Ioreth and Dirhael died every night in his sleep.
Talion’s mind returned again and again and again to that moment when the Hand slit their throats, to the frantic attempts to comfort his son any way that he could before he died, to his wife’s declaration that they would all be together in death. And always, it ended when the Hammer and the Tower dragged him up by his hair, exposed his throat, and the Hand sliced the tender skin and blood sprayed freely from the wound.
That was always where the nightmare ended.
And Talion usually awoke one of two ways: Choking and gasping for air, his throat seizing from the memory of when it had been cut, or screaming at the very top of his lungs.
Undead though he was, and longer though it took him to become tired now, Talion did require sleep. Celebrimbor had suggested that he take refuge in the Silver Towers, where no Orc or Uruk or living beast of any manner could enter; Talion had looked at him with eyes red from exhaustion (and Mordor’s endless supply of soot) and asked, “Does that include Sauron and his larger minions?”
“Sauron can see it, but he is incorporeal and cannot enter or do anything of any consequence to us.” The ‘for now’ went unspoken, for they both knew well that it was there. “The Hammer and Tower are not able to enter.”
“And the Hand?” Talion had pressed.
Celebrimbor’s silence was not reassuring. Eventually he said, “I am unsure.” He looked at Talion in a way that was eerily similar to the way Ioreth would look at him, once upon a time, when he was being especially stubborn or hard-headed. “Would you rather find a hole to crawl into, and pray that no spiders have hidden a nest there? Or that it’s not discovered by a hungry Caragor, or an Orc?”
The answer was obvious: Just because Talion would inevitably come back to life didn’t mean he was eager for death.
So it was in the Silver Towers that he slept, and he quickly learned that the added benefit of sleeping in them when no one could enter but him and Celebrimbor was that, when he woke up screaming, the Orcs could search for the source of the sound all they liked, but they would never find it.
Tonight was a screaming night. Tonight was one of the nights where Talion’s throat did not close up at the memory of his death, and instead opened wide so that he could scream his terror and anguish out loud. His voice sounded so ragged, blood-curdling when he screamed from the nightmares. He didn’t sound human anymore: He sounded like a beast- a wounded, agonized beast.
Talion clawed at himself, trying to throw off the phantom claws that still dug into his skin, his scalp, his clothes, as though success might mean he could undo everything that had already happened.
It was only atop the Silver Towers that Celebrimbor had anything remotely resembling corporeal form, and Talion felt the wraith’s hands, like a cold swath of heavy mist, enveloping his arms and torso. The first time Celebrimbor had touched him this way it had sent Talion into panicked convulsions, not certain what he was feeling or what exactly was happening. But he was accustomed to it now- mostly because on more than one occasion he’d nearly tumbled over the edge of the tower in a panic. Celebrimbor could not quite stop Talion from moving, but the cold and wet-feeling that his wraith-self created was usually a help in bringing Talion back to reality.
Talion scratched at his throat, the ethereal stone of the tower, and it was only after he’d screamed himself hoarse that he finally, truly came back to the here and now, the current day, place, and time, in which he was still (technically) alive, and his wife and son were long dead, bodies either buried by Gondorian reinforcements… or else rotting on the Black Gate still.
Thoughts like those were what kept the nightmares coming back.
Talion, breathing heavily, rolled over. Celebrimbor had retreated to a respectful distance. “The same dream?”
“The same,” Talion rasped. “I should almost want for some other terrible thing to happen, so that I might at least wake screaming to something else.”
“Don’t,” Celebrimbor snapped. “Never wish for worse, Talion. Worse can and will happen.”
“You’re not wrong,” Talion mumbled, stretching out his legs and standing up.
Celebrimbor eyed him critically. “You’ve only slept three hours.”
“It was enough. I’m fine now.”
That wasn’t completely true: His legs were shaking his and his eyes burned from the same exhaustion he’d felt before dropping off to sleep. But Talion never slept well after the nightmares, and they always seemed to awake in him that savagery, that desire to find every Orc and Uruk in this godforsaken land and tear their heads off.
The nightmares were awful.
The daydreams he had of running the Black Hand, the Tower, and the Hammer through with his sword were much better.
Celebrimbor was still eyeing him skeptically. The wraith had made himself Talion’s keeper, and Talion was torn between aggravation at being lectured by the dead Elf and a deep, abiding sense of appreciation that he was there, and that he did seem to have some care for Talion beyond the strictly necessary. Celebrimbor did not need to rouse the Ranger from his screaming nightmares; he did not need to stop Talion from falling over the edge of the Silver Towers, because he would not die from the fall. But he did anyway, all for the sake of this strange kinship they’d formed.
If Talion didn’t have anyone with him, if he’d walked this cursed existence alone, he might have gone mad by now and started eating bugs with some of the madder Orc Captains.
“I will live,” He assured the wraith.
“A poor choice of words,” Celebrimbor drawled.
Talion shrugged, forced a smile, tried to immerse himself in the banter, the here and now, and banish the image of his wife struggling against the Uruk, half-sobbing for Dirhael, and swearing they would be together forever in death. If Talion consumed himself with all that surrounded him, maybe her agonized screams when the Hand had cut their son’s throat would stop echoing in his ears, driving him mad.
“Well, I suppose Elves aren’t famed for their sense of humor,” He remarked, and Celebrimbor returned with a flat look, the one he used when he thought Talion was being foolish or childish. “I’ll make a deal with you- If I accidentally get my head cut off and end up back here, I’ll go back to sleep.”
“I doubt that.”
“You know me too well.”
Talion turned back towards the edge, and as one, they jumped.