It was midday, but the darkness that hung low over the lands was almost absolute. Black clouds blocked the sun. The rain that fell struck exposed skin with a sting like wind-blown sand. Trees and grasses writhed under the onslaught, leaves momentarily illuminated silver by the infrequent forks of lightning, only to be ripped from their branches by the howling winds. Animals had taken refuge in any available crevice or burrow. Every living thing was braced against the terrible storm.
The sound of pounding hooves echoed faintly in the darkness, confusing those animals near enough to hear it. What beast could possibly be out in the open, suffering the full effects of the storm? A few braved the elements and looked outside their shelters.
And as the beast passed, they squealed in fright and ran back into the relative safety of their shelters, not to emerge until long after full silence and peace had been restored.
The beast took no notice. It was a large black horse, completely bent to the will of its rider, its master. Pain shot up its legs with every step, causing breath to expel from its lungs in sharp gasps. The iron nails that secured its heavy shoes had been driven deep into its feet. The only relief, however minute, came in accepting upon its back the terrible being that was its master.
Khamûl drove the horse onward, oblivious to the animal’s pain. The storm that was, for the time being, keeping his path clear of enemies was of his master’s creation, the remnants of the great summoning that had dragged his temporary charge from wherever she had been before. The child was sitting in the saddle before him, her fear keeping her unconscious.
The horse snorted loudly as low branches whipped out at them. They had finally crossed into the realm of the enemy, and Khamûl knew he did not have much time before their presence was discovered.
Even in a storm as powerful as this, the sharp senses of the Elves did not waver.
A piercing crack echoed suddenly, and the horse uttered a shriek of fright and balked as an old tree gave way and crashed down onto the path before them. Khamûl pulled the beast back around, forcing it under control once more. The tree had been a massive one, but it proved only a slight difficulty. Khamûl drove the horse over the fallen trunk easily.
By the time he pulled the horse to a halt, they were deep in Elf territory, and the storm had finally started to abate. Khamûl could sense the Elves nearby, and knew they were suspicious of his presence. Swiftly, he lifted the child from the saddle and dropped her onto the ground at the foot of a tree. The child moaned and crossed her arms over her chest.
Khamûl sought for the attention of the creature within her again, and felt its rage once more. Before the summoning, his master had given him a shadowy view of what it would look like free of its host and fully grown. It would be a massive beast, monstrous in its strength and deadly in its malice. Its hide would become black and as thick as heavy armor, impervious to even the strongest Elf-arrows. A tail twice the length of the body was tipped with a blade like a spear, and possessing of such strength and flexibility that the creature could easily use it as such.
A surge of malice erupted from the child’s body. The creature seemed all the more unappreciative of Khamûl’s intrusion into its primitive thoughts. Khamûl pulled away, turning the horse around and spurring it back into a gallop. The Elves would soon arrive and discover the child. The last rolls of thunder echoed dully through the slowly clearing skies, but he took no notice of the weather.
Khamûl would stay nearby, bearing witness to the chaos the creature would cause. His master could now turn his efforts elsewhere. It alone could deal with the Elves in King Thranduil’s court.
But first, the creature had to escape from the confines of the child’s body.
* * * * * *
The last rolls of thunder echoed through the halls of the palace of King Thranduil. For a while, the noise had been overwhelming, halting all attempts at activity over the course of the storm. No Elf, not even Thranduil himself, could remember the weather being any worse. But finally, the storm had started to abate, and as the echoes of the thunder died away, the soft patter of feet could be heard echoing through the cavernous corridors.
The she-Elf Maida was hurrying towards the main hall, her footsteps slightly muffled by her soft slippers. Her hair was damp with rain, for she had been outside helping with damage assessment until now. The storm had felled several old trees, and two had come down at the cost of damage to the handsome palace that was her home. She was running to deliver the news to the Queen Amalindë.
As she entered the main hall, she quickly spotted Amalindë standing amidst a small crowd of Elves, greeting the long expected new arrivals. Maida gasped privately as she remembered that important guests from Lórien had been due to arrive today. She quickly approached, standing next to Amalindë as she examined the small group of soaking wet Elves that had just entered Thranduil’s palace.
First and foremost was the Lady Galadriel, to whom Amalindë had already handed her cloak. Standing with her were several Marchwardens—Haldir, Rumil, and Orophin were among the ones Maida could name—and two of Galadriel’s maids. All looked very much the worse for wear. Quickly, Maida untied her own cloak and handed it to one of the Marchwardens she could not name, but stood out among them due to his long dark hair.
“How did you manage to make it?” she asked softly as the Marchwarden accepted the cloak with a smile. “That storm was terrible.”
“Only by the grace of our Lady,” he replied. “But we come with grave news.”
Maida blinked in confusion, but her attention was distracted when Amalindë suddenly gripped her shoulder.
“Maida, where is Thranduil?” she asked, the tone of her voice grim.
“He is outside the north wing,” Maida replied. “That old oak tree fell on. . .”
“Go back for him,” Amalindë interrupted. “We have worse concerns than damage assessment now.”
Maida stared in bewilderment at Amalindë, wondering what was going on. However, before she could say anything more, loud footsteps echoed from the corridor she had just come through.
“There is no need,” came the strong voice of Thranduil as he appeared, regal even though he was dirty with mud and bits of bark. “Milady Galadriel, we were very concerned. How do you fare?”
“We are well,” Galadriel replied. “But there are worse problems now.” She paused, her imposing gaze trailing over the gathered before refocusing on Thranduil. “We sensed the presence of a Nazgul.”
Collective gasps sounded. Maida shivered, crossing her arms. She felt a hand settle on her shoulder, and turned to see Legolas standing behind her. He had been out with Thranduil overlooking the damage, and was as equally wet and muddy as his father. The look on his fair face was grim and solemn.
“We do not know which of the Nine it was,” Haldir continued. “But the threat of his presence was enough that we were forced to combat the storm. He passed in great haste.”
“Did you sense whether or not he is still in our land?” Thranduil asked.
“No,” Haldir replied, shaking his head. “The storm kept us from investigating further.”
“I will assemble a scouting party, and lead them myself,” he said.
“My Marchwardens will accompany you,” Galadriel said softly.
Thranduil bowed to Galadriel before departing, Haldir and the other Marchwardens following. The one she had handed her cloak to paused only long enough to return the garment to her. Legolas shared a long look with Maida before turning and following Thranduil. Maida watched him go, still very uneasy.
“Maida,” Amalindë said, and Maida turned. “Help me tend to our honored guests.”
While Amalindë saw to the needs of the Lady of Lórien, Maida did all she could to help her maids. At first, she felt rather shy around them, for she had met Elves from Lórien only a few times before. However, she was quick to see that they were very friendly and lighthearted. Though as visibly shaken by the presence of a Nazgul as Maida felt, once they were dry and warm they were both very eager to converse with her. Maida brought them some warm tea and sweetcakes, and chatted with them for a while. They had quickly introduced themselves as Aliana and Lilídae.
“You are related to King Thranduil, are you not?” Aliana asked.
“By marriage,” Maida replied. “My mother was Queen Amalindë’s sister.”
Maida could not remember a time in her life when her aunt and uncle had not been a part of it. And for the past several hundred years, they had been her primary guardians. Her father, who had once been a work-horse breeder and one of Thranduil’s best carpenters, had gone to the Grey Havens years ago to learn from the shipbuilder Cirdan. He had eventually decided to remain there, having been smitten by the call of the sea. Her mother had gone to be with him, but not before mutually agreeing with Amalindë to leave Maida under her and Thranduil’s care until she was old enough to decide for herself where she wanted to be.
But that time had come and gone long ago. Maida had not been able to bear leaving behind her forest home, not even for her parents. So she had remained in Mirkwood, and assisted Amalindë in her domestic duties wherever she could. This included playing hostess to the maids of Galadriel.
“Our Lady wishes this to be a casual visit,” Lilídae commented, sipping her tea. “She hopes to reforge some of the weakened bonds between Lórien and Mirkwood.”
“And we have been looking forward to her arrival for many weeks,” Maida replied with a smile. “If it was not for this storm, she would have had the whole court greeting her.” She paused. “I hope she was not offended by King Thranduil’s absence.”
“It is understandable, considering the circumstances.”
Maida quickly stood. Galadriel and Amalindë had just entered the room. Aliana and Lilídae moved to stand with her, and Galadriel smiled slightly at her maids.
“Lady Galadriel wishes to see the damage you mentioned earlier,” Amalindë said. “Could you show us?”
Maida led them through the winding corridors of the palace, privately hoping that Galadriel would use some of her power to help repair the damage. Two fallen trees had caused harm, but one—a very large old oak that she and Legolas had loved to climb in their youth—had torn a large hole in the roof of an unused bedchamber. When they arrived, water was still dripping into the room, though the sky above was rapidly clearing.
“Legolas and I counted about twenty trees around the palace that fell during the storm,” Maida reported as Amalindë and Galadriel stepped forward to examine the situation more closely.
“I have never seen a storm so strong before,” Amalindë said, frowning as she gazed up at the hole. “Lady Galadriel, do you think the storm and the presence of the Nazgul are somehow connected?”
Galadriel was silent for a long moment, her attention seemingly focused on the drops of water trickling from the ceiling. Finally, she sighed and shook her head.
“Even I cannot tell,” she admitted. “But I fear that times of darkness may be uncomfortably close. When a Nazgul rides, death will almost certainly follow.”
Maida felt a shiver run down her spine, and she bit her lip nervously. She did not like the thought of her uncle and cousin wandering the woods with a Nazgul close by.
“I hope they do not find anything,” she said softly. “I think this is enough for us to worry about.” She stepped forward and raised her hand, allowing several drops of water to fall on her palm.
“We are safe here,” Amalindë assured, offering Maida a comforting smile. “There is nothing that can breach these protected walls.”
“Except a tree,” Lilídae commented softly.
Everyone turned to gaze at the maid. Lilídae blinked and blushed slightly. But both Amalindë and Maida laughed. Galadriel smiled at their mirth.
“Except a tree,” Amalindë agreed.
* * * * * *
The familiar sounds of the forest were starting to return, now that the storm was safely ended. Legolas paused, listening to the soft songs of the birds and insects. This, more than anything, seemed to be proof that the Nazgul had left the area. No animal would dare make noise when one of the Nine was nearby.
Haldir was standing by his side, and Legolas heard him let out a soft sigh.
“One would wonder what the greater cause for concern is,” he whispered, Legolas turning his head to listen. “The fact that a Nazgul was here, or the fact that he was so quick to leave.”
Legolas could not think of an answer. Instead, he turned and led his party a little deeper into the forest, where the trees grew more thickly and decent light was harder to come by. Again, he could neither hear nor see anything out of the ordinary. But the damage caused by the storm was all around him. Several trees were almost bare of their leaves, and one that was nearby had its bark stripped away. One of the scouts stepped around it, staring in astonishment at the exposed surface.
“I’ve never seen. . .” he started.
“None of us have,” Haldir interrupted, shaking his head. He then blinked, for the scout had abruptly turned away. “What is it?”
“I hear something,” the scout replied. His sudden alertness had caused the others to pause as well. “Lord Haldir, Prince Legolas, I think it is coming from beyond those trees.”
Legolas stepped forward, straining to hear what was drawing the scout’s attention. After a moment, he started when the soft sound of a muffled sob reached him.
“Is that someone crying?” Legolas asked, glancing back at Haldir, who had clearly heard the sound as well.
Haldir did not reply, but his brow furrowed in suspicion. With a silent agreement, the two of them started forward, leading their scouting party towards the source of the sound. It became louder as they drew near, and soon Legolas could make out every gasp and sniffle.
“It sounds like a child,” Legolas commented.
Together, he and Haldir rounded an old tree and confronted the source of the crying. For a long moment, all they could do was stare in shock.
“It. . . is a child,” Legolas breathed.
The little girl was balled up at the base of the tree, her head buried in her arms. She was soaked to the bone and trembling violently, and there was evidence of the child having gotten sick at least once. When Legolas spoke, she raised her head, staring tearfully up at them. A moment later, she let out a pitiful cry and tried to press herself even closer against the tree.
“Go find my father,” Legolas commanded one of the scouts, who immediately turned and departed. He then stepped forward and crouched before the child. “I am not going to hurt you, little one.”
The child stared at him with wide-eyed terror, but did not respond to his words. Legolas studied her a little more closely, and realized just how many things about her were completely odd. Her clothing was of a make and fabric he had never seen before, as were her boots. And he could not even begin to guess what those small objects in her hair were.
“She is a child of men,” Haldir said.
“But what race of men?” Legolas asked. “I have never seen clothing like that before.” He took a small step forward, causing the child to gasp and whimper. “Do not be afraid. I will not hurt you.”
“She does not understand our language,” Haldir replied. He began speaking in Westron. “Can you understand me now?”
The child still did not react. Now completely baffled, Legolas shared a glance with Haldir. It was very clear that neither had the slightest idea what to do. If the child could not understand them, how could they comfort her?
A sudden idea struck Legolas. Very softly, he began singing a song he remembered from his youth. It was a pleasant tune about the beauty of spring, but one he had not really thought about until now. The others stared at him, but they were ignored. And after a moment, the child’s frightened gaze started to soften. Slowly, Legolas opened his arms, still continuing to sing. For a few minutes, the child only stared. Finally, she raised herself onto her hands and knees and crawled to him.
Legolas gathered the child into his arms, feeling her bury her face against his neck and cling to the front of his tunic, her tiny body still trembling. He then turned to the others, seeing the surprised and impressed looks on their faces. Haldir nodded approval.
“Well done, Prince Legolas,” he said.
Suddenly, the scout that Legolas had sent away reappeared, and a few moments later, so did Thranduil and his search party.
“Did you find something?” Thranduil asked, then froze as he saw the child. A look of astonishment appeared on his face.
Legolas gazed at those gathered around him, sharing their thoughts. First the storm, then a Nazgul, and now a strange child. Was it at all possible that they could be connected?
“Yes,” he said. “We found something.”