Khamûl felt a slight thrill of excitement course through him as he strengthened his hold on the elf's mind. He loved a good challenge, and finding an opponent that would resist his attack had become something of a rarity during the past few years. Many would fight against him during the initial stages of the mental assault, but once he seeped his will into their thoughts, the battle was over. But this elf was still struggling to free himself, and Khamûl was thoroughly enjoying it.
The warriors that the three Nazgûl faced now were the first elves they had encountered since passing the borders of Thranduil's realm, and the leader of these archers had been easy to sense. Khamûl suspected this was one of Thranduil's sons, for he could feel the strength and lineage of Doriath's nobility pounding away in his blood. He could also sense fear, uncertainty, and impatience, and using these things as a doorway, Khamûl slowly slipped his thoughts into the elf's mind. Too long had this one chased shadows in the darkness. That which would be known later in Gondor as the Black Breath had already found root in this elf's soul, and using this foundation, Khamûl put forth his strength. He wrapped his shroud of darkness around the elf's mind and pressed against it, slowly driving the elf back.
The hushed whisper reached the Nazgûl's keen hearing, and he mentally smiled. He had been right. This was one of Thranduil's sons. His second son, to be precise. A fine prize indeed. Signaling the other two Nazgûl onward, Khamûl slowed his horse and devoted more of his attention to the mind games. He briefly wondered why he had never tried to affect Taerorn's mind before, for the darkness hidden beneath the surface of this elf's thoughts was not a new darkness. It had been in place for several years, if Khamûl was any judge, and was most likely a product of the growing shadows that afflicted Mirkwood. He would have to find opportunities for testing all of Mirkwood's chief captains. Surely Taerorn was not alone in bearing these mental shadows. Perhaps this was the fatal flaw of Thranduil's defenses.
The whisper was more frantic now, and Khamûl wondered how much time he had remaining to him before he would be forced to abandon his latest toy. There were many locked doors in Taerorn's mind that Khamûl longed to open and explore. Secrets might be found here. The keys to ending Thranduil's pitiful realm could be uncovered.
A bow clattered to the forest floor, the sound of its fall piercing the heavy silence. Swerving toward it, Khamûl and his companions now slowed their advance. They were nearing the elves, and because Khamûl was devoting his attention to mental games, the other two Nazgûl were more or less on their own when it came to confronting this first line of defense. Under normal circumstances, the three Nazgûl rushed together, ensuring that at least one made it through the barrage of flaming arrows. But this night they were trying something different, and Khamûl hoped that by destroying the composure of the elves' captain, he could compensate for the fact that he would not be directly involved in the initial attack.
As though from a distance, Khamûl sensed movement. The other two Nazgûl were also aware of it, and they began sniffing the air while directing their mounts to scan the trees for elves. Khamûl increased his hold on his captive's mind, trying to force Taerorn into betraying the exact position of the elven warriors. But another force was intruding now, and it was becoming more difficult to hold Taerorn in the thrall of fear. Something else was seeking to capture the elf's attention, and the battle for Taerorn's mind was becoming far more difficult.
"Resume your positions! Ready the bolts!"
Khamûl knew what was coming next, and he tightened his grip on the reins of his horse. His time with this frightened elf was almost over, but before he left him, he intended to press his fear as deeply as possible. If he managed to shatter Taerorn's mind, he would deprive Thranduil of one of his most talented captains.
"Light the arrows! Fire!"
A flash of agony assaulted Khamûl's mind as the forest was suddenly illuminated by flame. Grappling madly for his hold on Taerorn, he backed his horse away and screamed in both rage and pain. His cry was answered by the other Nazgûl, who added their screams to the chaos suddenly unfolding in the forest. The screams began to build in volume and echoed back and forth between the trees as the foul language of Mordor was shouted into the twisting woods. The trunk of one of the trees suddenly shattered, too dry and withered to withstand the assault. The light of the burning arrows was snuffed out and startled sounds from above informed Khamûl that the elves were scattering as other trees began to crack. The winter had been too dry and too cold for the forest to endure the rising screams of the Nazgûl, and with only feeble starlight to hinder them, the Ringwraiths had enough power in their voices to freeze even the vast waters of the Anduin.
Sounds of mounting confusion drew Khamûl's attention upward, but he still had a slight hold on Taerorn and he intended to keep that hold as long as possible. Bearing down with all the strength of the black night, the Nazgûl drove his will and power deep into Thranduil's second son. An elven scream split the darkness, and Khamûl screamed with the elf, exulting in the sense of victory and shadow. Limbs and branches cracked and ruptured beneath this new onslaught of sound, and a shower of timber rained down not more than twenty feet in front of Khamûl's horse. But timber was not the only thing to crash to the ground. Caught in the falling branches, a tall elf also fell, and the Nazgûl immediately knew it to be Taerorn.
Linked as he was to the elf's mind, Khamûl felt a flash of pain in his own shoulder when the prince struck the earth, and then the contact was broken. Adrift for but a moment, Khamûl quickly regained his bearings even as his mount snorted in warning. Free of Nazgûl fear, Taerorn had risen and drawn his blade, his gray eyes flashing with royal anger. Somewhere beyond the elf, a volley of flaming arrows hit the ground, once again driving back the shadows and bathing Taerorn in a red glow. Fey and deadly he appeared, like his elven sires of old, and for but a moment, Khamûl felt a spark of uncertainty.
But the elves had been weakened by fear and confusion. Khamûl's companions were surging forward despite the fires of the arrows, taking darkness with them and cloaking the forest in their fell wills. Looking closer, Khamûl found weakness in Taerorn's bravado, and a dark joy filled his heart. Putting off joining the other Nazgûl, the Black Easterling decided to make one more attempt to destroy Thranduil's second son. Gathering all the power of twilight and building off the chaos ringing through the woods, Khamûl loosed a scream of command and fear and spurred his mount forward.
With his frayed mental state and depleted physical condition, Taerorn was unable to withstand the onslaught. Shuddering, he staggered and fell, the knife dropping from his hand as he crumpled into a pitiful heap. Seizing this opportunity, Khamûl brought his horse alongside the fallen prince. The steed lowered its head and sniffed at Taerorn's prone form, eventually snorting and shaking its tattered mane in disgust. Khamûl was forced to agree with his mount. Once all was said and done, a Nazgûl's victim was a pathetic thing. All resistance disappeared, and no matter how strong the individual had been before the attack, the end was always the same. The challenge inevitably disappeared, and the enemy became one more kill to add to Khamûl's impressive total. Still, the prince had been an enjoyable diversion while he lasted, and if the Nazgûl gained nothing else this night, Taerorn's death alone would make the solstice ride well worth the effort. Holding aloft his heavy sword, the Nazgûl hissed a quiet command of terror that would hold the elf still and then prepared to drive his blade home.
A mad scream of rage and fury startled Khamûl, something that had not happened in years, and before he could recover, a lithe form dropped from the trees above and landed over Taerorn in a protective crouch. A hand shot to the side with elven swiftness and took up the knife that the prince had dropped. Frightened by the sudden intrusion, Khamûl's horse reared and backed away, which gave the newcomer enough time to set fire to an arrow and notch the dart.
Enraged, Khamûl whipped his mount's head to the side as punishment for such disobedience before driving his heels into the sides of the horse, pushing the creature forward as he brought his sword down. The flaming arrow was released, but the Nazgûl had moved too quickly and it went wide as the horse swerved and bore down upon the young elf that sought to save Taerorn. A second arrow was fired, this one striking Khamûl's shoulder, but it had been shot in haste and bore no flames. Shrugging the irritation aside, the Ringwraith screamed his anger, pouring every ounce of Sauron's fury into his voice, and the elf recoiled violently. Weapons clattered to the forest floor, and the newcomer clutched his ears as he fell to his knees, shaking in terror.
A sudden onslaught of forgotten memories took Khamûl, and several curses of old came to his mind. He had neglected to watch Taerorn, and in the time it had taken to regain control of his horse, Taerorn had recovered and risen, now placing himself before his brother just as his brother had done for him moments ago. At the same time, flashes of fire could be seen in the trees, and Khamûl picked up the scent of converging elves, their blood racing swiftly through their veins as they scrambled madly to save their own.
Crying aloud in frustration, Khamûl drove his horse recklessly toward Thranduil's sons, desperate to destroy at least one of them. But they managed to leap away as he swept past, and his sword met only air. But he did not stop, for to do so would invite further disorientation by fire. Reaching forward with his mind, he attempted to find the other two Nazgûl and eventually sensed their presence some distance ahead. They were nearly through the first line of defense. Elven blood stained the ground over which they had passed, and the scent of this spilled life force was a tonic for the Ringwraith. Khamûl inhaled deeply, feeling his energy restore itself as he took in the sweet aroma of dying elves.
Allowing himself a moment to taste the first fruits of victory, Khamûl eventually turned his mind back to following his companions. Several collections of burning arrows lay in the way, but these could be easily avoided. Moreover, the surviving archers had been scattered by shattering trees and concern for fallen companions. Their defenses were confused, and it would be an easy task to rejoin the other Nazgûl.
Khamûl hesitated for a moment, considering the idea of turning about and finishing what he had begun. The elves behind him were now encumbered by shadow and fear. He could attempt to return and kill Taerorn as well as Thranduil's youngest son, who had apparently joined his brother upon the ground. With one strike, two of Mirkwood's princes could fall. But even as these thoughts crossed his mind, Khamûl shook his head and urged his mount to faster speeds. As tempting as the idea was, the remnants of Taerorn's archers would be rallying to the princes' defense. It would be folly to turn now, for they would be expecting such a move and would have prepared accordingly. Success was no longer a guarantee and the opportunity had passed.
A slight pang of disappointment stabbed at Khamûl's empty heart, but he shook it off. The night was far from over, and there were other elves to face. The Nazgûl were making good time, and if they continued at this pace, it was possible that they might actually break through to the gates of Thranduil's stronghold. Such a victory would easily compensate for having failed to kill Taerorn and Legolas. And with this new goal in mind, Khamûl kicked his horse into an even faster gallop, hurrying to catch his companions and drawing a cloak of darkness around the forest as he went.
One hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, the crown-prince of Mirkwood backed his horse away from one of the trees and turned his eyes upward, searching the branches. "Speak," he commanded, finding the elf hidden within the leaves. "What tidings have you?"
The archer leaped down, pausing to sketch a brief bow before continuing. "I bring word from Captain Ithildae, my lord. The Nazgûl attacked Prince Taerorn's party and forced their way through, causing enough confusion to disrupt our defenses. The wood is too dry, and the Nazgûl have been shattering trees, making it impossible to launch an attack from the branches. And we are too few to do so from the ground. Ithildae is attempting to reorganize the archer units, but he fears it is too late to stop the Nazgûl. All three of them have come this year, and we believe that all three of them shall converge on your position, my lord. Ithildae bids you ready the spear men and the mounted companies."
Celebas frowned, his sharp mind picking up a strange note of reluctance in the messenger's voice. "And what of Prince Taerorn? Does he also send word?"
"I know nothing of him, my lord," the archer said smoothly, but Celebas did not miss the flash of hesitation in the gray eyes. "I have only those instructions that Captain Ithildae sent."
Nay, you have more information than that, Celebas thought grimly. Something has happened to him but you have been told to say nothing of it. Valar, I believe Legolas was with Taerorn's company! I should never have suggested that we combine the archery companies. I should have requested that he stay with Narsigil. Or at the very least, my own company. He and Narsigil are both too young to face such danger. Cursing quietly beneath his breath, Celebas shook his head slightly, but he said nothing of his thoughts. If something had happened to his brothers, he would eventually learn of it, and that was the best he could hope for. Time and circumstances would not permit any greater familial indulgences. They never did. But such is the life of our house, the crown-prince sighed. Our duties are set, and they have been set for many years. Until Sauron is utterly destroyed, this is our lot and our office. As princes of the realm, we can do no less. "My thanks for the message. Has word of this been sent to the king?" Celebas asked, turning his attention to matters of logistics and necessities rather than matters of kin and family.
"Yes, my lord. Captain Ithildae dispatched several messengers."
"That is well. Return to Ithildae, then, and tell him to gather all the archers that can be found. He is to distribute them over the mounted forces as well as over those on foot.
"It shall be as you command, my lord," the elf said, bowing and then ascending back into the trees.
For a brief moment, Celebas stared after the messenger and then he shook himself free of dark thoughts. Time was of the essence. Directing his horse to the side, he quickly found one of his aides and beckoned him over. "Bear a message to Prince Narsigil."
The other elf nodded quickly. "Where does the prince stand, my lord?"
"He is with the king before the halls. Inform him that the Nazgûl have employed a direct attack upon the archers. Those scouts he has upon the east and the west should be drawn together and placed with my own forces upon the ground behind the mounted line."
"I will see these things done, my lord," the aide said. "Have you ought else for me?"
Celebas hesitated, knowing he should not ask it, but unable to prevent himself. Of all of Thranduil's sons, he was the one who best remembered times of peace, and he had never truly adjusted to the realities of perpetual war. "Yes," he said at length. "Tell Narsigil that any which can be spared from the defense of the gates should be sent in search of the archers that first met the Nazgûl. Their fate is uncertain, and I would not abandon them to the darkness of the forest on such an ill night." And that is all I may do for you, my brothers, for of my own forces I can spare none.
"By your word, my lord." And with that, the elf gave a quick nod in lieu of a bow and wheeled his horse about. Whispering a quiet command to the animal, he quickly set out, vanishing into the deepening shadows of night as they closed behind him like a shroud.
With his conscience partially assuaged, Celebas firmly redirected himself to thoughts of his own forces. If the Nazgûl were indeed past the archers, then they were attacking much sooner than expected. His father had been right. The dark ones were riding hard this night, and little time could be allotted for the organization of his units. A line of mounted elves he had, as well as elves on foot with spear and pike. Pursing his lips, Celebas let out a high, piping whistle, signaling the other elves to begin drawing together. He could not give them an exact position until his forward scouts reported the path of the Nazgûl, but he could bring his rather scattered forces together. Taerorn had spearheaded the archers, which put him due south of Celebas's position. That at least gave the crown-prince a general range for placement of his own troops.
Answering whistles from unit captains now echoed back to Celebas, and his mind began creating a mental map of his forces, estimating their position and making tentative plans for future movements. The basic plan was simple by necessity, for it often had to be adjusted at the last minute to compensate for the ability of the Nazgûl to conceal their exact location until the last possible moment. The mounted elves would meet the attackers and attempt to knock them from their steeds or slay the foul beasts. If the Nazgûl managed to break through—as they usually did because the elven horses had a tendency to panic—then the ground forces would attempt to do what the mounted patrols could not. They were also responsible for dealing with any Nazgûl that were unhorsed. They were usually successful, but then, they usually only had two Nazgûl to deal with. Most of the time, Taerorn and his companies managed to drive back at least one of the three. But this year, with the moon absent from the sky and the first line of archers weakened by lack of numbers and support, the battle was going to be much different.
A strange shiver crept over Celebas, and his eyes narrowed. The wood was growing very quiet, but he had yet to hear from the scouts. Surely the Nazgûl could not be upon them so quickly. A chill pressed its way up his spine, and for a moment, his vision darkened to the point that he could no longer see the stars above him. Shaking his head, Celebas moved his horse forward and peered into the shadows while at the same time clearing his thoughts and mind. There was… a presence in the night. A shadow that spoke of fear. And it was getting stronger.
Sensing his unease, Celebas's horse shifted beneath him, but the gelding did not seem to be as troubled as his rider. It was as though the fear was isolated and targeted. Frowning, the crown-prince of Mirkwood attempted to locate the source of his sudden terror. And the moment he focused his attention inward, he had his answer.
Valar, it is in my mind! Recoiling slightly, Celebas squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head, and attempted to separate himself from the darkness. It was actually a relatively easy thing for him to do as he had been doing it for most of his recent life. Celebas had inherited his father's frame but his mother's nature. Mirkwood's continual state of war weighed heavily upon his spirits in a way that his father and his brothers would never be able to understand, and because of this strain, Celebas had created places of retreat within his mind. He sought these sanctuaries now, and he felt a ripple of surprise from the intruding Nazgûl as he slipped its foul clutches. Momentarily blocking the parts of his mind where the Ringwraith now stalked, Celebas opened his eyes and once again became aware of the outside world. And as he did so, his sharp ears picked up a sound that shook him to his core.
The forest was filling with whistles. The forward scouts had found the Nazgûl.
Celebas fervently cursed the timing and the fickle hand of fortune. He had not yet gathered his resources to flush the Ringwraith from his mind, nor was he even sure he could oust the creature. But he could no longer linger in his mental refuges, for a military mind was now required. Unfortunately, that meant opening himself back up to the Nazgûl, and Celebas was not certain that he could maintain control should his foe press a mental attack. Still, there was no help for it. Readying himself as much as he was able, Celebas loosed his mental guards, raised two fingers to his lips, and sent out a new series of whistles.
He was now acutely aware of the Nazgûls' presence, and as they drew closer, the one in his mind became stronger. But though he could no longer separate himself from a part of his mind, Celebas kept open his places of retreat, making it easier to deal with the darkness. It gave him an avenue of escape should he need it, and though responsibility prevented him from ever retreating, the knowledge that he could flee gave him strength to fight. Dividing his attention between the mental intruder and the outside world, Celebas began to relay coordinates and instructions in his whistles. Answers came quickly, and then other mounted elves surrounded Celebas, drawing together to better protect one another. Swords rang clearly as they were drawn from scabbards, and the feeble starlight that flickered above glinted off the edges of the blades. Though she could not be seen, Elbereth was with them, and Celebas took heart in this even as the Nazgûl tried to increase his hold on the crown-prince's mind.
The whistles had now stopped, but silence did not fall again. Groans and creaks could be heard in the branches, and a glance upward revealed that the limbs were lacing together, blotting out the stars and plunging the forest floor into an even greater darkness. The lights of Elbereth faded from view, and shorn of this connection, Celebas felt the shadows in his own mind grow and multiply tenfold.
"Start the fires!" he commanded even as he struggled against the looming darkness. It was a curious fight, and had he the time to step back and study it, he would have found it to be most intriguing. A part of him was completely removed from the Nazgûl, safeguarded in his mental retreats. Another part was fighting the creature while at the same time sorting through information and analyzing changing situations with learned military instincts. Celebas sensed somehow that he needed to keep at least a portion of his mind away from danger and separated from the outside world. Even though it hampered his concentration, to do otherwise would be a grave mistake. Celebas was not certain how he knew this, but he was not one to go against his intuition. Often it was sharper than his mind, and he had learned long ago to heed its promptings.
Behind the line of horses, bonfires sprang into being, summoned by elven skill. In years now lost to the past, these bonfires had been the sites of festivities and celebrations. Now they were wardens set against the coming of evil, and their flickering flames represented a futile struggle rather than a joyous holiday.
To Celebas's right, an elven horse suddenly reared and screamed, its rider cursing and struggling to regain control. Celebas's own mount shifted abruptly and danced away, snorting and tossing his head. Celebas felt the eyes of the other elves upon him, waiting for the signal to move forward, but he hesitated. He had a very good idea of where at least one Nazgûl was, and that Nazgûl had now stopped. Why he stopped was something of a mystery. Perhaps he wished to concentrate more of his efforts on breaking through Celebas's mental barriers. But perhaps he had stopped to plan an ambush or a trap. Perhaps the other two Nazgûl had stopped with him. If that was the case, they could not afford to move forward until they knew more of their enemy's plans. Yet if there was no trap and the elves waited too long to move, they would have no ability to maneuver and bewilder the Nazgûl when they did come.
"My lord?" One of Celebas's aides, an older elf by the name of Tawar, leaned toward him and grasped his arm. "My lord, for what do we wait? We must begin moving now!"
"One is no longer approaching," Celebas murmured, his eyes narrow as they attempted to pierce the forest's black shadows and unravel this mystery.
A murmur of unease rippled through those around him, and he felt concerned looks drift his way. "How do you know this, my lord?" Tawar asked.
"I feel him," Celebas whispered, hoping his words made sense. It was difficult to explain what was happening when the act of speaking was hampered by his attempts to withstand a mental invasion. "He is aware of me even as I am aware of him. And he is waiting."
Celebas closed his eyes, unable to endure the fear and anxiety in the voice of his counselor. And as he cut off this connection to the surrounding world, he became even more aware of the shadow within his mind as well as its growing hold over his thoughts. He could not hold it at bay forever, even with memories of other things to focus upon. And perhaps this is its intent, Celebas realized, cursing himself for not having thought of it before. Perhaps it seeks to deprive the elves of leadership before attacking. If this is indeed the case, then ambush or no, we must act and we must act now!
And in a flash, Celebas saw it. Thranduil's oldest son was a natural leader but not a natural warrior. On the battlefield, he veered toward prudence rather than bold action. It was why he commanded the second line of defense while Taerorn commanded the forward archer units. And because of his inherent caution, he had a tendency to hesitate. The Nazgûl was using this. Somehow, the Nazgûl had seen this flaw and was using it to his advantage. And seeing how he was being manipulated, Celebas knew that he could afford to waste no more time. It might already be too late.
"Separate!" he snapped aloud, his eyes flying open as he prodded his startled horse forward. "Two equal companies to either side. The Nazgûl seek to skirt and pass us so as to reach those upon the ground. Calbenarth and Tawar shall command. Gaildaur and Lalorn, you are with me. We three strike forward!"
"My prince, what madness is this?" Calbenarth demanded in astonishment even as Celebas began to ride away from his bewildered companions.
"Hold the other two Nazgûl at bay," Celebas answered, urging his gelding into a swift gallop. "I go to deal with the third." Behind him, he heard a surprised Gaildaur and Lalorn shout commands to their own horses in a frantic effort to overtake their prince. The forest was so dark as to render sight next to impossible, and they were running blind, all of them, but Celebas was determined in his purpose. He was not prone to rash acts, but when angered, he had his father's temper, as did all his brothers. And it was well known, both in Mirkwood and in the surrounding regions, that no one crossed Thranduil or any of his sons without paying the consequences.
Stumbling as he attempted to navigate a world without light, Celebas's gelding tripped and blundered his way along, completely reliant upon his master's touch and quiet word. By contrast, Celebas knew exactly where he was going, for even as the Nazgûl held his mind, he now held a portion of the Nazgûl's. He delved only far enough to link the two of them, and with this link he blazed a trail directly to his prey. Through senses he did not understand and that were not entirely his own, he anticipated obstacles and skillfully directed his horse around them. Gaildaur and Lalorn followed at a slower pace in his wake, but Celebas did not wait for them. This creature had manipulated him, and if there was one thing Celebas prized more than anything else, it was the sanctity of his own mind. That sanctity had been violated, and the Nazgûl would suffer for it.
Charging through a small bramble bush, Celebas suddenly whipped his mount to the side as his eyes caught a flicker of movement. It was not much, but it was enough. He had found the Nazgûl. And in turn, the Nazgûl found him.
A scream of pure terror shot up from the darkness, and Celebas's steed, faithful though he was, could not endure such fear. He skidded to a halt and reared, acting so quickly that Celebas could not adjust. He went tumbling from the mount and barely managed to avoid the flailing hooves as the gelding brayed and wheeled away. Swiftly regaining his feet, Celebas brought his sword into the guard position, seeking the link that had bound him to the Nazgûl. But the darkness had become so deep and the fear so real that the prince was finding it difficult to concentrate. His thoughts seemed to be unraveling, and no amount of retreat into his mental havens could keep reality from spiraling into chaos.
A whisper of cold air was the only warning he had. Reacting purely on instinct, Celebas jerked to the right and swung his sword to the left. His blade met another sword, and the force of the blow sent Celebas stumbling backward. Then the broad body of a horse slammed into his shoulder and the hem of a dark cloak whipped against his face. Fear the likes of which he had never known before coiled itself around his heart. Reflexes alone kept him upright in the midst of complete and total panic, but they were wearing down quickly.
Sudden whinnies heralded the arrival of Gaildaur and Lalorn, but the Nazgûl would not be deterred. He continued his attack upon Celebas with single-minded fury, and Celebas was knocked to the ground as the dark horse charged. He heard the whistle of a sword as it sliced through the air, and even as he rolled out of the way, he felt the blade catch upon his tunic. Sweeping his own sword to the side and hoping to find something of his attacker, Celebas nearly sobbed in relief when steel met flesh. A piercing cry rent the air and the Nazgûl's horse stumbled and fell as an elven blade entered its stomach.
Shouts rent the air as Gaildaur and Lalorn tracked the sound to its source, but rising above the ruin of his steed's death, the Nazgûl turned its attention back to Celebas, a deadly threat promised in its darkness. A sword was once again moving through the air, and as before, Celebas raised his blade to block. But the angle was wrong, and the hilt was torn from his grasp. Leaping away, Celebas hit his back on a tree at the same time that the Nazgûl screamed. The wood shook, groaned, and a cracking sound was heard. Sensing what was about to happen, Celebas dove to the side and covered his head just as the branches shattered and began raining down upon the earth. The trunk split in twain and with a grinding roar it plummeted to the ground. The Nazgûl screamed again and Celebas found himself completely paralyzed. He could not move. He could not see. He could only listen as a booted foot hit the ground beside him. Mail clinked beneath black robes, and Celebas wondered if there was a message that his father would wish to pass to his mother in Mandos.
"To the prince!"
Celebas was never entirely certain about what happened next. Wind brushed his cheek and then light blazed through the dark night. So close was he to the world of the unseen that the prince was forced to turn away and hide his eyes from the fires that suddenly appeared beside him. A Nazgûl scream shattered the chill air and groaning creaks echoed through all the neighboring trees. Then others were around him, shouting challenges and brandishing flame. A fair voice abruptly cried out in anguish and the ring of steel was heard. Then something within his mind snapped like river ice cracking in a spring thaw. Celebas suddenly found himself able to move, and he quickly rolled to his feet, swaying slightly when the forest spun around him. Hands steadied him, and he heard orders to fire a volley of arrows. He thought he recognized Ithildae's voice, but he could not be certain. Confused and bewildered, he attempted to organize the scattered thoughts of his recovering mind while trying to discover what had become of his opponent. Willing his eyes to focus, he looked up just in time to see the Nazgûl throw one last glare at the elves before fleeing into the darkened wood. And at this brief glance, time itself seemed to stop.
Celebas found himself staring into a soulless gaze of night. There was no remorse. No regret. No pity. No warmth. Only a writhing, seething mass of shadows that hungered and yearned for the destruction of all life and all light.
And Celebas felt he knew exactly why it was that Nazgûl screamed.
Khamûl was furious.
This should have been his night. The darkness was complete. The forest canopy had blocked even the light of the stars. The Ringwraiths should have scattered the elves as leaves before the autumn winds that stripped Mirkwood's trees bare. What had gone wrong?
Perhaps attempting to influence the thoughts of the crown-prince had been a mistake. Celebas's mind proved to be a far more difficult challenge than Taerorn's mind had been. The older elf's mental makeup was complex and varied. It did not at all resemble the straightforward, militaristic thinking of his younger brother. There were entire worlds within Celebas's thoughts that had seen nothing of shadow or war, and into these realms, the crown-prince had fled, foiling Khamûl's best efforts to follow. The retreat had been a significant distraction for Celebas, but it had saved his mind in the end.
Still, Khamûl's own failure could hardly account for the failure of his companions. He sensed them from afar and they were in agony. One had been pierced with many fiery arrows and was even now attempting to crawl away while the elves hunted him with fierce intensity. The other was unhorsed and blinded by light, trying to make his way south and retreat into safer darkness. This should not have happened. The Nazgûl should have been able to break through. At least one of them should have made it! Why had this night come to failure?
Somewhere deep his being, a voice scarce to be heard whispered warnings of greed and haste. It was an eerie voice that had confused Khamûl for years beyond count. It seemed to be somehow related to a previous life, and occasionally the murmurs of this voice conjured images of a woman with wild, wind-swept hair and eyes so dark they appeared black. Her face was sad, her cheeks stained with tears, and always her arms were outstretched. But the one for whom she reached was gone. He was gone, and he would never return. Then the memories would fade, leaving Khamûl strangely disturbed though he could never say why. Always after these episodes, the Nazgûl known as the Black Easterling would become quiet and pensive. He would begin to act in ways that did not always fully reflect Sauron's desires or purposes, sometimes becoming overly cautious and at other times becoming overly bold. Naturally Sauron was well aware of the occasional discrepancies, as he knew all the intents and thoughts of his closest minions. And it was possible for him to put a stop to these fleeting memories that the Ring had not been able to banish completely, but he chose not to. Rather, Sauron allowed and even encouraged the thoughts, for these distant shadows of the past made Khamûl a very deadly and a very effective servant. He acted with complete obedience to his master's dark will, but he added a touch of individuality that served as a safeguard. A check against mistakes. It was because of this that Sauron had entrusted Khamûl with the fortress of Dol Guldur. And it was because of these faint memories that Khamûl decided upon one last solstice gamble.
Perhaps initially he had been too eager and too greedy for victory. Perhaps he had proceeded too quickly and too confidently. Perhaps he should not have invested so much time and strength into mental games. But the tables were turning, and Khamûl was wise enough to see it. It was the elves who now felt they had the upper hand, and as such, they were beginning to grow careless. Ahead of him, Khamûl could sense a gap in the sea of blood that assaulted his sense of smell. It was opening as elves split into parties and pursued his companions, one of which was fleeing east while the other struck southwest. Behind him, the elves around Celebas were fanning out and attempting to continue the fight, but Khamûl had other ideas. With the gap in defenses, he saw an opportunity, and he was never one to overlook an opportunity. Greed had its place so long as it was controlled by common sense.
Cloaking himself in shadows and channeling all of his dark power into stealth, Khamûl moved north toward the weak point in the elves' defense. He was tempted several times to veer from this course as he caught the whiff of a dying soul or heard a moaning that indicated a mortal wound. But he held to his decision, strengthened by the strange memories that had come and gone. He was dimly aware of pursuit, and he was also aware of a time when the elves seemed to realize what he was doing. But by then, it was too late. He was already halfway through, and the forces could not close rapidly enough to detain him. Besides, how did one stop a shadow? He became the very essence of the night, intangible and untouchable. Only his aura of fear was marked, and it could not be used to pinpoint his location. Elves cried and whistled in warning to one another, but Khamûl was moving quickly now, gaining speed from the night's shadows that were deepening with the approach of dawn. It had already been a long night, and if Khamûl had his way, it would be an even longer day. He intended to see that Thranduil knew just how close the Nazgûl could venture to the king's protected caverns.
Softer than the breeze and darker than the deepest pits of Angband, Khamûl raced forward. His sword he kept hidden beneath his robe lest any chance light gleam off its polished edges. Turning this way and that, he wove a twisting pattern through the forest as he elusively dodged pursuit as well as the patrols still scattered before him. He was moving swiftly now, and the warnings shouted to elves before him scarcely reached the warriors before he had already moved past. It would be a near thing. He could feel the dawn approaching. The darkest hour of the night was upon him, and it was in this hour that his strength was most terrible. But his power would flee the moment the sun cleared the horizon. This far north, the trees were far less willing to shield the Ringwraith from Arien as she carried the last fruit of Laurelin into the heavens. And so he raced against time, moving ever faster and weaving even less as he began to close upon his goal.
He could sense Thranduil's caverns ahead of him. They were filled with a pulsing sense of life that was dizzying and nauseating. Without the shadows of his companions to strengthen him, Khamûl nearly faltered at this onslaught of life and song. He pressed himself onward, but he could feel his strength weakening already. His pace slowed, and the warning whistles now passed him, speeding ahead and warning all that a Nazgûl approached.
Fires exploded within the trees, creating the illusion of dawn, but Khamûl forced himself past these flames. The shadows that the elves cast within his mind were many, and for a brief moment, he wondered at the wisdom in this course. But he had come too far to back down now. He was a Nazgûl, Sauron's lieutenant, the master of Dol Guldur, and a creature that had been responsible for the termination of more elven lives in the past century than all the Wargs of the snowfields and all the Orcs of the Misty Mountains combined. He would not stop now!
With a suddenness that took even Khamûl by surprise, he abruptly burst from the trees, his cloak billowing wide. Before him, elves shouted and reached for weapons. He had made it! He had reached the entrance to Thranduil's halls. With a scream of victory that rattled the very foundations of the earth, he summoned all the powers of the night and charged forward.
His sword swept through flesh and bone as elves raced to oppose him. Heat flared along his back, and he saw tendrils of flame racing down his cloak. But he would not stop. Not until he had achieved the gates of the caverns themselves. The night's darkness was at its strongest now, and calling upon the shadows, Khamûl found enough strength to endure the fires and to surge forward. Flames roared about his head, obscuring his vision, but he had no need of sight now. He knew his goal and he raced toward it. Weapons shattered around him as they tried to pierce his unseen body. Elves cried out in pain and fear, and the flames he bore spread along the ground, consuming fallen branches and hungrily reaching for more. Pausing once as the press of elves wheeled about him, Khamûl loosed a scream so powerful and so devastating it all but snuffed out the fires completely, dropping the forest into a night deeper than fathomless depths of the sea. The elves recoiled, their blood pounding away in their veins with such fervor that Khamûl was almost driven mad by its scent and sound. He had to spill it. Loose it upon the tortured earth where it would flow as the Anduin. Claim it for his own.
So caught up was he in the fury and glory of battle that Khamûl failed to notice a new and slightly different commotion unfolding to his right. But he certainly noticed when he found himself suddenly flying to the side. Screaming in anger, he spun about, bringing his sword up to rend whatever fool had dared interrupt his destruction. He was met by a being that did not flinch from his power and did not tremble in fear of his darkness. Nobility and royalty were strong in this new figure, and Khamûl could sense the fire and determination of a warrior that had once served in the companies of Thingol before the ruin of Doriath. Scarcely able to believe his good fortune, Khamûl forgot about every other elf in the area and concentrated all his power and energy on the defiant Eldar standing before him.
He had found Thranduil.
When Khamûl's full regard turned to him, strengthened by the long night of darkness and the absence of moonlight, Thranduil did stiffen slightly. But he did not back away. Rather, he advanced, sword stretched toward his foe. Elven blessings had been wrought upon the blade, and Khamûl hissed, feeling some of his power slip away in the face of such a weapon. Fires were being banked, and as light increased around him, Khamûl began to feel dizzy and confused. Uncertain, he took a step back and attempted to organize his reeling senses, and with that step, Thranduil charged.
Khamûl almost did not react in time. At the last moment, he angled his sword to deflect the strike, but he was unprepared for the raw power in Thranduil's blow. The king cried aloud to Elbereth as he moved in for a second strike, and Khamûl wilted before the name. Above him, the stars seemed to grow brighter and the trees spread their branches wide, allowing light to trickle down to the forest floor. Far away in the east, the sky was no longer black but gray, revealing that dawn was near.
Furious that victory was being snatched from him, Khamûl roared and put all his strength into one last attack. His scream shook the trees and drove elves to the ground as he launched himself at the king of Mirkwood. But Thranduil stood strong before his advance and moved to continue his own offensive. Sword clashed loud against sword as Nazgûl and elven king engaged in a furious and deadly dance. Every move was perfectly executed, and every block was perfectly performed. In the last moments of the night, there was no room for mishap on either side. For Khamûl, it was a race to finish ere the sun appeared over the horizon. For Thranduil, it was a matter of holding the Nazgûl at bay long enough for the light of dawn to grace the forest. So quickly did they move and so swiftly did they parry that the other elves, frantic to aid their king, could do nothing. The keen-eyed archers dared not fire for fear of hitting Thranduil.
Desperate to make headway against this fierce opponent and sensing that the coming of the sun was only moments away, Khamûl loosed one last scream, ceasing his attack altogether in order to infuse the sound with every last bit of strength that remained to him. Trees splintered and burst at the cry. Elves cowered and dropped to their knees. Slades rang and some even cracked, so powerful was the scream.
Yet Thranduil was relentless. He took but one startled step away from his opponent, and then he surged forward again, even more aggressive than before. And as he prepared to bring his blade down upon Khamûl's unprotected cloak, the first rays of morning shot into the sky.
The solstice was over.
Nazgûl were capable of great speeds when the need arose, and the elves of Mirkwood were witnesses to Khamûl's speed that morning as he fled their presence. Thranduil's sweeping stroke met air, and the Ringwraith vanished into the disappearing shadows, desperate to put space between himself and his former prey. Dawn came swiftly, and his power faded with each minute even as he pushed himself to even greater speeds in his haste to find shelter. If he could cover enough distance, the elves would not pursue. They would be nursing their own wounds this morning. Already he could hear songs of lamentation in the forest as soldiers began collecting the wounded and the dead. Though not completely victorious, this particular solstice was certainly not without success. He had discovered weaknesses in some of Thranduil's sons, and he had gone further into the elven lands than his forces had ever managed to penetrate before. A blow had been struck directly at the heart of the elven realm. No, there was definitely cause for rejoicing and excitement. And with these grim thoughts to satisfy him, Khamûl turned south and took up the long road back to Dol Guldur.
I wanted to interject a quick comment about Thranduil and Doriath. Thranduil's first mention in canon has him traveling eastward from Lindon before the year 1000 in the Second Age (which is when Barad-dûr was built). Doriath fell in the year 505 of the First Age. The First Age ended on the year 583 with the defeat of Morgoth. So you've got about 1080 years worth in between these events. I think it's conceivable that Thranduil was alive that long, and I also think it's conceivable that he served as a soldier of some kind in Doriath. He is a Sindar elf, and he probably has ties to the nobility, explaining why he and Oropher could create a kingdom. So my guess is that he was a young guard when Thingol still ruled. In my opinion, this would also justify some of his hostility to dwarves, as he would have been around when the Naugrim killed Thingol over the Nauglamír and then sacked Menegroth.
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