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Glorfindel ended up taking the last watch during the long twilight period when it became just dark enough for the stars to peep out for an hour or so before fading back into the blue. Calandil had drawn the watch with him, but Glorfindel told the youngster to go back to bed after about an hour. Calandil insisted on helping with the watch even as he was yawning and blinking, trying to stay awake.
“Why am I so tired?” he grumbled. “I’m not an elfling any longer.”
“All this fresh mountain air,” Glorfindel replied with a grin. “Go back to sleep, Cal. I’ll let you stand the entire watch tomorrow night.” After another couple of minutes of half-hearted protests, the younger ellon finally agreed and soon Glorfindel was the only one in their camp who was awake.
He sat there enjoying the quiet of the wilderness with no sounds of traffic, just the usual night noises that were so familiar to him from long ago, breathing the clean, mountain scent without the usual underlying taint of humanity to mask it. As the sky to the east began to lighten toward dawn he idly began braiding his hair, half wishing he had the means to braid with the beads and gems of his House as he had done so long ago. Those days were long gone, and really, he didn’t miss them all that much, but there were times…
Finrod was the first to waken, joining Glorfindel beside the camp stove while he threw together a meal for them. The Elf prince took one look at his gwador and smiled. When Legolas woke a few minutes later and saw Finrod braiding his hair he snorted in good humor.
“Are we hunting for orcs?” he asked. Glorfindel and Finrod merely shrugged without answering. “That’s what I thought.” Legolas stepped away from the camp to relieve himself, returning a few minutes later to crouch beside Finrod and start braiding his own hair. When the youngsters began stirring, they saw their elders with their hair braided, the tips of their ears visible, but they forbore to comment, merely giving each other knowing looks and grins which the older Elves patently ignored.
They were on their way within an hour after sunrise. In the end, they had decided to continue along the trail to the first lake before heading out of the lake basin and the boreal forest and up into the tundra that would take them west into what was known as unit two, otherwise known as the Riley Creek unit, a much larger area than unit one. They climbed along, admiring the profusion of wildflowers that dotted the hillsides, mostly in shades of blue and purple or deep red. The day was clear though they knew that at the higher elevations they might find fog and the temperatures would be cooler. Here, though, it was pleasant and they walked gently upon the trail with the younger Elves softly singing a walking song that apparently was popular in Valinor, for Glorfindel was unfamiliar with it. Neither Finrod nor Legolas bothered to join in the singing, though Glorfindel heard Legolas humming along behind him. The Wood Elf had taken the rear position and Glorfindel knew that Thranduilion was ever alert to possible dangers.
Soon they were descending again as they came upon the first lake where the youngsters exclaimed with delight at the sight of a beaver house.
“Surely there are beavers in Valinor,” Glorfindel said, looking at Finrod. “Why are they so excited?”
Finrod shook his head. “I think they are just enjoying the wilderness. Do not forget that even Nielluin is a product of city living. My sister and Celeborn elected to live in Tirion rather than carve a realm of their own among the Galadhrim, most of whom settled in the south with Amroth’s adar as their lord.”
Glorfindel nodded as they stood admiring the beaver house. There was no sign of the beaver itself, for beavers were essentially nocturnal creatures and they would have to come back during the long twilight period if they hoped to catch a glimpse of the animal. After a few minutes, though, they all decided to continue, but now they went off the trail which, had they continued on it, would have led them to the George Parks Highway that linked Fairbanks to Anchorage. Instead they went west out of the basin and up into the tundra area, crossing the ridgeline and moving into unit two according to their map. Their plan was to pick up Riley Creek for which the unit was named and follow it northward until they came to the drainage that would lead them back into the Triple Lakes area and their campsite. They were in no particular hurry and Glorfindel estimated that it would be close to ten or eleven in the evening before they returned to camp, but they would have plenty of daylight for the trek.
“Perhaps tomorrow, if you want, we can go back to the visitor center and either take the bus tour or pick up the shuttle that goes to the various campgrounds and get off along the way and hike somewhere else,” Glorfindel suggested as they walked along. The others agreed to the idea.
“Could we take the Stampede Trail while we are here?” Finda asked.
“What is of particular interest on that trail?” Finrod asked.
“Something called the Magic Bus,” his son replied. “You see—”
“No,” Glorfindel interrupted, looking grave. “We will not be satisfying your morbid curiosity.”
“What do you mean?” Finrod asked, looking puzzled.
Glorfindel stopped and they all gathered around him. He ignored them for a moment, staring west where the mountains rose.
“Gwador?” Finrod demanded.
Glorfindel looked at him. “Your son wishes to see where a young Man died,” he answered.
“Mortals die all the time,” Legolas commented in a reasonable tone. “What is so special about this place?”
“Twenty years ago, Christopher McCandless walked into the wilderness with little more than the clothes on his back. He was going to live simply, living off the land without any real knowledge of how to go about it. He stumbled upon an abandoned bus sometimes used as a shelter by hunters and then became stranded when the Teklanika River ran too high with spring runoff to cross, never knowing that he was within walking distance of a hand-powered tram that would have taken him out of the area.” He paused and glared briefly at Finda and his gwedyr, all three of them blushing and refusing to look at anyone, before continuing his narrative. “He kept a journal. His last entry was on August the twelfth. His body was found on the sixth of September. He’d been dead for at least two weeks by then and weighed only about sixty-six pounds. He starved to death, Finrod. Twenty-four years old. He died alone and afraid and I will not allow anyone to go and see where it happened. His death is neither heroic nor romantic but tragic. McCandless was reckless and arrogant and that hubris ultimately killed him.”
Finrod contemplated his gwador’s words for a moment before addressing his son. “What reason, other than morbid curiosity, do you have to visit this site?”
“People come from all over to see it,” Finda replied, not quite looking at his father.
“And you would like to say that you have done so as well,” Finrod said with a nod of understanding.
“Mortals are fools sometimes, Finrod,” Glorfindel said harshly. “They romanticize stupidity, most of them secretly wishing they had done something like it, never realizing that such actions are often fatal. McCandless was….” But he shook his head and sighed, unable or unwilling to complete the thought. “Let’s go.” He stalked away, refusing to look back to see if anyone was following.
“I am somewhat disappointed in you, my son,” he heard Finrod say, “in all three of you.”
“Sorry, Atto,” Finda whispered and the other two ellyn echoed him.
“We will speak of it no further. Now come. Glorfindel is getting ahead of us and there is no telling what trouble he will get into if we’re not there to prevent it.”
Glorfindel heard Legolas snort in amusement at that outrageous statement and he couldn’t help smiling in spite of himself. He slowed his pace to allow the others to catch up. “I am sorry I snapped at you, Finda, but I’ve seen too many people, children even, starve to death in my long sojourn in Middle-earth and there was little that I could do to prevent it. It is a truly terrible and painful way to die.”
“Are not all deaths terrible?” Nielluin asked.
Glorfindel nodded. “But some are worse than others. Now, let us forget about it. The day is too beautiful and we are here to enjoy ourselves.”
The others agreed, and while the tension that had arisen between them lessened, Finrod thought he detected a pall of melancholy settle over his gwador and worried. Still, as the day continued and they moved down into the valley and headed north along the creek, Glorfindel seemed fine. They stopped at one point to rest and take some lunch and Glorfindel even settled down and half-closed his eyes while Finrod sat next to him and softly sang an ancient lullaby. Soon Glorfindel was asleep and the others remained quiet. Legolas even left them to commune with the trees for a time.
Glorfindel roused after about an hour or so, blinking as he sat up. Finrod was the only one there, the ellon occupying himself with a paperback. “Where are the others?” he asked around a yawn, accepting a canteen of water from Finrod.
“With Legolas. He’s giving them a lesson on woodlore. They’ll be back later. We’re not in any hurry are we?”
“No, we’re not. Valar! I think this is the first time I’ve actually relaxed in the two years I’ve been in Alaska.”
“Then I say it was long overdue,” Finrod said, marking his place in the book with a bookmark and stowing it into his pack before standing. “I told Legolas that when you woke we would start walking north. He was taking the youngsters that way anyway so we should catch up with them eventually.”
“Fine by me,” Glorfindel said. “I’m just going to see a man about a tree, as I think Derek puts it, and then I’ll be ready to go.”
Finrod nodded as Glorfindel sauntered off to relieve himself. A couple minutes later they were making their way north along the creek. They hadn’t gone more than half a mile though before they heard a hail and looking about they saw Legolas on the west side of the creek waving at them.
“There are cliffs on both sides of the creek, but the ones on this side are lower. It will be easier traveling,” Legolas shouted to them.
“Where did you cross?” Glorfindel shouted back.
“Go another quarter mile north. The youngsters are waiting there for you.” And with that, Legolas actually moved away from the creek, disappearing into the surrounding forest.
Glorfindel and Finrod gave each other bemused looks. “Wood Elves,” was Glorfindel’s only comment and Finrod chuckled as they resumed their journey. Soon enough they came to where the four younger Elves were waiting for them. Unlike many of the creeks and rivers that ran through Denali, this creek was not braided, which would have made it easier to cross, but it was shallower here where a sand bar had built up and crossing the icy cold water was not all that difficult. Glorfindel and Finrod were replacing their socks and boots which they had removed before crossing when Legolas came down from the ridge and joined them.
“Come quickly,” he said with quiet urgency. “The trees are troubled.”
“Troubled?” Finrod asked. “In what way?”
“I am not sure, but I think something is happening or will happen and the trees sense it. They are… concerned.”
Glorfindel noticed the younger Elves glancing around somewhat skeptically at the aspens, birches and firs that covered the hillsides as if they could ascertain what the trees were whispering to one another. He glanced at Legolas, saw the intense look in the ellon’s eyes, and nodded as he stood. “If a Wood Elf tells you that the trees are concerned, it is best to listen. Lead on, Liam.” And without another word, Legolas turned and headed up out of the taiga and toward the tundra with the others following.
It took them nearly an hour to pass through the taiga and reach the ridgeline where the view opened up to the Alaskan Range with Fang Mountain dominating the southwestern horizon. It was colder here and the wind was constant and abrasive. The day, which had started out fine was now turning grayish with clouds veiling the sun. The younger Elves even pulled out windbreakers from their packs and donned them. Glorfindel, Finrod and Legolas didn’t bother. Small clumps of lichen and wildflowers clung precariously to the rocky ground and they could see snowfields dotting the landscape about them. Legolas continued northwest away from the creek and further into the tundra, stepping lightly, almost negligently upon the scree, the others right behind, doing the same.
“Whoa, Liam, hold up,” Glorfindel called. “Do you even know where we’re going?” he pulled out the map and a compass to ascertain their location. Everyone gathered around him.
“The trees say we must go further into the tundra,” Legolas said somewhat impatiently, pointing northwest.
“Okay, according to the map we’re heading toward Jenny Creek. That would be unit three. From the looks of it, that’s a good five or six hours of trekking along this ridgeline. Do the trees know how far we must travel?”
Legolas shook his head. “They cannot give distance for they have no concept of it. They can only point me toward where we must go and there is an urgency that I have rarely encountered even among the trees of Mirkwood. Something is happening or will happen and the trees are concerned.”
Glorfindel sighed as he stowed away the map and compass. “Fine, then. Let’s go. Stay close, all of you,” he admonished the youngsters. “Finrod, you want to take the rearguard?”
Finrod nodded. “Nielluin, I want you directly behind Glorfindel. You three follow her as you will but keep a distance of at least three feet between you.”
“Why?” Elennen asked, looking puzzled. The other younger Elves looked equally puzzled.
Finrod pointed in the direction they needed to go. “The ground looks solid, but see the snowfields? We must traverse them and the brush between them can be treacherous and difficult to move through. Keep alert.” And even as he was speaking they could see in the distance several caribou crossing a distant ridge, their steps springy as they walked.
“How do you know this, Atto?” Finda asked. “You’ve never been here before.”
“No, I have not, but conditions in Beleriand were little different, especially in the northern regions of Mithrim and Hithlum, not to mention the far north of Valinor where we crossed the Helcaraxë. Glorfindel and I are quite familiar with traveling through tundra, are we not, gwador?”
“Go, Liam,” Glorfindel commanded instead of answering Finrod and the Wood Elf sprang away with everyone else following.
Soon they were moving through a waist-high tangle of willow and alder, which slowed them down somewhat and there were curses from more than one of the younger Elves, though the three older ones simply waded through without a word. By midafternoon they had come several miles along a ridgeline that now veered toward the northeast and were soon looking down into what Glorfindel called a cirque, an amphitheater-like hollow carved out by retreating glaciers wherein lay a small tarn, smaller than Winterdark Tarn. Relaxing beside it were five people, three men and two women.
“This is where we’re supposed to be?” Glorfindel asked Legolas, looking about him in confusion.
Legolas just nodded as he stared down into the cirque. The Mortals had not yet noticed their presence, seemingly more intent on skipping stones across the still waters of the tarn than in paying attention to their surroundings.
“We spent nearly four hours getting here,” Finrod commented, glancing negligently at the sun to gauge the time. “How could the trees know we needed to be here?”
“I have no answers,” Legolas admitted, never taking his eyes off the scene below them.
“What’s that trembling?” Calandil asked, looking down at the ground.
“Earthquake,” Glorfindel said in a distracted manner as he continued to watch the Mortals. “Alaska is prone to them and they’re pretty constant, though most are deep and not very strong in magnitude so they’re barely noticeable. Surely you’ve felt them in Wiseman?”
“Yes, but this feels different somehow,” Calandil retorted.
“Look!” Nielluin cried out, pointing not at the tarn but down valley.
“Oh, oh, trouble,” Glorfindel muttered. “C’mon!” And with that he sprang down the moraine with everyone joining him.
“We’ll never make it in time!” Finrod called out.
“Yes, we will. Hey! Halloo!” Glorfindel started waving his hands and the Mortals below them looked up in shock and surprise at the sight of them. A number of things happened almost simultaneously. As the three Men attempted to form a shield around the two Women, grabbing stones for weapons, one of the Women happened to glance in the opposite direction and started screaming as a grizzly came ambling into the cirque.
“Legolas, you’re with me,” Glorfindel shouted as he pointed toward the bear. “Everyone else, make sure the Mortals don’t panic.”
That was a lost cause almost at once as the Mortals did the one thing they never should have and started running, grabbing their gear as they went, attempting to climb the moraine to the top of the very ridge the Elves were descending.
“No!” Glorfindel shouted. “Don’t run, you fools!” But he had to forget about the Mortals as he and Legolas passed them to confront the grizzly who was giving chase.
“Are you crazy, man?” he heard one of the Men shout. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
“No, no, my children, stay still,” Glorfindel heard Finrod command the Mortals. “Do not panic. Stay calm. Finda, you and the others arm yourselves. Nielluin, stay close to me.”
“Who are you?” one of the Women asked, her tone one of awe.
If Finrod gave her an answer Glorfindel never heard for he was too intent on the bear that was still rushing toward them.
“Bado!” Legolas cried out at the bear, waving his hands. “Awartho sâd hen!”
The grizzly paused, apparently in surprise, but whether at the sound of Sindarin being spoken or at the sight of the Elves was difficult to say. It reared up, towering over them, growling, the sound of it echoing within the natural amphitheater.
“Daro, i-chaun nîn!” Glorfindel called out, putting all the power at his disposal behind his words. “Le bodon an aglennad. Bado na hidh.”
For a long, tense moment, the bear remained standing, growling, waving its front paws at them. Behind them, Glorfindel heard the harsh breathing of the Mortals, one of the Women whimpering slightly with fear.
“Bado!” Legolas hissed and then the grizzly came down on all fours, gave a grunting growl in protest and shuffled back the way it had come. Glorfindel and Legolas sighed with relief almost at the same time and grinned at one another. They watched for a few more minutes to make sure the bear did not return and, satisfied, they turned to see what was happening with the Mortals, walking back to where everyone was congregated. The Mortals were all staring wide-eyed at the Elves, watching in disbelief as the bear ambled away back down the valley.
“What… who are you?” one of the Women whispered as she stepped back. “Your eyes!” she exclaimed and all five of the Mortals flinched and looked away.
Glorfindel blinked a number of times, allowing his power to dissipate until the light of his eyes dimmed somewhat. Then he turned to Legolas with a puzzled look. “We traveled miles and hours to get here for this? How would the trees know about this? It makes no sense. There aren’t even any trees about here, just brush. How can trees so far away know this would happen and why would they care?”
“I do not know,” Legolas answered, looking equally puzzled. “I only know what I felt, the urgency, almost fear that the trees had. I think there is more to this than—”
“A! Tiro in gwililith vain!” Nielluin cried out in delight, pointing toward the tarn.
Everyone looked, even the Mortals who could not possibly have understood what she was saying. Glorfindel was not the only one to gasp in shock as hundreds of butterflies, most of them a deep purple with a fringe of yellow on their wings, rose from seemingly nowhere to hover over the tarn and then drift like a purple cloud toward them until they were totally surrounded. Glorfindel spied the Mortals looking about in absolute wonder and even the younger Elves looked equally astonished. Then he caught Finrod’s eyes and a memory flashed before him, a memory of another cloud of butterflies and what their sudden presence had presaged.
“Ilúvatar,” Glorfindel whispered, half in dread.
Before anyone else could comment, the ground shook violently enough to send most of them to their knees, the Women screaming in fright. The butterflies simply vanished, but no one was paying much attention to them.
“Away from the tarn, now!” Finrod yelled as he reached over to haul one of the Mortals to his feet. “Hurry! Move upward. We must get to the ridge.”
The youngsters sprang to their feet and fairly flew up to the ridge, but the Mortals were slower, apparently still stunned, and Finrod, Legolas and Glorfindel had to chivvy them on as another tremor struck, this one more violent than the first.
“Ohmigod! Look at the tarn!” One of the Women exclaimed in horror and they turned to see the water actually rising into a spume, leaving the tarn floor around its edge temporarily exposed. They all watched in awe as the water rose above them and then for a split second everything froze before the water crashed back, some of it overflowing its banks. The force of the water, had they been closer to the tarn, could well have crushed and drowned them. As it was, they were just far enough away that they were merely drenched with spray.
For a stunned moment, they all just stood there dripping and staring in disbelief at the tarn, the waters slowly stilling. After a while, when nothing else happened, Glorfindel whistled. “Hookay. That was… new.” Legolas snorted in good humor at that understatement even as he was wiping the water out of his eyes and wringing his braids.
“Let’s keep moving,” Finrod said, glancing up to where his son and niece and the two other ellyn were. “You are well, my son, Nielluin?” he called out.
“Yes, Atto. We’re fine,” Finda called down.
“How are you doing?” Glorfindel asked the Mortals. “I’m Loren, by the way, and this is Quinn and Liam.”
“Gary,” one of the Men introduced himself, then pointed to the others. “Danielle, Michelle, Chase and Joe.” By their looks, it was obvious that the two Women were sisters.
“So where are you guys camping?” Glorfindel asked in a nonchalant manner, as if what had happened was a normal, everyday occurrence for him. Michelle pulled out a towel from her pack and the Mortals attempted to dry off with little success; the three Elves ignored the fact that they were more or less soaked.
“We’re camping at the Riley Creek campgrounds,” Chase answered as he passed the towel to Joe. “Who… what are you people? You’re not human, are you?”
“Long story,” Glorfindel replied. “Liam, tell me we didn’t trek for hours just for this. What in blazes is going on?”
“I have no answers for you, Loren,” Legolas retorted mildly. “I only know what the trees told me.”
“Too bad there aren’t any around to consult,” Glorfindel commented in all seriousness.
“Those butterflies,” Danielle said, her tone one of awe. “What happened to them? Where did they come from?”
“Not a clue,” Glorfindel said in all honesty. “Last time something like that happened…” He glanced at Finrod who refused to look at him.
“What? What happened?,” Danielle insisted.
“And who are you, really?” Gary demanded. “Those ears. You’re not… er… Vulcans, are you?”
“Too emotional for Vulcans,” Chase said seemingly in all seriousness. “Hey, maybe they’re, you know, Romulans.”
“Nah, Romulans are nasty buggers, almost as bad as Klingons. They wouldn’t bother saving us lowlife humans,” Joe responded knowingly. “I’m going with renegade Vulcans who’ve ditched ol’ Sarek’s nonemotionalism for the good life here on earth.”
“Yeah, right,” Chase snorted in derision, “and it’s Surak, you idiot. Sarek was Spock’s dad.”
“Whatever,” Joe retorted dismissively.
“So, who are you guys, really?” Michelle asked.
Glorfindel shook his head, unwilling to answer, wondering if he should pull out his knife and cut himself to show that he bled red, not green, as a Vulcan would, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort or the pain. Finrod and Legolas just looked on in bemusement, not understanding any of the references. “Let’s get you back to your camp,” Glorfindel said and he pulled out his map and the compass to do a quick reading. “Okay, if we go this way along the ridge,” he traced their route on the map while everyone else looked on, “we can come down to Riley Creek just about here and then it looks like it’s just another couple of hours back to the campgrounds. We should be there in time for dinner.”
The ground began to shake again even as he spoke. “Damn!” Gary cried out. “Hang on!”
“Atto!” Finda yelled from above, his expression one of fear.
“Get down!” Finrod yelled back, motioning for the youngsters to fall to their knees. “It will be safer, and move away from the edge.” He followed words with action by going to his knees, pulling Danielle and Joe down beside him, wrapping his arms around them. The others followed suit with Glorfindel holding on to Michelle while Legolas wrapped his arms around Gary and Joe.
“Whathehell?!” Joe cried out in disbelief, pointing at the tarn.
Even as the tremors continued to grow, they saw the water of the tarn boiling and bubbling and steam rose from it, spreading outwards so it was difficult to see what was happening. There was a noxious smell of sulfur and ammonia that stung their eyes and made them cough.
“We need to get above this,” Finrod said to Glorfindel and Legolas.
Glorfindel nodded. “C’mon. We need to climb,” he told the Mortals. “Don’t try to stand, just crawl up. Liam, lead the way, I’ll take the rear.”
Legolas nodded and headed up the side of the cirque with the two Women right behind him, followed by their menfolk with Finrod in their midst. Glorfindel waited another minute, trying not to breathe the noxious fumes before he followed. The tremors had stopped for the moment. He saw Gary start to rise, no doubt planning on walking up to the ridge.
“No! Stay down!” Glorfindel shouted. “There may be more tremors.”
Gary glanced back at him and nodded. He started to go to his knees again, then froze, a look of horror on his face and he pointed back toward the tarn. The others turned their heads to see, but the mist hid much of the tarn. Glorfindel squinted, thinking he saw something moving but he couldn’t be sure. Then the mist cleared for just a brief second and even though there were no tremors, he saw the waters seething, sloshing over its banks as something with many tentacles burst to the surface.
Words are Sindarin:
Awartho sâd hen!: ‘Abandon/forsake this place!’.
Daro, i-chaun nîn!: ‘Stop, my brother!’, literally ‘the brother of mine’. Chaun is the lenited form of haun, an archaic form for ‘brother’ (the modern Sindarin form is hanar). Glorfindel is speaking very formally here.
Le bodon an aglennad. Bado na hidh: ‘I forbid thee to come near. Go in peace.’ Literally, ‘Thee I prohibit for approaching’. Hidh is the lenited form of sidh ‘peace’.
A! Tiro in gwililith vain!: ‘Oh! Look at the beautiful butterflies!’
1. Christopher McCandless’ story is told in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (1996), as well as in the 2007 movie of the same name. The theories as to how McCandless died that are put forth in the book and the movie have since been disproven.
2. Butterflies can actually be found in Denali. On the tundra, butterflies rest with their wings open, rather than closed, as their southern cousins do, in order to soak up the sun’s warmth. They are usually blue or purple because darker colors absorb heat.
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