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True to Námo’s words, they reached Riley Creek after about an hour or so, making their way down from the tundra and into the taiga forest. The trek had been done in virtual silence with the group strung out so that it was difficult to hold any real conversations. The wind was constant and cold and they just wanted to get down to where it was more sheltered. Once they reached the creek, it took them almost another hour to reach the campgrounds. By then, the sky was dark with clouds and the last mile was trekked in a downpour so they were all soaked by the time they reached their destination.
“Our RV is over here,” Gary told them as they wended their way past other campers.
“You all sleep in the RV?” Glorfindel asked in curiosity, giving the Mortal a wide smile. “Must be rather crowded.”
“The girls sleep inside,” Gary explained. “Us guys are in a tent. Don’t know where we’ll put all of you, though.”
“Don’t worry for us,” Glorfindel told him. “We’ll be fine. Elves don’t require sleep in the same way as Mortals and we are able to weave dreams even when awake. Just give us someplace to dry off and warm up and we’re good.”
“We can at least offer you guys a hot meal if nothing else,” Michelle said even as she fished out a bunch of keys and unlocked the door. They all climbed in, the Elves admiring the efficient use of space in the RV’s layout. Gary, Joe and Chase, however, did not come inside at first.
“We’re going to change our clothes,” Gary told them. “We’ll be back shortly.” The three Men headed for a large tent next to the RV and disappeared inside.
Michelle rummaged in a closet and pulled out a couple of towels for the Elves and then she and Danielle excused themselves to also change, going into the back of the RV and closing a sliding door, leaving the Elves to themselves.
“We should’ve packed extra clothes,” Finda opined, speaking Sindarin, wiping the rain from his face with one of the towels before handing it to Elennen.
“They would’ve just gotten soaked, or at least mine would’ve,” Glorfindel said philosophically in the same language as he wrung the water from his hair, leaving a small puddle on the floor as they all were. He started to undo the braids and Finrod and Legolas did the same now that they were surrounded by Mortals. “We’ll dry eventually and hopefully the rain will stop before morning or it’s going to be a very wet walk back to camp.”
“Should we stay here though?” Calandil asked. Once everyone had dried off as best as they could, he and Nielluin used the towels to soak up the water on the floor, wringing them over the sink.
“Lord Námo said to,” Finrod said, “and if there is one thing I know if I know nothing else is that when a Balan tells you to do or not to do something, it is very wise to obey.”
The RV door opened about then and the three Men stepped inside, now looking dryer. “Rain seems to be slowing,” Chase told them, “and the sky’s even brightening a bit. Maybe if the rain stops completely and the sky clears you can make it back to your own camp.”
Glorfindel shook his head. “Nate told us to stay here tonight and that’s what we will do even if the rain stops. The creeks will be running high and the drainage might not be safe to traverse immediately.”
“That’s what I don’t get,” Gary said.
“Get what?” Glorfindel asked.
“Your names. That… person who was out on the tundra called himself Nate, but that can’t be his real name and you all have ordinary names too. Loren can’t really be your name, can it?”
“You know enough lore to know that we would never reveal our true names to Mortals, Gary,” Glorfindel rejoined with a smile, ignoring the surprised looks on his fellow Elves.
Gary nodded, but the other Mortals looked confused. “Why not?” Danielle asked.
“Because names have power,” Gary answered before Glorfindel could respond. “To know someone’s true name is to have power over them, or that’s the theory. Never really thought it was real, though.”
Glorfindel shrugged. “Better to be safe than sorry.”
“Well, what about us?” Danielle demanded. “You know our names.”
“But not your full names,” Glorfindel pointed out. “Now, let’s forget about names for now. I don’t know about anyone else but I’m starving.”
“I can heat up some Dinty Moore beef stew,” Joe suggested. “We have several cans so there’s enough for all of us and we have some French bread to go with it. It’s not much, but…”
“It’s fine and I insist that we pay for it, since we’re using up your supplies,” Glorfindel said. The Mortals naturally began to protest. “No, no. Really, it’s no problem,” Glorfindel insisted as he reached inside his fleece-lined jacket and unzipped an inner pocket, fishing out his wallet and pulling out a couple of tens and handing them to Gary who reluctantly accepted them with soft-spoken thanks. “There, that should cover it.”
In minutes, several cans of stew were being opened and warmed up on the little camp stove. They realized though that there weren’t enough bowls and such for all of them. “We’ll take turns eating, then,” Finrod suggested. “The Mortals will eat first, for they need it more than we.”
Again there were protests. “But you’re our guests,” Joe pointed out, “and you’re still wet and probably cold, so you should eat first.”
But Glorfindel wouldn’t hear of it. “You eat first. I can tell just by looking at you that you’re all looking peaked and probably ready to fall over. See, Chase is yawning enough for all of us. You guys eat. Quinn, Liam and I are going out to see what there is to see around here. You four,” he looked to the younger Elves, “stay here and when these guys are done eating, it’ll be your turn. We’ll eat when we get back.”
With that, and in spite of continual protests on the part of the Mortals, Glorfindel stepped outside with Finrod and Legolas right behind. By now the rain had indeed stopped completely and the clouds were shifting, showing rents so that bits and pieces of blue were visible and once, the sun, still high in the sky, shone through for a few seconds before being swallowed up by fast-moving clouds.
The three walked away from the RV, skirting nearby camps, heading toward the park road that snaked its way for eighty-nine miles into the park, paralleling the Alaskan Range. “Okay, Liam, you want to talk about it?” Glorfindel asked as they reached the road and began walking along it, heading west into the park.
“Talk about what?”
“Legolas, I wasn’t born yesterday,” Glorfindel said. “You were having a flashback at the tarn, weren’t you? That’s why you froze.”
“I allowed myself to be drawn into a memory,” Legolas said, giving them a look of disgust. “I froze the first time, too.”
“First time?” Finrod asked.
“Before the gates of Moria,” Legolas replied, “when another Watcher seized the Ringbearer. Only Sam moved to rescue him. The rest of us….”
“And so you blame yourself for what happened,” Finrod commented. “No, don’t deny it, my friend.”
“I stood there frozen, unable to move, while those Mortals back there were throwing rocks at the thing,” the Wood Elf retorted heatedly.
“A useless gesture on their part,” Finrod rejoined somewhat dismissively.
“But more than I was doing,” Legolas exclaimed, growing angrier.
“Whoa! Legolas, chill,” Glorfindel said, stopping long enough to take the younger ellon into his embrace and giving him a hug and a pat on the back. “I’m not accusing you of cowardice or anything. I just want you to get past this guilt-trip you’re on. You froze. Hell, I froze, and I had less reason to do so than you.”
“You said that thing was in your dream,” Finrod interjected. “Does that mean you remember the dream itself?”
“No. Just the fact that the dream ends with something like the Watcher showing up, grabbing me and pulling me down with it into the water. That’s when I wake up. Everything else about the dream is bits and pieces of meaningless images. Gwyn and Gareth are in it somehow but that’s all I really know.”
“Then I think it’s time we found out for sure, do you not agree?” Finrod said decisively.
Glorfindel nodded reluctantly. “Yeah, I guess so.” He sighed, running his hand through his hair. “We’re supposed to be on vacation.”
Finrod smiled thinly. “I believe it’s what they call a working vacation.”
Glorfindel snorted and Legolas’ own demeanor eased. “The trees knew,” he said. “Somehow, they knew for all that they were miles from that place.”
“Yes, that is interesting,” Glorfindel opined, looking pensive. “Which begs the question: is this an isolated case or are there more of these creatures hidden in tarns across Alaska and elsewhere?”
“More to the point, is that what is sleeping in Winterdark Tarn?” Finrod added.
Glorfindel actually shivered and he would have liked to have blamed it on the wind blowing coldly, but he knew that was not the reason. “Come on, let’s go back to the RV. Maybe everyone else is finished with dinner and we can eat.”
The other two had no objections and soon they were back at the RV where they found that Nell and the Three Amigos were just finishing washing and drying their bowls while Michelle was adding another couple of cans of stew to the pot warming on the stove.
“Just in time,” she said as Glorfindel climbed inside, and being the last to enter, closed the door. “Stew should be ready in a couple of minutes.”
“Thanks. So, after we’ve eaten, what are your plans?” Glorfindel asked, leaning against the door.
“Well, we hadn’t planned on being back this soon,” Gary said, speaking for the other Mortals. “We figured we wouldn’t be back here until closer to seven or eight and it’s only, what, about five now? It’s going to be a long night.”
“Why don’t you tell us about yourselves?” Danielle suggested. “Are there really aliens walking among us?”
“For the last time, we’re not aliens,” Glorfindel protested. “We are the Firstborn. We arose on this planet ages before your first ancestors awoke. There was a time when we and they fought together against evil.”
“So what happened?” Gary asked. “Where did you all go? Why haven’t we known of your existence before this?”
“You did, in a way,” Glorfindel said. “Did you think all those stories and legends about the Elves were simply made up? Granted, most of them are totally bogus, but there are kernels of truth in a few such tales, such as the fact that we are immortal. Not that we can’t die. Quinn and I, for instance, have, but our lives are bound to the world. We can’t escape it the way Mortals can when they die. Eventually, we are re-embodied to walk this earth.”
“You’re… zombies?” Joe asked incredulously.
“No, we’re not zombies,” Legolas interjected before Glorfindel could respond. “We hunt them, though.”
“So zombies are real, too?” Joe asked.
“Only on TV,” Glorfindel answered, casting a meaningful look at Legolas. “Liam means that we play zombie tag. We’re setting up a zombie hunter boot camp, we’re calling it, for people to come and play, though it’s also a wilderness survival school as well. Strictly for adults, you understand. No one under sixteen and anyone under eighteen has to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.”
“Zombie hunter boot camp,” Chase said. “Okay. Sounds… interesting, but why?”
“Why what?” Glorfindel asked as he accepted a bowl of stew from Danielle and a small hunk of French bread with it.
“Why are you setting up this camp? I mean, it sounds like a… a job.”
“It is,” Glorfindel rejoined. “Chase, do you think Elves just sit around all day singing and dancing around a mushroom circle or something? We have to earn our bread same as the next person. Those tens I gave you. They’re real. I earned them. They won’t disappear on you come tomorrow’s dawn.”
“I thought that was fairy gold that disappeared,” Gary said.
“All I’m saying is that since we live in this world, we work like everyone else.”
“So you run this zombie hunter boot camp,” Michelle said.
“Among other things,” Glorfindel said. “Quinn, for instance, works in a local bookstore and Liam is a police officer.”
The Mortals gave Finrod and Legolas surprised looks. “And you guys?” Danielle asked, looking at Nielluin.
“Oh the youngsters are attending college,” Glorfindel said breezily.
“College? You go to college?” more than one Mortal exclaimed in disbelief.
“And why do you call them youngsters?” Gary asked. “They look no older than you and you look as if you’re in your twenties.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Glorfindel said. “Quinn is the oldest of us and Nell is the youngest. She was born only a few hundred thousand years before the last ice age.”
“Are you serious?!” The Mortals all looked stunned at that revelation.
“So… um… how old are you?” Michelle finally asked Quinn.
Finrod shrugged. “I am not sure I can tell you precisely, but I have lived and died and lived again through seven ages of this world.”
“You died,” Michelle said in disbelief, then gave a nervous laugh. “Come on, you’re joking right?”
“No, child, I am not,” Finrod said softly. “I was killed by a werewolf and—”
“Okay, that’s enough!” Chase exclaimed angrily. “Elves, angels and now werewolves? This is too damn crazy!”
“Vampires, too,” Glorfindel said nonchalantly.
“Vampires?” Chase cried in disbelief. The other Mortals looked equally nonplused. “There’s no such thing. No such things as werewolves, either.”
“Or Elves or angels or demons?” Glorfindel retorted with a sneer, his voice becoming glacial. “We can have one but not the other? Sorry, kid, it doesn’t work that way. The truth is, children, you’ve stepped into a darker, more dangerous world than you ever imagined. There is a war going on, a spiritual war, you might say, and the prize is nothing less than your souls. If you value your lives, you might want to forget any of this ever happened. Go back to Anchorage. Resume your studies. Keep your heads down and your noses clean and pray to whatever gods you believe in that the Enemy does not have your scent and will not track you down and destroy you and everyone you love.”
Absolute silence followed that statement. Glorfindel resumed eating, ignoring everyone. He scraped the bowl and sopped up the last of the gravy with the bread. When he finished he looked around. Finrod and Legolas were studiously finishing their own meals while Nell and the Three Amigos stood out of the way, quietly conversing with one another. The Mortals just stared at them all and gave one another worried glances.
“How can we forget all this?” Danielle finally asked in a tight voice and then burst into tears. Michelle held her and the three Men stood there looking awkward, not sure what to do next.
Glorfindel sighed, giving Finrod and Legolas a rueful look which they returned with sympathetic looks of their own. He placed his bowl in the tiny sink and then took two steps toward the Women, gently taking Danielle from Michelle’s embrace and giving her his own hug, patting her on the back. “There, there. Shhh… it’s all right. Look, I’m sorry if I came down hard on you,” he looked to his left to where Gary was standing, “but you have to understand that your lives may be in danger. If I had the power to do so, I would make you forget this day ever happened, for your own sakes, not for ours. But I don’t, none of us do. The safest thing is for you to go home and forget. Don’t talk about it where others might overhear. Don’t go searching for answers that will never be forthcoming. What lore you think you know about any of this is wrong or misleading and it could spell your doom if you’re not careful.”
“And you?” Gary asked. “What will you do?”
Glorfindel shrugged. “Go back to Wiseman, of course. Quinn and Liam have to be back to work on Monday, as do I. The youngsters have their own plans.”
“And that’s it?” Gary insisted, giving them a disgusted look. “Thanks for the meal and sayonara?”
“What do you want from us, Gary?” Glorfindel asked as he released Danielle from his embrace to fully face the young Man.
“We want in,” Gary replied.
“In? In on what?”
“We want to help… with this war you spoke of.”
Glorfindel sighed, running a hand through his hair. He looked at Finrod who shrugged. “The Valar might wish to recruit them to the cause,” he said in Quenya.
“They have a funny way of doing it,” Glorfindel retorted in the same language.
“Almost like a field test,” Legolas added, also speaking Quenya. “They did not panic and they attempted to attack the creature with what weapons were on hand however futile such weapons were against it. That has to count for something, my lords.”
Glorfindel nodded. “What year are you at the university?” he asked, reverting to English.
“We all have one more year to go,” Gary answered for the others. “I’m a double English and history major. I plan to go on for my M.A. maybe even get my Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. Chase is studying Biology with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. Joe’s doing Environmental Studies and Dani wants to be a lawyer while Micki is studying anthropology and wants to work in a museum.”
“A rather eclectic group,” Glorfindel said with a grin. “Okay. This is what I suggest. Go back to Anchorage and… wait! Hear me out.” He raised his hands to still the protest from the Mortals. They subsided and with a nod from Gary, he continued. “Go back and finish your courses, get your degrees, do whatever you have to do to get the types of work that you are aiming for. Give us your email addresses so we can keep in touch.”
“Keep in touch,” Chase said with a sneer. “Yeah, that line’s right up there with ‘I’ll call you soon’ and ‘sure I’ll respect you in the morning’. Please! Give me a break. You guys go back to Wiseman and we never hear from you again.”
“Mortals are so impatient, aren’t they?” Legolas said in Sindarin.
“It’s their nature,” Finrod responded in the same language. “Their lives are so brief.”
“Hey! Whatcha saying, huh?” Joe demanded.
“We were just discussing the fact that Mortals are always jumping to wrong conclusions,” Finrod answered. “Child, when one of us says a thing, we mean it. If… Loren says he will keep in touch, he will do so. We honor our oaths even to Mortals.”
“Oaths? What oaths?” Michelle asked, looking puzzled.
“Mine,” Glorfindel said firmly. “Mine oath to you that I will contact you and if you had let me finish what I was going to say, you would have known that I was not lying or jerking you around.”
The Mortals, Chase especially, looked abashed. Glorfindel waited another minute before nodding. “What I was going to say is, next year, once you’ve graduated, if you wish, come to Wiseman and plan to attend Elf Academy. It’s a tourism school at the Northern Lights Community College. I’m its chief administrator. We offer a one-semester course in being Elf Guides for the Christmas season, but we also train people to eventually become warriors. If you sign up for the course, be prepared to spend the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s acting as tour guides for one of the resorts in the area. After that, we’ll see. If you still want in, then there are options. It’s not necessary to move to Wiseman or to give up your dreams for your careers. Deal?”
The Mortals exchanged looks with one another and then almost as one, nodded at Glorfindel. “Good. Give me your email addresses and I’ll send you our newsletter and—”
“You have a newsletter?” Gary couldn’t help asking.
“And a website,” Glorfindel responded with a grin at the nonplused looks on the faces of the Mortals. “This is the twenty-first century, after all, at least of this era. I can’t begin to tell you how many twenty-first centuries I’ve actually lived through. At any rate, the newsletter will have the necessary information about Elf Academy. You’ll need to formally apply to the school, but I will see to it that you are admitted into next year’s class.”
“Thanks,” Gary said, speaking for them all. “We appreciate it. Sorry if we’ve been…” He shrugged, apparently unable to articulate what he wished to say, but Glorfindel gave him an understanding nod.
“Not a problem.”
“You do realize that nothing about this is coincidental, don’t you?” Finrod stated.
“What do you mean?” Chase asked.
“We were hours away from that tarn where you ended up,” Finrod explained, “and had the trees not warned us, we would not have gone there, but would have simply followed the creek back. Had we not been there, you would have most likely died, either because of the bear or when the Watcher arose. There would have been no Maiar to come rescue you.”
“So you’re saying those angels only showed up because of you, but we’re just so much cannon fodder and we don’t count?” Danielle demanded angrily.
“I am saying that the Maiar were following us,” Finrod replied. “I said nothing about you being cannon fodder. The trees warned us, and it’s possible that they did so because of the Maiar. They cannot always act as directly as they did today unless specifically told to do so, either by Lord Manwë or Eru Himself, the One Whom you call God.”
“And this Lord Manwë?” Gary asked. “Who’s he?”
“He is the Elder King,” Finrod explained. “He leads the Valar. In your mythology they are archangels. You met one of them today.”
“Nate?” Chase exclaimed. “He’s an archangel?”
“Sort of,” Glorfindel said. “Properly, he’s a Vala, and Lord Manwë, you might say, is his boss. There are fourteen Valar altogether and no one knows the number of Maiar who exist. They were sent here by Eru, God, to be guardians of this universe. They’ve been a bit more visible lately as we enter the first stages of the Dagor Dagorath, as we call it, what you might refer to as the Apocalypse or Armageddon.”
“So, ah, why were those… um… Maiar following you?” Michelle asked.
“Good question,” Glorfindel said, looking to Finrod and Legolas, both of whom shrugged. “Next time I see them, I’ll have to ask.”
The Mortals all looked nonplused at that and an awkward silence ensued. Finally, Gary sighed, rubbing the space between his eyes. “This is not how I thought this vacation would go.”
“Join the club, kid,” Glorfindel said with a wry grin.
“So what now?” Gary asked.
Glorfindel shrugged. “We’re not going anywhere until tomorrow, so if you want we can tell you something about ourselves, give you a bit of background.”
“Sure, but it’s pretty awkward doing it in here with all of us standing about trying not to put our elbows in each other’s eyes,” Gary said with a faint smile and several people chuckled at that. “Our tent’s pretty big and that’s where we usually congregate. Why don’t we go there? We have a cooler with beer and I have a pack of cards. Maybe we can play some poker or something while you tell us how Elves ended up in the wilds of Alaska.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Glorfindel said and with that they all trooped out of the RV and to the tent where they discovered that it was large enough to put up a dividing wall to create two rooms, the front room obviously for their get-togethers. In a short while, they were sitting around, drinking beer and playing poker while Glorfindel and the others regaled the Mortals with tales of the Firstborn. The telling was long and eventually the Mortals excused themselves to go to bed while the Elves continued to stay up, quietly talking among themselves, going over everything that had happened that day, analyzing every word spoken and deed done.
In the end, they had one burning question that none of them could adequately give an answer to: Why were the Maiar following them?
Balan: (Sindarin) Vala.
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