“Success occurs when no one is looking,
failure occurs when the General is watching.”
- Murphys Law of Combat# 105
West Beleriand, along the banks of the River Narog, Year 553 FA.
Ereinion bent his dark head and lost himself in thought as they left the willow wood of Nan Tathren behind them and turned northwest along the western bank of the River Narog in the direction that would eventually take them through what had been Nargothrond. He was currently wondering, for the thousandth time, whether he was leading them all on a fool’s errand.
The call to arms as Eonwe and his army landed at Brithumbar had not included the Elves, any of them. Not the Green Elves who had no wish to involve themselves, nor the Sindar many of whom blamed the Noldor and their accursed war with Morgoth. No word had reached Ereinion about whether they were expected to play and part and many had darkly muttered about the Noldor exiles not being welcome as part of the Host of the Valar since they still laboured under the Doom of Mandos. Indeed, since nothing had been heard about them joining the Host, Ereinion, Cirdan and the others assumed that this was the case.
At first the idea of letting that huge army drive its way across Beleriand and up to the north seemed the best. With Eonwe driving the Orcs and other fell creatures before him, rending huge amounts of destruction as he went it had seemed, on the surface at least, a good rather than a bad thing. At least it drew the enemy from the gate and allowed the Elves of Middle-earth a much-needed breathing space.
So for a while there was a form of peace and time to re-group for those weary and exhausted with war and atrocities, but as time wore on and as they had more time to think, the more they asked themselves and each other questions about the possible aftermath of such a war. Not least of which was ‘what will happen to us after they have defeated Morgoth?’
It was a question on the mind of every Elf under the rule of the recently crowned High King of the Noldor in exile and no less on the mind of the High King himself. It was also the one question nobody could actually answer. Many had their thoughts on the subject, but nobody yet dared to put those thoughts into words.
Ereinion knew fine well what Cirdan thought. The Valar seldom interfered without massive consequences, but the burning question was, what were those consequences likely to be?
The news that the tides were rising and that the animals and birds had migrated told him that something was happening and it wasn’t going to be pleasant. It hurt him to think of the innocents that might get caught up in the wrath of the Gods. Everyone on Middle-earth had suffered so much and they were all so tired. It might have seemed like a wonderful idea to send a massive destructive force of arms to purge Middle-earth of its worst oppressor to those sitting on the tranquil slopes of Taniquetl, but to those who lived under the shadow it was a double-edged sword.
Every nerve in Ereinion’s body was screaming for him to go back and evacuate everyone he could instead of continuing on this course of meeting up with Eonwe’s force and possible rejection. However the stubborn part of his brain insisted that he and the other Elves in Middle-earth, not all of them exiles, had a right to fight for what was, in effect, their homeland and for many, including Ereinion, the place of their birth.
For this reason Celeborn had elected to ride with the ‘still wet behind the ears’ upstart Noldor High King, not because he swore allegiance to him or the cursed Noldor, but because this was the land of Celeborn’s birth too. Unlike his wife he had not seen the Light of the Trees and Aman meant very little to him. This was his place.
Of course there was also the matter of his wife Galadriel, who was counted among the Kinslayers under the Doom of Mandos. Whatever the result of this war and Earendil’s plea or the rising of Gil-Estel, Galadriel would not wish to return meekly to Aman and slip into the role of obedient subject and dutiful daughter, even if her illustrious father Finarfin wanted her to. Galadriel still had dreams and desires and Celeborn would stand by her steadfastly while she tried to achieve them.
And what of that strange item they found? Celebrimbor no doubt would have found the time to break it into its component parts, but the speed of their march meant that a proper examination would not take place until they next set up camp. The more Ereinion thought about the strange cold object with its functional metal moving parts, the more he felt that it was linked to something happening with Morgoth and even if they were turned away by Eonwe, they needed to bring the thing before him with some sort of report on its purpose.
That was Ereinion’s story, and he intended to stick to it.
After a while of pushing his thoughts around his aching brain he became aware that the golden-haired Glorfindel had eased his horse in beside him. “You seem troubled.” He said softly to the High King.
For a minute Ereinion let the soft, melodic tones of the other Elda wash over him. Nearly everything about Glorfindel reeked of confidence, joyous laughter and beauty. He found himself wondering if the Valar had sent him back for that very reason. Things never seemed so bad when Glorfindel’s rich, musical laughter rang out. It was as if he brought the sunshine out from behind thick dark clouds wherever he went. Spirits lightened in his wake and those around him could not help breaking into wreaths of smiles.
He grinned at Glorfindel. “I was just wondering if I am leading everyone into folly.” He admitted candidly. “There is a part of me that says we should go back and help evacuate everyone.”
“You seem convinced that something terrible is going to happen.” Glorfindel’s voice took on a serious note, an unusual thing for him.
Ereinion sat up straighter and drew in a deep breath, then he turned to his companion. “Do you not feel it in the air my friend?” He swept an expansive arm all around him. “Something is happening in the earth. The very air, the smells of the forest and the steams and rivers are altered. The animals are gone; we have seen no birds since the rumblings in the earth near Nan Tathren. It is as if the land here is beginning to fade and die.”
Glorfindel gave him a sympathetic smile. “Yet all is still green, and the flowers still bloom, the breeze still sends the scents of the foliage and plants into our nostrils. There is still great beauty in these lands. I do not see the decay you seem to be seeing. Mayhap it is the residue of the destructive wake of the Lords of the West that holds you in its grip. Try to find some peace Lord Gil-galad. You are doing what you believe is the right thing to do and that is all any of us can do.” He laid a gentle hand on Ereinion’s arm. “Do not torture yourself so my friend or anticipate further horrors. Such things come upon us unbidden and unawares as it is without us worrying them into existence.”
Without further ado he raised his golden voice in a song. The clouds of doubt and uncertainty began to lift from Ereinion Gil-galad’s overwrought young mind when he realised that Glorfindel was singing a song popular in many taverns across Beleriand, a song that much over-exaggerated the valorous exploits of the famous Lord of the House of the Golden Flower against one of the mighty Balrogs of Morgoth.
The laughter rippled out of him and the sound of his rich tenor accompanying the Balrog Slayer in harmony brought a lightness to their journey and a smile even to Celeborn’s lips.
The office of the General Officer Commanding HQ 4 Division, Aldershot Garrison, England, present day
The stern, fearsome looking man with short iron grey hair sitting behind the large mahogany desk was not in a benevolent mood. His pale blue hawk-like gaze swept over the assembled officers and his fingers tapped out an irritable tattoo on the aforesaid desk.
“Let me see if I have this right.” His voice was deceptively soft but even so, each word fell like the knell of doom into the ghastly silence and everyone within earshot flinched.
Those who had no errands in the vicinity of the General’s office scurried away hastily to their various hidey-holes. The General’s rage and reach tended to be very long and he often scooped up completely unsuspecting innocents who were stupid enough to be loitering in the corridor outside, right along with the guilty who were lined up in front of him.
The only person who wasn’t afraid of him was the Garrison Regimental Sergeant Major. He wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
However at this moment in time, it became known generally in the headquarters that the General was about to tear somebody apart and feed them to his Cavalier King Charles spaniel. This charming little creature with the winsome look and melting brown eyes was known affectionately to his master as ‘Mugger’, mainly because he had a habit of sinking his teeth into the ankle of any unfortunate who passed by the General’s office door while it was open. The Chief of Staff had been known to refer to it as ‘that tenacious, shit-arsed little fucker’, but never in the General’s hearing. Even the COS stopped short at that kind of professional suicide.
The General stood up and went to one of the French windows that looked out onto part of the Garrison. Mugger, who was lying in his basket beside the desk looked up with immediate interest, jumped out of the basket and trotted over to the window via the line-up.
Five military officers and an SIB Military Police detective held their collective breaths and six pairs of legs shifted nervously as a moving ball of soft hair with a squashed jaw full of needle-like teeth ambled past within a hair’s breadth of vulnerable flesh. The collective breath exhaled in one relieved sigh when the animal, plumy tail thumping gently on the polished wood flooring and pink tongue lolling rakishly out of its mouth, sat down beside the General and looked up hopefully.
Even if Mugger had decided to take a lump out of someone, that someone would have suffered in silence and agony rather than give the General the satisfaction of knowing that his dog had claimed yet another victim.
The General didn’t look down. Instead he rummaged in his trouser pocket and came up with a doggie treat which he gave to Mugger, then he turned and fixed all the human occupants of the room with his gimlet gaze.
“Are you trying to tell me that not only do we have nothing but a pile of human bones and sixteen severed heads who were originally seventeen soldiers currently serving Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, we also have seventeen missing assault rifles along with magazines and ammunition. And to add insult to bloody injury we have now also lost Sergeant Freeman female type who was the only survivor of the massacre, one Army Major, one Warrant Officer and a police constable? The list is growing longer gentlemen. I want explanations.”
A great deal of shifting and clearing of throats took place. Nobody wanted to be the one to answer because the General’s ire would then land solely on that person and they would be the focus of the whole unfortunate interview without coffee.
“Well?” The General literally barked out the word and Mugger emphasised it with a short woof of his own. “Is there anybody here with the guts to explain this?”
“I think you’ve just about got the right of it General.” Detective Inspector Alun Davis’ deep voice cut through the fear-filled atmosphere. The six assembled military personnel parted like the Red Sea to reveal Davis sitting calmly, one leg slung casually over the other, in one of the easy chairs at the back of the room which were normally reserved for special guests.
The General’s complexion took on a purplish-pink hue. “And just who might you be sir?” He demanded, walking up to the completely unfazed policeman. Mugger dutifully followed the General, but not without snapping at the MP’s trouser leg as he trotted past. The MP let out a muffled curse which he managed to change into a cough at the last minute.
Davis smiled enigmatically and bent down to scratch the little dog behind his ear. To the astonishment of the assembled company Mugger reacted to the caress by ecstatically stretching his throat for more scratching and thumping his back leg gently on the floor. The General’s glittering glare which had been known to fell those made of stern military stuff softened slightly.
“Nice dog.” Davis said with a smile. He stood up and held out his hand. “Detective Inspector Alun Davis, Lydney Police sir. If you’ll allow me I believe I can fill you in on the details of the disappearances.”
The wind was completely taken out of the General’s sails. “Yes…yes of course Detective Inspector. Please do sit back down.” He suddenly realised that they had a rather fascinated audience. “Why are you all still here? Dismissed. You!”
He pointed a finger at one of the officers, a newly-promoted Captain in the G1/G4 (1) section. The Captain blanched and stepped back clumsily straight into a slender occasional table that held a silver framed photograph of the General’s wife, Mrs General. The table rocked precariously and the photograph slid to the edge before falling through the air in dreadfully slow, but almost graceful, motion watched by the horrified onlookers.
Showing a speed that would have impressed many of the Physical Training Instructors in the Garrison, the Captain launched a desperate rescue attempt. He managed to grasp the corner of the frame and straighten the table at the same time. The assembled group let out a collective sigh of admiration and almost felt like applauding. He settled Mrs General back on the table and gave her an affectionate pat before straightening up again.
“Yessir!” He said smartly, coming up to attention.
For a moment it seemed as though the General might actually laugh. The corner of his mouth twitched uncontrollably and a strange anguished expression crossed his face and filled his eyes, but then as quickly as it came, it went.
“Tea.” He said cryptically.
“T...tea sir?” Stuttered the Captain completely thrown of balance by that one word.
The General’s grey brows knitted together. He advanced towards the unfortunate officer who retreated slightly. “Yes tea, pot of. Go and sort out some tea for the Inspector and myself there’s a good chap.”
The Captain blinked. “Yessir, right away sir.” He said and fled out of the room on the heels of the others. He didn’t stop to argue his apparent demotion to Tea Boy.
The General sat down in the other chair and smiled charmingly at the Inspector. Anyone who liked Mugger couldn’t be all bad. “Now Inspector perhaps you’ll be good enough to fill me in on the details. Where are Major Matthews and the others?”
On a riverbank somewhere in the general vicinity of the known universe
“If he says I can’t understand it one more time I think I’ll throttle him.” Kim muttered under her breath as they stood on the banks of a fairly wide fast-flowing river, which gurgled and chuckled its way over a stony river bed. She gazed longingly at the cool clear water and envisioned herself frolicking in it.
The Chief snorted with laughter. “Well look on the bright side. At least we have something to drink now. Even if all signs of civilisation have disappeared.”
Gary and Jim were having an earnest conversation a short distance away. The young policeman was now thoroughly upset. He didn’t recognise anything, the trees were still wrong and they hadn’t come across one single habitation. Chief saw Gary squeeze Jim’s shoulder reassuringly then he came over to where Kim and the Chief were sitting on the riverbank. Jim stayed where he was, head hanging low, obviously in great distress.
“How is he?” The Chief asked Gary who shrugged.
“As well as can be expected I suppose for someone who believes that his whole family have disappeared in an earthquake.” He said quietly. “What worries me more is the lack of any sign of civilisation whatsoever. No electricity pylons, no mobile phone masts, no tarmac roads of any description. If what Jim says is right and this is right where a village should be, why aren’t there any signs anything has ever been here? An earthquake wouldn’t just wipe a village off the map without a trace. There would be rubble, ruined houses, fires, dead bodies. So where are they?”
“There are some as would say that the lack of mobile phone masts and electricity pylons is a great improvement.” The Chief remarked. “But I must admit that the silence and lack of anything is more than a bit eerie.”
“There are no planes.” Kim suddenly announced out of the blue. They turned to look at her with bewildered expressions on their faces. She shrugged. “There’s normally light aircraft sounds or sounds of distant traffic, cars, even trains. You can hear them over quite a long distance. There haven’t been any at all. It’s like we’re the only people in the world. Nothing else exists.”
Neither Gary nor the Chief had time to comment because Jim came running over towards them gesticulating wildly with his hand. “Get down, get down.” He hissed.
Such was their level of hyper-vigilance they didn’t argue, but flung themselves flat in the high reeds and long grass that lined the bank of the river. They lay there in silence, hearts thumping furiously.
After a few moments Gary turned his head looked at Jim enquiringly. “What did you see?” He whispered.
Jim looked at him and Gary could see that the man’s eyes were hollow with fear. “They’re back.” He said.
He didn’t need to elaborate further because the objects of his fear had appeared through the drooping willows on the opposite side of the bank. Kim gave a low sob of terror and buried her head in her arms and the Chief groaned softly in despair.
Thadak and his motley crew of Orcs were standing only a river’s width away from them.
“Oh Christ on a crutch.” Gary cursed under his breath. “That’s all we fucking need.”
(1) G1/G4 – British Military Department dealing with Security and Discipline.