CHAPTER ONE: The Watcher

It's an Elf!

The boy had never seen one before and was curious. He was frightened too, but it was a thrilling kind of fear and he did not mind it. Crouching low in the bushes just a few feet from the clearing where the Elf and his companions had camped the night before, he watched and was so perfectly still and silent that even keen Elven ears could not detect his presence.

He had approached the campsite just before sunrise, drawn by the light of the fire. Everyone was lying down seemingly asleep, except for a dwarf who sat leaning against a tree. It must have been his turn at watch, but he was half-asleep himself in the pre-dawn hour, his heavy head repeatedly nodding toward his chest. The dwarf never heard the child approach and settle down in the bushes. Of course, the boy had spent the last three months living in the woods and most of his life before then playing in them. He knew how to walk with a quiet step on the leaf-strewn floor and how to avoid snapping twigs.

What a strange gathering! he now thought, as he scanned the campsite. In addition to the dwarf and the Elf, who slept with his eyes wide open (it had taken several minutes for the child to grasp that he was in fact asleep), there were four little men who at first glance appeared to be children, until he noticed their huge hairy feet (hobbits then--he had heard of such beings before), and three full-sized men, one of them much older than the others with a long gray beard and gray clothing. A small pony was tethered to a nearby tree.

Shortly after dawn, the nine companions awoke, and moments after that everyone but the Elf walked into the forest on the other side of the clearing. The boy assumed that they were headed toward the small stream that meandered there.

His gaze shifted back to the Elf, who now stood stretched to his full height. The child gaped in awe to see just how tall and slender he was. The Elf was certainly taller than any man he had ever seen. But despite his height, he moved with the sinuous grace of a cat--a predatory cat, the boy thought--sleek and strong with a casual air about him that belied the deadly hunter hidden within. The child was not fooled--this Elf was a seasoned warrior. He had been around enough of them to recognize that fact.

And yet there was no denying the Elf was beautiful to look at. Like a god from the tales of old, the child mused. His hair was long, of an unusually silky texture, and was so pale as to appear almost white in the early morning light. He wore it pulled back from his fair face by three braids, revealing delicate pointed ears. Those ears were what had first alerted the boy that the tall stranger was an Elf, and not a man.

All of the sudden, the Elf picked up the bow and quiver that had been beside him as he slept, and walked purposefully toward the boy's hiding place. For an instant, the child nearly panicked, thinking he had been discovered. Oh gods, he is going to shoot me! he moaned to himself as he screwed his eyes shut and prepared for the worst.

But the Elf merely propped his weapon against a nearby tree trunk and turned away. Returning to the place where he had slept, he picked up a scabbard and pulled one of two long knives from it, then settled himself onto a small boulder near the tree, and started to examine it. He was sitting with his back to the child.

Cautiously opening one eye first, followed by the other, the boy heaved a silent sigh of relief. His attention was now riveted on the Elven longbow and quiver. He had never seen a weapon so beautiful and elegant. The wood of the bow and quiver gleamed in the early morning sun and appeared as smooth as glass. Intricate gold carvings resembling leaves on a vine decorated them both. Even the shafts of the arrows—from what he could see of them in the quiver—were carved, and the arrows ended in a bright array of yellow, green and orange feathers. The beautiful weapon beckoned to be touched.

Standing up slowly, he warily watched the Elf's back and took a few silent steps toward the tree. But just as he reached his quarry and reverently extended a small hand toward it, a much larger and stronger hand clamped down hard around his fragile wrist. And no sooner did the boy raise startled green eyes and lock them with cool, blue ones, than he felt himself propelled hard onto the ground. And as he fell, much to his alarm, he thought he saw the silver glint of a blade in the Elf's other hand.

"Holy Iluvatar!" the boy blurted out just before landing face down in the dirt.

It is a human child! Legolas the Elf was just as startled as the boy when he looked at the small raggedy figure shaking on the ground before him. He got down on his knees, set aside his long knife, and gently turned the boy around, a faint frown marring his perfect brow. Not taking his hands off the boy's shoulders, Legolas opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a single word he felt the unmistakable cold edge of a blade pressed against his throat.

"Let go of him…NOW," hissed a quiet voice. A female voice. The speaker and wielder of the blade stood behind him and outside of his range of vision. And as his eyes looked askance to the place where he had set down his long knife, he was both angered and chagrined to discover that it was no longer there.

"Let go of him," she repeated, and pressed the blade harder against the Elf's tender skin, this time drawing a thin line of blood. Legolas raised his hands off the boy's shoulders and held them up. The child stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the speaker, then at the Elf, and then at the speaker again, before crawling crab-like backwards and away. As he got up on feet that were not quite steady, the female snapped,

"Jamie! What were you thinking?!"

"He's an Elf, Ellie!" as if that explained everything. He held his hands out imploringly to the unseen female.

She gave an exasperated sigh and started edging her way around Legolas, the long knife never leaving his throat. When he got his first glimpse of her, he received his second shock of the morning. His assailant--who had sneaked up behind him so stealthily that he had not heard her--was not much bigger and apparently not much older than the boy, Jamie. The Elf was deeply vexed that he should be caught so unawares. He studied her coldly through narrowed eyes.

She was pretty in a way that Elves found appealing—with a broad forehead and delicate features set in a porcelain face—but she had a neglected look about her, much like the boy. Her dark dress, although made of a fine velvet fabric, was torn in places and frayed all along the edges. The skirt barely covered her knees and had no hem, as if someone had taken a hasty knife to it and cut the lower half off. The girl's legs were bare and streaked with dirt, her ankle boots well worn. Her black hair was woven into a seemingly endless number of small braids that hung down her back and gave her a slightly savage appearance. As she came around to face him, the hand with the long knife never wavered, while her other hand gently pushed the boy behind her.

For a long moment no one spoke. The girl stared wide-eyed at the Elf kneeling before her. Fear and wonder and grim determination battled in her beautiful eyes. Legolas stared back with a stony face.

It would be so easy to disarm her now, he thought. But right when he was about to do just that, the girl stepped back, as if sensing his intentions. Legolas lifted one elegant brow in surprise.

"You would be wise to set that knife down," he warned her, his voice quiet, but laced with menace. His body was taut, ready to spring.

The girl was no match for Legolas, and she seemed to realize it. Nodding her agreement but still holding the blade before her, she spoke again to him--this time in a soft, persuasive voice, her eyes now unconsciously pleading, while she and the boy began to back away toward the forest.

"The boy meant no harm. He was only curious. I will put your knife down, and we will leave and all will be as it was before."

And perhaps they might have been able to do just that if Legolas' companions had not started to return. So fixed was her attention on the Elf that she did not notice them until the boy muttered, "uh oh," under his breath. The girl visibly started, knife still in her hand, as she saw the three men now standing in the clearing, hands reaching for the hilts of their swords.

A strange sight greeted the men: Legolas kneeling on the ground—blood trickling down his throat—with two ragged and, from the looks of them, half-starved children pointing a long knife—the Elf's own no less!—at him. It would have been comical, had the situation not seemed so grave.

"Legolas, what is happening here?" the oldest of the three asked in a quiet but commanding voice. He looked to be quite old—to Ellie he seemed ancient—with his weathered face, grizzled beard, gray robes, and strange-looking hat on his head. An aura of great power and wisdom surrounded the old man, and in a flash of insight, the girl recognized him for what he was: no mere mortal—but an Istari. A gray wizard. He, in turn, seemed to recognize something in her for his eyes took on a speculative gleam, one that no one else but Ellie would have noticed, not even the Elf with his heightened senses. Her attention now focused on the Istari, the girl barely noticed when Legolas quietly rose from the ground. With his hand he gestured to his companions to stay back, but did not speak up.

They were in BIG trouble and Ellie knew it, her heart plummeting in dismay. There was no way she and Jamie could fight two armed men, an Istari wizard and an Elf; they might not even be able to outrun them if it came to that. So she tried to persuade again, this time addressing the Istari directly, while still pointing the long knife at Legolas, who now stood but a few feet away.

"We meant no harm. We are not thieves. The boy was only curious as boys often are. We are leaving now." And she and Jamie started to back away again. This time the Elf took a step forward with each step backward that the boy and girl took. Still, she refused to give up the hope that they might actually be allowed to leave unchallenged.

But she hadn't counted on the arrival of the other five companions.

They were no taller than Jamie, but they were much stockier. Given the morning's events so far, Ellie was hardly surprised to recognize four hobbits and a dwarf, even though this was the first time she had ever actually laid eyes on such persons. Nothing can surprise me now, she thought half-hysterically. An Elf, a wizard, hobbits and a dwarf! What's next, a troll? But as quickly as the humor came it went, for the girl noticed something about the smallest hobbit—something that filled every fiber of her being—indeed, her very soul—with dark, mind-numbing terror.

The little hobbit carried with him the very essence of evil.