“The enemy ALWAYS times his attack to the second you drop your trousers in the latrine” - Murphys Law of Combat Operations
“So. Did I hear you challenge someone or something last night?” The Chief tried to make his enquiry sound casual whilst he and Gary were having a lick and a promise down at the river’s edge. Kim currently had the weapon and was standing guard with it while Jim was busy obliterating any signs that anyone had camped in the vicinity.
Gary said nothing for a moment. The incident during the night had shaken him more than he cared to admit, but more for the fact that he wasn’t quite sure what had happened than anything else. Finally he sighed and shook the droplets of water off his hair. “I thought I saw something.” He admitted. “Or someone. It was very strange. I got the impression of a tall man standing in the trees yet when I stepped forward and challenged him he had gone.”
“Perhaps it was just the shadows cast by the trees.” The Chief suggested. “After all it’s pretty dark in these woods without any light other than starlight or moonlight. We’re so used to the glow from the electric light from cities, towns that we don’t realise just how dark it can be without modern forms of illumination.”
Gary bit his lip and looked up at the older man. “I don’t think it was the trees Chief. But if there was someone there, why didn’t he come forward when I spoke to him?”
“He could have been just as wary of us as we are of him. It might have even been our flesh-eating friends.”
Gary shook his head. “I don’t think it was any of them. He was…” He hesitated and the Chief waited patiently. “Well he was sort of transparent.”
“Like a ghost?”
“I suppose so.” Gary said reluctantly. “But I don’t believe in ghosts.”
The Chief got up and dried his hands on his combat trousers. “Neither do I sir.” He nodded at the troubled Major and looked back up the bank to where Kim was standing holding the assault rifle in her arms and looking distinctly ill at ease. “I guess we’ll be heading on up the river in short while. In the meantime, I think I’ll go and relieve Sgt Freeman so that she can come and freshen up. She looks like she might shoot someone’s foot off if they breathe the wrong way.”
Gary looked over to where Kim was standing on guard. Her whole demeanour was one of ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ and he laughed. “Probably a good idea Chief. It wouldn’t do for her to start a friendly fire incident between the Police and the Army by accidentally shooting an officer of the law in the arse.”
The Chief let out a crack of laughter and trudged up the bank sweeping the reeds aside with one hand to make a passage through them for himself.
Gary stared down at his reflection in the water. Something was niggling at the back of his mind, a fleeting impression of something that refused point-blank to anchor itself in his memory.
His musing was only interrupted by the somewhat distracting arrival of Kim who gave him a shy smile and then knelt down to see to her own ablutions. Thoughts of the previous night slipped into the background as he found himself staring at the smooth bare skin on the back of her neck between her shirt collar and where her fair hair was scrunched up into a ponytail.
He was mildly unnerved to discover that he had an overwhelming desire to kiss it.
The place where the small group had spent the night had not been a clearing; it was more a fairly large space between the trees deliberately chosen for the cover it had offered them. The willows had conveniently grown their branches even lower than usual and they had formed a sort of deep green cave of leaves that offered some protection from the cool night breezes and concealment from prying eyes.
It had apparently not been concealing enough, however.
The Chief looked around to see if any of the others were watching him, but they were all otherwise occupied. Jim had doused the fire, swept the area with a dead branch and was now busy brushing down his jacket. Chief could see the Major and Kim still down at the water. She was washing her face and Gary was sitting quite still watching her, or he could have been chatting. From this distance and trying to peer through a veil of willow leaves, it was difficult to tell.
After casting a quick look around to make sure that nobody else was lurking in the undergrowth, the Chief walked over to where Gary had been standing on guard the previous evening.
The long grass was slightly trampled by feet wearing heavy boots, but that could have been any of them. However, underneath the large old looking willow directly opposite to where Gary had stood, the grass looked as though it had been disturbed slightly.
Chief’s eyes narrowed and he bent down to examine the grass. Sure enough, some of the blades had been bent, as though someone had been there. The strange thing was that there was no indication that whoever had been there had walked away. No telltale signs of the passage of feet, at least not the iron clad feet of their nemesis across the river.
Yet someone had been there without a doubt.
The plot thickens. He thought to himself. He wasn’t at all convinced that their nocturnal visitor was either human or friendly and he would have been happier had there been no evidence of any visitation. The notion that perhaps one of those creatures, or something worse, had been watching silently while they slept and was then able to swiftly conceal themselves after they had been spotted was unnerving to say the least. And yet the evidence didn’t seem to have the hallmarks of their cannibalistic friends somehow. Surreptitious surveillance didn’t seem to be quite their style.
He resolved to double his vigilance. They were being stalked and watched, apparently by someone other than those awful creatures, and he didn’t like the idea one little bit.
The tent of Eonwe somewhere in North Beleriand
“What do you mean he had your face?”
Eonwe stopped his restless pacing around the large tent for a moment. “I don’t know how many ways there are to say it.” He sounded irritated. “One of the mortals had my face.”
Tulcas gave him an amused, indulgent look. “Realistically it’s not your face, at least in the sense that you weren’t born with it. In fact you weren’t born at all. You sprang from the music, as we all did. Neither Valar nor Maiar are actually born in the true sense of the word. Your preferred form is merely a clothing of flesh over your fea to please the sensibilities of those mortals and Elves around you.”
“Be that as it may, when I looked into his face as he stood in the moonlight it was as though I was looking at myself. I do not understand this. Why would he look like me? There must be more to this than we have been told.” Eonwe resumed the pacing.
“Oh sweet Eru, will you stop pacing around like a caged animal? You are making my head spin. Let me see what the others say.” Tulcas casually crossed one leg over the other and stared into the distance. He looked for all the world as if he was thinking of having a nap. Eonwe was on the point of snapping out that he was not pacing but could see the Vala’s usually bright blue eyes cloud over and knew that he was in communion with one or more of the Valar. It worried him more than he cared to admit that his Lord may not have told him everything about the mortals and he was also concerned that this was something sent to waste his time and distract him from his task of defeating Morgoth and dragging him back in chains.
He waited while Tulcas consulted his fellow Valar and strove to hide his impatience. Part of him wanted to just go back, reveal himself and take the mortals into custody but he knew that the only reason he and Curunir were able to penetrate the veil in the first place was because they had gone in a non-corporeal form. In that form they could not interact with solely corporeal beings, they could merely observe.
Just when he felt he couldn’t contain himself any longer Tulcas’ eyes cleared and he grinned apologetically at his companion. “I apologise for the long wait my young friend. Manwe was given no information as to who the mortals are or why one of them should resemble your fleshly form. He will consult with Eru.”
Eonwe sat down heavily on a stool as if all the air had been expelled from his body leaving him utterly deflated. “I do not like this state of affairs.” He said in a low voice. “Could it be Morgoth’s doing?”
Tulcas shrugged. “Manwe feels it may have happened as a result of the series of unfortunate incidents that has caused their world to collide with ours. Morgoth has taken advantage of the situation caused by the instability of the land. Which is, of course, our doing. However, on the positive side, his minions are also trapped within the veil. They are currently all confined to the woods of Nan Tathren and going around in circles.”
“And if they manage to escape by some strange freak of fate?” Eonwe was having a hard job keeping the sarcasm out of his voice.
“That will hardly be some freak of fate and will only be the case if Morgoth has found a way to penetrate the veil.” Tulcas said quietly. “And if that happens then we may well have a very pressing problem on our hands since we do not yet know what Morgoth intended when he allowed his Orcs to cross to the other side of the fabric between the worlds.”
A noise at the tent opening alerted them to the respectful presence of the tall Vanyarin warrior who was assigned as a sort of batman to Eonwe. At a sign from the Herald, he entered and bowed courteously, one hand over his heart. “What is it?” Eonwe asked and managed to conjure up one of his devastating smiles.
The young Elf glowed with pleasure. “We are ready to strike camp my Lord Herald. There are those waiting without to take down the tent and pack it up.” He bowed again, much lower this time. Eonwe wondered how many bows it would take before he was abased in front of him and squashed the chuckle that rose up with great difficulty. He put a hand on the young Elf’s shoulder in friendly fashion. “There is no need to bow every time you speak to me pen tithen. It will save us both time if you just speak your piece.”
The Elf blushed and Tulcas’ booming laugh rang out. “Well Eonwe if this young one is going to pull the tent down around our ears we had better make shift, unless you want to be packed up in the baggage carts along with the tent poles. I’d call that leading from the rear.” He strode out of the tent guffawing loudly at his own joke as he went and those nearby chuckled at the sound of his infectious laughter.
Eonwe rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head in mock despair. He smiled at the warrior again. “Thank you. The tent will be all theirs to do with as they wish shortly.”
The warrior hid his huge grin. “Yes my Lord.” He left the tent and Eonwe picked up his sword and slipped it into the scabbard. His concerns had not been resolved, but he had an army to command and Morgoth needed to be brought to heel before he could perpetrate any more malice or mischief.
Back in the woods of Nan Tathren
The subjects of Eonwe’s concern had their own troubles to worry about. Staying alive under a hail of arrows had to be foremost in their minds.
“I thought they’d gone.” Kim’s face had taken on a white, pinched look and Gary had to fight down the urge to go to her. Instead he checked the weapon and took aim, squinting through the sight.
Jim rolled towards the Chief as one of the arrows thudded into the ground mere inches from his leg. “The buggers are determined to pierce some part of me.” He commented mournfully.
“Where the hell are all these damn arrows coming from?” Chief sounded more aggravated than afraid. “Surely they have to run out of supplies some time. Can you get a trace on them sir?” He called out in a low voice to Gary.
“I can hardly miss them at this range.” Gary said. “It’s more a question of ammo. I don’t want to waste it.”
“Fuck that.” Gary looked over the weapon at Chief and raised an eyebrow. The Chief looked completely unrepentant. “Look at it this way sir. If we run out of ammo but kill them all, then we get the main bundle of weapons anyway and we’re rid of our stalkers at least. If the magazines aren’t with the weapons, then they aren’t going to do us a whole lot of good and getting the bloody things back to the armoury is the least of my worries. Avoiding ending up as the main course on their dinner menu has long since taken over. Shoot the fuckers.”
Gary gave a low chuckle. “I like your style Chief.” He squinted through the sight again looking for the big guy in charge, but all he could see was the rest of them gaily taking aim with their black bows.
“What happens when they run out of arrows?” Kim asked, desperately trying to keep the fear out of her voice.
“I think it means that they decide to paddle across the river.” Jim whispered back. He shifted position slightly, rolling onto part of the uniform jacket that he hadn’t actually worn since they had entered the woods. A hard edge of something in one of the pockets poked into him and he gingerly felt around to see what it was.
Even before he drew it out, he remembered the strange looking ornamental dagger that the Inspector had handed to him before he had set out with Gary and the others to the crime scene what seemed like centuries ago. Momentary embarrassment flooded him as he realised that he hadn’t done what had been asked of him. He was supposed to have taken the knife and put it with the rest of the evidence before going to the woods, but instead he had slipped it into his pocket thinking that he could do it afterwards just as well.
He slowly drew the bag containing the dagger out of the jacket pocket and opened it. A flash of brightness almost blinded him as the sun caught the shiny metal.
“Put it down lad.” The Chief’s voice hissed across even as Gary took aim at the creature that had been assigned to lead the blond man around. There was no sign of the man.
Jim looked over at the Chief who gave him a reassuring smile. “If you keep waving that shiny thing around you might as well light a bloody great beacon over your head with a sign saying ‘target is right here boys, come and get me’.”
Gary squeezed the trigger and the shot rang out with a sharp crack that echoed through the woods. The bandy-legged foul looking creature slowly fell backwards with a neat hole in his forehead and a look of eternal surprise on his ugly features.
Everything stopped with that one shot. The dead creature’s companions fell completely silent and stared at the prone body in astonishment. Gary didn’t give them a chance to resume firing. He aimed at one of the others and another shot split the silence. The creatures that remained all swung around to look at the other body in one movement reminiscent of some macabre dance sequence.
This time the shot had been a little lower down and most of the dead creature’s mouth and lower jaw had been obliterated. One of the creatures let out a loud squawk of terror and turned tail, crashing through the trees. After only a few seconds his noisy flight stopped abruptly and his companions looked at each other with something very close to trepidation. And with very good reason.
Thadak suddenly appeared. The sword that hung at his side glistened with fresh dark and viscous blood, which left nobody in any doubt as to the fate of the creature who had tried to flee. Thadak had the bundle of weapons under one arm and was dragging the blond man with him. As the man staggered drunkenly into view the rope was jerked viciously. Thadak pulled him up close and Gary could see through the enhanced vision of the sight that he was snarling like an animal, only millimetres away from that beautiful face. Gary had to give the blond man his due. He didn’t flinch or draw back from that hideous face; instead he regarded his captor calmly. With a snarl of fury Thadak backhanded him away and he crumpled to the ground in a senseless heap. Gary didn’t see him move again and even with enhanced vision couldn’t tell if the man was alive or dead.
For some reason the sight of that crumpled form enraged Gary more than anything so far. He singled out the tall form of Thadak and aimed, determined to put an end to this obscene parody of a living creatures but it disappeared behind cover almost as if it knew it was being targeted. As it did so it snarled a command to its surviving minions and they all dove for cover as well, leaving both the weapons and the blond man unguarded. The shot whined harmlessly over their heads and embedded itself in a tree trunk. Gary cursed. Shooting the creatures was one thing; wasting one of the valuable rounds was another.
He turned to face the others. “Did anybody manage to count how many of them are left?”
“Four including the big’ un I reckon.” Chief peered cautiously around the rock that was giving him most of his cover. "But I reckon if we can hold out that big fella'll take care of the rest of them for us as soon as they try to run away!"
It seemed for the moment that they were at an impasse. The creatures were too afraid to get up and run away because Thadak would kill them. They were too afraid to stay where they were for fear that the humans would kill them with the spitting fire-stick.
On the other side of the river, Gary and the others only had one means of protecting themselves and eventually that would run out of ammunition.He wondered how long it would take for the leader of the creatures to work that one out. The weapons had been in their hands for quite a while now and it was hard to imagine that they hadn’t examined them at some stage and worked out that the magazines carried the means to deal instant death. Or was he attributing them with a logic they simply didn’t possess?
What was clear was that sooner or later either one or the other group would have to make a move.