, and if she survives we’ll be of more use to her here, with supplies and a fire." Her eyes were sad as she looked at him; the fight Haleth had would not be easy, though she doubted it would be long.
Haleth had stayed well back from the mourning beast; she had no desire to get taken out by the thing after having survived that fight, and when it took off, body in hand, she collapsed against the nearest tree, needing to catch her breath and process what had happened. She sat, dazed, for as long as she dared, then set about cleaning Haladin. Time wasn’t something she had a lot of, but she could not travel with a bloody sword. It was fortunate that she had plenty of water still; at five days into her journey, she should still have enough to get her back to the village if she set off that night.
They wouldn’t be prepared. There was no way, even if everyone was managing to work together — she was hopeful for that outcome, but she couldn’t be blindly optimistic about it, either. Not that it would matter, in six days, maybe seven. If she pushed herself she could make it back in three, three and half days, and that would give them a little more time. Just a little. Too little.
Frustrated, she threw the rag she’d been using to clean Haladin with to the side, and inspected the sword carefully. That was the best she could for now, and she sheathed it. Her eyes drifted about the clearing; there was blood pooled where the wraith — no, man — had fallen, and it was a ghastly sight. She hoped it wouldn’t startle anyone too badly if they all managed to retrace their steps and return to this place to camp — if anyone would even still be alive in a week’s time.
Scowling, she took a deep breath to try to relax. Thinking that way wasn’t going to do anyone any good, least of all her, in that moment, before anything had truly happened. She needed to eat something to regain some energy, resettle her pack, and be off. There was no time for worrying, and there wouldn’t be until there was no point of it either way. They would live or they wouldn’t. The present was what she needed to focus on, and she sighed as she pulled some dried fish out of her supplies; it didn’t taste like much of anything, but she would regret not eating later when she was on the march and didn’t want to pause.
Her eyes fell on the man’s sword and she crossed the clearing to pick it up; it was just steel now, and only as dangerous as any other sword. She would take it with her, she decided; maybe Thorin would find some answers in it where she could not. She crammed the last bit of fish she’d pulled out in her mouth and retrieved the extra shirt she’d brought along from her pack, intending to wrap the fabric around the blade to protect it as best she could on the way back, when she heard steps approaching. Her senses were on immediate high alert and she whirled around, sword ready to strike, to face the intruder.
It was not at all who she was expecting.
"Celebrian?" she asked, her surprise clear in her voice.
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “I don’t… I don’t know my own name… it was — taken from me. I gave it away..” He stared down at the sword for a moment, then met her eyes, his own growing urgent.
"There’s no time, woman." Letting go of the blade, he grabbed her shoulders instead, shaking her once - as if that would help. "There’s no time to waste! We’re days away. Days! Six, seven at the most. There is a village on this island, on the eastern shore, do you—-” letting go of her, he turned and started coughing again, wet and hacking. Gasping for breath, he tried to pull the sword out of himself, but he no longer had the strength.
Looking at her again, the plea was there in the man’s eyes as he caught his breath. Take it out. End me. Please.
"…you must warn them. A horde approaches, driven by — darkness. Gods, such hate…” His eyes teared up when he started coughing again, and a great deal of blood coated the black sleeve he held against his lips.
Her eyes widened in alarm as he grabbed and shook her; she would be blood all over if he kept it up, but she let him hold on. The urgency in his voice, what he was saying, was much more important than what she would look like. Seven days at the most! That was — there was no time for everyone to be prepared, they were counting on it being weeks, she’d return to find everything in ruins if she returned at all. Whatever he was now, whatever he had been, he had just given her time to get back and warn them. Finding the others would be useless now.
Haleth reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, her other moving towards the hilt of Haladin, grasping it. He was suffering, and she found herself caring because of the chance he had given them.
"I will. I can make it back before they arrive." She would not be able to rest often, and it could be close, but she could. "Thank you," she said, voice gentle, as she wrapped her other hand around the hilt as well and pulled her sword free, setting it to the side. Even if he could reach it, he wouldn’t be able to harm her.
He’d never harm anyone again.
"Thank you," Haleth repeated, grasping one of his hands and squeezing it. She could see the life leaving his eyes already, and while she could not mourn him, but she would not leave him to die alone.
In that first instant, it seemed that Haladin had done no good, and that her brave move had in fact been foolish. The wraith grabbed hold of the blade and twisted his body away from her, pulling the sword right out of her hands. He started to jerk it out of himself, as carelessly as a blackberry hungry child would flick a thorn — but then, with a soft and hoarse cry of pain and surprise, a very human cry, he staggered.
Red blood began pumping out around the blade, running down it. Red. Thick and dark and very, very human looking.
Above, the beast screamed in rage and dove down, but the wraith held his fist up and it screeched again, banking away.
He fell to his knees, his own sword clattering to the ground. This time, the sound it made as it struck was different from the others. During their battle, every cry of steel on steel had been a harsh assault on the ears, the screaming of souls in torment — but as it fell and bounced off of a stone, it was no more than the sound of steel. Good steel, but steel all the same.
He was panting for breath - for the first time. When he realized that, everything for the wraith seemed to slow. Looking up at the woman, seeing her, he realized she was obscured by the black fabric over his face. Once, that fabric had existed largely to give shape to a void. Now, he felt it. His face.
With trembling hands, he fumbled his gloves off, then tore off his veil and hood.
A man looked up at Haleth. He squinted against the sunlight and tears came to his eyes.
The blade stuck in his belly was aching and he put his hands on it, but he looked at Haleth again.
"I am… alive?" he asked her, awed and disbelieving.
How long since I have felt the wind on my skin? On skin. Cool wind against my own warmth… and the sun, oh, the sun. Why does it seem forever since I have known your caress?
The man was middle-aged and made handsome by what must have been a life of confidence. Perhaps he had been a business owner, a leader - perhaps even a warrior or a king. When he had first taken his veil and hood away, there had been pale white skin and black veins in his face, but the sunlight seemed to burn it all away. Human.
He was human.
Shuddering, he choked on something, then coughed up blood. Looking up at Haleth again, he shook his head. His eyes were a faded blue, but perhaps they had once been merry — long, long ago, before they were corrupted.
He had been arrogant once. He had been arrogant, cruel, greedy, and selfish beyond all reckoning, but in the moment that he knelt before Haleth, slowly dying, he was grateful.
This is it, then, Haleth had thought as the sword was wrenched away from her, a sadness sweeping through her as she thought of Thorin and Bilbo, and how they would never know what happened to her. She was about to make one last lunge to try to reclaim her weapon — futile, she knew, but she would not die standing there, afraid — when the cry of pain made her freeze. That sound wasn’t the distant, hissing sort of sound the wraith had been making. It was human, completely human, and she couldn’t help the horrified gasp that left her when blood started to well and run down the blade.
What had happened?
She did not regret her actions; the creature had been trying to kill her, and if it had had the same chance, she would be the one on her knees, bleeding to death. She was shocked, however, when its gloves came off and the very human hands reached up to pull the hood away, revealing a very human face. She took a step back, alarmed. This time when he spoke his voice was also very human — and in pain. He looked as surprised as she was at this development, and she had to shake herself out of her shock at seeing him cough up blood to answer him.
"It appears so," she said, as calmly as she could. Color was returning to the man’s face — as much as possible, considering he was bleeding out, his hands still around her sword. Even if she pulled it out and set to work immediately there would be no saving him; her strike had been meant to kill, and it was. But how? How had that creature been replaced by this man? There was some nobility about him, though she doubted he had been kind.
"Who are you?" There was a faint tremor to her voice; there were tears in his eyes as he looked at her, and he looked… was that gratitude? “How —” she took a cautious step forward, then another. Haleth doubted he would be able to pick his own blade up again, but she kicked it away anyway, then knelt in front of him, dark eyes meeting his.
The Wraith hissed softly when he got closer to her. He touched the blade of his sword against Haladin, rasping it down along the length of it, edge to edge. It was a terrible sound, the meeting of pure steel with something so foul and cursed.
He gave no reply to her question. She was beneath knowing of his master, beneath speaking of him. Still, she was different than the other humans he had met. The Vikings had fought him and his people at every turn, but they had also fled. They had feared. The Wraith sensed that same fear in Haleth; it was satisfying to be near, like a wonderful salve. He drank it in, well aware that the closer he got to her, the stronger the fear would grow in her body. And yet —- and yet there was that wrongness about her. She stood straight, she looked as if she would never run, and she was wielding a sword that, even to his accursed sight, seemed bright and terrible.
He wondered if it would hurt him. Nothing else did. Of course, that didn’t matter.
Feeling the silent call of something or someone, the Wraith had little time to waste on such a hotblooded, insignificant creature. A need was pulsing in him, almost like a heartbeat once had, and that need was almost physically pulling him towards —- something.
But she. She was some sort of protector, wasn’t she? This woman would stand between him and that darkly summoning pulse.
With another hiss, the Wraith burst into motion, attacking her.
It took every ounce of self-discipline in her to not wince away as the creature scraped his blade down hers. The sound sent a shudder through her and she forced herself to focus on the wraith’s every movement, waiting for him to strike. She had no doubt that he would; he was too focused on her, too threatening. There was no reason for him not to attack — and with his hiss, she knew it was coming.
If she hadn’t have had that warning, she would be dead. Haleth acknowledged this as they fought; he was strong, and swift, and not at all natural. He didn’t move quite right, or — something. She wasn’t certain, and did not have time to think on it. The wraith was relentless; she was more on the defensive than she’d like, spending most of her energy on blocking rather than attacking. If did not figure something out, find some opening, she would wear down eventually, and something told her it would be much sooner than the creature would tire.
She could hear the beast he’d been riding circling overhead; it could swoop in and attack at any more, and — no. Focus, she hissed at herself as the dark sword just barely missed doing her some major damage. Thinking about the flying thing would do her no good: she had to move, she had to fight, she had to — there!
Stepping quickly to one side, she sank Haladin through the wraith’s middle, twisting it viciously. This thing was not human; she needed to do as much damage as possible; if this was the only chance she got, at least it would hurt.