Chapter Four: Water
She wandered into the trees, keeping carefully to the crease in the lowest part of the valley, and soon after finding herself in the trees, it turned into something of a hybrid of a trail and a dry streambed. Following it for an hour or so brought her to another meadow, this one narrow and curving slightly to the right, following a curve in the valley.
It reminded her a lot of a meadow she'd seen in Sequoia National Park, which was rather obviously named Crescent Meadow. Even the trees looked similar; wide, towering evergreens with rugged bark, and even their lowest branches were dozens of feet from the ground. Following the dry streambed into the meadow, she quickly found a few muddy spots; obviously, it had either rained fairly recently, or it was late summer and the stream had not been long dry from last winter's snowmelt. After another ten minutes or so, she found a small pond, no bigger than a backyard swimming pool would have been back home in California. A prominent, nearly flat boulder, stuck out from the shore on the near side of the pond, and she decided that would make a perfect place to perch herself while she filtered her water.
First, taking out her paper and pen, she made a sketch of the trail and the pond. It wouldn't do to be unable to find this place again, so she finished by marking off the beginning and end with times from her watch. It seemed it was about an hour and fifteen minute walk, which wasn't too bad; perhaps a couple miles. She thought about moving her campsite closer to the pond, but then, she'd thought the same thing about the Ring, as she'd decided that was the most likely place someone might turn up. Sure, it might just be some lost set of ruins, like one of those Mayan temples in the deep jungle, but it was the only sign of human (or demon, or alien for that matter) life she'd seen, and it was perhaps more likely than any other random spot in this gigantic forest. It was probably best to keep her current location, which was on the direct path between the two, though about twice as close to the Ring as she was to the pond.
While she was drawing, she noticed the deep blue light filling the sky darkening somewhat, into more of a blue-black, and looked up. The unusually bright blue star she'd noticed, off to the west, was dropping below the horizon, although the nearly-full moon was still high in the sky. The star had only been providing about a third or perhaps half of the ambient light, so there was still enough light to walk around, if she was careful, but it was certainly a noticeable difference. She checked her watch, which rather incongrously insisted it was ten o'clock in the morning, and made another note. Perhaps tracking the setting of that star would tell her how long the days were on this planet, if she didn't catch a sunrise or sunset, or a moonrise or moonset, before long.
Then she put away her paper and took out her water filter and bottles, lining them up on a flat part of the rock within reach of the water. Then came the tedious part. The water filter's intake tube dangled into the water, its output into the opening of one of her bottles, and she was pushing and pulling on the handle with her left hand while cradling the filter in her right. After the first bottle, she switched hands, as she usually did. It also gave her arms a pretty good workout, but it gave her time to just relax and zone out for a bit; in fact, it was a little like meditation.
It took quite a while - longer than usual because her filter was nearly worn out, so it was good that she'd already bought a replacement before she ended up here - and by then, the moon had noticeably begun its descent. A few large animals, of the elk or moose variety, had made themselves known on the far edge of the pond. They didn't seem to react to her presence at all, almost as if they didn't know she was a potential predator.
Actually, to them, she probably wasn't. Without some way to preserve the meat, killing such large game animals would be incredibly wasteful. Not to mention the fact that, since she was without an ax and provided with only a small one-handed hatchet the size of a framing hammer, she'd have a hard time chopping enough wood to properly cook it. She shrugged, deciding to keep her eyes out for something smaller. Perhaps a rabbit or squirrel or something similar to that would make itself available.
Once she had filled the last of her four water bottles, she packed up her black daypack and decided to head back to camp; there really wasn't much more exploring she could reasonably do in the semi-darkness that had fallen after the setting of the evening star. Taking her time in the near-darkness of a moonlit, but no longer starlit, forest, it took her nearly an hour and a half, and a couple small stumbles over baseball-sized stones in the dry streambed, to return to the rectangular meadow. Just before she reached her campsite, she heard a loud sound, almost like a waterfall, that seemed to run for thirty or forty seconds, then stopped abruptly with a slight slurping sound. It sounded like it had come from the direction of the Ring.
She hurried to her campsite, and in preparation to meet whatever had created that sound, she dropped her water-filled day pack. She quickly lowered her main pack from its ropes, and pulled out her two daggers and a bar of freeze-dried ice cream in a foil packet from the pack, and her flashlight from the daypack. Then she ran off toward the Ring to see what had caused that sound, tucking the tiny flashlight and the ice cream bar into the pockets of her jeans along the way.
Almost reaching the fallen sequoia log, she heard a number of voices behind it. Now that the silence was broken, she realized just how quiet this forest had been since her arrival. She paused, calming herself and taking a couple deep, quiet breaths, and listened carefully. There was certainly a significant number of people - or demons, whatever - on the other side of the log, and she was alone. Unfortunately, most of the voices weren't speaking in any language she knew. Then again, she'd always been very quick at picking up new languages. In fact, the voices had kind of a liquid quality to them, almost like movie-Elvish, which kind of fit with the whole Lord of the Rings
She quietly crept up right to the side of the log, almost pressing herself against the bark, and crouched down to hide in the small shadow there - the moon was slowly descending from high-sky, she noticed; a quick press of the Indiglo button on her watch showed her that it now read one-fifteen in the afternoon - she listened carefully for a few minutes. Blinking, she realized how similar the language really sounded to both Sindarin or Quenya, but was truly neither of them, which made sense as both fell into the category of Tolkien movie-Elvish and this seemed to be a third, related but distant language; she picked out a couple words here and there, though not enough to have a clue what was going on. Almost like when she'd first learned Icelandic after speaking Swedish, Ancient Norwegian, and Danish. Finally, her curiosity got the better of her, and unfolding from her crouch, she slipped her daggers through her belt and, taking advantage of the rough bark of the sequoia log and her limited free-climbing experience once again, she climbed up just enough to peek over the top of the log, toward the Ring.
Behind the log were several dozen people; in fact, at a quick count, it was a bit over a hundred. Most of the adults seemed to be armed, with an assortment of bladed weapons and a handful of bows, and nearly all of them were carrying packs of some sort. Most of the packs seemed to be frameless, unlike her own but more like the old World Wars-era infantry knapsacks she'd seen in some of the scrapbooks of old-time Appalachian Trail thru-hikers when she'd passed through the trail headquarters in Harper's Ferry. And just about everyone - and she noticed, the group included women and a lot of children - was dressed in browns, greens and grays, a lot of them looking like animal skins.
Suddenly, one of the bow-armed men stilled, held up his hand, then turned and looked straight at her.
Her eyes went wide as he reached for his bow and an arrow from his quiver, and stepped forward, though he did not knock the arrow. Speaking slowly and clearly, he continued looking straight at her, even though only the top of her head was visible. The only word she caught was 'name', at the end of his speech and laced with a questioning tone.
She didn't know quite what inspiration made her keep using the name, as it was obvious she was no longer on the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps it was the language, or the Ring behind the crowd. But she climbed one footing higher on the log, so her whole face was visible, and reached up to push her elbow-length, mahogany-brown hair behind her ear, as she spoke. "Arwen."
He slowly lowered his bow, and dropped his arrow to the ground, waving her forward as he replied, "Tengwar", followed by a few words she did not recognize as she stifled a quick giggle. The language did indeed sound like a bastardized form of Tolkien-movie Elvish; Tengwar, she recalled, was the Elvish word for 'letters' or perhaps 'writing'. Perhaps he was a scholar when not holding a bow?
He finished his speech with a definite hand motion toward the ground at his feet, and she recognized the word for 'here'. She shrugged, guessing he meant her to show herself, and began to climb up from behind the top of the log. She'd always picked up languages very quickly, whether it was Latin or Sumerian or Fyarl, even Ancient Norwegian. Hopefully that skill would kick in well before these people - whoever they were, and she was relieved to see that they looked completely human - got frustrated with her.
Author's Note: It's common for long-distance hikers to take on a 'trail name', a nickname used within the hiking community. Our heroine is just borrowing 'Arwen' for that purpose. Her 'heroes', the ones who inspired the trip, were known as Isis and jackrabbit (spelling it with a small J is intentional), and are the authors of the aforementioned Barefoot Sisters