"What if nothing exists and we're all in somebody's dream? Or what's worse, what if only that fat guy in the third row exists?" - Woody Allen
Ingwion pulled off one of his soft boots and winced as an ache assaulted the base of his spine. So much for the Eldar not ailing, he thought to himself wryly. I now have muscles I did not even know I possessed and a sore backside to boot.
Eonwe set a fast pace for all on this march and heaven help the stragglers, not that there were many of those; not with bands of Orcs roaming the countryside. However, when the Herald of Manwe called for speed, his armies did not ask why or complain, they asked instead, how fast do you wish us to go? Now Ingwion was suffering the consequences of the fearsome pace the Maia leader set.
This whole war was nothing like he had imagined it to be, although he would have been hard put to describe what he had imagined prior to deployment. Even the many long and sometimes tedious briefings on the terrain, the enemy, the friendly forces of the second-born and the in-depth discussions about the Eldar who still remained in Middle-earth that Eonwe had held on the way across the sea had seemed unreal and faintly silly somehow.
They had to march far to the north to Thangorodrim, the three mighty peaks raised from the Iron Mountains by Morgoth and the seat of the enemy itself. Along the way they would encounter many hazards and obstacles not the least of them being the creatures, both friendly and unfriendly, not all of them walking on two legs. The one constant would be the Orcs that served Morgoth.
It was by the malice of Melkor that the Orcs arose, although no one knew for sure from whence they had derived, Elves or Men. Envious of the beautiful Elven race, Melkor and his spirits, some of them Maiar who had willingly followed him, had taken many living beings and corrupted them by means of dark arts, so rumour held that it was perhaps both races who had been unwilling contributions to the mix.
So it was that the army of the Valar from the Blessed Isle knew nothing of the Orcish race at all. They had gathered up many small fighting forces from the Edain who had answered Eonwe’s call to arms once they landed and there were some independent small bands of Elves from Middle-earth who had also attached themselves to the Host as it marched. It was these last from Middle-earth itself who were the only part of the army that really knew the nature of the enemy’s troops.
No amount of briefing from Eonwe on the long journey across the sea from Aman could have prepared the Host of the Valar for the reality of the enemy on the ground.
Ingwion, Finarfin and their troops had learned the hard way that the small bands of Orcs who were far away from the control of Thangorodrim acted entirely on their own and according to their own desires and needs, often neglecting any orders they were originally given. They fought among themselves as much as they fought against the targets specified by Morgoth or his lieutenant, Sauron. Orcs killed Orcs and then they devoured what they had killed.
The sweeter flesh of Elf or Man was held as a special dish and highly prized. Ingwion had now lost count of the number of Edain and Elvish homesteads they had found razed to the ground and nothing left of the inhabitants but a pile of bones and severed heads. Women, men, children, animals, nothing was left and the flesh was devoured raw although sometimes they did stop to cook their meat depending upon whether or not they were being hunted. All the Elves could do was bury what they found, mourn the loss and send out warriors to track the Orcs and kill them.
It was such a group that must have fallen upon Ingwion’s brother Melannen and his small patrol and it made him sick to his stomach and angry beyond belief to think of those beautiful warriors, some of whom he had known since they were elflings, being torn apart limb from limb like animals and devoured. He had wept many tears of self-blame and anguish over this and could not get the memories of his younger brother as an elfling playing on the slopes of Taniquetl or wide-eyed at festival time out of his mind. The visions tormented him and stopped him from taking the rest he so desperately needed.
How was he to describe his brother’s death to his mother and father? Was he to tell them that being ripped apart and devoured by hideous parodies of the Elven race was a glorious and valorous death for a good and just cause?
No, nothing Eonwe had told them had prepared them for this disgusting mess that was Middle-earth.
He buried his head in his hands and wept anew. Huge sobs racked his frame and he desperately sought to control himself so that no one would hear him. Yet still the tears came and would not be stopped. Even the knowledge that if his brother and the others were indeed dead then their spirits had gone to Mandos did not assuage his grief or dissipate the terrible visions that assaulted him when he closed his tent flap for the night’s rest.
Ingwion had taken to dealing with his grief during the day and those nights they marched and did not camp by furiously killing every Orc that crossed his path, but nothing seemed to ease the pain.
He sighed wearily and spread the maps before him once again, but even as he pored over them assessing the terrain, possible ambush points and potential supply areas his eyelids drooped over tired, red-rimmed eyes and he sank into a fitful sleep.
As he slumbered, a tall slender figure dressed in filmy grey raiment stepped from the shadows and observed him for a while, her beautiful eyes filled with compassion. Este the Gentle, healer of hurts and weariness laid a slim white hand on the top of his head and gave him the best gift she could offer him; that of rest.
Somewhere deep in the woods, England
“Sgt Freeman, just think of it as one of the obstacles on an assault course.” Gary’s previously patient and encouraging tones were beginning to get an edge of exasperation.
The good Major had been delighted when they had discovered part of the fissure where one of the uprooted conifers had fallen straight across forming a sort of bridge. It was not the widest bridge to be sure, nor was it the safest, being rather rounded and a little on the slippery side. Gary had demonstrated his considerable acrobatic abilities by running lightly from one side to the other without showing fear of any kind and declaring it a piece of cake. He was just mightily relieved that he hadn’t needed to display his tree swinging qualities and volunteered a prayer of thanks to whatever power was out there listening to his heartfelt pleas of the previous night.
Jim had been the next to cross using the fallen tree. By rights Kim should have gone next but after five abortive attempts all of which stopped short at her actually putting her foot on the tree, the young policeman offered to go across to show her how easy it could be even if a person wasn’t as light and fleet-footed as a certain military officer show-off.
“Perhaps we should cross together.” Suggested Chief, who was determined not to come across until Kim was safely on the other side. “I could walk just behind her.”
“And do what? Catch her if she falls? The surface of the bark is too smooth and slippery Chief and I’m not entirely sure it will take the weight of two people.” Gary bent down and eyed the tree doubtfully. “Best not to risk it. She can do it, I know she can do it.”
Kim was deathly pale. The trouble was that she had just been through too much and now every obstacle no matter how tiny looked like the side of a glass mountain. “I’ll try again sir.” She said desperately trying not to burst into tears again. It seemed to her as though bawling like a child was all she was capable of these days, and she hated herself for it. She wanted to prove to all three men that she wasn’t a wimp and a liability. So far she had failed miserably. Now was her chance to prove differently.
They all held their breaths as she slowly and carefully approached the tree trunk, stepping over the bits of branch that they hadn’t managed to break off to ease their passage across. She lifted one boot and placed it tentatively on the rounded surface, then closed her eyes and lifted herself up until she was balancing on the very end, which was safely anchored on what they hopes was relatively solid ground.
“Well done.” Gary’s soft voice sounded across the chasm to her. It was gentle and encouraging again and she allowed the deep tones to wash over and soothe her for a moment.
He really had the nicest voice. In fact, all of him was rather nice.
Her eyes snapped open at the abrupt change of her pattern of thought and she wobbled. The Chief’s arm shot out towards her and the other two each drew in a sharp breath, but she shook her head and managed to regain her balance again.
You need to stop that. She told herself firmly. He’s an officer and he’s off limits. Just because he’s the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen and he’s kind to you doesn’t mean that you’d stand a chance with him. Oh god, the first guy she’d been interested in for ages and he had to be out of bounds. Now that was bad organisation and very bad timing considering their predicament.
“You can do it Kim.” His deep voice soothed her again and she took another few slow measured steps. She was now a quarter of the way across. So far, so good. She tried to take another step and then put her foot down uncertainly. It slid slightly across the smooth bark and for one panic stricken second it looked as though she would fall, but again managed to regain her step much to the palpable relief of the onlookers.
Gary wanted to tell her just to break into a swift run and the momentum of speed would carry her over the last few feet, she would then at least be close enough for either Jim or him to catch. The trouble was that he could see she wouldn’t be able to break out of her fear long enough to do it. He sighed deeply and tried to reach her again using his calmest, most reassuring, tone of voice.
“Kim. Look at me.”
His tone had changed to something very melodic and mesmerising and Kim’s head reared up at the sound, which seemed to be more inside her head than anything else. Her fear-filled gaze locked with his and she could see now just how amazingly blue his eyes were. Not the pale blue of northern waters, nor the bright blue of a summer sky, they were a rich dark blue and she couldn’t think of an adequate comparison to anything.
What she did know was that the melodic tones of that voice were drawing her deep into those eyes and therein lay great peril. If she took a nose-dive into those deep blue pools, she might never re-surface again. She blinked furiously and tried to think about something else, but her treacherous gaze once again locked with his and she found she couldn’t, didn’t want to, look away.
“Don’t be afraid Kim. Follow my voice and walk towards me.”
Like a sleepwalker she began to put one foot in front of the other. The Chief and Jim looked on anxiously as Kim sure-footedly and calmly walked along the log towards the Major who stood smiling faintly at her. He held out his arms and she grasped them, grinning with delight at her triumph. She basked in his warm, approving smile.
“Well done Sergeant. You finally got here. You see? It’s not so bad if you just concentrate on something else.” Gary gently gripped her arms harder and then let her go.
Like your eyes. She thought as a feeling of disappointment swept over her when he stopped holding her. She obstinately pushed the errant thought to one side. This was no romantic walk in the park and she was no young girl feeling the flush of first attraction to a handsome young man. This was a serious situation and there was no place for dalliance of any kind. What she needed to do was get a grip and do it quickly, so she masked whatever emotion may have been showing on her face and smiled faintly at him instead.
Gary noticed her sudden reticence and was both relieved and vaguely disappointed at the same time. In another time, another place, another life even, he might have taken a chance and indulged in a mild flirtation, but not today and not here, it just wasn’t appropriate. A niggling feeling of something impending was chipping at the edge of his mind. They needed to get away from this forest and quickly.
The Chief crossed without any hesitation, running lightly along the log much in the same way Gary had done. The more their little journey together continued, the more Gary began to realise that there was more to Chief Knowles that met the eye. He had undoubtedly served operationally all over the world in some infantry capacity, but had probably re-badged because of some injury that ruled him out of the more active arms of the service.
Unfortunately there was no time to reflect on this. Now that they had reached the other side of the gaping fissure left by the earthquake, the more pressing need of reaching civilisation and getting together some sort of rescue or investigation team had reached the top of the priority list.
He gathered them together under one of the large oaks. “Well now we’re across, there are a few issues Jim brought up that everyone needs to be aware of.” He nodded at the policeman. “Tell them exactly what you told me.”
The Chief and Kim were silent as Jim explained about the difference in the trees and the rowan’s flowering pattern.
“Thoughts? Opinions?” Gary’s sharp gaze swept over the other three as he threw open the discussion.
Chief leant against the tree and ran his hand along the bark. “I would say that the first thing we need to do is head towards where the campsite…er crime scene was originally. That should surely tell us what, if anything has changed. By that I mean the extent of the effect of the tremor. I presume that we’d be heading in the direction of Coleford if we did that anyway?” He looked at Jim who nodded.
“Yes. Coleford is in that direction. I agree with you. The trouble is that I don’t recognise any of this now and I’ve been exploring this part of the Forest for donkey’s years. It’s as if the forest is going backwards in time. The last really old oaks like this old lady were felled to make Elizabethan warships.”
“Kim?” Gary used her first name without thinking and then mentally kicked himself for doing so.
She gnawed nervously at her bottom lip. “I don’t really want to look at the crime scene, couldn’t we just skirt it and head straight for Coleford. I mean, we found Mr Irwin’s head didn’t we? And one of my magazines? We should go back and report my weapon being missing I suppose” Her tone was both slightly pleading and reluctant.
“I’d forgotten about the head.” Gary said slowly. He turned to Jim. “Where did you put it?”
Jim flushed to the roots of his hair. He slowly turned towards the island between the gaping wounds in the earth and pointed in the general direction of where they had come from. “I’m afraid in all the excitement of being shot at, I threw it down and forgot to pick it up when we found a place to cross. It’s back there, where we made camp, unless it fell down one of the holes. I honestly wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.” He said remorsefully.
Gary sighed. “Don’t worry Jim, it was understandable under the circumstances, but I suppose we’d better go back for it. I’ll go.”
He started to walk back over towards the fallen conifer and then stopped dead in his tracks.
It nearly always happens that in these sorts of precarious circumstances the best laid plans of mice and men usually go badly astray and their particular circumstances were to prove no different.
As if commanded by some force beyond their ken, some of the earth underneath the conifer that had been their bridge across the chasm slowly broke away and slid into the depths with the merest whisper of sound taking the tree with it.
“Well I guess that sorts that out.” Chief said softly after a few moments. “What happened to the magazine?”
Gary patted his pocket. “I have it.” He turned and shook his head. “If I didn’t know any better…” He muttered under his breath. “Let’s head out. Lead the way Jim. You know this area better than any of us so we’re all in your hands now.”
Jim headed off in the direction of the location of the campsite, now a police crime scene and gestured for the others to follow him.
Half an hour later
“I don’t understand it.” Jim stopped and ran his finger around the material of his damp and sweaty shirt collar. He looked around him in despair. They had stopped in a tiny clearing that was surrounded by drooping willow trees yet there didn’t seemed to be any water nearby. According to Jim, the nearest river was a few miles away and the Forest of Dean had very few willows, if any at all.
“Where did these come from? It’s always been oaks here.” He sounded bewildered and a little bit put out and Gary was hard put not to laugh.
After starting out with pale, lukewarm rays struggling to pierce the thick canopy of leaves and branches overhead, the sun had arisen and the temperature with it. Kim had removed her combat jacket and tied it around her waist, Gary and the Chief had done likewise and Jim was carrying his uniform jacket across his arm. He had long since ditched the yellow protective gear. All of them were hot, thirsty, grubby and sweaty and one hip flask of water between them was just not cutting it.
Kim sank to the ground and rested her back against a fallen log. She tried to fan herself with the small notebook from the inside pocket of her combat jacket but to no avail. It simply didn’t produce enough breeze to make any difference.
“We should have reached the campsite ages ago.” Jim said despondently. “I must have gone in the wrong direction.”
Gary leaned against another tree and the Chief slumped down beside Kim. “Stop beating yourself up Jim. We’ve got enough with Kim doing it. Let’s just catch our breath and then we can take stock of our surroundings. We might just be a little off course.”
A little off course? Chief wondered to himself. They were a damn sight more than a little off course. “Have you noticed that we still haven’t seen any birds or wildlife since we started walking?” He asked out loud.
Gary nodded. “Yes, but it may be just because of the severity of the tremor. Animals and birds know when to make themselves scarce in time of danger. They have much more sense than us and a deeper connection to the earth. Don’t wander too far away from the rest of us Jim we don’t want to lose you.” He called after the policeman who had walked to the tree edge and was straining to see if he could recognise anything.
Jim came back with a look of excitement in his eyes. “I think we might be at the edge of this part of the forest. I reckon that the A4136 is not far on the other side of the trees, but we should hit the B road into Coleford before that!”
Gary levered himself into a standing position. “Okay troops. You heard the man. Civilisation is within our grasp.”
Kim sighed with relief and stood up, brushing earth and remnants of dead leaves and twigs off the seat of her combat trousers. She held out a hand to the Chief who took it, groaned loudly and stood up. “Oh me poor knees. Dear god, I’ll be bloody glad of a cup of tea, a shit, shower and a shave, in that order.”
A gaping silence met his words. He looked around and quirked an eyebrow at them.
“Too much information?”
“Way!” Came the combined reply.
Another Half an hour later
“I simply don’t understand it.” Jim stood at the edge of the trees. “Where the fuck is the A4136? You should just be able to see it and the outskirts of Coleford from here.”
There was a distinct note of panic in his voice. Up till this point he had been quiet and positive but now he just sounded young and scared.
Gary put his hand on the young man’s arm in sympathy. “Okay.” He soothed. “Let’s try and be calm about this and go over the facts slowly. Fact number one, we’re in the Forest of Dean which is oak, beech, birch and some conifer right?” Jim nodded. “And presumably we’re still in the Forest of Dean but it’s now turned into a wood full of weeping willows.”
“Yes.” Jim’s voice was a despairing whisper. “There are willows down by the River Wye and the Monnow, but not here in the Forest of Dean.”
Gary looked over at the Chief and Kim who were both looking frazzled around the edges. The Chief shrugged and shook his head. “Don’t look at me sir, I never was into trees much. One tree looks much like another to me.”
“Fact number two.” Gary ignored the Chief’s faintly facetious comment. “The A4136 should be straight ahead of us and it should be just visible to us along with the nearest big town of Coleford.” He shaded his eyes against the sun. “I don’t see anything that looks like a road system or a town. How about any smaller villages? What else should be here, but perhaps a little closer?”
Jim’s gaze swept around the vista laid out in front of him again. “Mile End or Berry Hill should be visible as well, depending on where we’ve come out of the forest. They’re quite sizeable villages.” He turned to Gary in despair. “I know this place sir, I’ve lived here all my life and I’m telling you. Things are just not where they are supposed to be. Those trees aren’t supposed to be here.” His voice broke with a sob, and he swallowed furiously to get and get himself under control again.
“I see a river over there.” Kim had joined them. She pointed. “Look, you can just the sun reflecting on it. It looks like a shiny silver ribbon from this distance.”
“She’s right.” Chief squinted into the distance. “It’s not all that far away either, maybe a couple or five miles away at most. The forest looks like it goes down to the banks and then continues on for a bit on the other side.”
“See anything familiar at all yet Jim?” Gary asked the distraught young man quietly.
Jim shook his head. “Nothing. I’m not even sure that we’re in the same forest. Except that…” His voice trailed off miserably.
“Except what?” Gary asked encouragingly.
“Well, that river is exactly where I would have said that the A4136 should be.” He frowned. “I seem to remember reading something about when they were building it. I was doing something for a school project about the area in ancient times and how things had changed. There was bit in an old book of my dad’s about the A4136 being built alongside a really ancient riverbed. They apparently found signs of very early settlements. My dad says that there was a huge outcry from the archaeologists because the Transport people just wanted to bulldoze everything down so they could build the road. It ended up with them moving the road over about a half a mile so that the archaeologists could start a dig.”
“Where did they think the river had originated, do you remember?” Gary asked quietly.
Jim huffed a sigh. “I think they said that it might have originally been a tributary of the River Wye and something happened to divert the flow, so it just dried up.”
“Hmm. The evidence of settlements would make a lot of sense considering that it was common in ancient times to build a town or village near a river or water source. Commerce and traffic were better if they had some means of transportation like boats.” Gary mused.
“Could the earthquake have caused it to shift back?” Kim suggested.
“It’s possible, but highly unlikely to have happened overnight. If it did and flooded the road then we’re likely to find a bit of a mess down there.” Jim shook his head. “Anyway, apart from the fact that the river is where the road should be, I still don’t recognise any of the landscape and where are the villages?”
“Well there’s one way to find out isn’t there?” Gary spoke in a determined voice. “We go down there and look for ourselves.”