Talion rises on shaking legs, face pale, eyes bloodshot.
And for the first time, Celebrimbor is without words, at a loss as to what it is he could say to alleviate whatever terrible things are oppressing Talion’s mind.
The Ranger meets his gaze, and the word that comes to mind is brittle.
“We will never speak of this again.”
Celebrimbor is not now as he was alive.
There are moments when he understands this with startling clarity, moments when something happens and Celebrimbor realizes, I have fallen from what I was.
Alive, he was firm and serious, but not without kindness or laughter; as a Wraith, he finds himself trapped in a state of bitterness and vengefulness, and it is only the shock on Talion’s face, in his voice, when he is alerted to the fact that he’s said something uncommonly, unconscionably callous.
He is less kind, less understanding, less mindful of others.
A sharp word from Talion is sometimes all it takes to tug him closer to what he once was, to the life he’d once had, to the Elf that would have stopped to assist some slaves in freeing themselves from their Orc masters, or been inclined to engage in activities contrary to his ultimate goal, born of sentimentality.
But more often than not, there is a disconnect between the Wraith that is Celebrimbor in name only, and the Elf that embodied everything that was Celebrimbor.
And he is often not capable of seeing it until it’s too late.
“We need to find the Worm with information on the Warchief,” Celebrimbor had said, pale eyes scanning what little of the Stronghold they could see for clues.
And Talion, Talion was hesitant.
“There’s so many of them.”
“This is Mordor, Orcs are everywhere.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to get out if they swarm me.”
Celebrimbor was impatient, so impatient, far more so than he ever was in life. Perhaps it was millennia languishing in the in-between, unable to move on and unable to act without a physical form. Guilt lingers just out of reach, occasionally descending far enough to touch, for Celebrimbor to feel poorly for lying to Talion about their circumstances, that it is Celebrimbor who has cursed him to deathlessness and no one else.
He would not understand, the Wraith thinks insistently, pushing the guilt away. He would not understand years upon endless years of limbo in the wraith-world. He would not understand what it is to be trapped in Mordor for thousands of years, stewing in rage, with only Orcs for company.
“We need that information,” Celebrimbor had insisted. “Go in, go out, and get it done. Unless you want to languish in this forsaken land any longer than you already have?”
Talion will not speak.
He has lain atop the Silver Tower for a week. Thankfully he does not require food or drink to live, or he might have withered and died already (and returned to precisely where he now lies).
Celebrimbor attempted to rouse him on the third day, and received a sword sliced clean through his waist for the trouble. Talion has barely moved, save to occasionally roll back and forth. Celebrimbor is certain that he has slept very little; it is the one thing he still requires, even in death.
Now he tries again.
“Talion,” Celebrimbor entreats. “Speak to me.”
Talion says nothing.
“We have been here for a week.”
“We cannot stay here forever.”
The guilt has done more than just come close now: It has burrowed its way into Celebrimbor’s chest and pulsed outward like a poison, infecting every inch of his incorporeal being. Celebrimbor has not felt emotion of this intensity (beyond anger and bitterness) since he was alive; it feels horrible.
And he deserves it.
Talion was right.
There were too many Orcs.
Too many Uruks
Too many Caragors.
Too many everything.
And their Captain was a rare breed of Orc: He was very, very smart.
“Don’t kill him, you stupid Shrakhs!” He bellowed, as Talion lay gasping, bleeding, cracked (but not broken) on the ground. Celebrimbor felt his dread; at best he would be killed and resurrected atop a Silver Tower, and at worst the Orcs would cause him pain beyond pain before that could happen.
One of the Uruks stared stupidly at the Captain. “Uh… What do you want with him then, Captain?”
He was a big brute, Makush the Flame-Bringer, but he had paced towards Talion in a way that made Celebrimbor nervous; the Wraith was drained of power, there was nothing he could do to assist the Ranger, and the way that the Orc Captain leered at Talion made Celebrimbor dreadfully suspicious of what was to come.
“Bring him to the dungeons! I want to have some fun.”
Talion is sitting against one of the pillars of the tower.
He keeps supplies in the towers, blankets and the trinkets they find scattered throughout Mordor. If he finds something safe enough to eat, he brings it there too, perhaps to maintain the illusion that he still requires sustenance.
Right now, he’s pulled a tattered blanket too well-made to be crafted by Orcs over his shoulders, cocooning himself in a corner. He still does not react when Celebrimbor tries to speak, and for the first time, Celebrimbor finds himself seriously concerned that Talion’s mind has been broken by the events in the Durthang Keep.
Guilt continues to rip at him.
You pushed him.
He knew he couldn’t manage it, and you pushed him.
For your own goals.
Your own gain.
Now he is broken, and it is your fault.
Celebrimbor witnessed it all.
The cell they brought Talion to was a cage, and the Orcs howled and laughed and made merry as their Captain brutalized the legendary Gravewalker, the Tark, the Ranger that had terrorized them for months.
There were the usual tortures: They forced grog down Talion’s throat, watched him gag and vomit and clutch his stomach; they broke his arms and legs, twisting the bones slowly so they cracked like dry wood; they branded him, burned him; they slashed his arms and legs with non-fatal cuts, then dumped salt and sand and dirt into the raw, bleeding wounds.
Talion tried to fight. He reared up, kicked and thrashed and bit and clawed, and Celebrimbor tried to help, but if Talion could not move, could not recover, then neither could Celebrimbor. He felt each injury, but it was a muted sensation, nowhere near the agony that Talion was experiencing.
“It will be over soon,” Celebrimbor assured Talion with confidence he did not have. “They will tire, they will slip up; you can kill them and then yourself and return to the Silver Tower. We will kill them later. There will be reckoning, Talion, I promise you that.”
And Talion, the Ranger whose body Celebrimbor had taken to share for his own uses, looked at him with an expression of pure, undiluted terror.
“Oh, oh, I’ve got a good one,” Makush purred, cutting through Celebrimbor’s assurances and looking at Talion with cruel glee. He rapped on the bars of the cage, pointed to an Orc carrying (what appeared to be) a thin, wooden club. “Give me that.” He nodded to the two Uruks that had assisted him in holding Talion down before. “Aye, you two, pull his pants down and hold him still. I want to hear the sound he makes from this.”
The spectators hooted and hollered.
And Celebrimbor watched it all, heard Talion howl with the pain of this fresh indignity, and what was left of his heart and mind screamed along with him, guilt rushing in and tearing him apart inside out, yelling, wailing-
Talion’s eyes flicker to meet Celebrimbor’s, and the deadness behind his gaze is startling. He says nothing.
“I’m sorry. I pushed you to enter the Stronghold. This is my fault.”
Celebrimbor is culpable for far more than that, but he senses that telling Talion the full extent of his deception will only serve to shatter the Ranger more. I have led him to pain, to humiliation and ruin, and it is entirely my fault, he thinks, and a few familiar but long-forgotten emotions return: Sadness, Grief, Misery, Regret.
This is not who I am, Celebrimbor thinks, clarity perhaps stronger than it’s ever been. What am I doing, leading this man to peril for my own gain? I tell him it’s for our shared vengeance, but it is for mine and mine alone. I have manipulated him, and this is where it has led him. This is not what I want to be!
Celebrimbor will fight to keep this clarity, to cling to these emotions before they can slip away from him. He must not forget them, or he will make other mistakes, will allow the pain and bitterness of his deception and death at Sauron’s hands to cloud his judgment and push him to lead Talion into the unforgiveable sort of peril that they encountered in the Durthang Keep.
“Let me help,” Celebrimbor pleads, coming to kneel before Talion, weaker than he’s felt since the day Sauron chained him down and beat him to death. For the first time in ages, he feels the weight of responsibility to another person, feels the weight of companionship and all it requires on his shoulders. His desire to help Talion is genuine, the words of Celebrimbor the Elf, not Celebrimbor the Wraith. “Please, tell me how I can help you, Talion.”
To his relief, there is something in Talion’s eyes, something that assures him that the Ranger has not gone completely mad.
“I cannot say,” Talion whispers, voice hoarse. “My mind is gone. I don’t know what I want, beyond sleep and silence.”
We cannot stay here forever, the Wraith rears up, insistent, We cannot hide forever. We cannot stay hidden. We need to move against Sauron. The dissonance of the Wraith’s impatience, his unwillingness to delay for Talion’s sake, clashes painfully with Celebrimbor’s renewed sense of compassion.
“Whatever you need,” Celebrimbor says, before he allows himself to say something else. “Rest, and recover. We have time.”
But there is gratitude in Talion’s eyes. A hand creeps out from under the blanket, settles on top of Celebrimbor’s pale, misty one. He moves as though he were squeezing Celebrimbor’s hand, though even to Talion all he can feel is a faint, barely-tangible thing where Celebrimbor’s hand ought to be.
Celebrimbor sits on the other side of the tower and makes war with himself.
We must push on.
We must let Talion recover.
He has had enough time to recover.
He will likely never recover, not fully.
This is war; sacrifices must be made.
Then let those be sacrifices I make of myself, not of others.
But with time, always with time, things slip away.
The sadness recedes.
The sting of the memories lessens.
It is the guilt that stays just long enough for Celebrimbor to hold out, to force himself to be considerate of Talion’s needs. He forces himself to remember what he witnessed in that cage, forces himself to remember how the Orcs howled and laughed at Talion’s torture, his humiliation, the great Gravewalker brought low.
In the end, Talion rises on his own, slowly shakes off the daze and starts to become more like himself. His hands tremble when he picks up Archarn, and he pales when a patrol of Orcs marches past the tower.
“Are you ready?” Celebrimbor asks.
Talion hesitates, breathes slowly, and then says, “As I’ll ever be, I suppose.”
I chose well, Celebrimbor thinks, so satisfied is he by Talion’s recovery that he doesn’t notice the last of those desperate emotions bleeding away, retreating to a safe distance where they could not affect him as readily as they had before. Talion is strong. Talion is fine.
The guilt needles somewhere in the background, the voice of the Elf he was insisting that he remember, but the Wraith pushes it away, irritated by its distraction.
Talion is fine now.
And so it is time for them to resume their mission.
Whatever the cost.