Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters, races, and creatures, as well as our beloved Middle Earth, belongs to JRR Tolkien.

"The Chieftain wants to see you."

Jeren lifted her eyes over the rim of her teacup as she listened to the message delivered by the ranger standing across the table from her. She'd only just gotten back to the settlement last night and needed more rest. She knew she should have stayed in her loft room above the stable this morning, but hunger had driven her to the dining hall to break her fast instead.

She'd not even thought that Aragorn would be here. The last she heard he was headed to Bree on some mission for Gandalf. His departure must have been delayed for some reason.

She heaved a big sigh, not wanting to move.

"Now!" the ranger insisted. "It is unwise to keep him waiting."

She slowly got up, leaving her plate of breakfast and much needed cup of tea on the table, meaning to return to them as soon as she'd determined what the exalted Lord Chieftain required of her. She made her way to Aragorn's alcove, where he kept his desk and where he usually conducted whatever business he meant to conduct. But he was not there, although she did find Halbarad nearby. Not one of her favorite people anyway—nor she his—he put the frown she expected in place as soon as his eyes met hers.

"I am looking for Lord Aragorn," she said, neither amiably, nor with the sarcasm she so dearly wanted to use.

"Infirmary," was his terse reply, delivered as unpleasantly as he could possibly make it.

Always wanting to take the high road when she dealt with Halbarad, she thanked him, even though it galled her to do so. She loved Rhyse, but his parents—especially his father—she could do without.

As she made her way to the infirmary, she thought about Rhyse and how he'd finally insinuated himself into her heart. It had been three years since she'd been recruited into the Dúnedain rangers, and likewise, since Rhyse had declared his love for her. She was glad that he had been patient, waiting until she was ready to give him a chance—the reward for that had been sweet indeed, for both of them.

Just as she thought she would never get Elladan out of her heart, she was astounded one day to realize that Rhyse had overtaken that spot from the Elf Jeren thought she would always love above anyone else. But that was definitely so no longer. She loved Rhyse and did not think she would love anyone else as long as she lived.

But they had not gotten around to marriage yet. They were together in all ways that mattered, except that she'd kept her room in the loft and he'd kept his bunk in the barracks, when he wasn't sharing her bed, that is.

They made no secret of their love, nor did they flaunt it, and so far, news of their arrangement was not common knowledge in the little settlement. The village seemed to be made up of mouths and ears—tongues that flapped and listeners that heard half-truths and downright lies. They'd been sharing a bed now and then for over a year, and the fact that it was still secret said much for Jeren and Rhyse's discretion. Halbarad and his wife Firiel did not truly know how their son spent many of his evenings, but neither were they stupid. So whenever Jeren chanced to meet either of them, they made no secret concerning how they felt about her.

It mattered not to Jeren, though. She was content for the first time in her life.

Jeren opened the door to the infirmary, which was housed just off the rangers' barracks. It was one large ward with several beds in two rows, against opposite walls. The Warden was perched on a stool in front of his herb cabinet, and he nodded to her as she passed. Jeren then saw Aragorn at the far end of the room sitting in a chair, just visible where a curtain had been drawn around a single bed. Her footsteps rang on the wooden floor, and Aragorn glanced up, got to his feet, and then met her in the middle of the room. He pointed the way back toward the door, and she silently preceded him out again.

As soon as the door closed, he said, "Walk with me."

They headed in the general direction of the main hall. Jeren assumed they were going to the alcove, where Aragorn would probably bless her out for some minor infraction she'd committed, no doubt reported by her captain, Joem. It was funny, she no longer thought of him as "The Mouth", even though his predilection for spreading gossip had not completely abated. Unbelievable though it may seem, Jeren and Joem were now friends, especially after she passed the trials she had to endure to become a full-fledged ranger of the Dúnedain and part of his patrol.

No one else was in the hall, which turned out to be a good thing, considering the subject they were about to discuss.

"Brid's patrol brought in a young woman day before yesterday," he said, fixing her with a penetrating stare. "I was sitting with her in the infirmary when you found me just now." He took his pipe from his belt, along with some pipeweed, filled the bowl, and then lit it, taking a long pull. He let the smoke escape from between his barely parted lips before he continued.

"She was rescued from Orcs. They'd raided the homestead she shared with her parents and one brother. She was the only survivor. Brid and his men came upon the raid as it was in progress, but not before a few of the Orcs had had their way with her." He paused, obviously gauging what Jeren's reaction might be.

She continued looking at him, but the response on her face was not what Aragorn expected. He thought she might seem embarrassed or apprehensive about this subject, but instead, her face was gradually brightening, and a smile slowly bloomed on her lips.

"A survivor…" Jeren said triumphantly, as her smile grew.

"Her name is Haleth, but that is all the information she has given," Aragorn continued. "She won't let anyone near her, so far, but I think her hurts are minor—at least those that are physical. She has said nothing, other than to repeat her name. I suspect she is at the most eighteen years, although she will not give her age, or what her father's name was.

"I am unsure whether her mind has been damaged, or if she is just self-conscious, or perhaps in some sort of passing shock brought on by the death of her family. I've had your Aunt Elen in the infirmary trying to tend to her, but Haleth will not speak to her either, nor answer her when she asks if she needs some sort of poultice for—"

Aragorn did not finish his sentence, and while he did not seem embarrassed to be speaking of such delicate things, he did seem wary concerning what Jeren might think about him making reference to this subject. She certainly knew what he meant, and showed no outward reaction to his words.

"I was hoping that she would be more apt to talk to you, since you are also a woman and more of her age. Perhaps if you told her of your experience, she might feel more at ease. I would like to know if she has some family somewhere, so that we might find some of her people."

Jeren was elated that someone else had lived to tell of surviving an Orc raid, even though, as she knew from her own past, the telling of it would not be an easy thing.

"Of course I would talk to her. May I go now?" she asked as she rose; her eagerness to be about the task was apparent. She had completely forgotten her breakfast, which would no doubt punish her later, when she grew so famished she would not be able to ignore her stomach's protesting any longer.

Aragorn raised his brows and smiled crookedly, as if unsure about Jeren's instant enthusiasm for the task he was giving her.

He chuckled slightly as he looked to a document lying on his desk. "Go," he said with a wave toward the door. But he looked up again, and seemed to add as an afterthought, "And do not forget; next time you have the occasion to disobey your captain's orders—just because you know a more efficient way to accomplish whatever it is he wants to accomplish—do not." He smiled as he shook his head slightly. "We have been over this rule many times, Jeren, and what do I hear this morning from Joem? 'Chieftain—I know not what to do with her.' When will you learn?"

"Perhaps if you make me a captain, I will not ever have to learn it," she quipped, as she stepped away.

Jeren heard Aragorn's quiet laughter as she left the room.


"Well met, Haleth," Jeren said to the girl staring vacantly at nothing from the infirmary bed. There was no response from the young woman, who appeared as if her mind no longer lurked behind her empty eyes. Minutes ticked by, with no reaction from Haleth, but Jeren was not deterred.

She pulled the chair that Aragorn had vacated earlier up closer to the girl's bed, so that she might speak and the entire room did not have to hear. She looked at Haleth, pale and shaking in the bed. Yes, she appeared afraid and ashamed, but her right cheekbone bore the only visible bruise on her. This puzzled Jeren, since she'd been beaten very badly in her private battle with Orcs.

"I, too, have been beset by Orcs, Haleth," she said quietly. "I lived, and I am a rarity, but they beat me near to death. How was it you were not hurt more badly?"

The girl's eyes, blank at first, gradually took on more life as Jeren spoke. Haleth was looking right at Jeren by the time Jeren was finished speaking.

Haleth started to reply, but her words seemed to stick in her throat, dry and raspy. She began coughing with the scratch of her unused voice, and Jeren helped her drink some water from a glass left full on the table beside the bed. When she could finally speak, Haleth said, "You think I am not hurt badly? I beg to differ…"

"Forgive me, Haleth," Jeren said, abashed at her own insensitivity. She had never been the feminine sort, so delicacy was not second nature to her. "I did not mean that you were not hurt. I know—more so that you might think—exactly how you feel. The shame is overwhelming."

Haleth had gone back to staring into space, not even looking at Jeren any more. So Jeren decided to get Haleth's attention again.

"I know how it feels to spy them on your land—in your house. I know what it is to run from them and have them catch you, despite your best effort; how it is to fight them until you have no fight left, and then you have no choice but to stay still and let them they do what they will to you. I know…"

Tears began trickling from Haleth's eyes the longer Jeren spoke. Jeren spied a small cloth on the table beside the bed and picked it up, pressing it into Haleth's hand.

"I am sorry," Jeren said. "I seem to be making this worse, and that is not my intent. I only want you to know that I admire your courage! You fought them and you won, just like I did. That is something of which to be proud! You have no shame in this. None!"

"I have naught of which to be proud," Haleth said, her eyes suddenly jerking to Jeren's once again. Her tone was of such self-loathing that Jeren truly knew not what to say or do any more. The silence grew between them, even as Haleth continued to stare at Jeren, and then Haleth started speaking again.

"I did not fight," she finally said. "I was so afraid—they killed my mother before my eyes and all I could do was watch—I did not aid her. They came after me first, and my mother thought to save me from them. I could do nothing but scream as they killed her. I am alive and she is dead, and it is my fault!" Her voice had risen the longer she talked, and tears rained down her face. Jeren instinctively got up from her chair and sat on the edge of Haleth's bed. She grabbed the young woman by the shoulders, startling her at first, but then Jeren hugged Haleth to her, letting her cry until she could not cry any more.

As the girl's sobbing subsided, Jeren began talking to her in a soothing voice.

"The Orcs killed your mother—you did not. It is not your fault—none of it. Orcs are brutal and strong, and there is nothing an unarmed woman can do against them. Nothing."

Jeren propped Haleth's pillows against the wall, helping the young woman to sit up in the bed.

Haleth mopped at her eyes with the cloth Jeren had given her. "After they'd stabbed my mother to death, they came after me again, and panic took my breath. I thought I was dying—I felt as it my heart stopped stock still. I must have fainted, and when I woke up, I was naked and I knew what they'd done—I knew—"

Haleth sobbed for a few minutes more, and Jeren found the girl's hand and held it fast. When she'd told Aragorn she would talk to Haleth, she had not thought it through. She knew it would be hard for Haleth to speak of it, but she had not considered how hard it would be for her to listen to the girl's story.

"When I woke up, the Orcs were gone, but there were five men standing there gawking at me." Haleth's tears rose once again, as she recalled the shame of the whole ordeal.

"Men have no sense, half the time," Jeren said, in agreement with Haleth. "But they brought you here—and here is exactly where you need to be right now. There are people to care for you and help you here." Jeren thought for a minute, wondering whether to commit Elrohir to a conversation with Haleth without asking him first, but she knew he would help if asked. "There is someone else I would like for you to meet—Elrohir. He is—"

"No!" Haleth exclaimed. "I'll talk to no more men."

"He is not a man," Jeren said gently. "He is an Elf, and he helped me get through this same thing years ago. I would not have survived if not for him."

"An Elf?" The look of trepidation on the girl's face made Jeren think that Haleth probably had never laid eyes on one of the firstborn, which was not all that unusual; Jeren had never met any Elves until Elrohir and Elladan had rescued her all those years ago. "I will consider it," Haleth said, although Jeren could tell by Haleth's expression and her tone that she meant it not at all.

"Alright," Jeren said, knowing she would have to talk long to persuade Haleth to speak with either of the twins. "I understood Lord Aragorn to say that you've allowed no one to help you. Orcs are nasty and dirty, and you really should at least be well cleansed. Do you feel up to a bath?"

Haleth darted a glance at Jeren, but her only answer was a simple nod.

"I can have Lord Marach—he's the Warden here—fetch the tub and find some men to fill it with hot water. We'll put the tub here—behind the curtain—you will be in complete privacy. I will make sure of it. And while you bathe, I will get Lord Marach to mix a poultice to apply to your—nether regions—that will kill any infection and ease the discomfort I know that you feel."

Haleth didn't say anything. She'd begun to look at nothing again. But Jeren knew what the girl saw with her eyes wide open, and she didn't envy her the sight at all.


Jeren approached Lord Marach, beginning to speak before she'd completely reached him. "My lord, if you would please have someone bring the tub and set it up near Haleth's bed? She has agreed to bathe as long as her privacy is preserved. I will return in a few moments to help her. And please see that the men filling it neither watch her nor try and speak with her. She's very fragile right now, as you might expect."

"Bless you, Jeren," he said. "I've tried all I could think of to help her, but with no results. And so have Lord Aragorn and even Elen. But I think she just needed a woman closer to her age. Thank you for taking an interest in her, my lady."

Lord Marach was a very kind, older gentleman, and Jeren had always liked him. She believed that Haleth would feel the same way, eventually, but right now she feared almost anything male, as Jeren could completely understand.

"Also, if you mix a poultice for her, I will show her how to use it. I know she must need something—" Jeren tried to act as if discussing this with him did not embarrass her, but her face had gone hot, so she knew she was blushing.

But Lord Marach, being the man that he was, gave no indication that he'd noticed her unease. "I will see to it now," he said, and turned to go to the herb cabinet he used.

Jeren went back to Haleth's bed and was glad to note that the girl's eyes followed her as she approached. That was progress, Jeren supposed.

"Haleth, as you no doubt heard, a tub will be brought and filled. I will return before it is completely done, so do not fear that I have abandoned you, I only must find my captain and report to him for the day. I am sure he will allow me back here, since it was Lord Aragorn who requested I aid you, and he is the Chieftain here. Why don't you try to sleep for a little while? You must be exhausted."

Haleth nodded, and Jeren left, going first to find Elrohir. She understood that Haleth wanted to speak to no one else, but Jeren also knew that Elrohir could help the girl. She just knew it.

She walked back to the main hall, where not only would she find Joem, but she would also find the room the twins shared. She had no idea if they were even at the settlement right now, but decided to take the chance and find out. Arriving at her destination some five short minutes later, she knocked on their door and heard a muffled, "Enter."

Elladan was sitting at the desk; Elrohir was standing by the window. The shutters that covered the opening had been thrown back, in order that some of the fresh spring air might lessen the stuffiness of the room.

"Jeren," Elladan said with a smile. "You're back."

"How good of you to notice, Elladan," Jeren said with a mocking smile on her lips.

But her happiness at seeing the twins was short-lived, as Jeren remembered the confusion she felt while around the sons of Elrond lately. They seemed to have switched personalities unexpectedly, and she could not figure out the how or why of it. Elladan's relaxed demeanor was easier to explain. He was much more comfortable with her since he'd become aware of her feelings for Rhyse, realizing that Jeren finally understood that what they might have had between them had been no more than wishful thinking on her part. Elrohir, on the other hand, had closed himself off from her. That was puzzling, and one day, when she had the time, she meant to speak to him about that.

"Have either of you heard of the young woman that Brid's patrol rescued from Orcs?"

"We actually rode with Brid's patrol, so not only have we heard, we were there at her rescue," Elladan said. "But she would speak to no one, and I do not think she has changed her mind yet."

"She has spoken to me and she is not doing well. Not only did the fiends—abuse her—she blames herself for her mother's death. When the Orcs overpowered her mother, Haleth froze with fear and did not aid her, so, to Haleth's mind, she allowed them to kill the woman. I've emphasized to her that the fault was the Orcs' alone and not hers, but I think she does not believe me. She is deep in misery and guilt."

"The Orcs had dragged the entire family outside," Elrohir put in. "There was also the father as well as a son, younger than the woman we rescued. From the looks of the scene, the parents were dispatched quickly, while the young ones were reserved for play." The tone of Elrohir's words left Jeren cold. She knew exactly what Orcs considered to be sporting.

"She told me that she fainted when the Orcs beset her, so she has no memory of the actual abuse they gave her. But she knows what they did to her, so I am sure the same thoughts that I had are chipping away at her mind—especially that no decent man will have her now, since she is no longer—"

Jeren let her sentence trail off. They all knew to what Jeren referred, and no one had the heart to come right out and say the word.

"And what would you have us do, Jeren?" Elrohir asked. "She will certainly not wish to speak to us about that."

"I would hope that one or both of you might visit her. Elrohir, I remember when I was despairing, and you told me the story of your mother—that might help."

"But if it is her mother that she despairs about, I see not how that story would aid her. It might just make her more despondent."

Jeren exhaled audibly. "I had not thought about that."

"I will go see her," Elrohir said. "It cannot hurt, I don't suppose. I will be able to judge exactly what might help, as soon as I speak with her some; that is if she will even allow me near."

"That is a small problem," Jeren admitted, her brows knit in thought. After a few moments' pause, she added, "She has refused to speak to anyone but me, so I will have to convince her."

Elladan smiled. "And that is a small problem? As shaken and terrified as she was when she was brought here, it will be more like a mountain than a hill to climb."

"Well, I am up to the challenge," Jeren said, and did not sound boastful. If there was one thing that Jeren was, it was confident—about most everything.

Elladan laughed, resuming his work as Jeren left the room, but Elrohir's haunted eyes followed her out the door.


Jeren helped Haleth rinse her hair after the girl had soaped it and scrubbed her scalp. Haleth had been shy about having Jeren behind the curtain with her while she bathed, but Jeren truly had given her no choice. Before entering the space, Jeren had pointedly asked Lord Marach, in a voice loud enough that she knew Haleth could hear, if he would please guard the curtain against any intrusion. She wanted to make sure Haleth felt as safe as she could possibly feel.

"Haleth, have you any grandparents or aunts or uncles the Chieftain might contact? He knows you would feel more at ease with your own people."

"I have an uncle who lives up in the northern part of The Angle, in a very small village on the Great East Road. I've not seen him since I was a little child, but as I recall, he was overly fond of ale. No, Jeren, there is no one left—only me."

Haleth's hair was finally rinsed to Jeren's satisfaction, so Jeren got up from her crouch beside the tub and fetched a towel for Haleth. Haleth twisted her hair several times, ridding it of as much water as she could. She rose from the tub, and it was then that Jeren saw the bruises and bites Haleth had suffered at the hands of the Orcs.

Haleth's eyes followed Jeren's, and she lifted her fingers to cautiously touch the skin on the side of one of her breasts, bruised and torn where an Orc's filthy teeth had left a ragged bite.

"I have a poultice for your hurts, Haleth," Jeren said, "so they do not become putrid."

"I wish they would become foul—so bad that the sepsis kills me," Haleth said, in a voice so full of hopelessness Jeren almost could not bear it. "I want not to live anymore." Jeren's heart went out to the girl, but she knew that Haleth already felt too sorry for herself. She would not add her pity on top of it—that would only drag the girl further down into her misery.

"How old are you, Haleth?"

"I was seventeen last month."

"Those thoughts are too old for someone so young as you." Jeren felt her attempts at speaking with the girl were falling on deaf ears, so she did not say more.

Jeren closed her eyes at the pain the girl's revelation of her tender age brought to her. She had supposed, as Aragorn had, that Haleth was older than this. Jeren didn't reckon it made much difference what the girl's age might be, but she remembered herself, being sixteen, and thinking her world was gone and her life was no longer worth living. It had been the twins who had made the difference for her. If only Haleth would let them speak to her—would take to heart the things they might say that could help.

Jeren picked up the bowl with the poultice Lord Marach had prepared, and held it out to Haleth.

"No, I won't use it."

Jeren said nothing; she just continued to hold the bowl toward the girl, refusing 'no' for an answer.

Haleth stared Jeren in the eyes for several long seconds, then took the bowl and dipped her fingers into it.


Later that evening, Jeren was in her loft with Rhyse. They both had their weapons spread out on the bed, since the room was so small. They cleaned and honed blades and arrows, making sure the arrows' shafts were whole and not cracked or weakened in any way. As they worked, they talked.

"I dearly love having Joem as our captain," Rhyse said as he polished the blade of his sword. "He has changed much since he was promoted—for the good. And to think he chose the two of us to be in his patrol. You could have knocked me down with a feather when that happened. And the most positive feature he has is that he is always forthcoming about everything he knows."

"That is truthfully said," Jeren agreed, laughing, as she ran a polishing cloth down the blade of her sword. One of the most important tests she'd had to master as a recruit of the Dúnedain rangers had been swordsmanship. Glorfindel had drilled her often and hard, but the sword had never been her weapon of choice, and she had let her skills decline over time, using her longknife instead. It was her longknife first and foremost, that she chose when she fought, and then the bow. But the rangers—especially their Chieftain—refused to see it her way. In fact Aragorn forbid her to use her longknife, claiming in defense of his edict, that its use would one day get her killed.

So she had sparred with whomever she could convince to work with her, until she thought her arm would fail, and had finally mastered the sword to the point that she could pass the test that the leaders gave her.

She chuckled again, thinking about Joem. He was forthcoming to a fault, she would have to say. "What makes you think of him?" she asked Rhyse. "Did he tell you something I am unaware of?"

"He was evidently in conference with Aragorn quite early this morning," Rhyse offered.

"That I know," Jeren assured him. "I've already had the 'you shall follow orders, not usurp them' speech from our illustrious Chieftain." She'd straightened her spine and lowered her voice—as well as her chin—in direct imitation of Aragorn.

Rhyse lay back on the bed, his mirth bubbling out loudly. Jeren soaked it into her heart. Her man's laugh—husky and deep—always warmed her soul, and she did her best to make sure he employed it often when he was with her.

"So what did they discuss? I'm sure Joem told all who would listen."

"Brid's patrol happened onto a raid two mornings ago—quite early. The Orcs had obviously been there much of the night. There weren't that many of them doing the raiding—eight or nine, I think Joem said. But the patrol did not slay them all; they took a few captives—"

"—let me guess," Jeren interrupted, "Elladan persuaded at least one of the captives to spill his secrets."

Rhyse raised his brows and quirked his mouth into a small, lopsided grin. "You guess rightly." He got up from the bed, taking his clean weapons with him, leaning them against the wall in the corner by the door. "Brid sent half his patrol back here with the girl—"

"—Haleth," Jeren supplied.

Rhyse's smile flattened somewhat, showing his frustration at Jeren's inclination for interrupting him, and then he agreed, "Yes, Haleth…" She smiled back at him, knowing he was holding his tongue, and trying not to shout at her for interjecting her two cents into his story constantly tonight.

"And yes, the sons of Elrond rode with Brid's patrol this time, and yes again, Elladan employed his tactics to encourage those captive Orcs to talk."

"And—?" Jeren prompted.

"It was determined that there would be an Orcish gathering of sorts a week hence, in which a large number of Orcs would participate. They even told the location. Elladan must have really been persuasive to get all that information out of them, if it is true, and they were not lying."

"Strange, since Elrohir was there…" Jeren mused, almost to herself. Elrohir had not been himself for quite some time. This only compounded her worry for him. "He usually will not allow Elladan the time he needs to persuade a prisoner. Nor does Lord Elrond approve of his son's actions in cases such as this."

"Elladan has his reasons, I've heard," Rhyse said, his voice serious.

Jeren's tone, when she answered, had an almost faraway quality to it. "You've heard correctly..."

Rhyse began to gather Jeren's arrows, placing them in her quiver one at a time. He and Jeren had rarely discussed her attack by Orcs, only two brief mentions, when they'd first met. That she was thinking of it, he had no doubt, because he knew as well as she did that the twins' mother had also been accosted by the monsters, and that gave Elladan all the reason he needed to give in to his baser need for revenge.

Rhyse smoothly lifted the sword from Jeren's lax fingers and sheathed it. She looked up at him, and he bent down to her, kissing her lips. He broke away long enough to place the sword against the wall, and then joined her on the bed again.

The discussion was apparently over…


Jeren woke with a start. The room was dark; her heart pounded and her mouth was dry.

The dream had seemed so real. The pain, the sorrow—all as if it had happened to her in reality, not in a nightmare. She threw back the covers, the sweat trickling down the side of her face.

No wait—that was a tear. She'd been crying, and no wonder. Who wouldn't cry if confronted with the realism of such a nightmare?

She briefly wondered if her Dúnedain heritage was starting to gift her with insight into her future. No, she would not even entertain such an idea. It was a dream—a nightmare—and nothing more.

She snuggled against Rhyse and was rewarded when his arm came around her. It took not long for her to be asleep once again.


"I spoke to her."

Jeren immediately looked up from her meal to respond to Elrohir. "Really? What did Haleth say?"

"I said I spoke to her," he corrected, "not that she carried on any sort of conversation with me."

They were in the dining hall for evening meal the following night. Rhyse must have been occupied elsewhere; Jeren was sure he would be joining them soon. Elrohir sat his plate down and straddled the bench, then tucked his legs beneath the table, setting a cup beside his plate.

"She remains in a silent sort of mood, Jeren."

"What did you tell her, Elrohir? That she is not at fault for anything? That she stood no chance at saving her mother?"

"That and more," he said, as he took a bite from the bread on his plate. He shoved his meal aside with what looked like a grimace of disgust. Jeren had noticed he'd not been eating well lately—she could actually see that he might have lost a little weight, too.

But he sounded more like himself tonight than he had the past few times she'd seen him, so that gave Jeren hope that whatever it was that bothered him might soon be a thing of the past.

"I stayed with her for almost an hour," he continued, after he'd swallowed the one bite he'd taken of his meal. "It was difficult keeping up a one-sided conversation for that length of time. She looked at me occasionally, especially when I would mention your name, but for the most part, it felt as if I were speaking to a rock."

Jeren raised her brows in question, but since her mouth was full, she didn't voice what it was she wanted to know.

"I did not mention my mother's story at all," he continued. "I decided that was for another time, when she is mentally stronger. But I did tell her your story; I hope you do not mind."

"If it would help her, I'd shout it from the wall."

"I truly know not if it eased her mind at all, but I did mention that having lost your—" Elrohir looked around, and decided the table was not yet filled enough that others would overhear what he said, so he whispered, "—virginity to the Orcs—" then in a quiet voice continued, "you feared that it would lessen your chances at marriage with a decent man. But I told her that it had not, since you are now 'being courted', shall we say, by Rhyse."

"And she said nothing?" Jeren asked. She pointed to Elrohir's plate, silently asking if he was indeed going to eat it; if not, she was eagerly waiting for his consent. He pushed the plate closer to her and smiled before answering.

"Not a word. She did not even return my greeting when I first made myself known to her. Nothing."

"I worry for her, Elrohir," Jeren said in a quiet voice. "When her eyes are not vacant, they are filled with guilt. I hope all goes well with her."

"We've done what we could," Elrohir replied. "When Elladan and I rescued you, you would at least speak to us. I know not if confronting her would be wise at this point. I think the next move is up to her."

"You certainly confronted me enough times, right after it had happened to me," Jeren said with a sour look on her face.

Elrohir laughed, but somehow Jeren couldn't hear any levity in it. "You were so defiant, Jeren, I could not help myself when it came to confronting you."

"It was a good thing Elladan was there," she said, "or I might have gotten up out of that bed and thrown you out myself."

They both laughed at that, but Jeren could still see that Elrohir was not half as happy as he was trying to make himself out to be.