Where the Stars are Strange

Only a Game

5. On the Road

When I woke in the morning, I felt as if I had had a good night's sleep. There was no indication at all that I could not have possibly really spent a whole night sleeping in real life.

I got up, washed, packed my things and was all the time wondering how those computer freaks and neurologists tricked my brain into believing that I had just spent a night sleeping in a comfortable bed at the Prancing Pony.
The issue with the toilet had taken its inevitable course. I tried very hard not to think about what this could mean in real life. I only hoped they had worked this out, too. If not I would give them hell.

I took a moment to study the map. It did not look difficult to find the way to Rivendell on this map. I figured I would be able to walk twenty miles a day. After all, I was pretty fit in real life and I was supposed to be a ranger in this game. Ten days to the Last Bridge, perhaps less if I walked faster. I would just have to see how it – how I would go. From the Last Bridge to Rivendell an additional six to seven days.

I remembered a course I had taken at college about the medieval kings travelling trough their kingdoms. "Someone, who is used to walking, can cover a distance between 13 and 25 miles a day, depending on the conditions of the road and the weather, walking at a speed of 2.5 to 3.75 miles per hour."
The researchers had actually tried this in real life, walking with backpacks, riding, travelling with coaches, through different kinds of landscape.

Now I would see for myself, if their findings were accurate.
I felt a huge silly smile spreading on my face. Only yesterday I had sat in my tiny kitchen, moping because I did not have the money to spend a long holiday in a foreign country, enjoying sun and fun away from the city. And now I was here!

If the game continued to work so well, I could see decreasing income for travel agencies in the future.

I put the map back into the backpack and went down to the guest room to see about getting some breakfast. Some breakfast turned out to be a lavish affair, everything anyone could ever hope to get for a rural English breakfast. I stopped myself from stuffing myself only just in time, thinking about the miles I planned to walk today.

The thought of miles made me consider the state of my provisions. Tonight I could get a room at the Forsaken Inn, but then I would be in the wilderness for almost two weeks. A bit of bread and cheese and a few apples would not last that long. And up until now my bodily functions had not deviated in any way from real life. I did not think this gaming holiday would remain the fun it was up until now with my stomach churning hungrily.

I caught Bob at the arm and asked him about getting supplies for two weeks. "Two weeks? Where are you heading?" The hobbit looked at me with his eyes filled with curiosity.
"I am taking the Great East Road; I want to have a look at this secret valley of the Elves, Rivendell, at the foot of the Misty Mountains." I answered. With no black riders there was no reason to keep my intentions secret, after all.
"But that's uncanny!" The hobbit looked frightened.
"I don't really think so", I frowned at him. "You don't believe that crap that elves are demons, do you?"
"No, no, of course not", Bob quickly shook his head. "But they was strange folk alright. But now they are gone." Gone. He looked somehow sad, when said that. I had never considered how it would be for a world such as Middle-earth to be forsaken by the beings closest to magic and light imaginable.

"Well, can I buy supplies for two weeks of walking here?" I asked, returning to my original question.
"But of course", the hobbit stood a few inches taller. "The Prancing Pony takes pride in offering everything a traveller could want, be he on foot or riding, or travelling by coach. I will see to it at once. Everything should be ready within an hour."
And off he went.
A matter of pride? I hoped I had enough money in my pocket for this enterprise.

I had enough money, and left the Prancing Pony at 9 o'clock in the morning with my backpack a good deal heavier than it had been before. Probably about twenty kilogram. I suddenly remembered why I had always refused to accompany my brother on his various trekking tours. Oh, well. The comforting thought was that the backpack would grow a little bit lighter each day.

I had got myself a nice walking stick with its tip carved into the head of a pony as a souvenir, and as I left Bree through the South Gate some twenty minutes after I had said good-bye to Mrs. Butterbur, I felt like a real ranger.

The road did not really look like a road to my twenty-first century eyes. It was more like a country lane, an even stretch of dry mud, which looked as if it turned into a stream of sludge when it rained. However, it was much more comfortable for the feet to walk on this in comparison to modern tarred roads soft surface.

On leaving Bree, the road led towards a deciduous forest with many old chestnut trees, the Chetwood. After walking barely an hour along the Bree-hill with its many houses and holes, I reached the trees of the Chetwood.

By then their cool shadow was very welcome, because the day was just as bright and beautiful as the day before, and a good deal warmer. Sun and fun. A slight breeze kept moving the leaves and cooling my sweaty face, so I enjoyed walking under the big branches of the old trees, listening to their whispering leaves even though my backpack was quite heavy.

At noon I rested in a little clearing just off the road, eating ham and egg sandwiches from the package labelled "today" and stowed at the top of my pack. In the bottle attached to my pack I discovered cider, which had miraculously stayed quite cool. I stretched out in the grass, looking at the swaying branches and chestnut leaves above me and felt absolutely blissful. The knowledge that this was only a game lasting a few hours seemed to become more and more unreal. This was the holiday I had longed for, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The sun glinting through the canopy of leaves, the changing patterns of light and shadow on the grass… I dozed off.

After half an hour I came awake, feeling refreshed and eager to move on. I shouldered my backpack, took up my staff and went back on the road. The road continued through the forest for the better part of the afternoon. After about three hours, probably around five o'clock, I started to get tired again. The road turned slightly to the South-east, and suddenly the wood opened onto a landscape of grassy plains and soft sloping hills to the South and marshy plains with the sudden glittering of water in the sun to the North-east, with forbidding looking barren ridges rising in the distance.

The soft, round hills to the South had to be the southern slopes of the Barrow-downs. The flat country with the glimpses of water had to be the Midgewater Marshes, which would make the peaks to the North-east the Weather Hills.

I decided to take a break and sat down with my back to a tall tree, surveying the countryside. Everything looked so real, this could almost be somewhere in Europe, apart from the fact that you hardly can find an area of this size without at least two villages visible, and several roads.

Tolkien's Middle-earth had been sparsely populated at the end of the third age. Apparently the programmers had not changed this for the game I was trying out. My, but this wide and silent country was soothing to my eyes. I fished for the package with today's supplies and took out an apple and an oatmeal cookie. Just the thing.
Even without any action, this was a great game, I thought. But I would not mind at all to get to meet Elrond's sons. How would they look like? Would they have chosen actors looking a bit like the Elrond of the movies to visualize the twins? As elves they simply had to be extremely handsome. Hmm… hmm… I shook my head at my silliness. I told myself not even to think of something like that and decided to get going again. I guessed that I would have to walk for another three hours to get to the Forsaken Inn.

The walking acquired a soothing, regular rhythm. It was easier to walk here in this artificial world than it had been in the real world. Succumbing to the rhythm and the easy motion, I felt my thoughts empty of the worries and fretting of the last few weeks. I just kept on walking, and here and now that was enough.

The Forsaken Inn was a good deal smaller than the Prancing Pony. It was a thatched house, a stable and a barn cowering south of the road, sheltered by a row of tall grey poplar trees.

Nevertheless, the small room I was led to was clean, and the stew I had for dinner was rich and tasty. There were only a few other guests, three dwarves and five travellers, who had crossed the Misty Mountains on a trading mission. I enjoyed a quiet evening with a mug of very good dark beer and turned in early. I wanted to make an early start and try to get past the Midgewater Marshes in one day. I doubted I was up to the necessary speed, but those marshes had left a bad impression both from the book and from the movies. Perhaps the computer freaks had left out biting midges, I wondered. Somehow I did not think so. Up until now every little detail – down to my sore feet – had been extremely life like.

I slept like a log and did not dream. I woke with the first light and was delighted that I would really be able to get away early. The breakfast was not quite as sumptuous as it had been in the Prancing Pony, but there were still ham and eggs and warm, freshly baked brown bread and a fragrant, golden tea. I paid my bill and was on the road at seven o'clock. As I was walking away towards the East, I realized that from now on I would have to measure time with the sun and the moon and the stars, as I had no watch. I grinned. The first time I got reacquainted with the natural passage of time since the age of four when I had learned to read the time and had been presented with my first watch. Even if nothing of this was real, it was still great! No deadlines, no meetings, no looking for another job, no holiday with dinner dates and movie times and trains I should not miss and schedules for dancing lessons not to be missed.

What a treat!

From the position of the sun I guessed the time at ten, when I took my first break, some seven or eight miles from the Forsaken Inn. The day was just as beautiful as the day before, only some fluffy white clouds drifting leisurely across a lovely blue summer's sky and a light breeze keeping the day from getting too hot for walking. I had a tomato and a cheese sandwich left from the first day on the road. With that some mouthfuls of cider from my refilled bottle, I felt very comfortable indeed.

I felt like walking again after only half an hour.

The ground stayed level and I made good speed, or at least I felt I did. With no sign indicating the distance I had walked and no watch to tell the exact time, it was difficult to tell. Nevertheless I felt quite accomplished, when I stopped at noon.

I had reached the Midgewater Marshes. And, different from the book and the movies, they were not at all gloomy and disgusting, but a wide, melancholy spread of marshland and pools with reed and rushes. Above the water midges and flies were dancing in the sunshine like silvery clouds. It reminded me of some areas in Scotland I had visited with friends.

But I stayed on the road for my lunch, as I did not wish to risk sinking into any wet and muddy hole.

In the heat of the early afternoon going was much slower than it had been during the morning, my backpack felt heavy, its straps cutting into my shoulder and my feet were hot and itchy.
I plodded on, my mind returning to the mess my life had turned in real life.

No job, no lover, and no idea at all what to do next…
And a flat with a steep rent and insurance and stuff to be paid each month. I could go back to university, I thought. Perhaps one of the larger state colleges would hire me as an assistant professor. Then I would at least be entitled to have an opinion on every topic under the sun. But I did not really have the patience necessary for teaching, and the bureaucracy one had to endure working for the government, even in its version of the Local Education Authorities, was not really my thing. Better than not being able to pay the rent, however…
Perhaps I could call my old university on Monday and see if they had a vacancy.

Monday… I thought, rubbing my sleeve across my sweaty forehead. It was hard to believe that only a few hours had passed in the real world with me trudging across Middle-earth for three days now. It was almost hard to believe that there was a real world beside this one. I swatted a midge aside. Ouch! That had stung! Why in hell did they have to have realistically biting midges in a computer game? This was ridiculous. I would suggest skipping at least this detail, when I had had enough of this game.

When the sun was sinking towards the West, I made another break. Too tired to eat anything, I only drank the last bit of cider in my bottle. Tomorrow I would have to do with water from one of those pools. I cast a suspicious look at the murky surface of a pool next to the road. I would make sure to boil the water tonight. With real live midgets biting me I did not want to test if those computer freaks had programmed getting sick with diarrhoea. No, I would make some peppermint tea tonight and fill my bottle with that.

I walked for another two or three hours and realized I would have to camp next to the marshes for the night. I gathered wood from the bushes growing along the road and was happy to see that my skills with flint and tinder had made it into the game. Soon I had a lovely, fragrant fire burning, which improved the already magical atmosphere beyond belief and kept those midges away. I prepared my dinner, cheese omlette made from egg powder with brown bred, an apple and peppermint tea. It worked quite well; the resultant mess was tasty and filling, anyway. I remained sitting at the fire and meditating the beauty of the flames in the dark of the summer night for an hour or two, then I stripped down to my underwear, washed myself with the cool water of a pool nearby and crawled into my sleeping bag.
I lay watching the dying flames and listening to an immense orchestra of cicadas until I fell asleep.

In the morning I woke early, roused by a noisy choir of birds singing to the morning sun.
I was stiff and sore, and sometime during the night the midges had found me, and those stings itched horribly. I made myself some porridge and drank a cup of the cool peppermint tea, then started walking again. I did not mind the cicadas, actually I thought their chirp-chirrup quite romantic, but I did mind those horrible midges. I would not spend another night being eaten alive by midges, which were not even real.

At noon I sat at the edge of a big pool next to the road talking to the midges, which were trying not only to eat me, but to get eaten along with my lunch of salami and brown bread.
"You ugly, horrible gits", I told them. "You don't taste half as nice as I do, get away from me and my lunch!" But the stupid beasts did not listen and I ended up coughing for half an hour.

Today there were more clouds in the sky, and the wind was cooler. I did not mind, because this improved my speed. I left the Midgewater Marshes behind me and camped in a hollow surrounded by gorse bushes, perhaps eight miles from the edge of the bogs and marshes and their myriad midges. The cicadas were still there, and I had the most romantic evening listening to their music and watching the stars.

The next day I was getting closer and closer to the Weather Hills, but did not quite reach the Weathertop yet. I spent the night in a bed of soft grass perhaps ten miles west of Amon Sûl. But the dark shape of the Weathertop was clearly visible even in the night, rising to a thousand feet above the plains of the surrounding lowlands. I could not, however discern the remnants of the tower, which had been recognizable in the movies. I thought about climbing Amon Sûl, but the thought of the horrible things, which had happened there, made me feel uneasy.

In the end I did not climb Amon Sûl, but spent another uneasy night at its eastern foot. The next day took me to the Lone-lands east of the Weathertop, and the weather turned as if on clue. The sky was grey and the wind was cool, the sun invisible. But the Lone-lands, empty and lonely plains stretching from Amon Sûl to the river Hoarwell or Mitheithel for seventy miles to the south, were – if not plains – almost level country, with only the slightest slopes built up by wind driven soil throughout the centuries. Walking, therefore, remained easy.
Centuries! I slapped my forehead with my open palm. This was a landscape programmed in hours of painstaking work, not accumulated by forces of nature within millennia. I was losing my feeling for reality. Perhaps this game was, even without an action packed adventure much more dangerous than I had thought?

At noon the sixth day after my camp at the foot of Amon Sûl, I reached the Last Bridge.
Although I had more than once contemplated ending the game, the soothing feeling of walking all day and sleeping under the stars had made me go on. Even though I kept telling myself that the days were only minutes in the real world, my sense of the life I had left to test this game, was fading.

The bridge was at the bottom of a short precipitous incline. It was a large, stoutly built stone bridge with three great arches. The Mitheithel was indeed a river of grey water rushing to the South with great force. I stood at the balustrade of the bridge for a long moment and gazed into the cold grey flood swirling against the arches of the bridge.
But for me there was no Elvish jewel lying in the mud of the bridge and so I continued on the narrowing road, which led into the wooded hill country of the Rhudaur.

The road was leading fairly straight toward the river Bruinen, but the going was becoming more difficult and much slower, climbing up and down steadily rising hills. But the weather stayed cool and the sky was overcast with grey clouds obscuring the peaks of the Misty Mountains. Yet it did not rain and I made good speed in spite of the demanding terrain.
The fifth day the road started to wind and roll as it was getting close to the river Bruinen, whose rushing, watery voice could be heard through the trees even though it was four or five miles in the distance. Loudwater, I thought, now I understand where this name comes from.
The slopes on either side of the road were obscured by thickets of hazel and bilberry brushes, violet blooming heather at the edges of the road smelling of summer. The sun was shining again and I felt exhilarated. Soon I would reach Rivendell, Imladris!

On the sixth morning after I had crossed the Last Bridge I came to the Ford of the Bruinen.
It was the way the book had described it. The road went down a long easy slope with grassy clearings at the edges, and then it suddenly entered a tunnel made of dark pine trees, only to lead into a narrow ravine of brilliantly red rock. When I finally stepped out of the gorge into the sun light, I saw the Ford of Rivendell glittering in the sunshine about a mile in the distance.

On the other side of the silver river an earthy brown bank rose steeply and behind it the Misty Mountains were looming with their gleaming white peaks today clearly visible and defying their name. I walked towards the river and looked at the ford apprehensively. Ford means a place where the water of a river is sufficiently shallow to be crossed without danger.

The water was shallow. I could see broad stepping stones set at comfortable intervals leading to the other side only lightly lapped over by the stream. But the river was still flowing fast and strong, the water icy with the cold from the glaciers where it had its spring, and the stones looked quite slippery.
I inhaled deeply and rubbed my hands together. No time like this time. Let's get it over with. No crossing the ford, no Rivendell. And I did not have enough food left to turn back.

"I only hope those sons of Elrond are really here, or I will have to return to the real world… or starve." I muttered to myself. Starve… Well, that could not be possible anyway, as it was only a game… but I did want to see Rivendell as a reward for trudging through the country for two weeks. Although I did have to give my brother that he had been right that this trekking-business was a really good holiday. I felt relaxed as if I had really been away from it all for weeks and not only minutes.

Okay, now: first step. God, that's cold! I screamed at the shock of the icy water swirling around my bare ankles. I had tied my shoes and socks to the backpack, not wanting them to get wet. Next step. I slipped, but could steady myself with my walking stick before falling into the water. My heart pounding I remained frozen in place for a moment, before carefully stepping onto the next stone. And the next. On the fifth stone I stubbed my right toes painfully and swore evilly. Then I was across the river, slumping down on the brown banks, gasping for air. My feet were bright red from the cold water. I rubbed them dry with the smaller of my two towels, which had acquired a grubby grey colour on the way.
At least I was wide awake again, all fatigue of the morning hike dispelled.

Now all I had to do was following the steep path down into the valley of Rivendell.

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This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

In Challenges

Story Information

Author: JunoMagic

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 10/15/06

Original Post: 10/13/04

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