“I don't know why we are here,
but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
Jim Moore stood at the edge of one of the gaping fissures and stared out at the opposite side. Since the earth had thrown a fit and turned itself upside down he had spent most of the time trying to avoid being shot at, by arrows of all things and hadn’t had time to take stock of the changes in his surroundings.
The Police training and the many briefings had prepared him for many of the evils of being a policeman, but none had included being shot at by primeval creatures with bows and arrows or being involved in earthquakes. Perhaps he could write a new chapter for the training manual. The first chapter would begin with ‘All yellow jackets will be dispensed with immediately and disaster recovery in earthquakes training will commence shortly’.
He glanced around quickly just to make sure he hadn’t lost sight of the others. Kim and the Chief were tracking the fissure behind him to see how far it went along. If it narrowed at some point then they would cross as best they could and make for Parkend and the cars. If they were still there. In fact if anything was still there. None of them knew how far-reaching the earthquake had been, his radio didn’t work and neither did the Chief’s or Gary’s mobile phones so they were cut off from the outside world completely.
Gary was tracking the fissure the other way for the same purpose. Jim was supposed to be doing this one as well, but all he could do was think about what might have been happening to his family and friends. His desire was to find a way across and head for Coleford, but if they could get to the cars it would make more sense. They could get help faster. That’s if there was still help to be had.
He frowned. There was something strange about the forest on the other side of the fissure but it was nothing he could put his finger on precisely. It just felt different. The silence was also unnerving. He had never been in the forest before and not heard the sounds of the trees rustling or the noises of birds and animals. Instead of those normal sounds all was deathly silence. He squinted across the gaping wound in the earth. Was it the trees? They looked different somehow, there were more oaks than conifers and the oaks looked young and slim.
Jim glanced behind him at the wide trunk of the oak that had sheltered Kim and Gary. It was too wide for anyone to wrap their arms around and as far as back as he could remember, the oaks in the forest had all been huge trees. Conifers had appeared at some relatively recent stage of development of the forest; they interspersed with the mighty oaks and there were clumps of them here and there with their dark evergreen pine needles and the fresh scent of the pine cones. He looked back at the forest across the fissure and then it hit him.
There were no conifers on that side, nary a one and many of the oaks were still saplings, although there were many adult trees too. His mouth dropped open, was that a beech over there? And a rowan? Some areas of the forest were classed as ancient semi-natural woodland and they had rowans and beeches. There were also birches there which he loved with their silver grey bark, but this part of the forest had been ancient oak interspersed with conifers for as long as he remembered. Parkland and veteran trees the Forestry Commission called it.
Another thing was that by rights he should be looking straight in the direction of the campsite which had just been beyond a clump of conifers and there had been a path through the bracken. Now there were no conifers and no path, just a myriad of oak tree trunks rising out of gorse and bracken and the occasional spreading width of rowans with their white scented spring flowers. He strained to try and make out familiar landmarks, but nothing on the other side of the fissure was familiar.
If that had all gone, then what about Coleford? And how come was there spring blossom on the rowans when it was the back end of summer?
“Are you all right?”
The sudden question startled him and he nearly jumped out of his skin. Gary was standing by his elbow with a question in his eyes.
“Ah. Yes. I’m okay, at least I think I am.” He said blushing. “Sorry, I should have been checking how far this went along, but it suddenly struck me how different everything looks.”
Gary raised an eyebrow. “Different? How?”
Jim found himself stammering out his feelings and thoughts. They sounded silly once they were put into words, but Gary seemed to accept what he was saying.
The army officer pursed his lips and frowned across the fissure. After a few seconds of intense scrutiny he turned to Jim. “You’re absolutely sure about this?”
Jim nodded. “Rowan shouldn’t be flowering in late summer. It flowers in spring around about the same time as apple and cherry blossom. My grandma has one in her front garden and although she loves the white flowers she always complains when they fall because they make a mess like confetti outside a church. There have never been rowans in this part of the forest, just oaks and conifers and my grandpa has often said that in ancient times the forests around Coleford were all oak. The Spanish Armada were supposed to have been told to destroy the Forest of Dean because that was where the navy got their supply of oak timber for their ships.”
“I suppose that the earth tremor could have upset your perception a bit, but whether the forest has changed or not we’re not going to get anywhere unless we find a way across the chasm. It seems to go for miles in that direction.” Gary gestured to the side he had been walking along and smiled as reassuringly as he could at the troubled young policeman. “So how about we look this side for a way across and then worry about whether everything has altered? If anything has.”
Jim sighed and nodded. Gary was right. The first priority was to find a way off this island they had been stranded on and they needed to move quickly, daylight was almost completely gone.
Year 553, The First Age, on the edge of the Forest of Pen-Tathren, West Beleriand.
Ereinion awoke from his reverie with a start as someone gently touched his shoulder.
“Wake up.” Celeborn’s face was grim. “Something is happening deep in the forest. The trees are in great distress.”
All around him Ereinion could see Elves standing and staring in the direction of the heart of the forest. “How…” He tried to moisten his dry throat by swallowing. “How long has it been going on?”
Glorfindel answered him. “Not long, only seconds, but the trees were whispering and alarmed all night and the horses are uneasy”
“I know.” Ereinion said wearily. “I heard them. I thought it was just because there had been deaths in the forest.”
Celeborn shook his head. “It is more than that. The very earth is troubled. I can feel it through the soles of my feet. Deep inside the earth something is happening, although what it could be I do not know.”
Ereinion looked over at Cirdan. “What do you think?” He asked softly.
Cirdan rubbed his chin again. There had been so much watchfulness in the atmosphere around Arda since the Host of the Valar had landed, it was difficult to tell if he was just uneasy about their presence and what it might mean or whether something drastic was happening with the environment itself. The trouble was that whenever the Valar did interfere in Arda great upheavals and changes followed and he had a horrible feeling that they were responsible for a lot of the strange happenings around Beleriand.
They all looked at Cirdan expectantly. The Shipwright had awoken at Cuivenan and was probably the most ancient of the Eldar in Middle-earth. He knew the land and its moods well.
“I think that this war will have long-lasting ramifications for Arda and its people.” He answered finally. “It is certain that when the Valar intervene it does not come without a price. One thing I do know for sure is that I have seen precious little wild life or game in this part of Beleriand. I had thought it was because of the fighting and the situation would improve once we reached the forested areas, but I have not seen hide nor hair of any beast of the earth or air for at least two days now.”
A distant rumble deep in the forest resolved itself into a shivering of the earth beneath them. The horses whinnied and flared their nostrils in mild panic and the Elves looked around them uncertainly.
“We had better strike camp I think.” Ereinion tried to sound unconcerned, but there was an edge of worry in his voice. “We need to press on in any case.”
The deep rumble sounded again but this time it was accompanied by a loud groaning noise. The Elves looked up anxiously and full of fear. The trees were rustling and the branches were bending as though they were being pushed with an invisible hand.
Glorfindel didn’t wait to see whether the King changed his mind or his orders. He strode around the various campfires of the Noldorin force exhorting them to break camp quickly and they obeyed without question although with a slight edge of panic in their seemingly orderly actions.
Celeborn had been standing quietly off to one side, his eyes distant and slightly silvered over. He now turned to Ereinion. “My lady wife says that the tides along the coast have been the highest for many seasons. Some ships in the mouth of Sirion have broken anchor and floated out of the harbour although they have now been retrieved. The waves are high and they have had to stop the elflings playing on the beaches.”
Ereinion didn’t bother to ask how Celeborn knew. Galadriel’s ability for far-speaking had long been common knowledge. “Does she see a need for evacuation to higher ground?”
Celeborn nodded. “She and Galdor have already begun to make arrangements for the families in the lower lying areas to move them and their livestock to a safer higher place. They are moving out of Beleriand and further north up the coastline. And Ereinion…” Ereinion had turned to prepare his own departure when Celeborn stopped him with a hand on his arm. He looked at Celeborn enquiringly.
“Galadriel also says that the wild beasts of the forests and the area have become non-existent. They have all left. For where, she and the woodsmen cannot tell, but they are gone. Not even the birds remain.” Celeborn said quietly.
Ereinion’s expression became grimmer. “When the wild beasts and fowl of the air leave, it is time for the rest of us to depart also. Give Lady Galadriel my compliments and ask her if she will carry on with those arrangements. I grant her the authority to take whatever measures she needs to take to ensure the safety of the people. Let messengers be sent to the Edain settlements also. They are welcome to go where we go, there is room for all. I will have nobody caught short in whatever disaster is looming over us. I could almost curse the Valar for waging this war. It is all very well seeking their errant fellow Vala and indeed it would be a relief to get Morgoth out of our hair, but do they really have to upset everyone else while they are doing it?” His tone dripped bitterness and a touch of defeat. “Have we not all lost enough? Must we be herded until we have nowhere to run and no choices left to make?”
Celeborn’s hand dropped off the young King’s arm. He felt utterly helpless in the face of Ereinion’s anger and distress. There was nothing he could say and no comfort he could give because his own heart was filled with the same anger and distress. All he could hope was that his Galadriel did not leave it too late for her own evacuation. It would be just like her to remain until her own escape route was cut off.
“It’s useless.” The Chief said dourly. “It’s too bloody dark to see anything now and the flashlight batteries will run out if we use them too much. As far as we can see there is no end to the chasm on the Parkend road side, at least not as far as we can see in the gloom. Perhaps we’ll be better looking in daylight.”
“Are you suggesting that we stay here?” Gary asked.
Chief shrugged. “Unless you want to fall down a bottomless hole in the dark, yes, most definitely that’s what I’m suggesting.”
Kim sank down onto the ground and hung her head. “We can’t stay here in the dark. We don’t have any sleeping bags or food or anything with us. It’ll be cold soon.”
Gary looked sharply at her. “I know our situation isn’t good Sergeant, but we are just going to have to make the best of a bad situation.” He looked around at the others. “We need to find out just exactly what we have got that will be of any help in this situation. Empty your pockets kiddies, let’s see what bounty we have.”
“No Bounties (1).” The Chief grinned. He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out two Tracker bars and a packet of extra strong mints which he threw on the ground. “Just a Tracker or two. It’s my little addiction.” He said defensively when he realised that they were all looking at him. He then added an empty hip flask. “Don’t ask.” He said when Gary raised his eyebrows at him.
Kim managed a little better. She had four bars of chocolate from the Composite (1) rations that she’d been given before the start of the ill-fated exercise. She also had four teabags.
“Four teabags?” Gary looked at her in bewilderment. “Do I want to know why you have four teabags in your combat jacket pocket?”
She giggled. “I don’t really know, it was just as I left the Mess before getting on the vehicle somebody told me to take extra teabags, so I did.”
Gary laughed and the Chief shook his head in disbelief. “Well I may just give that somebody a big hug when I get back.” He said. “I’m no good in the morning until I have my first cuppa.”
“Jim?” Gary looked at the young policeman who blushed.
“I don’t have much.” He produced two packets of potato crisps.
“How about you?” Kim asked Gary.
He pulled the contents of his pockets out and spread them on the ground. There were no edible items, but he did have both matches and a lighter and his wallet with money and credits cards.
“Bloody typical.” Chief said with a smirk. “Trust an officer to have no sense of practicality. We all have snack stuff, he has matches, money and plastic.”
Gary had the good grace to blush and laugh. “Sorry Chief. I just didn’t think I’d be somewhere where I’d need to fill up on sweeties.”
“Never mind.” Chief winked at him. “The matches will come in handy and there’s plenty of wood around to make a fire.”
Kim looked at him with some trepidation. “Should we risk that? What if those…things come back? They’ll see the fire.”
“I don’t think they will come back, not now.” Gary said quietly. “I think we can risk the fire, but only a small one. We need to mount a guard as well. Take it in turns. I’ll take the first watch. I don’t feel much like sleeping anyway.”
An hour later they had a small campfire burning. Chief had taken charge of the food, such as it was and they had found a small pool of fairly clear water which had originally been part of the small stream but was now cut off from its source. They filled the hip flask with the water.
“I reckon the water in the pool is safe for the moment.” Jim had said. “But it won’t be in a couple of days when its stood without any kind of replenishment. It’ll get stagnant quite quickly, especially in warm weather.”
They shared out one packet of crisps and two of the chocolate bars between them and then settled in for the night. Kim was now curled up in an exhausted sleep and Jim was lying on his back looking up at the stars. The Chief stood up and stretched.
“Can’t sleep Chief?” Gary called over softly so as not to disturb the others.
The Chief quietly made his way over to where Gary was leaning against one of the trees staring out into the darkness. “It’s at times like these that I wish I hadn’t given up smoking.” He sighed. “I could just do with a ciggie.”
Gary smiled and his white teeth gleamed in the darkness. “Sorry I can’t oblige Chief, it’s one vice I haven’t managed to attain.”
“So why do you have the lighter and matches?”
There was a long silence before Gary answered. “The lighter belonged to a friend who was killed in Iraq.” He said with an edge of pain in his voice. “I always keep the matches handy just in case. Something I’ve done since my early days when I was stuck without anything to light a fire in the middle of nowhere.”
“Damn good habit to get into.” The Chief’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry sir.”
He sensed rather than saw Gary’s face turn to him in the gloom. “For what?” Gary asked.
“Your mate, the one who was killed in Iraq.”
“He was a soldier doing his duty. He knew the score when he joined up. Trouble was that he left a wife and young family behind.”
“That’s damn rough.” The Chief said sympathetically.
“Yeah. Rough.” There was a finality in Gary’s voice that clearly indicated that he didn’t want to continue that particular line of conversation.
“What about tomorrow sir?” Chief asked.
“Tomorrow we look for a way over. I think the idea of going back to Parkend is pretty much a big negative, so it looks like forward towards Coleford is going to be our best bet, but only if we find a way over.”
“And if we don’t?” The question hung in the air between them like a bad smell.
“If we don’t, then I don’t know.” Gary looked at Chief who could see the gleam of teeth again. “How are you at Tarzan impressions Chief?”
“Do you mean the beating the chest and howling at the top of my voice? Bloody marvellous sir, even if I say so myself. I’m known in Sergeant’s Messes all over the place for my Tarzan cry. It’s my party piece at Regimental Dinners.” The Chief grinned back at him and Gary chuckled.
“I’ll just bet it is. However I was thinking more about the swinging through the trees part.”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way sir. But to be honest I would have thought a fit young man like you would be better at the gymnastics than an old geezer like me.” Came the dry reply. “I think I’ll turn in now sir, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course Chief. Get some rest. I’ll wake you in three hours for your watch.”
Gary listened while the Chief settled himself down on the cold forest floor. It took a few grumbles and muffled curses but finally silence fell around them once more.
Major Gary Matthews silently cursed his superiors for getting him into this.
If I have to do the Tarzan thing, you are NEVER EVER going to hear the end of it. He vowed to the silent heavens.
(1) Bounty – A coconut filled chocolate bar.
(2) Composite Rations. Easy cook instant meals, which are issued to soldiers in the field. The US Army calls them MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat).