Doru the stallion carried me up the the long wooded gulley that leads the chalk plateau, his powerful strides thrusting us ever higher. Beech trees gave way to scrub, and scrub in turn to tall waving grass. In a half hour we had left behind the nearly domestic world of the valley hamlet and ascended to a wilder, older world of windswept copse and grassland. Below lay the dormant relics of late medieval land use and Victorian development. Up here, delve a little, cast about for the signs, and a prehistoric world starts to come to life. A mile or two on horseback have taken us from an old place to one far older, indeed ancient beyond most imaginings.
Brightly shone the sun from high in a pastel sky, yet a circle of haze absorbed the horizon. In a day of heat and of mystery, Doru and I were tiny figures treading a small world, hemmed in by an vaporous wall yet free and content amidst the silence within. With the sun on our faces, a gentle breeze caressing mane and hair, and rich turf beneath his feet, we entered a timeless realm, a place beyond time where history and age matter but little.
Passing into a shallow valley where grassland swept across and lapped the feet of the beech stands that crowned the gentle slopes, we stopped. I dismounted, ran up stirrups and tied up reins, and left the great roan stallion to graze. A hawthorne bush provided me with a little variegated shade, for the sun was not yet vertical though the dew had long dried. There I rested a while, and began to doze to the reassuring sound of a horse munching thick chalkland herb.
It was the footfalls that roused me, light yet perceptible steps of a horse well balanced and sure footed. I opened an eye. There was my longed-for Elven rider, stopped now, dismounting and allowing her glossy muscular horse to graze too. Doru raised his head, glanced over with ears and eyes alert, to be reassured and set back to devour the foliage by a word firm yet musical. Down she sat, sweeping her robe beneath and around her, two yards from me.
Looking up from flower-strewn sward, past travel-worn knee boots and a finely embroidered hem, over a well-tooled leather belt that enclosed a trim waist, flowing golden hair and a glinting silver necklace led my gaze to a smiling face and lively grey eyes.
"Now", she said, "it isn't time to lead you on a chase through meadow and grove, nor to tantalise you with news of a far-off homely house where you hope to rest and sup."
I gazed in wonder at this meeting on a bright timeless day, surely not a chance encounter.
She read my thoughts: "I sought you out - you who seek enlightenment. Being human, you need a clue from time to time, and a little encouragement too."
"Horseman of these chalk hills, you are a reader of Tolkien, are you not?"
I nodded, words failing me in such company, grateful for a new bond between the Elven rider and I.
"Tolkien based his Middle Earth on this world, the one that you inhabit, even as he saw it decades before you lived. Like you, he looked back, saw things differently to the way that most see the world, perceived a middle country poised between the material and the spiritual. There is more: as a storyteller and visionary, the bounds of his vision were greater than the bounds of his knowledge. But the one influences the other, so there is truth of a kind even in his wilder imaginings. The world is a far stranger place than you humans generally imagine, indeed stranger than even you imagine."
She stretched out her right hand towards me, fingers spread. In an impulse somehow transmitted, I reached out my right hand, and our fingertips touched. A wave of empathy engulfed me, swept over my head, though I did not drown so much as breath a richer, more nourishing air that enhanced my senses.
"Middle Earth introduces some types that you, in your heart, know to be real. We Elves are here, of course, as truly as I sit before you - though rarely do we show ourselves openly, and then only to those who would love and value us. There are others besides, typified by Tolkien's denizens of Middle Earth. Those who strive for material gain, Young Souls who have no time for us, are like the Dwarves. Then there are the cynics, the destroyers, who are represented by the Orcs. Remember that they come in more than one kind: some attack material things or institutions that the wise consider good; others batter positive relationships; the worst kind beat down the mind, sowing despair and emnity. These Orc-like ones you have encountered plentifully in your life - in the far-off misty mountains and close by too. Other evils there are, spiritual evils, whose very breath is poisonous - these I know that you have encountered, the Dragons and Balrogs of your middle country. But on your side there are a few good-hearted men and women: a handful of Rangers to guide you - when I must be absent - and Riders of Rohan to fight and fall for what is good."
I stared for long moments, absorbing these half-suspected tiding, then could contain myself no longer. "This is a wilder, harsher country than I, wishful thinker and attempted optimist, had wanted to believe in - even as I had feared the worst." Even as joy flowed through our still-touching fingertips, a chill seemed to creep from the ground. Involuntarily, I shuddered.
Grasping my outstretched right hand between her warm palms, soft fingertips enclosing my wrist, her melodious voice told me: "You are on the winning side. What seems like a long defeat fought in despair will prove otherwise, for those gifted with vision have seen the end. Be of good courage. Do not let the Orcs and worse dismay you, nor cause your resolve to fail. The last homely house, the place of rest and companionship, is not far as the land is measured in leagues. The long journey is one of twists and turns, gaining enlightenment, developing patience and fortitude, proving your courage. But, by the help that shall come your way, that goal will be attained."
Slipping her hands from mine, smiling broadly, eyes twinkling, she stood. There in front of me, sunlit, I have a vision of her: hair streaming in the rising breeze, bright eyes and smile like a talisman, green dress fluttering, brown leather belt and boots the badges of long months and years travelling. A figure fixed in my memory: immutable wisdom and beauty on a timeless day. Slumped on the ground, I felt paralysed, blown away by an outpouring of comradeship and wisdom, by the love shown by a fellow traveller, and by the wonder of it all.
Mounting lithly with an ease that I envy, she placed her feet in the stirrups, set her robe beneath and around her in the saddle, and set off. A walk became a trot, horse and rider crossed the valley, swiftly entered the beech woods, and in a few moments were lost to sight.
Doru plucked his head from the vital task of grazing and neighed: a powerful neigh that seemed to shake me. From the woods, an answering neigh of a higher pitch returned, and a few words of faint yet piercingly harmonious singing carried back on the breeze too.
My energy returned, I untied reins and lowered stirrups, then clambered aboard my faithful roan steed. The shadows had swung across the field: more time had passed than I had perceived. Up the valley we headed, homeward. Knowing better our friends and our enemies. Able to recognise allies with greater perception, able also to appreciate - and hopefully parry - the feints and blows of those Orcs and Dragons who lurk in hedgerow, office and (as we know) barn.