An unexpected encounter
It was the week before solstice. The sun was retreating behind the horizon, and the wind was growing colder by the minute. Maybe in the Elder Days it would, or should, have been snowing on a night like this; but the weather had, over the long years between then and now, ceased to do anything as accommodating as to endorse yuletide sentiments. This, or so most people thought, was just as well because plastic trees with flashing lights had come to do endorse such sentiment better than snow, and in addition, to do so without leaving such a mess on the roads. I should have been grateful for this, as I was doing my best to make haste along such a road, heading for the nearest inn. But as is human nature, or at least mine, debts of gratitude of that sort are often forgotten.
Long ago, when Gatwick airport was being built, the architects of Pharaoh (or whatever his name was back then) were faced with a gargantuan dilemma. They could either build hotels close to the airport so that people could get there easily; or they could build them further away, in a quieter place, that would allow people to get some meaningful rest. In their wisdom, they combined the fundamental truths of both variants, the Ying and Yang of airport accommodation, and placed the hotels right up against the perimeter so that nobody could sleep, but sufficiently far from the entrance so that nobody could get there easily. Travelling this distance is, in itself, no problem, seeing today’s roads are largely clear of both snowdrifts and marauding plastic trees. The greater problem is that it somehow failed to occur to Pharaoh’s aides and advisors, that somebody who has spent all day breathing the canned air of delayed planes and airport lounges may decline the canned air and canned music of waiting taxis and attempt the two mile stroll to the hotel unaided. Consequently, these wise men of afar forgot to add any signs providing even the subtlest clues indicating the best path to walk. In fact, they didn’t even provide the paths. So today’s modern airline traveller is forced to choose between the perils of walking on a busy road, and the mulch and squelch of the waterlogged grass besides it. Here and there, shortcuts appear where the traveller can navigate across patches of knee-deep grass interspersed with quagmire and puddles (some with little candles maybe), guided only by the endless perimeter fence and the greater lights beyond.
And so it came to pass that as I was following such an untrodden path, that a motor-car drew up alongside me. The occupants pertained to be police officers, or similar wardens of the peace or wardens of the realm or wardens of whatever else there is that can be warded from the inside of a motor-car. After some puzzling and contradictory explanations on my part, and some writing down of details on theirs, they explained that yes, I was allowed to walk here, but that it was quite unusual, which was why they had come here to check (in these parts even the security cameras have eyes). I was duly issued with a copy of a police report, littered with the usual (and some unusual) misspellings, suggesting that my suspicious activity constituted “walking along the north-perimeter road at night”. They weren’t able to tell me where the hotel was but thought I might possibly be heading in the right direction. I thought the same. Soon their lights vanished and I was back on the road alone.
At some later point, the hotel did appear, though at a later time and in a somewhat different place than the map on the website had suggested, and a different position again from what the policemen had believed. In all innocence, I asked the receptionist whether it was really that uncommon to walk here. She didn’t understand the question and offered to call a taxi. I thanked her but said that would not be necessary.
“So you drove in? Please use the car park behind the hotel. You drive here”, she said vaguely pointing at or through or beyond the fire exit or maybe at the wall besides it, “and then turn right. I will open the gate. It’s locked at this time. Security.”
“Thanks, but I haven’t come by car” I said as patiently as I could, which maybe wasn’t patient enough.
“I am telling you for your information only”, she retorted in an irritated tone, hesitantly ticked the ‘taxi’ box on her form. If there had been an ‘imbecile’ box she would probably have ticked that instead.
She retired to her television without losing another word, and I was about to retire to my room when I noticed a tall figure in a dark cloak emerged from the far side of the lobby.
“Don’t worry about her”, it whispered in a coarse voice, “I see you are one of us”.
Its eyes were fixed on the splatter of moisture, grass and airport dirt that encased rather more of my shoes and trousers than I was looking forwards to cleaning.
“We were just having a chat in the bar over there.” Not quite understanding what he meant by “one of us”, but feeling prepared for anything, I followed him into the closed hotel bar where a multitude of greyish figures were standing and sitting on and between the stools that had been upturned for the night.
The room, was lit only by the streetlights and runway markers that shone through its windows, I cannot rightly say how many people were there. Maybe they were only six or seven or maybe they were more than twenty. Many were wrapped in cloaks of various shapes and shades of grey. Others wore greens and browns, but of a hue that blended into the background in a way that made me unsure if they were really there at all. There were menfolk and ladyfolk and younger and older looking faces, but their eyes all look immeasurably old; eyes that had seen many more winters than any mortal ever could.
“Elves? Here?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, you thought we are all gone”, said a little lady with a very white face and grey hair, “and indeed most of us are, and those that are not in the West are growing fewer. We are among the last that are not totally diminished. We have not, like many others, resisted become ghouls or spirits that can only watch the world but no longer act. It remains our destiny to be awake among the last in this age of things that are beyond our understanding.”
“And you gather here?”, I asked, “in this place by the airport.”
“This place was not always an airport, nor will it always be an airport, or so we believe. And we meet in many places and wander alone between. The paths into the West are difficult to find in this age and there are few that know them still. We have tarried too long to leave this world. We must now share its fate.”
“And indeed we are not all elves”, said my guide, “things have changed and there are too few of us to remain each among his own.”
I now saw that he towered above the other figures that were present, and his eyes had a green twinkle. “You must be an ent?” I hazarded.
“In your tongue I may be and may not be. Many of the tree-folk have not woken for many lives of your people. And some there are that walk that are not ents, and some there are that do not know the difference. Why, even the plastic trees have begun to stir”, he nodded at the darkened Christmas tree in the corner. “A mockery”, he hissed, “but yes, there are that are more awake than some of us. Some of them even – sing.”
“There are things that we don’t understand” said the lady, “there are things that have changed beyond our comprehension. But we know, in the greater pattern of things they must have a place.”
“So all the things?” I asked, “All the things in the books, the books of the Professor I mean, of, of Tolkien, they are true?” “Yes, we know the books”, she replied, “we like them as much as you do. We read them over and over again. Only we have more time than you and read them more often.”
“So they are not true?” I said with disappointment.
“He has the stories from our kind. They showed him some of the manuscripts and told him some of he stories, and he was guided with their help to others, to the last surviving copy of the Red Book of the Westmarch for example.”
“So it is all true?”
“You are hasty indeed”, replied the ent, “We know not what is true. Some of the stories are true, others may also be true- Sometimes fact mingles with fiction and we don’t know which is which.”
“Many ages have passed”, said the elf lady, “and things have been forgotten. History itself is but a pattern in the sand that changes with each passing wave.”
“But we do know of you”, picked up the lady, “we read what your people write, for example, in the Aglared.”
“The Aglared?” I was taken totally by surprise. That anybody on the edge of Gatwick airport should know the Aglared was wonderful enough, but elves and ents at that. It was just too much.
“How, what, how, when, do you mean the Aglared?”
“The texts come to us by ways you don’t understand. By very old ways that are forgotten.”
“Yes, and some of it is true”, explained the lady.
“Stories in the Aglared are true?”
“How, how can it be true? We write it ourselves.”
She sealed her lips and smiled.
“We also know that you are dissolving your society”, said the ent, “you are such hasty folks. You plant a seed and uproot the sapling before it can take root.”
“But in their scale of time they have no choice”, said the lady, “these are times of change, hasty or not. And indeed, the sapling is not uprooted, for other things may come of it yet.”
On my way up to the room, I was sure the Christmas tree in the corridor was watching me, muttering disapproval at the trail of caked mud that was flaking from my shoes. The story was to continue, but in what form I didn’t know.
This article was published in Aglared 20 (2007). This was the last edition of the Aglared, the Eredain having dissolved in 2006.
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