The hard-packed snow cracked and crunched underneath the horses’ hooves as Celebrían and her escort trekked up the mountain path that would lead them to the canyon-walled Redhorn Pass. The wind was bone-chillingly cold, but the skies were clear, and very little of the snow was powdery enough to billow and obscure vision. Slightly ahead, Faye and Arwen rode on, stubbornly resisting the sting of the wind. Arwen had her cloak drawn tightly about her, like almost everyone else, but Faye did not. Her hair blew freely about her, the wind turning the bare skin of her face and neck a dark grayish color. For some reason, she seemed more alert and agitated than normal. Celebrían often spotted her looking back at the others, seemingly making sure that they were still together.
This was the part of the journey Celebrían had not been looking forward to. The path ahead was narrow in many places, and the terrain was particularly tough on the horses. When they weren’t crunching through the hard-packed snow, they were slipping on hidden patches of ice. Already two horses had stumbled to their knees, but neither had been hurt, though one of the riders had been thrown to the ground. Her own mare was getting along rather well so far in comparison, utilizing the footprints left by those in front of her.
Suddenly, as if in contradiction to her thoughts, her mare caught the tip of her left front hoof on a patch of packed snow and stumbled. Taken by surprise, Celebrían fell forward onto her mare’s neck, then unceremoniously slid to the ground. Arwen was by her side immediately.
“Are you okay, Naneth?” she asked, sounding worried.
“I’m fine,” Celebrían replied. “I just wasn’t expecting Saiya to trip.”
Her escort gathered around her, and Celedon helped her to stand. She smiled at them.
“I am unhurt,” she assured firmly. “If we keep delaying like this, we’ll never make the Redhorn Pass by dark.”
“We will not cross the Redhorn Pass at night,” Faye stated firmly, drawing all attention to her. There was a tone in her voice that commanded all ears. “We will take the risk only in the full light of day.”
“What is it, Lady Faye?” Azulir asked. “Do you sense danger?”
“I sense hostility,” Faye replied. “There’s something out there that doesn’t want us to be here.”
Celebrían looked up toward the mountain peaks. She could dimly see the cleft that was the Redhorn Pass, but saw nothing else. The mountains were peaceful, and save for them, nothing moved. But Celebrían wasn’t fooled. If Faye thought there was danger here, then she was going to be on her guard.
* * * * *
That night, they settled underneath a small overhang of rock that protected them from the wind. The Redhorn Pass loomed before them, the wind howling through the split in the sheer mountain rock. Faye was perched above the overhang, her eyes sparkling in the dim moonlight. Arwen joined her, glancing at her questioningly.
“How long ago did you start feeling uneasy?” Arwen asked.
“This morning,” Faye replied. “I woke up knowing something was watching us.” She looked up toward the pass, sighing softly. “I’m starting to think that Lord Elrond’s uneasiness was justified. There’s something here.”
Arwen would have questioned Faye again, but suddenly a low rumble echoed over the mountains. Like the steady rolling of a drum, it sounded into the night, dying off as softly as it had started. Arwen looked at the cloudless night sky. It had sounded like a particularly long roll of thunder. She wasn’t too worried, but she gave a start when she heard Faye growl.
“Twilight thunder,” Faye whispered.
Arwen stared at Faye, deeply confused.
“Twilight what?” she asked.
Faye did not respond right away. Standing, she turned into the wind, sniffing the air and staring at the mountainous skyline. Arwen followed her gaze, confused and now starting to get worried.
“Faye, what is it?” she asked.
For a long moment, Faye was silent. Then, she slowly sank back into a crouch, closing her eyes.
“When it comes at twilight journey’s end,” she whispered, “thunder echoing through silent sky so black. A warning the gods to you from heaven send: `Danger comes. The path is closed. Turn back. . .” Faye turned and opened her eyes, steadying her gaze on Arwen. “. . .turn back.”
Arwen furrowed her brow, trying to figure out what was being told to her. She couldn’t tell if Faye was being serious, or presenting a riddle.
“Twilight thunder,” Faye repeated, derailing Arwen’s thoughts. “The darkest of warnings. Only those who must face dire peril the next day hear it.”
“Are you sure that’s what it was?” Arwen asked, forcing herself to remain calm, though inside worry for the safety of her mother was brewing. “There might be a storm on the other side of the mountains.”
Faye looked at her, sadness clear in her eyes. Arwen studied her. In all the time they had spent together, Faye had confided very few details of her past, seemingly preferring to try and forget that life. But Arwen had always known that Faye held dark secrets.
“Have you heard twilight thunder before?” Arwen asked softly.
“Yes,” Faye replied.
Faye looked away, focusing on something further down the mountainside.
“A long time ago,” she began, suddenly sounding very weary. “Long before you were born, when I was still alive. The sun had just set, and I was gathering water from the river. I heard it, and at first I thought it was the shaman beating the communal drum. But when I realized what it was, I ran back to the village. Nobody else had heard it.”
“What happened?” Arwen asked.
“The next evening, I was cutting wood when a woman came out of the jungle,” Faye replied. “She told me that her child was lost, so I tried to help her find him. I was foolish to forget about the warning.” She paused, closing her eyes. “I remember feeling pain, like snake fangs being driven into my throat. Then. . .all that was left was the thirst.”
Faye turned to Arwen, who was frozen in shock. She knew the rest of the story. Faye had told her years ago. She had returned to her village, and had slaughtered every living creature within it, including her husband and children.
“I heard twilight thunder,” Faye said. “And the next day. . .I died.”
Arwen was on her feet instantly.
“We can’t go on tomorrow,” she said. “We have to turn back.”
“Arwen, my child, be calm,” Faye said, standing and settling a hand on Arwen’s trembling shoulder. “We may have been the only ones that heard it.”
“What does that mean?” Arwen asked.
“If nobody else heard it, then nobody else will be in danger tomorrow,” Faye replied, then frowned. “At least, I think that’s what the legend says.”
Arwen stared at Faye for a moment, then nodded, taking a deep breath.
“Let’s go, then,” she said.
Arwen and Faye soon rejoined the others at the temporary campsite underneath the overhang. For a moment, Arwen was relieved, for nobody else seemed aware of the thunder that had echoed only minutes before. Celebrían, who was sitting comfortably by the fire, beckoned for them to join her.
“Where have you two been?” she asked, smiling. “Arwen, you almost missed supper.”
“We were talking, Naneth,” Arwen replied, sitting next to her and returning the smile.
Faye crouched down next to her, and for a moment, their eyes met. Faye touched her shoulder again, leaning in.
“Be on your sharpest guard tomorrow, my child,” she whispered, her voice so low that Arwen could barely hear it. “And stay close to me.”
Arwen nodded slightly, and Faye stood and moved away. She had no idea what danger she was to face the next day, but she was no longer worried. Whatever it was to be, Faye would protect her from it.
She settled down to sleep a little while later. Lost in her dreams, she did not see Celebrían look out over the mountains, wondering where the storm had moved on to.
* * * * *
The moon set slowly, casting darkness over the mountains, making the small glow of the campfire all the more visible. From her perch atop a rocky peak, a predator watched. Her sunken eyes glowed dimly, the pupils so wide that they nearly overshadowed the sickly yellow color of her irises. Her skeletal fingers clutched the rock, the skin almost as white as the snow that still covered the stony soil. Her leathery hide had not seen warmth and color for eons. She was a cursed being, even more so than others of her kind. No amount of sustenance would return a fleshy pallor to her body.
Her cloak billowed softly in the wind. The thick, slightly tattered garment was the only coverings she had, the only coverings she needed. Waist-length hair and unnatural shadow concealed her. Only those who were doomed to die by her hands ever saw her for what she truly was. She had once been mortal, a rather beautiful Elf maiden. Now she was a demon, loyal to only one master.
She was Thuringwethil, the woman of secret shadow, messenger and most loyal servant of the Dark Lord Sauron. And it was for him that she stood here now.
Countless years had passed since her master had been defeated in battle, and ever since that moment she had been reaping chaos and terror among those that had opposed him. Hunting down the men had been easy, especially the brat whelp Isildur. The Elves had been a little harder to track. But now, so many years later, Sauron’s revenge had almost come full circle. The last of the Elves left to strike was Lord Elrond.
But she did not simply hunt down and kill her victims. None of them deserved such mercy. She existed to see her master’s enemies suffer, to rip their souls to shreds before doing the same to their bodies. So she had hunted, and she had watched, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. That opportunity lay before her now, in the form of the wife and daughter. She would take the wife and daughter, rip them limb from limb, and drop their severed heads at Elrond’s feet. But first she would toy with them, make them suffer as she had once suffered, and sing along to the melody of their screams.
She gathered her cloak about her, stretching her arms out and feeling the shadow coalesce around her. Slowly, painfully, she began to transform. Her fingers grew long and tapered, the cloak molding into the frame as iron claws burst from the tips. She extended her newly formed wings and took flight, gliding silently through the air, now in the form of a giant bat. Her maw was now impossibly wide and filled with dagger-sharp teeth, and her feet had molded into talons strong enough to lift a horse and rider into the air. Quietly she soared past the cleft in the mountain–her servants called it the Redhorn Pass–and approached another campsite, hidden from the party of Elves by rocky folds in the mountainside. Her servants gathered around her as she landed and folded her wings against her side, and she glared menacingly at them. They cowered before her, justifiably terrified of her. They were her servants, but they were also her only source of food. She was their mistress and their most dangerous predator.
“The Elves will come,” she hissed, looking around again at the rabble of creatures. There were enough, at least, to outnumber the party of Elves by three to one. “Be ready to attack on my command.”
“What are we to do with them?” one of the creatures asked gruffly.
She turned to the speaker, and before it could run back into the crowd, she slashed at it. It fell to the ground in three pieces.
“Do what you will with the others,” she snarled. “But leave the wife and daughter to me.”
She extended her wings again and took flight, hearing her servants as they began to laugh and jeer, for now that she was gone, they were safe to speak. They were maggot-festering Orcs, foul to the taste but loyal to those powerful enough to frighten them into submission. She always made great use of them when she found a nest of them.
She flew down into the Pass and settled into the darkest shadows to wait. Normally, she would not attack during daylight, because the sun was hostile to her, but the sheer cliff walls offered plenty of shade and protection from the harmful rays of day. She knew every secret to hunting and stalking. When she wanted to stay hidden, there was no living creature that could detect her presence. All she had to do was wait, and that was something she did very well.
Thuringwethil knew patience.