Disclaimer: See Chapter 2
“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
“What do you think it is?”
“Truthfully, I have no idea at all.”
“Maybe we should pick it up.”
“You pick it up then. For all we know it is some fiendish device of the enemy.”
“I think that we should take it to Lord Gil-galad and Lord Cirdan.”
Three elves dressed in bright mail and long cloaks stood staring down at the object lying innocently in the soft bracken and long grass.
“Oh for the Valar’s sake.” An elf with the typical black hair and grey eyes of the Noldor swung his cloak off his shoulders and over the offending object.
“Be careful Master Erestor. We don’t know what it is or where it came from. It could be something that the enemy has bewitched and left for us to take.” Another elf with long guinea gold hair cautioned.
Erestor hunkered down and passed his hand lightly over the now covered object. “I sense nothing evil here Lord Glorfindel. It has no awareness of any kind.”
“Nevertheless. Please be careful. I don’t want to have to explain to the King that I lost one of his senior advisors because he got transported to Thangorodrim by means of some enchantment.”
“Enchantment?” Erestor rolled his eyes in exasperation, grasped the article using the cloak as a barrier just in case and picked it up. He turned the bundle over and examined the subject of the conversation which now nestled, with seeming innocence, in amongst the rich folds of black material Whatever it was, it was quite heavy and made of some kind of dark grey metal along with another lighter feeling, green coloured material that he did not recognise. He frowned deeply and fingered the metal. “I think, but am not sure, that it might be a weapon of some kind.”
Gildor Inglorion bent over to see. He reached out and touched it with a tentative finger. “I think you might be right. See how this is positioned for a hand to fit around?” He slid his hand around the green grip and his index finger automatically moved to the trigger-like mechanism.
A loud, sharp intake of breath could be heard from the other two Elves followed by a ghastly silence as he did so.
Erestor went paler than usual if that was possible. “Gildor, I really don’t think you should…”
A sharp business-like click snapped through the still air and all three elves flinched.
“Too late.” He sighed as Gildor guiltily drew his hand away.
“That green material feels very strange. It is warm to the touch, not like the other parts, which are cold.” Gildor said. He examined his finger closely just to make sure that it wasn’t disappearing or growing smaller or something equally dreadful.
Glorfindel held out his hand for the item and Erestor surrendered it with some relief. He turned it over in both hands and weighed it speculatively. “Quite heavy and looks as if it could be broken into many parts, possibly for cleaning. It has some kind of writing on the end of it, but it is in no language that I recognise. Not even as the tongue of the enemy.” His golden brows knitted together in a frown. “I would say that this is definitely a weapon of some kind, but I have never seen its like before. It has no blade but there is an opening here where perhaps a blade of some kind would fit.” He slid a slender finger in the magazine housing of the SA80A2 Assault Rifle, although of course he did not know that this was what the object was.
Kim Freeman could have identified it as hers immediately from the red number painted on the butt of the weapon.
“The long cylinder is hollow.” Gildor pointed out. “It could be a means of propelling arrows, but they would have to be very small, thin arrows. Perhaps the opening is not for a blade, but to push the arrows through.”
“There does not seem to be any kind of means of propelling an arrow.” Erestor objected.
“Whatever it’s purpose, it is not an Elven weapon, nor do I believe that any of the Edain would be able to manufacture such a thing, it is too intricate. It has to be a weapon of Morgoth, made in his deep foundries perhaps.” Glorfindel wrapped the cloak securely around the gun and tied the bundle with a piece of thin silver rope. “We will take this to Lord Gil-galad and let him decide what to do with it. Perhaps Lord Celebrimbor will be able to strip it down and discover its true purpose.” He glanced around the rapidly darkening forest. “I think it would be best not to tarry here. This place has a fell air to it. Blood has been spilled here.” He pointed to some barely visible dark brown stains on the grass.”
Gildor inspected the stains. “Aye, it is blood. I hope it isn’t Ingwion’s brother.” He stared into the gloom of the trees and shivered slightly. “This forest has eyes and not friendly ones at that. Let us away back to the camp.”
They mounted their horses and rode back along the path to where the encampment of Ereinion Gil-galad, High King of the Noldor in exile was situated at the edge of the forest. They rode cautiously despite an overwhelming and unnerving desire to break into a gallop. The oppressive atmosphere of the forest and the idea that they were being watched meant that it was an uneasy group that finally urged their steeds to go faster once they had broken through the trees.
WO2 Chief Knowles stared around the clearing and then back at the charred remains of a fire in the centre. He scratched his head. “If Bob Irwin was killed here.” He pointed to the dark stains still crusting the bracken. “And his head was chucked over there.” He pointed to the thorn thicket that loomed over on the right. “Then how did his head get that far back along the path?”
Jim Moore stood up from where he and Gary Matthews had been examining the spot where Kim had stated the dagger had been half-buried. “Animals most likely.” He said sagely and glanced over to where Kim was half-heartedly searching among the trees for her errant weapon. He lowered his voice to be certain she couldn’t hear him. “The…er…item isn’t in very good condition. Something tried to gnaw some of the flesh off it, the eyes were all but gone and the maggots were pretty much in evidence.”
“Probably that fox we saw earlier. Or some birds.” Gary stood up and wiped his grimy hands on a tissue. “Well there’s nothing to indicate anything out of the ordinary down here.” He glanced over in Kim’s direction. “Any luck with the weapon Sergeant?”
She shook her head. This was beginning to be the perfect end to a perfect nightmare. Not only had she witnessed a horrific murder, she was now probably going to be up on a charge for being negligent with her weapon. She sat down disconsolately on a tree stump. “I can’t see it anywhere sir. Maybe that thing came back and took it.”
“I think if we fan out and do a proper search of the area, police search style, we might have better luck.” Jim suggested.
“Good idea.” Gary beckoned to Kim. “Come over Sergeant, we need to do a systematic search of the area.”
The Chief eyed Gary askance for a moment and frowned slightly. This was police business, not military. Kim’s weapon wasn’t just a lost weapon, but evidence in a murder investigation. Why on earth was Matthews instigating this search himself? Why weren’t they just going back to Lydney and reporting back to that Inspector chap so that he could organise a proper search?
There were too many questions and not enough answers. Matthews knew something for sure, although he wasn’t too sure whether the young police constable did. It was completely obvious that the weapons of the murdered trainees and any that the Staff Instructors had been carrying were also missing. Someone had taken them for sure. They had attacked the group, killed them and taken the weapons, so why was there no full blown terrorist alert going on? Another question that he had a feeling young Major Matthews would do his best to avoid answering.
He tried to recall what he knew about Major Gary Matthews and came up with very little. The man had been very recently posted in from HQ 4 Division, but his F1 and FMed4 records hadn’t arrived. Since these went first to the Chief Clerk of the receiving unit as a matter of course before the arrival of the soldier who was being posted into the unit, he normally would have known about Matthews before anyone else did.
He found himself surreptitiously observing the new Adjutant as Jim Moore explained the strategy behind police searches and formed them into a line at the edge of the search area. The policeman had already mapped the area out into sections. He got to the part where he was explaining about it being on hands and knees for some of the search when Gary interrupted.
“I hope you realise that my ancient knees aren’t quite up to crawling around in the grass. You might have to help me to stand back up.” Gary caught the Chief staring speculatively at him and winked.
Even the Chief Clerk had been aware of the flurry of female interest when young Major Matthews had arrived in camp rather unexpectedly at eight o’clock one Monday morning two weeks earlier without any kind of forewarning from Divisional HQ. He didn’t actually get to see what all the fuss was about until the new Adjutant arrived in the Orderly Room with his orders. Even then Knowles was baffled at the hormonal reaction of his female staff, all except for Kim Freeman who happened to have had the day off that day.
The new officer was a very handsome man to be sure, if a person’s fancy ran to tall men with even features, superb physiques, warm dark blue eyes and beautiful smiles. Otherwise there was nothing special about him at all. His hair was cropped short military style and brown in colour but he did admittedly have an air of mystery and knowledge about him, as if he knew something nobody else did.
Knowles imagined that this could go down very well with the ladies, but it would have little effect on the male population. Especially on him. However as the days had worn on, it seemed that he also had a rather nice sense of humour and down to earth attitude that everyone appreciated. He was good with the other ranks and didn’t talk down to them like so many other officer types did, so Knowles had gradually got over his initial suspicions and started to like him.
Unfortunately with this incident, some of Knowles’ original reservations had come flooding back.
Gary could feel the questions fermenting inside the older man. He hoped against hope that they wouldn’t suddenly erupt before he had completed his objective, which was to find the remaining missing weapon. He knew for sure that the others were in the wrong hands; he also knew that his orders were crystal clear. These weapons had to be retrieved as soon as possible and returned to their correct owners.
Unfortunately, how he was to achieve this was less clear.
He looked along their rather short line up to where Kim was standing. She was suffering some terrible guilt and self-reproach; he could see it written all over her face. Part of him wanted to go over, put his arms around her and try to reassure her, but he knew that it wasn’t the appropriate thing to do. The Chief doing it was a different matter entirely. He was her boss and a virtual father figure; he was also closer to her in rank and much closer to her socially. Gary knew that anything he did with Kim Freeman would be misconstrued so he willingly allowed Knowles to take charge where she was concerned.
However one thing he would most definitely take his boss to task for was this grovelling around in the bushes and bracken and at some stage he would also have to have a conversation with Knowles about young Miss Freeman.
“Gentlemen, lady, if you’re ready, I think we should do this. Time is getting on and once the sun goes in, what little light we do have will be gone.” Jim cocked an eye at the group and they all nodded
Chief kept an eye on Kim as she grovelled through the grass like everyone else. She was looking quite pale and distressed. Her eyes seemed to have shrunk into her head and there were purple shadows under them. Every so often she would stop in the search and just kneel there head bent in palpable despair.
Survivor guilt. He thought to himself. And the worry about losing the weapon. He silently sent a thousand curses down on both his own and Gary Matthew’s heads. His because he had gaily sent her on the damn stupid course to start with and Matthews because he insisted on putting her through this ridiculous and pointless search without adequate reassurance that at the end of it her career wouldn’t suffer. Kim had a flawless military record, losing a weapon could mean a courts martial. He knew she was visualising being drummed out of the army in shame and resolved to have a few straight words with the good Major before the night was through.
Events have a way, however, of changing resolutions, promises and even threats. Something was coming. Something nobody could have foreseen or even dreamt of.
They had covered perhaps only half of the ground area when the light began to fail. The sun which had dappled through the trees during the afternoon, giving a dim light at least, had now almost sunk below the horizon. Shortly dusk would fall and then they would lose light altogether.
The Chief got to his feet and brushed what felt like half the forest floor off the knees of his combat trousers. Kim also stood and placed her hands on her aching back.
Gary turned. “What is it Chief?” Although he had a good idea what was coming next. In fact he’d been waiting for the Chief Clerk to say something for the past ten minutes.
“I think we need to call it a day and let the police do a proper search tomorrow. The daylight is almost gone and Sgt Freeman is all in. She needs to go back and get some proper rest in a real bed, not a hospital cot.”
Gary nodded and glanced at Kim who stared back at him in trepidation. “I agree Chief. I must apologise for getting carried away. I thought that if we could find the weapon it would save Sgt Freeman some worry.”
“Very commendable sir, but I doubt that we’re going to find it now…”
He was interrupted by the excited voice of Jim Moore. “I think I’ve found something!”
The burst of hope in Kim’s eyes was snuffed out when she saw that Jim was holding not her SA80, but one of the two magazines she had been carrying. She now recalled the contents of one of her webbing pouches spilling out as she fell to the ground as a result of being pushed by the instructor.
“It’s mine.” She said miserably. “Stuff fell out of my webbing when I fell in the bushes. I didn’t stop to pick it up.” She turned to Gary and he could see tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry sir, I should have done better I know that.”
Gary was silent and the Chief tried to will him to speak, reassure her, even give her a bollocking, but he said nothing. The frustration rose up in Knowles to the point where his hand balled into fist. Finally Gary broke the silence. “Chief, would you and Constable Moore check the number of rounds in the magazine for me please? See how many are missing and if there are any lying around. Sergeant Freeman let’s have a little private talk shall we?”
She gnawed at her bottom lip and nodded. Gary led her in the direction of the thicket where she had lain a couple of days earlier and feared for her life. She stood with her head hanging. Gary regarded her quietly for a moment, then he spoke in a tone she immediately recognised.
“Come to attention when an officer addresses you Sergeant Freeman!”
She looked up at him in shock. He’d been quite gentle up until now and it had lulled her into a false sense of familiarity with him. She came to attention smartly, chin lifted.
“ Is this the way the Senior Non-Commissioned Officers from this unit behave? I was led to believe that you were a well-trained disciplined soldier. Perhaps they were wrong about you.” He bent over and stared directly into her eyes. She was instantly transported back to her recruit training. “Well Sergeant?” He persisted, not showing even a glimmer of the sympathy he undoubtedly felt inside or a smile.
“No sir, I mean yes sir. We don’t behave badly sir and I am a disciplined soldier. Sir.”
A low growling rumble sounded in the distance and a slight breeze whipped up, causing the leaves to rustle loudly but as soon as it had sprung up, it died down again.
He just kept staring at her and she kept staring straight forward and through him as if she was on parade and he was the inspecting officer. Beads of sweat had sprung out on her brow.
“Christ, he’s being a bit hard on her isn’t he?” Jim muttered.
The Chief shook his head. “No. He’s not being hard, he’s reminding her of who and what she is. A professional soldier. One thing you don’t do is tell a soldier to pull himself or herself together in a difficult situation. You do what he’s doing, you remind them of duty and what being a soldier is. You remind them of the pride they should have in themselves.”
A slight reverberation rippled under their feet and they both looked down at the ground at the same time..
“What the fuck was that?” Jim looked as puzzled as the Chief felt.
“If I didn’t know we were in England, I would say that it felt like an earth tremor.” Chief said with a worried tone in his voice. He glanced around the clearing. “It’s gone very quiet again and the air feels too heavy. There was a bit of birdsong earlier, now it’s gone.” He looked over to where Gary and Kim were standing, apparently oblivious to the movements in the earth under their feet. “Sir, I think we need to leave. Now. Something strange is happening.”
Both heads snapped around to look at him. At the same time, the rumbling noise had turned into an cracking noise which grew until it almost reached a shriek. It sounded to all of them as if the very earth was screaming in agony.
Jim grabbed his arm. “Oh for fuck’s sake Chief. Look.”
Chief followed his trembling finger and saw to his utter horror that the ground in front of them was beginning to split. As the fissure ran along the forest floor towards them it grew wider and wider and took loose earth, branches and small bushes with it. By the time it was only about ten feet away from the two horrified men, whole trees were tumbling into the huge chasm created by the sundering of the earth.
Gary grabbed Kim by the arm and tried to pull her to him, but even as he did so there was a tremendous cracking sound. The ground literally exploded just behind her covering them both in a mixture of soil, twigs and leaves and to his utter horror she was pulled away from him as if by invisible arms and began to fall down the fissure that had opened up behind her. With one desperate effort he threw himself forward and managed to grab onto one of her hands. She slid a little further down and all he could see was her white terrified face staring back up at him. The worst of it was that she hadn’t made a sound through the whole thing.
He flung himself flat on the ground and held on to her hand with all of his strength and in turn she gripped his wrist so tightly that her nails were cutting into his skin. He winced with the pain, but did not let go. “Hold on.” He yelled above the noise of an earth in pain. “Whatever you do, don’t let go of me.”
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the Chief and Jim crouched on the narrow island created by the two now huge fissures. They were clutching onto each other as the ground rocked, shivered, shook and raged underneath them. After what seemed like many minutes but was probably only seconds the earth started to settle. Gradually the rumbling deep in the ground lessened until it had stopped altogether and an almost deafening silence spread over the area.
Gary reached down and held out his other hand. “Take my hand Kim. Reach up as hard as you can and take it.”
“I’m too heavy.” She whispered. “I’m too tired and my arms hurt.” Tears started to roll down her dirt-smeared cheeks making clean tracks in their wake.
“Don’t you dare give up like that.” He hissed in fury, and she glanced up at him in surprise and shock. “I don’t want to hear it, not from you. You are better than that. Now take my fucking hand and hold on. I will pull you up and you don’t weigh anything at all. Enough with the self-pity and self-reproach. You are going to survive this. We are going to survive this.”
With a sob of effort she reached up and managed to get a purchase on his hands and he slowly began to pull her up. When she was almost at the top she managed to get a foothold on a thick tree root that had been exposed by the earthquake and hurled herself forward into his arms. Her momentum sent him staggering backwards with her lying to one side of him on her stomach; that’s when he heard a sound that he recognised immediately. Acting entirely by instinct he wrapped his arms around her and rolled to one side taking her with him.
They both heard three soft thuds in the tree that had been behind them as they had lain in the dirt only seconds earlier and they turned to look.
Three thick black arrows with ebony coloured fletching were protruding from the tree trunk. They had been driven forcefully more than halfway into the wood and still shivered with the impact.