The Financial Advisor of the Sacred Dawn Forest
In which Gerald is very late
Gerald was not really given to reminiscing but there was something about crunching through the icy snow down this side path through Ravenna Park that was tugging at a distant memory.
Perhaps it was a smell. Smells were funny that way; just a whiff of cocoa powder and there you were, 6 years old in your aunt’s kitchen, spitting and coughing as she laughs uproariously at your discovery that cocoa powder is not chocolate – more like chocolate’s evil cousin.
But on a frosty morning like this, what could you smell but the cold itself… which was more of a non-smell, really. No, it must have been that he had walked here before, that year his family had lived in this very city. The elementary school where he had attended 6th grade was not too far away, so this had to be the forested park he and his friends played in.
A movement overhead hijacked his attention – something large and white. He turned just in time to watch the bird tuck wide wings to roll smoothly through a gap in dense fir branches. The head looked huge –was that an owl? He jogged a few steps off the path to try to get a better look. Just past those first trees he caught another glimpse of the pale shape weaving through the bare branches of a maple then back into cedars and firs.
Some part of him was aware that his dress shoes were poorly suited for use in snow and that the chill he was feeling about his ankles would soon mean a day in soaked socks, but he hurried after the apparition with growing urgency. His body seemed to have registered it before his brain – that maybe this was his chance to finally see a snowy owl. A snowy owl! How amazing would that be? What a rarity this far south. He had to get a good look. If he missed the bus he would just have to take a taxi to the Bastiani estate. Much as he liked to scrimp to pocket as much of his per diem as possible, he abhorred being late, particularly when it came to such an important client.
He came into a small opening to find the owl sitting on a wide maple branch. They studied one another. It sat tall and narrow, mostly white but with black eyes, mottled tawny and gray wings, and ringed facial disc divided by a prominent central ridge…. A lovely creature, but just a common barn owl. Damn. Well, perhaps he could still make that bus.
As he turned to go, the owl called. “Hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo!”
Gerald spun back around. “What the-?” He studied it again. Definitely barn owl. “Barn owls don’t hoot,” he informed the bird. The bird nonetheless hooted again, then launched to pivot neatly around and glide on. Gerald found himself trotting after it once more. “What are you? Some unholy barred owl cross?”
His left knee was starting to burn from even this modest stress and his back fired a warning twinge. His running days were long behind him. Two slender alders crossed to form an elegant archway past a large boulder just ahead. The owl dipped and swooped through, and Gerald abruptly lost sight of it. He skirted the boulder, brushing more snow onto his work trousers, then strode through the gap.
Gerald stumbled and the world seemed to stumble along with him. There was a strange shifting of everything – the smell of the air, the quality of light, the trees: delicate white trees with tightly curling branches, and some stouter sort of hardwoods reaching smooth yellow branches in long curves toward what looked to be redwoods above.
He walked hesitantly now – this wasn’t what the forest had looked like before. What even were these trees? He looked back, but this strange forest stretched the way he had come as well, beyond where his tracks emerged from the archway. Wait. They literally emerged. The boulder was there, but beyond the crossed trees the snow was completely undisturbed. His heart quickened and he took several long strides back before a voice assailed him.
“Hold right there!” It was very commanding, and effective. Gerald halted and turned. He first noted that the speaker was holding a large, very authentic-looking sword in an offensively threatening manner. Then that the fellow had a fierce expression, a goatee, curly brown hair, and… small horns? Then the rather rustic brown coat, green and tan striped scarf, and goat legs. Hairy haunches that curved back, bending in wrong directions and tapering far too much and making you realize how unconvincing a person in a faun costume was compared to a person with actual goat legs.
Gerald voice came out weak and small. “Mr. Tumnus?”
The goat man stood taller, gathering yet more ferocity about him. “I am SIR Coriopsynus of Tallamy! And who, may I ask, are you?”
“I’m Ger-“ he was caught short by the sight of the faun’s companions emerging beyond him. There was a very slight, short red-haired fellow in a gray-green tunic and pants under mottled cloak that blended nicely with the colors of this forest. He had pointed ears and held a drawn bow with wicked-looking broadhead arrow directed at Gerald. Coming up behind him with smooth sidesteps were two more archers – one another faun, but female, the other a woman much like the small fellow in her clothing, hair, and pointed ears, but tallest of the group. Some part of Gerald’s brain neatly filed these two similar assailants as standard elf and Tolkien elf.
The standard elf’s eyes widened and bow sank as he took in the scene, staring at Gerald and following his tracks back to where they terminated at the archway. Gerald felt acutely aware of the incongruity of a business suit and overcoat in present company. He dropped his briefcase to raise hands up in what he hoped was a universal don’t shoot gesture. “Um, Gerald. I’m sorry, I was just following the owl…”.
“Cori, the white hair! He followed the owl!” said the small archer. “What if-“
“Well, of course he has white hair! He’s what, 90 years old?” Sir Coriopsynus retorted.
“I am 62!” Gerald protested. “And my hair has always been very light blond.”
“You see!” shouted the small fellow. “What if it’s him? Look at his clothing, his tracks - how else could he have passed through the veil? And it is indeed our hour of need!”
“When was it last NOT our hour of need?” Sir Coriopsynus snapped. But then he stared more piercingly at Gerald and stepped closer with the outstretched sword. “How DID you come into our world, stranger? Do you possess a Stone of Syneya?”
“A what? No!” sputtered Gerald. “I don’t know what you’re on about, but look - the silly bird flitted right in here. Why don’t you point that thing at it?”
“That ‘silly bird’ is Xennaden, a traveler between worlds and guide along paths of destiny!”
“Oh,” Gerald replied. He examined the creature, currently spasming in a rather revolting way. A large wet grey pellet emerged from its mouth and fell to the snow below, following which it restored its composure with a head-to-tail ruffle. “I suppose it can hoot all it wants then.”
They all seemed satisfied that this inept stranger was no threat and lowered their weapons. The female faun said, “We have no time for nonsense. I don’t know how you came to be here, but unless you are prepared to join us in battle, I suggest you return from whence you came.”
Gerald looked at his watch – 7:46. This was extraordinary but he was going to be late, and aside from skillfully fighting the IRS with documents and numbers, he would be joining no one in battle. He would just go to the meeting, get the disclosure forms signed, and come back to look around later. Perhaps there would be no armed, belligerent Narnia-esque creatures here then.
“The stone!” yelled the small archer. He was staring at Gerald’s lifted wrist, which felt oddly warm. Next to the watch Gerald’s green stone cufflink was glowing and radiating heat.
“That’s odd,” said Gerald, examining it then twisting his right arm up to see that that one was glowing as well.
“Where did you get those?” demanded Sir Coriopsynus.
“Well, I didn’t ask her to, but my ex-wife had them made for me, from a stone I found…” and it all started flooding back. "In 6th grade! They were in that same park – where I came from just now. It must have been! It was night, but there were people out….” The elves had both pressed forward and were touching the cufflinks in a manner Gerald would have found irritatingly over-familiar had he been paying full attention. But he was caught up in the memory.
Why had so many people been in the park at night? “Oh, there was a lunar eclipse and most of my class and parents were there to watch, but I went off exploring… and there were these funny couple of marbles glowing – glowing like this - by a boulder. And I was looking at them… and…". Now he was sorry he had mentioned that there were two. "Well, someone else took one but I kept the other all these years."
The smaller elf gasped "This is one stone?? You SPLIT a Stone of Syneya?!?" But the Tolkien elf barked over him, "This eclipse, how's long ago was it?"
"I was 11 or 12 years old. So, that was 50 years ago now."
The elves looked at each other and the small one opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by Sir Coriopsynus, shouting, "How was the other stone taken from you?!? Who claimed it??"
Gerald was taken aback by his anger. "There was this other kid. An obnoxious bully twice my weight – Stuart something. He saw the glow and grabbed one. I was lucky to be able to pocket this one before he saw there were two or he would have gotten both.”
"Oh my heavens, Teska! 50 years!” said the small elf to the taller. “This is the White Warrior at last!"
"Wow." Said Gerald. “That sounds so racist."
"Bah, you zealots!" Shouted the female Faun. “Are you listening? What I see is the fool responsible for letting Lord Sycophant the Despoiler pass into our world! The last thing we need is another one!” She drew her bow on him again, but both elves turned to draw on her.
“OK, please, calm down,” said Gerald. “Could someone please just start from the beginning and explain to me what this is all about?”
The tall elf, Teska, took the lead. “The elves have long had a prophecy, that a Dark Lord would rise and spread–“
“Dark Lord? Seriously, Dark Lord and White Warrior?? Are you even hearing yourselves?” But then again, maybe they didn’t even have races here. Maybe just… species.
Teska ignored him. “And would spread destruction and despair across the kingdoms. But that a young white-haired warrior would enter our world here, in the Dawn Forest, on a night of a Wolf Moon eclipse, with Stones of Syneya and the ability to wield them and unite all peoples to overthrow the oppressor. We thought that time had arrived 50 years ago.”
She paused to examine him curiously. He was feeling rather ill. He wanted to sit down. All of this was making far more sense than it had any right to, even the unlikely notion that lunar eclipses could synchronize between whatever this world was and his own. It felt like pieces clicking into place.
When he had come across the little marble from time to time in the cigar box of small childhood treasures, it had made him feel so uncomfortable. The emotion that clung most tenaciously to the memories around it was not wonder at finding the glowing stones, or even anger at the theft. The overriding emotion was shame. But not really shame that he had somehow let one be taken from him. That part had happened so fast, he wasn’t sure he could have done any better than he had to save one of them. And of course he knew of no consequence other than having lost something he had a strong sense should be his.
But the part before – more had happened in the moments before than he wanted to admit.
He had held the stones, feeling the heat in his hands radiating through his veins and filling him with a warm joy and strength. A sense of purpose. He had felt a pull toward what his memories may have refashioned as a stone archway faintly visible in the darkness beyond the boulder, because those must have actually been those same crossed alder trees. He had started towards it, but hesitated. The moonlight was strange, and looking up he had seen that the eclipse was complete and the moon was a strange reddish orb that felt suddenly malevolent and with the bright clean moonlight gone, he was left in a dark forest alone in that evil glow.
The truth was, he had already started back toward the meadow and the safety of his parents and classmates when Stuart had ambushed him. He remembered being glad of the dark when he rejoined them because he had been so overwhelmed with shame and regret and sense of failure, and he did not want anyone to see him crying. He had often cupped the marble in his hands at night in the weeks and month afterward, but never saw it glow again. And he somehow felt that it was something lacking in him that had extinguished its light.
“But… someone did come through?” he asked warily.
“Yes, someone did. A boy came through. And although the elves saw that he did not have the white hair of the prophecy, he did indeed have the spirit of a warrior- “
“Thug,” Gerald editorialized. “Thug spirit.”
Teska scowled and continued more loudly. “And they protected and trained him, and he did indeed fight like a demon and speak like a leader and had strange knowledge and skills. We rallied around him, and when the time came for him to begin to fight the Dark Lord, he did not. He joined him.”
“Shit,” spat Gerald.
“Let us show you what came of the elves’ blind faith,” said the female faun brusquely. The elves protested against her assignment of blame, but they all followed her back along the path away from the archway. He tried to keep up while admiring the lovely forest around them. He spotted a creature bounding through the snow. It paused to look back at him. A white fox-like animal, with small antlers and gray mask across its eyes. As it turned and leapt away he could have sworn he saw a small person on its back. He laughed out loud. What, now a tiny elf? How many kinds of elves did they have here?
He jogged to catch up and found the party gathering at where the forest ended abruptly at a rock outcropping overlooking a wide river valley under dark cloud cover. The valley lay in stark contrast to the forest behind them: a denuded wasteland of stumps and logging slash, hillsides gouged with multiple landslides where the scarred earth could not hold. In the distance, a deeper gash in a hillside enshrouded in white smoke or fog looked like what he would have assumed to be an open mine back home, and indeed there were things moving there that looked almost like heavy equipment. It was impossible to tell from this distance. On a closer ridge, a cluster of tall white towers among smaller stone buildings seemed to cling precariously to the unstable slopes in the midst of the wastes.
Gerald surveyed the scene with growing despair. Could this really be all be his fault? Would this land be whole and peaceful if he had been brave enough to walk forward that night?
“That was our abbey,” sighed the shorter elf, pointing at the towers. “It was beautiful. The flowers, the fountains…. Now it’s an orc post.”
“Oh no, you have orcs?” moaned Gerald. “What a godawful mess. Why do they need to take so many trees? Surely there’s no way to supply an export market?”
“A what?” asked Sir Coriopsynus in bafflement, but Gerald was already wincing at himself. “The trees and stones feed their smelters. Lord Sensei’s obsession is metal to create his great moving Machines to serve him and his master. Steam-breathing geared contraptions wielding tools and weapons with ferocious strength.”
“Lord Sensei??” Gerald scoffed. “Stuart! The bastard is trying to bring you into an industrial age. That’s the last thing you need. Next thing you know, it’s factories and Walmarts and 1040 Schedule Bs…” he spat.
Xennaden soared into view, gliding over the edge of the precipice, circling out, then making an abrupt little dip.
“They’re coming!” barked Teska. All heads swiveled to the right, and Gerald realized that they were on an outcropping over a small road, with the 2-track path curving around a bend just below them. Everyone sprinted back into the trees, making their way quickly downslope parallel to the road. Gerald jogged as best he could along with them, then came to his senses.
The short elf was the only one still nearby. Gerald lunged to grab his elbow and whispered, “OK, I’m just going to, uh-“. He indicated the direction of the archway with a jerk of his head.
The elf seized Gerald with surprising strength and pulled him down behind a dense shrub. “You stay right there!” he hissed. “Do NOT make a sound. Do NOT move!”
So Gerald crouched there, hugging his briefcase to his chest and watching what fragments he could as events unfolded. His companions (if you could call them that) lined themselves behind trees and shrubs along the road just downslope from him and he noticed a few more were already stationed there, weapons at the ready. He could hear the growing sound of many feet falling on the road, clinking metal, and low rumbling voices. His heart raced as the sounds grew closer, then dark forms appeared through the vegetation, walking up to and now right past the hidden fighters.
He was starting to hope they had decided to abort the attack when the battle erupted with a cacophony of shouts and metal clangs and tumultuous motion. What little he could see and hear was enough to fill him with utter terror. The men or creatures they were fighting looked stout and strong, and he caught sight of axes in their hands.
Gerald had loved fantasy books as a boy, often daydreaming of skillfully fighting off enemies with a sword. But at some point he had been watching a more adult movie with graphic sword fighting scenes and had been overwhelmed with a visceral sense of how horrific it would actually be for someone to be trying to hack you with an enormous sharp blade. Being attacked by some creature with an ax? Hard pass.
Perhaps that’s why he needed to arrive here 50 years ago. He might have had that magical synergy of bravery and ignorance back then. Now he was a wise coward.
He really needed to just go back home. But could he? If Stuart had been going back and forth all this time, wouldn’t there be gas engines and guns and whatever else he needed to amass power? Would he still be serving some other lord? No way. And if Stuart couldn’t go back, perhaps he couldn’t either. He felt a strong urge to run as fast as his decrepit body would allow back to the archway to try.
Then he realized the sounds were already dying down. The smaller elf was walking in from the road, and called to him, gesturing for him to come. He rose with knees already aching from crouching in the cold, brushed the snow off his trousers, and followed.
Gerald stepped onto the road and tried to make sense of it all. Perhaps a dozen fighters in Sir Coriposynus’s party – more elves ('Tolkien elves') and fauns, but some that may have been just humans - stood with swords and arrows drawn on about 10 captives, kneeling among their fallen compatriots. These he assumed must be orcs. They looked to be a bit shorter than most people, but muscular. They were clothed in rough brown fabric and had grayish skin and copious dark hair, and broad faces with large pointed lower canines jutting up, yet their features struck him as more human than he must have expected.
Some of the captors were arguing. A male faun was saying something about killing them all and displaying the heads as a warning and Teska was arguing that it was not the way of elves to killed unarmed captives. But the fighters Gerald had not yet met were starting to stare at him. A flutter and brushing at his cheek startled him, as Xennaden alighted on his shoulder. He tried to stand tall and not visibly wince at the poking of clawtips.
The small elf explained briefly how Gerald had come through the veil with a Stone of Syneya at his wrists on this, the very day the fight to protect the Dawn Forest had begun. The elves in the company appeared impressed by this, the others were harder to read, but the owl on his shoulder probably helped.
Teska asked, “And what do you think we should do with these creatures, Gerald?”
The first thoughts marching through Gerald’s head issued from his inner Team Manager, utterly appalled at the failure to determine clear shared goals and strategies prior to engaging the enemy. Fortunately, he was gaining a sense of when to keep his mouth shut. One of the orcs spoke, in a gruff but quite intelligible voice. “Please, spare us!” The look in his eyes was pure sorrow.
Gerald examined them more carefully and noted that there were a couple – both dead – that had heavy leather armor and swords by their sides, but the rest wore simple clothing. The only metal or leather on them was in their belts, and packs on their backs. A few axes lay about, but also long 2-handled saws.
“You… “ Gerald began, gathering his thoughts. “You’re not soldiers. You’re just workers, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” said another orc, and Gerald saw this one was holding a hand tightly over a heavily bleeding wound on its side. Its blood was almost black. “We do as the Lord commands us!”
The male faun said, “Enough of this foolishness – we are the guardians of the Dawn Forest. We must kill those who would destroy it!”
Gerald was struggling for what to say when he noticed warmth at his wrists.
“The stones – they’re glowing!” shouted an elf.
Gerald dropped his briefcase to look at them, now intensely bright green and almost hot. He heard the others murmuring all around.
“If you are the White Warrior, show us your power,” said the belligerent faun. “Protect the forest! Slay our enemies!”
At that moment the bleeding orc toppled, unconscious. Xennaden lifted gently from Gerald’s shoulder and landed by its side. Gerald followed and dropped to his knees, instinctively pressing his hand to the wound. The stones flashed and he shouted out at the sudden shock of heat on his skin. There were exclamations as the orc slowly sat up, wetly peeling its shirt up to examine the wound. The edges of the gash were neatly sealed together.
Gerald hardly had time to absorb what he had done, as a hand grabbed his shoulder and he was yanked to his feet. It was the angry faun.
“Whose side are you on?!” bellowed the faun. To the others he yelled, “You see? He is another outworlder come to join his brother in our oppression!”
“No, I’m on your side!” Gerald protested. “But you need to fight smart!” He addressed the captive orcs, “Look. Is cutting forests and mining ore what you want to do?”
One of the men shouted, gesturing to the valley below, “Fool!! Do you know how many of us died trying to save the Forest of the Dawn Abbey? Who cares what these things ‘want to do’?!”
“No!” said the orc that had spoken first. “The soldiers, they do the killing! Not just you – any of us who try to go. All just as dead. I am sorry. But not us,” he gestured around to the other captives. “We just want to eat and reach the end of each day alive.”
“That’s a low bar. Do you get week- um, days to just rest?” Gerald asked. Some orcs shook their heads while the rest just looked confused.
“Well, listen,” said Gerald. “You need to understand that you have truly, truly shit jobs.” He looked around to encompass the forest defenders as he continued. “You… no, WE are all actually on the same side here, against these ‘Lords’. We can help each other. Let them stand.”
Reluctantly, weapons lowered and the orcs rose to their feet.
“Yes, these orcs could fight with us!” said the shorter elf. “The White Warrior will show the way!”
Gerald interrupted the few who had started cheering. “I need to reiterate how deeply uncomfortable I am with that name,” he said. “And I think we have a different sort of fight in mind, my friend.” He really needed to find out this guy’s name. “The orc workers can be our most powerful allies by fighting with ideas rather than weapons.”
“Aaaaah,” said Teska. “Returning to spread our message throughout the orc encampments!”
“Yes!” Gerald smiled. “She’s got it!”
The orc Gerald saved said, “You should know – a patrol might come along shortly.”
“Thank you for the warning,” said Sir Coriopsynus. “Let’s get off the road. Teska, get our new fighter equipped from what you can find here.”
“I’ll talk to you in a moment,” Gerald said to the orcs as the group moved into the woods.
Xennaden kept watch as Teska quickly stripped some armor and a cloak from a fallen guard and Gerald grabbed a few items as well. He chuckled softly at the incongruity as he tucked Italian angora wool suit pants into odiferous leather boots, then took an even more pungent backpack and stuffed his briefcase full of documents for the Bastiani portfolio rebalancing into it along with his dress shoes. He did not take a sword. He glanced at his watch and noted that it still read 7:46 as they turned to follow their company.
Yeah, like his running days, his potential warrior days were behind him. Maybe they could call him Gerald the Gray, if he would be needing that sort of name. He wouldn’t be leading troops into battle, and he had much to learn about these peoples and the power of the stone (he hoped undiluted by being split). But he did know how to talk to people about what they wanted and how to get it. He didn’t know anything about this Dark Lord yet, but the Stuart who stole his way in here as a 12-year-old would never see his undoing when it arrived looking less like a war and more like a labor movement.