Sighing quietly, Thranduil's shoulders slumped and he stared at the dancing flames that leaped and twisted upon the logs. He could not see the sky, but his sense of time was highly acute and he knew the sun was only moments away from setting. A nightmare that had haunted the forest ever since darkness again took up residence in Dol Guldur was about to begin. When this horror first came upon them two decades ago, the elves of Mirkwood had not known what to make of the evil. But they had learned quickly enough what beset them, and after many harsh lessons, they had also learned that they could not truly overcome this particular threat. They could only wait out the night and hope to survive the siege while the warriors tried to keep the menace at bay as best they could.
After the first two encounters, Thranduil had sent messages far and wide, beseeching others for their aid. It had severely rankled his pride to do so, but he could not stand idle and watch his people cower before this terror. But in the end, every request had come to naught. Counsel had been taken among those accounted Wise, and eventually answers drifted back to the son of Oropher, all saying essentially the same thing. Mirkwood was already beset by darkness; nothing could be done about that. Forces dispatched for the sake of protecting the realm against an attack that lasted only a single night would be a waste of resources and an unnecessary danger. The Mirkwood elves were counseled to seek safety in Thranduil's halls and endure the night as best they could. Life could resume its normal tone at the rising of the sun.
These callous answers had infuriated Thranduil, but even so, he could not truly fault his allies. Lothlórien, in particular, had suffered greatly during the assault that had driven Sauron from Dol Guldur. Celeborn and Galadriel had no desire for a repeat of that event. Círdan and Elrond were too far away to be bothered with the events of a single Mirkwood night, and trouble brewed upon the borders of their own realms. The Rangers were finding themselves increasingly short-handed as foul things once again began to stir in the vast wilderness of Eriador. And as for the Istari, Radagast was not powerful enough to be of aid, leaving Gandalf and Saruman, and those two were turning their focus upon Mordor, not Dol Guldur. As was usually the case, Mirkwood had been left to fend for itself.
Valar but I hate the winter solstice, Thranduil moaned, closing his eyes to the dancing flames. This particular solstice was going to be especially bad, though, for there would be no moon this night. In another land, the stars might have been able to compensate for this, but not in Mirkwood. It was extremely difficult and often impossible for starlight to sink beneath the boughs of the twisted trees.
Moving away from the fire, Thranduil rested his hand upon the hilt of the sword he had girded at his side, trying to draw comfort and strength from the cool metal. He fervently prayed that he would not have to use the weapon this night. It was an ancient blade of elven make, saved from the ruin of Doriath and given to Thranduil by his father, Oropher. But for all its lineage and all its history, it was as nothing compared to the evil that would soon roam the forests. If he were forced to draw the sword, then the darkness would have broken through all the defenses, and the underground fortress of Mirkwood would be the next target.
A soft knock at the door drew Thranduil's attention away from his inner thoughts, and he turned slightly, steeling himself for what he knew was to come. "Enter."
The heavy oak swung silently inward, and Mirkwood's crown-prince entered, bowing as he crossed the threshold. "All is in readiness, father."
"Thank you, Celebas," Thranduil said quietly, turning back to watch the flames. "Have all elves from the outlying settlements arrived?"
"They have, sire, as well as many others we did not expect," Celebas answered with a slight grimace. "A group unlooked for arrived during the last hour. They encountered a spider nest on their way in. Many were wounded in the attack."
"Have we room for all who seek the safety of these halls?" Thranduil asked, his brow furrowing with concern.
"I believe so, yes," Celebas said. "In any case, we are not required to find sleeping quarters for all of them. Those fit to do so shall be joining us in the forest as further support for the other warriors. Those unable to come shall remain here in the care of the healers. Narsigil and Legolas are seeing to their arrangements while Taerorn dispatches the newcomers among our own companies."
"That may not be to our advantage," Thranduil murmured. "Those unfamiliar with the workings of our guards and patrols will be taught in haste, and such teachings are easily forgotten. There is a greater chance for accidents and mistakes, especially tonight. It will be dark, my son. It will be very dark."
"I believe that is why so many have sought shelter," Celebas said. "Almost all of the regions in the far south have been evacuated."
Thranduil sighed again and looked at his son. Of all the king's children, Celebas was the only one who had inherited his sire's height and strength. But for all his potential to be a stunning warrior, Celebas had not been gifted with his father's love for battle. His desires lay rather in the arts, particular writing and composing. But he was the crown-prince of a besieged realm that was forever forced to defend itself from the encroaching forces of the enemy, and as such, pursuit of other pleasures had been denied him for many years. Thranduil shook his head, sorrowing for all he could not give his children and for all they were forced to endure on behalf of their kingdom. "In Lothlórien and Imladris, the elves view the winter solstice as a time of great celebration," he mused quietly, not even aware that he was speaking aloud. "I am thankful that your sisters are in Rivendell this year. Would that we could be so fortunate. Would that we could somehow repel the darkness that roams our forests. Would that we could be as protected as they."
"We once celebrated solstice as well," Celebas recalled, his own voice no louder than a whisper.
"And we shall celebrate it again in the future," Thranduil vowed, tightening his hand upon the hilt of his sword. "A day will come when this forest will be cleansed. Come, now. It is time we took our places. Have all the units reported in?"
"Nay, they have not," Celebas answered grimly, following his father as they left the study. "Most of the archers we expected from the north did not come. The snowstorm that skirted these halls three days ago struck them hard, and many are trapped in their homes. Some few have arrived within the last hour, but I do not know their numbers."
"We need all our forces," Thranduil hissed, cursing quietly. "Anything less than a full compliment will not be enough. If they dare our vigilance as they did the year before, we will be unable to hold them at the borders. They will cross far into our lands."
"We could add Legolas and his archery unit to Taerorn's units," Celebas suggested somewhat hesitantly. "But they are not specifically trained for that kind of archery. There would be a great risk of mishap."
"Mishap is a rather mild word for it," Thranduil retorted. "We could set fire to the entire forest. The southern boundaries have seen almost nothing in the way of moisture this year, and the risk of an uncontrolled blaze is high. Still, there is little help for it. We need light, and the fires of the arrows seem to be all that consistently keep our foe at bay. We will have to combine the forces."
"Father!" a voice called out, and Thranduil turned with Celebas to watch as Taerorn approached quickly, nodding sharply when he reached the two. "Father, our warriors are prepared and the captains have assembled with the exception of Narsigil and Legolas. We await your presence and your command."
"Find your younger brothers and bid them join us," Thranduil ordered. "I would have all my captains present before we depart. Some changes must needs be made to the ordering of the companies. But ere you go to find them, tell me how many archers you have that are trained in the use of fire when working as a group."
"Six complete units, sire. There would have been ten had a storm not stranded some of them in the north," Taerorn responded immediately, ever the efficient soldier. His face showed no reaction to these diminished numbers, and Thranduil was strongly reminded of Oropher's ability to completely set personal reaction aside in a moment of crisis.
"We are adding Legolas's archery unit to your own units," Thranduil informed his second son. "Legolas shall also be added to your command while his two scouting groups shall be redistributed among Narsigil's companies. The other commands shall remain as currently ordered."
Taerorn frowned slightly, his strategic mind chewing away at these changes. "Father, with all due respect, Legolas and his unit are not—"
"I am well aware that they are not trained to work with your own guards. Nor are they trained to work in groups where all are using flaming arrows. Nevertheless, we need more archers for the frontlines or we shall be driven back to the very gates of this hall and possibly beyond." Thranduil held Taerorn's eyes for a brief moment and then nodded. "Go now and find your brothers. And make haste. Night has come."
Shrouded by the silky blackness of a cloak whose darkness dwarfed even Mirkwood's deepest shadows, a figure waited in tense anticipation as the sun dipped below the Misty Mountains far away in the west. Most of the sun's light never reached the floor of the tortured forest, but its presence could be felt by those who wandered the paths of twilight. It was a torment and a burden that weakened the servants of the Enemy. This particular figure was better able to endure sunlight than some were, Orcs for example. But enduring it and making a habit of enduring it were two entirely different things. It was far safer to lie quietly until the shadows lengthened and the world fell into the uneasy silence of night.
It would not be long now. Khamûl, Sauron's lieutenant and third in the chain of command, answering only to the Lord of Morgul and Sauron himself, turned his cloaked head toward the other two Ringwraiths waiting behind him. He could sense their eagerness to be off, for this night was their night. It was the night of the winter solstice, and the longest night of the year. As such, it was the night when their deadly power was greatest, and it was the night when they showed the foolish elves of Thranduil's realm who actually controlled the forest.
The Ringwraiths were waiting on the northern edge of the Emyn-nu-Fuin, or the Mountains of Mirkwood. It was a small chain, running east and west, that lay approximately three to four hours away by horse from the southernmost elven settlements. Thranduil's scouts and spies ventured much further abroad, of course, some of them traveling within arrow range of Dol Guldur's walls, but in journeying to the mountains, the three Ringwraiths had met with no elf. Had Khamûl been able to smile, he would have done so. They had taught these simple beings what it meant to share a forest with the Nazgûl. The lesson had been learned well, and it would be learned again this night.
The strange ritual of the Nazgûl riding abroad during solstice had begun several years after their return to Dol Guldur. Their original instructions from Lord Sauron were to hold the fortress and maintain a base in Mirkwood from which assaults could be launched against Thranduil, Celeborn, and Galadriel. In addition to that, they were to harry the elven forces as much as was possible but to do so with subtlety so as not to invite a second assault upon the dark fortress. Within the first few years, Khamûl and the other two Nazgûl assigned to Dol Guldur had successfully accomplished this objective, and Sauron came to believe that he could allow them greater freedom. Thus, he gave to his most faithful minions the night of the solstice. In preparation for this night, they had traveled to the Mountains of Mirkwood, and from there, they had launched their attack upon Thranduil's unsuspecting kingdom. The first year had been such a success that a second year of solstice terror was granted. After that, it became a tradition to which the three Nazgûl looked with great anticipation.
The winter solstice was the closest thing that any of the Nine had in the way of a holiday. Not that the Ringwraiths really needed a holiday of any kind. The thoughts of the Nazgûl were consumed by the Dark Lord's own desires and power. Their mood reflected his mood, and their wants were indelibly linked to the needs and demands of Mordor. They had almost no will of their own, which eliminated problems of morale and dissent that periodic celebrations cured among Sauron's other minions. Occasionally, one of the Nine would show some fraction of a lost personality, but such times were few and far between. Still, there was enough of a shadow remaining from their previous lives for them to enjoy this strange solstice celebration. And their joy, in turn, fed Sauron's joy, for he delighted in the reports they brought him of the frightened Mirkwood elves who had no sure defense against their darkness. There were powerful elves in Mirkwood, to be certain. And had they been given freedom to maneuver as well as daylight, Thranduil's warriors were quite capable of defending themselves from three of the Nine. Yet when darkness fell and the strength of the land cowered beneath the cold grasp of winter, the elves became almost helpless while the power of the Ringwraiths increased itself tenfold.
Beneath Khamûl, his horse shifted and stomped one foot restlessly. It was questionable, actually, as to whether Khamûl's mount could still be called a horse. The creature had been born and bred to the service of the Dark Lord, and though his form still resembled that of the Rohirrim stallions that had been stolen to create him, his spirit had been drastically altered. Like the Ringwraiths, the horse had no true will of its own. The beast was, in every way that could be conceived, a slave to the Dark Lord. Not even the swift elven horses, creatures of grace and beauty that possessed unswerving love and devotion to their riders, could match the mounts of the Nine in matters of obedience and loyalty.
A soft hiss from behind drew Khamûl's attention to the horizon, and he watched his shadowy world became clearer as the sun vanished behind the Misty Mountains and the forest slipped into the terror of the year's longest night. Better sight was a strangely comforting thing for Khamûl, and he occasionally remembered a time when he had looked out over vast stretches of sky and windswept plains with eyes unhindered by shadow. Such memories were clouded and fleeting with little power over the Ringwraith, and yet they were still…noted. Appreciated. They slipped in and out of Khamûl's mind so quickly that he had little time to enjoy these brief snatches of his forgotten past, but they served to strengthen him and harden his resolve beyond even that which Sauron could influence. They served to make him unique among the Nazgûl, which was how he had advanced to become Sauron's lieutenant, second only to the Witch-king of Angmar.
Still, even though sight had the power to comfort and strengthen him, more important was the absence of light, for when darkness fell, senses awoke within Khamûl that put to shame any advantage that better vision might offer. The smell of blood carried far in the shadows, and Khamûl could follows its scent with more accuracy than the fabled hounds of Oromë. The impressions of objects and enemies became fixed points within Khamûl's mental map of his surroundings. He could often anticipate immediate future events with a foresight that would have disgraced the abilities of the most powerful elves. But most dangerous of all these abilities was the enhanced awareness of living things.
Khamûl hated living things. They stirred confusing and confounding memories that seemed to mock Khamûl with something he had lost. He no longer understood or remembered what had been lost and he had no desire for life himself, but the presence of others that lived infuriated him. Khamûl could barely tolerate his own minions, hating their foul existence with a passion that had occasionally led to unprovoked murder. The Orcs had learned to stay well away from certain members of the Nine, and Khamûl was one of the Ringwraiths that they feared most. For this reason, solstice was considered a holiday for the Orcs as well as the Nazgûl. While the Ringwraiths went north, the Orcs were alone in Dol Guldur, and for one glorious week, they did not have to slink and skirt around corners, always fearing that they would incur the wrath of their dark masters.
Something in the atmosphere around him abruptly snagged Khamûl's attention, jerking him out of his musings. His head snapping forward and his senses spreading wide, he kneed his horse into a slow walk, easing away from the protective shadows of the Mountains of Mirkwood. It was time. The sun had set completely and the shadows of Khamûl's world were coming into focus with frightening clarity. As his mount was urged into a canter, he heard the other two Ringwraiths keeping pace behind him, and he tasted the sweet chill of their own anticipation. Gaining steadily in speed, the three raced as nightmares in the twilight beneath the creaking limbs of trees, which groaned and shook in the wake of their passage. Stars were now appearing in the blackness of the sky, but their light could not penetrate the covering of the trees and the moon had forsaken Middle-earth this night. With a piercing scream that rent the silence of the forest and left it quivering in scattered shards, Khamûl kicked his mount into a hard gallop and turned northeast. The night would not last forever, and he intended to see that he made the most of what brief time had been given him.
"One hour," a soft voice breathed.
Startled, Narsigil, prince of Mirkwood, turned and then inclined his head respectfully. "I did not hear you approach, father."
"Then pray your senses sharpen," Thranduil said, his voice curt.
Another might have taken offense at this, but Narsigil was accustomed to his father's moods and knew that the anger was not directed at himself. Thranduil had a talent for making his movements absolutely noiseless. The king could not fault others when they were surprised by his sudden presence. "You spoke of one hour, sire," Narsigil said, deciding to redirect their conversation. "If I am permitted to ask, what meant you by that?"
"Our forces will meet the Nazgûl in one hour," Thranduil explained quietly.
Narsigil frowned. "The first line of archers left only left two hours ago. They will not have reached the borders of our colonies."
"The Nazgûl are riding hard this night," Thranduil said, raising his eyes to the few stars that could be seen through Mirkwood's thick canopy. "There is no moon to impede them. They hope to create much havoc and cause much damage. The trees cry out at their passage, and the earth moans beneath the hooves of their steeds. The Nazgûl will have passed our borders ere our archers find them. I warned Celebas and Taerorn of this before they departed. I only hope they heed my words."
Narsigil grimaced and tightened his hand around his spear. Thranduil was connected to the forest of Mirkwood in a way that defied explanation, especially in matters that concerned his own realm. Though he did not hold one of the Three, he did have a power of sorts that was just enough to hold the forces of darkness back. He could sense the mood of the trees better than any elf in the kingdom, and if he claimed that the Nazgûl were moving with more speed than ever, he was not to be questioned. "We will be hard-pressed this night," the prince murmured. "And we are already shorthanded."
"Alas for these times," Thranduil whispered. "And alas for the evils that so divide us."
Narsigil sighed slightly at this and shook his head. He was a very perceptive elf, possessed of an uncanny talent for sensing moods in others, and at the moment he could feel waves of frustration emanating from Mirkwood's king. Still, this was no surprise. Narsigil had seen it every solstice since the attacks began. After trying various strategies—ranging from ringing the realm in fire to the idea of meeting the Nazgûl before they even drew near the settlements—the tactic of using flaming arrows as the first line of defense had eventually been chosen as the most successful. All companies behind this first line reacted and adapted to the success of the archers with a final contingent of guards standing before the entrance to Thranduil's halls. And it was here that Thranduil was also forced to stand, for he alone had the power to completely seal the gates and shut out the darkness. It was a last resort that would cut off not only the Nazgûl but also every elf fighting without the fortress, yet it was a precaution that had to be taken. And because of this precaution, Thranduil could not endanger himself in the forest. Naturally, this position at the back of the battle did not sit well with the king of Mirkwood, who chafed to be abroad fighting alongside his sons.
For his part, Narsigil understood well how the king felt. His own role was to coordinate scouting parties that guarded the western, eastern, and northern ways in the event that the Nazgûl ever opted to change their method of attack. And because his companies were split in this endeavor, he remained at the gates with his father, receiving reports and ordering adjustments as necessary. His single archery unit became the unit responsible for guarding the fortress, and his personal guard unit became Thranduil's personal guard unit. These responsibilities were not to be taken lightly, but they were not the dangerous tasks forced upon Narsigil's brothers. The Nazgûl had never come from any direction save the south, and they had never shown any interest in devising a new strategy for their solstice attack. The attack itself was not intended to seriously wound Mirkwood's forces but rather to prove the superiority of the Nazgûl and establish the power of Dol Guldur. And for the most part, it worked. Still, there was always the possibility that this would change one year, and for this reason, Narsigil's forces watched closely the other directions that the Ringwraiths might come. But like his father, Narsigil wished to be aiding his brothers rather than serving as a failsafe.
"How much shall we miss the archer companies from the north?" Narsigil asked at length.
"I dare not guess," Thranduil said. "We can only pray that Elbereth is with us tonight. The stars do shine brightly. Perhaps there is yet hope."
"But the stars will not shine at all where the Nazgûl ride," Narsigil whispered. "Even the trees now bend to their will, blocking the sky and thus blinding our forces. Were we upon open country, we would prevail easily. But within the forests that harbor so many of Arda's dark creatures, how can we hope to succeed when nature itself abandons us at their command?"
"We hope because it is all that is left to us, Narsigil," Thranduil answered, his voice gentle but firm. "We have neither the allies nor the powers that the other elven realms have. If we abandon hope, we are truly bereft. And our hope is not without substance. We boast the greatest archers known to Middle-earth. Our fortress is impregnable. Our woodcraft is beyond compare. Nay, do not despair," the king said, placing a hand upon his son's shoulder. "There is no place for despair in this kingdom."
"Is there a place for false hopes?" Narsigil challenged.
"Look to your command," Thranduil answered, his eyes glinting, and Narsigil realized that he had pressed his father too far. "And think on your words. False hopes, you say? There are none in this world, for all things are possible. Therefore, no hope can be false. There is always a way."
For three hours, they rode in complete and utter darkness. It was a wonderful thing. The absence of light had done much to stoke the cold fires of their power. Evil was strong this night, and as Khamûl leaned forward over the neck of his mount, he loosed a shrill scream of pure delight. Rarely had he felt so much energy and so much desire from his two companions, and they, in turn, were spurred on by his own excitement.
Half an hour ago, they had passed into Thranduil's realm. The trees were straighter here, and had the Nazgûl allowed it, starlight would have been able to slip through. But the waxing power of the Ringwraiths had closed the forest's canopy, plunging the area into a shadow that even elven sight could not penetrate. They now rode past abandoned homes, but they had yet to meet with any resistance. This suited Khamûl well, for the longer they were allowed to advance unimpeded, the greater their strength grew. And it was Khamûl's goal to press as close to Thranduil's fortress as he could.
One of the other Nazgûl suddenly hissed, and Khamûl checked his mount, slowing the horse to a trot as he raised his head and allowed the night's darkness to bring him tidings. Whispers in the shadows spoke of unseen guardians that waited somewhere ahead of them. And blood. He could smell blood. Pulsing, flowing, rich, elven blood. He could sense life. Vibrant life. The life force of the elves. It lacked the power of the Calaquendi elves, but even though they had never beheld the light of the Trees, the Moriquendi were still numbered among the First-born and as such they were still very strong. The sense of their rich lives pounded against Khamûl's senses, driving his lust for their death to a fever pitch. They were here, and they were close.
Crying to his companions, Khamûl spurred his horse onward, calling on the powers of shadow to hide their coming and allowing the full force of his deadly fear to fill the surrounding woods. A ring of steel was heard as he drew a long blade from a scabbard at his side, and for but a moment, it seemed to Khamûl that he raced across barren steppes, his robes and scarves flying wide as he bore down upon the helpless enemy before him. Then the memory was gone, but the sudden image had given Khamûl an even greater desire for the blood that he smelled. His piercing scream changing to a sudden silence that was even more potent than the cry, Khamûl kicked his horse back into a gallop and charged toward the hapless elves who cowered in the darkness before the might of his coming.
Moving with cautious haste, Taerorn and his small group of archers raced silently through the treetops. They were nearing one of the southernmost settlements, and the sense of darkness was very strong. The branches had closed overhead, eliminating starlight, and the elves ran essentially bereft of sight. Through senses that a mortal could never comprehend, they anticipated every step and every leap as they scrambled through twisted branches. But their senses were dimming as the source of the night's evil drew near, and it was only a matter of time before a misstep occurred.
Realizing that the Nazgûl were closer than they should have been, Taerorn whispered a command to halt. They could not venture any further without risking a fall and possibly giving their position away. Of course, the Nazgûl were probably already aware of their position, but if there was any chance that they were still undetected, Taerorn was determined to take advantage of it.
Quieting his breathing for a moment, Taerorn made a quick head count, identifying each elf in his group by the use of sound and smell. When he counted nine individuals, he loosed a quick sigh of relief. They were still together. "Half-circle," he hissed. "Arm's length apart. Do not become separated. Ready your arrows, but light them and fire only on my command. Legolas, I would speak with you for a moment."
Murmurs of acknowledgement drifted back to him, so silent that they were scarce to be heard, and he sensed movement as the archers arranged themselves. Then came a presence at his shoulder, followed by voice so quiet it might have been mistaken for a whisper in the breeze. "I am here, brother."
"Walk with me," Taerorn ordered, moving away from the group. He sensed his youngest brother trailing closely, following by sound alone, and when they were far enough away, Taerorn stopped. "There is no time to teach you all that you should know," he whispered. "But we shall need your aim this night, so I will endeavor to teach you something. You know the basics of what we do and you are not unfamiliar with using flaming arrows, but I do not think you have ever been schooled in their use as a tactical group weapon. Do I err in this?"
"You do not. At least, not completely," Legolas admitted, his voice quiet and reflective. "I have studied your techniques as a strategy, but I have never used them in combat."
"I suspected as much," Taerorn sighed. "Listen well, then, for there is no time to repeat this. You are accustomed to a method where every archer chooses a target and then shoots. That does not work this night. We shoot as a group and we shoot at a single target rather than selecting multiple targets. It contains the fires. If you are uncertain of the target, do not shoot! There is no dishonor in staying your hand. Given this darkness and the fact that the winter has been unusually dry, we cannot risk allowing a fire to spread uncontrolled."
"All this I know in principle, though I suspect experience shall prove or disprove that which I have learned. But may I ask how any of us shall know the target when we cannot even see the barbs of our own arrows?"
Taerorn winced. Legolas had a cynical streak that appeared from time to time, usually when he was irritated of frustrated. And though the circumstances certainly warranted such feelings, he could not afford to become derisive now. "We are forming a half-circle with specified distances set. We shall be shooting the ground that lies below the middle of this circle," Taerorn explained, forcing himself to exercise patience though it was a rather foreign concept to him. "If you wish my counsel, do not join us in that first shot. We have practiced this technique as a group many times. You have not. Wait until there is light upon the ground. After that, you are welcome to add your aim to ours. But remember to shoot only those targets that I specify."
"Then you alone shall be choosing the targets for the group," Legolas surmised.
"Precisely. After the initial shot, we shall also split our number evenly. You will be in my company. Stay close to me. And do not scowl!" Taerorn said sharply, sensing the glare that his younger brother was giving him. "You know well that I trust you to care for your own safety. I am not Celebas. I do not seek to protect you. Rather, I seek to protect my own men. Were you to become separated from me, the archers might find themselves deferring to you because you are a captain in this realm. Yet you do not have the experience or the knowledge to command in these situations. Thus, you will stay with me beneath my authority."
There was a moment of silence after this, and then Taerorn heard a quiet sigh. "My apologies," Legolas whispered. "Perhaps I am simply afraid and it is manifesting itself in anger."
"We are all afraid, Legolas," Taerorn assured him. "Control your fear, though, lest it control you."
"You say you are not Celebas, but you now quote his words," Legolas murmured with a quiet laugh. "Often have I heard him speak thus to others.
"Celebas and I are both very wise," Taerorn retorted. "Come now. Let us rejoin the group. You shall hold position at my side, and when the first arrows fly, you shall see for yourself how this strategy plays out." So saying, Taerorn turned and quickly made his way back to the rest of the group. He felt Legolas following closely, and they soon reached the others. Navigating carefully around the other elves, Taerorn found one edge of the circle and assumed his place. He felt the branch beneath him dip slightly as Legolas joined them, and he reached out a hand to guide his brother forward slightly and to the side. Everything was now in order and it was time for the part that Taerorn hated most. It was time to wait.
Silence fell upon the elves like a smothering blanket dropped upon a dying fire. The air became stifled and musty. The night became so dark that Taerorn began to wonder if he had gone blind. He had hunted Nazgûl on the solstice for almost two decades now, but never before had the shadows been so deep or so chilling. And as the night began to wear on, Taerorn began to sense that something was wrong. Something was different. Something was changing.
He frowned, flinging his senses wide in an effort to decipher what was happening. He clutched his bow tightly and shivered, wondering at his own reaction but unable to help himself. A deep chill suddenly struck him, so cold it was actually painful. He felt himself curling into a protective ball around his gut even as he strove to silence the moans that were building in his throat. And as he began to shiver, he felt the regard of another's mind much as he might feel the presence of one suddenly standing at his shoulder.
They had come.
Taerorn could not say how he knew this, but he knew it with a certainty he had never experienced before. His skin crawled, and the hair upon his neck began to stand as though a thunderstorm pressed close. Icy tendrils of fear slipped into his heart, and his finely honed senses screamed with horror at that which approached. Never in all the years of hunting Nazgûl upon the solstice had he felt as he did now.
In his mind's eye, Taerorn could see a shape. He could pinpoint it with exactness. It was darker than the night, seeming to be as a hole in the void. And this shape advanced steadily, turning neither to the right nor to the left.
His brother's concerned whisper went unheard. Taerorn's heart began to pound, and perspiration beaded upon his brow. It was too close in here! There was no air! He began to gasp as the need to breathe overwhelmed him. Shudders swept his frame. His fingers jerked and trembled, and the bow in his hand suddenly clattered to the forest floor, shattering the silence like a mithril hammer taken to fine crystal.
The other elves were moving now, certain that something had gone horribly wrong, but Taerorn was not aware of them. Hands seized his shoulders, pulling him back against the trunk of the tree and pinning him lest he should fall. But it was a lost cause. He was already falling.
"Resume your positions! Ready the bolts!"
He could see it! Sweet Elbereth, he could see the form behind the shape! There it stood, watching him and grinning into the night. An inky blackness swelled over his mind and he lurched, struggling to pull free. Fear the likes of which he had never known before snapped the threads of sanity that held his mind together, and he felt himself spiraling downward as a stricken eagle.
"Light the arrows! Fire!"
The shape suddenly recoiled and Taerorn sensed a flash of surprise from it, but the hold on his mind did not lessen. Two other shapes now appeared, but they did not seize him as the first shape had. Rather they rushed forward, screaming in a language that assaulted his ears and sundered his soul. Darkness overcame him and chaos erupted. The sound of hooves rang loud in the night, and other shrill screams were heard.
Taerorn felt himself physically shoved to the side, and the tree upon which he stood began to shudder as the screams intensified in volume. Someone was calling his name and pulling him forward, but he could not respond. His mind was trapped in the icy blackness of a dark dream. He cried out into the night, despair and fear ringing clearly in his voice, and as he screamed, a Nazgûl screamed with him, echoing the sound and intensifying its hold. A limb suddenly gave way beneath him and he fell, plunging through thirty feet of snapping branches before crashing to the ground.
Sharp pain seized his right shoulder where he had struck the earth, but the sudden jolt managed to free his consciousness. Clarity of thought flooded him as the waters of the Bruinen River during the height of spring. Reacting instantly and instinctively, Taerorn surged to his feet and drew his knife, but another Nazgûl scream paralyzed him, and he found himself toppling back to the ground. He could not move and he could not think. His tongue stuck to the roof his mouth and his eyes bulged in the black night. All he knew was terror and all he saw was darkness. Ice settled across his prone body, and his muscles went rigid.
Then a whisper of air touched his cheek. Taerorn frowned, puzzled, until he abruptly realized that the air was warm.
The breath of a horse…
Sauron abandoned Dol Guldur in the year 2941 just before the forces of the White Council attacked it. Ten years later, he sent three Nazgûl to reoccupy the fortress. Unfinished Tales identifies the leader of these Nazgûl as Khamûl, or the Black Easterling. He and the Witch-king are the only two Nazgûl for whom we have any kind of a history.
Anyway, this story is tentatively set thirty years or so after the Nazgûl returned to Dol Guldur. I have no exact date, but it would be around the same time as Boromir's birth and Gollum's first meeting with Shelob.
As for Thranduil's family, Thranduil and Legolas are the only two canon characters. (And Oropher, but he's dead) The rest are purely my own invention. As for there being so many of them, I decided the situation in Mirkwood warranted it. According to various comments made in Tolkien's letters, elves didn't have many offspring because their minds turned to other things after they were married for a while. But Tolkien also said that elves marry early in life. So working from the assumption that Legolas was born sometime during the Third Age, Thranduil either married extremely late in life or continued to have children for an exceptionally long time. I've taken a middle road. And it makes sense to me that a kingdom like Mirkwood would be more focused on offspring than other realms because they were under almost constant attack. They had no protective barrier like Doriath did, they had no hidden valley refuge like Gondolin, and they had no Elven Ring like Rivendell and Lothlórien. Their survival depended almost exclusively upon their warriors. So it makes sense to get a lot of warriors out there. Anyway, that's my rationale for Thranduil's unusually large family.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.