The Tunnel Kings
illustration by Lidia Postma
In: David Day's A-Z of Tolkien
Ginger was in the tunnel again. It was cold and wet and cramped. It was also dark and he groped ahead of him, pushing the earth behind to Johnson whose job it was to fill the canvas sacks and crawl back with them to the chaps waiting nervously in the hut above.
Ginger was nervous, too. Sweat dripped from his forehead despite the cold and his eyes constantly flickered to the struts propping up the tunnel. He didn't trust them. They were just boards from the bunks and there weren't enough of them. He was the Tunnel King but he had learned not to trust. He didn't trust the props and he didn't trust the earth. The last tunnel had caved in and almost buried him alive. Almost.
He forced his mind to the task at hand, lifting the crude digging tool and hacking at the wall in front. He paused for a moment. There was no sound now: Johnson must have gone back along the tunnel to fetch empty sacks. Ginger hacked again and the dirt flew into his face. He flinched and his nerve almost broke. He lay in the dark for a moment or two, waiting for his heart and breathing to slow.
He was getting too old for this. He knew the chaps were worried about him. They all treated him with a mixture of respect and sometimes even awe. But since the cave-in there had been concern in their eyes too. He felt that they were unsure of him now. Well he wasn't beaten. Not yet. Not ever. He'd show the chaps he was up to the job and he'd beat the Enemy too.
That's what they were to him: "The Enemy". Just "The Enemy" and that's where he got his resolve from: that and the hope that one day he'd see his wife and son again. If he thought of anything else he'd break.
He'd gotten over what happened by thinking that and that's how he'd continue. He hacked at the wall. He'd show them. Another hack. He'd beat the Enemy if it took everything he had. Hack. And then some. Behind him he could hear noises. Johnson was returning. He could feel the anger in him building and he used it as he always did. He hacked and stabbed and the dirt was falling.
But something was wrong. Dirt was falling on his head and back. He looked up at the ceiling but in the near blackness could see nothing. Dirt fell into his mouth as he tried to scream. Jesus, no. His mind screamed. Not again. Sweet Jesus, not again. Please no. Where was Johnson? The tunnel collapsed. Dirt filled his nostrils and mouth, his ears and into his eyes. Ginger lost consciousness and the blackness was complete.
He awoke with a start, sitting up and knocking his head on a low ceiling. Fear gripped him and he looked about him, startled.
"Johnson must have pulled me out," he mumbled to himself. But then he looked about and saw that this was impossible. He was sitting on a small bed, his feet hanging over the end. The room was warm and seemed to have been dug out of the earth. He shivered. He needed to find the chaps and get out of here. This was probably some kind of enemy trick.
He noticed he had been cleaned and his uniform was on a small chair near the bed, cleaned and neatly folded. As he put it on he caught the smell of fresh baking and tea from another part of this place. He walked to the door warily, ducking his head as he went.
Outside was a corridor, also carved from earth. Ginger saw rooms at intervals along its length, and strange voices could be heard coming from one of them. He opened his own door a little further and poked his head out. The voices were clearer now.
"You shouldn't have brought him in here, Ted Merrywine. We should have naught to do with big folk. You're asking for trouble." The voice was definitely female and had a quality of the countryside about it. Yes, a rural accent almost certainly.
"Well, what was I supposed to do? He made a ruddy great hole in our pantry floor. Couldn't just leave him there, could I?" This voice was male but possessed the same accent.
"Well, mark my words, Ted: no good will come of it, and no mistake."
"P'raps you're right Peri, but what's done is done and can't be taken back."
There was more clinking of teacups and the door began to open a little way down the corridor. In a panic Ginger jerked himself back grazing his ear and pushed the door to. He pushed too hard and the door closed with a very audible thump. There was silence. Ginger listened for footsteps but heard nothing.
Suddenly the door opened and in strolled the most incredible creature Ginger had ever seen. It carried a tea tray, which it placed on a table at one side of the door and stood looking sternly at Ginger. The creature was short, about three and a half feet, and its form was rotund to be kind. It wore no boots or shoes but he could see its feet were quite hairy. Ginger assumed it was male as its features were comparable to a man.
"I see you're up then," the creature said as if this sort of thing happened every day. "You'll be wanting some tea, I'd reckon. And bread and cheese." He turned and poured two cups of tea from the pot on the tray.
"I'm Ted. Ted Merrywine that is. Some calls me the Merry Maker 'cause I'm so stern an' all but they're just poking fun and don't mean no harm. You can call me Ted and that'll do just fine. I'll need to know your name if I'm gonna call you politely, though." Ted raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
"Corporal Tom Rodgers," snapped Ginger instinctively. "Serial number 348646864!"
Ted stared for a minute. "Don't rightly know what all that meant but I reckon Tom will do just fine if that suits you." He proffered a cup of steaming tea. Ginger took it, more from surprise than anything else.
"Th - thank you."
"That's all right, Tom. Tea'll set you right and no mistake. Here." Ted groped on the tray and handed Ginger a piece of bread, a large door stopper, with a piece of cheese.
"There, that'll get your strength up, Tom. My old dad used to say: there's naught like cheese to get your strength up and give you some interesting dreams to boot." Ted slurped a little tea from his cup and sighed appreciatively. "You do like cheese, Tom?"
"What? Oh yes but call me Ginger I don't care much for Tom."
"Because of my hair," explained Ginger, "and my surname and because I took some dance lessons when I was younger. You know - Ginger Rodgers? It's what the chaps rib me with."
"Can't rightly say I've heard of this Ginger Rodgers fellow but Ginger it is then. Come on, you can meet Peri and have some more tea."
Ted led him out of the room and into another down the corridor, though not the same one Ginger heard them talking from earlier. Inside, comfy chairs stood around a small round table that was stacked with cakes, another pot of tea and some more bread and cheese. There were three more of the creatures in the room. Two were very small and looked at Ginger with the curious eyes of children. The other looked outright hostile and Ginger assumed this was Peri. She had more refined features than Ted and was not quite as stocky.
"Mornin'" she said.
"This is Peri," said Ted confirming Ginger's guess. "And these two are Sam and Pippin."
They all sat in silence for a while munching on cake and sipping tea. The silence was uncomfortable. Ginger could feel the children staring.
"Excuse me," he said at last. "I'm very grateful for all of this but I've got to go now. I mustn't be very far from the camp and there'll very probably be search parties out now. If you could show me the way out and give me some bearings on where I am in Germany, I'd be most grateful."
Peri looked accusingly at Ted. "Have you been telling him he can leave, Ted Merrywine?"
Ted was taken aback. "Can't say that I did. You knows I say no lies."
"What do you mean, I can't leave?" said Ginger alarmed.
"You'll tell them where we are, and we can't have that, now, can we Ginger," said Ted reasonably.
Ginger looked at them and they looked back. The children were grinning. They weren't friendly grins. Ginger got up, uneasy.
"Where do you think you're going?" This was Peri, hands on hips.
Ginger didn't answer he left the room and ran down the corridor, opening doors and peering inside as he went. Some of the doors led into more corridors, others seemed to be pantries, kitchens, storerooms and bath rooms. The entire complex must have been enormous. Oil lamps lit the passageways with an eerie glow. He came to a dead end and turned. The Merrywines were behind him. They were all grinning now.
"You cannot leave, Tom Rodgers" they said. "This is your home now. For always and always."
"No!" Ginger pushed past them, desperately looking for an exit.
"There's no way out," they cried after him, laughing. Ginger opened a door and ran down the corridor that lay beyond. Ahead of him the walls began to crumble and the ceiling came down. Lights smashed, wood splintered. He skidded to a halt, a scream on his lips. The creatures were before him again.
"The tunnels are your home and home is where you stay," they spoke in unison, moving to surround him. They had dirt in their small hands and they began daubing it on him, chanting now as they did so.
We are the Hobbits,
Ginger fell to his knees and they put dirt in his hair and smeared his head and neck. He began laughing hysterically and Ted moved forward, his hands full of earth shoving it into Ginger's mouth, jamming it into his nostrils. Choking. Laughing.
The German Commandant entered the ward and gestured to the attending nurse who immediately moved to his side.
"Is there any change with him - the one we dug out of the tunnel?"
The nurse glanced over at the bent figure in the corner of the room. His red head bobbed maniacally, the eyes bulging. The commandant followed her gaze.
"No." she replied. "He's still raving about the little people and singing of the earth."