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Green Grove, Chapter 7

By: Mary A
Beta: Malinornë
Disclaimer: I dare anyone to sue me over this one.
Timeline: Now
Summary: A young woman wakes up in a strange place after a car accident.

While waiting for Herman to return with her dog, Krystle, thinking of the mice he had mentioned, suggested that they clean up the dirty dishes from breakfast. There was a basin-shaped pan hanging from a hook near the stove and Stacey filled it with some of the water from the pitcher to rinse the plates in. There was no hot water or soap, so they decided to just wipe them off with the dishrag and set them out to air dry.

It felt like they had only begun their self-appointed chore when Herman returned with Chips, which suited Krystle. Not only was she happy to see her dog again, all wriggling and full of joy to be reunited, but she could avoid answering an embarrassing question Stacey had asked while they gathered the dishes from the table.

"Don't you think Herman is hot?" the teenager had asked, with a dreamy tone of voice that indicated she was only asking for agreement to her conclusion. She had a goofy smile on her face, too.

"Hot?" Krystle had answered, with as much of an air of neutrality on the subject as she could pack into her one word answer. What kind of question was that for the teenager to ask? For a few minutes, she pretended to be too busy with the dishes to respond, and then added, "In what particular way do you find him hot, may I ask?" But it was at that moment when Herman returned, and the uncomfortable topic was dropped.

For Stacey and Chips, it was love at first sight. They were best buddies right away, and the partnership was sealed after Stacey dove back into the packed breakfast basket to retrieve some left-over bits of muffin for the dog. Krystle thanked Herman and tried not to think of him as 'hot', but it was hard.

"Did you have to bail her out?" asked Stacey. The dog danced between her and Krystle with happy licks and lots of bouncing.

"Nah," said Herman cheerfully, as he handed the leash to Krystle. Chips was ready for a good walk, so they were happy to see me.

Krystle noticed that her dog had the same thin leash on that she had been wearing the night before, and she marveled that it was still intact; it was so flimsy. Stacey made sure that Chips had a drink of water, to wash down the left-over muffin, with what was left of the water in the pitcher.

"Thank you for bringing her," Krystle told Herman. It means a lot to me, I feel... better now. She caught herself before she said 'safer', as she had intended. Somehow, it seemed unfair. Herman had been nothing but kind and gracious to her.

It was, indeed, my pleasure, he replied with a smile so charming that she felt her heart flip.

He was either very confident or very clever. It was encouraging that whoever was running the jail in Green Grove had let him have her dog, they must trust him. She hoped. What if he had sneaked in, he was so silent and quick, and stolen Chips?

"What did you tell the people at the jail?" she asked. "Did you tell them where we are?"

"They knew," he answered. "We had better hurry," he said to Stacey, "the morning is getting late. You had better put your wrap back over your shoulders, the tunnels are chilly."

After dropping Chip's leash, in order to use her only good arm, Krystle helped the teenager with her blanket. With a slap on his thigh, Herman summoned the dog to his side and was out the door. Stacey gave a yelp and hurried out the door after them, her blanket flapping like a cape.

At the threshold, Krystle hesitated, and then stood and blinked like a mole. The front porch was the same as before, only sunnier, and she had to squint at first as her eyes adjusted to the clear day.

Stacey was an excellent guide.

"Back over there is where the well pump is." Using a crutch as a pointer, she waved at a tall thin shed around the side of the house as she chased after Herman, right after she had leaped off the front porch. Then she paused and aimed her crutch straight ahead. "Right in there is where the stairs are."

In front of them, nearly hidden by overgrown vines and bushes, was a short square-shaped shed. It was charmingly designed to resemble a miniature barn, with fading red paint. Herman and Chips were standing in front of the doors, waiting.

"You know what? I know why I don't remember seeing this little shed here this morning," Krystle said to Herman, who was holding some vines aside from the door. It's hard to see it behind all these weeds. Chips licked her hand. "Some guard dog you are," she mumbled as she took up the leash.

"I like to let the plants grow wild for the tourist season," replied Herman mildly. "After the first frosts, most of it will die back, then I will clear it and we will have a bonfire." While he spoke, he led them into the dark interior of the shed, he had to stoop a little to get through the door, and they all three, plus the dog, stood and looked down at the wide stone stairs.

"Tourist season?" Krystle doubted many people came to see Tolkien's cabin, if the run-down condition of the place was any indication, unless Herman conducted his tours for free. In her mind, however, the California tourist season was in the summer, not the fall. "Isn't tourist season over with now?"

"In this last summer, we did have a few visitors to the cabin, from the outside, although not too many now that the movies are not as popular. The fall is when the real tourist season begins."

It was beginning to seem that everything Herman said just made Krystle have more questions. Just as she was about to give voice to one, he would say something else even more perplexing.

At that moment, Stacey complained, loudly, that it would be a lot harder to go down the stairs with her crutches, because she could not hold on to the banister, than it would be to scoot down on her behind. Patiently, Herman took her spare crutch and carried it for her, after warning her that the stone steps were not as forgiving to the flesh as the wooden steps were. She still complained, but she managed.

It did not seem to matter what Krystle wanted to do. Chips had already decided that she was supposed to follow Herman anywhere, at any price to life and limb, and practically pulled both of them down the stairs.

Once at the bottom of the stairs, and in one piece, Krystle no longer cared about discussing tourists or seasons or overgrown plant life. The door to the wine cellar was still open, and the lights still on inside of it, which was comforting. Even though there were torches to light the way, the tunnel loomed ominously in the opposite direction, seeming to stretch into the distance for an incalculable length.

"Are you sure this will only take a few minutes?" she asked.

"Trust me," said Herman. "Have I lied to you yet?"

Immediately, Krystle thought of how he had said earlier that they were trapped in the cellar, which she thought was a disputable point, but it was not exactly a lie. It was more a point of view. In an effort to keep her eyes off of him, now that he was lit by torchlight once again, and his hair seemed to give off sparks for some reason, she pretended to ponder his words as she stared into the passageway.

The tunnel's length was difficult to tell, the torches were located only a few yards in and then the rest fell into shadow. Earlier, she had been too lightheaded to appreciate such fine details. She seemed to recall it stretching for miles. Now she was not so sure, she just had to trust him.

"Alright," she said, not exactly answering Herman. "Let's get going."

"It looks dark in there," said Stacey.

"We will carry these." Herman took a torch from the wall, handed it to Krystle, and then took another for himself. "Come, follow me. It is not as far as you think." He took off with long strides, and Stacey and Chips practically ran to keep up. Krystle tugged firmly at the dog's leash and then deliberately lagged behind by a few paces.

As he went ahead of them, Herman touched his torch to the wall, and another torch that was attached there burst into flame, making the tunnel suddenly flicker with eerie shadows. He continued this trick, lighting torch after torch while Krystle and Stacey followed as quickly as they could. Finally they stopped trying to keep up with him, slowed to a walk, and looked around them.

If there had been any fear in Krystle about being trapped in a cave- in, the structure of the tunnel eased her mind. The arched walls were sturdily constructed of enormous close-set stones, and patches of different minerals in some of them would glow or glitter when they passed by, making Stacey stop dead in her tracks more than once. She had to touch the sparkling places, and she speculated over whether or not they were veins of pure gold.

"I wonder how they did that?" She pointed upwards and commented on the way the stones continued from the wall on either side of them overhead and made the ceiling, perfectly balanced on each other.

"Gosh, I don't know," answered Krystle. "It's a big job and it must have taken a long time to do. Years, in fact. Why, just to dig all of the dirt out of this tunnel first would take many many... hey". She paused in her speech and then gasped.

Stacey, barely paying attention, was cooing over a new streak of something shiny in one of the stones, which she identified as 'baby diamonds'.

"Wow," Krystle said, glancing back and then ahead and finally straight up at the ceiling. "I know what this place is. Of course." She stood stock still for a moment, Chips whined a little and tugged at the leash, as the previous unworldly feeling of the tunnel resolved itself into a practical passageway beneath the earth.

"What? What is it?" Stacey stood next to her and stared up at the ceiling in imitation of Krystle, as if the answer might be there. Chips gave up trying to follow Herman and plopped herself down between them.

"This must be an old mine shaft," explained Krystle. There must have been a gold mine, or something like that, around here. I have been in an abandoned mine before. Remember I told you my dad took me to an old mining town where he used to go fishing? Those mines go for miles underground." To prove it to herself, she held her torch to the ground to check for tell tale tracks made for the rolling carts that must have traveled here, but the well trodden earth below them told no such tale. She did not even see footprints.

"They built those old gold mines this good?" asked Stacey, skeptical. "How could they find gold if they covered everything all up with these rock walls?"

"Mining gold was just an example, the tunnel could have been used for mining something else, but I think someone else put these stone walls up, tore up the tracks, put in those torches. The mine I was in before had big wooden beams and dirt walls."

Actually, the old mine that she and her father had visited, all those years ago, did not resemble this tunnel at all, except that it was dug underground. It was dusty, narrow, run down, some of the large wooden beams sagged alarmingly, and they had not explored inside it very far because the air was stifling. This did not stop Krystle from feeling now that she had solved an important puzzle.

With Chips leading the way, they continued along more slowly now and quietly contemplated their surroundings. Krystle began to better appreciate the workmanship of whoever had taken the time to wall up this old mine shaft with the large, fitted stones. Such an intricate job must have taken a long time, she guessed. A really long time.

The final veil of clouds cleared in her mind as she realized, stunned, the flaw in Herman's story about the cabin. The nagging sensation that had been plaguing her ever since, like smoldering embers, suddenly burst into flames.

"Where did Herman go?" she asked out loud, even though she knew that Stacey would have no more information on his whereabouts than she did. We have to catch up with him, I have to ask him something.

Abruptly, the tunnel curved, and when they rounded the bend, the torches were no longer necessary. Natural light spilled out of an unseen opening near the ceiling in a great splash before them, and illuminated another set of steps. As they approached, Krystle could tell the light was dim, filtered, not actual daylight, but bright enough in the overall darkness to be impressive.

"We are there," whispered Stacey dramatically when they both finally stood in that light, at the bottom of the steps. "These must be the stairs to Middle-earth." Just like the stairs at the other end of the tunnel, these took a turn at a landing, and it was not possible to see where they led.

"Are you up there, Herman?" Krystle called. Stacey did not wait for an answer, nor did she seem daunted by having no one to hold a crutch in order that she might use the banister; instead she crutched up the steps expertly.

"Come on up," Herman said, sounding very close, like he was waiting around the first landing. "There is nothing to be afraid of."

The presumed opening to Middle-earth, at the top of the last set of steps, appeared very ordinary for a portal. There was a simple wooden door, very normal looking, which stood open and Herman was just inside of the doorway, waiting for them. He stepped aside and gestured for them to enter. Krystle did not forget what she had to ask him, but the question could wait, for now. She expected to exit the tunnel into the open air, but they were entering a building instead.

"Middle-earth is an office?" Krystle stood in a very ordinary room, lit by tiny high-set windows, where a large, multi-drawer desk dominated the small space. A quick glance over the top of it revealed only such worldly items as a blotter, a cup full of pencils, sheets of blank paper, and a business ledger.

There were some cabinets, some shelves with books and ledgers, all commonplace in appearance. If there was anything unusual at all about the place, it was in the lack of dust and clutter she would have expected to find in any business office, in any world. Herman might be shaggy in appearance, but he was tidy in his habits so far.

"Do you remember that I told you I have proof?" The tidy office- keeper opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a wooden box, painted green with silver hinges. He used a small key, hanging on a hook above the desk, to open the box and within were some loose papers, tightly wound paper scrolls tied with ivory-colored ribbons, and several thin, flat books.

"Here is one of the Professor's actual journals, the one that you might have seen back in the cabin is only a copy." After laying it on the desktop, he opened the book up to a page marked with a ribbon, and tapped on the page. Krystle read, "Have been through the tunnel with Hirdaur again, he is such a pleasant fellow, and for breakfast we had poached eggs..."

"Hirdaur?" Krystle lifted her eyes to Herman and scanned the side of his face carefully. "Do you know who Mister Tolkien talking about?"

"Me, of course," he answered. He turned to face her, smiled warmly, and his dusky blue eyes pierced right into her soul.

"Your name is Hirdaur?" Stacey asked.

"That is my name here," he told her. "You can still call me Herman."

Krystle, a bit flustered from Herman's gaze, and his reply, tore her eyes away from his, picked up the journal from the desk, and pretended to read it. Her heart was pounding again, unaccountably, and she wished she could sit down in the large leather chair that was tucked under the desk, between the drawers.

After her vision cleared enough for her to actually focus, she noticed something, another clue, which finally gave her a chance to ask the question she had just thought of in the tunnel. The date on the journal page was in May of nineteen sixty two. She swiftly calculated the difference in years, math was not her strongest subject, but that was almost fifty years ago.

"How old are you?" She finally had the nerve to look in his face again as she asked him. "Really?" This was the one part of his story that did not add up with the rest. Krystle may not be an expert on telling how old a man was, everyone over about age forty seemed old to her, but she had never met anyone over age fifty, which Herman had to be, with such a youthful face as his was.

"Even if you were a still a little boy when Tolkien wrote that," she added, when he did not answer her immediately, "you would have to be almost sixty by now."

"Krystle, I wish that you would come in there with me," he replied. Gently, he had removed the journal from her hands, and now he gestured to a door on the other side of the room. "I want you to see Middle Earth."

"I'm ready!" cried Stacey. "I don't care what your name is or how old you are!"

Herman set the book on the desk, and went to the door. "I will explain more after you have seen it with your own eyes." He opened it, and Stacey crutched through and let out a noise that was either one of mystification or disappointment, or both mingled.

"It's just a stupid store," she informed Krystle, who joined her in the dimly lit interior of what appeared to be a novelty shop, of the kind found in theme parks, where every item was based on a certain theme. The theme of this store was obviously Middle-earth, judging by the items on the display shelves and artwork on the walls.

There was a lot of fantasy artwork, but most dominant were large and small carvings of Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, and dragons. Propped against one wall were replicas of swords, daggers, and axes. On the walls hung paintings, or perhaps they were just posters, of various landscapes and locales that were recognizable from the Lord of the Rings' movies, and some that were not.

Among them, Krystle saw a hobbit hole interior, a single mallorn tree in a glade filled with tiny white flowers, and one tall tower. There were landscapes she did not recognize, but they were breathtakingly beautiful. Stacey squealed when she found an autographed photo of Orlando Bloom on a part of one wall that featured the movie's actors and their characters.

"Welcome to my store, Middle Earth Art and Collectibles," said Herman, or Hirdaur, with a chuckle. He pointed to a large hand painted sign on one wall, where the name of the store, as he had just said it, was written in large, shapely letters. Under the title, in smaller letters, were the words, 'used junque'.

"This is the store with the necklace," said Stacey, only a little interested, but not sounding as happy as she had been while rushing up the last steps. Krystle was completely mystified. Was the whole tunnel experience just part of a practical joke? They would walk out the front door and back to the clinic, wearing their crazy hospital garb, and the whole town would know how they got there.

"You're kidding, right?" Krystle turned on Herman, angry. "This is what you called Middle-earth? Very funny joke. Come on, Chips," She did not wait for an answer, instead she headed for the front door.

"I'm coming, too," Stacey said, just as Krystle yanked the door open. A bell attached to the top jingled merrily.

"Oh," said Krystle as she stood and stared out the door. Stacey pushed past her and stopped in her tracks, almost falling over, and gasped.

"Wowsers," she managed to croak.

"Welcome to Middle-earth," said Herman, or Hirdaur, behind them. "I told you that you could trust me."

To be continued in Chapter 8

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Posted: September 26, 2006

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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"