• Chapter 2

    Elm slept fitfully. Sometime in the middle of the night, she awoke with a strangled cry from a nightmare. In the dream, the fire from the town had spread like a plague, burning the quiet valley to a smoldering pile of ash. A lone spark had wandered into the forest, carried on a cool breeze, starting another rampant blaze. The fire consumed the dead underbrush beneath the trees, then spread to the roof of her home, catching the thatching in a furious blaze of heat and light. Elm had been trapped in her room, trapped as the roof collapsed in on the house, setting the rest of it, and her and Aunt Moreen, ablaze.
    Elm sat up now. She sighed, sitting cross-legged, then rested her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. She tried to calm her furiously pounding heart as the adrenaline rush subsided. Her eyelids began to droop, and she was about to lay back down when a sound brought her to full alertness. Was that a rat skittering about in the attic? No, it wasn’t a scratch she heard; it was a solid, yet muffled, hard thump.
    There it was again! Elm’s heart was pounding so hard she was afraid it would leap out of her chest. She rose silently from her bed, reaching under her straw mattress for her coveted hunting knife. Her fingers closed securely around the bone handle, and she drew out the knife, safely enclosed in its glossy sheath of black leather. With knife in hand, she moved to the window and peeked out.
    The clearing was bathed in moonlight. The trees surrounding the clearing moved gracefully as a gentle breeze rocked their branches, casting eerie shadows on the ground. Everything was strangely muted through the thick pane of glass, as if Elm was far away from the soothing scene outside.
    Another thud rocked the house. Elm started, her knife clattering to the floor. She cursed her clumsiness, retrieving her knife from where it lay on the wooden boards. Then she glided stealthily to the door, undid the latch, and just as she was about to open the door, there came a great crash and a splintering, followed by the sound of heavy footsteps in the main room. Elm dropped the latch, her heart pounding furiously, and she felt sick with dread. She stepped back from the door. A grunt sounded from the other room, and more footsteps thudded, coming closer to her door.
    Suddenly, the wood splintered, bits of the door flying everywhere. In the doorway loomed a dark, hulking figure. Black horns curled out of its massive, brutish head. The thing stank, a smell of rotting garbage and spoiled milk. Its thick body took up the entire doorway, its only clothing a loincloth and too-small leather armor plate. In one meaty hand, the brute held a massive club, iron spikes pounded into the end. A buckler was strapped to the other thick, muscular forearm. Thin, oily black hair crept out of his steel helm, which had holes for his twisted horns to poke through. He growled, a gurgling noise in his throat, revealing grime-coated teeth. A Morgul.
    Elm gasped and swore under her breath, instantly regretted it, and offered a quick prayer to Allerian for forgiveness and protection. She thought, Morguls are supposed to be extinct! And yet here was one, advancing on her and snarling ferociously. She drew her hunting knife, and suddenly the once formidable blade seemed very small in her hand. Still, it was her only weapon. She gripped it tightly, stepping back when the Morgul stepped forward.
    Then she bumped into her nightstand. She was trapped. The Morgul was towering over her now, a full seven and a half feet. He snickered, an ugly sound, and raised his club high over his head, and in the process, revealed his unprotected body. The leather plate body was too small, and it did not cover the necessary places. Elm thought quickly, stabbed her knife, which sliced cleanly through the exposed, grayish skin of his armpit, just above the armor. The creature bellowed and staggered backwards. Elm took advantage of the opening and darted around the downed foe. She raced out the door and met a horrific scene on the other side. Aunt Moreen was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Two more Morguls were in the main room, one standing over Moreen, the other rifling through the cabinets and cupboards as if looking for something specific. The first Morgul glared at Elm in shock and stupidity, then made a gurgling noise to warn his companion. Both beasts whirled on Elm, who promptly retreated out the front door, her heart racing and her face wet with tears of sadness and fear.
    She ran blindly through the woods, hearing the crashing of the Morguls always a few feet behind her. She veered off course, hoping to confuse the Morguls, and ran back towards the house. She stumbled over a tree root in her haste and fell hard to the ground. Her head crashed on the solid roots of an oak tree, and the world around her fell dark and silent.
    Images flashed through Elm’s unconscious mind. A strange white building, a staircase, a dark room filled with treasures, and a boy with dark hair who seemed to call her name. then, a looming black fortress, swords stained red with blood, and a strange, lilting song formed of incomprehensible words. The haunting tune drifted through the very corners of Elm’s mind, and it calmed her raging thoughts. Sleep, it seemed to say. Sleep and you will find peace.