The warrior lifted its massive armored head, hissing sharply as it sensed the sudden presence somewhere in the floors above. One of the most powerful of its enemies had awoken, and it knew she was going to try and search for it today. But the warrior was blocking its thoughts from its enemies. Not even the most powerful of them would be able to sense it out now. It could remember the ruthless invasions into its mind when it had been vulnerable inside the shell, and more than ever it wanted to prevent that from happening again. The second the warrior had the chance, it would kill all who were capable of drilling into its thoughts.
Several hours had passed since the moment of its birth, and the warrior was now fully grown. Massive and strong, its thick black armor impenetrable, the warrior was a mighty example of its species. Ten times the size it had been at birth, every part of it was now a formidable weapon. It lashed out with its powerful serrated tail, gouging a yard-long hole into the floor with the curved spear-like tip. All night it had been at work in this empty dark place, forming the foundation of what would soon be the new crèche. Already the atmosphere around it was wetter and warmer, and the warrior had begun to feel much more comfortable. There were a fair number of little rooms down here, and the warrior would make use of them all. It had already discovered that each room came with a heavy door that could not be opened from the inside. These it would use to secure its prisoners, to have them ready for the queen and its brothers and sisters.
The warrior stepped out of the tiny room in which it had been working. The muscles in its legs and arms flexed as it walked, its footsteps silent despite its massive size, droplets of thick drool dripping down its chin from between its serrated teeth. It was starting to become tired, but it knew that it could not risk sleeping in the new crèche. Alone, and without brothers and sisters to stand guard, the warrior had no choice but to hide. And the crèche, though in a secluded place, would be fairly easy for any enemy that came down here to locate. The warrior was not yet completely ready to face its enemies in head-on battle.
Winding its way through the corridors, senses alert for any approaching enemy, the warrior paused when it caught the smell of something very sweet somewhere nearby. It soon came upon a large room with a high ceiling. In one corner stood large stacks of rounded wooden barrels, with just enough room between the uppermost barrels and the ceiling. The warrior crossed the room and looked up at the stack of barrels. It hissed, thin ropes of drool dribbling from its mouth onto the floor. It was not perfect, but it would do. Quickly, it climbed the barrels, slipping its body easily into the space.
From this shadowy space, the warrior was safely hidden. Though its senses were assaulted by the strange sweet smell all around it, the barrels were giving off enough warmth to keep it comfortable. It hissed in quiet satisfaction. The smell was not all that unpleasant, and it had the added benefit of blocking its own scent from its enemies, several of whom arrived in the room not long after, filling the air with the low hum of activity.
At last assured that it had done all it can to hide itself, it settled its body into the grooves between the barrels. Ignoring the activity around it, the warrior allowed itself to fall into a quiet sleep.
* * * * * *
Maida awoke very suddenly, and for a long while lay quietly in her bed, confused at what had roused her. Then, she remembered all that had happened the previous day. She was swift to rise and dress. She did not know at what time the Lady Galadriel would wish to begin the search of the palace, and she wanted to see Amalindë first.
When she reached the royal bedchamber a few minutes later, Maida found Amalindë sitting at her vanity, slowly running a brush through her hair. Though her hands were steady, Maida could see that her aunt seemed very grim and subdued.
“Amalindë,” she said, entering the room and gently wrapping her arms around her aunt’s shoulders. “I was so worried about you.”
“I feel much better, my dear,” Amalindë replied softly. “I owe much to Lady Galadriel.” She handed the brush to Maida. “Please help me to finish. I am afraid my hair is being rather unruly this morning.”
Maida did as she was asked, gently starting to work through the tangles that Amalindë had not yet managed to clear. In her youth, she had always loved brushing and braiding Amalindë’s hair, and knew this moment to be her aunt’s way of reassuring her that all was well. She quickly cleared the tangles, delighted to see her aunt smiling at her through the reflection in the mirror before them.
“Thank you, Maida,” she said, settling her circlet around her brow and standing. Turning, she took Maida in a warm hug. “And thank you for assisting me last night.”
“I only wish for you to feel better,” Maida replied. “And for us to discover what killed Lucy.”
“Yes,” Amalindë agreed, her smile growing slightly. “Thranduil told me you are going to assist Lady Galadriel on a search of the palace today. Make me proud, my dear.”
Maida nodded firmly, determined to do the best she possibly could in the upcoming task. Turning, she led the way out into the corridor. She was slightly startled when she met Thendril outside the door.
“Lady Galadriel requests that you take breakfast with her,” he said, smiling warmly.
Amalindë quietly gestured for Maida to go on, then turned and headed away. Maida watched her disappear around a corner.
“Did she sleep well last night?” Thendril asked.
“I believe so,” Maida replied. “She is feeling better.”
For a few minutes, the two walked on in silence. Maida glanced at him and offered a small smile, which he returned. She was beginning to feel more at ease around him. He was not as intimidating as the others; he was warm, and much more approachable. And his long dark hair matched perfectly with the shade of his eyes.
Maida abruptly shook her head. This was no time to think of things like that.
When they arrived at Galadriel’s bedchamber and entered, Maida was met by the sight of the Lady sitting at a small table set for two in the center of the room. Thendril bowed and departed without speaking, and Galadriel gestured her forward.
“There is much we need to discuss,” she said as Maida sat down. “I have asked Thranduil to keep activity in the palace as low as possible, to try and draw the presence out of hiding.”
“Though there is no sure way of knowing it is even still here,” Maida commented, slightly startled when Aliana and Lilídae stepped forward and began serving them. She started to protest when Aliana poured her tea, but Galadriel quietly gestured her to be still.
“You are here as my guest this morning, Maida,” she said calmly. “Therefore, my ladies will attend to you as they do me.”
Maida was not very comfortable with the idea, but she allowed Aliana to continue. Aliana offered her a reassuring smile before moving away.
“Maida, explain to me the layout of the palace,” Galadriel said.
As they ate, Maida tried her best to describe the complex layout of the lower levels. Galadriel was a patient and attentive listener, and so after a while Maida began to relax in her company. Outside of formal settings, the Lady of Lórien had a rather friendly personality. It was as though Maida was seeing a completely different person from the imposing Elf-lady that was her legend. When Aliana giggled at something Lilídae had whispered in her ear, Galadriel smiled at them.
Once breakfast was complete, Maida moved to stand, but once again, Galadriel beckoned her to be still.
“One more thing, Maida,” she said. She paused for a moment. “There is a fair level of danger in this undertaking. By attempting to hunt this presence down, we run the risk of inferring its wrath upon ourselves. And knowing what it did to Lucy. . .are you prepared to face this risk?”
“I will do whatever it takes, Milady,” Maida replied firmly.
Galadriel nodded, and with a slight smile on her face she led the way out into the corridor. Maida, Aliana, and Lilídae followed, and together they made their way to the main hall. Thranduil, Amalindë, Legolas, Thendril, and Haldir were waiting for them. As though it had been agreed upon beforehand, Lilídae walked forward and stood with Amalindë. Maida blinked in confusion and curiosity.
“I have made sure most of the activity today will be focused on the clean up outside,” Thranduil said. “The wine-tenders have work to do this morning, but it should be completed before long.”
“It should not be a problem,” Galadriel replied calmly.
Maida was quick to realize that Amalindë and Lilídae were going to be outside overseeing the clean up. Thranduil, Haldir, Thendril, Legolas, and Aliana were going to accompany her and Galadriel on the search. When she cast a questioning glance at Aliana, Galadriel gently gripped her shoulder.
“Aliana has the best hearing of all the Elves in my service,” she explained quietly. “Where all else may fail, we may count on her.”
The search of the palace began slowly. For a while, Maida was confused about what she needed to do, but by mimicking Galadriel’s actions, she soon figured out how to expand her perception beyond the limits of her physical senses. At first, it was almost overwhelming, for it was a very odd experience to be able to sense the location and mood of every inhabitant in the palace. However, once Maida was able to focus on searching for unfamiliar presences, it became much easier to concentrate.
By mid-morning, the upper levels of the palace had been thoroughly searched. No evidence of any intruder was found, though Maida located a handful of large mice in a seldom-used pantry. Thranduil led the way down to the lower levels, and as they walked along the much darker corridors and stairwells, Maida appreciated for the first time in her life just how easy it would be for something to hide down here. Down here, it was practically a maze. Half of it was solely for the creation, storage, and shipping of wine and ale. The rest—with the exception of the dungeons, a place Maida despised visiting—were empty corridors and darkened rooms, some of which had not been entered in years.
The searchers paused for a moment. The soft drone of noise from the wine rooms was prominent, but very subdued. Everything else was silent. Maida attempted to continue searching for the unfamiliar presence, but found that she could not. Down here, she was more nervous than ever, making it impossible to concentrate. She did not know why this was so. She was perfectly safe in present company, and yet from the moment she had stepped into the corridor, she had been struck with a feeling of dread and danger.
“Do you sense anything, Milady?” Haldir suddenly asked.
“No,” Galadriel replied, a definite note of frustration in her tone. “Only the wine-tenders are visible to me.” She abruptly turned, her gaze focusing on Maida. “Maida, why do you tremble so?”
Maida gave a start. She had not realized she was trembling. She felt a hand grip her shoulder, and looked around to see Legolas by her side. Every eye was upon her now.
“I do not know,” Maida replied, absentmindedly gripping Legolas’s arm in an attempt to find some level of comfort. “I sense nothing more than you, Milady, but yet I feel as though something is going to spring upon us from every shadow.”
Silence met these words. Both Thendril and Legolas looked around, and the expressions on Haldir and Thranduil’s faces turned grim. Galadriel was studying her. After a long moment, she approached and gripped Maida’s other hand.
“I understand,” Galadriel said finally, after a long pause during which she let her eyes slide closed. “You sense foreboding, Maida. I can feel it inside you. There is something here.” She glanced around again, her brow furrowed. “Strange that I cannot sense it for myself.”
“There is something down here strong enough to conceal itself from you, Milady?” Aliana asked, her eyes widening in true fright.
“Yes,” Galadriel replied, but there was determination in her expression now. “Maida, walk ahead. Follow your foreboding to its source.”
Maida did not understand, but she obeyed the Lady of Lórien. As they continued onward, she guided her steps in the direction where her sense of dread grew stronger. Legolas walked beside her, sword unsheathed, and she kept a grip on his arm.
When she finally realized she need not walk any further, it was at the open double-door to the wine room in which the sounds of activity were loudest. Thranduil entered the room first, and was immediately greeted by one of the wine-tenders. Maida followed the others inside, but did not listen to the conversation that followed. She gazed around the room, seeing nothing unusual. All of the equipment used to fill wine barrels was in this room, and the air was thick with the sweet smell. In a far corner, stacks of full barrels almost reached the high ceiling. Maida knew those barrels were awaiting transport to the storerooms, where they would be placed to age until ready to be shipped out. The rooms and corridors in this area of the palace were woven and interconnected, to make it easier for barrels to be moved from place to place. Once, when she had been but an Elfling, she had gotten lost in the maze of storerooms. However, she had been swiftly found again because she had possessed the good luck to have stopped in the same storeroom containing the barrels that were to be shipped that day.
Maida’s attention was drawn back when she realized the sound of activity had vanished. She looked around, realizing quickly that Thranduil had asked the wine-tenders to return to the upper floors of the palace. She stood aside as they left, extinguishing the torches and lanterns as they did so. Soon, the room was cast in almost complete darkness. Only a small beam of light from the open doorway could be seen now, casting a long glow across the floor towards the stacks of wine barrels on the far side. Maida’s gaze followed the trail of light for a moment, then she turned to follow the others out.
And then she froze, turning back around. Scattered on the floor in a wavering line were thick drops of clear fluid, glittering in the angle of the light. Maida approached one of the droplets, leaning over and wiping it up in her fingers. It was thick and warm, the consistency of runny mucous. She shuttered in disgust.
“What is it, Lady Maida?” came a voice from behind her. She turned as Thendril approached. “Oh. . .what is that on your fingers?”
“I do not know,” Maida replied. “But it is all over the floor here.”
“Not just here,” Thendril said, his gaze focused on the stacks of barrels. “It is here, too.”
Thendril pointed to the barrels. Although the light was very dim, Maida could see the small trail of drying droplets that ran all the way up into the darkness.
For a moment, the two of them considered the odd situation. Maida glanced toward the light, and saw that the others were approaching, Legolas leading.
“I am going to go see if there is anything up there,” Thendril said suddenly.
Thendril pulled himself up onto the stack, but before he could climb any further, a loud hiss echoed from somewhere above. Both Thendril and Maida froze.
And then, Maida gasped. She had felt it. For one sharp second, she had sensed the terrible presence from the night before. And she knew it was right above them. She grabbed Thendril, pulling him back down.
“No!” she whispered frantically, now absolutely terrified. “It is there! I can sense it!”
Suddenly, a loud smashing sound filled the air, and the stacks of barrels shifted. Maida cried out as the straps holding the barrels in place strained and snapped. Before her eyes, the stack collapsed.
“Get down!” Thendril shouted, and Maida felt him grab her and shove her to the floor, placing himself over top of her.
And then, she felt and heard the barrels falling around them. Several burst apart, drenching them in their contents. Maida screamed as she felt one strike Thendril’s back, causing the Marchwarden to grunt in pain. The noise continued for what seemed like hours. Finally, the barrels stopped moving. For several moments, she lay there, stunned and shocked at what had just happened.
“Maida!!” she heard Thranduil shout. “Maida, are you hurt?”
“I. . .I do not think so,” Maida called back, trying to move but finding that several barrels had settled over top of her and Thendril. “Thendril, are you injured?”
“Not badly, Milady,” Thendril replied, sounding breathless.
It took only a few minutes for them to be freed. For a moment, Maida simply stood there, gazing around at the mess. The wine-tenders had returned, but none seemed to know what had happened. Legolas and Thranduil were standing by her sidee, and Galadriel and Haldir were checking the injury on Thendril’s back. Aliana, however, was staring at where the stack had once been. Maida was filled with dread, for there was real fear on her face.
“Did you see it, Aliana?” Maida asked pleadingly. “I sensed it. . .it was there. Did you see it?”
All eyes slowly turned to Aliana as she gazed at Maida.
“Yes,” she said, her voice shaking. “I saw it.”
* * * * * *
Réyis slid to a halt, panting slightly as he tried to regain his bearings. He was not very familiar with this area of the palace, and had to consider for a moment before remembering which corridor he was in. He soon realized that he was near the dungeons. He still had several more corridors to pass through before reaching the wine rooms.
The old healer had selected this particular route to the wine rooms in order to prevent anyone from calling on his services as he walked by. He had finally finished the full examination of the child’s remains, and wished for a quiet drink to calm his tired nerves.
But then the tremendous crash had echoed through the corridors, loud enough to startle everyone in the palace. Réyis had immediately started running towards the source. What in Arda had happened to cause a sound that loud?
Choosing the correct corridor, Réyis continued onward. However, he had only traveled a few steps when something on the floor caught his eye. In the dim light of the lantern burning at the far end of the corridor, it looked like a pale leathery rag. He stopped and crouched down, gathering the object in his hands.
“What is this?” he asked to himself, completely baffled. He had never seen anything like it.
To his eye, it looked a little like snake skin. But it had not come from a snake. Stretching it out, Réyis could clearly see the shape of the creature that had left it. It was no creature he had ever seen before.
Intently staring at the skin, he blinked as a shadow fell over him, blocking the light from the distant lantern. At the same moment, he caught a strong smell of wine, and heard an icy, wet hiss. Réyis turned, and let out a loud shout of fright.
The last thing the old healer saw was the massive black monster hurtling towards him, drool-laced jaws opened wide to reveal a second mouth on a thick, muscular tongue. Then, the jaws closed around his skull, and with a sickening crunch, he knew no more.